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Radical Orthodoxy (RO) is a relatively new current within Christian theology. Despite its name, it has nothing in common with the Eastern Orthodox Churches. RO's foremost representatives are John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward. All three are Anglicans. RO's project is difficult to describe in one short paragraph, but has been described as post-secular and postmodern. Milbank at one point called his ideas "postmodern critical Augustinanism". RO is usually considered conservative, but its theology looks like a very curious mixture of Iamblichus, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and postmodernism, all suitably reinterpreted in ways many scholars find questionable. At least theologically speaking, this is therefore anything but "orthodoxy" as traditionally conceived.
"Introducing Radical Orthodoxy" is regarded as the best introduction to RO. This is somewhat ironic, since James K. A. Smith is a critic of the new movement. Smith writes from a Reformed perspective and frequently references Kuyper and Dooyeweerd. In a later chapter, he turns out to be critical of them, too. Be that as it may, I did get a relatively good grasp of RO after reading Smith's book. Indeed, most of the book is relatively non-polemical, and it's obvious that the author wants a dialogue with RO rather than an outright confrontation.
RO challenges modernity in the name of both postmodern and "pre-modern" themes. At the same time, they have a kind of double attitude towards postmodernity, both challenging and appropriating it. They seem eager to assimilate the postmodern ideas that there is no "objective" truth, that all objectivity is really "mythos", and that no neutral reason exists. Smith himself is positive to these notions, and ties them to Reformed versions of presuppositionalism. RO's presupposition is that the Bible as interpreted by the traditional Christian creeds is true, while admitting that this cannot be proven by appeals to a neutral, objective reason. However, since nothing else can be proven in this way either, it's really a contest between the Christian mythos and the secular mythos. The problems and contradictions of this position are roughly the same as with other forms of presuppositionalism. Thus, RO seems to believe that the Christian story is more consistent than the secular ones, which are self-contradictory. But so what? Is "consistency" a neutral term? Why is consistency desirable, anyway? Some people seem willing to live without it! When the chips are down, it seems that we'll never know the truth, unless the Holy Ghost opens our unregenerate hearts... Note also that some presuppositionalists accept evolution. RO doesn't seem to be creationists, and neither were Kuyper or Dooyeweerd. Where does the idea of evolution come from? Divine revelation at some church council? I think not. Here's a clue: Charles Dar...! This little detail is enough to create havoc in any presuppositional scheme which wants to incorporate the findings of modern science.
RO's weird parasitism upon postmodernism is a pity, since some of their other ideas are more interesting. RO wants to challenge the dualism and crypto-Gnosticism they believe is inherent in much Christian theology. They want Christians to have a positive view of creation, the body, political engagement, sexuality and aesthetics. RO therefore puts a lot of stress on the idea of "participation": the material world "participates" in God, and exists only due to this participation. In and of itself, the material world would be nothing. Matter can be blessed and positive only because it participates in a higher, transcendent reality which both creates it and graces it. This idea, which to me sounds like panentheism, is apparently taken from Neo-Platonism, especially the theurgical version of Iamblichus. Interestingly, RO claims that Plato too was really a this-worldly philosopher with a positive appreciation of the physical and material. This, Smith is at pains to point out, is hardly the traditional view of Plato! (Smith is sympathetic to RO's pro-material stance, but regards Plato as the dualist par excellence. However, he also criticizes RO for downplaying the Fall.) Personally, I found RO's position intriguing, since some other writers have cracked the idea that Plato was really a "descender". Ken Wilber comes to mind. Another is Dominic O'Meara in his book "Platonopolis", which even attempts to turn Plotinus into a thinker oriented to this world.
RO have also reinterpreted Thomas Aquinas, claiming that he didn't really believe in an autonomous reason, an independent realm for secular philosophy, natural theology, etc. Rather, Aquinas considered the world to participate in God in Neo-Platonist (Augustinian?) fashion. Therefore, one cannot properly *know* even a material object without knowing its divine telos, which in turn is impossible without an explicitly Christian-theological perspective. Autonomous reason cannot give us any true knowledge. While this interpretation of Aquinas is presumably also idiosyncratic, I have seen it before.
Smith points out that there is a curious parallel between RO and Francis Schaeffer on the genealogy of secular modernity. Both traced its theological roots to the High Middle Ages, Schaeffer to Aquinas while RO singles out Duns Scotus as the main culprit. According to RO, Scotus made the philosophical category "Being" more fundamental than God. Both God and created things partake of Being, which implies that the difference between them is one of degree, not one of kind. This opened the door to the flattened ontology of modernity. Radically unhooked from God, matter becomes meaningless, leading to the ironic situation that the materialist cannot consistently honour matter. Materialism and secularism are therefore ultimately nihilistic. A body without a soul is, after all, just a corpse. The transcendent dimension is needed even by those who want to celebrate their bodies and the goodness of the material world. In a strange kind of way, materialism is an inverted Gnosticism, since both are forced to regard matter as meaningless or evil.
Materialism is also unable to explain difference. Materialism, after all, is monist. The only kind of "difference" materialists can affirm is oppositional conflict between particulars. Without a higher dimension, these conflicts are impossible to solve. War and strife are eternal in a flattened cosmos. By contrast, RO believes it can propose an "ontology of peace", including a call for harmony in society. RO also has a political side, which I don't think is fully explicated in the book. Smith calls it "socialism" but it obviously cannot be socialism in the Soviet or Chinese sense. My guess is that RO wants a form of communitarianism with government interventions in the economy and harmony between the classes. (I suppose Marx would have called this bourgeois socialism, or, less charitably, feudal socialism!)
"Introducing Radical Orthodoxy" isn't an easy read. I've read most of the book, but I gave up when Smith started to articulate the Leibniz-Deleuze view of matter as an alternative to RO. Frankly, the postmodern angle rubs my onion. Why even bother engaging Deleuze, Derrida, Foucalt or Zizek? The way to Hell is paved with the names of pomo luminaries!
That being said, I nevertheless recommend James K. A. Smith's book to advanced students of theology who, for whatever reason, don't yet feel advanced enough to take on Milbank's, Pickstock's or Ward's own writings. Or those of Deleuze, for that matter.