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May 20, 2009
Exiles on the way home
He was an amazingly prolific writer, but the late Father Richard John Neuhaus was also finicky about writing. He would personally review the galleys of each issue of First Things, the journal he founded, which was one reason the magazine was a pleasure to read: it was edited, and re-edited, and then edited again. But Richard was particularly finicky about his books. Last August, in what turned out to have been the last of our 22 summer vacations together, he sat in his cottage on the Ottawa River and, pounding away on his beloved MacBookPro, edited, and reworked, and then re-edited the book that is now his posthumous literary valedictory—“American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile” (Basic Books).
“American Babylon” is vintage Neuhaus, in several senses of the term. It deepens themes Richard had been exploring since “Time Toward Home” (1975) and “The Naked Public Square” (1984), especially the continually vexed question of Church-and-state. It includes perhaps his most developed reflection on the importance of living Judaism for Christianity. It takes up the cudgels in defense of life and sharply critiques the “immortality project” with which some scientists are obsessed.
There is a notable chapter on Richard Rorty, one of the most influential of contemporary American philosophers, whose pragmatic case for democracy Neuhaus found perilously thin. And there is the final version of a famous lecture to which Richard gave the deliberately provocative title, “Can an Atheist Be a Good Citizen?” (Answer: Yes, but only accidentally.)
Above all, and tying it all together, is Richard Neuhaus’s profound conviction that this gloriously messy, often maddening, sometimes exhilarating business we call “living here and now” is time spent on the way to Somewhere Else—“time toward home,” as he called it in that earlier book, time toward the New Jerusalem, time toward life within the light and love of the Holy Trinity. Richard Neuhaus loved this life, as he loved New York City and as he loved America. Yet, above those loves and giving those loves meaning was his love of Christ and Christ’s Church. For RJN was a radically converted Christian disciple who believed with the author of the Letter to the Hebrews that “here we have no lasting city,” because everything about this city, about life here and now, is directed toward “the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14).
Now, as Richard often pointed out, it was precisely that loyalty to “the city which is to come” that makes serious Christians good citizens of a democracy—or at least good citizens of a democracy that does not divinize itself. By reminding democratic citizens that democratic citizenship is penultimate—for our ultimate citizenship is in the City of the Living God—Christians can give politics its due while helping keep politics in its place. Which is an important place, but not the ultimate place. Indeed, the name for the kind of politics that takes politics with ultimate seriousness is “totalitarianism.” It killed several hundred million people in the 20th century.
In some respects, American Babylon is a darker book than The Naked Public Square—which is understandable because the times are darker, or at the very least quite different. Jihadism is a murkier external threat than communism. Post-modernism, in which there’s your truth and my truth but nothing properly describable as “the” truth, makes for a slippery public square in which it’s hard to get intellectual traction. Whatever else the democratization of discussion and opinion has done (via the Internet, talk radio, 24/7 cable news, etc.), it’s also dumbed things down, to the point where the ability to craft the telling sound-bite is mistaken for political wisdom. In his last year, RJN knew that the project to which he had given over 40 years of his life—the creation of a “religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty”—was in serious trouble.
But he was a warrior, and a happy one at that. And he kept fighting until the end. “American Babylon” is the last intellectual testament of a Christian soldier, always moving onward toward his true home, the New Jerusalem.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: 303-715-3215.