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McCarraher on Radical Orthodoxy

By popular request, here is Gene McCarraher’s biting critique of Radical Orthodoxy. Right on the money as far as I’m concerned.

Like a lot of Christian intellectuals over the last two decades, I quaffed a bit of the Kool-Aid served up by those in the RO constellation. Well, if I can extend the Kool-Aid metaphor a bit, drinking from the cistern of RO was refreshing and stimulating, particularly the idea that theology can be a distinct and compelling form of social and cultural criticism—of all the literature on that score, I think Graham Ward’s Cities of God is a real milestone. But as I’ve watched how some of this has played out or not played out over the last decade, I’ve concluded that the theological renaissance these figures embodied not only has waned, but also has encouraged some very bad mental and political habits. For one thing, I’m tired of hearing “modernity” and “liberalism” treated as though they were the spawn of Satan. Along with the other usual suspects—instrumental reason, science, universal rights, cosmopolitanism, “the Enlightenment project”—modernity and liberalism get hauled into the docket and found guilty, usually after a perfunctory trial, of the Judeocide, ecological catastrophe, capitalism, nuclear war, abortion, et cetera, ad nauseam. Give me a frigging break. When modernity and liberalism are this all-encompassing, they’ve become nothing more than verbal ciphers, containers for everything the writer doesn’t like, bestowing license to utter all manner of grandiose and stupid pontifications. With a lot of these people, liberalism equals nihilism, which equals the lowest circle of the inferno. The theological problem with this view is that it tends to completely strip the created world of its goodness. Can’t liberal modernity mediate grace or partake of beatitude in some fashion? Since when did Gothic architecture and the like become the only sanctioned media of Trinitarian love? Since when did Brave New World become the final word on modernity? So if you want to deride instrumental reason and technology, fine, but just remember all that when you have a toothache, or if the specialist discovers a tumor in time, or if your wife needs emergency assistance during childbirth. If you want to curse cosmopolitanism, fine, but just stop jetting across the oceans and using the Internet to do it, all the while lecturing the rest of us about nestling in the homespun joys of localism.

I’ve noticed that among RO’s American avatars there seems to be something of a Wendell Berry cult. You’d never know it from the way that they talk about him that the agrarian proprietary ideal is also what fueled Indian genocide and segregation. So enough already about rural life from disaffected suburbanites.

Like all intellectual laziness, that of RO has political implications that are debilitating and even insidious. I’ve long thought that what I’ve called the ecclesial fetishism of the movement is a problem. As Eric Gregory reminds us, the kingdom is much bigger than the church. By the same token, the movement’s portrait of church is sociologically unreal; it certainly doesn’t correspond to any church I know. If they want to say that their conception of church is an ideal, I wish they’d put the adjective eschatological in front of the word; but then, come the eschaton, there will be no church, only the kingdom. Like all fetishes, the church comes to bear an imaginative and political weight that it just can’t bear. Meanwhile, the insistence on the church as a political community can have theocratic implications to which I strongly object. I’m not the first person to point out that Milbank’s ecclesiology would seem to commit him inexorably to some kind of theocracy. He often employs all manner of bluster and circumlocution to avoid addressing this issue squarely—his response to Ben Suriano’s question about this in The Other Journal a few years back is utterly incoherent. But then, Milbank and others in RO can be too ill-tempered and dismissive to converse with anyone outside the cognoscenti; Chuck Mathewes has deftly pointed out that Milbank can’t talk to his opponents, only about them.

Milbank’s Christian socialism has a lot that’s attractive: decentralization, attention to technology as a moral and aesthetic realm, a call on unions and professional associations to become more guild-like and demand control over the means of production. But from what I’ve seen so far, he seems to favor in practice a distributism of the Chesterbelloc variety: small farms, small workshops, and local proprietary enterprise, all with a neomedievalist glaze over everything. Sorry, but this sounds like petty bourgeois capitalism decked out in Tolkienesque drag, a Rotary Club of the Shire. The decentralist tradition of Peter Kropotkin, Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford, and Paul Goodman is much better informed historically about cities, ecology, and the history of technology. Milbank knows little or nothing of these people, but then it’s kind of an open secret that his reading of the historical record is selective, if not downright tendentious—he writes about John Ruskin, for instance, as if Ruskin was the only critic of industrial capitalism in Britain in the nineteenth century. Nothing about William Morris, Patrick Geddes, or Ebenezer Howard. Oh, that’s right; they weren’t Christians, so they couldn’t possibly have gotten anything right.


  1. Hill wrote:

    I enjoyed these remarks, and I thought they came from a pretty fresh perspective, relative to the sorts of critiques one usually reads about RO. However, I found it ironic that the claim “the agrarian proprietary ideal is also what fueled Indian genocide and segregation” was immediately followed by accusations of “intellectual laziness.”

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Do you think its intellectually lazy to make such a connection?

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    The paragraph basically goes like this: “These people like Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry likes farming and is a farmer. Farmers killed the Indians. These people are espousing an ideology bound up with Indian killing.” I take this to be intellectually laziness of precisely the same sort McCarraher is critiquing.

    The statement I quoted above isn’t really outlandish in it’s own right, but it is simply cited as a criticism of Wendell Berry or to make some sort of vague point about people who are critical of our relationship to food production. I don’t really get the point.

    I say all of this acknowledging the manifold pathologies associated with agrarian fetishism, but these sorts of criticisms, as I’ve said, have become ciphers of the same sort McCarraher critiques. You’d think that farming was evil or something.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    This is related to the issue that people find it very hard to critique Radical Orthodoxy without themselves being implicated in many of the movement’s supposed faults: e.g. overzealous rhetoric and intellectual laziness with regard to the object of critique.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  5. Thomas wrote:

    Maybe I suffer from intellectual laziness, but I’m struggling to find a single argument or a single thread of actual engagement in there somewhere. Instead, I’m just finding assertions that “radical orthodoxy looks to me like [insert wild caricature here] and I don’t like it.” I suppose that would be fine enough if that were it; he can catalog his emotional reactions as much as he likes–I don’t have to take them seriously. However, he also characterizes Radical Orthodoxy as entailing the belief that the “Brave New World” is the last word on modernity, that Gothic architecture “and the like” are the only mediator for Trinitarian love, and that instrumental reason ought to be abolished, rather than being displaced as the epistemological paradigm. Oh, and the RO crowd dismisses any non-Christian thinker automatically.

    Intellectual laziness indeed.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Thanks for the clarification.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    [In Cantonese] “Was it Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said, “If you label me, you negate me?”

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    All of that being said, I understand where he’s coming from and am pretty sympathetic to everything he’s said.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    I understand. For what its worth, I read the paragraph as saying something more like “Fans of Wendell Berry seem to idealize American agrarianism. We should probably be hesitant to idealize something that is historically bound up with violence.”

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  10. Jeremy wrote:

    think using the title RO crowd is probably unfair. There’s diversity within the group. I assume he’s mostly targeting Milbank in this post. I think proof of dismissing non-Christian thinkers automatically is best found in Milbank’s chapter in Theology and Social Theory where he engages moder contintental philosphers. Milbank charges many continental philosophers as nihilists for having ontologies of violence. I think RO’s methodology with continental philosophers is something like “take the money and run”. Basically, let’s appropriate these provocative ideas, and then call the thinker a nihilst or lablel Deleuze as someone who has the “metaphysics of a serial killer”. Is that not laziness?

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, McCarraher is clear that he appreciates Ward at least. I think you’re right that this is largely (and quite rightly) directed at Milbank.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  12. Thomas wrote:

    It’s not limited to Milbank, as he says explicitly several times. Even if it were, it’s still an awful critique, no matter who it’s directed at. It amounts to nothing other than first caricaturing a position, then expressing the fact that you don’t like the caricature. It’s nice for him that he has an outlet where he can express his feelings, but it doesn’t say anything that warrants much reflection. Perhaps if he offered … oh, I don’t know … some reasons that Radical Orthodoxy has it wrong it would be worthwhile.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:

    I still think there is a bait and switch. I mean… someone is going to grow food, right? 99.999% of us are profoundly alienated from that reality, and I would suggest that a facile dismissal of the issues raised by so-called “agrarians” is only possible when such an alienation is nearly complete. Most people who criticize Wendell Berry fetishes are criticizing something different (like conservatism) by proxy. Very few of these critiques directly address anything Wendell Berry actually says.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    I’m not convinced its a caricature. You’ve yet to give me a reason to believe that it is (esp. since it belies my reading of the RO corpus). But its nice for you that you have an outlet where you can express yout feelings, but you haven’t said anything that warrants much reflection. Perhaps if you offered … oh, I don’t know … some reasons why this critique Radical Orthodoxy is wrong it would be worthwhile.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  15. Hill wrote:

    Have you actually read Milbank’s chapter on Deleuze in T&ST? How about the acknowledgments in which he states: “[T]he present book would not have been conceivable without the writings of Gillian Rose, Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Rene Girard.” It’s not as if the only thing Milbank ever said about Deleuze is that he has the metaphysics of a serial killer. It’s fine to disagree with him, but characterizing Milbank as intellectually lazy in his treatment of Deleuze based on on phrase is a stretch.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  16. Jeremy wrote:

    I should’ve clarified. Cunningham accused Deleuze of that, not Milbank.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  17. How is this any different form what we’ve been saying for years? I mean other than the fact it comes from a tenured professor at a Catholic university?

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  18. For what its worth often what Milbank has said about Deleuze I didn’t recognize as coming from Deleuze at all. Though, of course, we’re always free to creatively misread, but I do get annoyed when Milbankians repeat his criticisms as if I should just accept them when I’ve actually read Deleuze and they have not.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Permalink
  19. Hill wrote:

    I agree with you. I haven’t studied his work on Deleuze or Deleuze himself with any kind of depth. He may well be wrong, or in fact creatively misreading Deleuze, but he’s certainly not being intellectually lazy. Those who merely repeat his criticisms without critically appropriating them for themselves might be, though. This gets to the heart of the “Radical Orthodoxy bunch” versus “particular scholar associated with Radical Orthodoxy” issue.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  20. adhunt wrote:

    Thank you Hill. Waxed peppers from Brazil in winter still doesn’t have any cognitive dissonance for most people. It’s why nobody thinks who and why your screwing matters.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  21. Well, you’re doing a bit of a bait-and-switch here since the point in the main post seems to be that he’s intellectual lazy when it comes to certain political positions. I’m also not saying his “creative misreading” doesn’t arise out of a certain kind of prime pumping of apologetics that is questionable. Still, whatever, I’m bored talking about RO especially now that it’s shown us what it is. You like it, fine.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  22. Chris G. wrote:

    When He says, “You’d never know it from the way that they talk about him that the agrarian proprietary ideal is also what fueled Indian genocide and segregation,” it is followed immediately by, “So enough already about rural life from disaffected suburbanites. ”

    I think this is clarified some a bit later when he says, “…but this sounds like petty bourgeois capitalism decked out in Tolkienesque drag, a Rotary Club of the Shire.”

    It used to be that the cultural elite were the ones who drove around in SUV’s and lined their attics with exotic hardwoods. Even though this is still often the case, the cultural elite are now incorporating an ecological “sensitivity” into their elitism, i.e., things like CSA’s and handcrafted furniture are unfortunately now used by some as a sign that they are “in” on what they should be “in on.”

    I read McCarraher as issuing a critique similar to that which has often been issued by Berry himself… a critique of surface-level agrarian suggestions that arise almost exclusively from the ivory tower.

    He’s not saying that small farms, small workshops etc. are bad, or even that milbank’s attraction to these things is misguided, he’s saying that it’s insufficiently robust, and could benefit from some of the urban design ideas and techonology-criticism, not to mention the realism, of Mumford and Goodman.

    Perhaps the catholic workers and the catholic land movement, which McCarraher mentions, are something of what he might envision as an alternative, even if with some qualifications and criticisms? With them you’ve got critics of capitalism with dirt under their fingernails.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink
  23. Thomas wrote:

    You don’t think it’s a caricature to say that John Milbank believes only Christians could possibly get things right? Or that Gothic architecture and the like are the only media of Christian love? If you got that from the RO corpus, nothing I can say will help you.

    I never argued that this critique is wrong. It may well be right in some aspects. But I’m not one for latching onto things because of their conclusions without looking critically at the reasoning that leads to the conclusion (though, to here some people tell it, that’s a characteristic that belongs to theologians). Since McCarraher is the one making the argument, he has the burden to make a decent argument. Or not, if he’s just giving us sheer opinion, which, as I said, is fine too.

    Let me ask it this way: Do you think this is a decent example of how a theologian ought to reason? Do we have an exemplar of theologico-critical method here?

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    Milbank quite obviously believes that only the church can get things right. All else is nihilism according to him. That’s pretty obvious for TST on.

    As for the meta-analysis you’re asking for, all I can say is that I think this interview is a good example of a theologian spiritedly, and with well-crafted rhetoric, voicing an opinion that I take to be well-founded. When it is read with any eye towards its genre and a basic senstitivity to rhetoric, it doesn’t come of nearly as absurd as your woodenly literal interpretation would like.

    Obviously this is not a systematic treatise on the works of RO or Milbank. Your faulting it for not being that is like calling a limerick a terrible piece of journalism.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink
  25. Thomas wrote:

    If McCarraher just wished to voice his opinion, that’s fine. My objection was that he didn’t in any way substantiate what he was saying, and that, although the comment rested on characterization alone, it was largely a mischaracterization resting on some basic logical lapses. Just because something is rhetorical doesn’t mean we have to check critical reason at the door.

    Milbank does say that only the church has the fullness of the truth, but this does not logically entail that those who are not Christians cannot get anything right. This sort of lapse in logical reasoning is repeated over and over again. He may be (and in my view is) engaging in hyperbole, but in this context, that’s just another way of saying: “straw man argument”. It’s also a way of avoiding the arguments radical orthodoxy makes.

    It may be rhetoric, but it’s rhetoric devoid of substance. This seems to fly with you as being a decent way of doing theology, but it’s this sort of thing that gets theology laughed out of philosophy departments. If it’s just a theologian’s opinion that you happen to concur with, that’s one thing; but if it’s supposed to be taken more seriously, then that’s another.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  26. Halden wrote:

    I get that you won’t tolerate anything critical of RO, I really do. Not sure what else I can do to help you with understanding the nature of interviews.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  27. Hill wrote:

    The whole “if you don’t hate them you must love them” rhetoric is pretty tired. It is in fact you that are unwilling to tolerate criticism (of the positions with which you are allied) here.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  28. Halden wrote:

    But McCarraher quite obviously doesn’t just either love or hate RO. That’s clear even from this brief extract in which he roundly praises Graham Ward’s work.

    I’m perfectly willing to tolerate criticism — as I did from you in this very thread; I don’t think I was too beligerent about anything.

    But Thomas is just asking this document to be something that it isn’t and refusing any sort of hermeneutical fairness. Admittedly, I may have problems with this, too, I don’t deny that. However my last comment is based on a variety of interchanges, not just this one I’m afraid.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  29. Hill wrote:

    I didn’t mean to come off snarky here. I just think your most recent rejoinder to Thomas is unfair. I don’t think his comments imply a resistance to criticism, just that he finds the criticism in question unsubstantiated. I think that’s a fair point. There are many references to what appears to be a magisterial urtext critical of Radical Orthodoxy, but what exactly this text says is never revealed. There is a time and a place for the types of exchanges we are having here, but “these arguments are well-founded in this vague body of work that I can’t point to exactly but that looks a lot like another potentially ideologically driven theological faction” just doesn’t cut it. It’s better to acknowledge the limitations of the medium. In a similar way, the “you are taking this too seriously” defense is also unfair. Blog discussions are always just serious enough when one finds oneself comfortably in control of issue in question. This is always going to be a subjective decision, and so care should be taken not to deploy it as a weapon.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  30. Halden wrote:

    I do hear you there. And acknowledging the limits of the medium is what I’ve been trying (and perhaps failing) to point out all along. Namely that the text in question is an extract from a relatively informal interview. We neither can, nor should expect it to exhaustively substantiate everything it talks about (though, it does bear pointing out that key thinkers and sources are cited and mentioned by name in the actual draft of the interview). That, as I said above is like dismissing bicyclists because none of them have ever won an F1 race.

    Also, for what its worth, having read McCarraher’s essay “The Enchantments of Mammon” I can say without a doubt that he’s no slouch regarding his knowledge of the texts related to RO. And who knows, maybe Mean Gene will pop by at some point and weigh in.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Permalink
  31. Hill wrote:

    I think in an ideal world, this is the sort of thing these discussions should do: point (in as specific as possible a way) towards more scholarly venues in which the questions are taken up. This, of course, has it’s own problems, like the “how about you read this book and write an essay on it, and then we can talk” mode of rhetoric.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  32. Halden wrote:

    Yes, that too is pretty easy to deploy as a weapon.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  33. McCarraher is only jealous because he’s an enlightenment-era modernist living in a liberal democracy.


    This writing is great. One of my favorite things is critical writing. It doesn’t have to be airtight…mostly it has to be grumpy and funny.

    I’m too dumb to know if McCarraher can hold his own intellectually with Milbank, because I’m too dumb to understand Milbank.

    I resonate with his idea that God was still graciously at work through the modern era. Great.

    But I also know that RO’s ‘ecclesial fetishism’ saved me from abandoning the church when I was at my most ‘liberal’. So that’s a good thing, right?

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink
  34. Nathan Smith wrote:

    When someone insults Wendell Berry, I just stop reading. ;-)

    Of course it should be noted that Berry is quite aware of the fact that his land was once the land of natives, and that it was taken by force. That is, I don’t think Wendell Berry would participated in colonial expansion in the first place. And Berry also cites native Americans in a positive light to illustrate his points.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  35. Geoff wrote:

    FWIW, here is Graham Ward’s view on RO and his own inclusion in that camp:

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

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