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.