Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity
by R.R. Reno
Brazos. 208 pages. $15.99 paper.

R. R. Reno shares a concern held by many North American Christian believers: the Church is in ruins, and we are called upon to respond. The common response of both liberals and conservatives, according to Reno, is to separate from the failing and turn toward the new. But Reno’s response to the ruins differs, he says, from that of contemporary Christians who are misled by their modern perspective. While the trend is to “distance ourselves from a dying past in order to receive the redemptive future,” Reno believes that we, like the Old Testament prophet Nehemiah, must love and live within the ruined walls of the Church.

In the Ruins of the Church begins with three essays that develop Reno’s observation that we have lost what he refers to as “Augustinian ambition,” the genuine desire to be transformed. As those profoundly influenced by modernity, we object to being dependent on anything going on outside of our own heads, such as the dogma of the Christian tradition. “We do not want transformation,” Reno writes. “In short, we do not want what Christianity teaches.” Like the “enigmatic Roman” Petronius, who lived at the time of Nero, we pride ourselves on being satirical and superficial”“never moralistic . . . never interjecting the voice of some loftier vision.”

The Radical Orthodoxy Project, Reno argues, has admirably defied the distance that defines modern theology, arguing that “our deepest assumptions about reality . . . must have a participatory foundation.” However, the achievement of Radical Orthodoxy is “uneven” because it is “intellectual and theoretical” rather than “spiritual and ascetical.” While “the world is participatory,” Reno insists, “its participatory framework is Christ-formed.” While Radical Orthodoxy “transfers loyalty” to an “ideal,” Reno advocates being more concrete and incarnational. “Christ is in the concrete faith and practice of the Church,” writes Reno, “and only he can give power and potency to a postmodern theology that is genuinely orthodox.” For our part, we need to develop “the disciplines of receiving what has been given.”

Later in the book, Reno develops his thesis in more explicit conversation with the Episcopal Church to which he belongs. Believing that the persistent drive for “so-called relevance” is robbing the church of its “corporate memory,” Reno recommends that we “return to the sources”:

To recover a coherent, public theological vision, we must train ourselves to think with premodern theologians whose lives and minds were disciplined by a no-doubt imperfect but nonetheless functional common life . . . . Our scriptural exegesis must be primitive . . . [and] 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.

Reno urges us not to be worried that such approaches will be viewed as “sectarian or anachronistic,” assuring us that “in our love for the fallen walls of Zion we will find our hope.”

For Reno, properly dwelling in the ruins involves embracing “the ways in which inherited forms of common prayer and communal practice constrain and limit.” Similarly, in discussing “Sex in the Episcopal Church,” Reno argues for “gladly [accepting] the disciplines of Christian moral expectation.” He suggests that our concerns about including homosexuals, like our concerns about making liturgical language more inclusive, are both politically driven and self-serving: “If homosexuality is OK,” he argues, “then our transgressions are OK.”

Reno concludes his book with a series of chapters that offer further concrete suggestions for what it looks like to live in the ruins, focusing in particular on the reading of Scripture and the Daily Office. Specifically, he enters into conversation with Origen, the Church Father who holds that “the first-order language and practice of the Church [is] the sole and sufficient basis for our participation in the life-giving power of God.” Interestingly, Reno notes, Origen teaches us that “these ruins are themselves elements of a divine pedagogy” and that “the concreta Christiana . . . is full of all sorts of difficulties, puzzles, and obscurities” that “drive us back” to “dependent submission to ‘that rule and discipline delivered by Jesus Christ to the apostles and handed down by them in succession to their posterity.’” Submitting to this discipline, we find “spiritual meaning” by engaging in study of Scripture. Similarly, we embrace the Daily Office as “an engine of intimacy” that is not optional, but central to Christian life. The Daily Office “shapes us” as the Holy Spirit works through the cycles of repetition and our “ever-increasing familiarity” with its central elements. As we pray the Daily Office, we recognize that we participate in a “way given . . . not chosen.”

Though we are called to dwell in the ruins of the Church, “the stones, however fallen, are living . . . potent with the power of God.” Reno repeats that our approach to Scripture must be “primitive,” suggesting that we draw “ever closer to the words,” even as Nehemiah was drawn to the stones. He demonstrates this by offering a beautiful reading of 1 John in which he explores “patterns of beginnings that are endings and endings that are beginnings.” Reno’s point is that the “fertile power” of John’s language “directs us toward what was from the beginning” and invites us to “journey into the depths of the signs.” The words do not point beyond themselves, but are themselves “the indispensable concrete form of our fellowship with each other, with God, and in God.” They are the ruins that bring life.

The strength of Reno’s work is that it beckons Christian believers back into the ruins where we belong. Reno’s case for engaging with premodern texts and figures is largely persuasive, especially when he shows how such engagement enables us to live hopefully in our faith. Reno’s contention that we receive benefits from engaging in biblical study and praying the Daily Office, his passion for rehearsing the Augustinian story and conversing with Origen, and his lively exegesis of 1 John all reveal his admirable desire that distance be overcome, that we all (re)learn to participate in the things of God.

I do have some misgivings, however. While Reno is surely right that contemporary Christians tend to distance themselves from the classical Christian tradition, he fails to take note of those who share his concerns and are themselves dwelling in the ruins, conversing in their own ways with premodern figures and texts. Is it really true, for example, that all feminist and liberationist theologians have relegated the “ruined church” to the “dead past”? On the contrary, feminists and liberationists often tenaciously refuse to abandon the ruins, despite the fact that some of its stones have been consistently hurled against them. Even more troubling is that Reno seems indifferent to the myriad rank and file members of the Church who”in the midst of the drive for relevance and change”faithfully seek to participate in the tradition that is their inheritance, engaging quietly in biblical study and in the Daily Office, eager to know more deeply what has been seen, heard, and taught throughout the ages.

While Reno is right that we are called to love the stones, he seems to forget that Nehemiah’s desire was not only to dwell in the ruins, but also to rebuild. Hence Reno’s insistence that premodern texts are all we need is unpersuasive. As a theologian of the Reformed tradition, I wonder if Reno’s outright rejection of all imagination and change has something to do with a difference in the Anglican understanding of the character of revelation and ecclesiology. The Reformed conviction that the Church is ever in the process of being reformed does not leave us unmoored from all tradition, but it does mean that God’s transforming work can be made manifest in change, even in changes in the liturgy. While Reno makes a strong case for dwelling in and appreciating the power of the biblical text, it is unclear to me why he insists that the text “never points beyond itself.” Must we choose between the intrinsic value of the text and its implications for the shape of life beyond? Between dwelling in the ruins and drawing up blueprints for reconstruction? Between truly loving the tradition and seeking to discern what is newly becoming part of that tradition?

Following Nehemiah, I share Reno’s hope for a healing of our souls”for inner transformation and salvation. While I firmly believe that Nehemiah’s path requires us to move beyond the ruins to rebuilding, and that this rebuilding involves both love of the stones and imaginative change, Reno is surely correct to emphasize that attempts to rebuild without a prior focus on dwelling will result in the most profound spiritual loss. If we are to rebuild, we must first love the ruins.

Cynthia L. Rigby is the W. C. Brown Associate Professor of Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.