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R.R. Reno's Paper Trail to Reality

Image by PDPics via Pixabay. Image by PDPics via Pixabay.

I don’t get much time for leisurely reading while class is in session. Keeping up with daily readings, weekly writing assignments, career goals and relationships is enough to fill a day. But there is one publication I always make time for: First Things. I recommend you all do the same.

What makes First Things so great is not so much the content it produces but the editor who produces it. To be sure, the content is sound and academically rigorous. But the way it is presented and the purpose for which it is presented are much more impressive. Under the direction of R.R. Reno, First Things explores the tangled web of religion and culture in the English-speaking world with a decidedly unadorned tone. Many publications miss this mark.

Political correctness, the broad social and political effort to censor or avoid language that might offend a particular gender, race or ethnic background, is often held up as a standard in both social settings and academic or secular publications. Usually this is an attempt to monitor racial prejudice and avoid insulting the marginalized—both of which are objectively bad things. But the problem is such standards often disrupt effective dialogue. I’m not saying we all need to be walking around touting racist bigotry and burning rainbow flags—again, both bad things. What I am saying is that breaking social conventions is necessary for penetrating the reality of many of the pressing discussions this generations faces—like the gay rights movement, abortion, the legalization of marijuana and gender theory. Flannery O’Connor, the great Southern-Gothic master of the short story, was quoted as saying, “most of what I do is a breach of etiquette not charity.” Sometimes being frank is the charitable thing to do.

Like his predecessors, but in a more daring fashion, Reno flirts with the line of political correctness. The mission of First Things has always been to bring the culture back to its first principles—to go back to the drawing board, if you will. This is a difficult task and it doesn’t allow for much sensitivity. There’s not much room for political correctness when truth is on the line. In the April edition of the The Public Square, the editor’s page in First Things, Reno wrote:

“The moral law is written on the gentile’s heart, as St. Paul puts it. As a consequence, all of us—including gays and lesbians themselves—have a sense that there’s something right about traditional sexual morality. It’s very painful when an internal voice whispers assent.”

This line gets at what a “first-thing” is—something written on the heart, plainly intuited and self-evident. Whether or not Reno is right in saying this is a different question, and one that I am not trying to answer, but by doing so he opens up the discussion in a way political correctness does not allow for. He asks the difficult questions: Is there a moral law? Are we trying to suppress it? Does it even exist?

A fruitful discussion is going to begin with questions of this kind—questions of first principles. In the same issue, Reno writes:

“This mentality [multiculturalism] says that Muslims are radicalized because they are being stigmatized by the dominant society. The solution is inclusion and more diversity. We should celebrate cultural differences, etc. A nice sentiment, perhaps, but increasingly out of touch with reality.”

Again, the legitimacy of the Islamic religion is not the question here. The questions that arise from Reno’s statement are what is important. To really drive the point home, Reno then writes, “whether one is progressive or conservative, an internationalist or a nationalist, secular or religious, one needs to grapple with what’s real about reality.” This is what First Things is all about: what is reality? Political correctness makes answering this question more difficult.

G.K Chesterton used to say, “Break the conventions. Keep the commandments.” Doing what is politically incorrect is not necessarily disrespectful or uncharitable, to use O’Connor’s language. It is what fosters real discussion and brings us to the truth of reality. The Intercollegiate Review, under the tutelage of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, is another outlet for students to think critically about these issues. In fact, in the April edition of First Things, Roger Scruton called the Intercollegiate Studies Institute “a safe-haven for conservative students.” We need to remember what the goal of these institutions is—we need to return to our first things.

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