Monday, November 26, 2007

Radical Orthodoxy: a 'symphony in five movements'

In conversation with an 'EC skeptic' in the comments on an earlier post, I've decided to post a few more of my reflections on Radical Orthodoxy in the next few days - perhaps along with some other possibilities for postmodern theology - in order to start to think about why I'm more attracted to Caputo's particular 'theology without theology' than these other works. It's my partner's birthday this week, so forgive me if these reflections aren't rapidly forthcoming, though!

To start with, however, I thought I'd present James K.A. Smith's (2004) useful introduction to Radical Orthodoxy, entitled Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology. This book is both an introduction to the political, epistemological, and ontological claims of Radical Orthodoxy as a ‘theological sensibility and spirit’ (67)[1] and a sustained conversation of critique and support between this emerging theology and the articulation of similar (and different) notions among the Reformed Tradition, particularly in the works of Herman Dooyeweerd. Throughout his work, Smith identifies such thinkers as John Milbank, Graham Ward, Catherine Pickstock, Daniel Bell, D. Stephen Long, and William T. Cavanaugh with the ‘loose tendency’ (Pickstock, 2001:405) or ‘theological sensibility’ (Ward, 2003a:117) labelled “Radical Orthodoxy”[2].

Radical Orthodoxy is a 'post-secular theology' in the sense that 'there is no secular, if by “secular” we mean “neutral” or “uncommitted”; instead, the supposedly neutral public spaces that we inhabit – in the academy or politics – are temples of other gods that cannot be served alongside Christ' (42). Thus Radical Orthodoxy's post-secular theology needs to be clearly identified as a Christian post-secular theology, a theology based on the unapologetically confessional narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.

Recognising that Radical Orthodoxy is not ‘a defined agenda or a school with established doctrines’ (66), Smith presents this ‘certain spirit of theologically driven cultural engagement’ (67) through the metaphor of a ‘symphony in five movements… themes that characterize the “sensibility” of RO’ (70). These themes are:

(i) a concern to form a critique of modernity, liberalism, dualisms, universal reason, immanentism, and “the ontology of violence” (Milbank, 1990:278-325) in which ‘being reduces to war’ (195). In its place, Radical Orthodoxy seeks to provide an alternative ontology, an “ontology of peace” (Milbank, 1990:380-438), in which human intersubjectivity is construed as grounded in harmony rather than opposition, power and war. These critiques of modernity similarly apply to so-called postmodernity, which Radical Orthodoxy understands as ‘hyper-modernity’ (139), where (supposedly) postmodern theorists such as Derrida and Foucault ‘replay and play out the ontology of modernity’ (92). Proponents of RO, then, seek to show that ‘only RO is truly postmodern because it is precisely other than modern’ (71) because of its alternative ontology of peace. [Proving this last point is also precisely what Smith does not do in his (2006) Whose Afraid of Postmodernism? - a criticism which I mention in an earlier post].

(ii) a promotion of the aforementioned post-secular nature of the contemporary (Western) situation. The secular/sacred dualism of modernity is transcended through the recognition that even supposedly secular realms hide fundamental commitments to certain beliefs, ways of thinking, and practices. In short, they are ‘theologies or anti-theologies in disguise’ (Milbank, 1990:3). ‘The secular is not areligious, just differently religious – a religion of immanence and autonomy’ (Smith 2004:131) and hence also of violence and contest, and therefore pagan to the Christian religion of participation (iii) and peace (i). However, ‘[o]nce, there was no “secular”’ (Milbank, 1990:9), for before the myth of secular, neutral, autonomous reason, it was acknowledged that no realm stood outside the realm of creation and its Creator, and therefore nothing stood outside the “jurisdiction” of theological discourse. Faith, banished from science due to its contaminating influence on “facts,” is now (re)admitted. This theme of Radical Orthodoxy is in large part the reasoning behind the retrieval of pre-modern (and therefore pre-secular) sources.

(iii) an ontology of participation and materiality. Reality is understood as a creation gifted by the Creator, wherein the material is suspended from the transcendent. Thus, while ‘every created reality is absolutely nothing in itself’ (Pickstock, 2001:416), insofar as ‘it participates in the gift of existence granted by God’ this ontology of participation is the only ontology which can grant creation meaning (75). This participation of creation in the transcendent is supplemented by the participation of the transcendent in creation not only during Creation itself but also at the Incarnation, simultaneously investing it with value and ultimately redeeming it. ‘[O]nly transcendence, which “suspends” these things in the sense of interrupting them, “suspends” them also in the other sense of upholding their relative worth over-against the void’ (Milbank, et al, 1999:3). This participatory ontology stands in marked contrast to the “flattened” ontology of modernity, which, following Duns Scotus, predicates being univocally, attributing being to the Creator and the created in the same sense. The promotion of an alternative, theo-ontology (121) is another instance of RO’s recovery and reinterpretation of pre-secular sources (ii).

(iv) a commitment to the central role of sacramentality, liturgy, and aesthetics in leading humanity towards the divine, based on the double participation of the transcendent in creation and creation in the transcendent(iii), which reaffirms the status of the material and human activities, including poesis (77).

(v) again leading on from the principle of God’s participation, revelation, and concern for the created world in (iii) and (iv), there is an emphasis on ‘the redemption and transformation of this world (socially, politically, and economically)’ (79). Radical Orthodoxy 'looks at “sites” that we have invested much cultural capital in – the body, sexuality, relationships, desire, painting, music, the city, the natural, the political – and it reads them in terms of the grammar of the Christian faith' (Ward, 2000b:103). Radical Orthodoxy is concerned to show that modernity has created a “logic of parody” by which Christian “sites” such as God, the ecclesia, and the Kingdom are parodied by competing (supposedly secular but ultimately religious and therefore pagan) renditions of these sites as the monarch (Ward, 2003b:43), the state (Bell, 2001:72), and the city (Ward, 2000a), respectively. However, these alternatives are fundamentally at odds with the Christian “sites” that they mimic, for they utilize a ‘dis/placement strategy whereby immanent sites are invested with the task of fulfilling transcendent desires’ (139) and will thus always frustrate rather than fulfil this desire for God. Therefore Radical Orthodoxy advocates a ‘critical distance’ from secular modernity (139), and the development of a distinctly Christian post-secular, post-modernity.

Having introduced Radical Orthodoxy thematically, Smith then undertakes a conversation between this post-secular theology and the Reformed Tradition, a conversation which facilitates the creation of a reformed Radical Orthodoxy or Radical Orthodoxy in its reformed rendition. But more on this tomorrow!

[1] References are from Smith, 2004, unless otherwise stated

[2] In regarding Radical Orthodoxy as a ‘sensibility shared to a greater or lesser degree with several other contemporary theologians’ (Ward, 2003a:117), Ward includes Rowan Williams, Fergus Kerr, Nicholas Lash, Stanley Hauerwas, David Burrell, and Peter Ochs (Ward, 2003a, p.115)


Anonymous said...

Hello Katherine,

I have just bought a book called 'Radical Orthodoxy: a Critical introduction' by S Shakespeare on Amazon which is designed to be another intro into this subject as well as JKA Smith (really necessary for a non-academic like me). I like your very comphrensive setting the scene posts...

The EC skeptic

Katharine Moody said...

Yeah, I have that text - though I haven't looked at it yet - story of my life!

Steven Shakespeare gave a paper in our departmental seminar series a few years ago and I liked him very much as a person. So I'm looking forward to reading this - particularly his critique.

I'll race you to read it!

Katharine x

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately i have a backlog of books to read ( around 30!!) - the perils of browsing at Amazon.

One of the best sites for discussing postmodernism/religion is the church and pomo site ( described to me as a 'radical orthodoxy think tank') I read it regularly but some of it is above my head. It desperately needs a pro-Caputo voice, people connected to the UK EC scene and contributions from female academics !!!!! Maybe you could do a post there sometime in your busy schedule?

the skeptic

Katharine Moody said...

I know what you mean about the perils of Amazon!

Thanks for the suggestion about the church and pomo. I'm a regular reader too, but I haven't graduated to commenting yet. When I have, yeah, it'd be great to contribute something more substantial.

What are you reading at the moment?

Anonymous said...

An introduction to the life of Simone Weil by Stephen Plant. I have a plan to buy no more books but read at least 2 a month for a year to bring the backlog down to 6!!

I will be taking a blog fast in Dec but will return in the new year to discuss RO ( once I know a bit more about it !!!)

The skeptic

Katharine Moody said...

That's a good plan, mate. I need to initiate something like that!

Well, have a good break from the blogosphere, and hopefully catch up in the New Year?

Katharine x