James K.A. Smith on A Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto

In my previous post on Radical Orthodoxy, I sketched the theological background, which is taken by Smith to be the confrontation between the liberal theology of the Tubingen School and the neoliberalism of Karl Barth’s Basel and his successors. The school most associated with RO is Cambridge, and I begin with a quote by one of the key three figures, Catherine Pickstock. She writes, “There are no sharp boundaries between RO and other identifiable tendencies within what one might call post secular theology.” For ‘postsecular’ here we could simply use ‘postliberal’, to mean those theologies (Barth etc.) which confront and oppose the theologies that identified themselves with the secular Enlightenment project. The main difference, or development, between, for example, RO and Karl Barth (that I can see, at any rate) is that Barth’s theology is a kind of complete denial of the presence of the divine within creation and all disciplines that are not explicitly based upon the Christian revelation. Therefore, Barth doesn’t do philosophy, because he doesn’t think that we can find any truth apart from the particular revelation of God in Christ. One of the great strengths of RO (in my view, and as we shall see) is that RO calls into question the opposition between faith and reason and sees reason as a participation in faith. We could simplify this by saying that both Tubingen and Basel oppose faith and reason to each other as enemies; Tubingen buys into the secular Enlightenment project and ultimately opts for autonomous reason over faith, whereas Basel rejects the Enlightenment so thoroughly that it ends up denying a role for reason in human knowing altogether and so ends up with what could be construed as an almost blind fideism. RO, however, rejects this antithesis wholesale and says that true reason is always and must be a participation in faith.

Smith then sketches five distinctive aspects of this movement that could constitute a kind of introductory manifesto.

1. A critique of modernity and liberalism

John Milbank writes, “The end of modernity…means the end of a single system of truth based on universal reason, which tells us what reality is like.” This is a critique of modernist epistemology which holds that in order to have knowledge we must have a kind of scientific certainty. This claim frames the conversation about faith and reason discussed above, and must be rejected as too constrictive a definition of human knowledge. Truth is always a participation in belief of some sort and therefore reason is always
a participation in faith.

RO is also a critic of liberalism because of “its assumptions regarding human nature (as in Thomas Hobbes, for instance) and its atomistic account of the social sphere.” Milbank famously critiques the political philosophy of, for example, Thomas Hobbes and Machiavelli (or whoever really) as being fundamentally anti-Christian because they take as their starting point a belief in a primordial war of all-against-all. Milbank, however, very powerfully argues that Christian theology posits the belief in an aboriginal peace, grounded in the loving difference of the Holy Trinity and its overflow in Creation. (This is also a claim of one of my favourite theologians David Bentley Hart in his wonderful book The Beauty of the Infinite.)

2. Post-secularity

As we saw earlier, post-secularity calls into question the modern distinction between faith and reason. Politically, the implications of this claim is that religious faith is not a private matter which can be ostracised from the public sqaure. One of the key claims of RO is that everyone is a confessional theorist,  and a religious believer of some description. Smith writes:

The hope is that, once the theoretical foundations of secularity are dismantled…the spaces for public discourse…will provide new opportunities for the expression of a properly theological or Christian account of reality.

What are the practical implications of this? As far as I can tell this is still a very open question.

3. Participation and Materiality
This is RO’s metaphysical model for understanding Creation. In contrast to the flat, materialistic and nihilistic ontologicy of modernity and postmodernity, RO has ‘a participatory ontology – in which the immanent and material is suspended from the transcendent and immaterial’. This metaphor of the suspension of Creation from the transcendent illustrates a kind of stretching or deepening of creation that creates space for difference and harmony. Modernity and postmodernity are implicitly nihilistic, and can create only an immanent sphere, in which there is no depth and hence no room for true difference or meaning. Only a participation in the transcendent can ‘stretch’ Creation so that is has depth and meaning.

4. Sacramentality, liturgy and aesthetics

Because of this participatory ontology, central to RO 

…is a renewed appreciation for the liturgical or doxological character of creation and the role that liturgy plays in leading us to the divine…A particular consequence of revaluing embodiment is an emphasis on aesthetics and the arts as a medium of revelation and worship…RO’s aesthetic correlate might be that outside the liturgy there is no visible, such that only a doxological account can underwrite the arts.

5. Cultural critique and transformation

RO calls into question the extent to which the world is under the sway of the devil. Again, Tubingen implies that the world is not under the Dark Prince’s sway at all, whereas Basel claims that everything under the sun is in his thrall. RO has a very positive view of creation – claiming that the fall is basically redeemed by God almost immediately after its occurence – whilst not wanting to make Tubingen’s mistake of capitulating to the faithless secularity of the liberal project. There is quite a diversity within RO concerning the relationship of the church to the state, raning from Milbank’s remnant Christendom theology – which advocates the gradual subsumption of the state into the church as the church is increasingly succesful in its witness – to Ward’s more conciliatory Anglican approach, to the anarchic oppositionalism of William Cavanaugh.

So, there you have it, a brief sketch of the Radical Orthodoxy manifesto. As you can see, this movement makes enormous claims about theology, philosophy, history, politics, aesthetics, the arts, the church, pretty much everything really. As such, understanding RO is like trying to absorb a holistic and diverse, sophisticated worldview, so this account is necessarily extremely brief and oversimplified. Sorry about that.


CS Lewis on The Discarded Image

The Discarded Image was the last book that C.S. Lewis wrote. It is a pedagogical book, written primarily for the purposes of teaching his students of Renaissance and Medieval literature about the picture or ‘model’ of the universe that was then universally accepted. This model is entirely foreign to us now, and is known only to those who have purposefully sought out a knowledge of antique and medieval cultural history. Where this knowledge persists it does so usually as a kind of apologetic against Christianity which asserts (in error) that before the rise of modern science everybody thought that the world was flat or that the stars were very close to the earth or that the earth was the centre and hence most important of the universe; these beliefs are usually traced to their source in the Christian Bible, which of course says nothing of the sort and is certainly not the originator of the Medieval model. I had not heard of Lewis’ book before I came across a footnote in David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God and so I will use his useful (and surprisingly succinct) description of the discarded image. 

(The) antique, medieval, and early modern universe (was) described in an “incomplete” form by Aristotle (384-322 BC) and given its most enduring finishing touches by Ptolemy (AD c. 90-c. 168). The earth stood immovably at the center of the system of interlocking heavens: immutable transparent spheres, each save one of them immediately encompassed by another larger than itself, in a regular succession upward and outward; each of the first seven sphere contained a “planet” (in order, the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), the next beyond those was the stellatum, or region of the fixed stars, and the next beyond that the mysterious primum mobile , or “first moveable” heaven. Beyond that, however, lay the “realm” of the Unmoved Mover, understood either as a changeless spiritual intellect not directly involved in lower things, a pure “thought thinking thought,” or as God the active creator of the universe.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

As many others still do, Lewis found this model to be an exceptionally beautiful, creative and life-giving picture of the universe. The spheres described above rotate as a result of the movement of the primum mobile (rotation being their most approximate expression of God’s perfection and immutability), which is in turn moved by God, the Unmoved Mover himself. They do this absolutely consistently and so constitute a realm of greater perfection and immutability than the realm in which we live, the Earth, and the sky above us, which is constantly afflicted by the changeability and corruption that we call the weather (especially those of who live here in England, although I’m writing on a sunny and pleasant July morning in North-East London). But the question of how God, who is unmoved and cannot be said to move in order to move anything else, can cause the primum mobile to move is an important one. And the answer that the antique world gave to us is perhaps the most beautiful and poetic aspect of this discarded image:

There must in the last resort be something which, motionless itself, initiates the motion of all other things. Such a Prime Mover, (Aristotle) finds in the wholly transcendent and immaterial God who ‘occupies no place and is not affected by time’ (Aristotle, De Caelo). But we must not imagine him moving things by any positive action, for that would be to attribute some kind of motion to Himself and we should then not have reached an utterly unmoving Mover. How then does He move things? Aristotle answers, κινει ως ερωμενον, ‘He moves as beloved’ (Aristotle, Metaphysics). He moves other things, that is, as an object of desire moves those who desire it. The Primum Mobile is moved by its love for God, and being moved, communicates motion to the rest of the universe…This all implies that each sphere, or something resident in each sphere, is a conscious and intellectual being, moved by “intellectual love” of God.

CS Lewis, The Discarded Image

This explanation sheds light on one of the most beautiful verses in all literature, and this is the final stanza of Dante’s Comedia, Paradisio 33:

But my desire and will were moved already—

like a wheel revolving uniformly—by 

the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

David Bentley Hart on the “More is More” Approach to Writing

David Bentley Hart is currently my favourite living writer. When I read his works, I frequently feel that I am in the presence of an irascible (and hilarious) genius. The below quotation, taken from this interview on Hart’s The Experience of God, is a very interesting counter to the assumption that prose writing should be as simple to understand as possible. It is also interesting to me that Hart neither likes nor reads any academic writing. He must have read a lot of modern academic theology in his time in order to produce works like The Beauty of the Infinite, but he obviously finds little that is engaging or spiritually enlightening about it. I’m sure the reason for this is that Hart believes that modern theology buys into various secular and anti-traditional paradigms (notably a rejection of the classical doctrine of God as held by the Fathers, Anselm and Aquinas, in favour of a personal Zeus-like deity) and so has impoverished and neutered itself as a result. Comments and opinions welcome as always!

When I was young I always assumed I would be a writer, mostly of fiction, and I have never had any other interest as consuming as that. It was an accident that I ended up writing any works of theology; my field was religious studies, originally, along with classics and literature, and at one point a purely personal search for God or truth or enlightenment—or whatever—sent me off along a path that led, for a while, to theology. But I have to point out that I abandoned formal theology about ten years ago and now write in as many different forms and on as many different topics as I can without courting financial disaster. As for why I write the way I do, I simply write in my own voice, without any particular rationale. I hate academic writing and rarely read any, so I suppose I never really learned the appropriately self-effacing style. I did try to make the most recent book much simpler in tone, for what it is worth; I suppressed my tendency to elaborate flourishes as much as I could. As for what writers most inspired me, that really is an impossible question to answer, because one learns from every good writer one reads, even those one may have no desire or ability to emulate. In English prose, I have always gravitated towards the “more is more” writers, to be honest, whether Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas De Quincey, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Vladimir Nabokov, or even S. J. Perelman (the list is very large). To me, the notion that one should strive for plain and direct diction at all times, no matter what lyrical, rhetorical, or comic effects one then has to eschew, especially when one has the glorious resources of the vast mongrel English vocabulary at one’s disposal, is like saying that an organist, no matter how grand the instrument at which he is sitting, must never pull out more than one stop. Sometimes the form is the message. At least, it should be. We are spiritual beings; we are meant to play and create, not merely to communicate simple ideas.