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Reviewed by Jordan Hylden


Looking Toward the New Jerusalem

The powerful witness of Richard John Neuhaus' last book.

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Richard John Neuhaus had a way of putting things. His phrase "the naked public square," for example, somehow became indispensable as soon as he coined it, jumping from his pen onto the lips of nearly everyone engaged in the American conversation about religion and politics. Of course, it was more than merely a way of putting things. Fr. Neuhaus had also a way of seeing things, of surveying landscapes and drawing connections with a logic so elegantly sharp and far-sighted that you couldn't help but see things the way he did, even if you wound up disagreeing with one or another of his conclusions.

In his last book, American Babylon, Neuhaus gives us an imaginative vision of how to be a faithful and hopeful Christian witness in American politics—a vision that will, I believe, be with us for years to come. We are in exile, Neuhaus reminds us; like Daniel and the conquered Israelite children, we disciples of Christ in America are strangers in a land that is not our home. And yet, like those Old Testament exiles, we too have a sure and certain hope that goes far deeper than any defeat or disappointment: we look toward our true home, the New Jerusalem. Even now, we catch glimpses of the coming Kingdom—in the church, in the surprising work of the Spirit throughout creation, and especially in the Eucharist. And so for as long as we dwell here, in the land of our exile, we are freed to live in hope and work without despair for the peace of our American Babylon, because we know that in the end it does not depend on us—it is all simply time toward home.

In a sense, the entire book is a drawing-out of the meaning of that vision. It is, of course, far from original to Neuhaus to speak of the Christian as homo viator, man-on-the-way caught up in the tension between the now and the not-yet, and that is just as Neuhaus wants it. His vision draws deeply from the wells of Scripture and the early church, particularly from Augustine's City of God. What American Babylon does is to gather the insights of this tradition as only Neuhaus could and, with his signature clarity and boldness, bring them to bear on the church in American public life today.

Perhaps of first importance is the warning of the book's title itself—that American Christians must recognize that they are in fact in exile; that America is far more like Babylon than the kingdom of God. It is very important, he argues, to get straight on this point. Historically, American Christians have suffered from what he calls an "ecclesiological deficit, leading to an ecclesiological substitution of America for the church through time." And from this has come all manner of trouble—the misadventures and excesses of the old Puritan "errand into the wilderness" (an ongoing temptation for a "redeemer nation" that tends to exchange God's work of salvation for the idea of "progress"), and the various and sundry ways in which Americans have sought to worship the spirit of their wondrous selves, summed up best of all in Emerson's self-reliant religion and Whitman's song of himself.

The antidote to our gnosticism, Neuhaus claims, is a fuller and richer understanding of the Church as the body of Christ, not simply the spirit. The Church (with a capital C) must be viewed as not notional but real, as the "contrast society" to the secular world around us, claiming our first allegiance and supplying the primary narrative in which we make sense of our lives. Mainline Protestants and evangelicals alike, Neuhaus argues, all too often stand indicted on this count. Whether our flags are planted on the political right or left, to place America first in our hearts is to corrupt both Christian faith and authentic politics, and to forget that "we have here no abiding city."

At this point, some less careful readers of Neuhaus might be surprised. After all, wasn't he a cheerleader for the American right, enamored of militarism and state power? As Ross Douthat has noted, we may hope that this distorted picture of Neuhaus will come to be seen as a product of the irrational spasms of the Bush years. Neuhaus' longtime friend Stanley Hauerwas, in an excellent and generous review of American Babylon in First Things, wrote that their admittedly sharp disagreements never ran as deep as their commonalities. "If Richard was ever forced to choose between his loyalty to Church or America," Hauerwas explained, he was in no doubt that Neuhaus "would choose the Church," even though Hauerwas believed that choice should come sooner than his friend thought. Throughout his work and no less in American Babylon, Neuhaus put his Church and his Lord before his country, and for Hauerwas that was enough to issue a sharp "challenge to those who too quickly dismiss Richard Neuhaus as a propagandist for the American right."

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