R.R. Reno in “Return of the Strong Gods” argues that we need a return to the pillars that represent classic human values: the home, the country, and the religion. He calls for true patriotism rather than nationalism, marriage and family instead of a sexual free-for-all, and historic Christianity instead of do-it-yourself “spirituality.”
Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West, by R.R. Reno (208 pages, Gateway Editions, 2019)
I admit that I am not what Flannery O’Conner called “one of them innerleckshuls.” My eyelids droop when I’m wading through dense sentences, verbose paragraphs, and long words. Footnotes make me drowsy, jargon confuses me, and technical terminology turns me off.
Although I am not a thinker, an academic, or a reader of great tomes, I’m grateful for people like Rusty Reno who are. Furthermore, I’m grateful that he does the reading I am too lazy to do, sifts the knowledge, analyzes it, makes connections and then writes a book for people like me to read, learn, and inwardly digest.
In Return of the Strong Gods Dr. Reno explains our present crisis in society, the academy, and the church. The roots are in what he calls “the post-war consensus.” After 1945—suffering from a major societal case of post-traumatic stress disorder, Western thinkers, politicians, philosophers, economists, and internationalists all ended up feeling the same feelings and thinking the same thoughts.
Put simply, the reason we human beings end up killing one another on an industrial scale with industrial efficiency is due to dogma. By “dogma” I do not mean only de fide religious doctrines, but any belief or ideological principle which is held to be irreversibly, obviously, intrinsically, and uncompromisingly true.
We then kill our enemies because they are wrong.
The solution to the problem is obvious. If dogma causes Auschwitz and Hiroshima—get rid of dogma.
Dr. Reno takes the first half of the book to prove his point. Drawing from a range of philosophers, economists, social theorists, politicians, planners, theologians, sociologists, and journalists, Dr. Reno shows how, across various disciplines, a consensus emerged that called for relativism rather than revealed truth, situational ethics rather than the dictates of moral theology, multiculturalism instead of nationalism, and toleration rather than bigotry. The economic version was open markets and the spiritual vision was the sentimental, pastoral, ecumenically minded, interfaith religion that provides an accompanying spirituality to the liberal dream.
Followers of this philosophy endorse a soft, weakened approach to everything. One must listen more than preach. One must accept, not judge. One must identify with the victim, not the perpetrator. One must always take the side of the underdog, the refugee, the poor, and the downtrodden . . . and we will impose this philosophy of weakness with brute force if necessary.
While this has led to the free, non-judgmental, affluent, technological society we all enjoy, Dr. Reno argues that it has also led to the worrying backlash of nationalism and populism. The “deplorables” who “cling to their guns and their religion” don’t much like the principles of the liberal elite. So they vote for Trump who promises to build walls and make America great again.
The postwar consensus has become so orthodox among the American costal elite that they cannot comprehend Americans who do not share their relativistic creed. Not only are the Trump voters deplorable. They must all be angry white men who are racists and fascists at heart.
Dr. Reno uncovers the roots, therefore of the present division and crisis in every aspect of Western society. His solution is not the whiplash reaction of unthinking nationalism and populism. To go too far in that direction may indeed lead to an uber-patriotic totalitarianism. When I see the Trump rallies I shudder at the memory of reading somewhere a long time ago the prophecy, “When fascism comes to America it will be clutching a Bible, waving an American flag and singing God Bless America.”
Instead of such a fulfillment, Dr. Reno says we need a return to the “strong gods” that represent classic human values. The home, the country, and the religion are the three strong gods that have been destroyed in the push for a free, non-judgmental, and tolerant society. He calls for true patriotism rather than nationalism, marriage and family instead of a sexual free-for-all, and historic Christianity instead of do-it-yourself “spirituality.”
I was enlightened by Dr. Reno’s exposition of the sources and delighted by his proposed solution. However, I wish he had gone on to suggest how the “strong gods” might effectively return to their temples. It is one thing calling for their return. Envisioning how that might happen is more difficult. Wishing for the “strong gods” to strengthen our weakening culture is all well and good. Figuring out how to get them to respond to the summons is another matter that Dr. Reno leaves (I hope) for the sequel.
While the first half of Dr. Reno’s book is chock full of cultural references explaining the absence of the strong gods, I wish he had spent more time analyzing the effect of the “postwar consensus” on the Christian religion. I was very interested in his discussion of the theology of Karl Rahner. In concert with the postwar consensus, Karl Rahner emphasized “the Christ event” more than the historical Jesus. This subjectivism is the echo in the Catholic world of Rudolph Bultmann’s campaign to demythologize the gospels and the subtle push among theologians to replace “truth” with “meaning.”
Liberal postwar Christianity moved away from “doctrine which divides” towards an ecumenical mish-mash. It moved away from dogma and moral theology towards a “pastoral approach.” The present ruling elite, both in the colleges and cathedrals of liberal Protestantism as well as the Catholic Church, have embraced the postwar consensus and provided a spiritual version that has decimated our churches and emasculated the gospel.
True, historic Christianity is the pebble in liberalism’s shoe. This is because, by its very nature, Christianity is dogmatic. It is dogmatic by virtue of the incarnation and what theologians call “the scandal of particularity.”
Put simply, the big Creator God who is out there in the cosmos as the “Great Spirit” actually took human form from a particular young woman who lived in a particular hamlet in a particular backwater of the Roman Empire on a particular day in human history. That child grew up to be executed on a particular Friday on a particular Spring day and he rose physically on a particular morning a few days later. He established a particular church with particular sacraments for the salvation of particular souls.
This particularity is precisely what the architects of the post war consensus saw as the enemy of humanity.
Dr. Reno’s “post war consensus” can therefore be seen as intrinsically inimical to genuine, historic Christianity and any version of Christianity that takes the post war consensus as its foundational ideology is not Christianity at all.
It is the Secretary General of the United Nations wearing a cope and miter.
Dr. Reno’s book was especially eye opening for all Catholics who may have troubled themselves to follow the proceedings of the Amazonian Synod. The working document produced before the synod and the “Pact of the Catacombs” signed by many of the participants could well have been the spiritual manifesto of the “postwar consensus.” Both documents majored on accompaniment, solidarity with the oppressed, ecological salvation, and open-ness to other cultures with scarcely a mention of Jesus Christ and the demands of the Christian gospel.
This trend follows the leadership in the Vatican which consistently attacks nationalism, populism, and all who appear “rigid” and “closed.” It fits consistently with the present leadership’s move away from centralized authority, clear catechesis and the preference of a “pastoral approach” to morality.
Dr. Reno may wish for the return of the strong gods of faith, family, and country, but under the present regime he will be disappointed if he looks to Rome for leadership in that restoration.
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