Randy Boyagoda - "Richard John Neuhaus"
12:39PM Sep 6, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today it's really our delight to be speaking with Dr. Randy Boyagoda. Dr. Boyagoda is a writer, critic and scholar and the author of a scholarly monograph on immigration and American identity and the fiction of Southern rush die Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner. He also contributes reviews and commentary to a variety of publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Post, Globe and Mail and financial times in the UK. In addition to his 2008 monograph, he has written two novels, the first governor of the northern province was a 2006 nominee for the Scotiabank giller Prize. His second novel beggar's feast was a 2012 nominee for the i m PACW literary prize and a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice. His research interests include 20th century American literature and culture, religion in American public life, immigration and American identity globalization theory secularization theory, Sri Lankan history literature and culture culture, Dr. Boyagoda We're so thankful to be speaking with you today.
Glad to be with you, Jonathan.
Dr. Boyd is going to to begin with when you just be able to catch us up on some of your most recent research projects.
Well, you know, the the most recent public published version of this, of course, would be my biography of father Richard, john Newhouse and life in the public square. But in addition to that, I pursue a pretty regular collection of activities related to, you know, explorations of the place of religion and public life, the significance of contemporary literature understood in both sacred and secular terms. And within that context, you know, I regularly give talks and publish articles in a variety of publications. You know, having spent five years writing, prognosis biography, I'm in the midst now of a new novel. And then beyond that, I'll probably turn back to nonfiction as the subject I don't know yet.
Dr. Boy, we are delighted to be speaking with you today about your book Richard john Newhouse life in the public square that just came out this year. And Father Richard Newhouse is a fascinating figure. He's a Lutheran pastor and anti war activist convert to Roman Catholicism, the founder of first things magazine. How did you decide to write this biography on new house?
Well, you know, really, it was one of those lightbulb moments, I guess you could say that that has something to do with my writing an article about father new house in 2009, shortly after he died. And it was an article for a magazine called the walrus, which is sort of a Canadian version of The New Yorker Harper's Magazine, a kind of Public Affairs culture. And the premise of that article is as follows it was he was the most influential Canadian born intellectual in American public life that probably none of you have ever heard of. And so I wrote that article, we kind of left it there. And then about a year later, in who knows where these things come from, but I had a little light bulb go off and so I wrote A new US is longtime close friend and collaborator George Weigel. instead. Does anyone writing us his biography full? Well, assuming someone was I mean, if you just think about the number of writers he had around him, and he said, quote, unquote, the authorial coast is clear. And so I took that as my opportunity to pursue this project. Amazing.
And I'm guessing you've been a longtime reader of first things. How did you come in touch with with new houses worth originally?
That's Yeah, that's actually a really important point for me, I guess personally. I came first in contact with with first things magazine and we're following Ross's writings around 2000. At that point, I was a graduate student living in Boston, and I was pursuing a doctorate focused on globalization theory and William Faulkner and Salman Rushdie, as you pointed out in your introduction. At the same time, I was a cradle Catholic, and I had grown up, you know, with a very strong devotional faith, but really, I I had no sense whatsoever that my devotional faith and the life of the mind that I was pursuing, could have anything to do with each other. And then a priest here in Toronto, where I live, recommended that I take a look at first things magazine. And it really was an important moment for me personally, because what I realized by reading the pages of first things was that you could, in fact, be a profoundly religious person who cared deeply about the reigning matters of the day and wanted to bring your faith to bear upon those matters. In other words, the life of faith in the life of the mind are not, in fact, divided from each other, but have a great deal to say to each other to depend from to grow through contact with each other. And really, no one exemplified that better, I think, in American public life, over the past 2550 years and Richard john Newhouse.
Now, I've got to ask this question. I'm not exactly sure how to best phrase it, but, but I do want your perspective on it. You have a very broad perspective. If you're writing as a Canadian Catholic, you're writing as an expert in globalization theory in the 20th century and Sri Lankan culture, etc. I want your broad perspective perspective on this. Why is it that at this moment in our history, the life of the mind and the life of faith is so divided that it would be a brilliant inside of new houses to be able to connect these things?
What's a very good question and I think I think really what you're what you're pointing out would be the ongoing success of a secular progressive mindset, specifically committed to secularization understood in the following terms, to the degree that we become quote unquote, more modern, we become less religious, and this presumes that religion itself is a holdover from a more primitivist approach of a pre modern approach to human affairs. Now that would be the governing premise in large part in the state Media, in an elite universities around the United States and indeed around the North Atlantic world. And yet any quick glance at a newspaper, any quick drives past any house of worship on a Sunday morning demonstrates that religion remains a profoundly important feature of our individual and our public lives. The question and this is the key question, that Newhouse really wanted to explore it in an American context. The question is not whether religion and public life should be separated or whether they should have anything to do with each other. But the question was always how, because they always do they always have and they always will. Because we are naturally committed to drawing on our deepest sense of ourselves and of our purposes in this world of our relation to each other, which is to say on our religious understanding, and to bring those to bear upon things that matter in terms of how we live In order our lives together,
we appreciate that refreshing. Thank you,
Dr. Boy agoda. In chapter 13, you write this quote, If little known now, compared with his earlier and later involvements and exploits, the Hartford appeal is profoundly significant to understanding the life and worth of john, excuse me, Richard, john Newhouse. What was the Hartford appeal and what's its enduring
Well, I think there's two very important points related to the Hartford appeal. Partly, this was in a very strong example, a father Newhouse's really lifelong commitment to ecumenical efforts. So that he was always even from the earliest years as a Lutheran pastor interested in finding those points in common between different Christians of goodwill in terms of their finding ways to work towards a better life for everyone else. Hartford more specifically, has a political indeed controversial element to it would have been the midnight 70s and Newhouse was having a drink one night with his longtime friend and collaborator Peter Berger, the esteemed Austrian sociologist based in Boston. And the two of them were in a kind of joking way, sarcastic way, perhaps making fun of what they regarded as mainline Protestant isms, rather comprehensive abandonment of its theological first principles and self understandings for instead, an understanding of the purpose of the church as little more than, you know, a social service organizations that willfully avoided questions of belief, willfully avoided this specific sort of Christian claims about the divinity of Christ, basically for relevance and social purpose in the world at large. And so they put together a whole series of statements, principles, as it were, that they wanted to push back against other words representation of what they saw as mainline Protestantism is falling away from a theological first principle to clean zeal first principles, in turn new as being the great organizer that he was brought together a whole series of theologians and church leaders from across the kind of tradition traditional board in terms of some mainline Protestant, some Catholic, some evangelical, some orthodox, and they spent a weekend in Hartford, basically hammering out a series of statements that became the Hartford declarations on faith and this was Jonathan this was a huge controversy when it came out. I mean, Time magazine likened it to Martin Luther is nailing his theses on the door of the cathedral Wittenberg, that big a deal, because it was such a controversial criticism of mainline Protestant churches which were otherwise you know very much part of the American establishment. And for my to my mind, this was a really important moment. You trying to make sense of nuances moves from left to right from liberal from from kind of less liberal to conservative, because this was where we see this move happening, where it really mattered ultimately for him, which was in theological and ecclesial terms.
We have the privilege of speaking with Dr. Randy bland, go to author of Richard john Newhouse life in the public square, Dr. boyega. I've been speaking with sister Anne Marie, the sister who was a long term secretary for Avery Cardinal Dulles and has a great idea. Of course, every Cardinal goes to, I've come to realize that this Hartford appeal was was a very powerful reorienting moment, in some ways for every Cardinal balance as well. I'm sure if I knew the broader perspective, I could see others who were also terribly influenced by this document. And you're right in your book that we just have not heard of this document. Did Richard john Newhouse had any idea idea that this document would have this type of effect. And and what was the long term effect of this document?
Well, you know, I would say if you read the biography, I think you can appreciate that this was a man who was not shy of controversy, and full well knew at times the consequences of his more public acts. So in this particular case, I suspect he was very consciously picking a fight with the mainline Protestant establishment, which became really a focus of his criticisms for decades thereafter. As to the long term effects, really, you know, this was where new house began to identify, and indeed begin to cultivate and grow what we might regard as a coalition of like minded, conservative Christians, all of whom have in common, a willingness to begin from the first principles of doctrine and an open indeed explicit commitment to believing in the divinity of Christ and into certain continuity of faith and practice across the centuries not withstanding the divisions brought about by the reformation, etc, etc, that this coalition really began to come together in the late 1970s, with new has very much as a prime mover within that context and then from there, we see, you know, especially come to the late 1980s and father new us is that conversion to Catholicism and emergence as really the most prominent American clergyman of the 1990s we see how he really did create this coalition and make it something of quite quite noticeable presence and impact in American public life. Dr. Boyd
has only in 1984 new house publishes the book for which he's probably still best known for the naked public square. How did this book became become such a runaway success?
Well, I think probably the the best indicator This is a was a news commentator who said to new house in fall of 1984 that He had heard of authors going to great lengths to promote a book that arranging a presidential election was pretty impressive. In other words, through throughout his writing life new house was interested in making a case for the significance of religion to American public life. And he'd been doing it in a variety of ways from the late 60s onwards in a variety of books and magazines and statements and comedies, even. However, it really was in 1984, that he came to national prominence because of this effort. It was for two reasons. First, he came up with a really punchy term, the naked public square, in other words, an American public life, aggressively unconsciously shorn of any reference to religious first principles, which in turn implicitly barred the contribution of religiously minded American citizens. The Naked public square is a metaphoric terms is provocative, punchy, it works well in media terms. So There was a That, combined with the fact that the book came out, just as the 1984 presidential election was heating up. And this was a time where it was quite controversial in the following sense. You know, the late 1970s, there emerged on the further reaches, I guess you could say, of the Christian American right. The Moral Majority christian fundamentalists, led by Jerry Falwell and others, who became if not in electoral term, certainly in perception, a noticeable factor in bringing Reagan to victory over a Carter in 1980. And then in turn, they were kind of gearing up as an even more striking political force in 1984. So there was a lot of interest in the concern and controversy related to how religion was mixing it up with politics in the presidential debates in the presidential election race. new house comes out with this book that basically makes a case a very sophisticated and thoughtful case for how best religion configure in public life. And what was really important, I think it was the book is that new house basically criticized two groups simultaneously on one side, he said, Look, we have a whole group of secular progressive elites who begin from the premise that because America has no established state, religion has no part whatsoever to play in American public life. And he saw this as to the detriment of American public life itself. If these centuries old thoughts and ideas that have come out of Christian and Judeo Christian practice and teaching and tradition were barred this was, you know, the system the diminishment of American public life. And it also prevented an alienated American citizens who wanted to draw on their faith commitments in making contributions to public life at the same time, on the far other side, we have the christian fundamentalists, who basically are bashing away with their Bibles, insisting that Christianity have a notable part to play in American life. But as new has made it very clear, they had no publicly available account of public life of American life, they drew on religious first principles. Instead, all they could say is, the Bible says this, and we believe this and you need to believe what we believe. For new house, this was not an appealing premise for a pluralist democracy, right, you should agree with me and agree with my ideas for how we ought to order our common life together, not necessarily because we believe in the same things about God. But because the ideas themselves are inherently sound and persuasive, and so to make them that you can draw on religion, but the logic of the ideas and sell their inherent value is what matters, not the divine truth claims behind it in a political context. And that was a sophisticated and web Position point to make in the middle of 1984 when people just didn't know what to make of our religion was showing up every day on the campaign. And that's why in turn, as you said this became his
best known book, Dr. Boy go to the naked public square published in 1984, comes at a critical moment, with the rise of the Moral Majority and so on. But the Evan jellicle experiment with politics is not going well this last decade. What would father Richard john Newhouse say to the angelical community today or broadly the Christian community today concerning their political engagement?
I think you'd say five words of the put not your trust in princes at six words, I just realized that's what he would say. In other words, I think father Newhouse was always at his most effective, not when he was, you know, kind of slaying a liberal Bishop or making fun of the democrats and he was, you know, very good at that and enjoyed it. But really, I think his his great contribution to to America, as I mentioned this actually in the preface to the book in terms of the one little anecdotes acid there was his making it clear to Christian audiences that they could never mistake their political commitments for religious hopes that if they ever thought that voting just for this one person or that person would, as it were solve the problems of American public life, they were sorely indeed dangerously mistaken. And I think that's probably the message he would have today that while he would, on one side, be very much so making the cases that he would make about whatever the writing issues of the day would be. He never himself thought that if only we could elect, sell and sell and such and such, everything would be solved because at the end of the day, we remain fallen creatures living in a fallen world. And he was always very mindful on the fact that this is not finally our home, right that we are always exiles until we see the face of God,
Dr. bleah Golden. In 1994 Richard john Newhouse files with Chuck Colson, the evangelicalism Catholics together. And Father Richard, john Newhouse does this after his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1991. What were Newhouse's hopes for the movement?
Well, I think he is hoped for evangelicals and Catholics together. Were multiple and perhaps, in some ways, confused. And I'll say what I mean by that. So the idea that first came from a collaboration as you said between Charles Colson and and father new house, and the idea here was that they both noted that there was significant violence involved in inter church rivalries in South America specifically between evangelical and Catholic churches down there over conversions and costs and rightly saw this as a great problem. But needed greater prayer and consideration and thought and action. And so with new house, they call together a series of evangelical and Catholic leaders for a session to address these questions of violence, and really to kind of call people to think through Well, what do we have in common? How best can we live together in ecumenical terms? That said, for all of the kind of South American motive catalysts for the evangelicals and Catholics together movement, really, this became very much a 1990s culture war phenomenon. And if you look, especially at their, at their first statement, it's hard to see a great deal of sunlight between what they were calling for, and a 1994, Republican midterm election playbook. So that in some ways, I would argue the early versions of what ZTE was doing, was too much captive to the American political cycle. That said, Since then, and to this day, evangelicals and Catholics together continue to issue on, on occasion, important, non binding and unofficial statements of shared belief and agreement between the two the two traditions, in an attempt to demonstrate what indeed, Catholics evangelicals do hold in common, whether it's about public life, or more significantly, I think about the nature of the church, the nature of God, the nature of the place of Mary in our lives, as Christians in many other matters.
Do you believe that Father Richard, john Newhouse, his hopes for evangelicalism, Catholics together have been fulfilled at this point?
I would say no, but that's because I don't think that his hopes for aect could ever really be fulfilled, and rightly so. Insofar as didn't create a venue for an important ecumenical dialogue. Yes, so by that context, yes, his hopes have been fulfilled, but as to the greater purpose of it, if it will be working towards the breach that the healing of the breach at the very heart of the Christian tradition, which is to say, the breach of the 16th century, if this could work towards that in some way, shape or form, then then No. But I do think, you know, part of prognosis great motivating energy, because whole life was his commitment to understanding the greater unity of all Christians and finding ways to work towards it himself.
new house was a man of many talents and experiences. Is there a story perhaps, or a little vignette that perhaps best illustrates the Soul of the Man?
Yeah, I think probably, you know, maybe the kind of the last major public event he had, and this would have been in November 2008, his longtime friend, the Lutheran biblical scholar, Robert Benny had a new house down to Roanoke College in Virginia, to give a talk on religion and politics in the middle of the presidential election, and new house got down there. And, you know, he was I think the crowd was prepped, ready to hear him kind of go after Obama, etc, etc. But instead, he was quiet, contemplative, meditative In fact, and found himself drawing the the crowds attention, not necessarily to political matters, but to faith matters. So that what happens Finally, is his soul, his great soul, nature, I think, comes through in that he's not telling them, here's what's going on in the election, and here's why we need to vote for this and here's how this policy is going to work out. No, he was preaching to them. He was calling them to their best Christian said And in this way, I think we realized that for all the father to us is notable, indeed, at times controversial involvement in political life, he was first and last, a man of God. And I think his own vocation to public life was always secondary to his vocation, to God and church. And that comes through, I think, not simply in not simply in his beautiful writings, but indeed in the many, many people I've spoken to over the years, and working on this book, who they might remember, you know, a funny point he made, but they almost always remember the spiritual counsel, he gave them as administrator, the pastor as a priest. I think that's really father to us his lasting contribution to our world.
And Dr. Boy, God, if I can ask
one final question, and then this despite the tremendous diversity of expression that we witnessed among Christians around the world today, what is it that gives the church her essential unity?
Well, I think it's God who gives the Church, her essential unity. It's God's founding the church upon Peter. And while as you for well know we have endless different interpretations of what that means. I think the fact of the matter is the the essential unity of the church isn't up to you and me it isn't up to any of us. Because the church finally is not a human creation it is peopled with, with, with fallible, fallible persons like ourselves and millions of others. But finally, her unity is not ours to give. It's only ours to recognize, celebrate and always work to make ever more present in our world.
It's been our pleasure to be speaking with Dr. Randy boy and go to author of Richard john Newhouse a life in the public square. Dr. Boy, go to thank you so much for being with us today.
My pleasure. Thank you for some wonderful questions.