Radical Orthodoxy: argumentum ad absurdum

It is no secret that I found my time training for the priesthood at Westcott House grating. There were a number of reasons for this – but the underlying issue was the degree to which my own theological opinions jarred with the ethos of the College. Now three years on I find myself in the incredibly weird situation of living once again in an Anglican training College – this time in Oxford, while my wife trains for the priesthood. As a Unitarian, my perspective on these Anglican training establishments must be quite unique.

Over the last couple of months it seems like the Unitarian movement as a whole has been thinking more deeply about the nature of its own identity, particularly in the light of the “A Vision for the Future” publication which came out earlier this year. As I survey the landscape of British Unitarianism today, and consider where it has come over the last century, I cannot help but compare it to the Anglo-Catholic tradition from which I came. As you are aware, the Church of England is a broad Church, an uneasy alliance of divergent parties, maintained by a veil of ignorance.

I was initially drawn to Anglicanism through two writers, John Robinson, and Don Cupitt: two writers for whom I have a great deal of love and admiration, two writers who just so happen to have trained for the Anglican priesthood at Westcott House. These two writers throughout the latter part of the 20th century attempted to responded to the demands of the modern world. They rejected the idea of a God ‘up there’ or ‘out there’, they spoke of the need to move away from the magical or supernatural elements of the faith, and to not simply reaffirm traditional Christianity. But this optimistic radical vision of the church was never realised.

In these ‘modern catholic’ training colleges today, there is little regard for John Robinson, and none for Don Cupitt. The school of thought which dominates today’s modern catholic seminaries is John Milbank’s ‘Radical Orthodoxy’. This morning I wanted to think a bit about ‘Radical Orthodoxy’. What it is? Where does it come from? And to even explore where some of its weaknesses may inform some of the shifting trends within our own movement.

Radical Orthodoxy had its beginning with a series of books written by John Milbank in the 1990s. It begins from the premise that there are two choices within our society, religion or the secular. I think our mere presence here this morning demonstrates how absurd that binary choice is, but anyway that is the opening premise… Milbank claims that the secular can only lead to nihilism, and as such all disciplines underpinned by this pervasive secular bias are to be dismissed and reframed through a theological lens. That includes science, ethics, politics, and so on… So in a single move Radical Orthodoxy dismisses the critical input of all other disciplines, and thus isolates itself.

From there, Radical Orthodoxy attempts to go back to an historical version of Christianity before pesky enlightenment ideas were getting in the way. It locates an historical version of Christianity which appears most robust, namely Aquinas’s 13th Century version of Christianity (because why not!), lifts it out of its context and drops it into the present day. It kind of sounds like a joke, but this is exactly what Radical Orthodoxy is.

John Milbank

It is of course absurd to frame the problem as a simple binary choice – the secular or the religious. Secular society is infused through with religious expression. There is no such thing as the purely religious, just as there is no such thing as the purely secular. What we have here is a classic argument strategy: present an overly simplistic picture of the dire state of things, and then offer a radical solution to the problem. Our own movement at times also falls into this trap, of attempting to define the problems we face in overly generalised terms, and then offer grand, sweeping solutions. Of course the reality is far more complex and layered than that.

Radical Orthodoxy is a critique of postmodernity. Postmodernity makes all truth relative, and as such robs Churches of the ability to proclaim anything with confidence. Radical Orthodoxy therefore uses the tools of postmodernity to say, that because everyone has their nice little frameworks for saying what they say, we will just create our own framework. A recapitulated version of Christianity, in which the concerns of liberalism are absent.

Now I think this is quite problematic, and I’ll explain why.

What does it mean to be a faithful Christian, faithful to the Christian Church? I would argue that it requires recognising its developing tradition. From the story of Israel, to the early Church, New Testament, creeds, Thomas Aquinas, scholasticism, reformation, biblical criticism, liberal theology, liberation theology, and so on… To take a scalpel to this tradition and pretend bits are not there, well how could we even call that Christianity?

So continuity with one’s own tradition is critical. That certainly does not mean agreement with the tradition, but one must none the less respond authentically to what we have inherited, not just wish bits of it away. Again, our own tradition has at times attempted to wish bits away.

Rowan Williams presiding at the Mass

So, Radical Orthodoxy draws upon Thomas Aquinas, who notably synthesised the Christianity of his day with the philosophy of his day, namely Aristotle. In Aristotelian philosophy we have the idea of forming ‘virtuous character’, which is best done by one’s participation in the community. Now Radical Orthodoxy draws upon this idea heavily. And does so in pre-modern terms, and here is where the conservatism comes in, here where this absurd pretence to play some medieval, monastic looking Christianity comes in; the fantasy of living in an imagined past, with bells and smells, and kowtowing to calls to prayer. Here’s where the unsettling mantra of theological institutions rings out – “Formation”.

This defining of community in narrow terms is highly problematic; I am tempted to go screaming in the other direction and throw all the windows open. But I recognise that is quite problematic; community must orientate itself around a shared narrative, though it need not be done on such fascist terms. As Andrew explored last week it is possible to explicitly make room for other religions and philosophical points of view, without betraying our Christian heritage.

So, that is my somewhat biased perspective on Radical Orthodoxy. My concluding point in regards to our own movement is that we must never attempt to simply deny aspects of our own heritage. We must ever strive as a community to articulate our shared ideals and beliefs, and yet never lose sight of our radical inclusivity, and continue to be open to responding to the questions and criticism of culture and society at large, and not escape into our ghetto of liberal elitism.

A circle of healing.
A circle of friends.
Someplace where we can be free.