Saturday, November 06, 2004

Radical Orthodoxy and other Christian Interactions with Postmodern Thought

With the coming publication of James K. A. Smith's new book Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology, the 'mappers have begun discussing Radical Orthodoxy.

Chris Criminger made some comments there that I thought warranted wider distribution:

"Radical Orthodoxy proposes a postmodern project while not fully suscribing to it. Some of its leaders are John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward. They are a movement that critiques modernity rationalism and postmodern relativism. They have tried to go back to tradition recognizing the limits of knowledge; they have tried to reinterpret the Christian faith with postmodern assumptions while placing theology over philosophy and culture. Here are some of its strengths and weaknesses from my perspective.

1. There are some things I love about Radical Orthodoxy but I have come to grow leery of it from some of its weaknesses which I will list below. One great strength of RO is that it is postmodern friendly without buying into the whole postmodernism program. It rightly proposes a non-violent Christian ethic and holds up the masternarrative of the gospel story (despite some postmoderns fears of the metanarrative). Like other postmodern theologies, RO is very 'justice' oriented as it seeks justice and liberty for all.

2. Although I was as originally enamored with Radical Orthodoxy as I was with postmodern Christian theology, I have become skeptical of both for similar reasons. RO rightly returns to appropriating the early church tradition but it does it in its own pick and choose way that has a way of missing the mind of the fathers and some of the original teachings of the early Christians like atonement theology; creative imagination too often takes the place of historical retrieval of the tradition. RO has the same problem of some postmodern Christian approaches of obscuring the role of Scripture, creed, and the proper place of ecclesiology in the theological discussion. (Too often, academic discourse trumps ecclesial practices and discipline. Christian theology is best done within the cradle of the church and not the academy despite some good refinements the academy compliments and brings to the church at times). There is also an underlying assumption within postmodern thought and Radical Orthodoxy whereas both too easily allow personal autonomy to come into conflict with traditional patterns of ecclesial (church) practices of obedience. There are such divided loyalties at times, one wonders whether allegiances to postmodernity overshadows their commitment to God's church (or Christian faith) rather than the other way around? In other words, in the realm of many postmodern approaches and Radical Orthodoxies (I can hear the teeth gnashing on this one), intellectual virtuosity easily eclipses ecclesial obedience. Therefore theology becomes creative and inventive (and thus "radical") rather than receptive and reiterative. If one listens very long to many RO's and postmodern Christians, you will hear their alienation and separation from the church. You will hear ad nauseum their ”progressive," moral, intellectual, social and political thoughts and the constraints of classical Christianity and why they don't like conservative theology anymore (especially if they have been burned by conservative churches and/or conservative Christians).

Now I will say there can be some faithful Christians who are both RO and postmodern (sheesh, I was one of them!). But what I am learning from church history and from my own journey of faith is RO's and postmoderns too easily are tempted to go the *correlation* route (which some of the early church fathers did but without the checks and balances of apostolic tradition 9creeds and ancient liturgy] and the church [the incarnate Christ in his "body" of disciples]). What I mean by "correlation" - what I am learning from church history and the fathers - is the synthesizing of the language of the culture with Christian content for the mission of the church. For postmoderns who are faithfully doing this, I applaud them but so much of the emerging church movement I think has lost both substance and its historical rootedness of Christianity. RO and postmodern Christians too often have what I call a "canon within a canon” approach to the Scriptures and a very highly selective approach to the early church tradition (if they aren't simply ignoring it altogether!). The other missing piece of the puzzle from church history that brings history and faith, the literal and metaphoric, the ancient and the contemporary together as correlationism must be balanced with the "Orthodox model" of affirming apostolic teaching and tradition. Even though one pomo writer uses the term "generous orthodoxy," it does seem among many pomo writers that there is a complete break with and disdain for anything that is orthodox or classical in the Christian sense of the terms. As Evangelicals, whether they cheer or condemn postmodern thought, it seems that Evangelicalism falls into the same trap where intellectual respectability and pragmatism controls so much of the movement today. "

R R Reno, Associate Professor of Theology at Creighton University, sounds some similar notes in his First Things article "The Radical Orthodoxy Project."

Positively he comments,

"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."

But Professor Reno goes on to detail concerns similar to Criminger's beginning with the comment

"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."

For those interested in tracking some in the church's (particular some in the emerging church) efforts to correlate Christian theology and praxis with postmodern impulses, there are a number of interesting books coming down the pike:

- Of course, Smith's Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology mentioned above and

- Carl Raschke's new book The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity,

and a couple that will likely be more negatively critical,

- Reclaiming the Center, edited by Millard J. Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth and Justin Taylor. (You can read chapter one of this book here), and

- D A Carson's Becoming Conversant with Emergent, based on a series of talks Professor Carson gave to Cedarville College which are available for purchase now here. Some, such as Andrew Jones and Dr. David R Mills have already responded to Carson's talks.

1 comment:

Paul Fromont said...

Stephen, thanks again for the great work you do in writing your posts, linking key points etc. I really enjoyed this one. Have been coming across the issues more and more (probably because of your site [winking]).