Leonardo"s Notebook by Mattheus Mei

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, this genration's John Chrysostom?

With the recent passing of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, many obits have appeared eulogizing him with praise and just as many have also appeared with, well, not praise. It got me thinking, and I came up with this not very perfect analogy: Fr. Neuhaus is for this generation what St. John Chrysostom was for his.

I say that because when we look by at the Greek Father many scholars have called him an anti-Semite. And yes, his works have been used to inspire many pogroms throughout history, have passed from generation to generation and have been cited as source material to put Jews in ghettos and ultimately gas chambers. But his defenders point out that during his time period his arguments were in direct contention with other ideas on how to interpret and understand the culture... he was in effect a fourth century culture warrior to apply the modern term.

These defenders say he employed the necessary rhetorical flourishing of psogos to craft and stress his, ultimately successful, point of view to solicit conversions. They say the historical record does not support the notion that he would support later violence against the Jews.

To that end I'm sure future generations will look back and craft an opinion on the life of Fr. Neuhaus. Whether they only have pro-Neuhaus information or anti-Neuhaus information is up to time and the efforts of each camp. For me at least, like John Chrysostom, I say he can be both. And with that in mind I did find an even handed obituary of Fr. Neuhaus, one that presents both the saintly serenity of the curious and devoted convert and the angry culture warrior gleefully bending the ear of those in power to quash his ideological opposition.

From The Nation:

The Two Richard John Neuhauses

The following reflection on the passing of Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) is cross-posted at the National Catholic Reporter. Additional thoughts on Neuhaus' life and legacy will appear in this space over the coming days.

In the three-and-a-half years I worked at
First Things magazine, I came to know two Richard John Neuhauses. The first is the one I worked with in the journal's offices every day: personally generous and jovial, intellectually and theologically curious, alert to political and cultural complications, overflowing with energy and ideas. This is the Neuhaus readers encountered in his lengthy, erudite essays on philosophy, theology, and history, which frequently graced the pages of the magazine. It is also the Neuhaus who produced beautiful theological meditations such as Death on a Friday Afternoon and As I Lay Dying--and who selflessly served as a parish priest at Immaculate Conception Church on 14th Street in Manhattan.

But there was also another Neuhaus--the one familiar to his political opponents. This is the Neuhaus who aimed to be a "thorough revolutionary" during the 1960s and who later brokered a political alliance between Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants in order more effectively to wage a cultural war against the social changes that flowed from that same decade. This Neuhaus uncharitably savaged his ideological enemies in his monthly column for First Things and walked a fine line between predicting that the culture war was on the verge of erupting into violence and actively inciting such violence. This Neuhaus sometimes spoke as if faithful Catholics had a positive duty to vote for the Republican Party, and he strongly encouraged the American bishops to deny the sacrament of Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. This Neuhaus was proudly authoritarian, bullying in temperament, and staunchly traditionalist in his attitudes toward women and homosexuality.

During my last two years at the journal--the years of the Iraq war and its immediate aftermath--the second Neuhaus dominated, enthusiastically seeking to provide a theological defense of George W. Bush's polices at home and abroad and sharply rebuking anyone who dared to dissent from those policies. If I'm not mistaken, the first, more thoughtful Neuhaus reasserted himself in the past two years, as he worked to come to terms with the myriad failures and disappointments of the Bush administration. In these years the tone of his writing was somewhat less stridently political, more concerned with exploring the tensions between politics and theological truth than with covering them over. That his final book project was a nuanced study of St. Augustine's political theology is perhaps a further indication that his views on the proper relation between religion and public life were undergoing a subtle revision in light of recent sobering events.

The most sobering event of all must have been the election of Barack Obama, whom Neuhaus considered the most culturally liberal candidate for president in American history. Worse, Obama employed the rhetoric of religion to conceal his liberalism, portraying himself as beyond the stark oppositions of the culture war when, according to Neuhaus, his true aim was to consolidate and expand on the liberal gains of the past four decades. Neuhaus' populist commitments nearly always persuaded him that the American people would do the right thing in the end. This faith buoyed his spirits during every presidential election since 1980. Sometimes his hopes were dashed; other years they were fulfilled. But I suspect the blow from 2008--victory for a liberal Democrat with 53 percent of the vote, a greater margin than any non-incumbent candidate for president since the war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower triumphed in 1952--must have been particularly painful.

Which Neuhaus would have dominated through the Obama administration? Would the first Neuhaus have remained in control, following the lead of Reinhold Niebuhr to offer an ironic commentary on the disorienting dynamics of political life in a pluralist democracy? Or would the second Neuhaus have come roaring back, hurling theological invective at the new president, fretting about the end of democracy in America, rallying the religious right for the next round in the culture war--the battle to wrest the White House from the clutches of the culture of death? Unfortunately, now we will never know which Neuhaus would have prevailed.

May both Richard John Neuhauses rest in peace.

Though Damon then followed up by pushing back against the syrupy disregard of Ross Douthat he then linked to a second remembrance. This one is lengthy but the key is his own refutation of Douthat's blind ideological subservience and a more appropriate summation of the man by use of his own work that is serenely eloquent.

Neuhaus's profound commitment to both cultural change and Christian orthodoxy led him to develop the idea--and to, let's admit it, to convince many others of its truth--that America's liberal tradition, if it was not to be corrupted, necessitated a "positive duty" on behalf of believers to sustain certain kind of religious language, a religious language that is objective enough that one can identify it with a specific political party, a specific political agenda, and maybe even a specific president of the United States. That's not a prophet calling America to its better nature from the street corners; that a precinct captain explaining to a mob on that same street corner why God logically can't possibly want Americans to do otherwise. And so, it's not that I'm a leftist Mormon communitarian (though with traditionalist religious and moral beliefs) that turned me off on Neuhaus's very conservative, very Catholic, and often brilliant polemical work; it's that too often he took the spirit of the best of American Christianity--the reforming, chastising, praising spirit of it--and insisted that it must be disciplined and contained within a single electoral box.

Now with that said, I have to confess: what do I really know of how Neuhaus prioritized his work over the hours and days? (I should ask Damon; he'd know better than me.) He was a parish priest and a faithful believer, in the midst of all these theoretical, philosophical, and moral controversies; if I have any core to my faith, it is that such work will be far more meaningful in the life to come, and is far more important to his and my soul right now, than any of the rest. Many of those who have spoken in praise of Neuhaus's pastoral writings have focused on the brilliant, haunting, deeply truthful work, Death of a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross; I endorse that praise. In particular, I endorse the praise for the first chapter of that book, a revised version of which Neuhaus published as a separate essay in FT, "Father, Forgive Them." It is an essay that all Christians should read; it is an essay that I, especially as I have dealt with some difficult and painful truths about myself of late, have been reminded how much love for its clear, powerful, and deeply right sense of just what it means to ask for, and receive, forgiveness:

We confess to hurting someone we love and she says, "Forget it. It’s nothing. It doesn’t matter." But she knows and we know that it is not nothing and it does matter and we will not forget it. Forgive and forget, they say, but that is surely wrong. What is forgotten need not, indeed cannot, be forgiven. Love does not say to the beloved that it does not matter, for the beloved matters. Spare me the sentimental love that tells me what I do and what I am does not matter.

Forgiveness costs. Forgiveness costs dearly. There are theories of atonement saying that Christ paid the price. His death appeased God’s wrath and satisfied God’s justice. That way of putting it appeals to biblical witness and venerable tradition, and no doubt contains great truth. Yet for many in the past and at present that way of speaking poses great problems. The subtlety of the theory is overwhelmed by the cartoon picture of an angry Father who demands the death of His Son, maybe even kills His Son, in order to appease His own wrath. In its vulgar form-which means the form most common-it is a matter of settling scores, a drama vengeful and vindictive, more worthy of The Godfather than of the Father of whom it is said, "God is love."

And yet forgiveness costs. Forgiveness is not forgetfulness; not counting their trespasses is not a kindly accountant winking at what is wrong; it is not a benign cooking of the books. In the world, in our own lives, something has gone dreadfully wrong, and it must be set right. Recall when you were a little child and somebody-maybe you-did something very bad. Maybe a lie was told, or some money was stolen, or the cookie jar lies shattered on the kitchen floor. The bad thing has been found out, and now something must happen, something must be done about it. The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing will happen, that bad things don’t matter. If bad things don’t matter, then good things don’t matter, and then nothing matters, and the meaning of everything lies shattered like the cookie jar on the kitchen floor.

Trust that child’s intuition. "Unless you become as little children," Jesus said, "you cannot enter the kingdom of God." Unless we are stripped of our habits of forgetting, of our skillful making of excuses, of our jaded acceptance of a world in which bad things happen and it doesn’t matter.... I may think it modesty when I draw back from declaring myself chief of sinners, but it is more likely a failure of imagination. For what sinner should I speak if not for myself? Of all the billions of people who have lived and of all the thousands whom I have known, whom should I say is the chief of sinners? Surely I am authorized, surely I am competent, to speak only for myself? When in the presence of God the subject of sin is raised, how can I help but say that chiefly it is I? Not to confess that I am chiefly the one is not to confess at all. It is the evasion of Adam who said, "It was the woman whom you gave me." It is the evasion of Eve who said, "The serpent beguiled me." It is not to confess at all, and by our making of excuses is our complicity compounded.

"Forgive them, for they know not what they do." But now, like the prodigal son, we have come to our senses. Our lives are measured not by the lives of others, not by our own ideals, not by what we think might reasonably be expected of us, although by each of those measures we acknowledge failings enough. Our lives are measured by whom we are created and called to be, and the measuring is done by the One who creates and calls. Finally, the judgment that matters is not ours. The judgment that matters is the judgment of God who alone judges justly. In the cross we see the rendering of the verdict on the gravity of our sin.

We have come to our senses. None of our sins are small or of little account. To belittle our sins is to belittle ourselves, to belittle who it is that God creates and calls us to be. To belittle our sins is to belittle their forgiveness, to belittle the love of the father who welcomes us home....

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes, we were there when we crucified our Lord. Recognizing the line that runs through every human heart, no longer do we try to draw the line between "them" and "us." Who can look long and honestly at the victims and the perpetrators of history’s horrors and say that this has nothing to do with me? To take the most obvious instance, where would we have taken our stand that Friday afternoon? With Mary and the Beloved Disciple or with the mocking crowds? Knowing myself and fearing God, knowing a thousand big and little things that I have done and failed to do, I cannot deny that I was there. In ways I do not fully understand, I know that I, too, did the deed, wielded the whip, drove the nails, thrust the spear.

About chief of sinners I don’t know, but what I know about sinners I know chiefly about me. We did not mean to do the deed, of course. What we have done wrong-they seemed, or mostly seemed, small things at the time. The word of encouragement withheld, the touch of kindness not given, the visit not made, the trust betrayed, the cutting remark so clever and so cruel, the illicit sexual desire so generously entertained, the angry answer, the surge of resentment at being slighted, the time we thought a lie would do no harm. It is such a long and tedious list of little things. Surely not too much should be made of it, we thought to ourselves. But now it has come to this. It has come to the cross. All the trespasses of all the people of all time have gravitated here, to the killing grounds of Calvary.

If you're not a believer in the Christian faith, then all the foregoing is, of course, of at most merely formal or abstract interest, if not an example of the kind of religiosity you may find pernicious. But if you are any kind of Christian, then my judgment may make sense: a judgment which declares that the man who can write lines like that is so much more than the sum of everything I think he theoretically, philosophically, morally got wrong. The man who can write lines like that is, very simply, a treasure. And so Neuhaus was, for all he wrote worth disagreeing with or rejecting, for all he said that will not stand the test of time.

St. John Chrysostom indeed. Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei.

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Anonymous said...

There was only one Fr. Neuhaus. His political views and commentary (and he could certainly use polemic, but I found his attacks to be ideological and rarely personal. One would be hard pressed to say that about many people on whatever side) flowed from that deep faith that he radiated. One didn't have to agree with everything he said (I certainly didn't) to see that and appreciate that.

Douthat maybe blindly subservient. It depends on what one considers sight, and who one considers one master to be, I guess. That is the kind of tangential, almost flippant remark, that, I don't think, would have appeared from Fr. Neuhaus' pen. Any disagreement would be thoughtful, and argued.

Requiescat in pace.


Mattheus Mei said...

Well, obviously I'm not Neuhaus! This piece wasn't so much to attack Neuhaus, and certainly I didn't mean that when I "attacked" Douthat, but to flesh out the comparison between he and Chrysostom. So far it fits, and your nuanced comment reinforces it!