Impressions of "Radical Orthodoxy"

Pontifications — echoing Pastor John Wright — asks: “Is Radical Orthodoxy radical and orthodox?”:

No doubt the radical orthodox theologians are doing important work that needs to be done. It is crucial that the nihilism of post-modernity be confronted and exposed. But the world cannot be saved by a philosophy, not even a philosophy of incarnation. It cannot even be saved by a brilliant theology. It can only be saved by Jesus Christ. He, and he alone, is our gospel.

Six years ago Russell Reno published his concerns about the radical orthodoxy movement (The Radical Orthodoxy Project First Things 100. February 2000). His principal concern—its love of theory. How tempting it is, as we survey the chaos of theology and the inability of the Church to effectively proclaim the gospel to the world, to turn to theory to cure our ills. We will save the Church and the world by our brilliant speculations. As Reno writes: “Against the weakness of the gospel—in churches that seem not to hear and in a culture increasingly blind—we are tempted by theory. We imagine that by sheer theological genius and intellectual virtuosity we can reconstruct an all-embracing Christian culture, we can uncover and make present the glue that holds everything together.”

But this is not the way forward, says Reno. We must resist the lure of abstraction. The Church will only be renewed as we re-immerse ourselves in the concrete particularities that is the Church, for it is there that Christ is to be found.

Some of my friends are rather enthusiastic endorsers of this movement. And while The Chronicle of Higher Education hails it as “”biggest development in theology since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door,” I honestly haven’t taken much time to dip into it. In fact, I confess that I have difficulty even summoning the urge to investigate it for a number of reasons:

First, it seems that many works in ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ presuppose a graduate degree in philosophy on the part of the reader. As Charles W. Allen explains in “Postmodern Critical Augustinianism for Dummies” (Encounter Summer 2003 — his own attempt at clarifying RO):

. . . [Radical Orthodoxists] aren’t making many efforts to communicate beyond academic circles. To read them at all, you have to be at least somewhat familiar, first, with “classic” writers like Plato, Plotinus, Augustine of Hippo, Gregory of Nyssa, Thomas Aquinas, and their favorite whipping boy, John Duns Scotus. Then, as if that weren’t enough, you have to stay current with post-structuralists like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Lacan, Michel de Certeau, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and other recent French theorists. (Non-Gallic thinkers, it seems, are cited only when necessary, and I gather that most German-speakers -Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger – have to be dead.)

Also, your vocabulary must include a liberal sprinkling of terms like “nihilism,” “semiosis,” “jouissance,” “libidinal logic,” “mathesis” “aporia,” “fecund,” “convenientia,” “asyndeton,” and so on.11 Terms like these shouldn’t be all that objectionable. Some have been around for a good while, and sometimes nothing else will substitute. But when you can hardly get through a single paragraph without running across at least three or four of them, you may begin to lose patience. It’s enough to make terms like “perichoresis” or “hypostatic union” sound downright homespun.

I majored in philosophy and theology in college, and despite my indulgement in your typical Bacchanalian festivities, managed to retain a good amount of knowledge in the basics. That said, at that time I had precious little interest in the French post-structuralists (fashionable as they were) and when I find a new theological movement that (from what I hear) demands a familiarity with such — well, I find it a little intimidating.

Likewise, as the Pontificator says, “whether the radical orthodox folk are worth engagement probably depends on how much time one has on one’s hands and what one intends to do with the reading.” Besides the usual distractions (such as blogging), there seems to me far worthier voices in the Catholic tradition to spend my free time with.

Finally, among the turning points in my own path to Rome was my taking into account the vast riches of Christianity and the figures I had studied up to that point: the early Church Fathers, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, Duns Scotus, St. Thomas Aquinas. It struck me as rather curious, and moreover, something of a scandal, to study these pivotal figures in Christian thought at a Lutheran college — the bulk of them, of course, Catholic — to claim an appreciation for what they had to offer, and all the while (I came to recognize) distancing myself from the very Church to which they belonged.

Perhaps I am a bit naive in thinking thus, and I certainly mean no disprespect to all those who are representative of the ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ movement — professors and scholars who are undoubtedly far more learned than I. However, I admit that as a convert, one of the first impressions I had upon hearing about this bold new project, as with any other contemporary intellectual movement in the Protestant tradition, was the sense of “having one’s cake and eating it to.”

What I mean is the fact that, from what I understand, a good number of participants in “Radical Orthodoxy” draw from the riches of St. Augustine and the Ressourcement theologians (Ratzinger, von Balthasar, De Lubac, et al.), and yet do so as Protestants. As The Pertinacious Papist remarked when I had inquired his personal impression of “Radical Orthodoxy”:

“I’ve only heard rumblings, and I don’t give it much more expectation than the latest of many attempts to render Christianity fashionably cool by Protestants who want to remain orthodox. All this “re-packaging” !!! Why not just CATHOLICISM?”

Well, why not?

In “Timid, Theological Radicals” The Japery October 18, 2005), Fr. Jape’s own assessment of RO (“a really Catholic critique of modernity that falls short of recognizing the need to be Catholic,” he mentions that Russel Reno came to just such a turning point, an account of which is given in Out Of The Ruins (First Things 150 February 2005):

On a Saturday in mid-September of last year, the feast day of St. Robert Bellarmine, I was received into the Catholic Church. I pledged to believe and profess all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. The priest anointed me with the oil of confirmation. I exchanged the sign of peace with gathered friends and, after long months of preparation, I received the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Two years after the publication of In the Ruins of the Church, “a kind of manifesto against such a move from Canterbury to Rome,” Reno went a step further:

“I will obey my faithless abbot,” I insisted to myself. “Why?” I asked. “Because my theory requires it,” I replied. “But then to what am I loyal — to my theory, or to what God is telling me in the strange instrument of an increasingly apostate church?” By spring of 2004 the answer was clear. I was loyal only to my theory. The words of St. Augustine haunted me: “What am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?”

We can discuss post-modernism — or, in this case, “Postmodern Critical Augustinianism” — to our heart’s content, but it seems to me that any Protestant scholar with a genuine interest in “remaining orthodox” in this day and age will ultimately be obliged at some point to consider the claims of the Catholic Church. For it seems to me, no genuine appeal to “orthodoxy” can be made unless it is from within the very Church founded by Christ himself. (Consider for a moment the witness of just a few contemporary converts in the 20th century, many of whom having arrived at this very conclusion: Fr. Neuhaus, Fr. George Rutler, Scott Hahn, James Akin, Jay Budziszewski, Peter Kreeft, Avery Dulles, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Thomas Howard, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Alisdair MacIntyre . . . et al.).

* * *

Responding to the Pontificator’s post, Patrick X. Gardner shares a similar concern:

All in all, I think that RO asks important questions, whether or not they are wholly original questions, and whether or not their answers hit the nail on the coffin. Where they cozy up to ressourcement theology, I tend to read with my head nodding. But I find a paradox in the fact that much of the RO “theory” attempts to give the church a huge muscle over secular and godless thought, while it’s esoteric jargon limits it to the academic elite and stops it from having any strengthening effect on the living church. Truly, an avid army of seminarians is needed to devote time translating RO back into english to start with! But overall, my greatest problem with RO: its ecclesial ambiguity. Where is its home? I tend to think a huge problem with its ineffectiveness is that it is not grounded in any determinate body of Christ. How then ultimately affect a “movement” of Christ’s members in a substantial and spiritually rich way? Also, a little more direct engagement with Scripture wouldn’t hurt:)

and, likewise, Michael Liccione:

. . . It could be argued that such is the same in spirit as what Aquinas attempted with Aristotelianism in the thirteenth century. And it can be quite a useful exercise for religious professionals. But aside from some defects noted by others, I have one major beef with both [“Radical Orthodoxy” and “The Emerging Church”] movements: they evade what I consider the most important theological question of our time.

That question is: what is the Church? The question actually breaks down into three: Does any single, visible, historically continuous communion of local churches constitute “the” Church universal? If not, why not and what are the consequences we must live with? If so, which is it and why?

I believe those questions are the most important of our time because the issue on which they center—namely, the one raised by the first—recapitulates the ancient debates about the person and natures of Christ. As St. Augustine noted in a statement I’d appreciate somebody’s quoting and referencing again, the whole Christ is not just the Jesus who walked the earth, died, rose, and now abides in glory. The whole Christ is Jesus AND the Church, his Bride, whose union with her Groom constitutes his Mystical Body. In some sense, therefore, the Church is divine as well as human. Yet to emphasize the divinity of the Church at the expense of her humanity is to fall into triumphalism, exclusivism, and even fanaticism, even as emphasizing her humanity at the expense of her divinity is to fall into cynicism, false universalism, and secularism. This is a balance we have to strike correctly, just as the great ecumenical councils of the first millennium did about the person and natures of the Son of God himself.

* * *

In the interest of fairness, Eric Lee reminds us that “it depends on who you read,” and that the criticisms offered by Pastor John Wright were “from within” the tradition, having himself taught a class on the subject. Lee also provides a very helpful rundown of some contributors to the RO series: James K. A. Smith, William Cavanaugh, Conor Cunningham, Tracy Rowland, and Daniel M. Bell.

Likewise, see this compilation of posts on Radical Orthodoxy by David Jones; Dixon Kinser’s introductory blog-post: Thoughts on Something Called Radical Orthodoxy, and a nearly exhaustive bibliography of resources related to Radical Orthodoxy (both pro- and con) maintained by Jerry Stutzman, Calvin Theological Seminary (.pdf format).

* * *

No doubt my personal lack of enthusiasm about this theological project will come as a disappointment to some of my friends, and perhaps it would behoove me to look into this further before dismissing it altogether. So, I will make this concession to my readers who favor the movement: recommend ONE book in the RO series that you would particularly like me to read this year, tell me why it impressed you, and I’ll make a good effort to do so. (Note: Tracy Rowland’s Culture & Thomist Tradition after Vatican II need not count, as it is already on my reading list).

Peace in Christ.

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