I keep a little black book of notes, thought-sketches, and quotations. It’s my slapdash storage device for ideas. Now and then I reread the pages, and when I do I’m reminded yet again that nine tenths of mental progress comes when we circle back and think old thoughts again. Enduring truths are often fugitive. They need to be made permanent residents in our minds by regular intervals of remembrance.
Readers very likely will not be surprised that I frequently write notes to myself about the nature and mission of First Things. The magazine is something of a cipher. It has a strong Catholic dimension, but it’s certainly not merely Catholic. Furthermore, we’re religious, but more than that. First Things has an important public significance, but we don’t offer the sort of political analysis one finds in many other journals. We’re hard to pin down, which I suppose is why Ross Douthat recently recommended us among the “eccentric” journals worth reading today.
When I think about the magazine I jot down variations on a basic idea. First Things sits on a three-legged stool: theology, culture, and politics.
Theology is the most important leg. First Things wouldn’t be First Things without the first of all things, which is God’s desire to draw us to himself in love. We’re a magazine read by people who want be vital, informed, and influential participants in contemporary life. And we want to do so as men and women of faith, as men and women under God’s authority.
It’s not easy. Secularism threatens to hollow out our religious institutions from within, and lately it has been trying to push us out of the public square. That was true when the magazine was founded more than twenty years ago. So the tradition will continue. In 2013 we’ll publish essays that help us understand our theological traditions, guide our thinking about the reform and renewal of religious institutions, and analyze contemporary culture in theological terms.
We’ll do that in Catholic and Protestant ways, and in Christian and Jewish ways, and I hope in Muslim ways as well. That’s part of our eccentricity. We do what secularism says is impossible. We’re a magazine where a Jew can be a Jew. A Catholic a Catholic. A Protestant a Protestant. In his recent Christmas Address to the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict explained why this is possible: “The Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity.” The same holds for Jews and others.
The second leg is culture. Culture is the extensive array of prejudices that form our souls. It’s the public consensus about what counts as a beautiful picture or a well-designed building, what makes for an exciting new novel or compelling vision of the good life.
Our love is our weight, St. Augustine said. We are what we worship. From time immemorial, religion informed culture. But in the modern era men and women started to love and worship things not divine—autonomy, pleasure, wealth, health, and so forth. And with these changes came cultural changes.
First Things does not allow this to go uncontested. We’re in a struggle for cultural authority, a struggle over who is competent to judge what counts as true, good, and beautiful. Will it be men and women of faith, or secular elites who see religion as ugly and oppressive?
To give oneself in obedience to God’s will: This fundamental turn away from self-love humanizes us. Therefore, when it comes to culture, First Things isn’t theological, at least not in a programmatic way. Our goal is to be humane. And learned. And smart. In 2013 expect essays that interpret, weigh, and assess literature, art, architecture, history, and philosophy.
Politics provides the third leg of the First Things stool. We’re not a magazine that dwells on the latest stories from Washington, nor do we chart the rise and fall of politicians. However, faith is not just an interior reality. It’s political as well because man is a political animal, and God claims our entire lives.
Today a religious vision of human flourishing and the various secular visions are at odds, not always, but often, and perhaps more so today than ever before. Political consequences necessarily follow.
Nothing could be more fundamental than how we understand the dignity of the human person, especially when our humanity is barely visible at the beginning and end of life. First Things remains committed to the defense of life.
The Obama administration has made some new legal and constitutional arguments that have the effect of eroding religious freedom. A growing number of law professors and legal philosophers now publish articles announcing that the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty has no merit. That’s a trend that must be challenged.
Marriage is a fundamental social institution. The push to redefine marriage so that men can marry men, and women women, puts an exclamation mark on a decades-long shift in the meaning of marriage. These shifts can’t help but have political implications that will engage us in 2013 and beyond.
In my little black book I came across a quote from W. H. Auden: the “principal enemies of the True Word are two: the Idle Word and the Black Magician.” The Black Magician whispers falsehoods in our ears, tempting us to compromise when we shouldn’t, or to despair when we mustn’t. The Idle Word twiddles his thumbs as he talks about lots of things that avoid hard issues and tempt us to evade hard choices.
It is my prayer that in 2013 that we fend off these two enemies and remain true to the True Word.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. 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.
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