When in the course of human events . . .” Thus Jefferson and his associates, evincing a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” began their explanation of what they were up to. To be sure, launching a new journal is not on a par with launching a new nation. Nor do we have any illusions that the whole of mankind will be paying attention to what we are up to here. But a decent respect for the opinion of those who do notice calls for a word of explanation.
This is a statement of editorial prejudices. Prejudices, rightly understood, are prior judgments. They are the considered assumptions that frame what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it. We would be very unhappy if anyone thought us entirely openminded. Our judgment that this or that is true and important inescapably prejudices us against judgments to the contrary.
At the same time, we do not expect that all our readers will share our prejudices. If everyone shared our prejudices, there would be neither purpose nor pleasure in launching a journal. Nor will our considered assumptions—about religion, public life, politics, economics, moral discourse, the arts, and how the world works—be evident in every article. Indeed, the purpose and pleasure of a journal is in engaging alternative assumptions.
Our prejudices will decide the arguments worth making, not the conclusions that writers reach. We fully expect that among our writers and readers will be believing Jews and Christians, agnostics, atheists, the politically liberal and conservative (with all the subcategories attending both), and people with wildly divergent views of the civilization of which we are part. One thing we expect they will have in common, however. They are people who are persuaded, or are open to being persuaded, of the importance of religion to public life, and of public life to religion. That said, we offer a brief statement of editorial prejudices.
Religion and public life. The trick is in making the right connections between the two. And making the right connections requires a measure of clarity about what we mean by “religion” and what we mean by “public life.”
Those meanings and connections have everything to do with the title of this journal. First Things means, first, that the first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing. First Things means, second, that there are first things, in the sense of first principles, for the right ordering of public life.
The first meaning of First Things is that, for the sake of both religion and public life, religion must be given priority. While religion informs, enriches, and provides a moral foundation for public life, the chief purpose of religion is not to serve public life. Here we discover a necessary paradox. Religion that is captive to public life is of little public use. Indeed, such captivity produces politicized religion and religionized politics, and the result, as we know from bitter historical experience, is tragedy for both religion and public life.
Religion best serves public life by relativizing the importance of public life, especially of public life understood as politics. Authentic religion keeps the political enterprise humble by reminding it that it is not the first thing. By directing us to the ultimate, religion defines the limits of the penultimate. By illumining our highest purpose, all lesser purposes are brought under transcendent judgment.
That highest purpose can be variously defined, but believing Jews and Christians might agree that it was well defined in the answer to the famous opening question of the Westminster Catechism of 1647. The question is, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever.” It is hard to improve on that. Temporal tasks are best conducted in the light of eternal destiny. Religion points us to the last things, framing the final direction that informs our decisions about life, both personal and public. The chief service of religion, then, is to teach us that the first things are the last things.
By religion and public life we mean something like what Saint Augustine meant by the City of God and the City of Man. The twain inevitably do meet, but they must never be confused or conflated. Whether at the beginning of the fifth century or at the end of the twentieth, the particulars of their meeting are always ambiguous. At the deepest level the two cities are in conflict but, along the way toward history’s end, they can be mutually helpful. The polis constituted by faith delineates the horizon, the possibilities and the limits, of the temporal polis. The first city keeps the second in its place, warning it against reaching for the possibilities that do not belong to it. At the same time, it elevates the second city, calling it to the virtue and justice that it is prone to neglect. Thus awareness of the ultimate sustains the modest dignity of the penultimate.
It is our further prejudice that public life includes much more than politics. Public life means, first of all, “culture.” Our subtitle could as well be “a journal of religion and culture,” except that culture has come to have a narrower meaning in popular usage, referring mainly to what is done in theaters, concert halls, and museums. We will not ignore the cultural in that narrower meaning of the term, but by culture we mean something more inclusive. Culture means the available truth claims, explanatory systems, myths, stories, memories, loyalties, dreams, and nightmares by which a society lives. Culture is the cognitive, moral, aesthetic, and emotive air that we breathe.
So we think it true to say that politics is, in largest part, an expression of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion. Politics is the effort to give just order to public life, employing the ideas made available by the culture. And the most communally binding of those ideas are by nature religious, whether or not they bear the label “religion.” Given these considered assumptions, readers should not be surprised when in these pages they come across articles and arguments that are not ostensibly “religious” in the conventional use of the term. One does not always need to talk about God to be talking about God.
But there will also be talk about God. 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. This poses a particular problem for public discourse in our society. In the West, and most notably in America, the civilizational story is borne by and legitimated by the language of Jerusalem. If the American experiment in representative democracy is not in conversation with biblical religion, it is not in conversation with what the overwhelming majority of Americans profess to believe is the source of morality. To the extent that our public discourse is perceived to be indifferent or hostile to the language of Jerusalem, our social and political order faces an ever deepening crisis of legitimacy.
And so another prejudice must be made explicit. Especially in our high culture, it is taken as axiomatic that ours is a secular society or is rapidly becoming such. In our judgment, that proposition has everything going for it except the empirical evidence. For more than three centuries perceptive observers have been struck by the vitality and pervasiveness of religion in American life. Americans appear to be incorrigibly religious, and the evidence suggests that they are becoming more so. However skeptical we may be about the quality of that religion, to ignore it is to ignore one of the most salient facts about American life.
Religion comes in many forms: Islam, Native American, New Age, feminist witchery, novel versions of Eastern spiritualities, and the vague national piety called civil religion, to name a few. But again, for the overwhelming majority of Americans religion is, however inarticulately, biblical religion. For most purposes relevant to our purpose, that means Christianity and Judaism. We will pay careful attention to the manifold expressions of religion in America and the world. But this journal, like the Institute that is its publisher, is essentially a Jewish-Christian enterprise. The intention of the enterprise is to advance a religiously grounded public philosophy for this and other experiments in human freedom.
In our catalogue of prejudices, a free and democratic order includes pluralism. Pluralism is a much abused term. It is often suggested that, because we are a pluralistic society, we must play down our differences, pretending that our deepest differences make no difference. That, in our judgment, is not pluralism at all. It is the opposite of pluralism. It is the monism of indifference. Pluralism is not relativism, and it is the declared enemy of nihilism. Pluralism is the civil engagement of our differences and disagreements about what is most importantly true. Against the monism that denies the variety of truth, against the relativism that denies the importance of truth, and against the nihilism that denies the existence of truth, we intend to nurture a pluralism that revives and sustains the conversation about what really matters, which is the truth.
Recognizing the difficulties in fulfilling that intention, we take comfort from this story. Once in Chelm, the mystical village of the East European Jews, a man was appointed to sit at the village gate and wait for the Messiah. He complained to the village elders that his pay was too low. “You are right,” they said to him. “The pay is low. But consider: the work is steady.”
These, then, are some of our prejudices. There are others, of course. We do not, for instance, think that intellectual seriousness is an excuse for being dull. Articles will be scholarly, but not pedantic; thoughtful, but not boring; often unusual, but not esoteric. We hope to attract a general, but literate, readership, well knowing that literacy is not so general as we might wish.
In these pages the reader will find items that report, analyze, instruct, warn, exhort, and sometimes entertain. But the key word is conversation. A real conversation, as distinct from intellectual chatter, is marked by discipline and continuity. Gilbert Keith Chesterton observed that “tradition is the democracy of the dead.” Agreeing with that, we intend to take on the questions of today and tomorrow, but always in conversation with the best that has been thought and said in the past. At every historical moment, the contemporary is afflicted by the crippling conceit of its utter novelty. We hope First Things will be an antidote to that intellectual and moral disease.
When in the course of human events something new is launched, a decent respect for the opinion of others calls for a word of explanation. Of course this brief statement of what we’re up to will be vindicated or falsified by this and subsequent issues of First Things. We very much hope that you will be part of the continuing conversation, and we invite you to hold us to our word.
This editorial was written to introduce First Things to its readers and was published in our first issue, March 1990.