January 4, 2009
Farewell to Peter Steinfels
— Martin E. Marty
Peter Steinfels on Saturday ended a twenty-year run as a columnist in the New York Times, signing off his “Beliefs” column, which was born January 6, 1990. He describes his reasoning about the departure in the January 2nd edition of the paper, which we presume most Sightings readers have seen, and which all can find on the internet. His has been an amazing run, and we – his readers and colleagues as columnists or religion reporters – will miss him and his standard-setting work. I want to lift out only one line of that column, and take off from there with some turn-of-the-year reflections on our business.
“The choice of topics and the way they were framed inevitably revealed a personal perspective, but, until this sentence, I never wrote in the first person singular,” Steinfels wrote. That took considerable restraint! For a score of years I wrote (or co-wrote with Dean Peerman) a Christian Century column anonymously, so it was easy to keep the “I” out of it. Then new editor James Wall ordered: Make the column personal, and use the “I-Word.” Academic convention had had us avoiding the pronoun, and we still took refuge in stilted phrases such as “it seems to the present writer that…” One of my first “I” columns quoted Jean-Paul Sartre: “le moi est haissable” – “the self/ego is despicable.”
As Steinfels shrugs off his last columnar deadline, he provokes thoughts about deadlines among the rest of “us.” My late colleague Mircea Eliade, afflicted or blessed with a Rumanian-French-Indian-American accent, at a landmark occasion told how he had been puzzled when upon his arrival in Chicago he heard his colleagues break up many a party with the announcement that they had to go home to take care of their “dead lions.” I’ll use this personal, “I-filled” column, written as I come out a two-week virtual sabbatical while the staff the Martin Marty Center took off for a fortnight, to ponder mine and what they mean in our business.
Today is a landmark day for me, as I transmit a book manuscript to Princeton University Press, having sent one with an autumn deadline to Eerdmans. So the year had its deadlines; trips to Helsinki, Paris, and then (literally) around the world offered great relief, but only put more pressure on deadlines. With both books now off the computer screen and at the publishers, I have only the weekly Sightings and fortnightly (Martin Marty and Micah Marty) Context deadlines, plus frequent (but postponed because of book deadlines) things for a Washington Post/Newsweek blog.
Let’s see: You’ve just read fifteen or more personal pronouns in this short piece. At Steinfels’ twenty-year “non-‘I’” pace, it would take him 300 years to match my despicability record today. So it is time to practice restraint in the use of the ”haissable” word and go attend to the topics suggested by a pile of clippings and print-outs which accumulated while we were out caroling, Christ-massing, and egg-nogging. We’ll try in the coming year to stick with the ethic generally shared by Steinfels, who said that in its twenty years “the column eschewed outright advocacy and critical judgments of the sort advanced by Op-Ed page columnists.” Sometimes Sightings columnists are criticized for not explicitly telling Washington what to do about Afghanistan, or the Pope about Protestants. But we’ll let our columns do their advocating subtly and implicitly, some would say sneakily, while we engage each other with “religion-in-public-life” topics. As before, Sightings will welcome your comments and submissions. We wish readers a good New Year, and we wish you well with your own “dead lions.”
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.