Great are the uncertainties and the awesome stakes, in this dialectic, this complex back-and-forth of remembering and anticipation; of living the brief moment of what is between what was and what is to be, never losing sight of a destination that transcends history but does not leave history behind. The “new heaven and new earth” of the book of Revelation does not abandon this heaven and this earth. Rather, they are taken up into transcendent fulfillment. It is not as though this earthly city grows and develops into the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. It is not a matter of historical progress but of eschatological promise.
Eschatology refers to the last things, the final things, the ultimate destination of the story of God’s dealings with the world of his creation. In the Christian view, that destination, that eschaton, has already appeared within history in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. As the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright nicely puts it, the resurrection of the crucified Jesus is not a story about a happy ending but about a new beginning. In the resurrection and in the abiding presence of the resurrected Lord in his body, the Church, the absolute future breaks into present time. Because the principalities and powers rage against the new world order inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus, that future is discernible only by faith. In the words of St. Paul, “we walk by faith, not by sight.”
Christians do notor at least they should notclaim to understand the intricacies of God’s workings in time and through time. The details of the working out of the relationship between the immanentthe here and nowand the transcendent are not within our human competence. The Christian claim is that Godthe Absolute, Being Itself, the Source and End of all that ishas invested himself in the human project. This happened in the Incarnation, when the Creator, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, became a creature in Jesus the son of Mary. God’s investment is irrevocable, and therefore the human project cannot fail.
Obviously, we’re into deep theological waters here. What Christians can say about the particulars of God’s purposes in history leaves us stuttering and tongue-tied. They can attend closely to what is revealed; they can try to read “the signs of the times;” they can study, discuss, debate, speculate, and then pray for the grace to act in the courage of their uncertainties. But at the end of the day, they say with Paul, “Now we see in a mirror darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” These are the words of Paul’s unsurpassable hymn of love, I Corinthians 13. We walk by faith in faith’s disposition toward the future, which is hope, relying on the cosmic triumph of the love revealed in Jesus Christ. Thus Paul’s conclusion: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
What an extraordinary mix! The now and the not yet, the this-worldly and the other-worldly, the transcendent and the immanent, promise and fulfillment, time and eternity, time toward home and the prolepsis of home in time. That mix is both the burden and the grace to bear the burden of pilgrimage. The People of God is a pilgrim people. As Israel is a pilgrim people, so it is said in the third eucharistic prayer of the Mass, “Strengthen in faith and love your pilgrim Church on earth.”
In such reflections, one keeps ever in mind the great City of God by St. Augustine of Hippo. Writing in the fourth and fifth centuries, the bishop of Hippo Regius, located in what is now Algeria, wrote the story of the world, from creation to eschaton, in terms of the contrast and conflict between the City of God and the “city of man” or the "earthly city.”
The earthly city of Augustine’s time was the Roman Empire. The earthly city to which we must attend is chiefly, but by no means only, America. Augustine’s City of God provides a conceptual framework. Literary critics speak of an “inhabitable narrative,” which catches the matter nicely. For Augustine, the biblical narrative provides the storyline of which we are part. City of God weaves into that narrative Augustine’s penetrating insights into the possibilities and limits of the human condition. He is a master of subtlety in analyzing the desires, both rightly and wrongly ordered, of the human heart. He provides arguments, interpretations, principles, and rules, butand this is most importantone derives from his writings what is best described as an “Augustinian sensibility.” It is the sensibility of the pilgrim through time who resolutely resists the temptation to despair in the face of history’s disappointments and tragedies, and just as resolutely declines the delusion of having arrived at history’s end.
This sensibility builds on I Peter’s understanding of Christians as “aliens and exiles.” It is a way of being in the world but not of the world that is finely expressed in the Letter to Diognetus. The letter was written by a Christian, possibly toward the end of the first century, to Diognetus, a pagan who was curious about the way Christians thought of their place in the world. The author explains:
Though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behavior there is more like that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a homeland, and any homeland is a foreign country.
The author goes on to point out that Christians reject certain practices of the Roman world. For instance, they refuse to abort their children or to practice infanticide by exposing their children to the elements, as was common among the Romans. Christians recognize, says the letter writer, that they are viewed as alien, and are not intimidated by that. On the contrary, they rejoice in it. As the soul is to the body, so are Christians to the world. As the Letter to Diognetus puts it, “The soul is captive to the body, yet it holds the body together. So Christians are held captive to the world, and yet they hold the world together.” And that is because they are the bearers of the true story of the world, whether the world wants to know it or not.
The title American Babylon will likely puzzle, and even offend, some readers. There is in America a strong current of Christian patriotism in which “God and country” falls trippingly from the tongue. Indeed, God and country are sometimes conflated in a single allegiance that permits no tension, never mind conflict, between the two.
I have considerable sympathy for Lincoln’s observation that, among the political orders of the earthly city, America is “the last, best, hope of mankind.” Although it was added late to the Pledge of Allegiance, the affirmation that we are a nation “under God” is of great importance. It does not mean that we are God’s chosen nation, and I am uneasy even with Lincoln’s claim that we are an “almost chosen” people. Nor does it mean that we are immune to the temptations and tragedies of all earthly orders. To say that we are a nation under God is to say, first and most importantly, that we are a nation under transcendent judgment. Judgment and promise are inseparable.
People speak of a “critical patriotism,” and certainly patriotism should not be unthinking. But with critical patriotism it sometimes seems that the adjective overwhelms the noun. The result is a contingent devotiondevotion to one’s country if only one’s country were a different country than it is–-which is no patriotism at all. The noted poet of the early twentieth century, Richard Wilbur, strikes a balance between criticism and devotion when he invokes the memory of those
Whose minds went dark at the edge of a field,
In the muck of a trench, on the beachhead sand,
In a blast amidships, a burst in the air. . .
Grieve for the ways in which we betrayed them,
How we robbed their graves of a reason to die:
The tribes pushed west, and the treaties broken,
The image of God on the auction block,
The Immigrant scorned, and the striker beaten.
The vote denied to liberty’s daughters.
From all that has shamed us, what can we salvage?
Be proud at least that we know we were wrong,
That we need not lie, that our books are open,
Praise to this land for our power to change it,
To confess our misdoings, to mend what we can,
To learn what we mean and make it the law,
To become what we said we were going to be.
But even such critical patriotism, rightly understood, does not relax for a moment the keen awareness that our true patria is not yet. For those whose primary allegiance is to the City of God, every foreign country is a homeland and every homeland a foreign country. America is our homeland, and, as the prophet Jeremiah says, its welfare is our welfare. America is alsoand history testifies that this is too easily forgottena foreign country. Like every political configuration of the earthly city, America, too, is Babylon. It is, for better and worse, the place of our pilgrimage through time toward home. Until we reach that destination, which I expect is no time soon, we cannot help but join the writer of Psalm 137 in mixing our tears with the singing of the songs of Zion in a foreign land.
"Drawing the Line" by Richard John Neuhaus
"Living Between the Now and the Not Yet" by Richard John Neuhaus
"Babylon: Then and Now" by Richard John Neuhaus