My Friend in Exile
American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile
reviewed by William L. Saunders, Jr.
As I sat in church during Christmas services last December, the priest reminded us to pray for those who had died in the past year. My thoughts turned to my friend, Father Richard John Neuhaus, who had died one year before, in January 2009.
It is hard to imagine American public life without his presence. No one, in my judgment, was more influential in public debates about religion and public life (which is the name of his institute in New York) in all their forms, from inter-religious dialogue (whether Jewish/Christian or intra-Christian) to policy formulation on “hot button” issues such as stem-cell research and same-sex marriage.
His modus operandi was to organize scholarly roundtables such as the Ramsey Colloquium (named after the great ethicist Paul Ramsey and focusing on issues of public policy) and the Dulles Colloquium (concerned with theological issues and named after his friend, Cardinal Avery Dulles, who also died last year), and then to “have at it” in a wide-open, free-ranging dialogue.
A Varied & Lasting Legacy
It was a privilege and an intellectual feast to be a part of one of these gatherings. Fr. Neuhaus would bend over backwards to be fair to all sides, especially to points of view with which he disagreed. I believe that some of the public statements that resulted (for instance, the Ramsey Colloquium on Human Rights) will have a long and influential effect.
At every meeting of the Ramsey Colloquium I attended, Neuhaus reminded us that the question remained as Aristotle had phrased it: How are we to order our life together? As one who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he understood the transformational role that religion had played in American public life, in the quest for a just public order.
As a former Lutheran pastor who became a Catholic priest, he had a deep appreciation of both the Catholic and the Protestant strands of American history. Thus, along with his good friend Chuck Colson, he began to draw those strands more closely together with the initiative Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT).
ECT is, in my judgment, the most important development in American public life in the past fifty years (not that Neuhaus ever ignored or diminished the theological differences, and that is addressed at points in his book.) A close second would be his organization of the public symposium on the “judicial usurpation of politics,” which split “conservatives” and echoes still, because it dared to judge American democracy by the standard of universal justice.
His personal charity was boundless. He helped more people and mentored more people, of all ages, than can ever be mentioned. He was a tremendous speaker and an even better writer. Is there anyone who did not turn to his reflections in “The Public Square” before reading the rest of his highly influential journal First Things?
The Last Book
His voice and the great and good and generous mind lives on in his written works, one of which was his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.
This book, written with all the characteristic wit and insight of Neuhaus at his best, is an extended reflection on, and examination of, what it means to be a Christian in America. It begins with a wonderful chapter on the meaning of “Babylon”—as both “a matter of biblical history and religious metaphor”—to the Jews of the Old Testament, to the early Christians, to the early Americans, and to us today. Along the way, Neuhaus teaches us the literal meaning of the word (from the Akkadiian, meaning “gate of god”) and reminds us that ancient Christian communities suffer there (Iraq) today.
To be a Christian is to be in exile, to be in Babylon, for, as he notes when discussing St. Augustine’s City of God, we live (literally) in an earthly city, but our eternal citizenship is elsewhere. The pagan reality of our exile is startling: “Among the most glaring indications we are in exile is the necessity of contending for the most basic truth of the dignity of the human person.” Babylon consumes its young.
While the first chapter is about the meaning of Babylon, the second is about what it means to be an American. These two themes twist and turn around each other throughout the book and are not isolated in individual chapters. In fact, it is in the first chapter where Neuhaus refutes those who claim that he made an idol of America: “[W]e should be uneasy even with Lincoln’s sharply modified claim that we are an ‘almost chosen’ people,” he says. Rather,
For the rest of the book, he reflects upon why and how we may be losing this understanding. He touches on Walter Lippmann’s insight that we need to rediscover natural law, on the “playful irony” of Richard Rorty (who, sadly, is representative of much of the modern liberal mind), and on the profundities of Reinhold Niebuhr (“We have learned, in other words, that history is not its own redeemer.”). He takes the atheist into account (and makes the surprising point that Christians were the first “atheists,” since they did not worship the “theos” of a particular city), and includes a deep and respectful consideration of what it means that Christianity is “from the Jews.”
Fr. Neuhaus concludes his reflections with a lovely chapter entitled “Home and Hopelessness.” It contains this beautiful sentence: “[The beatific vision] is beatitude, which means blessedness, which means holiness, which means wholeness, which means to be definitively, exhaustively, without remainder or qualification, home.”
Richard Neuhaus has now gone home. His exile is over. We who miss him can find him again, with all his engaging wit, erudition, and commitment to justice and Christian truth, in the pages of this, his final book.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.