Thinking In Public

April 7, 2021

Facing the Intersection of Culture, Politics, and Religion in the Secular Age: A Conversation with R. R. Reno, Editor of First Things

Transcript

Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Russell Reno is the editor of First Things Magazine. It is one of the most important periodicals in the United States. A native of Baltimore, Dr. Reno earned his PhD at Yale University. He's written numerous books and articles, and of course, he regularly appears in the pages of First Things. I want to draw attention to his two most recent books, most importantly, the Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West; and just before that, the publication of his book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society.

I commend both of them to you for your reading. First Things Magazine was started by the late Richard John Neuhaus, one of the most important public intellectuals in the United States. First Things continues that conversation in that line. It's a very important meeting of theology, culture, ethics. Well, just about every part of the contemporary conversation that deserves attention, and a very high level of attention.

Russell Reno, welcome to Thinking in Public.

R. R. Reno:

Great to be with you.

Albert Mohler:

Well, here we are at the time of asking basic questions and I've looked forward to this conversation with you because we can talk about some of these basic questions. Basic questions about the position of any kind of convictional Christianity in the modern world, questions about the church in this very perplexing age, and questions about, I think perhaps right in the center of our conversation, questions about what it means to try to conserve the permanent things in the midst of a society that seems to be at war with them. There's a lot for us to talk about.

R. R. Reno:

Indeed.

Albert Mohler:

You've been writing about these things for years. And you wrote about them as an Episcopalian. Now, you write about them as Roman Catholic. You wrote about them as a professor at Creighton University, and now you write about them as a theological cultural journalist and as the editor of First Things, which is in my view, one of the most important journals of intellectual conversation in the United States.

Lay out the landscape for us. Just tell us where you see things, and we're having this conversation about 25% into 2021. What does the world look like?

R. R. Reno:

You described the feeling that we all have, men and women of faith, that we're operating on different terrain, new terrain. And I would characterize it this way. It is not the case that fewer people are going to church. I think that if you look at church attendance statistics, they've been really strikingly constant over the last hundred years, something like 35% of Americans say they go to church every Sunday and about 25% according to more accurate studies actually go to church.

But the big change is that a really dramatically increasing number of people have no connection to Christianity at all. So when I was a kid growing up in Baltimore, Maryland in the '60s and '70s, people didn't go to church but they thought of themselves as Christian. So they accepted Christianity as the sacred canopy for society.

Now, my guess is that 50% of the graduates of Ivy League institutions today have no idea of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. And that was not true when I was a college student 40 years ago. I'm not saying I went to college with people who believed, but they knew something about what their Jewish and Christian religions actually taught.

So that's a big change, and I think that helps explain why we feel now that we're kind of voices crying in the wilderness. And I think we just have to adjust our expectations accordingly.

Albert Mohler:

As a historian and theologian, I would try to trace it a little bit this way and see if it makes sense to you. The dominant worldview that was accessible to most Christians was pretty much the dominant worldview accessible to most Americans throughout most of American history.

That overlap of metaphysical visions was basically a Venn diagram in which there would have been very little outside the center. And that didn't mean that all Americans were believing and confessing Christians or that they were active faithful churchgoers. It did mean that understanding your truth, reality beauty, law, government, it was basically drawn from Christian foundations.

I think the slippage there began really early in the process of American history. And certainly by the time you get to the late 19th, early 20th centuries, the trends are accelerating. It seems to me that there was something of an interregnum in the period of the Second World War and the Cold War, kind of a reconsolidation of a civic religion that was beginning to break up, I would argue, before the Second World War.

But now we're just reaping the whirlwind of the fact that as you say, there are just so many people today who have no cognitive connection to Christianity. They have no Christian intuitions and frankly, they don't even know that they don't have them.

R. R. Reno:

Yes, I mean, I think your observation about mid-20th century is correct. There's no question that the trauma of the Great Depression and then even more the horrors of World War II really caused people to sort of take a step back and reconnect with permanent things, especially religious space. It was a time of growth of the churches.

I knew Avery Dulles, Cardinal Avery Dulles and he said that his father ... He grew up in a kind of Easter Christmas, that his father in the late '30s and during the war became more religious and started going to church every Sunday. And so I think you're right. If those events hadn't happened, we would look a lot more like Europe, I think.

We would have secularized more quickly in the middle of 20th century, but we didn't. I'm a former mainline Protestant Episcopalian and I was kind of bitter at what I saw as the betrayals of the classical faith by liberal Protestantism. But now in my older age, I looked back and think, "Well, I should give those men some credit. They kept Christianity alive, animating our elite culture from one generation, maybe even two generations longer that might have otherwise been the case.

And I think our country is much the better for it. And I really do fear the future of our country where we are no longer livened by our Christian inheritance. I think we could become a much crueler ... I think the world revolution that we are experiencing of political correctness, it is so punitive and merciless. And I see that as an evidence of this dominance of the rise of this post-Christian way of outlook on life.

Albert Mohler:

I was asked the other day by a national reporter if I could give an assessment of the anger on the Christian right. And I said, well, if you fear the anger on the Christian right, I just want to tell you, you should really fear the anger once the right is not Christian. That non-Christian right is going to be fueled by an anger far beyond anything on the Christian right. But the fact is that we're living in a culture in which we have become a people to be studied.

R. R. Reno:

Not listened to. No, that's well said. And I do think you're absolutely right about the importance of Christianity on the right as a moderating force. I see the anger arising out of a feeling of betrayal. People feel that the leaders of the country have betrayed the American way of life. And betrayed them whether it's economic globalization that's led to the loss of good paying jobs for high school educated people or whether it's the fact that hundreds of thousands of people died in heroin overdose before anybody actually noticed.

So there are many ways in which, and there are many good reasons for them to feel betrayed. But Christianity warns us to not to make anger the root of our lives, and it presses us to reach out and try to forge bonds with our political adversaries to work towards what we could achieve together.

And so I think many of my progressive friends, secular friends, they really think Christianity as part of the problem on the right. And I say, "Oh, no, no, no. It's definitely not part of the problem. It's a much uglier future if we don't have that powerful influence on the right."

Albert Mohler:

Right. And without getting too deep into matters of merely political controversy, often difficult to get out of, if you go back to the January 6th, insurrection at the capital, the picture that is shown everywhere is of someone who was either actually or impersonating a pagan shaman, and for every reason, visual and political, there's every reason why that picture is still being published everywhere. But I just want to say, “do you know anything about Christianity? Do you know anything about paganism? This person was not standing up as an archbishop. He was not impersonating a vicar or a church warden. There's a very different picture here.”

R. R. Reno:

In my book, Return of the Strong Gods, one of the reasons that I think it's important for us to try to cultivate the unifying strong loves that unite people together is that people are going to find some way. And if we don't provide our country with noble loves, then perverse and destructive loves will arise from the darker forces of our society.

I mean, I think that the man, I guess he was living with his mother. He's a so-called actor living with his mother. So maybe not to most-

Albert Mohler:

And a vegetarian insurrectionist, vegan insurrectionist.

R. R. Reno:

So maybe not the most stable person but then all the more reason to worry because he's really unstable. Our Christian faith grounds us in reality, and that it's angry, unstable people that are dangerous to our civic. Like the woman who was killed, she was a veteran business owner, should be a pillar of her community but she was in this bizarre three-way, so-called open marriage. And she was very susceptible to conspiracy theories, not any connection to a religious community.

So I think that one of the things I'm concerned about in our society is the extent to which we have become atomized and people are isolated and they lack the ballast. They're not anchored. And as a consequence, they can be swept up into ideological fevers. And I think that's one reason that political passions run so hot. It's actually a consequence of de-Christianization because people turned to politics as their highest love.

Albert Mohler:

I want to go back to our narrative as you were laying it out. Going back to liberal Protestantism, you give them much more credit than do I. I have to respond as a confessional Protestant that you're having abandoned the faith, they try to keep the form. And you credited them with perpetuating the form for some time but it really wasn't much time at all.

And I think you acknowledged that. Perhaps for a few decades, some vestigial influence of Christianity appeared in the elites and in the elite structure. After all, John Foster Dulles was Secretary of State. And I had, by the way, the opportunity of meeting Cardinal Dulles and recognizing what an interesting transition point in human history he was just to be able to speak to him and had a very honest conversation and exchange.

But his father was one of those towering Titanic figures, but it is increasingly apparent there wasn't much theology there. But there was something of an enduring even transformed Christian ethic in his mind. And I think that what has shocked a lot of Christians. They had thought that Christian ethic, and I should say historians of Christianity. They thought that Christian ethic could survive the laws of Christian faith, and that's just not so.

R. R. Reno:

History has proven that that's not so. I certainly agree. I would put the liberal Protestant project in America back to people like Phillips Brooks. I think it's a late 19th century thing. So I think it was kind of cut your losses retreat from their Orthodox faith that was a slow process over ... It took about a century in my estimation.

Look, I share with you a deep criticism of the betrayals that mainline Protestantism represents betrayal. I mean, J. Gresham Machen is one of my great heroes. Christianity and Liberalism is a classic book of English language theology, very prescient as well. So I do think we are now at a point where the de-Christianization of the Protestant Elite is we're really feeling it.

And our country is led by people and that's one of the sources of division and conflict in our society, is that this post-Christian sensibility is more likely to dominate in the top 20% than in the general public. And that this is just one way in which the people running the country are increasingly culturally detached from the people whom they lead.

Albert Mohler:

The modern project, I think, turns out to be far more hostile to Christianity in ways that are far more effective than Christians that if you still look at the 20th century, you look at New Orthodox in the early decades of the 20th century, an attempt to make some kind of peace with modernity but yet to maintain some continuity with classical Christianity.

At the expense, by the way, I would argue not unimportantly metaphysics. And then you had the various developments in the 20th century coming all the way down to where we are in the 21st. But in thinking about that, you and both of your most recent books really offer what is not a hopeless but is a very open eyed understanding of modernity itself and its effects upon both the society at large and the historic Christianity. So lay that out for us a bit.

R. R. Reno:

I was very influenced by Karl Barth when I was a young student and Saint Augustine's idea of sin, the root of sin is pride. And so I very much believed that the problem with modernity is that it encourages us a Promethean pride that refuses God's authority.

As I was teaching in the 1990s and engaging young people, I became more and more ... Well, I became less and less confident in that diagnosis. And I began to see that actually our society is more bewitched by what I call this sort of god's weakening or weak gods, health or I called them the hearth gods in resurrecting the idea of Christian society, with health, wealth and pleasure.

And so, it's the materialism of modernity. It's really Jeremy Bentham, who was the great seducer and not Ralph Waldo Emerson. I used to think Emerson is a great "to thine own self be true" kind of preacher, and in some ways, there is an element for our freedom Christ has set us free. And so there is a kind of powerful Christian echoes in a lot of this Promethean pride.

And there's a way in which I can make a case and I do, that a culture of freedom really emerges out of a culture of faith because it reaches people who can actually stand up in this current time of political correctness and say, "No, men are men, and women are women. Marriage is between a man and woman. Homosexual acts are sinful." We actually have the courage to say that because of the power of our faith, and that's an amazing freedom that I think is increasingly precious in our time.

But now we go to the Benthamite dominance, the empire of utility. And it says, anti-metaphysical small view of human destiny. So I kind of would rather have a grandiose Promethean adversary than the sort of small ball, let's just stay safe and maximize our utility. If we just get more GDP growth, it doesn't really matter what people believe morally.

And so, I think that's my sense of the trajectory of 20th century modernity. And so the more de-Christianized we come, actually the less Promethean we are, the more frightened we are, the more anxious we are, the more fragile. A Promethean society does not ask for safe spaces. And we are a society that wants to save spaces. This tells us that people are disempowered. They're fragile. They're anxious and just people don't want to live that way. And this has become my Augustinian in the sense that our heart is restless until it finds its rest in God.

And so, I think that we could ... That's why I call it The Return of the Strong Gods, people want to live for something other than themselves, because you can't really live for yourself. You live for the idol of pleasure, or the idol of financial security or the idol of good health. You can't actually live for yourself. You have to serve something. And so we set up these little tin foil wrapped idols which are tiny little small things that no pagan would ever think was a noble way to live.

Albert Mohler:

Indeed. And I appreciated both of your most recent books particularly, because we have the same conversation partners, Rusty. We've been thinking with the same people and you laid these assessments out very well. I did have the interesting thought that it's kind of trapped both of your two most recent books. And that is that events are unfolding so fast that I can actually read your book and date almost exactly when you finished the manuscripts by where the issues drop off.

And I think that's never been true, at least in my lifetime. By the way, you and I are born in the same year, 1959, so our lifespan covers much of the same territory. Let me tell you this, as a young evangelical theologian, young Protestant theologian and very much concerned as an Augustinian, as a reformed theologian for the perpetuation of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

In all of my early years, even during the time nearly 30 years I've been president of this institution, I thought that the great challenge was epistemological. And I thought the great challenge was to revelation. The great challenge was to the authority of scripture. The great challenge was to truth, just in terms of everything from deconstructionism to the complete subversion of truth that kind of marks the academy these days.

I came to the conclusion about 20 years ago that ontology is actually a more urgent crisis. And as you know, from both sides of the equation so to speak, that's not a usual place for a Protestant to go. But we're all kind of getting there if we're thinking seriously about these issues—

R. R. Reno:

You're halfway to natural law.

Albert Mohler:

No, I'm not halfway to natural law.

R. R. Reno:

You're all the way?

Albert Mohler:

I'm pretty much all the way to natural law. But as a Protestant, it's a different appropriation of natural law, but go ahead please.

R. R. Reno:

I agree. Here's what I thought, I'm actually in the same journey because you know Barthian stuff was all problem with revelation questions.

Albert Mohler:

I wrote my dissertation on Barth.

R. R. Reno:

Right, it is. But I remember I was a grad student and I read Donald MacKinnon. Donald MacKinnon was this very eccentric Cambridge theologian. And MacKinnon, he was very perceptive in his lecture called The Borderlands of Theology. And this is the time period when people were debating the rationality of religious belief. And he said he didn't think the epistemological question was really all that relevant to most people.

Most people objected to Christianity morally. They didn’t like what Christianity teaches about how to live. And I took that very much to heart, and I think over the next decade as I was saying, I realized people are frightened by what Christianity teaches. It's not that they don't think that God exists, they probably don't have an opinion one way or the other, just they find it frightening.

And then you go read the Sermon on the Mount, and it is frightening. It's like Paul, you got to die to yourself, the Old man has to die. And people say, "Well, wait a minute.” C. S. Lewis has got this wonderful passage in The Great Divorce where this young man suffers from sexual sin. He's got the lizard on his shoulder and the lizard is whispering, "You can't live without me." And I think we don't believe that we can really live in Christ's righteousness without being destroyed by the holiness of God.

And that's what the Israelites thought at the base of Mount Sinai, "Ah, keep them away." So the intuition is not incorrect. But of course, it manifests a massive lack of hope that in Christ we can enter into something we could never do or endure under our natural powers.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, I was convinced of the same thing by the way, that the primary objection to Christianity in the West was moral rather than epistemological. I was actually convinced to that by Tolkien as a young person. And it wasn't so much what he said, it's the way he told the story. And then later, I read his letters volume and he wrote letters to his son which are actually quite outstanding letters, deeply, deeply Christian letters.

And he actually makes that point and I thought in retrospect, it's kind of what I was intuiting. The outrage to Christianity is epistemological in certain circles based upon revelation knowledge. But in the main, it is just as Lewis said, what will have to change will be my sex life and that's the one thing I'm unwilling to change. That was something he diagnosed.

R. R. Reno:

We all have different bondages and we just don't believe we can endure the freedom from those bondage. And that's why I think that ultimately, that's why many people convert because they see in Christians like, "Whoa, they can do that? Wow, they can love one another? They can make sacrifices for others? They can stand up in public and say things that I'm kind of half-thinking but don't have the courage to say?"

And so, my conviction is I believe America is a ... We have a very powerful culture of freedom because that's what we cherish. I look around me today and it's just shocking to me how unfree people are. I met a young person, and he said the first thing to learn in your freshman year in college is “don't say what you're thinking.”

And as little as it can be—I think, that is going to be our witness in the coming decade. We are a people of freedom. We are not going to kowtow. We are not going to bend our knee to the gods of these idols of our age. And I think people are going to be inspired by that. I think it's actually going to be a big inspiration for people.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I share that hope. I do want to press back a little bit, and I think you've actually made this point but I'm not sure Americans love freedom all that much anymore. I'm not convinced of that, because on the American college university campus, it used to be the incubus of freedom. And now, the one thing that you really don't even hear a conversation about is freedom.

And when is the last time a major academic wrote a book on freedom that wasn't about in some historical analysis, or the deconstruction of freedom? And even the moral impulses of the society, coming from the LGBTQ revolution, it's not about freedom. It's not my freedom to experiment or whatever, it's about my bondage to this identity.

Yeah, I'm kind of concerned about this to the point in my current writing project, about a third of it is questioning really the existence of freedom in the west. I mean, just look at the cancel culture. I don't really like to use that term, but I mean free speech was born as an activist movement at University of California, Berkeley. I don't think anyone would think of Berkeley as a bastion of free speech now.

R. R. Reno:

No, I agree with you, but I guess maybe I'm a hopeless American optimist. So I just think that our fellow citizens, yes ... I mean, Americans have always been conformists. We invented mass culture. So we've got these countervailing forces in our soul as a nation. But I just have to believe that "don't tread on me" remains a powerful impulse in American people. When I was part of this group that met in California and one of the participants in the group taught classics at Cal Northridge.

And he was a public critic of LGBT ideology. And he is a very popular teacher and his students didn't agree with him, but they really admired him. He had something that they wanted. Of course, it was his evangelical faith that gave him the courage to speak out, but they wanted a little piece of that freedom because they saw it in him. He was not intimidated and dominated by the culture.

And in their hearts knew that they wanted to do that too, even if they didn't agree with him on that particular issue. They wanted that freedom.

Albert Mohler:

That's hope, and I want to acknowledge that and agree with that. However, I think what's happening right now is that when you find those professors, they tend to be about our age. The process of self-selection in the American academy right now means that I think there'd be very few. I mean, I look at some of the heroic figures, Henry Mansfield at Harvard, or Robbie George at Princeton.

I can only hope and pray there are young Mansfields and Georges walking the earth, but I'm not convinced that they're there.

R. R. Reno:

Maybe there will be outside of the universities. I mean it could be the case that the universities evolved in the direction of this sort of highly specialized vocational training for the university class. And cultural literacy, actually I think the churches will ...

We could be in a kind of Dark Ages where the churches actually carry the cultural memory of the west to the next generation. And I see that as part of our vocation as Christian intellectuals, is not just to announce the gospel to the next generation but also to convey to them the richness of our inheritance, our cultural inheritance.

Albert Mohler:

Let me say I share that hope by the way, and Christianity has served that vital role in the past where in a very different context. But I want to go back to something we're talking about. We just kept mentioning natural law, let it land there and then we moved on. I want to come back to it for a few moments.

This is a self-therapy here, Rusty, forgive me. But as a young evangelical, I thought, well, natural theology is a Catholic dead end. And it's the abandonment of revelation. So, the Catholics deserve whatever they get if in their natural law theology, they eventually reason themselves into the truth, the ontological truth but without any kind of adequate theological structure.

So, Dr. Carl F. H. Henry was a dear friend and mentor to me. And he and I presented papers at a very rarefied summit meeting nearly 30 years ago with the LGBT issues very much on the horizon but with no consonance LGBT to use at the time. But one of the questions was, can evangelicals or Protestants use natural law reasoning? And I guess there's a sense in which Barth was always barking in the background, "Nein."

But it seemed that Luther was doing the same thing, that Luther and Calvin were yelling, "Nein, no." And yet as a theologian and trying to figure these things out, I came to a different conclusion because if the main crisis is epistemological crisis of scripture, knowledge, truth, authority, then you don't need natural law for that. And I actually argued in the paper that I did write back in 1994 that the evangelical appropriation of natural law would be a step backwards, a compromise. And it's because then, I think I saw it in a classical kind of 20th century evangelical model as if using natural law, you're abandoning scriptural authority.

And honestly, I think the evangelical conceit is that you can have biblical revelation without an adequate ontology, and an ontology implies natural law among other things. I think the Catholic conceit has been that you can have binding argument, culturally binding argument, the basis of natural law, that would win in certain circumstances where revelation claims would not.

I just want to say to my Catholic friends and people like George Wigley had been writing about these for years saying, "The Protestant error is always showing up saying, 'The Bible says,' and instead, we should argue from natural law." And I just want to say, "Well, just show me the member of the senate whose mind has been changed by a natural law argument."

R. R. Reno:

I agree. It turns out that all the people arguing from natural law are Christians. Well, that tells you something right there. And I think that Saint Thomas observes that one function of revelation is to illuminate the mind, that we can actually see those things which natural thought of reason allows us to say that our minds are clouded by sin. And so even though it's ontologically accessible, it's not epistemologically accessible. And so you need revelation in order to, sort of, if you will open our eyes so we can see reality as it actually is, and even if we wanted prescribing that reality through natural law terms. So I think that's an important element there.

And I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can make natural law arguments, and they are important because they anchor our scriptural imagination as I think you're arguing that we need to do. We need to anchor the scripture, our scriptural moral imagination in a kind of philosophically rigorous analysis. It doesn't supplant. By no means does it supplant, but it adds thickness to our biblical moral reasoning.

Albert Mohler:

And it makes it tangible. And it establishes limitations and boundaries.

R. R. Reno:

One of my colleagues said to me, very much a fan of John Paul II, that John Paul II thought that he faced an anthropological crisis about what it means to be human. And he said, "No, it's worse than that. We faced a metaphysical crisis," as you called it an ontological crisis, about whether there is really anything true, anything stable. We lived in a crazy society where men can be women. That is a clear sign of our profound alienation from the real as a society.

Albert Mohler:

If I look at my own writing and theological arguments over the course of the last 25 or 30 years, I would say the greatest change that I see in myself, and I sometimes go back and read my earlier stuff. I think the greatest change is that, I hardly ever make an argument now without talking about something like the orders of creation or creation order or making tangible the fact that there is a metaphysic here, there's an ontology here. And by the way, I only know that and this is ... I mean I am inveterately protestant. I only know that by divine special revelation. Romans chapter 1, I think sufficient explanation for why the unchristian mind simply will find a way to reject the data of natural law.

But for Christians, and I love the way you put it, because I've said it virtually exactly the same way. It's Christians who talk about the debate about natural law is not found between Catholics and secular thinkers, or Protestants and the political left. It's now a conversation among Protestants and Catholics because we're the last two people who frankly care about the category, and now we share many of the common concerns that arise from it.

R. R. Reno:

The first chapter in gospel of John, that the law of God or the logos of God is it's the DNA of creation. And so we should expect it to tell us its own purpose and logic. Yes, I agree.

Now, some people I know have come to faith through natural law. In other words, here's how I put it. Just like I think people can come to faith because they see Christians and they envy their freedom. People can also come to faith because they see Christians and envy their realism, metaphysical realism. It's like, "Wait a minute. Here I am in a university and I'm surrounded by these people who are denying reality in such an evident way. Look at those people over there. They actually pay attention to what's real. They seem to harken to reality." And that also can draw people into the faith.

Albert Mohler:

Right. And I agree with that. I think that's something that C. S. Lewis demonstrated in his life, by the way, and the influence of his writings. I just have to say as an evangelical, it can bring them to the gospel but only the gospel can save them, that is only Christ can save them by means of the gospel. In other words, like I have to hear the gospel and respond to it in order to be Christian.

But they can be brought to the threshold of the gospel by simply observing the world meaningfully, which by the way, I think is a deeply biblical principle. And the Apostle Paul in Acts 17 affirms that comprehensively and methodologically by saying, you are asking the right questions.

And by the way when you say that the only people talking about natural law now are Christians, that's true. I just want to point out as you would well be able to document, there wasn't always so. I mean after all, one of the fathers, so to speak, of a kind of natural law understanding would be Aristotle, so classical philosophy found its way there, which again is I think a part of what the Apostle Paul is affirming in Acts 17.

But we're now living in an age in which the secular world is unhinged from reality, unhinged from metaphysics, unhinged from truth, unhinged from being.

R. R. Reno:

Well, I think post-Christian society has not become pagan, and not in the straightforward sense. I mean, you don't go backwards. And instead, it's weird, the woke revolution is ... I mean, Joshua Mitchell has written a book that argues I think quite persuasively that this is kind of perverted Christian guilt and the need for scapegoats to overcome guilt. I think there's something to that.

So, the post-Christian society, it's not sort of honorable pagan virtue, which is genuine virtue in a natural level, although utterly lacking in any kind of saving faith.

Albert Mohler:

It's not like we're stuck with Plutarch as our conversation partner.

R. R. Reno:

No. Well, this is what is the perplexing future that we face. You got people like Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist who, he has written for First Things and he's something of a fellow traveler. He wants to believe. One of his main character in Submission goes to monastery. He wants to believe. I think that represents Houellebecq, but he can't.

And so there's an awareness in some of these figures, I think of their sort of modern day prophets not in a biblical sense but in the secular sense of distilling the spirit of the age that Newman recognized also. It's either faith or atheism, and this sort of mealy-mouthed sort of moralism and kind of diluted Christianity of 19th century, which establishment was not going to endure.

Albert Mohler:

And they were very prescient to voices, prophetic voices in Christianity in the 20th who were clearly warning that it's not Christianity or liberal society. In some sense, Christianity are nihilism eventually.

R. R. Reno:

Yes.

Albert Mohler:

... Because that seems to mark what we're actually seeing right now, and the despair, the emptiness.

R. R. Reno:

That's one of the things too as I was working with students. I realized that the nihilism, there's a hard nihilism that can be very painful, but there's also a soft nihilism. And the soft nihilism, Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. He's the materialist Epicurean. It's a kind of consoling nihilism. If there's nothing worth fighting for, then no one will fight. If there's nothing worth dying for, then no one will die. There's nothing worth sacrificing for, I won't have to make sacrifices.

And it's a kind of lowering of the temperature of everything. You can just chill out in life. Nothing matters. So, it's not that Sartrean abyss of nothingness. Instead, it's not that nothing matters. It's that nothing really matters very much. And I think that's actually where we are as a culture. This kind of therapeutic nihilism, anytime anything makes a demand in our souls, we discount it, we deconstruct it. We critique it.

Albert Mohler:

And that works until you have a baby.

R. R. Reno:

Until you have a baby, until somebody dies, until you lose your job, yes, I agree. It works. It's funny, the beginning of life and the end of life are these great powerful, very, very powerful realities for people. It's not an accident that young people typically come back to church after they get married and have kids. I don't think it's just a cultural thing. I think it's actually a natural spiritual response, the gift of new life.

And death is another one. It's always hard. That's where reality really puts a stamp on your life. And death of loved ones is ... The pain of the death of loved ones, it's hard to explain that away.

Albert Mohler:

Someone responded to me in anger in social media. And I don't track it much, but I happened to see this. Someone responded to me in anger in social media and said I want nothing to do basically with your God or all the rest, and when you die, you'll be doing the same as I will do and in a dirt nap. And I've never seen that expression before. It may be common but I've never seen it before.

And I looked at that and I thought, if that's true, then forget all of this. I mean, if that's true. But then I thought, if that's true, I'm not sure you care about the argument this guy evidently is so upset about. In other words, there's an inconsistency here.

R. R. Reno:

Well, people convert you to materialism, which is a very interesting contradiction. And I think it speaks to Saint Augustine's insight which is that the human heart seeks something higher and we're just never going to be released from that desire to give ourselves to something higher.

In this case, this guy is getting himself to some philosophy or materialism which he serves and wants to convert you to. In that sense, the materialism is ... So, I see this kind of lowering the temperature. This is why political correctness, it seems to be full of voiced contradictions. How come they're so moralistic but they denied the foundations of morality?

And I think I've come to see that idolatry is a system where you play one idol off the other. You got the idol for fertility, mixed demands, and then you run over and you got the idol for prosperity. You've run from one to the other and you play one off against the other. Also, I've come to see that in the Old Testament, idols are often mocked for being mute. They're just dead pieces of wood. Well, this is actually good news because you want to serve something that doesn't actually make any real demands.

So, it's funny that I've really come to see that idolatry, it's true in Romans 1. Idolatry is the mother of all disasters for, it's not that pride goeth before the fall, but rather idolatry goeth before the fall. And in the Old Testament as a whole, it's always idolatry that is the nuclear holocaust. It's really the mother of all sins.

And I've come to think that it is the mother of all sins because it can feed our desire to worship but without actually satisfying it. So, it kind of keeps us on a starvation diet of serving something higher than ourselves because if we really are abandoned with nothing to serve, then the natural human impulse would really assert itself. And better it'd be on the morphine drip of idolatry.

Albert Mohler:

There is one particular issue that I believe is driving this metaphysical crisis. And I don't mean the most fundamental issue, I mean the most pressing issue, and that's the imago dei because if the imago dei is a conceptual complement that we pay to human beings, then that can be deconstructed and dismissed. But if it's rooted in reality, and that means that has to be a being. It's not just real as a concept, it's real in being. Then, that does change everything.

And again that's very much a part of my current project, and so all the talks about rights and artificial rights and synthetic rights and natural rights and all the rest, it only makes a difference from a Christian understanding. I think that means from reality if there is a metaphysical grounding to the imago Dei in which we actually can say and must say that every single human being at every point in development from a fertilization to a natural death is a being made in the image of God, possessing dignity and life which is itself sacred because it is the imago Dei as God made clear to Noah in Genesis 9.

So, I think this is where evangelical Protestants are going to be in a lot of conversation about how in the world we maintain the faith once we're all delivered to the saints even beginning at the level of the imago Dei.

R. R. Reno:

What I think of the imago Dei is that every human being, at least all stages of development, is capable of friendship with God. So, the earliest embryo can enter into friendship with God. The Alzheimer-ridden elderly person can enter into fellowship with God. Because ultimately, that's our final end. Why did God create us? God created us in order to enter into fellowship, for us to enter into fellowship with him, so he could draw us to himself not as demigods but as human beings.

And I think the imago Dei is the doctrine that lets us say, "We can be in fellowship with God as human beings because we are imprinted with the image of God."

Albert Mohler:

I have ongoing conversations in my head with lots of people, some of them for a brief amount of time. Some of them, for my entire adult life. Some of them since I read their book or work. Some of them were dead. I read the book centuries after they died. Some of them very much alive.

One of the books that's been a constant conversation partner to me in the background is After Christianity by Gianni Vattimo. And it's clear that you have an ongoing conversation with him as well. It struck me that his idea of weakness is a very, very accurate description of what really is the essence of modernity eventually. It's this very weak claim.

Look, Rusty, I'll be honest. I think evangelical Christianity is looking increasingly like the weakness that Vattimo indicates here. And I guess if I'm just looking at it phenomenologically, I have to wonder if he is not right in everything. Again as a Christian, I'm bracketing that for a moment, is that it ends up because ... And in your most recent book,The Return of the Strong Gods, you really deal with the fact that that weakness is, it's almost like a malignant cancer spreading throughout the entire world of meaning.

R. R. Reno:

It's the gospels without the resurrection of Christ. I mean the resurrection is the power of God, and what Vattimo has is the kenosis of God without his triumph. And so it's alluring and I think this is one reason he's an interesting character, is that he is a spokesman— I mean Nietzsche thought that Christianity ultimately was a slave morality that preached the triumph of weakness over strength.

And there's a Death of God theologians of the '60s. Vattimo knows that he is reinventing their thinking or Bultmann, Paul Tillich. For a person educated in 20th century protestant theology, liberal protestant theology as I was, there are many echoes of those figures as they're trying to coordinate Christianity with modernity. It's just particularly naked and clear in Vattimo's case about where it all ends up.

But that's not Christianity. I mean Christianity, it's not a weakening. It's redemption. And the resurrection of Christ is the triumph of God. Tom Wright is really excellent on this. But you look at it, the Catholic church, since the Second Vatican Council, there really has been not a whisper of the church militant. And the church militant, that was the Catholic form of the Christus Victor theme and that image of Protestantism emphasized.

So, your intuition is correct. I think it's true on my side of the aisle that Catholicism manifests much of the weakness that Vattimo identifies. That’s probably why it’s such an influence on me. He was the one who, he represented with his verbal punches that the incarnation of God in Christ is not a sort of meek invitation but a direct challenge, a kind of punch in the jaw to the slumbering, sinful human being.

Albert Mohler:

And on the resurrection, Tom Wright has been a very, very brave defender, not only of the truth of resurrection but of its magnificent eternity shaking truth. And I'd say both at the metaphysical and the epistemological level, he's done a very brave defense. What concerns me with someone like Tom Wright and among many thing to be honest, is that many of the issues we're talking about here such as ontology, such as even the LGBTQ revolution, you won't get any firm word from so many about what the meaning of these things is now. It's very easy to push it all into eschatology.

R. R. Reno:

That's a very good point. You defer your answer into end times. Yes, I can't speak for others. Early in, I think I was at graduate school in the '80s that L and the G part of the LGBT was very much in full force. You just have to make up your mind whether nature has a say and how it order our lives. And then you have to make a decision about how many enemies you want to make. I don't want to make any enemies, but you know what I mean?

Albert Mohler:

No, I do. How many enemies you're willing to make?

R. R. Reno:

Yes, you're willing to make.

Albert Mohler:

By the way, I love your phrase, whether or not nature has a say. And this gets back to ... I will say that my formula that I teach all the time, and this came to me almost as poetry in my mind and that is ontology always trumps autonomy. And so I mean I will say, and I know you mean this, nature will have a say. I guarantee, anyone who considers the question, nature will have a say.

R. R. Reno:

We just experienced that for the last year.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely. But I was talking to LGBTQ activists and just absolutely presenting. I mean I wasn't making up the fervor. I mean this was absolute commitment to, especially the transgender non-binary thing. And I said, "Well, here's the thing. If and when this civilization is no more, and some subsequent generation of voluntaries comes back and excavates, and they find any individual's grave. And they find DNA, that molecular structure is going to be XY or XX. And whatever claims were made about that individual or by that individual during that entire individual's lifetime or memory will come down to still what is XX or XY, and nature will have its say."

R. R. Reno:

That would make the further point that nature is a gift. In other words, God's creation is a gift. And we are happy in so far as we live in accord with nature, and those who are falling as we are disordered in relation to nature. And I think one of the harms that the LGBT movement does is to make it difficult for children or young adolescents to sort out what it means to be a man or a woman. You would say, "Well, why would they sort it out?" Well, we're fallen. We live in a disordered condition.

And so we've really short circuited the process by which young people can try to figure out, what does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? And this is going to lead to a lot of unhappiness. We already see it. In our colleges, in universities, a lot of unhappiness.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. They are not little universes of happiness and fulfillment. So even meaning.

R. R. Reno:

Yeah. So I think we need to speak for the truth, I mean obviously, and I think on the LGBT thing that's really crucial. But I think Christians ought to also know that this is an act of charity, is to speak the truth in love, so our motive should be love. But truth speaking in this crazy moment of our history is an act of love in itself because you're breaking the charm of error and allowing people to like wake up. Maybe some of them will wake up and go, "Wait a minute. This is the right way to live."

Albert Mohler:

It's been fascinating conversation. And by the way, I have this conversation with you and your colleague at First Things quite regularly every issue. I have the entire library of First Things going back to the very first issue. I was honored to know Richard John Neuhaus. I am very thankful for the voice of First Things and very much a part of this conversation. May it continue to be so and I've enjoyed this conversation, Rusty. I hope we'll be able to pick it up again someday.

R. R. Reno:

Great. Well, thanks for having me and I really appreciate your ministry and your witness in these crazy, crazy times at the beginning of 2020s.

Albert Mohler:

I really appreciate my guest, Dr. R. R. Reno, Rusty Reno, for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today's episode of Thinking in Public, you'll find more than 100 of these conversations at albermohler.com under the tab, Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, got to boycecollege.com.

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. And until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

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