What makes First Things First Things? It’s a question I’ve puzzled over during the decade or so that I’ve been associated with the magazine. The question has become quite a bit more urgent for me in the last couple months. Being appointed the new editor wonderfully concentrates the mind.
The first thing to say about First Things is that it stands for the conviction that our personal and communal submission to the authority of revelation humanizes, and that the eviction of revelation from intellectual life and the public square diminishes both. The magazine is not a theological journal, of course. But it was founded on the assumption that the unique—and uniquely important—millennia-long efforts of Christians and Jews to live in accord with God’s will can guide us to live wisely, both as individuals and as a nation.
That paragraph was easy to type, in large part because I believe it’s true. But it’s not easy to spell out.
For example, which authority? And which revelation? After all, Christians and Jews parted ways two thousand years ago. And both Christians and Jews have since splintered into different factions, all arguing that their vision of God’s revelation is the correct one. Moreover, not everybody who has ever written for First Things has been a practicing Christian or Jew. Worried about moral relativism, concerned for the sanctity of life, recognize that a free society requires men and women of virtue: First Things has long welcomed allies from all quarters.
And then there’s the fact that the specific contours of the life of faith are not at all clear, even among people who accept the same authority and revelation. What does our faith require of us in the public square? How should we engage contemporary culture? What difference does faith make for our everyday lives?
These are difficult questions, and questions debated intensely by serious believers of the sort who edit and write for First Things. The fundamental loyalty to the religious life that makes First Things First Things isn’t easy to put into pithy formulae or to list as bullet points, or put onto a bumper sticker.
But that, to my mind, is one of our signal strengths. We're committed to a capacious orthodoxy, one that is clear-minded that there is no greater good in human life than to write the commandments of God upon our hearts—and yet acutely aware that the vibrant pluralism of American society draws us into arguments, conversations, and alliances that are necessary, difficult, and of their nature open-ended and hard to define.
The notion of a capacious orthodoxy is important, so let me come at it from another angle. When I was a college freshman, I was fascinated by Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Tillich, and other liberal theologians who seemed to vindicate my desire for both a more serious religious commitment and at the same time a fully modern life.
After reading Karl Barth—a tonic for anyone smitten by the promises of liberal theology—I came to see two things. First, the present-day theological gurus tend to translate the hard edges of the religious traditions into a generic religiosity—our Ultimate Concern, as Tillich put it, or the ground of our being or something else remote from the God who says "Thus says the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Second, being fully modern is often a self-complimenting way of baptizing complacency, when we should in fact seek to become more fully human, which can put us at odds with the conceits of modernity.
Thus the importance of a capacious orthodoxy. Capacious: At First Things, Protestants write as Protestants, Catholics as Catholics, and Jews as Jews. We don’t knock off the edges in the vain hope of achieving a grand synthesis. Orthodoxy: God calls us to order our lives in obedience to his timeless Word, and across our differences we can recognize a common cause against the secular presumptions of our age.
Which brings me to the second thing to say about First Things. The magazine is a place where writers and readers try to navigate wisely in our strange postmodern world. This requires nuanced judgments about culture and public life.
For example, after twenty years as a college professor, I can report that something is wrong with higher education. Today, scholars default to a secular and relativistic reading of their subjects, while a spirit of careerism among faculty turns the adventure of learning and teaching into a bureaucratic slog to attain various credentials and perks.
Of course we need to attack the professoriate's simple-minded secularism and moral relativism and their narrow careerism. Yet we also need to affirm and bear witness to the authority of truth in the intellectual life and the nobility of the life of the mind. As John Henry Newman noted, "False ideas may be refuted indeed by argument, but by true ideas alone are they expelled." There is plenty to criticize today, but there are also precious things to commend.
We can provide no algorithms, no checklists, for precisely and infallibly distinguishing the two. The line between good and evil is very real—First Things has no truck with the easy "I’m OK/You’re OK" mentality—but as Alexander Solzhenitsyn learned in the cruel cold of Stalin’s gulag, it’s a line that runs through every man’s heart: his, mine, yours.
Whether it’s in articles on Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche, or Pascal and John Henry Newman, First Things tries to condemn what needs to be condemned and commend what needs to be commended. We fail, of course, not realizing our own blind spots as we play favorites, allowing our loves to carry us away. But we try.
Contemporary American political culture is equally mixed and equally difficult to parse. Our democracy is both perverted and precious. Our independent judiciary both arrogant and indispensable. Our domestic policies, foreign policies, immigrations policies, fiscal policies? Often confused and contradictory.
The way forward is not easy to see. Indeed, when I contemplate the evil of abortion, I shudder before our society’s great contemporary failure. And yet I remain an ardent patriot and an American optimist. Truly, the line between good and evil runs through nations as well as hearts.
Being the editor of First Things is an honor. I admired Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, as did so many others, and under his leadership the magazine became an important institution in American religious and public life. However, being editor of such an enterprise is daunting as well.
How am I—how are we—to know when to condemn and when to commend, when to repudiate and when to affirm, when to challenge and when to reform? The answer, it seems to me, lies where it did for RJN: in the indisputable fact that faith is the first thing, not just for First Things, but for our lives.
R.R. Reno is editor of First Things.