So what was our problem with Radical Orthodoxy?

Many years ago, AUFS was arguably best known among theology blogs for its rejection of Radical Orthodoxy. It was regularly alleged that we had no substantive critique but were simply trashing Radox, presumably out of a desire for attention.

At this late date, I think it should be clear that our critique was well-founded: Radical Orthodoxy, as exemplified by its founder and champion, John Milbank, has shown itself to be an openly imperialist and anti-democratic approach to theology. Far from being an unfortunate accident or dispensable supplement, the political consequences are very clearly put forward as intrinsic to the theology itself — an unsurprising result when we recall that one of the distinctive features of Radical Orthodoxy is the insistence on an ontological hierarchy. Further, it has grown increasingly Islamophobic, as Milbank has insistently pinned the blame for modernity’s “heretical” innovations on the influence of Islam.

One can forgive abhorrent political positions in a writer who delivers profound insight — I am an avid reader of Schmitt and Heidegger, for instance — but there is no such payoff for Radical Orthodoxy. The readings of modern and especially contemporary philosophers is tendentious to the extreme, while the interpretation of classic figures in theology is often contrived at best. Everything is forced into the mold of a Christian orthodoxy that owes more to Plato than to Christ, rejected as a dangerous enemy to this orthodoxy, or (at the most “generous”) read as a failed attempt to attain the pure insight of orthodoxy.

The core problem, however, is that the Radical Orthodox position strips Christianity of literally everything promising or attractive. The God of Radical Orthodoxy is not the God of the oppressed — instead, Milbank feels comfortable asserting (with utterly no basis) that Christianity was an aristocratic movement from the very beginning. There is no meaningful theology of the cross, apart from an attempt to hijack the prestige of Agamben’s homo sacer concept by applying it to Jesus. There is no sense of the apocalyptic tension between God and the earthly ruler — instead, monarchism is put forward as a straightforward logical corollary of Christianity.

So in short, our problem with Radical Orthodoxy was: everything.

Is James Cone a postmodern theologian?

As I worked through God of the Oppressed with my students this week, a disturbing thought occurred to me: I began to detect a homology between Cone’s project (at least as represented in this particular text) and that of Radical Orthodoxy. Part of this may have stemmed from my somewhat questionable placement of Cone in the “postmodern” segment of the humanities capstone course — a choice that I made in part because I thought Cone was a challenging variant on something like “perspectivalism,” and that came to seem further justified by Cone’s implicit emphasis on social construction.

For Cone, it seems, social construction works. Oppression would be thoroughly determinative for the experience and identity of the oppressed if not for the transcendent reality of Christ. He says this over and over: the enslaved Africans never could have known they were human if Christ hadn’t been with them. They never could have survived and resisted slavery and oppression if Christ hadn’t been with them. Furthermore, he is aware of the danger that this transcendence could be viewed as a mere subjective fantasy of the oppressed, an imagined compensation — and so it must be objectively, historically attested in the life of Jesus.

The black experience is thus validated by its reference to a reality that is at once historical and transcendent. And if there wasn’t this transcendent, historically attested point of reference, then violence and death would have the final say — the earthly masters, with their power over life and death, really would be the ultimate masters. Here I can’t help but see strong parallels with the Radical Orthodox project of taking “postmodern” thought at its word — yes, everything is socially constructed, yes, we’re consigned to an endless power struggle with no ultimate meaning or goal — and then proposing that divine transcendence is the only answer.

The difference — and it is a hugely important difference — is that Cone grants authority to the church of the oppressed where Radical Orthodoxy places its hopes in the church of the oppressor. Nonetheless, I find the parallels alarming and I’m not sure what to do with them.

AUFS’s published critiques of Radical Orthodoxy: A beginner’s guide

It has come to my attention that we here at AUFS are famous as critics of Radical Orthodoxy, but at the same time, many people believe we have no substantive critique. It is true that many of our posts here are occasional and underdeveloped in nature (i.e., are blog posts), so that one might come away with the idea that we are solely occupied with scoring cheap points. Yet there is a whole world outside the blogosphere, where we have actually published various books and essays! It is in that extra-blogical world that one can find our substantive critiques of Radical Orthodoxy. Continue reading “AUFS’s published critiques of Radical Orthodoxy: A beginner’s guide”

A note

I speak only for myself here, but I don’t consider this blog to be my primary academic work. By volume, it doubtless exceeds my published work, but my blogging serves my published work both in terms of providing a forum for me to test out ideas and in terms of increasing my public profile so that my published work can reach a broader audience.

Nothing I write here should be considered my final position. If I don’t seem to substantiate a position in the context of the blog, you should first look to my relevant published writings before drawing any conclusions about the depth of my engagement with the topic.

To take a random example: one could conclude from the blog that I hardly have anything to say about Larry David. Even a thorough search would only reveal a handful of references, and those would be relatively superficial. Yet fully a fourth of my book Awkwardness is dedicated to Larry David and the entire project is inspired by his work on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Anyone who was gossiping about how I fail to really engage with Larry David would, therefore, be intellectually irresponsible. One could presumably extend this principle by analogy to other relevant figures and movements we discuss on this blog.

All of my books are in print and readily available on Amazon or from academic libraries. All but a couple of my articles are readily available for your perusal on my CV page (some must be omitted for copyright reasons but can be found through library databases; you can also e-mail me for a copy). In short: if you want to know what I think about something, you don’t need to rely on your vague impression from my blog posts.

John Milbank on Blogging: Or, some remarks on why insular gasbags don’t like a public free to speak

In many ways AUFS lasting contribution to on-line theological discussions has been to refuse and end the hegemonic reign that Radical Orthodoxy had for many graduate students interested in Continental philosophy and theology. It goes without saying that this hegemony was, of course, mostly found amongst students of Christian theology, many of them post-evangelical and so suffering from a certain piety inescapable for such damaged individuals. I think what many of these students turned to RO because of a deep sense of the wrong state of things present in their own Christian life. Of course RO only presents, as all forms of apologetics, various theodicies and so this perpetuates the split, the wrong state of things, that these students try to heal by parroting the assumed masters, like John Milbank. But by presenting these often meaningless words to students, whose only knowledge of the figures and forms of life being critiqued by RO comes from those claiming to have mastered them, we’ve been able to move the debate simply by demanding one. Continue reading “John Milbank on Blogging: Or, some remarks on why insular gasbags don’t like a public free to speak”

I can’t believe I read the whole thing

It’s been a long time since we’ve criticized one of Milbank’s interventions, and his seemingly infinitely long piece on gay marriage may present a good opportunity.

On one point, we agree: “In effect, if marriage is now understood as a lifelong sexual contract between any two adult human persons with no specification of gender, then the allowance of gay marriage renders all marriages ‘gay marriages.'” Yet the conclusion he draws from this is strange, involving an idiosyncratic definition of “clear-thinking”: “Given such a situation, were it not for the space afforded by canon law (namely, the possibility of church marriage) a resort to cohabitation – which has hitherto been understood as ‘common-law marriage’ – would be the only logical path for clear-thinking Christians.”