James K.A. Smith on What is Radical Orthodoxy?

So what exactly is Radical Orthodoxy? People ask me this question from time-to-time when I tell them that this movement is of interest for my academic work. It is my task here to utilise the excellent James K.A. Smith’s account in his work Introducing Radical Orthodoxy. This will take more than one post, so you’ll have to come back for more.

Smith begins by describing the basic theological antithesis that provides the backdrop to RO: the Tubigen school vs. Karl Barth’s Basel.

‘We could associate Tubingen with the center of the classic liberal theological project that could be described as “correlationist”. Here the agenda is to correlate the claims of Christian revelation with the structure of a given culture or politico-economic system such that both, in some sense, function as a normative source for the theological project. Classic representatives would include Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and, more recently, David Tracey.’

It is worth noting that Friedrich Schleiermacher is usually included in this list of names, but since Graham Ward (a key figure of RO) wants to read him in a different light, Smith does not include it. Liberation theology is a part of this correlationist project because it adopts secular sociological conclusions from Marxism; in fact, wherever the social sciences are trusted and utilised in a non-critical manner there the correlationist project is underway. John Howard Yoder (a critic of Tubingen) describes its consensus: ‘it is by studying the realities around us, not by hearing a proclamation from God, that we discern the right.’

On the other hand, Karl Barth’s project was ‘revelationist…eschewing any notion of a neutral or secular “point of contact” between the gospel and public or sociopolitical structures, proclaiming instead a revealed gospel that subverted cultural givens’. Barth’s theology saw heaven as crashing down into earth in Christ, opening the doors of perception but only through revelation, with no possibility of theological truth anywhere else. Barth’s theology was taken up by postliberal theologians such as Hans Frei and George Linbeck, and later by such figures as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder.

According to Smith, all of these theologians ‘deeply resisted the correlational and Constantinian projects of modern theology, and..emphasize the practices of being the church, informed by a narrative of Scripture, constituting an alternative community and a peculiar people…Behind this is a trenchant rejection of the Enlightenment value of autonomy both in epistemology (as in secular foundationalism) and politics (with the idolization of rights).’

 And so the major confrontation of the theological scene of the 20th century is sketched: roughly speaking, liberalism vs. Barth and all who followed him. (This, incidentally, is why Barth is so important and so highly to be praised, even if one does not accept everything for which he stood.)

A final thought on this is that it seems to me that these divisions within the Anglican Church creates a fundamental impasse between those who are correlationist and who believe that the church basically needs to support Western culture in pursuit of its various values – tolerance, freedom, equality, and so on – and those who are not correlationist and who believe that the gospel in some sense should confront the culture and bring it to conviction for its godlessness. How much common ground can there be between these two positions when their fundamental assumptions about theology and the mission of the church are so different? 

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