Thursday, July 19, 2012

Introducing Radical Orthodoxy

After having read a book, some essays, and watched some lectures by John Milbank, the project of Radical Orthodoxy piqued my interest. Many aspects of Milbank's thought resonated with my own inclinations, but I also knew that the project of RO was bigger than Milbank (though he is the most prominent of RO's figures) and that having read only one of his books -- and one that was only half his, The Monstrosity of Christ -- the fundamentals of his thought were still somewhat obscure to me. With Milbank's manifesto Theology and Social Theory being a bit too pricey for Kindle, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy by James K.A. Smith seemed a perfect place to turn.

Smith and the RO authors themselves -- John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward primarily -- seem to eschew the use of "school" or "movement" in describing RO, instead opting for phrases such as "ecumenical agenda" or "ecumenical program". Smith, quoting Pickstock, says that RO "is not a system, method, or formula but a 'hermeneutic disposition and style of metaphysical vision.'" So what makes up this agenda, this disposition, this vision?

Smith does a magnificent job outlining all of the contours of theory and thought that give shape to RO, so I won't try to completely distill that work here. I will touch on some of the major cornerstones of RO that most struck me.

One aspect of the movement (I'll use this term for lack of a better single word) that is most enticing and striking to me is its unapologetic "apologetics". Or rather, the manner in which it rejects apologetics -- especially "classical apologetics" -- which it sees as a fundamental compromise with modernity, as classical apologetics operates within a certain apostate framework of thought that has a foundation of secular premises. This concedes too much ground to the secular (which is itself a fragile fiction of sorts). No matter how grand or profound a defense for the faith you can build up from within this apostate framework, conceding the 'rules of the game' to anyone other than Christ is idolatry.

And that is what we do when we compromise with modernity or postmodernity (which RO, along with, for instance, David Bentley Hart, holds to be a sort of hyper-modernity), so RO instead seeks to "stop doing theory according to 'the rudiments of this world rather than according to Christ.'" This, it should be noted, is not to reject all of the 'fruits of modernity', or to be 'anti-modern', or to deny the valid aspects of the postmodern turn in philosophy, only to re-narrate everything according to Christ and reclaiming that which properly belongs to him.

This foundational idea blossoms in many ways. To name a few: it entails rejecting the Enlightenment sundering of faith from reason as illegitimate; it means denying the validity of modern politics (secular, liberal democracy), the epistemology that undergirds it (autonomous reason) and denouncing it as a product of an apostate ontology (the univocity of being, traced back to Scotus); it means opposing -- or at least rehabilitating -- many dualisms, such as that erected between nature and grace.

Once the received wisdom of modernity is shown to hinge at various points on essentially arbitrary and apostate movements of thought, the cosmos are free to be re-narrated according to the form of Christ. Though this sort of phrases the truth of things in reverse; God's creation as creation and our participation in it is prior to any apostasy, however, living in a modern or postmodern culture, one must contend with the reigning metanarrative and show that it is merely one metanarrative among possibilities and in no way necessary. Postmodernity wouldn't object to recognizing modernity and Christianity as competing metanarratives, and so RO doesn't fully reject its insights on this count.

Once the 'playing field of thought' is leveled, RO believes a robust liturgical, sacramental, and participatory narration of the cosmos according to Christ will stand apart -- not by being secured as truth by way of autonomous reason operating on first principles -- but as narrative, and one that doesn't suffer the same contradictions or antinomies as the metanarrative of modernity or postmodernity. This requires an alternative epistemology (illumination) grounded in an alternative ontology (participation), and this is partially accomplished by retrieving pre-modern sources -- Plato,Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Aquinas etc. -- and exploring the ways in which the historical development of thought fits with this vision. Simultaneously, the movement engages with postmodern thinkers -- Derrida, Deleuze, Foulcalt -- acknowledging what they get right and noting where there is a convergence of sensibility, while still reading them according to their own distinctly Christian vision. This is not to forfeit truth, but to forfeit truth as being reducible to modern epistemology or to any ontology of immanence.

The most significant point of departure from the modern and postmodern is at the most basic level of ontology. While postmoderns necessarily read the immanent as violence, and therefore inscribe violence into  being, RO's ontology is one of an original peace, as revealed in the Trinity. Because God contains difference in himself and is a harmonious One, and because creation is God's good work in which he reveals Himself, the nature of difference must not be of violence but of peace. This fundamental observation re-orders everything.

RO envisions a form of post-secular thought -- rooted in a participatory metaphysics and an epistemology of illumination -- in which it isn't just philosophy that is the 'handmaiden of theology', but that all theoretical disciplines, in a sense, are. The fact that it was ever otherwise, as a matter of history, is only a result of fallenness and of the course of the development of thought turning from its proper telos. Hence, RO seeks to create a post-secular realm where architectural theory is shaped and formed according to theology, where literature and the arts are, where economics is, where philosophy is. This is different from bringing Christian sensibilities to these disciplines and looking to 'baptize' them -- as if the disciplines were autonomous realms not belonging to Christ -- but re-thinking them at the root, according to the form of Christ, Trinity, and a participatory understanding of humanity's role in creation.

All of RO's thought and its conclusions are arrived at and given shape by the radical truth of the incarnation, along with the attendant doctrine of the Trinity. Because of creation's initial goodness, and because of Christ's incarnation and rescue of creation from fallenness, RO is free to affirm the goodness of materiality and view human participation in the divine by way of this truth. Which means affirming the liturgical and the sacramental as the primary means of grace. In modern and postmodern thought, where the immanent is all, the immanent is ironically revealed to be in the end nothing. RO argues that it is only when the immanent is suspended from the transcendent that the immanent can be affirmed.

Another dualism that RO rejects is that between fact and value, or between the empirical and the aesthetic. Because truth isn't the 'positive ground' that modernity sought, it is free to be synthetic, and therefore the realm of the aesthetic can be affirmed as not only one avenue to truth, but it becomes the primary vehicle of illumination and knowledge. This re-affirms the significance of the arts and images (in addition to other things) as God's good tools, rather than demoting them to the realm of entertainment or false idols. This understanding of the aesthetic informs the conclusion that narrative, in all its unconquerable particularities, is the mode of revelation that contains God's truth.

While much more could be said, I'll leave that to the book itself which I highly recommend. Smith traces the shape of RO in a highly readable manner and with many felicitous expressions, while also allowing those readers who want to, to delve deeper via extensive end notes. While my primary interest was in RO itself, Smith also wishes to bring RO into dialogue with the Dutch Reformed tradition -- specifically Kuyper and Dooyeweerd -- and to locate resonances and areas where one can offer correctives to the other. For my interest in the material this was mostly superfluous, but it didn't detract from the read any. Introducing Radical Orthodoxy is an enlightening, engaging prĂ©cis on a movement that is charting a course for Christian post-secular thought in a modern/postmodern culture.


  1. This is a great review, and a great shorthand intro to Radical Orthodoxy in itself.

    I would recommend Theology and Social Theory even before Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, despite the price tag. It's academic, sure, but imminently readable. Two collections I recommend (much more affordable) are Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition (edited Smith/Olthuis) and The Gift of Difference (edited Chris Huebner), each of which puts RO in dialogue with different Reformed traditions.

    One of the voices within RO I've found most helpful and most intelligible, coming as he does from an American Evangelical background, is D. Stephen Long, whose Divine Economy and The Goodness of God are must-reads. I've also found William T. Cavanaugh to be more concrete than most in the movement, though you may already be familiar with his work. If not, Migrations of the Holy is good collection be starting with, and Torture and Eucharist is a masterpiece and should be read by every Christian thinker regardless of RO.

    1. Thanks for all the recommendations. I will probably head to Amazon right now and pick up some of the cheaper ones as these are the sorts of read I find most valuable and engaging. Especially interested in checking out Long's and Cavanaugh's work. Thanks again.