Thursday, December 13, 2018

review of Neuhaus' "American Babylon" (use edited paper's version instead)

Richard John Neuhaus had an interesting and influential life-- and has a great legacy. On top of that, he walked a particularly fascinating path, religiously and politically. He was an ordained Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism and became a priest. He was a liberal and a key player in the civil rights movement, but later became an influential neo-conservative. I came to "know him" through a few books (most notably, his classic work, The Naked Public Square) and his editorial work at the excellent journal he founded and ran for 18 years, First Things.

If you want to read a recent biography, "warts and all", you might check out this book review in CT. If you want read about him, there's Wikipedia-- or this blog which is dedicated to preserving remembrances of him as as well as his key essays.

American Babylon was Neuhaus' final book, posted after he died from cancer in 2009. It describes principles for "living in exile”-- a state that all Christians occupy. I had happened to put it on the top of my reading pile, but then it tied in nicely with a journal article I was writing. So, I prioritized it further and compiled notes on it-- as follows...

“This world, for all its well-earned dissatisfactions, is worthy of our love and allegiance.” (3) As “citizens of a country that is prone to mistaking itself for the designation…means also a cultivated skepticism about the idea of historical progress, especially moral progress” (3)
This side of Heaven, “there are no permanently lost causes because there are no permanently won causes, and the reverse is also true.” (85)
“The alternative to resigning ourselves to exile without end—whether that resignation takes the form of Stoic defiance, utopian dreams of progress, or ironic liberalism—is the narrative of history, and of our lives in history, moving toward the Kingdom of God, and being encountered by the Kingdom of God moving toward us.” (163)
As Christians and as Americans, “our awkward duality of citizenship” (250)
Neuhaus cites the beginning of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”  (Jeremiah 29:5-7). In other words, seek the good of the place in which you find yourself—for their good and yours. “Exile remains exile, and Babylon remains Babylon, but both are penetrated, both are charged, by the promise of deliverance.” (16) God can only bless you where you’re at. God promises to redeem in part now—and ultimately, in the not yet. But as God blesses you here, bless others as well—as co-participants in his redemptive plans. In Jeremiah’s time, the promise was for both the present and their future deliverance from exile. But both “the now and the not yet” were the subject of God’s famous promise a few verses later: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
“America is our homeland, and, as the prophet Jeremiah says, its welfare is our welfare. America is also—and history testifies that this is too easily forgotten—a foreign country.” (26)
“Against our fellow Babylonians who seek no other city and have repudiated the truths upon which this earthly city is founded, we follow the counsel of Jeremiah in attempting to secure and advance the peace and welfare that serve the common good.” (84)
One of the subtle temptations and underlying problems in our endeavor: the thin theology and prevalence of the American “Civil Religion” (ACR) which has a competing claim to Christianity as its core. But the ACR version of Christianity is more bastardized than biblical—with its cultural adherence to a tepid and limited morality, popular traditions, and occasional cultural practices. Neuhaus cites Leo Strauss in describing ACR’s “thin public theology”—with founding principles that were “low but solid”. Neuhaus: “Perhaps too low, and not solid enough..the new order was not wired for first-principle questions such as those addressing the humanity and rights of slaves of African descent. As it is not wired for today’s questions about the humanity and rights of the unborn child.” (40) These theological deficiencies bleed into the truer Christianity within the American church: “American theology has suffered from an ecclesiological deficit, leading to an ecclesiological substitution of America for the Church through time.” (41) With shifting cultural norms, this substitution will be easier to recognize and thus, it will get easier for the Church to differentiate itself from ACR.
Paul echoed this in Philippians 1:20-24: “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
“You might suppose that, during their Babylonian captivity, the only progress, the only promising change, that the people of Israel cold look forward to would be a return to their homeland and rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. Yet…” (57)
“The cross is not the final word. There is resurrection, and it is both the resurrection in history and resurrection of history.” (73)
“Redemption or salvation is thus viewed not as escape from this world but as participation in the future that is already happening in Jesus Christ and the community of faith in Jesus Christ.” (232) For the believer, eternal life has already begun.
Neuhaus wrestles at length with the idea of “progress” (chapter 3). “Almost everybody agrees that progress is a good thing…however, disagreements arise upon closer examination.” (58) Striving to define it and discern the different ideas about progress, Neuhaus notes that “Progress is more than change; it is change with a purpose… change is teleological.” (58) Change as progress (or regress) assumes an end. A “modern” mindset, as exemplified more often by “liberals” and “progressives” has more faith in change as progress: “Change is good because it is a movement toward the better on history’s way toward some unspecified, and perhaps unspecifiable, good.” (59) “Conservatives” are generally less persuaded by this faith position. Any examination of history encourages us to avoid the two extremes. But then we come to questions of ends, means to ends, and our priors.


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