In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity by R.R. Reno (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002) 208 pp.

 

 

††††††††††† The language in which this book is written will be understandable and engaging for a broad audience of pastors, seminarians, scholars, advanced undergraduates, and theologically attuned laity. Reno states his central themes very clearly in his Introduction: (1) In the modern world, the mainline Protestant Church is in ruins, partially as a result of denominational divisions, but more importantly as a result of the theological chaos and debilitation that have resulted from the infiltration of modern ideas and cultural trends. (2) The suffering that Christians undergo as a result of this situation leads to the strong temptation to flee from the ruins; this temptation must be resisted, because God is calling his people to dwell within the ruins and find their way forward through spiritual deepening. To flee from the ruins is an act of spiritual cowardice; what is needed in this hour is courage. As an example of the temptation to flight, Reno points to John Nelson Darby, one the key founders of the Plymouth Brethren in the 19th century. He is emblematic of the tendency of "fundamentalist" Christianity in the modern world to reject the broader Church that is sliding into "liberalism" and "heresy". Those who follow Darby's lead will see themselves as building an ark of safety and purity in a surrounding sea of apostasy. But they are unable to see that their flight into nostalgia is an act of cowardice.

††††††††††† The main target at which Reno aims his guns is not the fundamentalist side of the present day culture wars, however, but the liberal side. In Part 1 of the book, "The Temptations of Distance," he develops the thesis that "the confident humanism of modernity has given way to an anxious desire to escape moral demand and the pressure it puts on us to change" (p. 32). Reno is putting his finger on what he sees as the central contradiction and incoherence of what is labeled "liberalism" or "progressivism" in the modern world. One can follow Kant and get out from under the weight of tradition and the Church by proclaiming "reason" as one's guiding light; or one can follow Emerson and reject the Augustinian path of self-doubt and morose introspection in favor of a robust affirmation of one's own natural vitality; or one can follow Marx in believing that social engineering will solve the problem of evil that the Church is impotent to address. Whichever way one chooses, the modern soul believes that the path to freedom, enlightenment, and progress lies in leaving behind the broken husk of the Church in ruins so that humanity can move into a shining future. But if one looks more closely at what is going on in the "liberal" soul today (particularly in the undergraduate world), one sees that the champions of "change" want to change everything around them to make it fit their expectations and prejudices, because they themselves are profoundly fearful of inward transformation. Relativism is actually "a protective dogma designed to fend off any power that might claim our loyalty" (p. 38). The apparent self-assertion that is the hallmark of the modern attitude "is protective, not aggressive. We adopt critical cliches and habits of distance because we do not want to risk being ravished by a transforming truth" (p. 45).

††††††††††† Reno reaffirms the biblical and Augustinian tradition that focuses on repentance and openness to grace as the pathway to genuine human flourishing. This tradition has been attacked and rejected in the modern world for reasons that are ostensibly philosophical. We can no longer believe in myths, fables, miracle stories, dogmas, etc. That is why "religion" has been rejected in favor of "reason". In this context, Rudolf Bultmann believes that the Christian task is to reinterpret the biblical stories in such a way that they are no longer stumbling blocks for the modern mind. But this move, which is typical of liberal Protestant theology, misunderstands the nature of the rebellion against tradition, which is not actually philosophical at its root, but moral and psychological. Reno includes a very apt quotation from Kierkegaard that makes precisely this point (p. 53).

††††††††††† One might think that Reno would seek to join forces with another contemporary theologian, John Milbank, who also champions the Augustinian tradition, but this is not the case. One of Reno's chapters is sharply critical of Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy movement. While Reno is appreciative of some aspects of this movement, he faults it for being overly intellectualized and too infatuated with the jargon of postmodernism. The movement has a tendency to imply that the relatively simple language of the tradition must be corrected or exalted through the rarified verbosity of anti-Derrida polemics.

††††††††††† Part 2 of the book focuses on the current situation in the Episcopal Church in the United States. To describe Reno's comments as "prophetic" of the current ecclesiological chaos in the wake of the consecration of Gene Robinson as a bishop is perhaps a bit over dramatic. Anyone with keen powers of observation could have seen that coming, and the Episcopal Church is representative of deep divisions over questions of sexual ethics in many American denominations. Reno outlines the roots of the current situation by pointing to a deep lack of consensus in the Episcopal Church about how scripture should be interpreted and what role it might play, if any, in doctrinal deliberations. Because scripture is so controversial, it is set aside. This leaves the stage to competing power blocs in the Church, that must force a vote in the context of a parliamentary gathering as a way of discerning the Church's future path. The office of the bishop, which in olden times was seen as symbolic of the unity of the Church, is transformed into a platform for pugnacious social protest and aggressive revision of Church teaching (along the lines of Bishop Spong). One might think that Reno, who clearly sides with the neo-orthodox wing of the Episcopal Church, rather than the revisionist wing, would favor abandoning the Church that has fallen into such doctrinal disarray and confusion. But this is precisely the temptation that he argues against: "Disordered to the point of incoherence, the church gives us only its most primitive and basic gifts. Our goal should be to dwell in those gifts. Our scriptural exegesis must be primitive, that is to say, reiterative rather than innovative or exploratory. Our engagement with the creeds must be submissive. We must suffer the contradictions of the historic episcopate. We must persevere in baptism and Eucharist. We must first cherish the stones before we can set about to rebuild the wall" (p. 95).

††††††††††† One wonders however, whether events will overwhelm this vision. What if, for example, a bishop were to "modernize" the Nicene Creed and not allow the traditional form to be spoken at all in the churches? What if the only type of preaching and Bible study allowed by such a bishop were of the "innovative" variety? At what point, in other words, does someone like Reno finally flee from these Protestant ruins and turn to the Church of Rome or to the Eastern Church? I don't see an answer to that question in this book; perhaps he will address it in a future work [between the writing of this review and its publication, Reno was received into the Roman Catholic Church].

††††††††††† Part 3 of the book turns from the critique of liberalism toward the author's positive vision for rebuilding the ruined Church. He speaks of "postliberal ecclesial spirituality," praying and studying the Daily Office, and recovering theological exegesis of scripture for the benefit of the Church. My one criticism of the book, which is quite mild, is that I found this section of the book to be weaker and less engaging than the other two. Perhaps critiques are intrinsically more interesting than the routines of daily faithfulness. Reno's message is that Christians need to orient their interest, their attention, toward sources of transforming wisdom that the world around them and even their Church may tell them are passť: the Bible and prayerful reflection on its message, in conversation with tradition.

††††††††††† While progressive Christians who read this book will either be very angry toward it, or perhaps wince with pain at the accuracy of some of its observations, I don't see how they could, with intellectual integrity, simply ignore it. Reno's analysis of the modern world in this book is too perceptive to be brushed aside. What is needed is a fruitful conversation between a traditionalist viewpoint such as Reno's and other thoughtful voices. In the context of a course on contemporary Christian ethics, for example, it would be worthwhile to consider In the Ruins of the Church alongside Faith Beyond Resentment by James Alison, who writes from the "liberal" side of the culture wars, but with a similar call to dwell within the ruins of the Church as the only way to come to know Jesus more deeply.

 

Charles Bellinger

Brite Divinity School

TCU Box 298400

Fort Worth, TX 76129