Last year, when Rusty Reno invited me to a seminar on Christian responses to transhumanism, I responded that if we were going down fighting then, yes, he could count me in. His reply was laconic but eloquent: “I intend to fight, but I do not intend to go down.”
That spirit of positive defiance informs his latest book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. Christians face an uncertain future—not because our survival is in jeopardy, but because the long-term shape of society is unclear, as is our position within it. Persecution is very unlikely, but marginalization and irrelevance loom large. And Reno addresses the problem with brio, clarity, and learning, throwing in countless quotable sentences along the way.
The basic argument will be familiar to First Things readers. Reno sees the policies of modern progressivism as an elite enterprise, pursued for the convenience of the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. Particularly in the realm of sexual behavior, the elite can enjoy the freedoms that the dissolution of taboos allows, while yet being shielded from the resultant social evils, most notably the collapse of family and community.
Absolute relativism, as Reno observes, ultimately serves the powerful. The collapse of metaphysics in social and political thought disempowers the weak and destroys the possibility of transcendence. The resulting impoverishment of ambition creates a moral and cultural void that damages the most those who are the least equipped to handle it: the poor and the vulnerable. What strikes Reno, and perhaps worries him most, is that this anti-metaphysical ethos is now a hallmark of conservatives as much as of progressives. The difference between left and right will thus increasingly come down to differences over trivia, not over things that really matter. The reason is simple: There are no things that really matter anymore. Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on this critique, of course: Intellectuals on the Left, such as Terry Eagleton and Nick Cohen, would be in full agreement.
Reno rightly sees sexual identity politics as central to public debates today. He views this centrality as indicating the real question we face, which is about the authority of the body and, by extension—with a touch of Pascal—about the reality of mortality. I would agree, but I would supplement this narrative by pointing to the psychologizing of human identity and political struggle over the last century. It is important to understand this point, in order to grasp the depth of the problem. The peculiar pathologies of our present are rooted in history and maintained by a comprehensive and potent network of cultural agencies. Politically, the appropriation of Freud by Reich and Marcuse is crucial, especially as it is subsequently transmitted though the media of popular culture. And as soon as identity is understood as sexual rather than social, oppression becomes a psychological category, truth can be supplanted by taste, and political power becomes to a large extent the ability to manipulate aesthetics. The powerful can thus stymie whatever conversation and pluralism they wish to, simply by using the right rhetoric and projecting the right image. My own view is that acknowledging all of this is critical to any assessment of future strategies and possibilities for Christians.
Reno is clear on what needs to be done to rebuild society. His vision is not of a return to the Christian-Right politics rooted in the alleged faith of the Founders or consisting of shouting Bible verses louder in the public square. Nor is it that of a confident pluralism that assumes that decency and thoughtfulness will win us a hearing. Reno’s resurrection of Christian society involves that renewal of humanity which goes hand-in-hand with the strengthening of the family, the revival of patriotism, and the revitalization of the church. It depends on concepts that are still in common use as words, but that have been stripped of any real meaning. Love has become a sentiment. Freedom is a motif of libertarian rhetoric. Reno argues that we need to restore these words’ real significance by setting them in a metaphysical context such as that provided by Christianity.
On how we do what needs to be done, Reno is less clear—but this is a short book, setting out a goal and a broad strategy, not a detailed manifesto. And this may well be where Reno and I diverge on the optimism/pessimism question. I simply am not convinced that change can be achieved on any significant scale. The causes of the modern malaise are complicated, and their solution must be equally elaborate. For example, as George Grant and David Schindler have shown, technology brings with it a different view of reality from that of traditional Christianity. This mindset is now deeply embedded in our world. The entertainment industry mediates much of what is taken for reality and grips the moral imagination of the masses. The globalized economy has transformed communities and community expectations in ways we have yet to fathom. To borrow that hackneyed but poetic phrase from Marx, all that is solid melts into air. Zygmunt Bauman’s argument, that we live in a time when even the most longstanding and reliable social structures are in permanent flux, seems to me compelling. It must be accounted for by any hope that depends upon the solidity of concepts or institutions from the past. How does one reform or recapture or rebuild that which has been robbed of solid existence?
Take patriotism. As I noted here last week, a sense of nationhood depends upon a basic shared metanarrative that binds citizens together at a level deeper than their differences, however important the latter may be. But today that metanarrative is being shattered by a plethora of micronarratives, of which the rise of the LGBTQ community and the Black Lives Matter movement are simply the most obvious examples. To repair the metanarrative will require a massive change in educational, cultural, and legal institutions. How can we begin to do that? Or look at the family. It is not only Obergefell v. Hodges that has changed things. Perhaps more to be feared by the traditional family is the impact of pornography. We now see a generation rising that has been soaked in a nihilistic view of sex and an objectified view of sexual partners, even before it hits puberty.
As to the church, beyond the external pressures are serious internal challenges. The leadership needs to make a choice between thinking aesthetically and thinking dogmatically, if the church is to be distinct from the world. And parents need to teach their children that church is vital. But these are parents who have been shaped in the broader culture of psychology, hedonism, and anti-authoritarianism. I still remember the words of Archbishop Chaput in the 2014 Erasmus Lecture: Young people have abandoned the Roman Catholic Church because their parents’ generation never taught them that it was important in the first place. Chaput also commented that the most vigorous opposition to catechesis in parochial schools in Philadelphia comes from the parents. Parents must care about church and faith before they will influence their children to do the same.
None of this is to say that Reno’s moderate optimism is misplaced. This is a brilliant yet accessible book—the best I have read on our current situation. Christians should read, ponder, and discuss it. And I am conscious that Rusty and I come at the problem with very different instincts and tastes. He is a mountain climber, I am a long distance runner. To the climber, the mountain is to be overcome and conquered in a moment of triumph. To the runner, the race is to be endured and concluded, if timed correctly, by a collapse in total physical and mental exhaustion at the finish. As Christians wrestle with what they should expect and where they should set their priorities for the future, the uncertainty of the times surely makes both perspectives important, in order to keep hope alive but expectations realistic. One thing on which Rusty and I agree, however, is the need to keep fighting against the encroaching darkness. Whether or not we will go down doing so remains to be seen.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.