Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society
by R. R. Reno.
Hardcover, 256 pages, $28.
In late February, 1943, C. S. Lewis delivered a series of three evening lectures at the King’s College, Newcastle, that later became the book titled The Abolition of Man. Though not daunting in size, Abolition is a formidable volume for the truth it offers. Its warnings are worth considering not just on their own merit, but also due to their seeming influence on the work of R. R. Reno. Lewis argues across the three lectures that make up Abolition that progressivism seeks through formal education, starting at the very youngest ages, to replace objective truth with moral relativism so that every subsequent generation may be brought up in the exact image preferred by those he calls “Conditioners.” By so doing, progressivism will have mastered the very nature of man, for if nothing possesses inherent meaning, then the human experience is an easily amended blank slate upon which one may inscribe whatever fancy suits.
Progressivism, Lewis says, seeks to portray any sense of things higher or transcendent as nothing more than feelings, rendering them significant only to the individual and thus impermanent. He argues that the power progressives seek is the power to make other men as they see fit. In this way the progressive seeks to master human nature, transforming man into his own creation, and thereby abolishing man. He writes later that
They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all. They are … men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what “Humanity” shall henceforth mean.
Lacking any sense of the transcendent or the sublime, man will be left to pursue only that which he so chooses, which, as the old human nature would indicate, is his own pleasure. This is to reduce man from unique and transcendent being to mere beast, a slave to his basic senses. Such is the value of the transcendent and objective truth and the nature of this world, that acknowledgement and pursuit thereof makes the man, and keeps him so.
R. R. Reno takes up where Lewis left off seventy-three years ago. Western society finds itself living in the progressive culture Lewis warned against, and it is into this societal fray that Reno enters with Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. His title refers to an even earlier book from T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), in which Eliot asks whether the West, at the crossing of so many different roads, will choose a Christian future or a pagan one.
Readers of Reno specifically, and of First Things more generally, will be familiar with Reno’s clear, learned, and conversational style. At the heart of this new volume is the argument that the foundations of American democracy are eroding, that a meritocratic, technocratic elite looks to become a paternalistic ruling class, and that the values of this ruling class are entirely materialistic; they rule as if the meaning of human life is entirely of this world. Health, wealth, and pleasure become the new pagan trinity. Accordingly, Reno further argues that a Christian society orders itself believing that there are greater, higher things available than this world; that this world serves the next. Sadly, this is exactly what the present moment lacks, and must regain.
There are too many threads to pull from this quilt, but in fact they are all one. Taken as a whole Reno’s overarching concern is this: nothing matters anymore. Western culture has, as Lewis warned, lost its metaphysical awareness. It exists merely to exist and serves no higher purpose. Of course, such nihilism is not shared by Reno in the slightest; this volume is a defiant Christian stand against such fatalism. It bears clarification that, as Reno contends, this is not a dichotomous disease. For the Left, nihilism comes from their Epicurean enshrinement of the individual, while for the Right it is split between limitations on government (in all the wrong ways) and economic freedom. Both sides have their gods, but neither will ever obtain the salvation they seek.
Reno speaks a difficult truth when he takes on the point of solidarity. If a society is not unified, it is fragmented, individualized, and atomized—and so is left vulnerable to tyranny. A society that does not stand on solid ground has no foundation into which it might dig its heels. In his words, “Atomized, self-interested people are more easily managed than those united in a common purpose. They are easier to dominate than those willing and able to make sacrifices for the sake of a transcendent loyalty.” Time was that government reacted to the movements of the masses. But as a society becomes more fragmented the government no longer has a popular opinion to which to respond, and so pays attention not to the largest movements, but rather to the most raucous, which are easily confused with popular. Five men yelling can make as much noise as twenty men speaking; as Reno puts it, “We’re facing a crisis of solidarity, not freedom, and this crisis of solidarity foretells a crisis of freedom. Atomized, isolated individuals adrift in a deregulated moral culture are easily dominated, whether by political manipulators or the directionless leadership of mass culture.”
One weakness of Resurrecting, which is not a true weakness, is the complexity of his main argument. Reno argues that the policies of moral deregulation espoused by the powerful ultimately impose great harm on the weak. It is a true and sustained critique of our society. It is also immensely complex; while it is comprehensible given time or a wide enough social or political lexicon, it is difficult to convey to a person whose attention span is short, which is to say, regretfully, most people. To the point, Reno writes,
The American dream seems to be triumphant, at east for those able to take advantage of the new freedoms [many of which are entirely of a social nature]. Yet the life expectancy for white people without a high school diploma has dropped catastrophically since the 1990s.… Yet the morally preening powerful, confident in their supposedly progressive views, largely ignore this collapse and the people suffering from it. When bureaucrats or journalists occasionally take notice, they offer every explanation except the obvious one: white, secular progressives have dismantled traditional morality, disempowering and disorienting the weak and vulnerable.
He notes that the nihilism imposed by the ruling progressive class and their claim of no objective right or wrong enshrines a pervasive nonjudgmentalism that condemns the poor and the weak to slide deeper into vice, thus removing them as a political threat. It is, again, tyranny. This is a crucial point at our present moment, the complexity of which Reno readily admits, and it must gain traction with as many people as there are to hear.
Despite the dread of our time, Reno’s effort is to resurrect the idea of a Christian society, one that, again, serves those higher, permanent things. How can a Christian society benefit all of society? Consider the wise and foolish builders of Matthew 7.24-27. One built his house on the sand, and it was left in ruin, while the other built upon the rock and was spared the storm. Reno points out that a society is truly free, just as a man is truly free, when he is able to stand firm on truth against the forces that seek to do it, or him, harm. True freedom is found in Christ; it is in this freedom that we find love, and it is this love from which the faithful can never be separated. If so inseparable, then we are truly free from the worries of this world. This, then, is what a Christian society offers, and it bears quoting Reno in full:
A Christian society nurtures in its citizens a desire for higher things. It prizes love and loyalty over intelligence and achievement. It honors devotion over a supposed critical independence. It offers enchantment, not disenchantment. A Christian society does not compel faith or install priests in positions of public authority. But it affirms that we are fully human and more genuinely free when we give ourselves to something higher.”
The materialistic nihilism of our time is, as it was destined to be, an abject failure. It promises a freedom perverted, but provides in its place tyranny. It serves the powerful and destroys the weak, even while it claims to serve them, and a Christian society is the only true response to such a challenge.
Jeremy A. Kee’s writing has appeared in numerous publications including The Imaginative Conservative, Crisis Magazine, and the Daily Caller. He is presently conducting research for a project involving the prophetic vision of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Tweet him @KeeJeremyA