Rusty Reno’s analysis of contemporary Western intellectual culture

Recently, a Festschrift celebrating the work of James Jordan was released. Both Joel and Peter Leithart linked to Rusty Reno’s introduction to the book, posted at First Things. In Reno’s introduction was a compelling analysis of where we find ourselves today.

By my reckoning, our intellectual culture has come to a dead end. Concepts are powerful and necessary tools for uniting and intensifying our grasp of reality, but they have come to be super-eminent. As evidence, consider the fact that “critical thinking” now supersedes any particular body of knowledge as the goal of humanistic education. Thinking about culture—having the conceptual sophistication to identify and analyze cultural practices and patterns—has taken the place of participating in a culture and arguing about what is right and wrong, what is true and false. We have been romanced by Hegel’s dream of absolute knowledge, which turns out not to be knowledge at all, but instead a knowingness about how knowledge is produced, disseminated, and preserved in all cultural systems. The result? A deracinated intellect skilled at debunking but increasingly incapable of sustaining substantive beliefs.

The church in the West does not just participate in this trend. To a great degree the church herself has fueled our collective movement away from substance. As Richard Popkin observed decades ago and Ephraim Radner more recently and with more richly detailed theological evidence, the division of the church in the sixteenth century threw the substance of the Christian faith into doubt. Faced with contradictory beliefs, it became tempting for Western intellectuals to try to adjudicate between the differences by shifting attention away from the what of belief to the how. From Descartes onward, western philosophy has been in the grips of arguments more focused on the how (epistemology) of belief than what(metaphysics). Hegel represents a desire to mediate rather than adjudicate. After Hegel, by and large our interest in the how of belief shifts from epistemology to historical or cultural analysis, allowing us to talk about how Protestants and Catholics have developed different ways of expressing the common sacramental or Incarnational or Trinitarian genius of Christianity. The result? An increasingly abstracted faith that tends to affirm doctrines or theologies or “faith dispositions,” always at one or two removes from the concreteness of scripture and worship….

Nearly twenty years ago, I read Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature by Erich Auerbach. It is a great and strange book, written by a secular German Jew who had fled to Istanbul just before the outbreak of World War II. In a series of close readings of only a few pages of twenty classic texts from Homer through the New Testament and the Song of Roland all the way to Virginia Woolf, Auerbach sets himself against Hegel and the Triumph of the Concept, which he saw as the taproot of Fascism and the murderous ideological brutality of the twentieth century. Auerbach does not argue. He does not analyze. Instead, in loving attention to textual detail, he lifts up the tradition of realism in Western literature that was born, he suggests, on the pages of the Scriptures. When words serve the concrete particularity of the human condition, Auerbach observes in one of the few general statement in this very long book, we find an intellectual humanism that surrenders itself to “the wealth of reality and the depth of life.”

I’m not sure if I met Jim before or after reading Auerbach, but it was around the same time, and it had a similar galvanizing effect. There was something about the immediacy of the Bible in his thinking, an immediacy entirely at home with many levels of intellectual sophistication. I was attracted to something in Jim’s biblical vision akin to Auerbach’s devotion to literary realism. The Scriptures serve divine reality, and because God is love, the sacred pages serve human reality as well. With every conversation I become more and more convinced that it is not Van Til or Rushdoony or any other grand synthesizer that gives Jim’s ideas their sparkling allure (even the ideas I think are wrongheaded). To be sure, the Big Picture guys of years past add those layers of sophistication. But to my mind it’s a scriptural realism (if you will permit me the formulation) that gives an electrical charge to Jim’s ideas.

For too long I thought that the key to being a Christian intellectual was on the “intellectual” side—reading smart books in philosophy, literature, political theory, and so forth. Jim has taught me otherwise. We need to read those smart books. The intellectual engine needs fuel to burn. But the key element is on the “Christian” side. We need something like Jim’s scriptural realism. The concreteness and historical density of the Bible is alive with human reality betrothed to God’s purposes, always already on the way to being “heavenized” as Jim puts it.



  1. Reno wrote: “A deracinated intellect skilled at debunking but increasingly incapable of sustaining substantive beliefs.

    Reno’s wording made me smile. It’s like an academic is castigating academics for being academic. 🙂 He’s criticizing their critical thinking. More specifically I think he’s saying that intellectuals tend toward excessive and improper criticism, tearing at all beliefs, making them all seem insubstantial and relativistic. Is that what you get from him, too?

    I think it’s a fair assessment of human nature. It seems closely related to failures of proportionality, prioritization, and statistics. Perhaps experts know specific details so well that they can miss the overall point and over-engineer solutions. The closer we look at the trees, the less we can see the forest. With our hammer, we look for things to whack.

    I have also wondered about the association of “humanistic” or “liberal arts” education with “critical thinking” in general. Logic and the ability to pick apart arguments is valuable, but is a liberal arts education demonstrably the best way to learn that skill? Perhaps that should be the first topic for critical analysis.

    Reno’s theological point resonates with me as well — placing practical, real matters above the theoretical. Christianity is and should be exciting and joyful and practically significant to our lives.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all and to all a good night! 🙂

  2. For a culture that thrives on historical amnesia, critical thinking is all we have left to avoid being bamboozled. Logic is also helpful when it comes to the sciences, which are regarded as the highest form of culture by much of our society.

    It is hard work to build deep, thoughtful spiritual practice into our individual lives and culture as a whole. It is much easier to snipe at things that don’t make sense, and when the entire society seems to be making things up as we go along, there is lots to snipe at.

    ” Faced with contradictory beliefs, it became tempting for Western intellectuals to try to adjudicate between the differences by shifting attention away from the what of belief to the how. From Descartes onward, western philosophy has been in the grips of arguments more focused on the how (epistemology) of belief than what(metaphysics).”

    I think that getting the “how” right is much more important for those coming up with ideas than for those receiving and understanding those ideas (the “what”). Thus, I think that the elevation of individual conscience (whether formed properly or not) over hierarchical authority tends to encourage this trend in theological thinking. There will always be those who reject the authority of the bishops to set doctrine (e.g., the Judaizers of the NT who taught contrary to the apostles that all Gentile converts to the Jewish sect who followed Jesus needed to be circumcised). For any group starting out on a path to figure things out for themselves in the absence of reliable authority, there will necessarily be a dramatically increased emphasis on the how/epistemology as opposed to the what/metaphysics of faith. When people are able to progress from the “how” to the “what” of faith, they often understand it more deeply than those who started and ended at the what. However, IMO, our cultural blinders and historical amnesia often prevents the average person practicing the “how” of faith from arriving at the true “what” of theology. Also, the seemingly incessant churn of theology and practice makes it harder to integrate the truths one has arrived at deeply into family and societal life.


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