Skip to content

Outnarrating Nihilism?

One of the central elements of the project of Radical Orthodoxy is based on the conception of Christian theology “outnarrating” all other metanarratives. A central claim of Radical Orthodoxy is that all other narratives or systems of thought tend inevitably toward nihilism because the only true basis for the peaceable negotiation of difference is on the basis of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in which infinite difference (namely the difference between the Father and Son, and the “second difference” of the Holy Spirit from the Son and the Father) is expressed, not in conflict, but in infinite peace and overabundant gift-giving. Thus, according to John Milbank, Christianity is “the coding of transcendental difference as peace” (TST, 6).

This idea is almost exactly right. Radical Orthodoxy is right to state that all discourses are ultimately theological and that there is no autonomous philosophical reflection. Where they are wrong is in the idea that it is Christian theology (or, particularly “Christianity/Neoplatonism”) which is required to overcome nihilism. As Colin Gunton observed, in a somewhat prescient review of the initial Radical Orthodoxy volume, if the Triune God is truly the creator of the world, then nihilism is ultimately not a real possibility. However, for Radical Orthodoxy it is less important that the Triune God is the creator of the world than that the church narrate the claim that since the church believes that Triune God is the creator of the world, it has the answer to the nihilism allegedly inherent in all other discourses.

This is wrong, not because it sees that the transcendental peace of the Trinity is the answer to nihilism, death, and non-being but because it insists that it is the church’s narration of this “counter-history” that ultimately overcomes and situates all other dialogues and discursive practices. The right answer is not to locate the power of God’s Triune peace in the church’s narration, but rather in God himself. The sublimation of nihilism is not actualized by the church’s outnarration of the modernity, but by the creative and redemptive activity of the Triune God in the economy of salvation. And what the Triune God does in redeeming the world is not to “outnarrate” all competing claims about the world, but rather to enter into them in such a way that they all find themselves located within the narrative of God’s own life as Trinity. Nihilism is not outnarrated by a more compelling ecclesial narrative, but by the actual self-giving of the Triune God in Christ which unites persons of all narratives, cultures, and nations in one Catholic body in which difference exists as communio.

The instinct of Radical Orthodoxy is right. It realizes that all other discourses must ultimately be related to the reality of the Triune Creator. However, it does not realize that it is God’s actual activity in the world in Christ that does in fact relate all created logoi to the one logos. There is no realm of “pure nature” (de Lubac) which descends into nihilism unless outnarrated by theology. By virtue of the ubiquity of Triune grace, all narratives are included by God in the work of Christ. There is no need for the church to outnarrate modernity because the narratives of modernity only exist within the narrative of God’s life as Trinity. As such, theology does not need to (violently) outnarrate all other competing narratives in order for the reality of ontological peace to become real in our world. All of humanity’s competing narratives, whatever violence or nihilism there may be inherent within them because of sin are always-already included in the reconciling story of the Triune God’s self-giving embrace of the world in Christ. God’s covenantal ‘Yes’ to the world subsumes and nonviolently embraces any and every ‘No’ from any discourse that would attempt to posit the world without God.

As such, the church’s theological task is not the outnarration and overcoming of other narratives, but rather faithful witness to the self-giving love of God in Christ. The church exists as the witness to the reality of God’s own story in which all created persons find themselves. The story of God in Christ does not outnarrate the stories of the world, but rather enflames and enfolds them within the ardor of the Pentecostal Spirit of Triune Love. The transcendental difference of the Triune God is pure, noncompetitive harmony which unites all things in Christ, as fellow members of one body. It is God’s action of overabundant self-outpouring in Christ, not our theological narrations about God which place all human discourses in their right order. Nihilism is overcome, not by anything we do, but is in fact always-already overcome because God is Triune. Radical Orthodoxy is wrong ultimately, because there is, in fact nothing that needs to be outnarrated. All narratives exist and find their closure, their coherence, and their fitting end in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Only if Christ’s resurrection is the outcome of all narratives is the reality of violence forever mitigated. And that is what the doctrine of the Trinity proclaims.

15 Comments

  1. Fred wrote:

    Beautifully put! Several years ago, I was disturbed to return to my (Jesuit) alma mater to find most of my old profs speaking of the narrative of faith, etc. The imbecility (weakness) of it left me with little to say in response.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007 at 8:05 am | Permalink
  2. roflyer wrote:

    This reminds of a bumper sticker. The one where the Jesus fish is eating the Darwin fish.
    This one:
    http://static.flickr.com/27/56670638_ddd3208e91_o.jpg

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007 at 8:21 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, for all RO’s hatred of evangelicalism, I think it’s pretty much saying the same thing as fundamentalism.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  4. halden,
    I am wondering about what David Bentley Hart’s book is in relation to the rest of the RO corpus, especially since the subject of his big book is about a lot about narrating, Triune God, and the peace of Christ. I am only surmising from summaries(Mcguckin,Others,my own cursory scanning, and your amazon review). So I hope my request/comment isnt too off base.
    I have been appreciating your upsurge in blogging lately. I am sad that I wont be able to attend the Ekklesia Project this summer, maybe next! (or maybe see you at another AAR?)

    pax

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    I think the Hart is closer to Milbank than he is to me (and Barth, and Balthasar, I would contend). But, I do think his work is better than Milbank’s by far. His engagement with other thinkers at the Barth Society Meeting in 2006 gave me much more respect for Hart than I will have for Milbank, both theologically and personally.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    Having spent several years reading from the “Radical Orthodoxy” corpus, and two studying with Milbank in his living room, it’s very clear from what you have written on the subject that you have a bone to pick with him and his project and are failing to exercise even the least bit of charity in considering his points. It’s also a huge mistake to reify some position as “radically orthodox” and then assume you are engaging in a discourse with someone’s actual opinions or ideas. Milbank himself would shy away from being categorized in such a way. Your criticisms are facile at best and scholastic in the pejorative sense at worst. The issues raised in the post above are largely semantic or the result of an overly narrow reading of “radical orthodoxy,” and if someone who might speak for the positions you impugn were to do so, I assure you that this would be made clear.

    Wednesday, July 4, 2007 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Having also spent several years reading Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy series, I would simply ask that if you have any real criticisms to make that you do so rather than just name calling. I’m not “reifying” Milbank’s positon as “radically orthodox”, that’s his own self-applied appelation. If you think I have absolutely no charity towards his position, I don’t know what you make of the fact that I say that the aim of Radical Orthodoxy is “almost exactly right”. And even if I am being “uncharitable”, that does not mean I am wrong in my analysis. So, if you have any actual theological critique to launch, rather than just a bunch of baseless rhetoric and ranting I would welcome that.

    Wednesday, July 4, 2007 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  8. Byron wrote:

    there is, in fact nothing that needs to be outnarrated. All narratives exist and find their closure, their coherence, and their fitting end in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Only if Christ’s resurrection is the outcome of all narratives is the reality of violence forever mitigated.
    Aren’t there some narratives which are opposed and subverted by the gospel? God’s yes to everything is served by his no.

    On a separate point: is Christ’s resurrection the end? What of his ascension and our resurrection? Are these simply his resurrection being told in full?

    Wednesday, July 4, 2007 at 9:58 pm | Permalink
  9. David J. Walsh wrote:

    Hi,

    Your post seems to ignore that the grace of the Trinity is always mediated in the socio-historical form of the Church and also its narrative “counter-history”. I agree with you (and Gunton) that, in a sense, nihilism is not really a possibility since the Triune God truly did create the world. However, there is also a danger of underestimating the power of ideas, which is what you do in your claim that the Church should not be in the business, so to speak, of attempting to “out-narrative” rival stories. Although nihilism is ultimately not a real possibility, a narrative of nihilism is and its effects are deleterious. In order to combat this, the Church must of necessity engage with those philosophies (or disguised theologies as Milbank would have it) in an intellectual manner. It is all well and good saying that it is God who will ultimately overcome non-being and death: of course! But God’s action in the economy of salvation takes place in theology as well. Theology informs Ecclesial praxis as much as it itself is but a rational reflection on that praxis.

    I sympathise with your post to a great extent. I have often thought when reading Milbank that he seems to think God became man in order to provide the Church with better theory with which to pummel nihilistic postmodernism. That said; I also feel that your post underplays the importance of intellectual engagement with these rival narratives. And there are rival narratives. Not all philosophies and religions can be assumed to ultimately cohere with Christ’s resurrection. And, in this life, it is also the task of the Church to counter those discourses (which whilst not having any real ontological purchase) nevertheless have very real consequences in society at large.

    I also don’t understand your equivocal identification of “out-narration” with violence. And your opposition to Milbank on this score would also put you at odds with someone like von Balthasar to a large extent.

    Thursday, July 5, 2007 at 1:56 am | Permalink
  10. Fred wrote:

    It is all well and good saying that it is God who will ultimately overcome non-being and death: of course!
    I’m reminded of Martha’s complaint in John 11:24. But I also remember Jesus’s answer, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live…” Intellectual engagement must happen, but the first and best response is a joyous, vibrant Christian assaulted but not conquered by nihilism. Ireneaus wrote that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” And Eastern Christians proclaim that Christ is present. He is and He will be!

    Thursday, July 5, 2007 at 6:50 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    David, I definitely don’t want to downplay the ecclesial mediation of grace. But, I cannot countenance the idea that the church is the sole mediator of grace and that all discourses outside of the church’s own are nihilistic. And that is where your point about intellectual engagment with other narratives becomes interesting. I think it is RO, which encourages intellectual disengagement because it immediately consigns all other narratives to nihilism. From my own perspective, recognizing that the grace of God is beyond the church requires a more rigorous engagement with other narratives and thought-forms. But of course I hold that the church is the center of all of God’s works and is only through the church that the wisdom of God is manifested to the powers. If you are interested, you may like to read my theses on ecclesial practices, and the others on ecclesial social engagement.

    Thursday, July 5, 2007 at 7:43 am | Permalink
  12. David J. Walsh wrote:

    And the same Irenaeus spent much time fulminating against (and amusingly mocking) the errors of the Gnostics.

    Thursday, July 5, 2007 at 7:43 am | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    “On a separate point: is Christ’s resurrection the end? What of his ascension and our resurrection? Are these simply his resurrection being told in full?”

    Yes, I’d include the ascension/session with the Father/return/our resurrection within the event of Christ’s resurrection, at least for the purpose of the point I’m making here. That point being that Christ’s resurrection from the dead constitutes the outcome of all people’s stories, all of our “ends” are given a different shape because we are all included in Christ’s resurrection. That of course, includes all the other events I just mentioned.

    Thursday, July 5, 2007 at 9:43 am | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    My intention is not to rile anyone, but it seems to me that claims like:

    “for Radical Orthodoxy it is less important that the Triune God is the creator of the world than that the church narrate the claim that since the church believes that Triune God is the creator of the world, it has the answer to the nihilism allegedly inherent in all other discourses.”

    and

    “[Radical Orthodoxy] does not realize that it is God’s actual activity in the world in Christ that does in fact relate all created logoi to the one logos.”

    seemed to be rather baseless, and from my point of view, false. There are serious rhetorical and philosophical problems with ascribing things like “instinct” and “realization” to a philosophical/theological movement, which itself is quite nebulous, relative to many philosophical/theological movements. I think most of the positive commentary that you have offered is more or less unassailable, but to claim that any of it represents a critique of “Radical Orthodoxy” is a stretch.

    Believe me, I would like nothing more than to engage with you and anyone else interested in a discourse on these subjects in the boundaries fellowship and love, but the internet is a horrible place to attempt such a thing, and if I have crossed those boundaries, I sincerely apologize. I’m also quite busy with my real job, which unfortunately, is not yet as theological as I would prefer. Perhaps I can find the time to construct a more lengthy commentary on this post at a later date, but I still hold that the chief “differences” between your stated position here and that of “Radical Orthodoxy” could in fact be further harmonized by a more careful attention to the actual similarity of various concepts which have been employed under different names and the degree to which certain aspects which appear to be in conflict may be complimentary features of the same theological reality operating in different spheres of discourse.

    Thursday, July 5, 2007 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Well, Hill if you look at my earlier post giving out a few propositions on Radical Orthodoxy, you’ll note that I go to great lengths to acknowledge the variety within the theologians that are typically associated with that movement. However nebulous RO may be, I do think there is sufficient commonality amongst people associated with the movement that we can speak meaningfully about “Radical Orthodoxy.”

    There may be a lot of commonality between my own view and some of of the RO contributors, but I still maintain that my claims about Christology and the Trinity are not as obviously false as you want to think. Milbank’s work in The Word Made Strange makes absultely clear just how impoverished his Christology is.

    But its fine if we disagree, I suppose. If you ever do write something more lengthy about this topic I will be sure to read it. And indeed, the internet is an utterly non-ideal place for theological discussions. It can never become a substitute for theological reflection being done in the church.

    Thursday, July 5, 2007 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site