Several friends have been posting and sending me excerpts from Fr. Neuhaus’ final book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, mostly as reminders that every human regime is bound to disappoint, or to alienate, us if we are searching for a different kind of Zion. Amen, I say; indeed, if this memento mori doesn’t undergird all our political aspirations, we’re quickly prone to indulge fantastical and fanatical plans. I would note, of course, that invocations of the major prophets and lamentations for the straying of our people are a rather double-edged instrument. Right now, for many, these words have a comforting effect, or at least feel like a blast of chill air in the hothouse of a constricting election mania. Should my friends or I land on the victorious side of a campaign in the future, may we remember them then, as well, as cautionary instructions.
We still have a few copies of American Babylon lying around the office, and browsing it this morning, I found myself revisiting the chapter provocatively entitled “Meeting God as an American” (actually less provocative than it sounds: our Creator is not depicted to be an American, thankfully; rather, it’s an examination of the interplay between our patriotic loyalties here on earth and competing affinities for our homelands, plural). Part of this chapter, incidentally, is available online as an “On the Square,” published in the runup to the 2008 ballot:
There is in all the Christian tradition no more compelling depiction of our circumstance than St. Augustine’s City of God. Short of the final coming of the Kingdom, the City of God and the earthly city are intermingled (XIX, 27). We are to make use of, pray for, and do our share for the earthly city. Here Augustine cites the words of Jeremiah urging the people not to fear exile in Babylon: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its peace you will find your peace” (Jer. 29:7). This is a continuing theme in the way Christians think about their place in history.
It is often forgotten how very much of a Roman Augustine was. The City of God is, among other things, a sustained argument with pagan interlocutors whom we might today call “public intellectuals” in which Augustine is contending for the superiority of the Christian philosophy and understanding of history. It is sometimes suggested that Augustine knew he was writing in the ruins of a collapsing empire that he dismissed as terminally corrupt. In fact, he wrote, “The Roman Empire has been shaken rather than transformed, and that happened to it at other periods, before the preaching of Christ’s name, and it recovered. There is no need to despair of its recovery at this present time. Who knows what is God’s will in this matter?”
In the book, Neuhaus went on to conclude his measured realism—“America is not uniquely Bablyon, but it is our time and place in Babylon.” That’s a stern judgment, but not a fatalistic one. And no invitation to despair.