Post-secularism 1: Radical Orthodoxy

On to James K. A. Smith’s Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology (2004), the first of two posts exploring competing discourses of post-secularism.

Smith is a philosopher at Calvin College who has established himself as something of a Christian public intellectual in America, editing the magazine Comment (which I find quite good and thoughtful) and publishing a remarkable array of books on postmodernism, belief, and the future of the church. I’ll be reading some of his work on the latter next week, but this week I read a book he describes as a cartography of a movement within theology and philosophy departments, though Radical Orthodoxy (or RO, as he calls it) expands its range into many other fields as well. In fact, one of the key impulses of RO scholarship is to place theology within the heart of the academic and religious lives, not relegated to a single department or clerical specialty.

I find it an exciting, dizzying, and somewhat frustrating movement. Let me see if I can explain why. Smith begins his book by explaining a range of responses theologians and philosophers have had to the combination of modernism, liberalism, and theology that thinkers such as Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann advocated in the mid-twentieth century, and that has had tremendous influence in the field (when the same line of thinking affects institutions as disparate as the University of Chicago and Dallas Theological Seminary, you know something’s going on). RO takes the position that modern thought has in fact been deeply theological while claiming not to be, and it has stood on a presumption of a cosmology in which God doesn’t exist and has no direct bearing on human thought and life. RO locates the beginnings of this line of thought in Scholastic theology, particularly John Duns Scotus; through “new” readings of Plato, Aquinas, and (especially) Augustine, scholars such as John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock have offered an alternative intellectual history of the West (supplemented by some of the doctors of the Eastern church, such as Gregory of Nyssa) that shows the idea of the material world participating in the divine stretching back through the centuries. However, in order to get to this, RO offers a range of critiques of modernity in order to show how the standard narratives of secularity and the primacy of reason don’t work. And to make these critiques, RO scholars turn to Derrida, Foucault, Zizek, and other postmodern thinkers, and their writing very much participates in the style and conceptual vocabulary of high French theory.

But here’s where things get weird: having climbed the ladder of postmodern thought, RO must then kick the ladder out from under itself in order to recuperate the premodern ideas it advocates. Having argued for the failure of the Enlightenment, RO then argues for the dead-end of postmodernism and the need to return to something more substantial, affirmative, and long-lived. Augustine, as a philosopher, a theorist of language, a consummate reader, and a theologian par excellence, is the hero of RO’s intellectual history. Indeed, I’ve come to think of RO as an Augustinian Renaissance. Just as the basic idea of the Renaissance can be understood as the rejection of more recent schools of thought in order to recover older schools of thought that can be brought to bear on the problems of the present, just so Augustine’s City of God and other writings speak to today’s realities of urbanization, global pluralism, and other key concerns that RO scholars share with many of their contemporaries. My own discovery of Augustine in college was a watershed experience for me, and I still find I agree with Augustine’s ideas about politics more than I do any other political theorist that I’ve ever read (though that’s a topic for another blog post). So as far as that goes, RO resonates with me. Yes, the route to Augustine is circuitous in RO and the writing is not nearly as elegant as Augustine’s (though he can also be dense at times), but the notion that God’s work in the world continues to move alongside and within our own is a deeply satisfying one for me.

And that’s where things really start to get difficult for me. I agree with the metaphysics and ethics put forward by RO as a whole because I also make a Trinitarian confession in my beliefs and aim to live my life such that I participate in the work of that Trinity and vice versa. The Trinity makes a big difference to me, as does the Incarnation. For most academics, I’m fairly certain that’s not the case. So what is to convince other theologians and philosophers, much less literary critics, to take RO seriously? I haven’t found much to answer that question; in fact, I don’t think RO aims to persuade the academy so much as find a way to carve out its own space within it, to demarcate a City of God within the City of the World.

The tone of RO, especially as Smith expresses it, is antagonistic, even dismissive of secular culture. (I’ve noticed from my reading of Comment and other publications that Smith has a formidable set of rhetorical claws—he’s subtle about when and how he uses them, but he’s a fighter, make no mistake.) The combative, contemptuous affect I get from RO isn’t obvious on every page, and it manifests much more strongly in some writers (Smith, Milbank) than others (Graham Ward). But the confidence in being on the right track, and certainty of the opponent’s error, is off-putting to me.

Full disclosure: one of the reasons why this is so repellant for me is because I see the exact same tendencies in myself. As a literary historian specializing in poetry, I delight in butting heads with those who assume that Whitmand Dickinson are the standards to which we should hold pre-1900 poetry, or with those who assume that fiction should be the default in understanding the makeup and development of literature. And that’s not something I’m proud of. I gravitate to the subjects I do because I see them as neglected and calling out for attention. But I also see those who have not taken notice of such things—and those who express confusion, amusement, or condescension that I would spend my time on epic or hymns or poetry or faith—as wrongheaded and needing to be put in their place. So while I would certainly not align myself with RO, in part because I’m not nearly so invested in unpacking the metaphysical engine of my scholarly vehicle, I find RO an uncomfortable mirror in which to look. It puts me directly in front of those aspects of my scholarly self that I wish weren’t there. And that might be the most important reason for me to be glad I read this fascinating, infuriating book.

Ultimately, I don’t think RO works as an academic discourse, at least not within the secular academy. Where it does seem to have power is within what I might call the “faithful academy,” the colleges and (fewer in number) universities committed to practicing as well as studying a particular faith tradition. Smith insists at several points that the most important work RO can do is help the church move forward into the future, and in that I think he’s right. RO scholarship has certainly galvanized “emerging church” figures such as Brian McLaren, and I detect its influence among the New Monastics like Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. What RO might do best is provide a highly intellectual discourse that allows creative-minded Christians to find fruitful intersections between head and heart through synthesizing past and present.

The elements of RO I find most compelling are the arguments that liturgy is at the heart of all matter and life, and that aesthetics have an important role to play in the world precisely because they participate simultaneously in the body (with its desires, emotions, and reflexes) and in the divine truth, goodness, and beauty. I’ll have more to say about this when I read Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom next week, but in the next post I’ll turn to Bennett’s book.


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