Novelty provides cheap thrills, and a student of Christian theology is rightly skeptical of agendas and programs that claim to renew Christian faith and practice with new concepts, new paradigms, and new theologies. Much that modern theology has hawked as “new” and “renewing” has led to something not unlike nights at the casino—the fun would be innocent were it not for the high cost of having squandered one’s patrimony.
At first glance, the “Radical Orthodoxy” movement might seem another passing novelty. Young Cambridge-trained theologians, well-versed in the latest French post-structuralist theory, set out with a self-described “new theology” to engage the trendiest of Continental literary thinkers. John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Blackwell, 1993) takes up the modern and postmodern construction and policing of an independent secular reality. His essays in The Word Made Strange (Blackwell, 1997) treat a wide range of philosophical, social, and theological concerns, all under the postmodern premise that “we make signs, yet signs make us and we can never step outside the network of sign-making.” Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Blackwell, 1997) contests modernist and postmodernist despair over the redemptive potency of language. Graham Ward’s Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1995) affirms the fundamental role of “discourse.” Recently, all three have joined to edit a programmatic collection of essays, Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (Routledge, 1999), and this volume, like the preceding books, is sedimented with layers of postmodern reflective habits.
It would be a great mistake, however, to write off the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy because of their jargon-filled postmodernism. It may invite silliness, but more often it loosens the grip of Derrida and Foucault on the intellectual and moral imaginations of the lost souls drifting through contemporary universities. Milbank et al. use the prevailing vocabulary and verbal techniques of cultural and literary studies to expose the dark emptiness of secular postmodernism, hoisting it on its own petard. If Radical Orthodoxy is any sign of the future, tomorrow’s academy will see countless theses on the subversive power, not of transsexuality, but of the Eucharist—in all, a welcome development.
Radical Orthodoxy’s proponents, then, have constructive as well as critical ambitions, and in the long run the constructive ambitions are the more important. Milbank, Pickstock, and Ward hope to articulate an encompassing Christian perspective that will supersede and replace secularisms both modern and postmodern. Their goal is to uncover a “new theology,” new because it renounces the mediations and compromises of so-called modern theology. Yet their positive achievement is uneven, and understanding the failures of Radical Orthodoxy should occasion some sobering thoughts about the way forward. A genuinely postmodern theology requires spiritual disciplines very alien to our terribly creative and rebellious late-modern souls.
However deeply invested Radical Orthodoxy might be in the vocabulary, thought forms, and literature of postmodernism, it rests on a different foundational assumption about what we might call the glue that holds the world together. It is Augustine’s vision of heavenly peace, made effective in the dynamic and binding power of divine purpose, that shapes Radical Orthodoxy’s reflections, not Nietzsche’s violence wrought by an omnipotent will-to-power. This difference allows Radical Orthodoxy to interpret postmodern thought without being drawn into its orbit, giving Milbank & Co. the perspective from which to expose the nakedness of postmodern nihilism.
The best way to explain the Nietzschean postulate that governs postmodernism is to illustrate it. Consider this piece of “glue that holds our world together”: “Marriage is the union of a man and a woman.” One of the signal postmodern convictions is that such a claim is contingent. What makes “marriage” mean “union of a man and a woman” is the fact that dictionaries define the words that way, not some underlying essence of “marriage” or an enduring “natural law.” Dictionary definitions do not rest on an essential set of immediate truths. We define marriage as we do simply because, well, that is the way we define it. This piece of “glue,” like all other pieces, is an arbitrary act of will. The fact that we do, indeed, define words in certain ways is more fundamental than any other fact.
We can easily think that the postmodern conviction that language is arbitrary signals a “relativism.” Words such as “marriage,” we worry, cannot mean just anything; otherwise, we cannot reliably talk about the world as something that holds a consistent shape, as something glued together with reliability and constancy. Radical Orthodoxy rightly ignores this reaction to postmodernism, which turns out to be an existential anxiety—a modernist reaction to postmodernists that has little relevance to what they actually say. After all, the leading postmodern theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault are preoccupied with the fact that words do take on determinate meanings. They are concerned with understanding “identity”—the fixity of so much of what we encounter in language and practice—not depthless flux or “difference.” Dictionaries, and the law courts, define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and our lives are shaped accordingly. The glue is sticky, and postmodern theory is all about explaining just how the glue retains its force.
The terminology and dialectics of postmodernism are daunting, but Radical Orthodoxy uncovers the basic line of analysis: violence gives the world its shape and holds it together. Words have determinate meaning, and therefore retain influence in our lives, argues postmodern theory, because their meanings are enforced by the exercise of power. Derrida’s deconstructive project is devoted to exposing the many moments in which violence shapes meaning. He observes, in endless examples culled from the history of philosophy, the ways in which the key ideas that govern Western thought dominate because their alternatives are repressed, hidden, and deferred. Words, and stable meanings, are forged out of the flux of language. A blow of violence must be struck—“Marriage means this and not that.”
But a single blow never settles the matter, so we must deploy constant reinforcement to keep meanings stable. We hold our world together through a perpetual battle against the tendency of our ways of talking and thinking and acting to disperse into alternative possibilities. Identity is defended against difference. Deconstruction, as an intellectual technique, is nothing more than “showing” the original blows and “exposing” the ongoing projects of reinforcement and defense of identity.
Michel Foucault’s accounts evoke a more conspiratorial atmosphere, but the underlying explanation of stability and identity is the same. Social networks of power and interest shape language, society, and even human consciousness. Fixed patterns of meaning are carved into the raw material of our humanity. Our definition of marriage, for example, is part of an elaborate system of repression. Foucault’s analysis, then, explains why we are not, in fact, relativists. Under the impress of power, our world takes on determinate shape and hardened identity. Violent and malicious power, an impersonal Leviathan dispersed across any number of social practices, fixes our stable identities.
Out of this central claim comes the brutally political nature of the postmodern moral agenda. If power defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, then power can change that definition. Not coincidentally, postmodern theoreticians are eager to exert power: to urge the judiciary to bring to bear the force of the state, to compel curricular changes, to enforce codes of speech. With enough redirection of power, they assume that marriage can come to mean the union of any two persons. A blow was struck in one direction; a blow can be struck in another. The arbitrary violence of conventional meanings is met by the new violence of postmodern revision. So professors denounce traditional understandings of marriage, scholars distort and willfully misrepresent the role of homosexuality in antiquity, and the entire university tries to shame the recalcitrant into conformity.
Faced with the postmodern premise that violence and power are the basis for identity, the glue that holds things together, Radical Orthodoxy never blinks. Governed by an Augustinian rather than Nietzschean vision, it has no reason to trim and disguise the nihilism of dominant postmodern theory. The dialectical gymnastics designed to make violence into the more winsome principle of “difference” are nothing more than the postmodernists’ theoretical effort to repress and hide what they are doing, even from themselves. The “play of differences” may sound like good, clean schoolyard fun, but postmodern rhetoric more often recalls the battlefield and penitentiary. An honest Nietzschean acknowledges that the “peace” and “stability” of society, personal identity, and textual meaning are born of domination, and does not try to disguise this truth with labels such as “aesthetic individualism”—unless, of course, such deceptions serve his will-to-power. The deconstructors find themselves, to their surprise, led by their own metaphysics of identity and difference into the machine of deconstruction. In its criticism, Radical Orthodoxy need do little more than draw aside the curtain that hides this procedure from the view of postmodern fellow travelers. For Radical Orthodoxy, then, Derrida need not be made into a savior, nor Foucault a saint. In the fevered world of contemporary cultural and literary studies, that is something different.
Unblinking opposition is possible because, for Radical Orthodoxy, violence and the power of dominion are not necessary premises to explain why the world is stable, why identity emerges out of difference. “For theology, and theology alone,” writes Milbank, “difference remains as real difference, since it is not subordinate to immanent univocal process or the fate of a necessary repression.” For example, we can study the history of marriage and observe that Christianity substantively changed its meaning by assimilating the relation of men and women to the relation of Jesus Christ and the Church. Yet we need not conclude that such change resulted from a contest of power. Things can be understood and inhabited across change and difference without submission to power and dominion.
Christian theology counters the Nietzschean nihilism of foundational violence (in the language Radical Orthodoxy borrows from postmodernism) by advancing a participatory framework, an analogical poetics, a semiosis of peace, a metanarrative that does not require the postulate of original violence. Put more simply, Radical Orthodoxy hopes to recover Neoplatonic metaphysics as an explanation for the glue that holds the world together. Something can be what it is—a unit of semantic identity or meaning, a person, a social practice—and at the same time depend upon and reach toward something else. Or more strongly, something is real only in and through this constitutive dependence and fecundity. For the Neoplatonist, you, or I, or the value of my moral acts, or the meaning of this essay, are as emanating from and returning to the One.
For Radical Orthodoxy, the particular Neoplatonic hierarchies of being, Being, and “beyond Being” are not decisive. What matters is the way in which Neoplatonism treats the world as a differentiated realm of beings and events knit together, not in spite of or against the discrete identities of things, but in harmonious order and toward a common purpose. This view, which Radical Orthodoxy argues is advanced and intensified by classical Christianity (especially by Augustine), operates outside the contrastive logic of identity and difference. Identity is neither a wound in the flux of difference, nor a vulnerable citadel to be defended. Dynamism and difference—“I am coming from and going toward”—constitute identity. The glue is sticky, but it never dries.
This sounds very abstract, a dialectical posturing that defines the Christian participatory alternative simply by negation. The reader is tempted into this interpretation, for the typical style of a Radical Orthodoxy essay tends toward poetical—dialectical constructions of antithesis. For example, Milbank announces that theology must elaborate a “metanarrative of counter-historical interruption of history,” a “counter-ethics” and “counter-ontology.” But unlike the postmoderns and their continued and very modern dependence upon violence and power, the Radical Orthodoxy crowd promotes a vision of peace. Against the nihilistic conflict between identity and difference, Radical Orthodoxy offers harmonious identity in difference.
Radical Orthodoxy, then, does not reject modern and postmodern assumptions about the foundational role of violence only to exist as a negative critique, dependent on postmodernism for its raison d’être. The Neoplatonic framework so warmly recommended by Radical Orthodoxy offers a theory of identity and meaning based on unity and peace. Consider the role of liturgy as an incorporating force. In an extended meditation on the dynamics of eucharistic celebration, Pickstock wishes to show that the Roman Rite of the Mass is a complex combination of giving and receiving, in which the human subject remains identifiable even when incorporated. We need not become “not selves” in order to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, nor can we remain simply “ourselves,” unchanged and unaltered. (The Neoplatonic note is struck.) Christian liturgical practice assumes that we can be ourselves and be enrolled in the drama of redemption. We can participate, without either abandoning our identities or guarding them against divine dominion. The glue that holds us together, our identity as discrete individuals with personal projects, is the same glue that holds us together as a community in common worship. The one intensifies rather than diminishes the other.
This element of liturgy as participation in a divine community has a political and social analogue. Since nothing exists outside the embrace of divine providence, the Christian vision necessarily gathers up all of human life into its analysis, looking toward a transformed way of living. As Milbank details so effectively in Theology and Social Theory , modern attempts to designate a social reality underneath or outside our participation in God’s consummating revelation in Christ rest in a primal violence. Renunciation“—This God shall not have!”—marks all efforts to disentangle “real social analysis” from theology. Because God gives Himself to us, this renunciation must always take the form of resistance. To build our earthly city, to identify a “natural human being” on which to base moral and political analysis, we must deform and destroy our actual humanity, which has been created for citizenship in the heavenly city.
Against these efforts to carve out a place free from divine purpose—“the secular”—Milbank argues for a conception of social reality governed by the supernatural vocation of fellowship with God. Nothing exists outside it, yet this vocation vindicates and fulfills rather than corrupts our condition as natural, rational, and social beings. Our identity in embodied existence, rational discourse, and corporate life is the same as our identity before God. The one reinforces rather than weakens the other.
This ambition to see all creation as matter for redemption explains Radical Orthodoxy’s self-designation as “Augustinian.” The proponents of Radical Orthodoxy do not simply use the heavenly city as a gesture by which to escape from the dead-ends of postmodernism. They want to substitute a Christian and participatory account of the glue that holds the world together for the postmodern and violent one. Only then can theology escape the gravitational pull of the postmodern commitment to power and violence. Once Radical Orthodoxy escapes, under the guidance of a metaphysics of participation, its proponents can show how the diverse features of human life find fulfillment in God’s consummating purposes. The way is open to recover and reconstitute a comprehensive Christian vision.
One of the tragedies of modern theology has been its systematic renunciation of this ambition. The deep end of “truth” has been ceded to science, while theology swims in the shallow end of “meaning.” Aesthetic expression has been relinquished to the cult of original self-expression and “what-it-means-for-me.” Morality becomes a subset of utility, or a creation of private conscience, and Christians are reduced to “sharing their values.” An impoverished realm of “spirituality” or “transcendence” remains the rightful property of Christian reflection, and running on these slight fumes, theology drives toward relevance in a world over which it has renounced its authority. Radical Orthodoxy is nothing if not intensely opposed to this renunciation; for its adherents the whole world is fit for absorption into a theological framework. Christian theology should shape the way we talk about everything.
Scope, however, is not the only Augustinian ambition lost in modern theology. For every metaphysical, historical, and anthropological adventure of speculation, Augustine devoted even more energy to affirming and defending the irreducible particularity of divine redemption in Christ. The scope may be wide, but the center is focused, and the pull of the gravity of Christ is profoundly strong. The world is participatory, true enough, but its participatory framework is Christ-formed. The proponents of Radical Orthodoxy embrace the universal scope of Augustinian ambition—how Christ’s redemptive purpose structures the natural world, history, human desire, and truth itself. Like so many modern theologians, however, they often express a deep ambivalence about its concrete particularity and the authority it exerts over the Christian life. To this ambivalence we must turn.
Time and again, Radical Orthodoxy blocks any center of gravity from acquiring weight sufficient to control or direct our participation in God. Milbank, for example, when he engages the biblical text, consistently translates the particular sense into a conceptual or speculative process. The Gospel stories are, for him, allegories of a participatory metaphysics. As we grasp this theoretical truth, we come to see how we are “cocreators” of revelatory meaning. Our “analogizing capacity is itself ‘like God’”; rather than being addressed by God, “we have to discover the content of the infinite through labor and creative effort.”
The same implicit repudiation of authoritative particularity occurs when Milbank identifies the Church as a process rather than as a tradition of first-order language and practice. The Church is, at root, “a new social body which can transgress every human boundary, and adopts no law in addition to that of ‘life’. . . [and] is attendant upon a diverse yet harmonious, mutually reconciling community.” Whether the focus rests on Scripture, creed, or tradition, a certain “ideality” seems to govern, a tendency to think, theologically, in terms of higher, purified, and untainted forms. A formal claim, a “way of being,” supersedes the determinate particularity of apostolic teaching and practice.
Milbank’s struggle with the doctrine of the atonement illustrates this tendency more precisely. In Theology and Social Theory, he provides a determinedly conceptual reading of the redemptive significance of Jesus. “After Jesus’ death our redemption becomes possible, for two reasons,” Milbank reports. “First, we speculatively grasp that sin is negation, arbitrary violence, the refusal of pure love itself, and this speculation is an indispensable and yet independent moment of faith.” The second element is an equally postmodern combination of theory and rhetoric. “The speculation is only occasioned,” observes Milbank, “by the horrifying and sublime compulsion of Jesus’ death, whose concrete circumstance makes us feel that here we really ‘see’ sin, and at the same time the essence of human goodness.” Jesus makes possible a reflective pattern, and his life is redemptive because the determinate features of his life stimulate us to “speculatively grasp” that pattern. Only in this “speculative grasp” do we come to inhabit “the idiom, the logos of adequate return,” and through our adoption of this “idiom,” through our “speculative grasp” and consequent new way of thinking and living, we make atonement universal.
The “speculative grasp” suggests a general tendency, in Radical Orthodoxy, to substitute the creative production of theological theory for the redemptive power of Christ. In “The Name of Jesus,” an essay interpreting canonical writings on Jesus’ saving power, Milbank explicitly turns from person to process, from the identity of Jesus to an ideality created by his absence. Milbank begins this essay by reading the Gospel stories as internally divided. On the one hand, Jesus is the man who proclaims the coming kingdom of God. On the other hand, we encounter what Milbank calls a “metanarrative” that concentrates on the sacrificial economy of Jesus’ rejection, suffering, and death. Viewed carnally, the narrative simply fails, as the two elements conflict with each other, leaving Jesus dispersed between the narrative and “metanarrative,” between the historical and the cultic.
But Milbank does not read carnally. He reads spiritually, speculatively. Far from being a failure, the dispersal of Jesus’ identity is the key to salvation. The inability of the text to identify Jesus opens up space for reconstituted human community. The absence of a savior in the text creates the need for us to construct a savior in and through our own interpretive practice. This allows, then, for participatory atonement: the ecclesial practice of unending exegetical openness, in which the Church produces a savior in and through its interpretive creativity. In this way, Jesus saves as the “founder of a practice/state of being,” and thus the ecclesial process “must be God Himself.” In his contribution to the Radical Orthodoxy collection, Graham Ward develops a view similar to Milbank’s, in which Jesus’ “displaced body” renders him absent, opening up space for “a participation in and through difference that enables a co-creativity.”
What is going on here? Radical Orthodoxy is very clear: it wishes to renounce the compromises and half-measures of modern theology and recover an Augustinian boldness on behalf of Christian faith and practice. Yet Milbank’s attempts to explain our participation in Christ’s redemptive power are easily folded back into modern theology. A passing acquaintance with standard modern views allows us to see that the “poetic atonement” effected “by the horrifying and sublime compulsion of Jesus’ death” echoes Kant’s account of Jesus’ redemptive significance. Milbank’s “speculative grasp” may spin with a theoretical rotation, but the relation of Christ to believer differs hardly at all from Kant’s account of the rational will, aroused by Jesus, who is the sensuous manifestation of the archetype of moral rectitude. Furthermore, Milbank’s “atonement by absence” mirrors Hegel’s dialectic; in both, the identity of Christ is lost, only to be recovered in the ongoing career of Spirit. To be sure, Milbank’s “speculative grasp” is linguistic and enacted, and not conceptual in the old-fashioned and purely intellectual way. Nonetheless, for Milbank, the purported failure of Scripture to render Jesus present, as an identifiable person, is the key to its success. Jesus’ absence allows for unending interpretive potency and the “blending of differences” that characterizes the salvific process.
This easy plotting of Milbank’s accounts of atonement onto these two seminal modern thinkers is crucial. Both the Kantian and Hegelian views of Jesus’ saving role lead to two important consequences. First, the fulfillment of a human possibility—the turn to righteousness (for Kant) and the development of culture (for Hegel)—becomes the true source of redemption. In the wake of this turn to a human source, modernity and postmodernity turn toward power: as we lose confidence in a single voice of conscience or a universal cultural teleology, my conscience wars against yours, and we fight for control of the cultural process. The other consequence of Kantian and Hegelian soteriology also encourages the alienation from scriptural authority and rejection of the binding constraints of apostolic practice so common to modern theology. Kantian rectitude or Hegelian history of Spirit supersedes the apostolic language and practice as the font of theological truth, just as they surpass the incarnate form of Jesus by completing and perfecting his redemptive potency. The potency of moral choice (Kant) or the reflection upon the dynamics of history (Hegel) eclipses the identity of Christ, after which the violence of modernity and postmodernity comes into its own. Generation after generation of biblical critics and liberal theologians try to pierce the literal sense of Scripture in order to wrest its meaning from inherited orthodoxy and ecclesiastical authority.
The “new theology” proposed by Radical Orthodoxy repeats these patterns of modern theology, with similar consequences. The articles of Milbank, Ward, et al. have the effect of obscuring and superseding the particular identity of Jesus Christ as the mediator of salvation. As a consequence, they demonstrate an overall ambivalence about the role of Scripture, creed, and inherited ecclesial practice that moves in a modernist direction. Authority shifts out of the particularity of word and sacrament into a supervening theory or concept. To be sure, the theory or concept is a practice, an inhabited language, rather than a static idea. Nonetheless, however modified with appropriate postmodern twists and turns, the “speculative grasp” that lives in the generative practices of “reconciling differences” is more perspicuous, more redemptively potent, than the particular form of Christ present in word and sacrament. “New Being” replaces the crucified and risen Lord as the glue that holds all things together.
How could this collapse into modern theology happen? The usual explanation is straightforward. The proverbial educated believer cannot reconcile the pieties of his childhood with the critical methods and realities of modern life. Science seems to require a thoroughgoing materialism, transforming spiritual concerns into echoes of social practices, reflections of psychic needs, or simple glandular oddities. Historical inquiry inculcates a skeptical temper at odds with the accepting embrace of faith. Ideals of personal autonomy conflict with traditional patterns of religious conformity and obedience. For modern theology, the job of the theologian is to demonstrate that modern methods and realities do not really conflict with Christianity, properly understood. In short, the modern theologian must “mediate,” must show how the educated believer can inhabit both worlds, religious and secular, without loss, without divided loyalty.
Radical Orthodoxy’s slide toward the standard moves of modern theology cannot be explained in this usual way. Its relentless critiques of modernity and postmodernity block any such strategy of mediation. Milbank & Co. want to replace the presumptions of secularity with a Christian account of everything: no correlation here. What, then, should we think? Radical Orthodoxy remains loosely put together, defined by strong intuitions and theological thought experiments and lacking a systematic gestalt. The essays collected in the Radical Orthodoxy volume, for example, range widely, both in tone and topic, combining both Roman Catholic and Anglican authors who evidence divergent sensibilities, making generalizations about it dangerous. Yet I can offer a nonstandard account of the allergy to the particular that makes Radical Orthodoxy so paradigmatically modern when handling such crucial theological questions as atonement. It is an explanation that should caution us about the dangers and difficulties of a radical orthodoxy of any sort.
The three leading figures of Radical Orthodoxy, Milbank, Pickstock, and Ward, are Anglican, deeply influenced by the piety and practice of Anglo-Catholicism, and this encourages them to replace particularity with theory, identity with ideality. Let me explain. Anglo-Catholicism was born out of profound dissatisfaction with modern Anglicanism, and for complex cultural and theological reasons, this dissatisfaction could not come to rest in conversion to the Roman Catholic Church.
This put Anglo-Catholicism in a difficult position. By conviction, Anglo-Catholics were committed to tradition. Yet, by their thinking, predominant Anglican practice could not provide an adequately rich, catholic tradition, and the Roman Church, as currently constituted, could not provide an adequate institutional basis for faithfulness to the tradition. Therefore, a tradition had to be invented. Of course, this invention was denied. Anglo-Catholicism is characterized by an extensive archeology of patristic and medieval texts, endless recoveries of catholic-leaning figures in early Anglicanism, as well as extensive borrowings from post-Tridentine Roman theology and sacramental practice. Yet, however ancient the pieces, however venerable the raw material, the actual structure and form of Anglo-Catholicism emerged out of an idealized picture of catholic faith and practice. It had to turn toward the ideal, because for the actual and particular forms of Christian practice, established Anglicanism as well as Roman Catholicism were inadequate.
Radical Orthodoxy inherits this pattern of ideality. Its theoretical impulse does not serve the usual modernist purpose of finding a pivot point on which to correlate or mediate between Christ and culture. Instead, the drive toward a “speculative grasp” serves to discern the ideal form of Christian truth, to find a basis from which one can faithfully invent a tradition free from the limitations and imperfections of inherited forms. By their own description, the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy are “radical” in just this sense. “Re-envisioning” is required because, we are told, “Christianity has never sufficiently valued the mediating participatory sphere which alone can lead us to God.” Just as Anglo-Catholicism could not inhabit an inherited tradition—i.e., neither Canterbury nor Rome—Radical Orthodoxy cannot take up a theological tradition, at least not directly. The Christian metaphysic must be discerned, the participatory sphere (which alone can lead us to God?) must be uncovered, and under its guidance, theological imagination and creative theoretical production will perfect and complete that which has been received. Thus the redemptive potency of the Christian witness is unlocked and realized.
The Anglo-Catholic heritage both highlights and explains the proximate basis for the turn to ideality, but Radical Orthodoxy does not simply reproduce a feature of Anglo-Catholicism. It manifests, with an intensified urgency, a problem facing postmodern theology in general. Because mainline Protestant churches are now liberal by tradition, orthodox theological practice becomes, of necessity, an invention, a determined culling from the past, an act of imaginative recovery. Milbank, Pickstock, and Ward, for instance, wish to recover the confident, comprehensive voice of Augustinian Neoplatonism, a theological vision bold enough to claim all aspects of life as ordered toward God. But as a painful matter of fact, over the last two centuries Anglicanism has been marked by retreat, concession, and diminished confidence. Educated at Cambridge University, in the residue of the past glories of a Christian intellectual, aesthetic, and political culture, proponents of Radical Orthodoxy find reminders of the scope of Augustinian ambition. But monuments are not living institutions, and Gothic buildings are no substitute for enduring practices. Radical Orthodoxy cannot invent the flesh and blood of a Christian culture, and so must be satisfied with describing its theoretical gestalt, gesturing, in postmodern fashion, toward that which was and might be.
In itself, this determined resistance to the retreat of the Church and the secularization of culture is noble. Radical Orthodoxy should attract the attention, and affection, of anyone committed to the power of the gospel. But in the theological practice of “re-visioning,” modern assumptions reemerge. The theologian is a heroic redeemer, a visionary, a genius. Intellectual virtuosity eclipses ecclesial obedience as the key to renewal. Theology becomes creative and inventive rather than receptive and reiterative. Intensely sensible of the failures of the modern Church and its modern theology, the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy seek to render Christian truth so perspicuous, so clear and evident at the level of theory, that the nihilistic temptation of secularity will be impossible, and Radical Orthodoxy’s peaceful consequences will be made plain. Here, without doubt, Milbank & Co. are driven by ambition: If the actual practice of the churches in our time fails to make the truth of the gospel potent and clear, then theologians, theoretical shepherds of the speculative grasp, shall. But this ambition is not Augustinian; it is, I would submit, a quintessentially modern ambition.
If we understand our theological vocations as in and for the Church, and if we regret and decry the vulnerability of so much of Western Christianity to the nihilistic temptations of secularity, then how can we not feel the same ambition? How can we not find ourselves in the same position as Radical Orthodoxy, wanting to “re-envision” Christianity, not to make the capitulation to “science” or “modern realities” easier, but to intensify resistance, to put backbone into the Church, to make theology foundationally antimodern? How can we avoid becoming Anglo-Catholics, not in substance, but in ecclesial location and theological practice: alienated from the vast body of our liberal churches, trying to find an ideality under which we can receive and pass on a faith that our churches no longer have the confidence, will, or even basic scriptural and liturgical competence to give us?
Radical Orthodoxy should serve as a warning. The drive toward a “speculative grasp” is no quirk of postmodernism, no oddity of an Anglo-Catholic legacy. It is the habit of any theology alienated from the concrete and particular shape of the contemporary Church. For generations, modern theologians felt alienated because of the apparent disjunction between the moral, intellectual, and political imperatives of “progressive thought” and the constraints of classical Christianity. The upshot was a conceptual redescription of Christianity designed to allow for a correlation and mediation across this disjunction.
Now a similar alienation seems to be forced upon orthodox theology by the failures of Western Christianity. Christian faith and practice no longer seem to live up to the gospel. But just as the modern alienation led to a theological abstraction from apostolic teaching, so also does an orthodox alienation now tempt us. For if, like Radical Orthodoxy, we accept this disjunction, the consequences echo modern theology. Christian faith and practice must be raised to a level of purified abstraction so that it can be saved from its own failure to make Christ present in the Church and in society. But as Milbank’s treatment of atonement shows, such a move returns to modernist patterns and obscures the particular identity of Jesus Christ. In the end, Christ is absent, and only the high labors and creative vision of the theologian can recover his identity and make him present. His identity must be held together with the sticky glue of the “speculative grasp.”
Anglicanism has no monopoly on failure. To a great extent, the magisterial Protestant churches in Europe and North America, and, to a lesser extent, Roman Catholicism, have been diminished. Those of us bitten by the Augustinian ambition cannot help but war against that diminishment. However, in our protest, we must recognize how difficult and narrow is the way of a postmodern recovery of orthodoxy.
Many offer courageous and articulate warnings against the modern “culture of death,” and Christian witness does provide an alternative that has weight and substance. Nonetheless, no triumphant vision of peace emerges out of what late-twentieth-century Christians actually say and do. Christianity, its Holy Scriptures and ecclesial practice, seems unable to hold all things together. 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 guided by what might be rather than what is, we come to correct and perfect that which we have received in word and sacrament. As the editor’s blue pencil excises and adds, violence and the will-to-power reemerge. We turn to apostolic teaching and practice with an eye to improvement, correction, and enhancement. If the gospel is weak, then we will make it strong. Our theorizing, our “new theologies,” will hold together what Christ and his Church seem unable to encompass and embrace.
Against this temptation, we must keep our noses close to the ill-smelling disaster of modern Christianity, articulate about its failures but training ourselves to dwell in enduring forms of apostolic language and practice. Diminished vision may be the price we must pay. We may no longer be able to see our culture, stem to stern, through Christian eyes. We may no longer be able to see the complex shape of our contemporary churches as a creature of the gospel. We can only see what has been given to us to see. But paying this price is necessary in order to train our eyes to see the identity of Christ in the witness of Scripture and the practice of the Church. For no matter how high we might soar in theological reflection, and despite our hope that from such heights we might recover a vision of the full scope of the truth of Christ, we will be disappointed. Christ is in the concrete faith and practice of the Church, and only he can give power and potency to a postmodern theology that is genuinely orthodox. For the Son holds all things together in the Father.
To escape the patterns of theological modernism, therefore, the first task is not to imagine and invent. Instead, we must train ourselves in that which modernity rejects most thoroughly and fatally: the discipline of receiving that which has been given. We must eat the scrolls that the Lord has given us, and dwell amidst his people. Only then will the scope of an Augustinian ambition recover the intense, concrete, and particular Christ-centered focus that gives it the power of good news. Only there can we taste God’s peace.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.