Commentary Magazine


Topic: Richard John Neuhaus

Richard John Neuhaus, U.S. Jews, and the American Babylon

Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Richard John Neuhaus, the influential Christian theologian who once edited the journal First Things. What most people remember about his writing–at least the intellectual/political side–is his classic The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. But what has always stuck with me is his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.

My preference among Neuhaus’s works for American Babylon is because it grapples with the subject of living in religious exile and what it means to be a good citizen to a secular state in such exile. This is a question that obviously means much to the American Jewish community as well, and so it’s valuable to see how a non-Jew, especially one as erudite as Neuhaus, approaches the question. Additionally, I think American Babylon’s relevance has unfortunately only increased since he wrote it–since that means the state’s encroachment on private religious practice has continued unabated.

But there’s also another reason I think the book is so beneficial to Jewish readers. Because of the troubled history between Christians and Jews, and because Christian politics have become so identified with the American right while Jews have been identified with the American left, there is still too much mutual suspicion. The clearest current example of this, of course, is the Jewish left’s rejection of pro-Israel Christian groups out of mistrust toward their intentions. American Babylon is in part a meditation on the Jewish-Christian relationship in exile–which is key. Neuhaus devotes a chapter to this called “Salvation Is from the Jews” (a reference the Christian scripture), in which he offers a good example. He writes:

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Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Richard John Neuhaus, the influential Christian theologian who once edited the journal First Things. What most people remember about his writing–at least the intellectual/political side–is his classic The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. But what has always stuck with me is his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.

My preference among Neuhaus’s works for American Babylon is because it grapples with the subject of living in religious exile and what it means to be a good citizen to a secular state in such exile. This is a question that obviously means much to the American Jewish community as well, and so it’s valuable to see how a non-Jew, especially one as erudite as Neuhaus, approaches the question. Additionally, I think American Babylon’s relevance has unfortunately only increased since he wrote it–since that means the state’s encroachment on private religious practice has continued unabated.

But there’s also another reason I think the book is so beneficial to Jewish readers. Because of the troubled history between Christians and Jews, and because Christian politics have become so identified with the American right while Jews have been identified with the American left, there is still too much mutual suspicion. The clearest current example of this, of course, is the Jewish left’s rejection of pro-Israel Christian groups out of mistrust toward their intentions. American Babylon is in part a meditation on the Jewish-Christian relationship in exile–which is key. Neuhaus devotes a chapter to this called “Salvation Is from the Jews” (a reference the Christian scripture), in which he offers a good example. He writes:

It is significant that, after the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic Church was formalizing its conversations with non-Christians, the Jewish interlocutors insisted that Jewish relations not be grouped under the Vatican office that deals with other religions, but instead included under the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. That arrangement has much deeper implications than were perhaps realized at the time.

Now, this seems to me a pristine example of the kind of Christian theological activity that can be seen one of two ways. Promoting Christian unity with Jews quite obviously does not mean the Vatican has decided that all Catholics should convert to Judaism. So the conversion issue primarily cuts the other way. And it’s a sore subject for very good reasons. But it is also worth pointing out that this is a clear rejection of supersessionism. If the Jews are mere historical relics, after all, Christianity can be whole without them. Neuhaus was vehemently opposed to such a view.

Moreover, Neuhaus makes a very smart observation about this in the context of interfaith relations. He writes:

Christianity does indeed seek to engage culture, provide a guide for living, and propose the way to human flourishing, but, reduced to any of these undoubtedly good ends, it is not Christianity.

Liberal Protestant theology, taking its cue from the Enlightenment, was much preoccupied with the question of “the essence of Christianity,” and, not incidentally, was contemptuous of Jews and Judaism.

That is, liberal Christians, who center their lives more on the secular culture around them, can more easily discard the Jewish contribution to their own heritage precisely because their history is not what defines them. Instead, their own identity can be established by drawing on the here and now. It matters that Jesus was Jewish, ethically and theologically. But not to politicized liberal denominations of Christianity, who have no need for Jewish recognition.

That’s why, Neuhaus writes, “When we Christians do not walk together with Jews, we are in danger of regressing to the paganism from which we emerged.” But before we lock arms and sing Kumbaya, we need to take a closer look at what exactly it means for Christians to “walk together with Jews.” Got an itinerary, Fr. Neuhaus? He does:

With respect to Judaism, Christians today are exhorted to reject every form of supersessionism, and so we should. To supersede means to nullify, to void, to make obsolete, to displace.

But:

The end of supersessionism, however, cannot and must not mean the end of the argument between Christians and Jews. We cannot settle into the comfortable interreligious politeness of mutual respect for contradictory positions deemed to be equally true. Christ and his Church do not supersede Judaism, but they do continue and fulfill the story of which we are both part. Or so Christians must contend.

However intertwined, the two belief systems are not one. So Neuhaus is up front: his distaste for political correctness extends to his opposition to the idea that Christians must be quietly apologetic for their belief that Jews should believe as they, Christians, believe. But he says something important about how that argument is less vocal and literal than an appreciation for living these different lives and pursuing these truths. He writes:

We can and must say that the ultimate duty of each person is to form his conscience in truth and act upon that discernment; we can and must say, too, that there are great goods to be sought in dialogue apart from conversion, and that we reject proselytizing, which is best defined as evangelizing by demeaning the other. Friendship between Jew and Christian can be secured in our shared love for the God of Israel; the historical forms we call Judaism and Christianity will be transcended, but not superseded, by the fulfillment of eschatological promise. But along the way to that final fulfillment, there is no avoiding the fact that we are locked in argument. It is an argument by which–for both Jew and Christian–conscience is formed, witness is honed, and friendship deepened. This is our destiny, and this is our duty, as members of the one people of God–a people of God for which there is no plural.

What he’s saying is, essentially: we can share the same bench at the bus stop even while we disagree over whose bus will arrive. Yes, it’s cheesy on some level–let’s wait together! But a Judaism confident that our bus is the one that will show up shouldn’t mind the company.

A final thought: this was arguably more important coming from a Catholic theologian like Neuhaus than from our no-less-appreciated neighbors in the Protestant-inflected evangelical Christian Zionist community, both because of the fraught history of Jewish-Catholic relations and because it is not tethered to a cause–Israel–that is essential but also relatively modern, and therefore comparably new.

Neuhaus, correctly, notes the crucial role that America plays in all this:

The percentage of Christians involved in any form of Jewish-Christian dialogue is minuscule. Minuscule, too, is the percentage of Jews involved. Moreover, serious dialogue is, for the most part, a North American phenomenon. It is one of the many things to which the familiar phrase applies, “Only in America.” In Europe, for tragically obvious reasons, there are not enough Jews; in Israel, for reasons of growing tragedy in the decline of ancient communities, there are not enough Christians. Only in America are there enough Jews and Christians in a relationship of mutual security and respect to make possible a dialogue that is unprecedented in our 2,000 years of history together.

Neuhaus’s work was a strong rejoinder to the temptation to assume ulterior motives on the part of Christians seeking conversation with Jews. Neuhaus was right, as well, that America has given us the security to have that conversation.

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