Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009

I first heard the name Richard John Neuhaus when he made quite a splash with his 1984 book The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. Years later, I read parts of that book, not always sure if I agreed, but always impressed at how Neuhaus wrote with such clarity and conviction.

A theological and social conservative who had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., Neuhaus struck you as the kind of person who had thought long and hard about what he believed and why. His powers of expression often made me think of the late William F. Buckley, Jr.

So I was sad to find out last week that Neuhaus died on Thursday, January 8th at the age of 72. He had been struggling with cancer.

In 1990, Neuhaus founded First Things, a religiously-informed and socially-conservative journal of the highest quality. Since then, he and his cohort of writers have written some of the finest reflections on culture, politics and religion published anywhere.

So far, obituaries and tributes have appeared in the New York Times , the Wall Street Journal, and in dozens of other places.

Neuhaus followed an interesting religious course. He started out in the conservative Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. Later, he was affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America before converting to Catholicism and becoming a priest.

He was always keenly aware of his position as both a follower of Christ and an American citizen. Here's what he wrote in one of his many fantastic essays, "Our American Babylon":

Thought that is real and not merely, as Cardinal John Henry Newman put it, "notional," is thought that is sympathetically situated in time and place. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Christians have here no abiding city. In the third eucharistic prayer of the Mass we pray, "Strengthen in faith and love your pilgrim Church on earth." We Christians are a pilgrim people, a people on the way, exiles from our true home, aliens in a strange land. There is in all the Christian tradition no more compelling depiction of our circumstance than Saint Augustine's City of God. Short of the final coming of the Kingdom, the City of God and the earthly city are intermingled. We are to make use of, pray for, and do our share for the earthly city. Here Augustine cites the words of Jeremiah urging the people not to fear exile in Babylon: "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its peace you will find your peace."


Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

I did not realize that RJN had passed away. Thanks for calling attention to a great man.

Adam Gonnerman said...

I heard about his passing a the other day and read up on him. I wasn't aware of his work until now. It's a loss. There's an interesting opinion piece about him and his attitude toward death in the nytimes.