I'm pleased to announce that the 2021 First Things annual report is now available. The following is my letter to our readers and supporters:
It’s often easy to see what we oppose. We’re against woke tyranny. We reject the culture of death. We parry the unmerited claims that strong religious voices in public life run counter to liberal principles and America’s constitutional traditions. We are against tiresome claims about “the arc of history” and their threadbare second cousin, the outdated theological program of “relevance.”
I could go on. There’s a great deal of ruin in the contemporary West, and we’re right to oppose bad ideas and destructive trends. But if we define ourselves only by what we oppose, we risk losing sight of what we are for.
The salt of the gospel gains its savor from what it affirms, not what it opposes. The same holds for the salt of natural truths, which ask us to say “yes” in addition to “no.” Opposition to abortion arises from an affirmation of the sanctity of life. Rejection of same-sex marriage is rooted in our “yes” to the biblical vision of the natural and spiritual fruitfulness of the union of a man and a woman.
In 2021, the First Things editorial staff met on a number of occasions to talk about what we affirm—and how to bring those affirmations to life in our pages. Here’s a snapshot.
We affirm beauty in art, intelligence in literature, and wisdom in tradition, publishing essays and reviews that bring before readers images, books, and activities worthy of their admiration: Gary Saul Morson on The Brothers Karamazov, Algis Valiunas on Charles Dickens, Bruno Chaouat on the sweet nostalgia of Chateaubriand, and Elizabeth Corey on Kim’s Diner and books for children. Our gaze is not uncritical, but our aim is to refine our love with critical judgment, not to dampen its yes-saying ardor.
We affirm moral truths. It is not sufficient to condemn abortion, euthanasia, and other grievous evils. We need a vision of human law guided by natural law and legislation that aims to promote the common good. These are contested notions, and rightly so. When we publish John Finnis or Hadley Arkes, we know that their arguments invite counter-arguments. But if we are to move beyond what we are against, then a substantive vision needs to be ventured, a “yes” needs to be proposed.
We affirm the tranquility of order, especially between the sexes. This is especially difficult to translate into a concrete proposal for society, given that so much has been disrupted by the sexual revolution. All the more reason, therefore, to applaud Scott Yenor and Mary Harrington, whose articles last year (“Sexual Counter-Revolution” and “Reactionary Feminism”) may not be the last word on what kind of culture we want to build for our children and grandchildren, but are at least a first word.
And we affirm God’s benevolent and life-giving power. It’s not just that we believe modern conceits of autonomy are misguided and often destructive. When those conceits about autonomy infect theology, they impede our obedience to God, which is the royal road to true freedom. Whether Patricia Snow’s memoirs of conversion or Carl R. Trueman’s theological trumpet blasts, First Things exists to champion the triumphant “yes” of God’s love, which evokes from us the “yes” of faith.
“Againstism.” That’s what I call the no-saying temptation that is satisfied with opposition. This temptation shirks responsibility for leadership. I pledge to you that we will resist this temptation. First Things is published so that we can assume our roles as leaders, an imperative if we’re to bring sanity (and perhaps a smidgen of sanctity) to our confused, disordered, and increasingly tense and anxious societies. And to be leaders, we must build upon the very best of our inheritance—artistic, political, moral, and theological—to venture a vision for a better future.
Read the entire annual report here. If you wish to receive a hard copy, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll put one in the mail for you.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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