I first came across the name of Richard John Neuhaus when he was writing religion columns for National Review in the 1980s. I vividly remember a day when I sat reading one of those columns and exclaimed to myself half-aloud, “Why can't we have someone like this?”—by which I meant, “Why does it fall to this Lutheran pastor to say what we Catholics should be saying?” Pastor Neuhaus did become a Catholic eventually, of course, but both before and after his conversion his voice spoke across religious lines. Somehow each one, Catholic, Protestant, and Jew, “heard him speaking in his own tongue.”
His most famous book was The Naked Public Square, and “The Public Square” was also the name of his monthly column in First Things. His achievement, however, went far beyond writing about the public square or in the public square. He also created a particular part of the public square that hadn't existed before. He created a place where a great throng of religious intellectuals, hitherto isolated from one another and often unaware of one another's existence, could meet to share their thoughts and pool their intellectual resources.
There was much talk within the Catholic Church in the 1960s of ressourcement, a “return to the sources”; but what seemed to happen instead, for many Catholics, Protestants, and Jews in that era, was a great decoupling from the sources, a snapping of the stem of tradition. This was happening both within religious institutions and in the larger society. Not only conservatives but many liberals were alarmed by this development, for they understood that the taproot of Western liberal values fed from the springs of biblical religion. The founding statement of First Things magazine, an editorial in its first issue, expressed it this way: “The intellectual, spiritual, and political fonts of our civilizational story are Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome. Modern thought, especially political thought, is notoriously neglectful of Jerusalem.”
Some of those who have written for First Things started off, as Richard John Neuhaus did, on the political, and even theological, left. Others had always been on the right. But the magazine is seen, correctly, as the intellectual organ of a certain kind of religious conservatism. It is not the conservatism of those who reject modernity but the conservatism of those who see modernity as needing to be rescued. It is a conservatism marked, one might say, by joy and hope, though indeed a joy and hope tempered and chastened by the storms and disasters of the past decades. The proverb says, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Many conservatives are fond of cursing the darkness—and that certainly needs to be done. But Fr. Neuhaus took the better and more difficult course of lighting a candle. Indeed, he lit many candles. He was himself a candle, and many people lit their own candles from his flame. He was not only faithful to his own calling, but, as many have testified, he enabled countless other people to find and follow theirs. I am one of them.
My professional calling is physics research and teaching. But from time to time, over the years, I was nagged by the thought that I ought to write something about science and religion. Someday, I reassured myself, I would. But I well knew that someday probably meant never (or, perhaps, “in the eschatological future,” as Richard might say). One day, in a fit of enthusiasm for a book, I wrote a review and sent it “over the transom” to First Things. Joseph Bottum and Fr. Neuhaus saw some value in it, and to my utter surprise First Things published it. I was amazed, because my writing style hadn't been helped by twenty years of writing almost nothing but technical papers in physics journals, where most of the English consists of thus, hence, and it follows from Equations 1 and 3.
From that point on, I received grace upon grace from Richard. It seemed that he helped me at every turn and in every way he could: by encouraging me to write for the magazine, by inviting me to be on its editorial advisory board, and by asking me to give the Erasmus Lecture in 2002.
That lecture, and the symposium held the following day, gave me memories of Richard that I have cherished ever since. The symposium was more than I had bargained for. I arrived for it somewhat foggy from lack of sleep and nervously drained from the excitement of the day before. I looked forward to settling into a chair and letting the twenty-five or so scholars assembled for the purpose have their say. I intended to nod every once in a while in an appreciative manner.
But to my horror, I learned that I was actually expected to respond to the questions and reflections of these scholars, which meant that I'd have to both listen and think from 9 a.m. to 5p.m. (with a break for lunch).
Sitting at Richard's right hand for those eight hours was a heady experience indeed: I was enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke from his cigar, which deepened my mental fog. I could well sympathize that day with the experience of the Jewish priests of old, recorded in 2 Chronicles: “The house was filled with a cloud, . . . so that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud.” Nevertheless, I managed to get through it all, partly because Richard clarified some of my less coherent utterances. And I have reason to think that he advised some of the symposiasts beforehand to take it a bit easy on me.
Over the years, Richard encouraged me by little messages of appreciation for things that I wrote, but also by prodding me in his gentle way when he thought I needed it. When I sent him some amusing data for his “While We're At It” section of the magazine, which had obviously taken me hours on the Internet to amass, he printed it with this introduction: “A reader who obviously has far too much time on his hands has sent me this. . . .”
His last communication was an offer of help. I had no idea how ill he was when, on December 3, I sent him an email asking him if he would be willing to read a book by a friend of mine, about which I was tremendously excited, and to write a blurb for its back cover. I got an email from Davida Goldman telling me that Richard was sick and might not see my request for quite a while. The same day, however, before I could withdraw my request, I got this message from Richard himself: “Steve, As you know I've been laid back by medical problems. What's the time factor here? Richard.” Even with so little time left, he was willing to offer it to his friends.
I called him “Richard” in the last years that I knew him, because that is what his friends called him. But in my mind he was always “Father Richard” and always will be. He was to me a second father: wise, benevolent, unfailingly kind and solicitous of my welfare. The drive my wife and I took every year to New York City for the magazine's board meeting always had the feeling for me of a trip home. Like an inviting hearth, Fr. Richard drew people into a circle of warmth and friendship, laughter and conversation. And now, I trust and pray, he himself has been drawn into that great convivium where laughter and conversation will never end.
Stephen M. Barr, a member of the editorial advisory board of First Things, is professor of physics at the Bartol Research Institute.