17 January 2002

An update on recent reading.

I finished the volume edited by Hemming last week (Radical Orthodoxy? A Catholic Enquiry). It's a mixed bag. John Milbank's article "The Programme of Radical Orthodoxy" is worth the price of the book for summarizing, in one brief essay, what these guys are all about, and (miracle of miracles) he does so in a manner that is reasonably lucid (well, at least for someone with a PhD in philosophy).

For those who aren't familiar with the Radical Orthodoxy project, it is the shared outlook of a number of mostly Anglo-Catholic thinkers (also including Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward) who attempt to articulate the Christian faith in the face of post-modernity. In doing so they try to rescue Christian distinctives from the assumptions of the "modern," which they see (I think rightly) as rooted in late medieval Scotism and nominalism. At the same time, they draw upon the pre-modern Christian traditions of Augustine, Aquinas, and others to both critique and appropriate the insights of ancient philosophy (Plato, Aristotle) and to project forward a Christian vision for today. They do this, in part, by tracing an alternative course from the pre- to the post-modern, one that proceeds through a series of "counter-modern" thinkers such as Cusa, Vico, Hamann, Herder, Jacobi, etc. Finally, building upon the important work of de Lubac and the nouvelle theologie they outline a program for theology that provides a thoroughly orthodox (in terms of Christology and Trinitarian theology) and genuinely post-modern alternative.

The Hemming volume is an attempt to dialogue with, critique, and appreciate the contributions of Radical Orthodoxy, but to do so from a Roman Catholic perspective. Hemming is an interesting fellow to edit (and contribute to) the volume since he is both (a bit uneasily) aligned with the Radical Orthodoxy folks and is a Catholic. Hemming's unease with the movement stems, in part, from its underdeveloped ecclesiology and distancing itself from the institution of the Catholic church. This is, of course, a legitimate objection from a Catholic perspective and one that raises important issues of ecclesiology for all Christians.

Other contributors to the volume include David Burrell of the University of Notre Dame who analyzes why the movement does not seem to be as well received in this side of the Atlantic. He suggests that its attempt to bring faith to bear on all aspects of intellectual endeavor does not sit well with Americans interested the autonomy of the university from sectarian concerns.

Fergus Kerr, a Dominican theologian, provides a response to Milbank that is both appreciative and probing. He spends the bulk of his remarks simply outlining what some of the various theological options are for Catholics, especially in response to Milbank's suggestion that pietistic Protestantism and Tridentine Catholicism are simply the flip sides of the same modernist error. While Kerr evidently is challenged by Milbank's reading of Aquinas, he also notes that it is likely to provoke opposition from various, otherwise opposed, schools of Thomistic thought within Catholicism.

Catherine Pickstock provides an engrossing (and bit infuriating) meditation on Thomas Aquinas's epistemology and metaphysics that is philosophically challenging, even if open to dispute as a matter of exegesis of Thomas. Indeed Hemming follows Pickstock with just such a dispute.

The final section of the book contains contributions by Graham Ward, Oliver Davies, and Lucy Gardner. The first two concern the relations between Radical Orthodoxy and cultural politics. Ward's thesis is that Christian faith itself, as faith, involves an economics, sociology, and politics of believing. But for Christianity this involved being part of a particular community, a new city, one that does not play the secular game, but seeks on its own terms to persuade by offering a better way.

Davies offers some thoughts on the role of language and dialogue in a manner that supplements and gently critiques some of Milbank's discussion of poesis and non-violent semiosis. Gardner's article, I must confess, is one that I could hardly follow at all, due I think to her manner of expression, but also, perhaps due to my nearing the end of volume and failing stamina.

Nonetheless, the concluding essay by James Hanvey, a Jesuit theologian, is a remarkably clear and helpful account of some of the main outlines of Radical Orthodoxy and some of the questions raised by it and about it.

Over all, this is a volume that I found helpful and thoughtful, but not one I would recommend to the average Christian or lay theologian. It presupposes more than a passing acquaintance not only with Radical Orthodoxy, but also with the history of philosophy and theology and the apparatus of post-modern discourse.