Sunday, April 10, 2011

Collecting Manna: Rusty Reno

Reno is a master of mixing up the medicine we loathe to taste, yet cannot be healthy without swallowing. Here, in his In the Ruins of the Church (a book I wish I'd read ten years ago), Reno completes an appreciation of post-liberalism in its Radical Orthodoxy form, countering what I like to call "the Law of Substitutionary Conversion" with a warning against attempts to reform Christianity from the safe and distant heights of hipster irony and academic objectivity. Against the ambition to be sexy and relevant, even against the desire and deep-drive to out-create the creativity of culture all around us, Reno offers a decidedly unsexy, yet unavoidable word of warning. At the very least, I find it cuts uncomfortably close to the bone of my own Evangelical Catholic proclivities, and should do the same for anyone of a blue devil persuasion. His recent collection of essays, Fighting the Noonday Devil, is not to be missed.

Many offer courageous and articulate warnings against the modern "culture of death," and Christian witness does provide an alternative that has weight and substance. Nonetheless, no triumphant vision of peace emerges out of what twenty-first-century Christians actually say and do...Against the weakness of the gospel - in churches that do not seem to hear and in a culture increasingly blind - we are tempted by theory. We imagine that by sheer theological genius and intellectual virtuosity, we can reconstruct an all-embracing Christian culture, we can uncover and make present the glue that holds everything together. But guided by what might be rather than what is, we come to correct and perfect that which we have received in Word and Sacrament. As the editor's blue pencil excises and adds, violence and will to power reemerge. We re-create the distance we wish to overcome...our theorizing, our "new theologies," will hold together what Christ and his church seem unable to encompass and embrace.

Against this temptation we must keep our nose close to the ill-smelling disaster of modern Christianity, articulate about its failures but training ourselves to dwell in enduring forms of apostolic language and practice. Diminished vision may be the price we must pay. We may no longer be able to see our culture, stem to stern, through Christian eyes. We may no longer be able to see the complex shape of our contemporary churches as a creature of the gospel. We can only see what has been given us to see. But paying this price is necessary if we are to train our eyes to see the identity of Christ in the witness of Scripture and the practice of the Church. For no matter how high we might soar on eagle's wings if theological ideality, and despite our hopes that from such heights we might recover a vision of the full scope of the truth of Christ, we will be disappointed. Christ is in the concete faith and practice of the church, and only he can give the power and potency to a post-modern theology that is genuinely orthodox. The Son holds all things together in the Father.

Thus to escape the patterns of theological modernism, the first task is not to imagine and invent, for this opens up a distance between us and the concrete and enacted forms of our apostolic inheritance. Instead, we must train ourselves in that which modernity rejects most thoroughly and fatally: the disciplines of receiving what has been given. We must eat the scrolls that the Lord has given us and dwell amidst his people. Only then will the scope of an Augustinian ambition recover the intense, concrete, and particular Christ-centered focus that gives it the power of good news. Only there, amidst walls ruined by faithlessness, apathy, and sin, can we taste God's peace. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002, 78-9)

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