Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In Memorium: Father Neuhaus

I should do a better job keeping up on headlines, though I'm surprised this didn't turn up as I browsed my typical blog roll. But Father Richard John Neuhaus, founder of First Things, author, spiritual advisor to the President, and possibly one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the last century passed away January 8 at the full age of 72.

I regret to know little about him other than reputation. I also regret that I never did add First Things to my links, though I often meant to. Father Neuhaus was always good for a quote, and the Christian blogosphere could count on his wisdom on social and political issues. The obituary in Newsweek gives a better description than I ever could. In fact, I pray that some of the same can be said of me when I shuffle off this mortal coil.

But in the spirit of this blog, I want to pull some quotes from the article that we all can and should apply to our lives as Public Christians.

To begin with, he was a thoroughgoing Christian radical, meaning that he believed that the truth of Christian faith was not just truth-for-Christians, but the truth of the world, period. As with his hero, John Paul II (and contrary to the conventional wisdom on "tolerance"), that conviction opened him up to serious conversation with others, rather than shutting down the argument. Yet his basic theological and philosophical convictions, and the intellectual sophistication he brought to their defense, had resonances far beyond the boundaries of the religious world...

Neuhaus's position was that the two pieces of the First Amendment's provisions on religious freedom were in fact one "religion clause," in which "no establishment" of religion served the "free exercise" of religion. There was to be no established national church, precisely in order to create the free space for the robust exchange of religious ideas and the free expression of religious practices. In making this case, Neuhaus changed the terms of the contemporary American church-state debate, arguing that the Supreme Court had been getting things wrong for more than half a century by pitting "no establishment" against "free exercise," with the latter increasingly being forced into the constitutional back seat...

Neuhaus's convictions about the meaning of religious freedom in America also reflected his consistent defense of popular piety and the religious sensibilities of those whom others might consider "simple" or "uninformed." If 90 percent of the American people professed belief in the God of the Bible, he argued, then there was something profoundly undemocratic about denying those people—a super-majority if ever there was one—the right to bring the sources of their deepest moral convictions into public debate, even if they sometimes did so in clumsy ways...

[T]hese Big Ideas... intersected in what Richard Neuhaus, public intellectual, thought of as his life's project: the creation of a "religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty," as he frequently put it. (emphasis mine)

I couldn't think of a better description or better example of Public Christianity in America today. But his theology wasn't half-bad either. I'll close with this quote, from his book Death on a Friday Afternoon (courtesy of internet monk).

When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work that I have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their company, their example, and their prayers throughout my earthly life I will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my own. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of justification by faith alone,” although I will thank God that he led me to know ever more fully the great truth that much misunderstood formulation was intended to protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways—these and all other gifts I have received I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will, with Dysmas, look to Christ and Christ alone.

Then I hope to hear him say, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” as I hope with all my being—because, although looking to him alone, I am not alone—he will say to all.

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