First Things has been no stranger to controversy in recent years. The latest dispute is about tweets from the magazine’s editors about coronavirus, particularly those of editor-in-chief Rusty Reno.
But I am less interested in that than the long-running criticisms of the publication. These critiques have come from all sides, from the integralist Catholics, who view it as excessively protestant and ecumenical, to Protestants who view it as excessively Catholic.
These contrasting impressions reflect the degree to which First Things has remained—to an almost unique degree—a magazine where deeply conflicting viewpoints are aired, in ways that sometimes deeply offend one or another part of the magazine’s constituency.
Let me focus on my own tribe. In 2020, the term “Evangelical” is descriptively useless, but by a certain (perhaps dated) definition of the term, I qualify. I discovered FT as an undergraduate transfer student to a small Christian liberal arts college. I now teach at another.
My grandfather was an Old Testament professor and the president of a Christian liberal arts college. Over the course of my life, he was sent all sorts of publications, from Time and the Times to Christianity Today and World. Visiting his library offered great reading opportunities, even before I decided to take reading seriously. There were baskets full of these publications around the house. He read them voraciously.
Yet I noticed, as he grew older, that the baskets became emptier. In the end there were only a few subscriptions left, which he promoted from baskets to his bookshelves. Among these was First Things.
This is not surprising. FT was the only publication of its kind: a magazine that reached for the intellectual stars, was un-apologetically Christian, and was ecumenical enough to include any monotheist. Reno, though he has faced much criticism on this point, has actually maintained and in some ways strengthened this tradition. Under his editorship, the magazine has published Muslims, Christians, and Jews; critics of liberalism and its defenders.
First Things never understood ecumenism in terms of “minimizing difference.” Ecumenism in that sense has always been impossible, as any student of church history knows. No truly admirable Christian could please the would-be ecumenists. The great saints are always too dogmatic. The beauty of First Things is that it is able to wrestle with—not minimize—Christian divisions.
Chuck Colson was my college commencement speaker. I don’t remember a word he said, but his presence on campus combined with my recent discovery of “the Magazine,” (as my friends have come to call it), prompted me to look into Evangelicals and Catholics Together. I took a copy of a volume by that title with me on a missions trip to Bogota, where Protestants prostelytized Catholics and Catholics posted “no sectarians welcome here” on their doors.
I moved to New York in 2008. When Fr Richard John Neuhaus passed away, I went to his funeral at Immaculate Conception in the East Village. I then wrote an obituary for him in an obscure Methodist publication. I quoted from his chapter in the ECT volume, which culminated in a truly ecumenical flourish. Set the intramural theological debates aside, he said. When he reached Heaven, he’d say:
Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee
O Lamb of God, I come! I come.
What Neuhaus evinced was a wonderful irencism fully consistent with deep and particular Christian conviction. He was unmistakably and unapologetically Roman Catholic, and readers sometimes worried that this aspect of the man was becoming true of his magazine. First Things maintains a Catholic tilt (many of its formerly Protestant contributors have over time converted). But it also remains a forum where contributors regularly make arguments with which the editors disagree.
All this may seem far away from Reno’s tweets, but you’ll be hard pressed to convince me that the torrent of online outrage directed against him is not a terrifying threat to free thought. The outrage is understandable to some extent. Foolish posts on social media deserve to be called out. Further, Christians are called to keep one another accountable.
But effective accountability tends to require time for reflection. Wisdom is not a quick take. Social media prohibits this requisite time. The responses to Reno’s final tweets—and the legendary “ratio” that resulted—suggest a discomfiting overlap of “Christian” thought and polite opinion.
It’s obvious to anyone who’s studied the history of evangelicalism that one of its challenges is a tendency to assimilate too eagerly to regnant mores. The response to Reno seems to me to illustrate this historical trend. Social media have the cultural power to define what is polite and impolite, noble and base. And polite opinion reigns, even or especially among observant Christians in the media and universities.
When I was in graduate school, one of my teachers, an expert on ancient Greece, praised a certain participant of our seminar for being a “men-de” thinker.” My classmates and I knew this was a compliment: our professor was saying that the student appreciated the “on the one hand…on the other” (μέν…δέ ) dynamic characteristic of the Greek language and thought, which we were studying as aspiring classicists. This skill is in short supply on Twitter. It continues to be upheld in First Things. It would be a shame if it were lost.