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A Grief Observed: Richard John Neuhaus 1936-2009

January 9, 2009

A great and good man, my spiritual and ideological hero, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, has died. I feel grief and heaviness as if my own father had died, perhaps more so. I have been in a media cave for the past 3 weeks or so and did not know he had been in the hospital after Christmas. The shock and suddenness of his passing hit me like a spear in the chest as I heard it on the radio and my voice broke and tears came as I told my wife when I came in the door. I have never been so affected by the death of someone I didn’t know personally. Joseph Bottom says it well:

My tears are not for him—for he knew, all his life, that his Redeemer lives, and he has now been gathered by the Lord in whom he trusted.

I weep, rather, for all the rest of us. As a priest, as a writer, as a public leader in so many struggles, and as a friend, no one can take his place. The fabric of life has been torn by his death, and it will not be repaired, for those of us who knew him, until that time when everything is mended and all our tears are wiped away.

No one can take his place. No one.

***

It must have been 1992 or three when Tod Bolsinger tore out a subscription card for a new magazine called First Things. I was in one of my periodic fits of doubt about my career in the film industry and was toying with going back to school and studying philosophy. First Things – and a frank discussion with Dallas Willard at his USC office- cured me of the need to become a professional. I could get my fix 10 times a year for the exorbitant but absolutely well worth it price of $40 a year for 10 issues. I will never cancel, a trait among many First Things readers.

***

The thing I love about Neuhaus’s writing- having never met him and only briefly heard his voice on occasion- was its perfect tone. Making substantial criticisms of the ideological positions of others is not a simple task to pull of in a Christian manner. He was the master, someone I will continue to strive to emulate, even as I constantly see how far I have to go. Obviously a man of great learning, vastly wide-read, his strength ultimately came through his grace and love for his ideological foes, always I’m sure nurtured by a life of prayer and service (OK and a cigar and beer after breakfast). There was always a slight crankiness underneath that was delicious in it’s restraint; I always felt- and perhaps this is my own feelings reading into his work- that he was much more passionate and judgmental inside than he would ever commit to print. I find that a net positive. He did not delight, as so many do in opinion and commentary, in the snide and snarky take-downs meant to humiliate and destroy. More than just a stock “more in sorrow than in anger” approach, there was always a twinkle in the prose as you could almost feel the index finger gently poking the ribs. That’s how a gentleman argues.

***

If I had one tenth of his grace and learning I would like to believe many of the sore words exchanged here and elsewhere online might have been avoided. Then again, I know he would still write of those he parted ways with many years ago with a still too great sadness, a sense of a gulf fixed, a wound than had not healed without pain. Those wounds lasted decades and were greatly lamented. I know now who those people are in my life. I’m still for the most part looking for the fellow travellers who can fight the good fight alongside me.

I regret never having written him or tried to see him speak. I have never written a fan letter to anyone, but I wanted to write one to Fr. Neuhaus. The primacy of his thought in my life cannot be understated… although I have understated it on this blog in particular. How easy it is to involve oneself in the to and fro of each little factual controversy and let the First Principles go unexamined and unexplored. The issues raised my him each month were so profound my feeble little mind had a hard time trying to sum them up or continue them here. I would occasionally try to ask commenter/friends like Tim C. and Rob to elaborate on there underlying principles, but usually to no avail. That exercise I think is key to what I’m truly interested in, and hopefully this time in the wilderness will be a fruitful one for doing just that. But I have no illusions about many joining me in that in the direction I feel led to go in. Fr. Neuhaus has show the way for me and a great many other people (who are actually influential, or at least were) and I’m sure I can spend a lifetime emulating and understanding him more deeply.

***

***

For those wanting to know more about Fr. Neuhaus here’s a sample from a memorable essay, Our American Babylon:

Once upon a time—it was the 1976 bicentennial of the American founding, to be precise—I wrote a book on the American experiment and the idea of covenant. Time magazine picked up on it and reported, “On the day of judgment, Neuhaus wants to meet God as an American.”

That’s not quite right. What I wrote is that I expect to meet God as an American. And that for the simple reason that, among all the things I am or have been or hope to be, I am undeniably an American. It is not the most important thing, but it is an inescapable thing. Nor, even were I so inclined, should I try to escape it. It is a pervasive and indelible part of what is called one’s “identity.” Among American thinkers, and not least among American theologians, one frequently discerns an attempt to escape one’s time and place. It is a very American thing to try to do. We are never more American than when we believe we have transcended being American. America is, after all, as some like to say, the world’s first “universal nation.”

The theologian Robert Jenson has employed to fine effect the phrase “the story of the world.” The story of Israel and the Church, he writes, is nothing less than the story of the world, and the world is today lost in its confusions because it has “lost its story.” I would add that, for those of us who are Americans, we are as Americans part of the story that is the story of the world. Moreover, America itself—this nation that the founders called an experiment and, like any experiment, may succeed or fail—is part of the story that is the story of the world. Of the many ways of thinking about America—economic, political, cultural, etc.—there is today a striking scarcity of thinking about America theologically.

It was not always so. Not so long ago, American intellectuals, including American theologians, spent considerable time thinking about their place as Americans. But in the last half century or so, we have largely lost our story and our place in the story of the world. Theologians, too, have succumbed to the false-consciousness of having transcended the American experience, which is expressed, more often than not, in a typically American anti-Americanism that is relished and imitated by others, notably by European intellectuals. As in the writing of biography, or of history more generally, one cannot think truly about a story with which one is not sympathetically engaged. Love is sometimes blind, but contempt is always blind.

A “supple thinker” as Asghar used to say.

I wish that I had discussed Fr. Neuhaus more often. I wish I had told him how much he meant to me.

More remembrances in the sidebar on the main page, as well as this one by Alan Jacobs and this one by Ross Douthat. This one by Mark Steyn highlights this response to a NYT editorial:

The editors are also exercised that religious institutions are exempt from regulations having to do with religious and gender discrimination in hiring and promotion. But the key point, invoked over the years by opponents of free exercise, is that tax exemption is actually a government subsidy.

The underlying, and nascently totalitarian, assumption is that everything in the society belongs to the state and should be under state control. Government exemptions from tax and control are a privilege granted, not a right respected. From which it follows that an exemption is, in fact, a subsidy. This is a long way from the Founders’ understanding of the independent sovereignty of religion that the government is bound to respect.

This independent sovereignty is the basis of our freedom and allows our patriotism to flourish more freely as country and constitution are not the ultimate values but subordinate to a higher law. This understanding has become deeply eroded on the left, even among liberal Christians and I fear it’s decline will only accelerate in the next decade. Fr. Neuhaus sharp wit could have helped folk like me make it through with better cheer, more goodwill and a clearer understanding of the stakes and issues involved. I will miss him so dearly.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2009 10:07 am

    Thanks for this reflection.

  2. January 9, 2009 12:16 pm

    I’d be interested to see yours as well. I’m barely smart enough to read First Things- you actually wrote for them. On the blog at least. Kind of a racy post as I recall. Did you get to meet him ever?

  3. Timmy C. permalink
    January 10, 2009 12:19 pm

    Dave:

    I was impressed by your kind words and description of your mourning the loss of this theologian and virtual mentor for you.

    In a much, much more minor key, I did feel in a similarly personally way the loss of the death of theologian Stanley Grenz, so I understand the feeling of missing a voice and a teacher even though you only “met” through their writings.

    And although I would have likely disagreed with nearly all of his political views — and likely a good deal of his core philosophy/theology behind it …. his life’s work in in pushing that our faith should not be compartmentalized away from our political worldview was very much worth the praise..

    And I was impressed by his firm stance against torture. And although I doubt I understand his thoughts on Universal Salvation, but the gracious and patient image of God’s love in his writings on the topic was striking.

    And your comments on how he influenced your view of civil discussion and debate were well done, and seems echoed in others remembrances of the man:

    The CT article on his death had this quote from a co-worker:

    “I learned from him that sharp disagreement did not preclude friendship….He once told me that his friendship with Stanley Hauerwas consisted of a ’30-year argument.’ Although the disagreement was at times very sharp, he never seemed to consider it as anything less than a respectful argument between friends.”

    Rest in peace, Father Richard.

  4. January 12, 2009 4:23 pm

    I did get to meet him and enjoyed his company on several occasions. He actually spoke like he was writing the Public Square. The CBC documentary gives a good impression: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFwMZKtHiaE

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