American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile
by Richard John Neuhaus
Basic, 265 pages, $26.95
Near the end of American Babylon comes a paragraph that reads: The truth about life is that we die. We understandably protest the finality of that truth. We do not go gentle into that night that seems anything but good. All our religion, our art, our poetry, our loves, our devotion to great undertakings, and not the least the great undertaking of children and family, is a waving of little flags of protest against the finality of death. They are little flags of hope, without which we cannot live.
We now know this will be the last book written by Richard John Neuhaus. The truth about life, he knew, would also be a truth about his life. But, as he makes clear in his reflections on Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi , that truth is bound by the Christian confidence that Jesus did battle with the enemy of hope, suffered death, and was raised triumphant.
Even so, Richard would have no doubt preferred that truth might have not come quite so soon. Yet the way he lived in the light of the truth about life meant his life was a little flag of hope for which we can only be grateful.
Richard was hope personified. I once suggested that, though he was (at the time) a Lutheran, he had the soul of a Calvinist. It is not surprising that such a soul fell in love with the energy called America. The hopefulness that possessed his life produced energy that many found tiring. He had a lust for battle with adversaries, but that same energy would create contexts for intellectual engagements that made friendship between adversaries possible. I admired his refusal to accept defeat on matters that matter, his love of friends and enemies, his passion for the written word, and above all his faith and hope in God. He is irreplaceable.
I cannot pretend, therefore, that this is a straightforward review of American Babylon . Rather I write in honor of a friend with whom I had deep and longstanding disagreements. This is not the time or place to review those differences. For in fact our disagreements were important to each of us because we shared some deep commonalities.
Over the years, many friends have asked me how Richard and I could be friends. I would explain that I never doubted that if Richard was ever forced to choose between his loyalty to Church or America he would choose the Church. I just thought that choice should come sooner than Richard did.
American Babylon confirms my judgment about where Richard’s loyalties lay. Before Richard’s death, I had been asked to blurb the book. I wrote: American theology has suffered from an ecclesiological deficit, leading to an ecclesiological substitution of America for the Church through time.’ That sentence was not written by Stanley Hauerwas. It was written by Richard John Neuhaus and it is the heart of American Babylon . That sentence should be sufficient evidence that this is a book to challenge those who too quickly dismiss Richard Neuhaus as a propagandist for the American right.
Richard’s emphasis in American Babylon on the necessary dialectic between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world is not a new theme in his work. Some might suggest, however, that the emphasis on that dialectic in this book manifested Richard’s keen political sense that, given changes in American politics, he needed to assume a position of the outsider. Such a suggestion, however, would not do justice to Richard’s recognition that this time toward home is always under the judgment of God. The Christian hope is in a destination beyond history, but one that never leaves history behind.
Because heaven is our home, because our hope is otherworldly, it is possible, from Richard’s perspective, for Christians to have a passionate love affair with this world. The other in the otherworldly is not entirely other.
We know the world can be fulfilled and transformed because, even in Babylon, God’s kingdom is already present in the supreme political action called the Eucharist. So it is a matter not of balancing the otherworldly against the this-worldly but rather of discerning how each world penetrates the other.
To be a Christian is to be in exile from our true home, but, as Jeremiah instructed those in Babylon, we are to seek the peace of the city. To pursue the peace of the city is always a risk. Christians can never claim to understand the intricacies of God’s workings in time and through time. There will be limits for how far Christians can cooperate with the powers, but it remains the Christian duty to call the worlds in which we find ourselves to be more than they can imagine.
Richard observes that, though all Christians are in exile, some are more at home in their exile than others. Richard was more at home in America than I am able to be. But he is certainly right to suggest that there are some times and some places that are more home-like than others. That such is the case, as he observes, is at once a comfort and temptation. If we become too comfortable, a comfort that once bore the name Christendom, we can forget that we are on a pilgrimage. That is hardly our problem, however, for, as Richard observes, whatever one thought about Christendom, and Richard thought generally it to be a good thing, such a world is no longer available.
But America is available. The America that is available is Babylon not because she is more the whore than other societies but because she is rightly described as Babylon by comparison with that radically new order sought by all who know love’s grief in refusing to settle for a community of less than truth and justice uncompromised. Yet the rhetoric of the American story, the rhetoric invoked by Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of the beloved community and Ronald Reagan’s vision of the city on a hill, at once offers possibilities for hope and the temptation to confuse America with the Church.
American Babylon ‘s primary purpose is to negotiate that tension. Richard draws on Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray to suggest how the American story requires a more determinative story if it is to be saved from the twin temptations of despair and presumption. Desperately needed is a public philosophy that happily is available through the natural law. While rightly denying that natural-law theory is a distinctly Catholic theory, he suggests that it may well be that the Catholic contribution to our common life is to have preserved a universal understanding of reason that is in no way peculiarly Catholic.
The development and defense of this understanding of reason sets the polemical agenda of American Babylon . In a chapter on the idea of moral progress he energetically argues that Christians have no reason to deny that the agency of science has given us a better world. Drawing on Alasdair MacIntyre’s, After Virtue , he argues that many, having lost faith in the attempt to ground morality in the Enlightenment’s understanding of reason, now believe that truth is but the imposition of our arbitrary will on the world. Such a view assumes truth is not discovered or discerned, but rather a mere name we give to the illusion we choose to live by.
The incoherence of such an understanding of life Richard exposes in a wonderfully witty chapter entitled Can an Atheist Be a Good Citizen? I do not want to keep you waiting for Richard’s answer: Atheists can be citizens, but they cannot be good citizens. They cannot be good citizens because good citizens are able to give a compelling account in defense of the regime of which they are part. The heart of democracy is to be a form of society and government that requires such reason giving. Community is communication, and communication depends on reasons that draw their authority from what transcends us.
Richard cannot resist making Richard Rorty’s irony the exemplification of all he is against. He worries that to do so may make Rorty more significant than he is, but he justifies the attention he pays to Rorty’s cheerful nihilism not only because of Rorty’s influence but because Rorty’s is one response to the truth about life. Richard has no difficulty exposing Rorty’s self-satisfied, smug dogmatism, but he rightly suggests that Rorty at least has the virtue of making candid how many now live even though they have never read Rorty.
Perhaps the most surprising chapter in American Babylon is his treatment of Judaism. Though it is not immediately clear how his understanding of the necessary interaction of Jews and Christians serves to advance the primary argument of the book, I am grateful that he included this chapter. For he is surely right that our ability as Christians to be a people capable of sustaining hope in a Rortyian world depends on our ability to learn from our shared exploration with Jews that we do not yet know what God has in store for his people.
The climax of Richard’s argument is his defense of the dignity of the human person and the implications of the recognition of that dignity for abortion. He rightly argues that the basic political question is who belongs to the community. The answer to that question will determine those for whom we accept responsibility”including the responsibility to protect life. From such a perspective he argues the now-famous claim that the abortion decision by the Supreme Court was a profoundly antipolitical act.
I think it not an exaggeration to suggest that Richard’s discussion of abortion is the heart of this book. That it is so is not surprising because the defense of life against death was the heart of Richard’s life.
Those who cannot understand how the same man who stood with Martin Luther King Jr. could become a supporter of Ronald Reagan fail to understand that heart. It is, moreover, a heart that made him a Christian exile, a little flag of hope, in a world threatened by the hopeless fear of children.
Stanley Hauerwas , a member of the First Things editorial board at the journal’s founding in 1990, is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School.