Monday, October 8, 2012

Example Movement: Radical Orthodoxy

 In 1990, British university professor and Christian theologian John Milbank published his first book, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. In it, Milbank rejects the Enlightenment idea of secularity. It is, he says, a myth produced by intellectuals who pretend to rely on religiously neutral reason but who are actually pagans. Thus the "secularists" are religious but in a way contrary to Christian teachings. Christian theologians, who have been trying to adapt their theology to the conclusions reached by supposedly neutral secular scholars, should instead, Milbank says, reject the "secular" sciences and insist that all the sciences be based on Christian theology, the queen of the sciences. (n. 1)

Milbank went further. He proposed a new Christian theology. Initially he called his views "postmodern critical Augustinianism." ([11], p. 1) His new theology is critical in the sense that it challenges traditional ideas and their underlying assumptions. Milbank's theology is largely Augustinian because Milbank thinks Augustine (354-430 CE) was a genius in developing Christian theology and philosophy; Augustine faced opponents whose religion was paganism (as Milbank believed in the 1990s he himself was doing); and Augustine believed that reason and the sciences it produces are invalid unless based on Christian theology. ([1], p. 47) Last, Milbank's views are postmodern in using some of the terminology and methods of French postmodernist philosophers while attacking their nihilism. ([1], pp. 42-43) Milbank's antidote for nihilism? Christianity.

Milbank and a few like-minded Christian academics at Cambridge University continued publishing articles and books. Their movement had no name until 1998, when Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward published Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, an anthology of articles by Anglicans and Roman Catholics. ([4], p. 1) Radical Orthodoxy (RO) is an ecumenical movement. It is open to any Christian, regardless of denomination. ([1], pp. 64-65) A consequence is disagreement among advocates of RO about such issues as the value of particular organizations. For example, some members of the movement oppose the papacy of the Catholic Church and prefer administration of the whole Christian church by bishops; others support the papacy.

THEIR VIEW OF HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY. Leaders of the RO movement look back to Plato (424-347 BCE) for a fundamental element of his ontology: This world is a projection from another dimension and thus dependent on that dimension. ([1], pp. 48-49) The early centuries of Christian history produced Christian theologians, such as Augustine, who are worthy of critical study today. The assessment of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is mixed. On the one hand, RO says approvingly, he shared the Neoplatonist view that everything's very being, in this world, is an effect of God ([1], p. 14 and 19); but on the other hand, the early RO movement believed Thomas took steps toward a split of the sacred and the secular, thus making the secularizing Enlightenment possible ([1] p. 47 n. 56). Worse, Aquinas developed "natural theology," which is the "science of God" formed through observation of and thinking about nature (the effect) rather than revelation from God (the cause). ([1], p. 51)

Advocates of RO believe theologian John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) attempted to save faith by splitting faith from reason, a split that led slowly but inexorably to a divorce between theology and the secular sciences, which are the sciences of this world, the sciences that claim they rely on a universal, religiously "neutral" reason. ([1], pp. 93-94 and 96-100) Secularization accelerated in the Enlightenment period, which gave birth to modern culture, and continues largely unopposed today, in the postmodern period.

THEIR THEOLOGY AND PHILOSOPHY. "The movement," says a writer for Wikipedia, "reclaims the original early church idea that theology is the 'queen of the sciences'. This means that if the world is to be interpreted correctly, it must be viewed from the perspectives of theology. Radical Orthodoxy critiques and dismisses secular sciences because their worldview is considered inherently atheistic and therefore nihilistic, based on acts of ontological violence (of which the faith/reason, nature/grace separations are examples)." ([11], p. 2)

Theology should apply to everything, RO's supporters say. ([3], p. 8) RO is "a massive theological project [whose goal is] to re-narrate reality," notes observer Ashley Woodiwiss ([5], p. 1) In philosophical terms, the branches of that new narration are politics, ethics, epistemology, and ontology (metaphysics). Ethics among the leaders of RO seems to be the standard Christian altruism, a focus on sacrifice and love for others, primarily God and other humans.

1. POLITICS. RO rejects classical liberalism, a product of the Enlightenment, "a worldview that prioritizes individual freedom and thus values autonomy as a fundamental value," says advocate James K. A. Smith. Autonomy here is both political (a freedom of action constrained only by the rights of others) and epistemological (relying on "secular reason" unconstrained by non-rational commitments). Instead of classical liberalism, RO offers the political alternative of submission to a lord (God) and the epistemological alternative of gaining wisdom through revelation from God. ([1], p. 60, n. 113)

RO "sees the only authentic Christian politics to be socialism," Smith explains. ([1], p. 45, n. 50) Rejecting capitalism (the market), RO advocates "the Christian enterprise of a 'universal gift exchange'," not "state socialism." ([1], pp. 18-19) Leaders of the RO movement are not dismayed by the nearly worldwide disintegration of secular socialism. "In the collapse of socialism as a secular political force," says Graham Ward, a founder of the movement, "I see Radical Orthodoxy as offering one means whereby socialism can be returned to its Christian roots." ([1], p. 80)

2. EPISTEMOLOGY. As part of its critique of modernity, RO rejects "modern dualisms, such as the opposition between faith and reason," says advocate James K. A. Smith. With the ending of modernity "there ends also the modern predicament of theology. It no longer has to measure up to accepted secular standards of scientific truth or normative rationality." ([1], pp. 70-71)

"By calling into question the dualisms of modernity, [RO] eliminates a significant distinction between the secular and the sacred, thus undoing the very notion of secular reason. As a result, the modern distinction -- or better, opposition -- between faith and reason is called into question." Secularity is "the belief in purportedly objective accounts of human life untainted by faith perspectives." ([1], pp. 73 and 74)

"[D]istinctly Christian thought is 'a thinking out of the resources of revelation alone'." ([1], p. 51, Smith quoting Milbank) What is an example of using revelation as a source of principles?  "Because God has become flesh and dwelt among us, we have beheld his glory (John 1:14); thus is established the general principle that God reveals himself in the sensible or material." ([1], p. 77, italics added)

RO emphasizes "aesthetics and the arts as a medium of revelation and worship." The arts lead "to a knowledge that is 'more profound and prior to rationality'." ([1], p. 78, Smith quoting Ward) Why worship God? Operating under the assumption that everyone has a natural yearning for the supernatural, RO advocates believe "all human knowledge is subject, under [God's] grace, to theological modification and qualification." ([1], p. 12)

Leaders of the movement deny they reject reason. "The RO critique of reason is not a critique of rationality as such, as if RO sought to reject theoretical or scientific investigation. Nor does it entail ... a rejection of pagan learning," says Smith. ([1], p. 53) Instead, Milbank, founder of the movement, "indicts modern secular reason for thinking it is autonomous and neutral [that is, having no religious foundation] when such neutrality is impossible." ([1], p. 57, n. 96)

RO advocate Catherine Pickstock rejects the correspondence theory of knowledge. "[T]emporal things are only adequately known when they are received as gifts [from God] and offered back as praise of the divine. This [approach to knowing] contradicts the idea that truth is primarily a matter of mirroring inert objects." ([4], p. 4)

Milbank's early writings have led some academics to question "the universal competency of secular reason." In a later phase, particularly with Milbank's anthology, Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, the movement went "on the offensive against secularism," says Milbank. The RO movement argues for a return to medieval times, when "faith and reason were inseparable." The major turning point, philosophically, came with the work of John Duns Scotus, which eventually led to the separation of reason from faith and the supernatural from the natural. Instead the RO movement looks back to Thomas Aquinas and the earlier Church Fathers, all of whom, Milbank says, held everything in life to be dependent on God. ([6], pp. 1-2)

3. METAPHYSICS (ONTOLOGY). RO advocates a metaphysics of participation, which is the view that the creator "participates" in the creature and thereby gives the creature meaning. The postmodern belief in the independence of this material world leads to nihilism because it cuts off the source of value, God. The primal gift of God is existence; God gives existence to his creatures. ([1], pp. 74-75) This is "incarnational ontology." This is not Platonic ontology. ([1], p. 76 and n. 47)

RO's ontology is Augustinian. The divine purpose of a God of peace -- rather than Nietzsche's violence of an aggressive omnipotent will -- holds the universe together. ([3], pp. 2-5) Further, RO accepts the Neoplatonist view that meaning emanates from the One because we emanate from the One. ([3], pp. 6-7)

IDEOLOGY.  An ideology applies a worldview (a philosophy or religion, which is meant to be universal in time and place) to a particular milieu. What is the ideology of RO , a worldview that has an ontology of God causing everything, an epistemology of revelation as primary, an ethics of altruism, and a politics of socialism? Consider three elements.

1. THEIR RELATIONSHIP TO CONTEMPORARY CULTURE. RO's supporters reject the current culture, one still influenced by Enlightenment ideas of secularity, individualism, and capitalism. For radicals, rejection is not enough. "According to Graham Ward, Radical Orthodoxy is really a form of Christian cultural criticism, clearing away the rubbish of the Enlightenment" and moving toward a "fully Christianized ontology." ([4], p. 1) "There is no ideology-free zone," says Ward. ([4], p. 2) "Against these efforts [by postmodernists and modernists] to carve a place free from divine purpose -- 'the [realm of the] secular' -- Milbank argues for a conception of social reality governed by the supernatural vocation of fellowship with God," says R. R. Reno, an observer of the movement. ([3], p. 8) "Milbank, Pickstock, and Ward hope to articulate an encompassing Christian perspective that will supersede and replace secularisms both modern and postmodern." ([3], p. 2)

2. CREATING A NEW CULTURE. RO rejects all secularity, where "secular" means a neutral (nonreligious) viewpoint. RO sees secularity as ultimately (at the roots) pagan, which means religious but apostate from Christianity. ([1], p. 42) "Radical orthodoxy," in summary, says James K. A. Smith, "is a recent, particularly intense call for the development of a theoretical framework and sociopolitical involvement that are distinctly Christian at their foundation." ([1], p. 42)

After clearing away the brush of Enlightenment culture, RO advocates hope to create a "post-secular" culture, one in which no part of life is set aside from religion's influence. Because an essential characteristic of modernist culture is the drive to expand the realm of the secular, a truly post-modernist culture would be a post-secular culture. To create that culture, RO supporters are critiquing modernist (Enlightenment) culture in general and those streams of modern Christian theology that have been corrupted by trying to adapt to modernist culture. ([1] p. 33) "What we are seeing, then," says Milbank, "is the stepping back of theology into the public domain and a consideration of its relation to the whole of human thought and action." Thus, RO does not carve the world into religious and secular. It banishes the secular. ([1], p. 12)

3. SPECIFIC STRATEGIES. The RO movement looks at the past, present, and future. For the past, one goal is to retrieve the writings of Christian theologians who lived before modern times, and then working from them to develop new doctrines or continue with the old ones. ([1], p. 65)

Today, RO's main contribution to fighting the nihilism of postmodernism is to "draw aside the curtain that hides this procedure [achieving the postmodernist drive for domination by using euphemisms] from the view of postmodern fellow travelers." ([3], pp. 5-6) Further, the leaders of the RO movement believe that theology should apply to everything in life and in the world. ([3], p. 8) "Radical Orthodoxy is very clear: it wishes to renounce the compromises and half-measures of [mainstream] modern [Christian] theology and recover an Augustinian boldness on behalf of Christian faith and practice." ([3], p. 12) In particular, advocates of RO reject modern Christian theologians' acceptance of the notion that philosophy is and should be autonomous in relation to theology. ([1], p. 35)

What about the future? From the beginning of the RO movement, its leaders intended to influence politics. ([6], p. 2) RO, however, remains a theological, philosophical, and intellectual movement. It is not a mass political movement.

CHANNELS OF ACTIVISM. Members of the movement write books, such as Catherine Pickstock's After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (1998), James K. A. Smith's Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology (2004), and John Milbank's The Radical Orthodoxy Reader (2009). They participate in debates, as John Milbank did with Marxist intellectual Slavoj Zizek in 2009. ([6], p. 2) They create churches such as the Holy Trinity and Saint Anskar Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (n. 2) They write essays for journals and publish their own, The Journal of Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics. (n. 3) They maintain websites listing resources for advocates of Radical Orthodoxy. (n.4)

CRITICISMS. Criticisms of RO have arisen from both the religious and the secular subcultures. In particular, RO has upset a lot of other theologians. A few have suggested constructive criticisms to improve RO. Some criticisms have been accurate; and some have been false. E.g., one philosophizer accused John Milbank of being a follower of Karl Barth (he isn't) and a fideist (Milbank's supporters say he isn't). ([1], pp. 52-53) Some criticisms leveled against RO contradict each other. ([1], p. 64) Some critics of RO have misunderstood it. ([1], p. 63, but also pp. 49-60). Perhaps that is inevitable since there were multiple founders writing on a variety of subjects scattered through essays and books over a decade.

Members of the RO movement, as in any philosophical or intellectual movement, have been criticized for their scholarly methods, writing style, themes, idealism, personalities, and incompleteness: "Radical Orthodoxy remains loosely put together, defined by strong intuitions and theological thought experiments and lacking a systematic gestalt." ([3], p. 14) Critics say RO lacks an ecclesiology, that is, a study of the church as a seedbed for theology. RO instead emphasizes tradition but the movement has not yet identified the role of the Virgin Mary ("the living heart of the Church," says one Catholic critic). ([4], p. 1)

Some have criticized RO for not being in conformance with the critics' own denomination -- for example, for not being Roman Catholic. Secularists have criticized RO for not being secular, which of course is a main point of RO. ([1], pp. 49-50) Other critics have challenged RO's reading of history, especially its interpretations of Plato and Aquinas. ([1], p. 50) At least one reader derogates Milbank's scholarship (selective reading of history), his nearly exclusive use of Christian sources, and his attitude ("ill tempered"). ([7])

Criticisms of style include use of post-modernist jargon. ([3], p. 2) "The literature of the movement is often dense, abstract, complex, impenetrable, out-of-reach, and off-putting." ([5], p. 2) (Such criticism raises the question of how RO writers managed to be so influential if they were so obscure.)

The leaders of the RO movement attract the most criticism. For example, some of Milbank's critics attack his idealism. ([7]) The critics say leaders of the movement are generally unable to talk with RO's opponents. ([7]) Critic Eugene McCarraher attacks Milbank for being theocratic and for not addressing the issue openly but evading it. ([7]) Also, McCarraher dismissively rejects Milbank's admiration for medievalism -- an economy that consists of small-scale enterprises and is cooperative rather than competitive. ([7])

Many of the opponents of RO, but especially the ones in academia, apparently do not understand that Milbank and other supporters of RO are offering a whole worldview, a positive one. His opponents demand that he be "critical," in an academic fashion, but the critics themselves offer nothing positive. ([7], for an example)

The criticisms have not stopped the movement. RO advocates continue their theologically-inspired work in their chosen fields: economics (Daniel Bell and Stephen Long), culture (Graham Ward), politics (William Cavanaugh), and theology and philosophy (John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock). ([5], pp. 1-2)

TRAJECTORY. Movements change. For example, as others outside the movement become aware of the movement, praise and criticism can ebb and flow. One observer of the RO movement has sketched the critical reaction to RO. She shows that, in the first stage of reaction, the earliest reviews of a central work by RO founder John Milbank were generally positive reports by readers who admired the wide range of his sources. Within a few years, in the second stage, critics were questioning Milbank's inferences from his sources. Soon after, in the third stage, critics were speaking more harshly, for example, making accusations of "falsification" of history. However, in a fourth stage, some defenders of RO responded by asking the critics to suggest a better alternative and to consider RO in the context of its time. ([8], p. 1 and p. 1, n. 1)

The nature of the individuals in the movement can change too. The first members of the RO movement, who gathered around John Milbank, were all Anglican theologians at Cambridge University. Soon Roman Catholics joined. ([4], p. 1)

According to some observers, the RO movement -- which is an intellectual movement and will therefore always be narrow -- has been surfing on an already existing wave of religious revival, especially among young intellectuals. ([6], p. 2) The future will tell how much influence the RO movement has on other Christians and, perhaps through inspiration, on supporters of other religions such as Judaism and Islam.

CONCLUSION. RO is an intellectual movement that is bringing a thoroughly religious approach to Christian interactions with secular culture. The movement is radical in several ways. First, it is politically a movement that wants to make broad and deep changes: rejecting the marketplace and building a "cooperative" socialist economy based on mutual gift-giving. Second, the movement is radical in that it traces its esthetics, politics, and ethics to the foundation of the movement's worldview. Its metaphysics (ontology) is a belief in God's total responsibility for creating everything that exists; and its epistemology is mystical, a belief that reason, where it has any role at all, must start from principles revealed in holy scripture.

The Radical Orthodoxy movement is thus a philosophical and theological movement that is applying an enthusiastic and coherent mysticism to our world.

Burgess Laughlin, author,

(This post, which is based on only a few sources, is an early sketch of one sub-movement in the broader movement working for mysticism in our time. Corrections are welcome.)

[1]. This post, like most on The Main Event is mostly a record of my preliminary notes. For the description of Milbank's TST:BSR, I have drawn from secondary sources, several online book reviews. Note that in 2006 Milbank published a second, updated edition.  I have not yet read either edition. [2]. Described at: [3]. [4].

[1] James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology, Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2004, 291 pages. [2] "James K. A. Smith," Wikipedia, printed Sept. 2, 2012; 3 pages; [3] R. R. Reno, "The Radical Orthodoxy Project," First Things, Feb., 2000; printed July 23, 2012; 20 pages. [4] Stratford Caldecott, "Radical Orthodoxy," Catholic Culture, no date of publication, but original interview was in 2001, according to last page; printed July 30, 2012; 7 pages; [5] Ashley Woodiwiss, "What's so Radical about Orthodoxy?," Christianity Today, May 24, 2005; printed July 23, 2012; [6] Melanie Newman, "Lazarus-style comeback," Time Higher Education, April 16, 2009; printed July 31, 2012, 4 pages; [7] Gene McCarraher, "McCarraher on Radical Orthodoxy," Inhabitatio Deiposted by "Halden" on Feb. 1, 2010, printed July 31, 2012; 2 pages; [8] Katie Terezakis, "J. G. Hamann and the Self-Refutation of Radical Orthodoxy" (a draft of an article to be published in The Poverty of Radical Orthodoxy, eds. Lisa Isherwood and Marko Zlomislic, 2011), no date, 23 pages. [9] The Journal of Radical Orthodoxy, [10] "Holy Trinity and St. Anskar Episcopal Church Welcomes You!." [11] "Radical Orthodoxy," Wikipedia, last updated July 12, 2012; printed July 20, 2012; 4 pages;

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