Radical Orthodoxy Revisited

I am usually sensitive enough to pick up on the somewhat dated movement of some English academics called Radical Orthodoxy. As an Anglican movement attracted to ressourcement theology, neo-patristics and Platonism, it has seems exciting and appealing as a “third way” out of the binary dialectics between liberalism / atheism / relativism and fundamentalism / totalitarianism. I have drawn readers’ attention to this phenomenon before in articles like John Milbank on the future of Anglicanism.

As one begins to read this sort of thing, there is something a little “stuffy” and elitist, something that isn’t easy to read, and even quite discouraging. I don’t know about Dr Milbank, but Catherine Pickstock is all for the ordination of women and the status quo in the Anglican Communion. The things she writes about the liturgy are generally wonderful.

What is it about a theological movement of this kind that is in a relationship of osmosis with aspects of at least outward conformity with post-modern agendas? The frontiers seem to be quite blurred, which is understandable when considering certain forms of conservative Christianity.

My attention has been drawn to a blog article A Note on Late Modernity’s Strange Bedfellows. I have always seen radical orthodoxy (at least aspects of it, not “all or nothing”), stuffy though it seems to those of us who are outside the university elite, as a “third way” between and above the tendencies of conservative and liberal Christianity, an appeal to the Church of before the Reformation and Counter Reformation. Such a vision would be ideal for us in the ACC (at least in England) as we steer between the “two one-true churches” and the simplistic claims of “classic Anglicanism” based on the Reformation being the default basis, mandatory for all, and those who are so inclined being allowed to add a little in the way of vestments and ceremonies, “smells and bells”. I have always been interested in the idea of what I have come to term conciliar (as opposed to ultramontanist) Catholicism and the possibility of finding a way for it to subsist in the world in which we live. This is a problem I find in this essay.

Is there a convergence between some kind of “radical orthodox” approach (assuming it is a little less “stuffy” and elitist than the Radical Orthodox movement properly speaking) and reactionary traditionalism and neo-conservatism? Whilst some aspects are in common, such as opposition to secularism and liberalism, the intellectual roots are quite different. The big point is how a viable solution could be implemented in our society. We are all more or less marginal in our continuing churches, traditionalist communities and intellectual groups in universities.

I remember many years ago toying with ideas of “distributism”, a kind of idealistic reconstruction of medieval guild economy which would involve a moderate form of capitalism with everyone owning his own means of production. The co-operative movement came close to this ideal, and still seems to work very well in the farming community. That being said, it has for the most part emancipated itself from Christianity or any religion.

Various forms of Christianity speculate about how they could make Christianity influence society, often making the most of the notion of a “social Kingship of Christ”. This has opened churches to the temptation of collaborating with right-wing dictatorships in Europe and South America.

If Christianity has to be privatised and let go of the public and political world, what does it do? How does it emerge from marginality and express itself in practical and pragmatic terms? These are questions we really need to think about.

What do we want and what do we think we can bring about? What is evangelisation in practical terms, not only in the USA where people are still open to religion and spirituality, but also in Europe where the only outcome seems to be a resurgence of the extreme right?  For the time being, we only seem to have ideas of “bellwethers” and micro-communities, “new-monasticism” and faith communities surviving in an extremely hostile society. We may well be in survival mode for a very long time.

Yet, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and someone told me about it, I thought it was a joke. No one expected it. Other walls are going to be coming down very soon, and we have to be ready to read the signs.

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14 Responses to Radical Orthodoxy Revisited

  1. Stephen K says:

    I was struck by your comment about walls coming down and being ready to read the signs and it occurred to me that we really do not know what will happen. It is entirely possible that the end of the world will occur next week. It’s reasonable – but not certain – that it won’t. But then it occurred to me to ask what should our attitude be? Jesus urged us not to fail to put our lamps out like the unready servant girls failed to do, to be alert and ready. Even Jesus did not know when life would complete in the final time. But is being ready a position of pessimism? Would it prevent us building for the future? Would it make us close in on ourselves on a safety-first mentality? Or should we rather fling caution to the winds and keep the lamps in the cupboard so we have every reason to act as if nothing good will happen unless we take steps to help it along?

    Then it occurred to me that we don’t seem in any case to converse or operate as if the end time is near: we hear condemnations flying about who is right or wrong, but is this the kind of jeremiad Jesus had in mind? How would we know whether we are able to read the signs in any case? We cannot even agree or convince anyone of our various positions. It then occurred to me that perhaps we are all going to hell at the rate of knots. In a way, people who dispute these things are, I think, in the position of Adam and Eve: we have tasted a fruit of the tree of speculation of good and evil, and now are condemned to death. Only God’s mercy is going to save us.

    I think I’m right. I think this is an insight. I think this is a warning. I am as wrong as the rest. I am as condemned as the rest. The true churchers, the true Catholics, the true traditionalists, the true Lutherans, etc etc, the true New Agers, the true liberals, the true enlightened, all: we’re going to hell at a fast rate and we think we’re doing something important. Gosh. If this is even minutely true, we haven’t a minute to lose. Our discourse, our preoccupations, our attitude will have to be radically different. We have to forget the accretions and immerse ourselves in the Gospel in a profoundly humble way. Maybe we can talk about how we go about doing that, and share our insights and positive experiences.

    Our discourse, our preoccupations, our attitudes, have to change.

  2. Father Anthony, Many Years!

    Haven’t checked in on your blog often in recent months so imagine my surprise when I find a new blog called “THE ANGLICAN CATHOLIC” and that you have become attached to the ACCOP. When did this happen? Did you post it? The last time I read anything about your journey you were looking at what you called ‘Northern Catholicism’ and I thought you might join them. In any event I hope this finally brings you Peace of Mind, Soul and Spirit.

    Even though I never officially attached to any Anglican Church or Jurisdiction the closest I came was to a parish of the ACC and I have always felt it was and is the best ‘continuing’ option. Sadly that parish went off to a breakaway group now called “The Holy Catholic Church-Anglican Rite”. Of course I have nothing ACC anywhere near where I live now. In fact where I live is a vast wasteland of churches I would not set foot in side. I plan on moving and hope to find a place that has some positive options but I’m not optimistic. Thank GOD for leading you to the ACC.

    I’ll be checking in on both this and your new blogs more often now.

    • Many thanks for your kind comment. I am still attracted to the notion of Northern Catholicism, which I have identified in the general conciliar movement in the Catholic Church of before the Reformation but which reacted against the corruption of the Papacy at the time (Avignon Papacy, 3 “popes” on the go at the same time, etc.). I have excellent relations with Bishop Roald Flemestad, but I did not join his jurisdiction.

      The Diocese of the United Kingdom is very small, but has become very serious and stable. There are no traces of the trouble that occurred in the late 1990’s. We have a good Bishop (+Damien Mead) who is a good administrator and leader, a man one can entirely trust.

      Yes, I put up the Anglican Catholic blog and hope to get good men writing for it and making this a real work of our Church.

  3. William Tighe says:

    “I don’t know about Dr Milbank, but Catherine Pickstock is all for the ordination of women and the status quo in the Anglican Communion.”

    Dr. Millbank is mad keen on WO, and supports church blessing of homosexual “partnerships,” although not as “marriage.” I know this, the first part I mean, “by experience,” for back in October 1978 I had quite an argument with him over WO at a garden party at Little St. Mary’s vicarage in Cambridge; the vicar, the late Canon James Owen, some years later told me that he had deliberately introduced us to one another thinking that the results might be “memorable.” At the time I was, and had been for some years, living as though I were an Anglican, although my intention of becoming one was rendered doubtful by the Episcopal Church’s authorizing the pretended ordination of women in 1976, and then impossible as a result of my meetings and conversations with the late man-of-God Eric Mascall. In the end I cane to the conclusion that the two alternatives for me were to become Orthodox or return to Rome, and eventually I chose the latter.

    The Milbanks — his wife, Alison Legg, was even more volubly upset by my absolute rejection of WO than was her husband — and subsequently contacted me to say that they had arranged for me to meet a young tutor at Westcott House who “could set me straight” about the “Catholic imperative” for WO, especially as he had opposed the innovation but had come around to believing that a properly Catholic theological anthropology required WO, rather than forbidding it. I spent a pleasant hour or more over tea and bisquits discussing the matter with him, but I found his reasoning unconvincing and largely incomprehensible. He was, by the way, a Welshman named Rowan Wlliams.

    • Dale says:

      Dr Tighe, I have always found most attempts at a theology for the ordination of women “unconvincing and largely incomprehensible.” Usually after it is pointed out that most of their historical analogies, such as there were women priests in the early church etc., etc. are shown to be defective, they usually resort to the real reason for the ordination of women which tend to be modernist secular/political demands for gender equality and access to power (since they almost never understand priesthood as Sacrament, but only as a position of power and authority).

      Of course, I tend to find most reasonings for the proclamation of personal, papal infallibility just as unconvincing and incomprehensible as well.

  4. modestinus says:

    My point was a little more narrow than what you credit me for. Perhaps there is some terminological confusion running wild out there, but I would say, without equivocation, that the more radical wings of “postmodern Christianity” and traditional Catholics oppose neoconservatism and, more narrowly, the marriage of neocon politics with Catholicism (neo-Caths). I would also argue that the two sides share more common roots than they recognize, though they both do a spectacularly poor job understanding one another. Just as the trad-Caths think it’s dangerous to even look in the direction of postmodernism, the postmodernists are just too chic to get mixed up with “throwbacks” who preach stuff like, you know, mortal sin, hell, and Papal Infallibility. There are some serious theological splits between traditionalists and postmoderns, one of which being the status of Henri de Lubac’s thought, but I really think that is a minor matter in the grand scheme of things. If the postmoderns would drop their convenient narrative that late Scholastics paved the way for the Enlightenment via the nature/grace distinction and the traditionalists could learn to handle a bit more diversity in theological discourse, there might be some real room for common cause among the camps. And even if that doesn’t work out, I am sympathetic to the possibility of traditionalist Catholics learning something from the postmoderns, specifically how to engage with late-modern categories of thought while internalizing many of the postmodern Christians’ critiques of (relative) recent socio-political pathologies. Is that too much to ask? Well, maybe…but there’s always hope…

    • You have clearly thought about these things a lot. What you write here in this comment makes things even more stark and bleak to face. Experience seems to show that the more groups of Christians are similar, the more they compete against each other. I think most Establishment Anglicans would look down their noses at most traditionalists, and most traditionalists would condemn Establishment (or indeed any) Anglicans as heretics and schismatics.

      This idea will not be an avenue for “saving” Christianity. The shooting war is between the fundies / cons and the liberals / relativists, and I don’t identify with either, nor do most people. I don’t think anyone will learn anything from anyone. But it is a nice try, and I sympathise with your efforts.

      • modestinus says:

        I agree 100% that there is too much internecine strife going on to really believe that there is going to be an authentic meeting of the minds were one side’s 50 and another side’s 50 equals Christianity’s 100. I think a more realistic (albeit precarious) hope is that one side’s 50 takes 10 from the other side and grows that way. Is that optimal? Of course not, but sin never is.

        I really can’t speak too authoritatively about a lot of the sectors of contemporary Christianity, but I can say, without hesitation, that traditional Catholics (a “camp” I typically align myself with (with qualifications)) needs to, well, grow up a bit. Too much of its rhetoric amounts to preaching to the converted and many don’t seem to think it’s possible (or desirable) to think outside neo-Scholastic categories of thought. (And, to be honest, many traditionalists who do try to leverage neo-Scholasticism do a fairly poor job of it, likely due to a lack of genuine training in the area.) There are exceptions, of course, and there is a bit of traditionalist (or, as a friend of mine dubbed it, neo-traditionalist) pushback against many of the trends in 20th C. Catholic theology. There are now three major critiques of “ressourcement Thomism” that have appeared in the last couple of years, and there seems to be a growing awareness among other theologians (like Reinhardt Hutter) that the Thomism of tradition shouldn’t have been discarded so quickly after Vatican II. There are also two substantive critiques of Balthasar’s thought available, and I have no doubt that there will continue to be trad pushback against some of the excesses of the last century. And that’s all fine and good, but I suppose what I am wondering is when someone will aim their efforts toward a constructive project that takes sober account of the fact that not everything which came out of Catholic theology in the 20th C. was some horrible heresy whose only goal is to destroy the faith. It’s that sort of reactionary rhetoric that drives me bananas.

  5. Stephen K says:

    There’s so much one can read, so many people one can listen to! One of the things which Modestinus’ comment points us to is the fact that post-modernity is not binary. What some might dismiss as woolly thinking is in fact thinking that recognises the different angles and layers to things. It is as if a new language is learnt, and the old language is found deficient. It is certainly different. I was interested to learn that William spent some time face to face with Rowan Williams. I cannot of course count him fortunate to have done so because he did not understand him, but I myself would have counted it a privilege to have had the opportunity and I am sure I could have spoken his ‘language’.

    If Rowan Williams is fairly identified as a post-modern, then I imagine the syllogism would go like this: “Rowan Williams is a post-modern; Rowan Williams is a good Christian; therefore post-moderns can be good Christians, and vice versa.” That’s something to think about. Certaintly, I admire him, without pretending any claim whatsoever to be myself a good Christian.

    • modestinus says:

      But what does it mean to be a “good Christian”? The phrase is almost completely vacated of meaning without some context.

      Is Williams a postmodern? I really don’t know. I always took him as more of a late-modern historian built out of the theological trends of the preceding century. He’s undeniably brilliant, but I am not sure he would go anywhere close to the orbit of thought of people like Milbank, Ward, Smith, Cavanaugh, etc. Or maybe I just haven’t read enough Rowan Williams. That’s possible…

      • Stephen K says:

        You ask good questions, Modestinus. I am conscious that there will be many views about what makes a ‘good Christian’. My sense here is someone whose conduct to others is derived from his or belief in Jesus, and is thoughtful, patient and forgiving and shows no evidence of animus or malice to anyone. Some might think this a minimalist definition, but I think it almost has to be because if we start to require that someone believe or espouse particular theological positions, we go down the path of assuming the contestable. I’m sure some would say Rowan Williams was ‘good’ but not a ‘Christian’ or that he was a ‘Christian’ but not ‘good’, or that he was neither. I’m simply saying I thought he was both.

        I came across some recent commentary which expresses the sort of thing I mean, at http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/03/23/3722235.htm – “I suspect that Rowan Williams is loved as much for his character, his evident humility and kindness…….” (Elizabeth Oldfield, Theos Think Tank) and at http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/03/20/3459479.htm “Simply put, Williams believes in the Church more than he believes in his own opinions. All his troubles as Archbishop of Canterbury have stemmed from this fact. He believes in processes of communal negotiation more than he believes in the enforcement of any fixed viewpoint. It is this mindset, this belief in the Church, that has drawn so much criticism, even from within the Church of England itself. Giles Fraser, the former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, reports hearing a bishop say: “The problem with Rowan Williams is that he is too bloody Christian.” “(Benjamin Myers, Charles Sturt University, NSW)

        You may be right in asking whether Rowan Williams was more late-modern than post-modern. I don’t push the issue myself. Perhaps these labels are too abstract. I can’t say how he compares to the people you mention, not having read anything of them, nor am I competent to describe him as “brilliant”. But if he is thought “undeniably brilliant”, then he must be worth listening to or reflecting on.

        Thanks for your reply.

      • Archbishops of Canterbury, like Popes, tend to get blamed for everything that goes on in their Churches. In each respective Church, the leading bishops can do very little.

        I have not read any of Archbishop Williams’ work, but I am told that it is profound and theologically rich. I do know that he and Pope Benedict XVI saw eye to eye about many things. They are both academics and brilliant scholars.

        We should indeed keep an open mind even if we don’t agree with the “usual” issues.

  6. Pingback: Northern European Liturgical Patrimony, Culture and Theology & A blog for ‘shipwrecked’ priests | Fr. Orthohippo

  7. Tero T says:

    I discovered this lecture on Milbank and Radical Othodoxy, which is well worth listening:
    Boris Gunjević has written his doctoral thesis on Milbank and gives very interesting overview on the most profound aspects of Radical Othodoxy.

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