The Magazine

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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Yet, for all his defenses of reason, Neuhaus seems at times to pay mere lip service to the natural law tradition. Never does he discuss any natural law theories or consider the work of any academic natural law philosopher. Glosses on C. S. Lewis are all we're offered. Repeatedly Neuhaus decries the "practical or methodological atheism" of acting as if God's existence were a myth, irrelevant to public life. He thinks practical theism more reasonable--and more democratic, given popular views. But he fails to tell us what theology's discussion of ultimate matters adds to discussions of political penultimates if reason is (as he insists) capable of discerning how we ought to order our lives.

Consider Neuhaus's canticle to human dignity. What is gained, politically, by grounding human dignity in the image of God? Modern bioethics requires us to determine what is made in the image of God (a body, a soul, a composite?); how we know (for the Bible doesn't tell us so); and when human persons begin (at conception, when the first rational thought or free choice is made, or sometime in between?). The biblical injunction against killing won't help here, for what we need to know is precisely when this commandment applies.

Most Americans accept Neuhaus's basic conviction about human dignity; what they need are reasons why this applies "even" to embryos and cases like Terri Schiavo's.

Several times Neuhaus describes the conclusions of natural law philosophy as "common sense," but what might have been common sense for his generation is not for mine. And on radically new ethical issues, common sense is running out. Reasons must be given, and they will come from moral philosophy before being incorporated into a theological framework. We need an evaluation of a biotechnology's relationship to our humanity before any discussion of biotech and theology is even possible. Sadly, Neuhaus showed little concern in this volume for thinking through these questions, and he hasn't provided the reasons we really need.

Still, American Babylon remains an important book at a critical moment in history. Admirers of Barack Obama would do well to consider Neuhaus's final arguments, especially his concluding chapter, "Hope and Hopelessness." To be human is to live in hope, he argues; hopelessness is existentially unsustainable. But where we place our hope makes all the difference. In his last passionate apologetic, Neuhaus insists that the most reasonable and hopeful choice is the act of faith in Jesus Christ, which assures us that life here and now really matters because it is the prolepsis of the life that is to come, the life of final tranquility in the City of God.

Ryan T. Anderson, editor of Public
Discourse at the Witherspoon Institute,
was assistant editor of First Things
during 2006-08.