As the popular radical philosopher Slavoj Zizek routinely points out to his audiences, in our age of ordained transgressions, there is nothing quite so radical as what G.K. Chesterton called the “thrilling romance of orthodoxy.” Thus in our besotted age, orthodoxy becomes for Zizek (the fighting atheist) as for Chesterton (the traditionalist Catholic), “the most dark and daring of all transgressions.” We ought not to be surprised then, that at the dawn of the 21st century a movement dubbed Radical Orthodoxy (RO) has emerged at the cutting-edge of theology and postmodern philosophy.
What this movement is about—its key thinkers and their texts, its strengths, and its weaknesses—is the purpose of James K.A. Smith’s recently published volume, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy (Baker Books, 2004). Smith announces at the outset that he writes for three audiences: 1) the academy of theorists, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates; 2) theologians, both in the movement itself and in the Reformed tradition (in which Smith places himself); and 3) the church, in particular its pastors, worship directors, and other leaders.
It is a difficult task to write a volume to satisfy each of these constituents; one that is learned enough for the academy and yet accessible enough for the educated but non-academic professionals. While there are certainly portions of the volume from which non-professionals will be able to glean insight, for the most part Smith has written a work best calibrated for theorists and theologians. Happily, his volume also possesses a number of aids for further study. Each chapter leads off with a side-panel of key related readings and contains copious footnotes throughout. There is an extensive 14-page bibliography of sources by and about RO. Separate name and subject indexes provide an efficient tool to guide selective reading. Altogether, Smith has put together a comprehensive (albeit fairly technical) introduction to and guide for the further study of Radical Orthodoxy.
After a thorough and searching interrogation of RO by means of his own Kuyperian Reformed tradition, Smith concludes: “Radical Orthodoxy should push us to reconsider our faith and practice in a post-secular world.”
The same, however, can be said about many movements, theories, and incidents. But Radical Orthodoxy is no small matter. At its heart, RO might be understood as a massive theological project to re-narrate reality.
Its target is the modern notion of the “secular” as an autonomous realm of thought, word, and deed. So the founding text of RO, John Milbank’s Theology & Social Theory (Blackwell, 1990), begins like a fairy tale: “Once there was no ‘secular.’ … The secular as a domain had to be instituted or imagined, both in its theory and in its practice.”
The totalizing nature of this constructed reality leads adherents of RO into just about all realms of inquiry in a sustained effort at critique. RO interventions can be found in academic disciplines such as politics, economics, linguistics, poetics, history, social and cultural theory, and even the natural sciences.
Not surprisingly, criticism of RO has arisen at each juncture, surfacing from both religious and secular sources. While religious critics often go after RO theorists on theological, denominational, or biblical grounds, more secular critics find the movement, in Smith’s words, either “too Christian, too confessional, or too dogmatic.”
But RO theologians remain undaunted and continue to produce their theologically inspired, postmodern informed re-narrations of economics (Daniel Bell and Stephen Long), culture (Graham Ward), politics (William Cavanaugh), and theology/philosophy (Milbank and Catherine Pickstock).
The literature of the movement is often dense, abstract, complex, impenetrable, out-of-reach, and off-putting. And yet as Smith and other critics note, what RO seeks to accomplish is hugely important not only for Christian academics but also (if it can be translated into more common parlance) for the life of the church, especially in the West. For what RO is after is nothing short of what Milbank describes as “an alternative version of modernity.”
In the RO version, modernity, that historical moment that witnesses the rise of liberal democracy and capitalism (and the philosophies and theologies that affirm them), must be seen as a pure project of power whereby the church and its account of reality (again, in “thought, word, and deed”) has been forcibly ejected from its earlier and necessary public space whereby it forms the soul according to the truth and beauty of God. As such the modern state has arisen as a device of and for liberal absolutism. Its message is individual human liberty, and it brooks no counter-version to its story.
In terms similar to those found in certain postmodern philosophers, from whom they borrow without completely buying, RO theorists and theologians (re-)describe the modern state not as “tolerant,” “pluralistic,” or “free” in the standard sense of those terms, but rather like Hobbes in Leviathan when he describes the state’s sovereign power as that “mortal God.” For them, the state has become the actual replacement for the church, replete with its own liturgies, vestments, rites, practices, saints, holy days, and disciplines. Rather than fitting us for heaven, the state and its multiple apparati (media, education, professions, etc.) form us for service and allegiance to the state and its needs. At one time, Christian subjects fought and died, they believed (perhaps mistakenly), for the sake of Jesus; now Christian citizens fight and die for the American way of life.
Some would say that this is in fact just what the state (carefully regulated and watched) should be about; and that a certain amount of material or cultural excess is well worth the price for a secured personal and religious liberty. After all, soul-crafting as the hobby of states (ancient and modern) leads almost inevitably to internal oppression and external war. But the concern for RO theologians extends beyond a critique of the modern state and its operations; it extends to why we as Christians must recognize what modernity (with its liberal state and free market) is really up to. So in the words of William Cavanaugh (the most accessible RO theologian):
The invention of religion as a private leisure activity allows people to fit into the state and market without conflict, … Private religion is meant as a refuge, a solace for tired shoppers and harried office workers. Religion helps us escape from or cope with, but not change, the frenetic pace of life in consumer society.
What Smith from his Reformed tradition, and RO theologians from their more Anglo-Catholic perspectives, seek is to re-direct Christian loyalties and re-form Christian affections away from the state (unlimited power) and market (unbounded desire), and bend them back towards the church which exists in the world, through God’s Spirit, as the singular exemplary human community.
And that would make orthodoxy radical indeed.
Ashley Woodiwiss is associate professor and chair of the department of politics & international relations at Wheaton College.