Friday, November 30, 2007

Radical Orthodoxy: Too Strong for My Taste!

This is a long one. Apologies.

On something of a Radical Orthodoxy roll, I’ve started reading Steven Shakespeare’s (2007) Radical Orthodoxy: A Critical Introduction.[1] He addresses several criticisms of Radical Orthodoxy which concern me (particularly the imperialism and dualism of the position) and explores themes which RO under examine (dialogue, compassion, and agnosticism). These reflections dovetail nicely with the emerging themes of my fieldwork, particularly emphases on doubt, unknowing, and a/theism. It’s here where I leave RO in search of weaker theologies! (I’m not sure this is where Shakespeare himself is willing to go, though!!!).

This introduction to Radical Orthodoxy is more accessible than James K.A. Smith’s (2004) introduction which I blogged about at the beginning of the week (here and here). At the end of his introductory chapter, Shakespeare helpfully summarises the ‘bold claims’ of Radical Orthodoxy (40) thus:

  • No part of the world can be understood apart from God.
  • The idea of an independent secular realm is something we have invented.
  • Secular philosophies claim to be based on pure reason. However, they are really Christian theology gone bad, religions of power promoting violence.
  • Liberal and other progressive theologies [he introduces RO’s critiques of liberal theology, liberation theology, feminist theology, and eco-theology] play into the hands of secularism, accepting that the world can be known independent of its relationship to God [through reason, the social sciences, or nature, for example]. Conservative theologies try to reintroduce God into the world from the outside. Both fail to overcome the problems created by the creation of a secular world.
  • The cure for this secular disease is a recovery of Christian tradition and community.
  • The key elements of Christianity are participation, a dynamic sharing in the nature of God; and the belief that death and violence are secondary to God’s gift of peace in creation, renewed in Christ.
  • Christian faith saves the world from becoming the plaything of impersonal forces [such as the “free” market]. It treats creation as a gift, not as a given. (40)

Shakespeare then moves on to further introduce Radical Orthodoxy through a framework of three interlinking themes: language, community, and desire. These three themes form the basis of the next chapters, each with summaries attached. I’ve largely skim-read these chapters with an eye to my research topics (truth, realism, knowledge, doubt, being, event) and moved straight on Shakespeare’s ‘looking ahead’ chapter, reflecting on criticisms of Radical Orthodoxy, and suggestions for the future of theology. I’ll present these criticisms and suggestions, before focusing in on where Shakespeare’s presentation of Radical Orthodoxy intersects with my research topics.

Shakespeare draws attention to four interlinking criticisms of Radical Orthodoxy: dualism, imperialism, rootlessness, and monism. Firstly, the dichotomy between Church and world, Christian theology and all other approaches to truth, Christianity and secularism, can be seen to result in a ghettoisation of the religion which is ultimately akin to the modern (secular) banishing of religion to a corner which RO seeks to avoid. Secondly, RO is engaging in an exercise of power when it asserts the domination of the Christian story over all others, drowning out differences between Christianity and other theologies and differences among Christians. Christian theology, the Church, and Christian life is idealized and homogenized in relation to an Anglo-American context and addressing only the issues raised in this western locality. Thirdly, the idealization and abstraction of the Church threatens to leave RO without any real church. Finally, following on from the criticism of dualism, Radical Orthodoxy is also charged with monism (the view that there is only one reality), because in dividing Christianity and secularism, only Christianity is given essential reality, because the secular doesn’t recognise its fundamental dependence upon God.

With these criticisms in mind, Shakespeare moves on to consider where Radical Orthodoxy might go from here. His three suggestions for the future of theology mirror the pattern of language, community, and desire found earlier in the book: language in dialogue (175-176), community in compassion (177-178), and desire and unknowing (178-180). I’m going to focus on the last of these brief suggestions (which deserved to be given more than a few pages each) because it intersects with my research questions.

To temper the confidence (arrogance?) in many RO texts, Shakespeare reminds readers that knowing and speaking are contextual activities in which interpretation is unavoidable and absolute certainty never available. He introduces Christian agnosticism, the agnosticism that runs through much of the Christian and Jewish tradition, in which St Augustine says, ‘What do I love, when I love my God?’ (178). The via negativa exposes the limitedness of our language about God, our God-talk, our theology. He recognises the ambiguity, anxiety and uncertainty of belief: ‘the sense of being called to follow, without knowing the end of the road, is palpable. It reaches its most intense pitch in Jesus’ own cry of desolation from the cross’ (180).

Shakespeare’s call for desire, agnosticism, and unknowing begins to connect one suggestion for a theology of emerging Christian communities with another: Radical Orthodoxy and weak theology. Though he briefly mentions John Caputo’s (2001) On Religion, and Pete Rollins’ (2006) How (Not) To Speak of God in a footnote (where he also mentions I text I might look at further: George Pattison’s (1996) Agnosis: Theology in the Void), Shakespeare doesn’t engage at depth with the concept of weak theology and its related emphasis on a/theism in connection with Radical Orthodoxy’s failings. I suppose I should be glad of this, however, otherwise there would be little for me to attempt in my PhD thesis! For now, I’m going to draw out two elements from Shakespeare’s presentation of RO for later contemplation: truth and ontology.

Shakespeare wonders whether Radical Orthodoxy places greater importance upon aesthetics than on truth (31). For RO, truth is ‘story-shaped’ (80). The Church is the community which tells the right story about God and the world, as only it recognises the created nature of the world and its participatory role in God’s redeeming of that creation. And this story is justified through aesthetics rather than reason: it is the attractiveness of the story (not its truth - correspondence to reality) which persuades. John Milbank writes that truth ‘first of all abides in the body of the faithful’ (Being Reconciled 2003:122). It is a creation, and in creating, the faithful participate in the creative nature of God. So, ‘truth, for Christianity, is not correspondence, but rather participation of the beautiful in the beauty of God’ (Milbank, Theology and Social Theory 1990:427). Truth is therefore a relationship to participate in, rather than a knowledge to be grasped. John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock argue that, following Aquinas, this participation in truth enables us to share in the divine nature (32), though this interpretation of Aquinas has been questioned by John Marenbom (Deconstructing Radical Orthodoxy 2005:49-64). In my thesis I will be examining RO's concept of truth in more detail, and exploring it’s appropriateness for emerging Christian communities.

Within Radical Orthodoxy, there is a marked emphasis upon ontology, possibly in reaction to the observable postmodern emphasis on epistemology. I may not have been astute enough to pick up this emphasis if I wasn’t also reading John Caputo’s (2006) The Weakness of God at the moment – I’ll explain soon...

Radical Orthodoxy lays much of the blame for the myth of secularism at the feet of Christianity itself, and in particular, Duns Scotus, who predicated being univocally, i.e. attributing existence to God the Creator and God’s creations in the same sense. Aquinas, on the other hand, advocated an analogical worldview. Being can be attributed to both God and God’s creations but not in precisely the same sense, only analogically (10). Following Aquinas, RO speak analogically in order to posit that God’s creations only have being because they share in the being of God, though not in precisely the same way. Creation ‘is of itself nothing, and only exists by participation’ (Milbank BR 2003:114). God’s creations ‘can only be understood if we see them in relation to what has given them being, keeps them in being, and brings them to their perfect end’ (24). In rejecting Duns Scotus’ worldview and advocating Aquinas’, however, RO overemphasise ontology, particularly the being and existence of God. This translates into the confidence which Shakespeare rightly recognises as a key criticism and source of contention and infuriation (4).

This certainty in the being, existence, and experience of God would lead John Caputo to categorise Radical Orthodoxy as a ‘strong theology,’ something which I intend to explore a lot further.

In reading Caputo's TWOG, which is in clear conversation with Catherine Keller’s (2003) The Face of the Deep, I have started to reflect on how Radical Orthodoxy treats the second century doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Shakespeare summarises: ‘The doctrine of creation says that God makes the world out of nothing, simply as a free expression of love. There is no pre-existing force, chaos or evil which God has to fight with to bring the world into being’ (26). This peaceful bringing into being contrasts with secularism, in which being competes with being for survival, in which ‘being reduces to war’ (Smith 2004:195). However, as Keller and Caputo show, this doctrine is itself violent, suppressing and excluding the elements (the deep, tehom; the empty earth, tohu wa-bohu; and the wind, ruach) that are clearly present before God’s creative act in the biblical narrative (Gen.1:2). God does not create the world out of nothing, not out of a void, but out of substances already present, like any artist.

This brings us back to the discussion of ontology, and Radical Orthodoxy’s ‘strong theology’ of being and participation. On reading Gen.1:2 more closely (Caputo mischievously talks about the literalism of a close literary reading in order to prickle the hairs of biblical literalists, TWOG 2006:56), ‘God is not responsible for the fact that the elements are there, but for making them stir, making them live by staking out great expanses that God fills up with living things. Creation is not a movement from non-being to being – which is what makes the hearts of metaphysicians everywhere skip a beat – but from being to beyond being, from a mute expanse of being to the bustle of living things, from barrenness to the bloom of life, from silence to the word that makes the empty full and the barren buzz with life’ (TWOG 2006:58-59). Creation is a bringing of life to being rather than a bringing of being itself, a call for being to be beyond being. Radical Orthodoxy’s ‘strong theology’ of being is in sharp contrast to Caputo’s ‘weak theology’ of event. This is something I’m definitely going to look into more. This post is already long enough!

[1] References are to this volume, unless otherwise stated.


Anonymous said...


Surely if you view the emerging christian communities just through the lens of radical orthodoxy/weakness of god you miss out on other schools of contemporary theology which might help to illuminate the nuances of the many overlapping. complex and contradictory views of truth held by emerging Christian communities?

the skeptic

Katharine Moody said...

Here I'm just cutting and pasting a response to this same comment from my December 11 post:

I don't think I am viewing emerging Christian communities 'through the lens' of the theologies I'm exploring. My interest in these theologies (Radical Orthodoxy and Weak Theology) has stemmed from the fieldwork I've done, so I haven't started with an RO/WT premise at all. And I'm certainly not closed to looking at other contemporary theologies, which I'm sure would also have relevance here.

But obviously I've got to limit myself a little bit, in terms of what I can get done in the next year - I'm hoping to submit in September 2008.

But as I work through the transcripts (which I haven't yet finished!) I'll definitely be following up themes which emerge (philosophical, theological and political).

Do you have any suggestions concerning other theological frameworks which you see as relevant to emerging understandings of truth? It'd be great to hear your thoughts on where these communities intersect with contemporary theologies in relation to truth.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Im John from Melbourne Australia. I dont have a blog.

So called "radical" orthodoxy is just the same old repackaged archaic nonsense. And an attempt to bring back the patriarchal deity.

As a truly radical alternative (meaning going to the root)please check out these reference on Real God.