Dr. Russell Reno: Radical Middle Theologian?

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My old Sunday School teacher Peter Wagner used to joke that the First Rule of Christian Debate was to pick the worst example of the other side and use that to justify your own position. Alas, he knew from painful experience that such tactics were no laughing matter, but all too common a problem in theological circles.

Which is why I was so thrilled to run across the writings (excerpted below) of Episcopalian professor Dr. Russell Reno of Creighton University in Nebraska. His writings display that rare combination of:

* an in-depth understanding of the challenges of both modernity and post-modernity
* a disciplined desire to understand both the strengths and weaknesses of alternate viewpoints
* the ability to lucidly identify the central issue in dense theological debates
* a heartfelt commitment to Jesus and historic Christianity

My only regret is that — at least in his writings — he seems, well, sad; almost a Jeremiah tenaciously clinging to faith amidst the ruins of contemporary Christendom. I wonder if contact with Transformationalists from other countries might help buoy his spirits…

Project Beacon Lecture Series

III. A Faith Prescription

1. Cultivating honesty and self-knowledge. We need to examine ourselves carefully for motive and conviction, recognizing that what we ultimately want is to be led toward some kind of light.
2. Practicing patience. Substantial living faith cannot be created in an instant. We must be willing to put in the time to build a strong faith over the years.
3. Going back to basics. Faith must be primitive and childlike, based on religious ABCs. These ABCs must be learned from true sources of faith, starting with the Bible.
4. Submitting to the words of the Bible. By practicing the spiritual discipline of reading and memorizing scriptural passages, we bring the word of God inside us — as if we are swallowing the bread of faith. Immersion in the words of the Bible and submission to what those words say lead to strong faith.
5. Praying the daily office in the Book of Common Prayer. Allowing the liturgy to saturate our minds with ancient patterns of prayer leads to a stronger foundation of faith.
6. Acquiring a reverence for genuine holiness. Learning to recognize manifestations of what is holy — in martyrs, saints, monks such as the Dalai Lama and other revered spiritual leaders — helps us to strive for stronger faith in our own lives.

Dr Russell Reno on Dr. Alistair McGrath’s “Renewal of Anglicanism”

This, then, is Alister McGrath’s advice for renewal: take the risks of embracing evangelicalism, for in the pervasive liberal climate of the Episcopal Church, they are not risks at all. Whether or not one has a great fondness for American evangelicalism, McGrath’s proposal should be welcomed. For the whole point and purpose of his tilt toward evangelicalism is the confidence that Anglicanism, seen as it desperately needs evangelicalism in order to renew its Christian vigor and intensity, has within itself the resources to transform the powerful evangelical expression of Christian faith into something at once more anciently catholic and more contemporarily liberal. It is a confident hope worth pursuing.

First Things: The Radical Orthodoxy Project

The Anglo?Catholic heritage both highlights and explains the proximate basis for the turn to ideality, but Radical Orthodoxy does not simply reproduce a feature of Anglo?Catholicism. It manifests, with an intensified urgency, a problem facing postmodern theology in general. Because mainline Protestant churches are now liberal by tradition, orthodox theological practice becomes, of necessity, an invention, a determined culling from the past, an act of imaginative recovery. Milbank, Pickstock, and Ward, for instance, wish to recover the confident, comprehensive voice of Augustinian Neoplatonism, a theological vision bold enough to claim all aspects of life as ordered toward God.

But as a painful matter of fact, over the last two centuries Anglicanism has been marked by retreat, concession, and diminished confidence. Educated at Cambridge University, in the residue of the past glories of a Christian intellectual, aesthetic, and political culture, proponents of Radical Orthodoxy find reminders of the scope of Augustinian ambition. But monuments are not living institutions, and Gothic buildings are no substitute for enduring practices. Radical Orthodoxy cannot invent the flesh and blood of a Christian culture, and so must be satisfied with describing its theoretical gestalt, gesturing, in postmodern fashion, toward that which was and might be.

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 late?twentieth?century Christians actually say and do. Christianity, its Holy Scriptures and ecclesial practice, seems unable to hold all things together. Against the weakness of the gospel?in churches that seem not 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 the will?to?power reemerge. We turn to apostolic teaching and practice with an eye to improvement, correction, and enhancement. If the gospel is weak, then we will make it strong. 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 noses 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 to us to see. But paying this price is necessary in order 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 in theological reflection, and despite our hope 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 concrete faith and practice of the Church, and only he can give power and potency to a postmodern theology that is genuinely orthodox. For the Son holds all things together in the Father.

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