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Propositions On Radical Orthodoxy

Since Radical Orthodoxy has recently come up in a few discussions, I thought I’d post a few of my own basic thoughts about what’s really wrong with this particular theological movement.

  1. Radical Orthodoxy purports to be a theological theology.  It begins with a perfect theological instinct and aim: to show that all thought is fundamentally theological.  The theological is ubiquitous and there is no non-theological frame of reference for interpreting the world.  The question is if Radical Orthodoxy is in fact theological enough.
  2. Radical Orthodoxy is a neoplatonic theology. This point is directly related to the previous one. While Radical Orthodoxy purports to be radically theologically, it is in fact radically bound to the philosohpy of antiquity. Specifically, it is premised upon the proposition that the neoplatonic ontology of participation (methexis) is the necessary presupposition for a Christian ontology of particiaption (koinonia).  In fact it claims that the two are the same thing.  Thus, neoplatonic metaphysics establishes the conditions necessary for the incarnation, and the doctrine of the Trinity rather than the incarnation and the Trinity issuing in a distinctly Christian metaphysic.
  3. Radical Orthodoxy is a nostalgic theology.  It’s fixation on “Christianity/Platonism” as the to-be repristinated answer to all of modernity’s woes marks Radical Orthodoxy as an extremely nostalgic enterprise.  It longs for the time (real or imagined) when their particular metaphysic of participation ruled the philosophical imagination and when all aspects of life in church, state, and market were under the integrating rule of “the sacred”.
  4. Radical Orthodoxy is a bourgeois theology.  Those who are actually movers and shakers in this “movement” are aristocratic, wealthy, and western.  Their thought is forged in the academy, not in any sort of concrete ecclesial or political praxis.  This is not do demean rigorous academic theology, quite the opposite in fact.  Radical Orthodoxy tends to overdose on abstraction and jargon, and who is being quoted is far more important to it that what is being said.  As such, this movement as no real interest in the actual life of the church(es) in the world.  It is theology by a new brand of Cambridge Platonists written for their own inner circle.  As Rodney Clapp has observed, “You can’t just tell people to go to church and be better neoplatonists.”
  5. Radical Orthodoxy is a militant theology.  The fundamental desire of Radical Orthodoxy is to win.  It claims that only the Christian narrative is capable of narrating a world in which difference can exist nonviolently.  All other narratives lead to violence are as such are nihilistic.  The Christian narrative alone can outnarrate all other narratives and bring about “The path of peaceful flight…” (John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 434)
  6. Ironically, Radical Orthodoxy is thus an inherently violent theology.  It does not claim that the Triune God is the answer to the threat of nihilism, but rather that the answer is found in trinitarian theology.  Specifically in their own brand of gingerly platonised trinitarianism, that has more to do with abstractions about “exchange” and “gift” than about the actual missions and relations of the Triune persons as revealed in the economy of salavation (See in contrast D.B. Hart’s treatment of “gift” in The Beauty of the Infinite, 236ff).  Radical Orthodoxy claims that it is our theological narration of the sacred which will save the world from secular nihilism, death, and non-being.  As such it is both violent and Pelagian.
  7. Radical Orthodoxy is a revisonary theology.  It is based on a grand appropriation and revisionist readings of key figures in Christian history, such as Augustine and Aquinas.  The readings offered by Radical Orthodoxy of these figures are idiosyncratic and generally wrong.  Even from within their own movement, their revisionist readings of the Medievals have been strongly challenged (see James K.A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy).
  8. Radical Orthodoxy is an erotic theology.  Any perusal of the literature by the major authors in the Radical Orthodoxy series will show their fascination with speculative theologies of sexuality, gender, and the body.  This is yet another example of the theological faddishness of this movement.  The bodies that are the obsession of thinkers like Gerard Loughlin, Eugene Rogers, and John Milbank are always and inevitably coupling bodies, not emaciated, battered, or mutilated ones.  Radical Orthodoxy offers and unembodied theology of the body that seems to think that the height of bodiliness is orgasm.  As such, Radical Orthodoxy is really doing nothing more for a theology of the body and sexuality than reproducing the sex-obssessed zeitgeist of our age.
  9. Radical Orthodoxy is a varied theology.  A distinction must be made between European and American contributors to the Radical Orthodoxy series and other theologians commonly associated with the movement.  Thinkers like William T. Cavanaugh, Daniel M. Bell, Jr., D.B. Hart, J. Kameron Carter, and James K.A. Smith stand quite apart from folks like John Milbank, Graham Ward, Catherine Pickstock, and Gerard Loughlin.  The orientation of nearly all American contributors to Radical Orthodoxy is based in praxis, is more strongly ecclesial, and more thoroughly pacifist.  As such the American contribution (by authors who are all associated with the Ekklesia Project) represents a far more valuable contribution to contemporary theology.

16 Comments

  1. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden,

    how do you situate Evangelicalism within the parameters you term Radical Orthodoxy?

    Friday, June 29, 2007 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  2. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Halden,
    Your points resonate with my feelings toward the “radical orthodoxy” movement. Out of the UK contributors, I have only read John Milbank. To be honest, Theology and Social Theory left me feeling a bit sick to my stomach and has really tainted my view of the whole RO movement. I found his writing style arrogant and his positions pompous (perhaps militaristic is a better term for it). You say that RO is a revisionary theology. This is nowhere more clear than in Milbank’s nostaligic reading of “what once was.” He paints a highly imaginative portrait of Christendom. Sometimes it seems he is looking for the church to take over the world!

    Your ninth point is interesting. Because I knew Cavanaugh had contributed to RO literature, I asked him once what he thought of it all and whether he associates himself with the movement. Basically, he expressed his reservations about the movement and told me he does not associate himself with it.

    Thanks for posting this.

    Friday, June 29, 2007 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Bobby, RO has nothing to do with evangelicalism and they would be the first to say so. It is very high church and very European. It also enages with continental philosophy a lot and wants to run in those kind of intellectual circles.

    It is a specific theological movment and there’s a book series that bears the name. If you want to learn more about them, Jamies Smith’s book, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy is a great place to start.

    And you’re right, Ry. Milbank totally wants to take over the world with some weird ass intellectual Anglo-Catholicism/Socialism.

    Friday, June 29, 2007 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  4. Aaron G wrote:

    Jeff Stout’s critique of Milbank and R.O. in his Democracy and Tradition was one of the best things I’ve read recently.

    Saturday, June 30, 2007 at 7:29 pm | Permalink
  5. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Of course, Jeff Stout is also critical of Stanley Hauerwas. It seems that Hauerwas, Cavanaugh, and other theologians with similar sensibilites, tend to get lumped in with the RO movement. Halden, in your opinion what are the substantial differences between theologians like Hauerwas and theologians like Milbank?

    Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  6. Theo H wrote:

    Compare the following:

    He killed the noble Mudjokivis.
    Of the skin he made him mittens,
    Made them with the fur side inside,
    Made them with the skin side outside.
    He, to get the warm side inside,
    Put the inside skin side outside.
    He, to get the cold side outside,
    Put the warm side fur side inside.
    That’s why he put the fur side inside,
    Why he put the skin side outside,
    Why he turned them inside outside.

    George A. Strong (parody of Longfellow, of course).

    “This amalgam is a ‘thing’ not a sign, yet becomes a sign in being given to us, given as a promise or sign of future givings, and so given as the turning of all things into gift, which also means sign, since a gift is a gift only in its signifying promise of renewed gift to come.”

    Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy p.263

    There is exploring the limits of language. There is being poetic. There is also silliness and obfuscation…

    Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    You just made me want to shoot Pickstock a little bit more.

    Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    I repent of my violent words in dust and ashes.

    Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 8:18 pm | Permalink
  9. Craig Vander Hart wrote:

    Greetings. I stumbled upon this blog while doing doing homework and noticed that everyone here has a strong antagonism towards RO. You are all, of course, entitled to your conclusions, and it does appear that some of you have read Jamie’s work, and someone even quoted Pickstock (although someone here is also frequently misspelling her last name, which implies that she is not being read) – all of that to say, I’m trying to figure out how many of you have actually read the RO material. I admit, I did laugh a bit when I read the parody of RO, but I sincerely hope that the negative reaction to RO that is being proposed here is not due to the inability to engage and understand the corpus of RO. Personally I think that Pickstock is the most original and profound voice in contemporary theology. I read here that some of you are concerned that RO is all theory and no practice, but remember that RO is a new trajectory and it will take time before the ideas of RO can begin to transform the “ecclesia.” As far as the attacks against the liturgical writing of Pickstock…. I conclude that your criticism is due to your inability to appreciate that which is truly aesthetic (which would stem from the boring evangelical tradition that worships efficiency and is still stuck in modernity). So, um, keep up the good work here (and when you are ready to chat with Pickstock [or should I say - get destroyed by her] go ahead and send her an email (: I’m sure she’d appreciate it).

    God bless, Craig

    Friday, September 21, 2007 at 4:13 pm | Permalink
  10. Derrick wrote:

    I always find it a funny phenomenon–coming especially in the form of the “drive by shooting” posts that one-shot their opinion into discussions– where people who’s feelings are hurt by criticism simply accuse the opposition of having not read the pertinent material. If your so sure that Pickstock would destroy the “competition” here, or if you believe the “parody” of RO here to be laughable, why dont you man up and start a meaninful series of discussion points instead of taking the easy way out with the catch-all accusation of your opponents ignorance (and, by the way, given the somewhat off the cuff nature of typing for a blog, I find it a fairly asinine conclusion to say that a mispelled name is an indication that the material isn’t being read). Quit questioning everyone’s intelligence and prove yours.

    Friday, September 21, 2007 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  11. Craig Vander Hart wrote:

    Hello again.

    Derrick, I’m afraid that you are doing to me exactly what you accuse me of doing. You have inferred, out of probability and not out of necessity, that 1.) My feelings were hurt (which they weren’t) and 2.) That I assume you all to be ignorant (which I don’t because I already mentioned how I noticed that some of you have read Jamie’s material and thus you would not be ignorant, but regarding Pickstock – I think it is fair to conclude that if someone misspells a name repetitively, that they probably have not picked up the book).

    Now, since you want me to “prove my intelligence” I will attempt to do that by responding to the propositions.

    #1 I’m not sure what you mean by “not theological enough.” Please elucidate

    #2 I think it is better to say that RO is RECOVERING what was lost from medieval theology

    #3 I think RO is just trying to use the good resources that are available from Medieval metaphysics. Every philosopher today writes on Plato, and every theologian writes on Augustine – should we just abandon all history?

    #4 This is not only an Ad Hominem argument but it is also an Is/Ought fallacy. Simply because the thinkers behind RO have managed to make it through higher education, and have been able to afford it, does not mean that they are wealthy middle-class bourgeoisies. Neither do they claim that all “ought” to be wealthy/highly educated, in fact they lean towards socialism in many ways and heavily critique capitalism.

    #5 Language is fundamentally discriminatory, and any claim to truth is militant. The fact that you claim that “RO is militant” is in fact a militant statement.

    #6 Yes yes, RO is heavily academic, but it needs to be, it must penetrate to the core of western intellectualism. It is also young and not developed, the praxis has not arrived yet.

    #7 This statement is a bit vague and also a generalization. I think I know what you are saying, but I will have to scan through Jamie’s RO book again – it’s been a couple years since I read it). The only thing of the top of my head would be to respond by pointing to the fact that history is messy and full of interpretation. All history is revisionary – all of history is interpretation – all of history is nuanced by a language game.

    #8 Yes yes. Americans are the good pragmatists – of course, there is an assumption that pragmatism is the best way to evaluate a theological shift. Is it? Should all new theologies be applied and tested immediately? Is this not just a capitalist demand for a fully developed and efficient product?

    Cheers

    Friday, September 21, 2007 at 11:58 pm | Permalink
  12. Derrick wrote:

    First off, I want to say that Im sorry if I came off as harsh, and I appreciate you actually outlining your points of contention now. Secondly, these are not my theses, and so regarding a full response to any of your inquiries, I will have to defer to Halden (the author of this blog). But I believe I can answer a few of them.

    Regarding #2, you want to say that RO is recovering the medievil system of theology. I dont think there was ever any contention about this. On this point Halden’s thesis could be extended to theology in general, and not just RO. His point, if I am taking him correctly, is that RO’s “recovery” as it were, of neo-platonism becomes a presupposition for developing the meaning of, say, the incarnation, Christian understanding of communion (based upon RO’s participatory ontology). It then of course, becomes debatable about what this actually does to Christian theology. While I’m sure (and I dont mean this pejoratively) you would take RO to be doing theology a favor, Halden (and myself included) are both opposed to the neo-Platonic legacy within Christian theology and are skeptical regarding its actual ability to explain Christian theology at all, even in its RO renaissance. It is my belief (following to a large extent the work done by Colin Gunton, Robert Jenson, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jurgen Moltmann, John Zizioulas, Eberhard Jungel, and Catherine LaCugna to give you a better idea perhaps of where I am coming from theologically) that neo-Platonism, and much of the legacy branching off from its basic ideas (some of Augustine’s thought on God e.g.) have caused much damage. More importantly, a methodological question needs to be asked regarding any system of ontology or metaphysics that decides what reality is like before its specific application to Christianity, the Cross and Resurrection, and the Trinity. While this is obviously a simplistic take on what is a complicated issue, I believe (and, if I might be so bold as to speak for Halden) that designating neo-Platonism (even if in a ‘chastened’ version of it) or any philosophy, e.g. Whiteheadian metaphysics, as a potential groundwork for theology, is questionable.

    #3 This obviously carries over some from #2, but I think asking if we should “abandon all history,” is missing the point Halden was making. He wasn’t decrying the sources, but, we might say, the general attitude that is present in RO’s take on the sources. The “re-acquisition” of the Midievil onto-logic is in the name of “going back” to the rule of the sacred. In my own opinion, this is both mistaking the fundamental task of theology, which can never “go back” as it were, and it seems to assume also a fairly particular (I would say peculiar) historiography that longs to retrieve the insights of a “golden age,” when, in fact, there never has been a golden age, and we are still dealing with the fallout of what I believe to be the noble but ultimately failed portions of the Midievil systems.

    #4 I think you have an otherwise good point that needs to be taken into consideration (namely having a good education doesn’t make one bourgeois) but one that doesn’t address what Halden was talking about. Halden’s specific critique is not that RO is academic, nor necessarily that just because RO-ians made it through college that they are the economically elite or that they demand others to be so (in fact, Halden doesn’t even mention this at all, so Im not quite sure where you were getting this from). His specific criticism is that RO is forged in the academy and not in the church, and as such it has little to no engagement with concrete ecclesial practice. You claim in response #6 and #8 that because RO is a young movement that praxis has not arrived yet, and that to critique this is perhaps a capitalistic demand for a “fully developed product.” Yet (and this is again hoping that I am not doing Halden a disservice using my own opinions) praxis and the academic theological life cannot and should not ever be seperated. Nor is this merely a capitalist demand for a fully finished product. I believe saying that since RO is young that they have not developed praxis yet is more of a blow to RO than a defense. Obviously it comes down that you and I most likely have very different epistemological expectations, but I don’t believe that theology can be presented as something of a prolegomenal accomplishment that is first formulated and only then tested. This again seems to favor the academy over the church. Not only that, but historically speaking it runs counter to the early developement of doctrine, which was heavily shaped around doxology and catechetical initiations based upon expanded confessional and narratival formulas like the Baptismal naming of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

    Regarding your question in resonse 8 whether “all new theologies should be applied and tested immediately,” I believe the question itself to be unfairly loaded. It assumes, again, that theology can somehow exist as an independent entity of analysis that can then be tested on the church. But thelologians are not independent entities (nor should they ever strive to be) that operate outside the context of ecclesial practice. Nor again can this come down to capitalistic demand for finished product. Halden no where claims this. Im sure we can agree that theology and praxis are never finished, but are always theologia viatorum, or theology on the way, to a potentially greater understanding. The evolution of this understanding, however, is not theological evolution on its own, but is always theology done for and within the church.

    #5: You are right to point out that langauge is discriminatory, but wrong to apply this to Halden’s claim. His talk of the militance of RO is tied up not in their claims to be “right” but rather (and here Halden’s 5th and 6th thesis seem to be tied very closely together) their militance comes from the claim that RO *theology* itself is victorious and the ultimate stop to nihilism. It is, in fact, not anyones theology per se but the Triune God’s economy in history that aborts nihilism as an option (to which Halden rightly points to David Bentley Hart’s fine work). RO’s militance then comes in the thrust and form their theology takes. It claims to itself be ontologically dominant (even if this is an implicit rather than explicit claim). Both Halden’s and my position on this is that RO, and any other theology, does not need to “circumvent” nihilism by out-narrating nihilistic alternatives. If the Triune God is at base the ultimate reality, then nihilism is never an actual, live option. It cannot be “out-narrated” because the possibility of the so-called nihilistic enterprises are themselves, should God be real, possible only from God and hence, even if wrong or truncated, not ultimately “nihilistic” in the sense proffered by RO.

    Anyway, that is all I have time for right now. Hopefully Halden will jump in and clear up any mistakes I have made.

    Saturday, September 22, 2007 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  13. David wrote:

    This statement is a bit vague and also a generalization. I think I know what you are saying, but I will have to scan through Jamie’s RO book again – it’s been a couple years since I read it). The only thing of the top of my head would be to respond by pointing to the fact that history is messy and full of interpretation. All history is revisionary – all of history is interpretation – all of history is nuanced by a language game.

    As much as I admire Milbank, Truth in Aquinas is simply flat out wrong about Aquinas’ views on the relations between faith and reason (though I suppose Milbank and Pickstock would say that he does not even really distinguish them all that much). Even Smith alludes to this in his book and it has rightly been pointed out by the likes of Nicholas Lash, Wayne Hankey, Denys Turner etc. It’s this specific appropriation of Aquinas that has always puzzled me: they already have Augustine, why try and turn Aquinas into him?

    And your first post where you talk about people e-mailing Dr. Pickstock ‘destroying’ people really smacks of a petulant, playground attitude. One hopes that RO’s call for theology to shed its false humility does not amount to this. Though I don’t doubt for a minute that Pickstock would be far more gracious.

    Saturday, September 22, 2007 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  14. Robb Beck wrote:

    Halden,

    I’m curious, where in your 9 basic thoughts about RO is the notion of de Lubac and the entire Nouvelle tradition? Where is the mention of the analogia entis vis-a-vis de Lubac and von Balthasar? What about voluntarism and typological readings of Scripture; liturgy and tradition?

    We’ll have to talk about this over a beer, but your key points of contention sound like they’re coming from someone who has only read Theology and Social Theory. However, given that your list is a summary, I can’t fault you too much.

    I’ve said this before, but if you approach RO through the lens of de Lubac’s historical situation of WWII France and neo-Thomism; if you read them through the eyes of MacIntyre’s overall argument; if we take the notion of incipient postmodern nihilism seriously and it’s effect on politics and the American church to name just a few reference points, then suddenly the ‘pragmatics’ of the ethos fall into place. Eugene McCarraher is the embodiment of what I’m trying to get across here, I think, and although he’s not a RO ‘member,’ he still speaks fondly of Milbank.

    All in all, this sentiment from John R. Betz (who rocks the halls of academia with Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt and Stephen Fowl ) says it best:

    One is free, of course, to abandon metaphysics and hole up in narrative theology – nothing could be easier. To do so, however, is not only to deny the metaphysical implications of Scripture itself, which apply beyond Christian discourse to the entire universe we inhabit, but to blur the distinction between logos and mythos, indeed (as Reinhard Hutter has suggested) to make theology indistinguishable from theofiction

    (“Beyond the Sublime: The Aesthics of the Analogy of Being (Part One),” MoTheo, 21:3 2005: 375).

    I do hope you’ll be able to read the article for yourself because I think you’ll find it interesting given the critique of Barth and his Calvinism.

    Be well. Let’s grab a beer soon.

    Robb

    Saturday, September 22, 2007 at 4:18 pm | Permalink
  15. Craig Vander Hart wrote:

    Ok. I personally despise blogs (although I do have one of my own) because it is easy to misconstrue things.

    Thank you, Derrick, for giving me a better understanding of where your criticisms are rooted in. I could try to respond again, but that will just start the infinite regress of blogwars. So, maybe we can write books against each other someday (ha ha). I totally understand where you are coming from regarding neoplatonism (I am familiar with Gunton’s critique of Augustine and the Confessions as the shift towards an internalized spirituality), and thus I don’t think I would buy into the TOTAL return to medieval theology. I do think that the questions of theology never change, and since the ideas behind modernism have collapsed in the academy, I think it is only fitting that the Christian voice returns.

    Regarding RO and nihilism, I’m not sure what you mean – “the Triune God is at base the ultimate reality” – are you talking about Tillich here? Is nihilism impossible because you are asserting some sort of political/institutional determinism that disallows humanity from abandoning structure?

    I do not share your assessment of RO, but that is ok. There is a lot of good work going on in several fields of theology – I’ve noticed some mention of the Ekklesia project – good good stuff. I am a big fan of Hauerwas – though I think he is going to an Anglican church now (:

    Personally, I think the entire protestant-evangelical edifice is going to collapse – but that is just my opinion.

    ——-

    David,

    Hello. I’m sorry for the “playground attitude,” although that is exactly what you all are doing with the parody of RO and the loose comments about Pickstock, so I just figured I would play your game too (but apparently only you can play that game so I should be nice and objective here for you).

    Regarding Aquinas: I’m sure that there are difficulties and I’m sure that people of other theological orientations are going to disagree, but I really don’t have the time right now to read both sides (and truly understand both sides – since these figures – RO included – are way ahead of me in scholarship).

    Thats all. Shalom

    Saturday, September 22, 2007 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
  16. Tony wrote:

    Halden, this is one o f the least successful of your posts. Your propositions sound almost journalistic, tabloid-like, and does not do justice to the seriousness which underlies the RO project. I think James Smith does a much better job of evaluating RO. I suspect though that it is RO´s dismissal of Karl Barth that lies at the bottom of your own dismissal of RO…

    Friday, August 8, 2008 at 12:29 am | Permalink

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