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In the Arena

Parting thoughts from the priest of the public square.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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American Babylon

Notes of a Christian Exile

by Richard John Neuhaus

Basic Books, 288 pp., $26.95

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus expected to meet God as an American, and on January 8 of this year, presumably he did. The claim wasn't meant as a boast on his part, though: All had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If he was boasting, it was a boast in the Lord. But boasting in America, too? No, his expectation to meet God as an American was simply a statement of identity: While nationality isn't paramount, it is a constitutive part of one's self. The work done for one's nation and the allegiances upheld in civic life would all be there at the time of judgment, and beyond.

Just before his death, Father Neuhaus offered, in American Babylon, a final, uniquely Christian reflection on making one's way in America. He certainly had the experience: A young Lutheran pastor of a poor black church in Brooklyn, a civil rights activist marching with Martin Luther King, a Vietnam war protester, a pro-life pathbreaker, an adviser to popes and presidents, a public intellectual, and, for his last 20 years, a Roman Catholic priest serving Filipino immigrants in Manhattan while editing his journal, First Things.

American Babylon was sent to the printers shortly before Neuhaus's cancer took its turn for the worse, and can be read as the culmination of a life of study, activism, and devotion.

Each chapter could stand alone as an essay; many were originally published in First Things and expanded for this volume. Truth be told, it doesn't fully work as a book: The connections between chapters feel strained, grafted on to turn a collection of essays into something more. Nevertheless, unifying themes can be detected. Neuhaus's main concern is that America has lost its story, its citizens retaining no shared understanding of their common commitments. Merely getting along and surviving are not enough; how we get along and the type of survival we pursue are crucial.

The nation's Christians, meanwhile, tend toward dangerous extremes, either identifying America with the Kingdom of God or disengaging from political life altogether. What they need, Neuhaus argues, is a middle path. Only if they get their story right can the nation get its story right, "because they are the bearers of the true story of the world, whether the world wants to know it or not."

America isn't equated with Babylon by comparison to other temporal polities. America fares quite well compared with the presently available alternatives. But Babylon it is when compared with that elusive eschatological city, the New Jerusalem. This, Neuhaus insists, is what makes him a "Christian exile." The church, therefore, and not the state, offers a glimpse of our ultimate destiny. It serves as the prolepsis--"an act in which a hoped-for future is already present"--of the Kingdom; indeed, the "supreme act of prolepsis is the Eucharist .  .  . a supremely political action in which the heavenly polis is made present in time."

Neuhaus offers sound advice, based on years of experience and reflection, on how Christians should live between the "now" and the "not yet," pulled at once by "this-worldly" and "other-worldly" obligations.

American Babylon exudes an Augustinian sensibility--which shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with Neuhaus's theological loyalties. One recurring theme is how to temper the demands of political life, even the high aspirations Aristotle held, with an awareness of the libido dominandi (the lust of domination) that Augustine finds at the heart of every earthly power. Neuhaus returns repeatedly to Augustine's claim that "the kingdoms of men, their dominations and their servitudes" are subject to God's providential care, just like all of creation.

How citizens understand this providence proves crucial. Neuhaus suggests that the mainstream of American thought--from James Madison to Fr. John Courtney Murray--has understood America as a nation under God, particularly under God's judgment. This prior allegiance to God placed constraints on state prerogatives and the loyalty that citizens owe. Neuhaus then argues that the laws of God's providence are to be grasped on the basis of a shared conception of human reason.