Article

Reviewed by Jordan Hylden


Looking Toward the New Jerusalem

The powerful witness of Richard John Neuhaus' last book.

3 of 4view all

That might sound frightening to non-believers, and there have been more than a few critics who have accused Neuhaus of advocating "theocracy." In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Drawing on Catholic teaching documents such as Dignitatis Humanae and Redemptoris Missio, Neuhaus consistently maintained that "the Church always proposes, never imposes." He not only applauded but actively promoted the Catholic Church's support of liberal democracy after Vatican II, especially as found in Pope John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus. One weakness of American Babylon is that Neuhaus does not give here a fuller account of why Christians ought to support liberal democracy. Readers will likely want to go back to past essays for a richer portrayal of Neuhaus' politics (as listed below). For Neuhaus, theocracy was out of the question due to the nature of Christian truth itself, which always comes in the form of a gracious invitation addressed to the free human person. Political liberalism, because of its respect for human freedom, is thus the form of government that accords best with Christian faith.

Another weakness of the book, perhaps, is the conflict between Neuhaus' insistence on the importance of natural law and his claims about the place of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the American experiment. To what extent are the truths of "Nature and Nature's God" really self-evident to all Americans, and to what extent do they become clear only by catechesis and formation in a communal tradition, like that of the Church? Additionally, to what extent does the free-wheeling nature of liberalism itself eat away at the transcendent truths on which Neuhaus argues liberalism depends? It might be argued that the insouciant and self-worshipful nihilism of Richard Rorty is, in fact, the natural outcome of liberal democracy.

Neuhaus of course was well aware of such concerns; indeed, they were at the heart of some of his deepest disputes with figures such as MacIntyre and Hauerwas. At one point during the book, he considers the troubling question as to whether or not America is genuinely a polis capable of communal deliberation, only to set the question aside. Neuhaus knew well that although his politics and religion genuinely had not changed much since the beginning of his career, America's had. His work to build bridges between Catholics and evangelicals stemmed in part from a concern that the vital place in American public life once held by orthodox religion was being displaced by a secular élite, guided by the public philosophy of the likes of Richard Rorty and Peter Singer. America, Neuhaus thought, had always subsisted on the moral capital provided by Judaism and Christianity, which for a time had genuinely been the "mainline" of the nation. But when the "mainline" of American public life—Protestant, Catholic, and Jew—became the sideline, what would become of the American experiment?

Hence, perhaps, the title of his book, American Babylon, and its subtitle Notes of a Christian Exile. Neuhaus was more and more an exile toward the end of his life, and looking into the future he may have seen a Church that would find itself to be more and more like Daniel and the Israelite children, singing the songs of Zion in a foreign land.

That, of course, would not have dimmed the hope that sustained Neuhaus one bit. The last chapter of his last book is a beautiful, profound, and deeply moving meditation on the nature of Christian hope, beyond all hopelessness and despair. No matter where we find ourselves, Neuhaus assures us, our job is simply to propose to all the world the reason for the hope that is within us—the resurrected Lord of lords and King of kings, Jesus Christ.

I cannot pretend that this is an impartial review. In the year I worked at First Things until his death, Fr. Neuhaus became my mentor, spiritual guide, and friend. I proudly count myself among the many, many lives that he touched, and I know that I will carry around his wisdom and his example for the rest of my life. There is a passage from this book that I believe I will never forget:

"It has been said that there are no permanently lost causes because there are no permanently won causes, and the reverse is also true. The young person starting out will, in due course, be the old person ending up, and the success of a life will be measured by whether it is lived in, and courageously contended for, the continuing community claimed by truth beyond our sure possession except by the faith, hope, and love that require nothing less than everything."
bottom_line
icon3 of 4view all

Most ReadMost Shared


Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide