I just finished reading the wonderfully written biography by Randy Boyagoda, Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square (Image Books, 2015), 480pp. For those interested in the figure of Neuhaus, or the questions of how one Christian chose to engage the public square and such issues as racial relations in the south, the Vietnam war, the Iraq wars, abortion, and much else, this book will be fascinating. It also contains much on American Lutheranism (in which Neuhaus was a pastor for many years) and American Catholicism (to which Neuhaus converted in 1990 and in which he was ordained a priest in 1991) in the critical years from 1960 until the end of the last decade. It is, finally, a splendid example of how to write a critically intelligent biography of a controversial figure. (In a personal conversation I had last year at Baylor with Robert Louis Wilken, who was Neuhaus's oldest and closest friend for half a century, Wilken told me the biography was simply first-rate not only for its treatment of Neuhaus but also for the accuracy with which it rendered any number of controversial issues, episodes, and personages.)
Neuhaus grew up in the Ottawa Valley in Pembroke, Ontario, the son of a manse, his father being a pastor in Lutheranism's Missouri Synod. He would go on to bounce around the US in Texas and Missouri, inter alia, before spending his entire adult life in New York as a pastor and writer, where he got to know such Orthodox figures at Fr. Alexander Schmemann. He was a life-long registered Democrat and a man of the left in the 60s and 70s, opposing the Vietnam War and marching for Civil Rights, before gradually coming to be thought a "neoconservative" from the 1980s onward. Neuhaus died in New York in January 2009 after a second battle with cancer.
He was the founder of the journal First Things (which published my review of Olivier Clement's book You Are Peter in 2004), which I read first with fascinated horror in the mid-90s, and then with increasing appreciation after that, far less for its politics than for the dashing verve with which Neuhaus wrote. He was a witty, incisive "blogger" avant la blogdom with his "While We're At It" pieces.
First Things did, however, begin to get a bit tiresome even before Neuhaus died. You could almost invariably find articles in every issue from a small circle of people (Avery Dulles, George Weigel, Mary Ann Glendon, Michael Novak) whose writings all grew rather predictable. And then, the closer we got to the Iraq war, the more the magazine became a mouthpiece for Weigel and Novak to argue that the war would be just. Boyagoda's biography shows that Neuhaus, behind the scenes, was at least a little bit uncomfortable with this novel argument if not unconvinced.
After Neuhaus died, the magazine's new editor had a dilettantish approach and the magazine's chaotic skittering all over the place made it almost unreadable, and I never again renewed my subscription. That said, Neuhaus was himself never dull, and I still regularly refer to at least one of his essays from that time, "The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy." It is more than a little staggering that, nearly 2 decades after he penned that piece, the forces of intolerance he describes there are even more aggressive and hostile than they were. Consider just one passage:
With the older orthodoxy it is possible to disagree, as in having an argument. Evidence, reason, and logic count, in principle at least. Not so with the new orthodoxy. Here disagreement is an intolerable personal affront. It is construed as a denial of others, of their experience of who they are. It is a blasphemous assault on that most high god, “My Identity.” Truth-as-identity is not appealable beyond the assertion of identity. In this game, identity is trumps.Part of this essay was an extensive commentary on a fascinating book I have discussed on here before: John Shelton Reed's Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism. (Speaking of Anglo-Catholics, permit me to intrude here with an unrelated but delightful set of memoirs by Colin Stephenson, Merrily On High, documenting a type and moment in Anglo-Catholicism that is surely long dead now, alas.)
In his peroration, Neuhaus, writing in 1997, proved to be more influential than he could know in my own move out of Anglicanism and into Catholicism that same year when he wrote:
Almost five hundred years after the sixteenth-century divisions, the realization grows that there is no via media. The realization grows that orthodoxy and catholicity can be underwritten only by Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Perhaps more than any other single factor, the influence of Anglo-Catholicism among Protestants obscured this reality for a long time. It is a considerable merit of John Shelton Reed’s Glorious Battle that it contributes to our understanding of why movements of catholic restoration, posited against the self-understanding of the communities they would renew, turn into an optional orthodoxy. A century later, an illiberal liberalism, much more unrelenting than the Victorian establishment, will no longer tolerate the option. It is very much like a law: Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.Obviously Neuhaus could certainly turn a phrase.
In addition to such delightful essays, I did also enjoy other of Neuhaus's books, including his most famous 1984 book, still of great relevance today, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. That book had great timing in that it landed during the Reagan re-election campaign of 1984, and would afterwards be read by and discussed within his White House appreciatively as Boyagoda's biography shows.
In addition, I found even more interesting and stimulating Neuhaus's 1987 book (written while he was still a Lutheran), The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World. There Neuhaus memorably and amusingly spoke of those type of Catholics who "exult in the freedom to submit to authority with wild abandon," referencing, if memory serves, Wilfrid Ward--he of the desire for a papal encyclical every morning at breakfast along with his Times of London. (Speaking of Wards and their descendants, and speaking also of biographies, Frank and Maisie: A Memoir With Parents is a rollicking good read by their son, documenting an hilarious mid-century couple engaged in Catholic apologetics.)
Anyway, back to Neuhaus and the public square: whatever one thinks of his politics and of the increasingly discredited "neoconservative" project with which he was associated (especially its boosterism for the disastrous second Iraq war, which has not just decimated but virtually destroyed ancient Eastern Christian communities all across the region), he did at least try not just to think through what it means to be a Christian engaging the public square of what he called an "incorrigibly, confusedly religious America," but also actively to engage it with vim and vigor. With some, perhaps many, Eastern Christians today pining for lost "symphonias" of Byzantium that never existed, or fatuously idealizing Putin's "Russkiy mir," or calling for confused if not superfluous "Benedict options," or perhaps equally romanticizing and idealizing Western liberal democracies, there is still crying need to consider the questions of how the Church ought to relate to "that dangerous and unmanageable institution" (MacIntyre) of the modern state. It is the considerable merit of Boyagoda's charming biography that he reminds us of a figure who did that with great force for many decades.