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.