How We Ought to Order Our Lives Together
American Babylon is Father Richard John Neuhaus’ swan song, published just months after the theologian’s death.
Notes of a Christian Exile
By Richard John Neuhaus
288 pages, $26.99
Available in bookstores
Father Neuhaus’ Sublime Swan Song
Make yourself at home, God-fearing Americans, but don’t get too comfortable. Your country is only a way station. It’s inherently impermanent. A little wobbly of late, too, isn’t it? Take your cue from the ancients of Israel during their exile in the Mesopotamian city-state of Babylon. They cried out, “How could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137). Then they sang a song of the Lord in a foreign land.
They also participated in the public life of the surrounding society and made the most of their dual citizenship for God and country.
Or, as Father Richard John Neuhaus puts it in his tour de force sign-off from this time and place: “When I meet God, I expect to meet him as an American.” After all, he reasons, for those whose primary allegiance is to the City of God, “every foreign country is a homeland and every homeland is a foreign country.”
How fitting that the soul driving this great American mind went to meet God before seeing this, his final major work, come to print. (He died Jan. 8, 2009.) For American Babylon hits like the perfect closing punctuation to an artfully composed essay, one that takes a lifetime to write and multiple reads to absorb.
That is to say that every time Father Neuhaus set pen to paper he conducted a veritable clinic on the craft of writing — and that this book is a sure-footed synthesis of his prescient 1984 battle cry The Naked Public Square and everything that followed, including his voluminous output in First Things monthly journal, his small but potent shelf of books, and his trailblazing work with the consortium Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Not to mention his passionate embrace of the Catholic faith. (He converted from Lutheranism in 1990 and soon after became a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.)
Even adjusting for the style points Father Neuhaus invariably scores with the panache of his prose, American Babylon might be the single most consequential entry in his oeuvre. It allows him to put the full weight of his life in letters behind his voice as he asks, once more with feeling, How ought we to order our life together? He posed this question frequently through the years and, whenever he repeated it, the “we” was aimed not at the Church per se but the entire body politic.
As is this book. Which explains the put-up-your-dukes note he strikes in a chapter titled “Can an Atheist Be a Good Citizen?” This alone is sure to aggravate a hornets’ nest or two, since Father Neuhaus answers that question, with his customary erudition and punch, in the negative. Elsewhere he dissects “the idea of moral progress,” sifts for moral seriousness in “an age of irony” and tells why it matters that “salvation is from the Jews.” (For starters: “Jesus was — and eternally is — a Jew.” And: “[T]he story of salvation, like the people of God, has no plural.”)
Attention must be paid. No joke.
There’s something for every American to reckon with in American Babylon. Abortion supporters who venture into the Neuhausian waters of a chapter headed “Politics for the Time Being,” for example, will find the vessels of their rationale capsizing, if not sinking. Meanwhile, their adversaries would do well to memorize several choice passages; in fact, chunks of the chapter could stand alone as an essential pro-life primer.
“Who belongs to the community for which we as a community accept responsibility, including the responsibility to protect, along with other natural rights, their right to life? This is a preeminently political question,” he writes. “It is not a question to be decided by bioethicists. Bioethicists, by virtue of their disciplined attention to such questions, are in a position to help inform political deliberations and decisions about these matters, but these questions are — rightly and of necessity — to be decided politically. They are rightly so decided because our constitutional order vests political sovereignty in the people, who exercise that sovereignty through prescribed means of representation.”
At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work.
The pages of American Babylon are seeded with references to scholars and writings famous and obscure, along with occasional Augustinian musings on time and memory, and deft integrations of the thought of Benedict XVI and John Paul the Great. The proceedings scoot from Scripture to history to philosophy to theology, slowing here and there for some free-form cerebral noodling.
I would have liked to see a little more of the latter, incidentally, counting myself among the First Things fans who worked their way forward from the wily verbal jousts of the “While We’re At It” section in back. (We’re going to miss that routine. Say a prayer for whomever gamely tries to fill Father Neuhaus’ shoes throughout “The Public Square.”) But I surely understand Father Neuhaus’ desire not to see a broad readership mistake his killer wit for a trivialization of his decidedly nontrivial proposals.
One other reservation: Early on in one longish chapter, Father Neuhaus promises “a brief consideration of intellectual history.” Then follows an extended and somewhat difficult dismantling of the thought of one particular intellectual, the giddily godless philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007).
Then again, Father Neuhaus ably justifies the digression, explaining that the cheeky Rorty is a worthy stand-in for much of America today — not only because of his influence in academia, but also because, “with rare relentlessness, he followed through on one possible response to our human circumstance in exile. His is a way of responding to that circumstance: Make it up as you go along; take ironic delight in the truth that there is no truth …”
Our Babylon never looked so tempting. Or so alien.
The Long Run
And Father Neuhaus never sounded so prophetic. Having provided a detailed diagnosis in the first seven-eighths of his book, he uses his concluding section to offer a hopeful prognosis and a wise prescription. His pastoral voice asserts itself and he nudges us along the path to our true home. He reminds us that our Zion, the New Jerusalem, isn’t about streets or civics or even the public square. It’s about a Person.
America, he points out, “is, for better and worse, the place of our pilgrimage through time toward home.” Until we reach the destination for which our hearts are really restless, we do well and good to “sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land,” participate in the public life of our surrounding society, and make the most of our dual citizenship for God and country.
Well done, good and faithful virtuoso.
David Pearson is the
Register’s senior editor.
- April 5-11, 2009