09 July 2004

reno on radical orthodoxy

A couple of years ago, R.R. Reno wrote an essay in First Things entitled "The Radical Orthodoxy Project" giving an initial analysis and critique. Much of the substance of this essay later appeared in revised and expanded ways in his book, In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Brazos, 2002).

Reno's observations regarding Radical Orthodoxy are, on the whole, quite fair, especially given what publications were available for reflection at the time he wrote. In particular, he does draw attention to the ways in which some (perhaps much) of Radical Orthodoxy's writings remain theoretical and intellectual, projecting an abstract ideal that seems to bear little obvious connection to "the concrete faith and practice of the Church."

Some more recent writings associated with the Radical Orthodoxy movement have perhaps begun to make more explicit connections with actual lived ecclesial practice, Christian formation, and so on, and have done so without deploying the full jargon-laden apparatus of postmodern discourse. Moreover, Radical Orthodoxy has gained the attention of some more practically minded folks, such as those associated with the Emerging Church. These developments, perhaps, help soften Reno's critique to some degree.

Still, I think some further observations and comments might provide some balance to those made by Reno, without denying his legitimate insights and criticisms.

[1] I think that, despite the "constructedness" of the Anglo-Catholic tradition, the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy would maintain that their way of doing things does emerge out of an ongoing history of reflection upon Scripture and tradition, as well as parish community. It's not quite such the airy-fairy idealism that Reno suggests and associates with Anglo-Catholicism, though there is plenty of that within that tradition (and I'm much too Protestant to be entirely comfortable with many aspects of Anglo-Catholicism).

Besides, Radical Orthodoxy is not confined to Anglo-Catholic circles, even if its first and main proponents do identify as such. Still, it is increasingly ecumenical, embracing Methodists and Reformed, Roman Catholics and others.

[2] Reno is correct that Milbank's earlier theology of atonement was deficient, but I'm not sure Milbank was attempting to be comprehensive, rather than perhaps highlighting narratological aspects of that theology, reading the story of Jesus through insights such as those of Hegel and Girard, in order show how the work of Christ already contains within it a response to certain concerns of postmodernism. Whatever the case, since the publication of Reno's first article, Milbank has discussed the atonement further, sounding more traditional all the time and even highly recommending David Bentley Hart's rehabilitation of Anselm in Pro Ecclesia ("A Gift Exceeding Every Debt: An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo," 7:3, 333-348).

[3] Reno seems to set up "either/or's" that the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy would reject. For instance, he says that with a turn towards the human "as we lose confidence in a single voice of conscience or a universal cultural teleology, my conscience wars against yours, and we fight for control of the cultural process." But are "single voice of consience" and "consciences warring" the only two possibilities?

I would think the larger Christian tradition (e.g., Aquinas on conscience) would lead us to expect differences of conscience, especially on matters of detail, and the necessity of a process of discernment as a community, in conversation with Spirit speaking in Scripture. By overlooking this, Reno seems to be playing into the hands of the modernist dilemma of either a universalistic deontology or sheer adversarial relativism. Similar either/or's seem to run through Reno's critique.

[4] Milbank's use of Scripture, as Reno suggests, is at times fairly appalling, involving exegetical moves that seem strained or barely touching down in the biblical text at all.

On the other hand, some of the moves that Milbank makes are not so unwarranted given the wider history of interpretation and reflection upon various texts. What Milbank does when referencing certain texts is not so different from what, e.g., the Gospel writers do when picking up a snippet of Old Testament text, apparently out of context, to bolster their Gospel account, except that Milbank is at a couple of further removes.

Instead of focusing directly upon Christ as the interpretive telos (as do New Testament writers), he is looking at the Scriptures in Christ through the lens of the revelation of God as Trinity, the transcendent and immanent Creator, and the overall ontology that, upon reflection, the biblical story requires as discerned by centuries of theologians. Through that lens, certain texts can be accessed to illustrate various points, but that text is only drawn upon while assuming the whole of its narrative context, including the context of post-biblical Christian tradition. This isn't fundamentalist "prooftexting," but still runs all kinds of dangers, which Reno is right to point out.

One should also point out that other writers associated with Radical Orthodoxy are much more careful in their use of Scripture and take time to actually explain their use of texts (e.g., James K.A. Smith, William Cavanaugh).

[5] As for the neoplatonism, a number of the central figures in Radical Orthodoxy are "neoplatonic" in some sense of the term (though Pickstock more than Milbank and both of them more than Ward), just as was true of Augustine and Aquinas, William Ames and Jonathan Edwards. But their neoplatonism is [a] thoroughly Christianized, [b] more in the tradition of Proclus and Iamblichus than Plotinus and Porphyry, and [c] corrected by later theological and philosophical developments.

I don't really see a problem with making use of neoplatonism any more than, e.g., van Til made use of post-Kantian idealism or Dooyeweerd used phenomenology. And it's simply part of history that neoplatonism is where the Christian faith first seriously engaged philosophical thought on an intellectual level. I'm not sure it's possible to move forward without retreading that ground to some degree.

[6] A few of Reno's quotations in the First Things article seem taken out of context, though, given the lack of footnotes, I can't really track them down very easily to check. For instance, Reno's quotation that the church is a "new social body which can transgress every human boundary, and adopts no law" doesn't sound quite right to me, taken on its own, given [a] Milbank's insistence that grace shouldn't be opposed to law, but rather transforms and evelates law, [b] the general commitment of Radical Orthodoxy to the ecumenical creeds with their Trinitarianism and high Christology. So, I'd have to check all the quotations in context to see if Reno's being entirely fair.

Having said all that, perhaps my initial description of Reno's article as "fair enough" doesn't seem fair, but I think in a general way Reno does point out a number of legitimate concerns and potential pitfalls of the Radical Orthodoxy program. I would also probably want to add several more criticisms of my own (e.g., regarding the position of some proponents on matters of sexual ethics; questions of practical ecclesiology).

I'm not sure, however, that any of Reno's criticisms really strike at the heart of what the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy are up to, which is to provide a critical Augustinian reflection on orthodox Christian theology that [a] addresses the postmodern academy with the claims of the Gospel and [b] critiques many of ways which theology and the church have been complicit with modernism since the late middle ages. On both these counts, I think Radical Orthodoxy is overwhelmingly successful at what it does, even if it's own positive theological project still has some serious problems.

In any case, these are a just few thoughts that some hopefully might find helpful and which might move discussion forward.