What is the mission of First Things? We have a stock answer: To advance a religiously informed philosophy for the ordering of public life. But I want to dig more deeply. When I do, one word keeps coming up: freedom. First Things exists to liberate modern men and women of faith from bondage to secular falsehoods.
One falsehood tells us that we live in a disenchanted era. Modern science has shown the “God hypothesis” to be unnecessary. Material explanations of the human condition are sufficient. The old religious beliefs are outmoded and unsustainable in our age of critical reason.
Another falsehood considers God’s authority the supreme source of oppression. It is the opium of the masses, deterring the poor from demanding justice. It demeans women and represses our healthy sexual instincts. Those who truly value the human must throw off the shackles of religious obedience.
Still another falsehood says that religious faith leads to violence and civil strife. Dogmas have no place in the public square. What’s needed is the modest, impartial reign of reason, not the incendiary claims of religious believers who imagine themselves privileged recipients of divine revelation.
There are other falsehoods. Some say religious faith impedes artistic creativity, or that self-denial for the sake of service to God amounts to a pathological masochism. And so on. And so on.
First Things exists to parry these falsehoods—and thereby to open up space for religious believers to contribute to the political, moral, cultural, and scientific endeavors of our time. The notion of “public reason” is a latter-day myth. Science, properly undertaken, sparks a wonder that faith deepens and encourages. Religious obedience and self-denial concentrate the powers of the soul, strengthening rather than diminishing us.
But there’s more to freedom than removing impediments and parrying false claims that seek to limit our roles and silence our voices in public life. It’s often said that there are two kinds of freedom. One kind involves lack of interference and restraint; some term it “negative liberty.” The other kind requires empowerment. This freedom, sometimes called “positive liberty,” means the ability to overcome obstacles and persevere in spite of resistance.
The eighteenth-century French writer Nicholas Chamfort is known for his aphorisms.
One of them illuminates the signal importance of positive freedom: “Nearly all people live in slavery for the reason that the Spartans gave us as the cause for the slavery of the Persians: they are not able to utter the syllable ‘no.’ To be able to utter this word and to be able to live alone are the only two ways to preserve one’s own freedom and identity.”
First Things exists to helps us say “yes” to God’s truth, so that we can stand together (not alone) and do so with confidence, saying “no” to the world’s falsehoods. First Things helps us say “no” to the world’s relentless pressure to conform to the latest moral fashions, what St. Paul called “every wind of doctrine.”
We say “no” to empty promises of the sexual revolution.
We say “no” to the Gnostic pretension that we can decide whether we are male or female.
We say “no” to the libertarian conceit that freedom means doing whatever we wish, even to the point of defining good and evil for ourselves.
We say “no” to false universalism and globalism that won’t recognize the natural good of being from somewhere and having a distinct and precious heritage.
We say “no” to the empire of desire administered in accord with the principle of utility.
We say “no” to religions of self-actualization that bleach out transcendent truths and demanding moral norms.
As I look back, not just on my time as editor, but on the more than twenty-five-year history of this venture, I cherish the ways in which First Things has preserved me from slavery to the false truisms of our time. We are not Persians who cower under the tyranny of secularism’s conceits!
Today we launch the web-based portion of our spring fundraising campaign. Some readers have received letters in the mail asking for support. I’m grateful to all who have replied, and if you have not, I hope you will. Now I’d like to ask our web readers to add their support as well. It’s easy to do. Donate here.
First Things helps us say “yes” to divine truth. This “yes” gives us a firm place to stand, allowing us to say “no” to the many falsehoods that currently demand our acquiescence, even our obedience. Please lend your support. I promise that the writers and editors of First Things will continue to speak with the freedom of those who know that their Lord has overcome the world.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.