As readers will have seen, the Board of the Institute on Religion and Public life has appointed me the next editor of First Things. I’ll be working under Jim Neuchterlein over the next couple of months, trying to soak up as much of his editorial wisdom as possible before taking over on April 1st. These new responsibilities mean that this will be my last Thursday column.
Serving as editor of First Things was far from my mind when I had lunch with Matthew Berke early in 1990. We were both finishing up graduate degrees at Yale, mine in theology and his in political theory. Matt surprised me by saying that he wasn’t going to take an academic job, but instead planned to work for a new magazine called First Things that had just gotten started in New York under the leadership of Richard John Neuhaus.
Somehow Matt and I had gotten to know each other, in all likelihood our conservative inclinations, which weren’t exactly commonplace at Yale, drew us together as co-conspirators, and I remember feeling a twinge of jealousy. He was heading off on an adventure outside the quiet halls of academia.
I sent in my check for a subscription, out of loyalty to Matt, and because I’d read and relished Richard John Neuhaus’ book The Naked Public Square. From the first issue I was hooked. Like so many bookish young Christians, I was unsure of myself, immersed in an academic world largely shaped by secular assumptions. I had read a great deal of Karl Barth, which encouraged me toward a fierce affirmation of the truth of Christ. Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, Gene Outka, and my other graduate school mentors convinced me that Christians must speak in a decidedly Christian way, not just about Christianity, but about everything that matters. But I didn’t have a clear idea of how things fit together.
I had been a teenager in the seventies, which in retrospect was the worst of the sixties—hedonism without idealism. As I (slowly) became an adult, I was aware that something was amiss in the great cultural changes of the era. Popular culture seemed cruder and more violent. Political correctness was sweeping through higher education. And perhaps most significantly of all for me, my spiritual home, the Episcopal Church, was slowly dismembering its theological inheritance.
My education hadn’t prepared me to answer the questions now before me. How, I wondered, was I to navigate intellectually? Morally? Spiritually? Where could I find trustworthy guides?
I found them in First Things. Literature, history, philosophy, political theory, art, theology, cultural criticism, and political commentary—First Things didn’t tie everything up in a neat bow or answer all my questions. Instead, by reading the magazine I found trustworthy guides, as well as companions.
There has been plenty of urgency in First Things. The magazine contributed to the great struggle against the culture of death, as well as pushing back against the aggressive efforts of secularists to bar religious motives and reasons from public life. Liberal Protestantism was taken to the woodshed on a regular basis. The bellicose thrusts and counter-thrusts of the journal energized and encouraged me, helping me find my voice in ongoing theological, moral, and political debates.
However, First Things was more than a movement magazine for me, much more. At least as many articles took the long view, recognizing that those called to serve God have always been strangers in a strange land, pilgrims making their way through the kingdoms of men.
The notion of a just war provides an example. It’s a centuries-long—and always only partially successful—effort to give a moral shape to the struggles of life and death. Not surprisingly, it’s been a topic to which First Things returned again and again. Or consider the profound questions of sex, marriage, and family, question in which finer points of legal theory and moral philosophy intertwine with the deepest mysteries of the faith.
Or ecumenism. Christian unity turns about to be founded in the Eucharistic mystery that we must always serve, rather than existing as an action-item on an ecclesiastical to-do list. Or the relations between Christianity and Judaism, a topic of personal concern to me. Or metaphysics and our need to have an overall sense of the enduring shape of reality. Or the theological project of entering more fully into divine truths, a project that never ends.
Yes, First Things gave me trustworthy guides and companions, many of whom I came to know after I started writing for the magazine, thanks to friendly encouragement from Matt Berke and a certain founding editor who for so long served as a trustworthy guide—and companion—for countless readers.
I needed them. “Uphold my steps in your paths,” writes the Psalmist, “that my footsteps may not slip” (17:5). It was easy to lose my way in a hostile academic culture, not just by kowtowing to the latest fashions, but also by allowing feeling of urgency—a fitting feeling of urgency—to draw me away from the generous spirit of orthodoxy. I stumbled on many occasions, of course, but First Things was there for me, as it has been for all of us: a trustworthy guide, a voice of insight and often wisdom.
R.R. Reno is a Senior Editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.