Hundreds of books have been written in an attempt to explain American exceptionalism, as Richard John Neuhaus notes in a major essay called Secularizations in the February issue of First Things .
In recent years, however, the table has been turned, and the question of increasingly intense interest is European exceptionalism, meaning especially western and northern European secularity. Viewed in global terms, the American mix of modernity and religion seems to be the normal pattern. The interesting question is not why America is so religious but why Europe is so secular.
Thats the lead article in the new issue¯and its only part of what the magazine has to offer. In The Return of the Best and Brightest , for instance, R.R. Reno observes the relentless parade of Ivy League degrees that make up the new presidents team: With all its credentials and stellar achievements, Reno writes, the appointments in the Obama administration are the experts who Kennedy promised would bring new ideas to government. Their progressive views, trim physiques, and well-disciplined lives remove all doubt: Were witnessing the restoration of the Establishment.
Meanwhile, in The Will to Disbelieve , Mary Eberstadt points out the desperate insistence, during the Cold War, that Communism was working¯and she adds that we can feel the same will to disbelieve in defenders of the sexual revolution: In both cases, an empirical record has been assembled that is beyond refutation and that testifies to the unhappy economic, social, and moral consequences. Yet in both cases, the minority of scholars who have amassed the empirical record and drawn attention to it have been rewarded, for the most part, with a spectrum of reaction ranging from indifference to ridicule to wrath.
The February issue has one major piece after another. The great evangelical writer Philip Yancey on What Art Can¯And Cant¯Do , for instance, or George Weigels Catholics as They Were , an essay-length review of James OTooles new book, The Faithful .
In Progress Without Pause , Gilbert Meilaender writes a letter to his daughter. I was struck, he says, by a comment from Samuel Wood, the chief executive of the company, whose own skin cells had been used in the cloning experiment. Did you happen to see it? Asked what it was like to look at embryos that were replicas of himself, Wood said, I have to admit, its a very strange feeling. It is very difficult to look at an embryo and realize it is what you were a few decades ago. It is you, in a way.
Gary A. Anderson reviews Joshua A. Bermans Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought and points out, What is striking is the way the covenant with Israel democratizes the people. Although the Hittite king covenanted with individual kings, God makes his covenant with each and every Israelite.
Thomas S. Hibbs reviews the first volume of The Writings of Charles De Koninck, Volume 1 and notes, De Koninck shows us that the presence in the universe of self-conscious life, which recognizes life itself as a good, makes possible both the transcendence of matter and bodily goods through self-sacrifice and the savage, bloodthirsty desire to eliminate all potential threats to ones existence.
David Novak reviews Michael Fishbanes Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology and observes, From the more rationalist side of medieval Jewish theology, such as the theology of Maimonides (which Fishbane occasionally employs), one could see theology as the name of a type of God-talk that Judaism does best, yet still acknowledge that God-talk about the One God is also authentically engaged in by the daughter religions of Christians and Muslims.
All in all, isnt that enough to make you want to subscribe ? The February issue of First Things is a wonder and a cornucopia.
Oh, yes, and it contains as well the last new set of reflections from Richard John Neuhaus, who died on January 8, in the column he wrote for nineteen years, The Public Square . It ends:
As of this writing, I am contending with a cancer, presently of unknown origin. I am, I am given to believe, under the expert medical care of the Sloan-Kettering clinic here in New York. I am grateful beyond measure for your prayers storming the gates of heaven. Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much that I hope to do in the interim. After the last round with cancer fifteen years ago, I wrote a little book, As I Lay Dying (titled after William Faulkner after John Donne), in which I said much of what I had to say about the package deal that is mortality. I did not know that I had so much more to learn. And yes, the question has occurred to me that, if I have but a little time to live, should I be spending it writing this column. I have heard it attributed to figures as various as Brother Lawrence and Martin Luther¯when asked what they would do if they knew they were going to die tomorrow, they answered that they would plant a tree and say their prayers. (Luther is supposed to have added that he would quaff his favored beer.) Maybe I have, at least metaphorically, planted a few trees, and certainly I am saying my prayers. Who knew that at this point in life I would be understanding, as if for the first time, the words of Paul, When I am weak, then I am strong? This is not a farewell. Please God, we will be pondering together the follies and splendors of the Church and the world for years to come. But maybe not. In any event, when there is an unidentified agent in your body aggressively attacking the good things your body is intended to do, it does concentrate the mind. The entirety of our prayer is Your will be done¯not as a note of resignation but of desire beyond expression. To that end, I commend myself to your intercession, and that of all the saints and angels who accompany us each step through time toward home.
The April issue will contain tributes and reminiscences of Fr. Neuhaus. (Click here if you wish to place a memorial or display message in that issue.) The loss of Fr. Neuhaus has made this a hard time for us, hard and wintery cold, but the work he began when he founded First Things will continue.