John’s soaring vision of the new Jerusalem coming down from Heaven in Revelation 21: 1-6 is packed with powerful imagery: Bride and bridegroom, Alpha and Omega − and God himself dwelling with his people, wiping away every tear. Death will be no more, the passage promises, “for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
When I read the phrase “first things” (τά Πρωτά), I thought of the journal of that name founded by Richard John Neuhaus. “So that's where he got the title,” I thought. I’d always assumed it was a synonym for faith, or things of the spirit, with an implicit rebuke to secular folks who may have their priorities wrong. The journal definitely carries those connotations, but it does so, I belatedly discovered, with a biblically based title.
For me, Neuhaus and his journal were very nearly synonymous. Before encountering First Things, I’d read the commencement address he gave at Valparaiso University in 1987, a year after I graduated from the law school there. It was a challenging call to measure one’s life in transcendent terms, in the context of the death and Resurrection of Christ.
A few years later, someone gave my dad, a Lutheran pastor, a gift subscription to First Things. Dad used to save the back issues for me, and I’d peruse them at leisure on Saturday nights while my wife, also a Lutheran pastor, made ready for worship the next morning.
Neuhaus’ polemical bent could be tiresome, and the direction he was heading was the opposite of my own. He became increasingly conservative and ended up as a close spiritual adviser to George W. Bush, opposing stem cell research and advocating the withholding of communion from Catholics who support abortion rights.
In the run-up to the Obama inaugural, I missed the news of Neuhaus’ death. It was not until I checked the Wikipedia article on him that I learned that he died of cancer on January 8, 2009.
First Things is still being published, but it is not a significant source for my own reflection on First Things. I am drawn instead to N.T. Wright’s call to reshape the church for mission by living in a way pointed toward the transformation of this world. After all, in Revelation 21, it’s not the elect going UP to the new Jerusalem; it’s God bringing that reconstituted city right down here.
Somehow I was not surprised to discover that the ever-strident Neuhaus, less than a year before his death, had attacked Bishop Wright’s book Surprised by Hope for supposedly being anti-Catholic. Given the biblcal passage from which First Things takes its title, it was with some sense of irony that Wright asked in his response whether Neuhaus had actually read the book of Revelation lately. That’s one trouble with endless polemics; they keep one from the source.