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What’s So Rad About Radical Orthodoxy?

Over on the Process Theology post by David Larson some comments were made about Radical Orthodoxy that I wanted to expand on.

In order not to side-track that interesting conversation this is being posted on its own… and believe me, despite what it might look like, I’ve tried to cut out the technical jargon!

Alternatively described as “the most important development in theology since the reformation” or “time wasting gobbledegook,” Radical Orthodoxy (RO) developed in the mid nineties and has rapidly gained a theological following. Which begs the question: what is so radical about it?

RO is firstly a critique of modernity

RO is a reaction to continental (mostly French, post-structuralist) philosophy’s post-modern claims. Recognising that the post-modern criticism of modernity are for the most part correct (including the claim that much of contemporary Christianity has been shaped by modernity and enlightenment thinking rather than biblical studies/theology) RO differs from other “continental philosophical post-modern theologies” by responding, not through post-modern philosophy (i.e., the hermeneutical approach- following Ricoeur, or weakness theology- after Vattimo, Caputo, etc.), but by turning to “pre-modernity.” This is why RO looks to the 3rd and 4th century theologians as an antidote to modernity’s scholastics.

RO is “post-secular”

At the heart of RO is the belief that the divide between the sacred and the secular, theology and philosophy, is the false result of the enlightenment and the modern project. Instead RO aims to return theology to her throne as “queen of all studies”. The RO project reacts to the sandy foundations of modernity and its philosophical worldview, but rather than attempt to renovate or extend the doomed building through post-modernity, it chooses to restore and rebuild the house built on rock foundations, believing that it will ride out the coming stormy floods! Secularism is seen as “theology gone bad”- religions of power promoting violence.

RO believes that the key elements of Christianity are participation

Christians are called to participate in the created world helping to overcome the “secular disease of violence”, responding to God’s transcendental nature. We participate by dynamically sharing in the nature of God; by believing that death and violence are secondary to God’s gift of peace in creation renewed by God. Creation is treated as a gift, not as a given.

RO believes that the cure for the “secular disease” is found in the recovery of Christian tradition and community

RO highlights the central role of sacramentality, liturgy and aesthetics in leading humanity towards the divine This is because in them we participate with the divine in creation, and creation in the divine. They are symbols of our participation in God’s redemption of the world.

RO believes in the redemption and transformation of this world (socially, economically, politically)

God participation, revelation and concern for the created world, overcomes the “secular disease” of violence, replacing it with peace. Christian faith saves the world from becoming the plaything of impersonal forces and forces of violence. Christians are called to participate with God in this.

So why has RO been ignored, misunderstood, or ridiculed by many?

The first problem is that it is doubly cursed as it finds itself within the milieu of (French) continental philosophy. Cursed because many conservative Christians believe that “the devil comes from the left bank” and avoid anything faintly “PoMo”. Ant those that don’t recoil in horror find themselves confused by it. Most Anglo-US scholars come from the analytical/anglo-saxon branch of philosophy and find continental philosophy a strange language at best, heresy at worst!

The second reason is that many evangelical/conservative/fundamentalist Christians are wary of the anglo-catholic Anglicanism of RO’s founders. This is changing (especially as some of its leading advocates in the US self-identify as “reformed”) however, it is still falsely seen as a high Anglican, Nordic Lutheran (and possibly catholic) project by many.

Third, RO is difficult to understand. Borrowing heavily from continental philosophy RO reads like a web of competing ideas and visions rather than a logical argument. Its use of the creative arts and popular culture also seem “unscholarly” to many.

Fourth, its emphasis on liturgy, the Eucharist and other “high church” aspects of church life are viewed with suspicion and raise claims of ritualism by some Protestants.

But these objections fail to adequately engage with RO. We need to ask if there are any criticisms of its theology. And I do think that there are some problem areas.

Firstly the dichotomy between church and the world, theology and philosophy, can result in a ghettoisation of religion, which in practice, if RO is not careful, leads to the dualism it is trying to avoid.

Secondly, despite being a critique of violence, it engages in acts of power (and ironically violence) when it claims the dominion of the Christian worldview over all others. Do we really want to return to a medieval world where religion is the dominant force in society (to be fair RO doesn’t advocate this, but I do feel that the claims of church dominance need to be explored further).

Thirdly it really only addresses western anglo-american/european issues (although this might change if RO is taken up in other contexts in the future), so it could be argued that it is in fact violently imperialistic towards other cultures.

Fourthly, I don’t believe that RO takes the post-modern criticism of modernity far enough. They also criticise the foundations of western metaphysics (especially neo-platonism), which undergirds most of the pre-modern sources (such as Aquinas and Augustine) RO relies on. (Catholic criticism of RO also argue that it has been selective in its use of the church fathers).

What are RO’s strengths?

Well, it takes the criticism of modernity seriously (although I think they should be taken further). As someone who finds himself more at home in the French continental philosophical tradition I appreciate their engagement. I also believe that the worldview presented has some merit and makes sense in a post-modern context. I feel that RO has a lot to offer theology and needs to be explored by those who would not normally find their home there. Personally I feel that although useful, there are several flaws in RO at the moment. Whether these can be worked out (after all it is only about 10 years old) time will tell. however, at this point I feel that some of the other approaches (in particularly “weakness theology”) might have more long term impact on the future of theology in a post-modern context. I’d be interested in any discussion that follows… however please bear three things in mind:

  1. 1)All my books are packed away at the moment!
  2. 2)I’m in a different time zone so it might take a while to respond
  3. 3)At the moment my health sometimes causes my brain to stop working (blame that if the introduction doesn’t make sense!)

When he’s not dreaming of being able to rock climb again, Andrew Willis blogs at Still on the Pilgrimage. With a BA in Biblical & Pastoral Studies and an MA in Religion taken at Newbold College, Andrew is trying to find a theology that is relevant to 21st century Europe and is looking at Ph.D. programs which explore post-modern continental philosophical approaches to theology.

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