Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Living in a Nightmare, or Why Radical Orthodoxy is Garbage

John Milibank once penned this famous first line and battle cry of what is Radical Orthodoxy, "Once there was no Secular". This perfect sentiment created the heat of what has been generally termed Radical Orthodoxy, which has become an academic phenomenon, though there is, perhaps, a question hanging on its future. It is generally theological, but also carries on into a revival of a kind of Distributism economic policy and a Red Tory political theory. Radical Orthodoxy tries to recover a vision of the Christian Society that one encounters in Medieval Europe before the Reformation. The movement began within the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican church, but it has spread into other forms of Protestantism and even among some Roman Catholics, though they most eschew the label and draw upon overlapping traditions.

I will say that the major positive element of Radical Orthodoxy is that it represents an attempt by Christian intellectuals to deal seriously with twentieth century philosophy. But that's about it. As one would-be popularized of the movement would call it, Radical Orthodoxy tries to recover the "Platonic-Christian Synthesis", reintegrating Hellenistic philosophical trends within the pale of Christianity that had occurred within some corners of the High Middle Ages. It is trying to recover a much more sweeping and comprehensive view of Christianity for people today. Milibank, and many others, seek to restore theology to being the "Queen of the Sciences", the highest form of knowledge that supports all others.

The deathblow to this order was Nominalism, an insidious philosophy that vitiates the Chain-of-Being metaphysics that was beneath the theological philosophy of Medieval Europe. This is an incredibly stupid statement, and is symptomatic of why Radical Orthodox proponents fail to understand why the Reformation happened. It was not just nominalism nor a spiraling out of control of an effort to curb moral abuse in the Roman dominated churches of Western Europe. There was a general shift and reaction against the Medieval political economy. It was the explosion of many disparate movements and changes. I have critiqued the failures of the Reformation, but I am glad to live in a West that went through it.

I must say that I used to be attracted to Radical Orthodoxy. But I also knew enough about Medieval Europe to recoil in disgust with the fantasy. I turn against it, completely and totally.

Radical Orthodoxy a exhaust port for Christian intellectuals disaffected with global capitalism and functions as an exercise in fantasy. Let me be clear, this is not political imagination, but fantasy. It's the dream of a world that never was, and it does not understand geo-political and economic realities. Its ecclesiological vision only exists in academic theology journals. The Church it talks about does not actually exist except as a Platonic Ideal that is instantiated. It claims to be a recovery of tradition, but it's hardly that. It is ironic that Milibank's wife is a priestess, and Hauerwas, who represents a more Americanized Pragmatist spin on the movement, also has a priestess wife. This is not an aberration, but fits a Christianity that is in complete conformity with a zeitgeist. It has become an fetishized protest within the global capitalist order, a fashionable clique of prigs. Ultimately, not only does it undermine the Scriptures, but lures intellectually adept Christians into a fantastical trap.

But this is not it. Radical Orthodoxy's fantasy is dark. It dreams of a Medieval Order that was hardly unifying or at peace. Corrupt princes of the state and the church did battle with each other to exploit peasants. The highly dreamed Medieval World was one where nobility and churchmen pontificated, while serfs and peasants toiled. Yet it was not only oppression, but God-ordained oppression! It was God's will that the Third Estate was trapped in squalor, while others lived off their labors and spent luxuriously on clothing, feasts etc. The Radical Orthodoxy promotes a kind of renewed political clericalism, where the unwashed masses are kept at bay through appeals to dignity and right order. Like all Clericalisms, the true Body of Christ is the ordained priesthood, secular and monastic, the professional Christians, that become boats, through their parish work, to carry the unlearned and unwashed into paradise. God willing, this world will never return. This is not just a fantasy, but a nightmare.

Of course, the lure of Radical Orthodoxy is that it seems to offer an intellectually serious alternative to the different trends of liberal theology. I've suffered with that, but the price is not worth it. The true and apostolic gospel is better than this garbage.


  1. I've been soaked in musicology and music history this year but my brother's been reading on the development of the concept of the individual in the Western tradition and it seems as though Radical Orthodoxy may not grant the extent to which the kind of modern Western liberal valuation of the individual as agent could be seen as a natural outgrowth of elements in Western Catholic scholastic thought from the medieval period.

    I'm wondering whether Radical Orthodoxy (which I may have to consider myself fortunate to have never managed to keep track of while Mars Hill stuff was happening) could be a kind of "right" version of PC in Anglo-American Christian terms.

    1. If they would grant that the rise of the individual occurred in Medieval Catholicism, it would be an offspring of Nominalist (read heretical!) theology and (proto)Renaissance Paganism.

      There is diversity to RadOx. Milibank and his cohorts at the University of Nottingham and in England more generally are more intellectually sophisticated. The left-right scale falls a part at this point. They are certainly social conservatives, but also would argue for numerous socialist positions. Milibank is very much pro-EU. So it's a European conservatism, not really a nationalist or British kind of conservatism.

      Across the pond, American followers are scattered. Some proponents of RadOx are just social conservatives of the ECT variety. Others, like Hauerwas, who is not exactly RadOx, but almost identical in many points of convergence, seems really ambiguous. He's pretty frustrating because he has wit and he can make profound arguments, but when you scratch at them, you realize you have no idea what any of it means.

      It's sad, but it's one of the few schools that tries to interact with modern philosophy. I'm not talking about Nietzsche or Kant, but with Levinas, Deleuze, Foucault etc. even Zizek coauthored a book with Milibank. I think Jamie Smith may be trying to do something within Calvin College, and Ephraim Radner something similar at Wycliffe College at University of Toronto. They seem to be much more thoughtful alternatives to RadOx.