There is a definite risk in giving a book a title such as American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile . Thats the book Im working on at present. I expect it will be out from Basic Books some time next spring. The title very deliberately aims at stealing some of the thunder, so to speak, of various liberation theologies, and also to honor what is to be honored in the project of Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School.
The book addresses a perennial set of questions that have become evident again in this election season in which a number of prominent Catholics and evangelicals have made themselves embarrassingly obvious in their embarrassment about being out of step with what they view as the progressive spirit of the time. The most crucial question, of course, is abortion. From the early years of the Churchs life, Christians distinguished themselves from the surrounding pagan society by their refusal to abort or expose their children. And when, centuries later, they were in a position to influence public policy, their conviction that every human life was created and loved by God, and therefore ought to be cared for and protected by us, became the law. As it remained the law in the West until the 1970s.
Yes, there were times when people did not understand the biological facts of life. Some thought that a human life began at forty days or at the moment of quickening when the life of the child was physically felt in the womb. Science now leaves no doubt that life begins at conception. The smallest embryo¯barring natural disaster, as in miscarriage, or intervention to destroy, as in abortion¯will become what everybody recognizes as a human baby. When each of us says I we are speaking of the I that was once an embryo.
But now we see Christians hedging and trimming and tying themselves into intellectual and moral knots in order to support candidates, including a presidential candidate, who explicitly and adamantly support an unlimited legal license to kill the unborn. They are fearful lest they be perceived as one-issue voters, although the one issue is the greatest human rights question of our time. Namely, should it be permissible to kill human beings because of their location, dependency, stage of development, or burdensomeness to others? To his great credit, Stanley Hauerwas has consistently answered that question in the negative. Behind that answer are many reasons¯scientific, political, theological, and moral. Behind that answer is a conviction about what kind of people the Church is called to be.
Over the years, people have expressed surprise at my continuing engagement with, and appreciation of, Hauerwas project. A large part of it has to do with the fact that Hauerwas is a friend of very long standing, and friendships are, as Dr. Johnson said, to be kept in good repair. But, even if he were not a friend, Hauerwas project is a powerful and necessary antidote to the cultural accomodationism of liberal Protestantism which has led to the dismal collapse of the mainline/oldline/sideline Protestant establishment.
At the risk of stretching a point, Hauerwas has played the part not unlike the part played by Karl Barth in the last century. Hauerwas, too, posits a defiant Nein! to the sundry ways in which Christian theology has made its peace with the world as it is, serving as a kind of chaplaincy to regnant liberalisms¯cultural, political, and economic. And it is hardly a secret that the liberal Protestant accommodation to the status quo of the culture of death has powerfully influenced much Catholic thinking in recent decades.
A great strength of Hauerwas work is that it is emphatically ecclesiological. As he says, the Church does not have an ethic; the Church is an ethic. Of course, in order to follow through on this ecclesiological theme, Hauerwas should be a Catholic, as I expect he knows, at least some of the time. As it is, he is a Methodist who has in recent years discovered a thicker ecclesiology in Anglicanism. (Just in time, one observes with sadness, to join in the breakup of the Anglican communion.) Throughout his project, he is trying to hold together many things that are in tension, if not conflict, and the effort is not without honor. Yes, he and his many disciples will say that statement is condescending, but I dont know how else to put the matter.
My disagreements with Hauerwas are no secret. To his great credit, he has been constant in making the theological and moral case for the defense of unborn and severely debilitated human life, the issue that is at the center of the cultural and religious conflicts of our time. With respect to what Protestants call social ethics and Catholics call moral theology, most of my disagreements with Hauerwas stem from his determined pacifism. Here he is very much the disciple, as he has frequently and generously acknowledged, of the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, whose book, The Politics of Jesus , is must reading for anyone who wants to wrestle with the question of pacifism. For years, Hauerwas described himself as a high-church Mennonite, a phrase suggestive of the tensions he tries to hold together.
It is not the business of Christian theologians, Hauerwas has famously said, to do ethics for Caesar. His running polemic is against any form of Christendom, and he is right in believing that I am inclined to think that Christendom is not necessarily a dirty word. The perennial task of the Church is to find a way to be in but not of the world, to provide both a witness and a vocabulary that can aid in the achievement of an approximately just public order without confusing any public order with the Church, never mind the promised Kingdom of God. This is the task to which American Babylon is devoted. How successfully it contributes to that task is for others to judge, Stanley Hauerwas not least among them.
American Babylon is our culture. It is not the culture of our choice, although, given the other cultures on offer, it may be the culture we would choose if we had a choice. It is certainly the culture in which we have been chosen and for which we have a measure of responsibility. The irrepressible human aspiration toward the transcendent, toward that which at the core of our being we know to be our destined home, takes many different forms. That aspiration is our religion, whether or not we call it by the name of a religion. The aspiration may be stifled or misplaced, but it cannot be denied; at least it cannot be denied for long. When, as Augustine teaches, our loves and loyalties are rightly ordered, we recognize that the only satisfactory alternative to Babylon is the City of God. At least this is how Christians see the matter.
Living in the now and the not yet , we know Christ now. We know him in the context of prophetic promise as the Messiah of Israel; we know him in the biblical narrative of his birth, life, teaching, miracles, suffering, death, resurrection, and promised return; we know him in his words spoken in the assembly of the Church that is his body; we know him in the Real Presence of his sacramental promise daily fulfilled; we know him in the encounter with the needs of others who are, in the words of Mother Teresa, Christ in distressed disguise; and we know him in the cultivation of his friendship¯day by day and, as Saint Paul says, without ceasing¯that is the life of prayer.
Christ is now , the New Jerusalem is not yet . But then one must quickly add that the distinction between the now and not yet is not a separation, and certainly not an absolute separation. The movement of theological liberalism launched in the nineteenth century was given to such a separation. Alfred Loisy, a later modernist who was finally excommunicated from the Catholic Church, put the matter succinctly, Jesus came preaching the Kingdom and what arrived was the Church. In the view of many, the disappointment was understandable. Jesus and the gospel of the Kingdom is thought, not without reason, to be ever so much more appealing than his presence in the distressed, and distressing, disguise of the people who are the Church. And yet, while the two can be distinguished, they cannot be separated.
Saul of Tarsus, soon to become Paul the apostle, learned this the hard way. On his way to Damascus to imprison the Christians, Christ appeared and asked, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? Saul might have objected that he was not persecuting Christ but only the disciples of Christ. He would learn¯as with great difficulty Christians have been learning ever since¯that Jesus cannot be separated from his people; that Christ, the head, cannot be separated from the Church, his body. To persecute the members of the body is to persecute Christ, the head of the body.
It follows that to speak of Christ and culture is to speak also of the Church and culture. Within this society, or any society, the Church is a distinct society. The word Church is from the Greek ekklesia , which means a gathering of the people who are called out. In theology, the subject of the Church is called ecclesiology . Some Christian traditions¯the Orthodox and Catholic, for instance¯have a full-orbed ecclesiology, an understanding of the Church through time that encompasses continuity with the apostles, councils, martyrs, saints, and authoritative teachers, all inseparably bound by a sacramental communio that is nothing less than communion with Christ through time.
Other traditions, usually Protestant of one kind or another, understand the Church as a voluntary association of individuals who share a faith in Christ and join together to nourish their faith and share it with others. While ecclesiologies are very different, all Christians, if they are Christians, know that the relationship with Christ entails a relationship with his body, the Church.
How, in the right ordering of our loves and loyalties, the Church gives effective expression to being a distinct society within the societies of the world is the burden of American Babylon and, I would add, the defining mission of First Things . It is the question that the Church has been addressing in a multitude of different ways over the centuries. My disagreements with Stanley Hauerwas are to be understood within the context of our agreement on the perennial question of how the Church orders its life as a contrast society in distinction from all temporal sovereignties. To be a Christian is to be out of step, until, as St. Paul writes to the Philippians, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11).
Meanwhile, and as members of the contrast society that the Church is to be, Christians exercise the courage of their convictions in trying to bring clear reason and moral truth to bear in the temporal order. This is the mission betrayed by Catholics and others who resort to embarrassingly contrived complexifications in order not to be seen as adherents of single-issue politics in a political season in which we are confronted by the starkest alternatives on the single issue that distinguishes the culture of life from the culture of death.
Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things .
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