Remembering Richard John Neuhaus
By Bruce R. Ashford and David P. Nelson
On January 8, 2009 Richard John Neuhaus passed from this life to the next. Neuhaus was pastor, author, commentator, and served as Editor in Chief of First Things, a journal of religion and public life. Given his deep influence on our lives and work, we want to present this as something of an “in memoriam.”Perhaps it is surprising to some that Southern Baptists would appreciate someone who is a Roman Catholic. By appreciating Neuhaus we are not endorsing various theological positions he held about which it is obvious we would disagree. We are, rather, appreciating the man and reflecting on the enormous influence he had on our lives.
We were in the midst of teaching a PhD seminar together on the morning of January 8 when the news arrived that Richard John Neuhaus had not survived the infection that caused him to be hospitalized shortly after Christmas. In the days and weeks since we have experienced a truly deep sadness about this loss. We did not know Neuhaus well; we were only acquaintances. He has had, nevertheless, an enormous influence on both of us. It is not an overstatement to say that he is among the greatest influences on our lives and thought, particularly in issues at the intersection of ethics, culture, and public life.
We were introduced to the work of Neuhaus by our doctoral mentor, Paige Patterson. We were both told by Dr. Patterson of the significance of reading First Things, and the sheer enjoyment of reading “While We’re At It”, Neuhaus’s musings about all manner of things, in each edition of that journal. We have both read that journal and other works of Neuhaus ever since, in a way that could perhaps be called “ritually”
We first met Neuhaus in the winter of 2006. We had recently been awarded a grant by Yale University for the development of work on the intersection of faith and culture and were wrestling with the beginnings of an idea for a faith and culture center (that idea has developed with the support of our President, Danny Akin, into what is now the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at SEBTS). As we considered this venture, we thought a conversation with Richard John Neuhaus about such a center would be not only helpful but would also be a delight. So, we penned a letter to him, imagining it unlikely that he would have time for us. In rather short order we received a reply from Neuhaus that he would be willing to meet with us if we could travel to his office in New York City for an afternoon meeting.
We arrived at his office in the aftermath of a substantial snowstorm in Manhattan for what was scheduled to be a two hour conversation. That meeting, which lasted about three hours, was something we will never forget. It wasn’t simply the stimulating exchange of ideas and the advice from Neuhaus (which still marks the shape and function of the Bush Center), but the demonstration of charity and friendship by Neuhaus toward us. As we left that day, we discussed many things, but one lasting impression upon us was that we wanted our lives to be marked by the same charity, kindness, and servanthood toward others that Neuhaus showed to us.
We met Neuhaus on only one other occasion, when he journeyed to Wake Forest to speak for us at a collegiate conference on the Southeastern campus. His depth of thought, his wit, and his (once again) charitable spirit, marked that occasion. David will never forget a conversation over dinner that ranged from presidential politics to Christian liturgy and quite a few things in between.
While our personal time with Neuhaus was minimal, over the years we have spent time with him on a monthly basis through his written work. Whether through a book he edited or authored or, more frequently, with First Things, we were thinking with Neuhaus about a variety of issues on a regular basis. We often tell our students that one of our favorite times each month is that occasion when we brew some coffee and sit down in a quiet place to digest “While We’re At It.” Frankly, our lives will be impoverished without that experience.
So, in what ways are two Southern Baptists so influenced by Richard John Neuhaus? There is so much we could say, but we have narrowed our thoughts to a few of the chief influences Neuhaus has had upon us. We hope this will serve to honor Neuhaus in a manner that is fitting, and we pray that others may find such an influence somewhere in their own lives.
One of the influences Neuhaus has had upon us is the model he provided as a man who had read widely about, thought theologically about, and could speak eloquently about a wide array of issues. Few things seemed beyond his grasp-he spoke with perception and wisdom about virtually everything. He spoke easily, and with substance, about philosophy, the arts, the sciences, politics, and nearly anything else that is an issue of public life.
Neuhaus also showed us how to reason from the Scriptures and to reason scripturally from God’s world. He “stood in the public square” and reasoned from the Scriptures. He quoted the Scriptures in support of, or against, some particular issue (i.e. homosexual marriage or abortion). But other times he reasoned scripturally from God’s world, not quoting Scripture passages per se, but rather speaking reasonably from the depths of a Christian theistic worldview.
We of course have to mention the wit of Neuhaus. He wielded his sharpest wit, it seems, either on those who openly mocked God or on theological liberals who sought to remake the faith in their own image. At the expense of the liberal theologians and churches, he had a heyday. The WCC, he thought “seems to have a bottomless source of last gasps.” Of the Anglican Communion, “the Anglican communion will at last achieve a one-to-one ratio between clergy and laity. And while that might provide opportunities for pastoral care of unprecedented intensity….” Of the ELCA, “The ELCA Lutherans met in August, if not august.” Of the United Church of Canada, “The UCC is prepared to die for the principle that nothing is worth fighting for. And it is.”
Of the NCC, he pointed out that Billy Graham had urged people to pray for the NCC, but that “for Catholics, who also pray for the dead, the urgency is not so great.” Of Bishop Spong, he remarked “He is a religious phenomenon of our time and his retirement should not go unremarked. In person and in his writings, he is a man of breathtaking intellectual and spiritual vulgarity. His towering self-approval, clearly intended to intimidate, only astonishes.” Of the Lilly Endowment, he commented that it was an organization committed to bringing together people from liberal churches “that have generally experienced in the intervening years whatever is the opposite of renewal.”
But on the whole, Neuhaus is not defined by his wit or by what or who he was against. He is better defined by his striving for what the apostle Paul referred to as “a more excellent way.” He believed deeply and fleshed out the implications of his belief in all dimensions of public life and culture. Although he did indeed give a good skewering to those whom he thought deserved it-usually God mockers, theological liberals, or mean-spirited Christians-for the most part his writing was marked by serious minded reflection on the important issues in life, by an attempt to state the implications of the Christian worldview, and in a way that was winsome and persuasive, in a manner consistent with “a more excellent way.”
Father Neuhaus was one of God’s gifts to the world. We are all richer because of his life and his work. We will miss our monthly coffee with Neuhaus over “While We’re At It.”” But fond memories we will keep, and his influence will remain with us. And we are better people, yes, better Christians for the life that was Richard John Neuhaus.
May the Lord hasten the day when the Southern Baptist Convention is capable of producing scores of young men and women who can speak publicly to the big issues of the day (whether they be in nature ethical, political, scientific, or artistic), even in some small measure like Neuhaus taught us, in a way that is well-reasoned, articulate, and persuasive, for the glory of God.