on April 17, 2009
this book for Amazon.
I hope i am not assuming incorrectly that most of the readers of this review are familiar to a greater or lesser to degree, with the thinking and works of Richard John Neuhaus. Most of those who like/love him will enjoy this book; most of those who don't, will not like this book. Fr. Neuhaus's oevre is massive; I can only refer you to his journal First Things, for a more comprehesive understanding of his thought.
although this book must have been in the works for months, it takes special poignancy in the light of the passing of its author on January 8, 2009. Neuhaus takes special care over the book's title, discussing what it means for a Christian to be in exile in America in 2009. He takes great care to compare this with Jews in exile in Babylon in the 6th century before Christ.
The theme of the book is for Christians to take hope, that as bad as things might seem now, for the triumph of the [Judaeo] Christian Messiah and his family the Church, things have been worse. Hope is probably the single most central theme of the book, which is different from an effervescent optimism, but is anchored on the guaranteed truth of the death and resurrection of Christ.
The book is more of an homilitic exhortation than a reasoned thesis. I think the author wasted too many pages on the thought of Richard Rorty, but they can straighten that out at their respective destinations. For Fr. Neuhaus, to despair is to believe that the exile Christians now feel is permanent; for progressives, it is to to think that the utopian thoughts/feelings we have had are permanent.
on April 30, 2009
Fr.Neuhaus died Jan. 8, 2009. This is his last book and it read like a warning voice from the great beyond.. The "Babylon" of the title is not the "whore of Babylon" of excitable discussion but the place of Jewish exile from their home in Jerusalem. Fr. Neuhaus rolls his intellect over the question of how we should live as good citizens in exile from our true and promised home with our creator. You will find no better reflections on this question.
Especially enlightening is the chapter devoted to examining the philosophy of Richard Rorty. For those, like myself, who haven't been able to unravel the obtuse philosopher this chapter will be extremely rewarding in helping you see into the moral and philosophical confusion that so dominates our age.
on July 19, 2009
When Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) died of cancer, America lost one of its most public (and conservative) Christian intellectuals. The arc of his life had the look and feel of providence. Born in Canada, he became a naturalized American. A high school drop out, he advised George W. Bush. Ordained in the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, in the sixties he joined forces with Daniel Berrigan to engage civil rights issues as a pastor to a Brooklyn congregation of blacks and Hispanics. After Roe v. Wade in 1973, he began to turn rightward. In 1990 he converted to Latin Rite Catholicism, was ordained a priest, and founded the Institute on Religion and Public Life, and its journal First Things, whose mission statement is "to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society."
You don't have to agree with Neuhaus's unapologetic neo-conservatism to appreciate the vigor with which he engaged Christian identity in the public square. Yes, he denied communion to Catholic politicians whom he considered insufficiently pro-life. He refers to Pope John Paul "The Great" (74, 209). He vigorously defended natural law theory ("those things that we cannot not know"). He warmed up to Lincoln's notion of America as the world's "last best hope" and defended democratic capitalism. But there he is engaging Peter Singer's advocacy of infanticide and eugenics, or Richard Rorty's "liberal ironism" (this chapter alone is worth the whole book). He wonders aloud about the "new atheism" and whether atheists can be good citizens. He circles back to Augustine and Aquinas, Jefferson and Madison, then forward to Alasdair MacIntyre, Derrida, Newman and the Niebuhrs.
Drawing upon the theme of exile in Babylon, Neuhaus considers how believers must be very much in the world but not a worldly people, and how we must, as Jeremiah told the ancient Jews, "seek the welfare of the city" where God has placed us, and "pray to the Lord on its behalf." His "controlling argument" is that Christians live in hope between the Already of the kingdom inaugurated and the Not Yet of its consummation, rejecting both despair and presumption.
Despite his conservative boosterism, Neuhaus advises a "disciplined skepticism" about politics. He admits that Christian hope is "painfully provisional," and that theodicy admits to no "intellectually satisfying answer." Christians of both the mainline left and the conservative right, he says, have contributed to "the political corruption of Christian faith and the religious corruption of authentic politics." Faithfulness in exile can take many different forms. And whether believers have tried co-existence or accommodation with Babylon, separation, subversion, or even insurrection, Neuhaus credits all with good faith efforts, even though none of us have found ultimately satisfying solutions. And so we live in faith for what we have not and cannot see.
Early in the book, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus wrote: "When I meet God, I expect to meet him as an American." When Fr. Neuhaus died in January of 2009, I expect that he did. As was evident from his writings, he was a good citizen of both the City of Man and the City of God.
AMERICAN BABYLON addresses this question of how to live as a Christian in an increasingly secularized society. Fr. Neuhause draws several parallels: the Israelites during the Babylonian captivity and the early Christians in pagan Rome--to name just a couple. Throughout the book runs the theme that we are "aliens and exiles" in this "eartly city" while on pilgrimage to our true, and heavenly, home. The author quotes the letter to Diognetus, written by a 1st century Christian to a pagan who was curious about how Christians perceived their place in the world. "Though they are residents at home in their own countries," it says, "their behavior is more that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a homeland, and any homeland is a foreign country...The soul is captive to the body, yet it holds the body together. So Christians are held captive to the world, and yet they hold the world together."
Fr. Neuhaus also addresses the very real difficulties Christians face in today's American culture. He delves deeply into how certain modern philosophies have shaped a culture that is antipathetic to Christianity, yet holds out hope that--no matter what our current circumstances--the outcome has already been determined in our favor if we remain faithful. One example he gives is that of St. Thomas More, who--right before he placed his head on the chopping block--stated: "I am the King's good servant, but God's first." The great distinction is to live for "this world" only--or for the world to come. Living only for the here-and-now carries with it an existensial hopelessness; while living for eternity carries the promise of unending happiness.
While AMERICAN BABYLON was a thoroughly enjoyable and educational read, it was not what I'd call "light" reading. In some parts, Fr. Neuhaus's writing is ponderous comparable to the epistles of St. Paul. Once sentence of 31 words had 6 commas in it just to keep the ideas straight.
Also, his forays into the forests of competing philosophies can get you lost unless you follow him closely. The section on Richard Rorty is particularly complicated and convoluted--probably because Rorty's writings on "liberal ironism" were themselves so complicated and convoluted. But overall the book was hearty fare for those with the patience to chew well and digest slowly.
Non-fiction books tend to be collections of essays. This one never says that's what it is, but that's what it seems. Having avidly followed RJN's lively column in First Things, "The Public Square", I eagerly looked forward to reading this book.
"Babylon" in the title does not stand for all things bad or all tyrannical empires. It's a metaphor, drawn from the literal experience of the ancient Jews, of exile. The proof text is from the book of Jeremiah, in which the prophet counsels the Jewish people, "But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." This haunting passage is presented in chapter one, which seems like an introduction, and is itself a tightly reasoned, lightly written essay. In chapter five, "An Age of Irony," he writes, "We have no alternative to this moment of time that is Babylon." The question then remains, to quote Francis Schaeffer's evocative title, "How shall we then live?" How shall we conduct ourselves during our time of exile?
At this point, one may expect a brief dissertation on the spiritual way of life, or the precepts of the Bible. One does not get it. What one does get in this chapter is a discussion of "liberal irony" and Richard Rorty, which led one reviewer to remark that the book is somewhat Rorty-heavy. It's actually only one chapter, but does seem out of place. Why is it there? Because, notes RJN, this is one view of how to conduct our time in exile. This view led to, or influenced, postmodernism and deconstructionism, and proved widely influential among people who wouldn't use those words and have only a passing acquaintance with the theory. Many would class it as a breed of nihilism.
The first chapter presents this interesting take on Babylon. The second,"Babylon Then and Now", looks at the Jews' historic exile, and St. Augustine's idea of the two cities, and draws evocative comparisons with both the present day, and the American founding. Then you'd expect a bit more on that last topic, which is the subject of chapter three. The framers of the Constitution, he says, were consciously making a nation for citizens with "dual loyalties": to both God and the nation. Chapter four is RJN at his best, and suggests an extended and probing "Public Square" essay. Chapter Six, "Salvation is from the Jews", is again a tight, thoughtful, engaging essay that manages to tie together topics touched on elsewhere in the book, while remaining classic RJN.
Chapter seven, "Politics for the Time Being", is actually a brief, informative, and insightful essay on bioethics. The last chapter, "Hope and Hopelessness" sums up, in the manner of an essay, by repeating earlier, salient points. The book has by this time ranged widely over RJN's favorite topics, however, and as such forms his treatise of last thoughts, too lively and ungainly to be so summarily tied up. Read as a collection of diverse essays, American Babylon spans the breadth and depth of the late RJN, one of the liveliest and most thoughtful minds of our generation, from the first to the last things.
on June 28, 2016
As we approach another annual commemoration of Independence Day, Christians may be asking “How do we relate to our country?” And if they’re not asking this, they ought to be. In 2008 Richard John Neuhaus, Lutheran pastor turned Roman Catholic priest, prolific writer, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, and founder/editor of First Things, pushed forward a work meant to help Christians think through their relationship and role in this country. This 270 page hardback, “American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile,” was published two months after his decease (January 8, 2009). In many ways it reads like the final words of a dying father to his children.
“American Babylon” is shaped by Jeremiah’s letter to the Babylonian exiles in Jeremiah 29, and Neuhaus takes this as the story of our present situation. Christians are pilgrims, exiles, strangers in a strange land, who – because of Christ incarnate, crucified and resurrected – live in the present while being bonded with the future; “The present is, so to speak, pregnant with the promised future” (15). And so, recognizing that “Babylon” will continue until finally and fully displaced with the New Jerusalem, Christians are to develop an “Augustinian sensibility,” “the sensibility of the pilgrim through time who resolutely resists the temptation to despair in the face of history’s disappointments and tragedies, and just as resolutely declines the delusion of having arrived at history’s end” (23).
One of the concerns Neuhaus voices is the melding and wedding of America and the Church, which eventually has turned America into a church-substitute; “American theology has suffered from an ecclesiological deficit, leading to an ecclesiological substitution of America for the Church in time” (41). As he notes a little further on, we see “again and again that, without a Church that is not notional but real, without a Church that bears a promise and a purpose that transcend the American experience, the American experience itself, in ways both subtle and vulgar, offers itself as a substitute church” (50). It’s only when we come to recognize that we live in the ruins of Babel, where the politics of the City of Man is “marked by rival claims to truth in conflict” (185) that we can be freed up to develop “Augustinian sensibilities.”
“American Babylon” tackles several poignant issues, like atheism and citizenship, Rorty and postmodernism, to name a few. But in the end, Neuhaus left us with a way to have a “disciplined skepticism about politics” that doesn’t breed cynicism, but wisdom (185); tools to help us appreciate that our Christian faith “does not relieve but intensifies our dissatisfaction with tings as they are” (247) because we live with a dual citizenship. What Neuhaus wanted most of all was to guide his readers to have a properly placed hope that will dispel hopelessness; “This is the heroic hope of the saints, grounded not in self-confidence but in identification with a narrative other than our own – the narrative of Christ crucified, risen, and returning in glory” (239).
There is no doubt that Christian readers from the various streams that flow within Christianity will take issue with this conclusion or that assertion. As a Protestant minister I am cognizant of the Roman Catholic sense that colors some of the suppositions and sentiments Neuhaus proposed. Nevertheless there is a weighty sagacity and sanity between the covers of this book that will benefit all of Christ’s people who live in America. I highly recommend this volume. And in honor of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, I leave the reader with some of the author’s concluding statements: “We are moving toward our destination, and our destination is moving toward us…As Christians and as Americans, in this our awkward duality of citizenship, we seek to be faithful in a time not of our choosing but of our testing. We resist the hubris of presuming that it is a definitive time and place of historical promise or tragedy, but it is our time and place” (250).
on June 14, 2012
Father Richard John Neuhaus was a brilliant man and an important voice for our times. I never met him in person but I still mourn his death about three years ago. This book is excellent as anything written by the late Neuhaus. It is so deep that one should read it several times in order to get as much out of it as possible and use it to constantly examine one's views of freedom, the American way to life, politics, and religion. The problem is with this particular copy one can only read it two or three times before the pages literally break from the cover. I know this from experience. I've never even heard of Basic Books. It should have been published by someone else.
on June 16, 2009
From the beginning of the Christian movement to modern times where's been arguments about what it means to say that Christians are 'in but not of the world'. AMERICAN BABYLON is the last work by theologian Richard Neuhaus and considers the sentiment, defining Christianity in modern America and considering how Christians are a people 'out of place' and alien in America. An intriguing discussion that any Christian or spirituality library will find thought-provoking.
on April 28, 2009
Anyone familiar with Father Neuhaus and his prior books and writing style will NOT BE DISAPPOINTED. He lays out the present situation facing all Christians in society and of course also every other member in relation to the declining moral and culture we are living thru. Truly thought provoking and would be an excellent choice for a Book Club discussion group.
on November 27, 2010
I just finished reading this book yesterday. So, it's fresh on my mind. . .
The topic of this book is easily accessible to everyone prior to acquiring it and is quite straightforward: Christians (with Catholic emphasis) living now in the United States of America can be compared to the Jews when they were exiled in Babylon from 586 - 539BC. They were living away from their homeland just as Christians in America (in the entire world, for that matter) have been and are now living away from their homeland in Heaven, with Jesus their Savior, God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, the saints, and the angels. Fr. Neuhaus admirably presents this topic from a very realistic and spiritualistic viewpoint leaving the reader with a clear sense of understanding their living circumstances and all that entails, but most importantly he instills a very joyful sense of hope for all us Christians having to live as such.
I highly recommend this book to all Christians.
NOTE: I would have rated this 4.5 stars (had that been available) because of the totally unnecessary roughly 20 page tangent Fr. Neuhaus runs off on regarding a man named Richard Rorty's philosophical viewpoints. It threw my train-of-thought completely off track. Most likely, though, those philosophically educated will enjoy this portion.