Late priest’s new book aims to help readers take on moral relativism
April 8th, 2015
By Brian Welter
“American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile” by Richard John Neuhaus. Basic Books (New York, 2009). 288 pp., $31.
The late Father Richard John Neuhaus takes on America’s morally relativist intelligentsia in his new book, “American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile,” principally by focusing on the late philosopher Richard Rorty, whom the author sees as one of the bedrock voices of relativism.
Before getting this far, “American Babylon” examines some issues behind the current culture wars between religion and secularists. Those trying to push faith out of the public arena don’t understand, Father Neuhaus argues, that the separation of religion and politics forbids politics from interfering in religious affairs, but doesn’t limit religions from speaking to politics.
Father Neuhaus also spends considerable effort explaining how the thin American understanding of church results in a too-great sanctification of the country. In this erroneous view, America replaces the church, and people bestow on the country a sacred calling that no state or political endeavor should or could ever have.
Father Neuhaus takes things a step further. America to a large degree parallels the Babylon of ancient Israelite exile. America, or any country, is exile for Christians because Christians ultimately give their hearts to heaven, not to mammon and country. Humans must work within the world, just as the prophet Jeremiah told the Israelites in Babylon that they should work for the betterment of their new country. Yet this kind of progress occurs only when people of faith, then or now, look to a higher good than the world.
“What we should have learned from the past 200 years, and especially from the catastrophes of the 20th century, is that history is not the answer to the question that is history,” Father Neuhaus writes. History can only “participate in its own redemption” when it recalls its higher purpose, thus when “the transcendent and the immanent, the infinite and the finite, are so conjoined,” he says.
“American Babylon” examines some of the awful ethics thinking brought about by the current round of relativism, including that of professor Peter Singer, who takes controversial positions on animals rights and eugenics.
“His ethical theory exults in its liberation from particular time and place and from the authoritative references that have shaped our traditions of the moral life,” Father Neuhaus writes. Like Rorty, Singer believes that the moral truth is what we say the moral truth is. Without a higher reference, based on religious and ethical traditions like Christianity, the possibility of not only abortion but also infanticide is open to humans.
After a bit more analysis of a counter to this by Alasdair MacIntyre, we come to the book’s heart, Father Neuhaus’ discussion on Rorty, the great American relativist who like Singer and Nietzsche believed that humans make up their morality, and so can change their ethical thinking at any time. Ethics, like everything else, is a will to power for these thinkers.
Rorty’s manner of ethical and philosophical relativism is highly relevant to Catholics and anyone who cares about right and wrong. People with his attitude confront Christians almost every day when the religious and ethical issues arise.
Since for Rorty right and wrong do not exist outside of human definitions of right and wrong, he thinks it is imperative that liberals try to change the way people talk about ethical issues because we will never be able to solve our irreconcilable differences. Rorty invites his followers to simply duck the whole debate.
First, people can turn the deep, serious ethical conversation into something lighthearted. They can tease and joke and “josh” the concerned person of morals into giving up the conversation. If this doesn’t work, good old-fashioned ignoring can work as well.
Thus we see on university campuses the attempt by groups that want to keep abortion legal to limit or deny campus and student union services to pro-life groups. Rather than inviting an open, honest and intellectual debate, these groups simply shut down the conversation and define the issue as how they see fit. In other words, from their more powerful position they simply will the debate to go away.
Such groups believe that they are creating a morality-free public zone, and that Catholics and others can keep their religious and ethical thoughts off campus and in their homes, safely out of sight. Yet Father Neuhaus doesn’t buy this argument.
“American Babylon” is a search for the proper response to such people, and an attempt to show just how moralizing and value-laden these secularists really are.
Welter is a freelance contributor to the B.C. Catholic, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, British Columbia, and is studying for his doctorate in systematic theology.
From April 10, 2015 issue of Catholic San Francisco.