12 June 2008

liberation theology & radical orthodoxy

Several years ago, at the annual meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, I commented on a paper that concerned the movement known as "radical orthodoxy" and which offered a critique of radical orthodoxy from the standpoint of Catholic liberation theology. It was a good, solid paper by a great guy, Don Musacchio, who is the director of pastoral ministries (think: "small group coordinator") for St. Mary of the Assumption Roman Catholic parish here in Philly in Manayunk.

Still, I thought the gist of my response might be of interest to some. Thus I am posting it here, though edited so as remove specific references to Don's paper that might not make much sense on their own.




There are four areas I’d like to explore where I think it is all too easy to mischaracterize the position of thinkers associated with radical orthodoxy – though one should note that the movement is not monolithic, so it wouldn’t be quite accurate at any rate to speak of the position of radical orthodoxy. A critique of radical orthodoxy from the standpoint of liberation theology might primarily focus upon John Milbank and, secondarily, Daniel M. Bell, both of whom directly address theologies of liberation. Yet, it is also important to consider the perspectives of Stephen Long, William Cavanaugh, and others, to form a fuller picture of radical orthodoxy's stance.

[1] “Christian materialism”

In it's advocacy of a kind of Christian materialism, liberation theology's response might suggest that radical orthodoxy, in the end, undermines the fundamental goodness of creation and tends towards the view that the material world of human society and culture is not worth saving.

It is worth pointing out, however, that the express intention of radical orthodoxy is quite the opposite, as is evident from, for instance, the phrase “suspending the material,” which was the working title of the volume eventually published under the title of Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology.

While this phrase has several intended meanings, the relevant one here is the notion that that the transcendent “upholds [the] relative worth [of material reality] over against the void.” That is to say, according to radical orthodoxy, it is by the graced participation of the material in the transcendent that the reality and density of the material is upheld and secured, since, after all, “if there is only finite matter, there is not even that.”

Or, to borrow from Graham Ward, the problem with a viewpoint such as Marxism is not that it is materialist, but that it is not materialist enough. That's to say, given the Christian theistic relationship of immanence to transcendence, we draw more and more near to the Creator only the more deeply we descend into and through the goodness of his creation.

This might be approached also in terms of the differences between Karl Rahner and Henri de Lubac, where the tendency is, in the case of Rahner, to see history and society as necessary and inescapable pointers to a generic transcendentality, whereas de Lubac remains more ready to deliver grace and the supernatural into the hands of human action and the particularities of time and history. Radical orthodoxy sides decisively with de Lubac on these matters, “super naturalizing the natural,” in Milbank’s terms. This isn’t to say that, in the order of knowledge (ordo cognoscendi), one can never start “from below” or in human experience (one could scarcely do otherwise). But it is to say that, ontologically speaking, nature is always already graced (in terms of the ordo essendi).

This is a large issue and deserves more extensive treatment that can be achieved in these brief remarks. What I want to talk about next is the implications this has for the question of human agency and autonomy.

[2] “Divine and human agency”

Among its critiques, liberation theology might suggest that radical orthodoxy values primacy of God’s ultimate agency over and against human agency, or that human autonomy and divine autonomy are always fundamentally opposed or remain radically incompatible.

This strikes me as a misconstrual of how radical orthodoxy tends to think about these things.

In terms of a general theory of the human will and human agency, radical orthodoxy typically adopts a decidedly Augustinian viewpoint in which human agency is directed towards the love of God as our final end and beatitude. Freedom of will (and thus “autonomy” in the correct sense of the term) just is “this passing beyond given finite nature in diverse ways towards the infinite,” a participation of the finite in the infinite. God’s gracious gift of a foretaste and desire for the beatific vision constitutes the self-transcending movement of the human person that is constitutive of our free agency.

Thus divine agency and human agency are not only not in competition but, instead, the gracious action of God is the necessary precondition for properly human free agency. Turning away from God and rejecting his grace is to assert a kind of pretended autonomy that is actually, in the end, the destruction of genuine freedom and agency.

This brings us to the question of the autonomy of the political.

[3] “Relative autonomy of reason and the civil sphere”

Before entering into this topic in detail, let me offer a couple brief clarifications that might help focus my response.

First, in addition to the description that Milbank denies the proper “autonomy” of the human that I cited earlier, liberation theology might see Milbank's understanding of the Kingdom of God as a reality fundamentally opposed to the Kingdom of this World. This is, of course, true in good Augustinian fashion. But it also needs to be kept in mind that the “kingdom of this world” is not creation itself or nature or human society and reason in themselves. Rather, the kingdom of this world is the world under the power and dominion of sin as it sets itself up against God and is founded upon inordinate love of self. I would imagine that liberation theology is as opposed as anyone to the kingdom of the world understood in this way.

Second, it might be suggested that for radical orthodoxy, Christian faith is the only norm and form for social relations because apart from explicitly accepting the Kingdom of God, there is no assurance of true social harmony. This is seen in radical orthodoxy's critique of all non-Christian thought as buying into a fundamental ontology of violence.

This seems to be overstated, however, since Milbank embraces the dictum of Thomas Aquinas that in every act of intellect and will, God is implicitly known and desired, even if God is also sometimes explicitly rejected. For radical orthodoxy, therefore, human reason and desire are always already graced and it is through these beginnings of grace that reason most fully comes into its own.

But this need not always involve an explicit acceptance of the Kingdom of God by faith, though, as I will point out shortly, the church does play an essential political role for radical orthodoxy. Moreover, I don’t see how this viewpoint would end up necessarily doing violence to the legitimate natural strivings of human nature or consigning the sphere of creation to an ontology of violence, though such criticisms are sometimes leveled against radical orthodoxy. But more on that in a moment.

My central response, however, regarding the autonomy of reason and the social, is that some critiques appear at times to equivocate between the realm of the secular (which Milbank does indeed reject) and the realm of creation or, to put it more focally, the realm of human reason and politics. One cannot conclude, however, from Milbank’s critique of the secular that he rejects all forms of the relative autonomy of the natural or the human. Milbank’s rejection of “secular reason” is not a rejection of reason as such, but of a human reason that positions itself absolutely prior to and unconstrained by faith and grace.

Milbank’s critique is also a recognition that “secularity” is a contingent feature of human existence, a product of modernity and its re-ordering of social space, and thus a way of organizing society that pushes aside various alternatives. Whatever the “secular” is for Milbank, it is precisely not “natural,” but constructed and contingent and one feature of a wider tendency to separate nature and grace as external and extrinsic to one another. Thus, the rejection of secular space and secular reason, for Milbank, is part and parcel of his rejection of extrinsicism.

In rejecting extrinsicism, I rather think that most proponents of radical orthodoxy would agree with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that the incarnation, life, and work of Jesus Christ not only reveals God to us, but also reveals us to ourselves. That is to say, the humanity of Jesus, as the revelation of the God to whom that humanity is united, shows us what it means to be most fully human. The hypostatic union, far from impinging upon or attenuating the humanity of Jesus, establishes that humanity in its greatest and most complete integrity and, in doing so, analogically reveals the possibility of a new way living a fully human life, always already anticipated by our nature.

Likewise, the operation of grace in history, particularly in and through the church and through the explicitness of faith, does not in any way compromise the proper integrity – and even relative “autonomy” – of the human, including human society. Rather, as a society in itself, the church reveals the greatest potential of human society as such.

Thus, while not a proponent of radical orthodoxy, I think the view of David L. Schindler is deeply consonant with the concerns of radical orthodoxy when he states:
The church in its proper reality as communio, itself contains the deepest meaning of all worldly orders…unlike the liberationist alternative which in the end loses the Church in the world, or the neoconservative alternative which keeps the Church (as Church) alongside the world, a communio ecclesiology requires that the Church as Church inform the world, as the soul informs the body…This applies not only to the social-economic order, but to all worldly orders…precisely as the condition for the realization of these in their legitimate worldly autonomy.
Thus the church is not an external, extrinsic authority.

And I think liberation theology would be at one with radical orthodoxy in insisting that any kind of “autonomy” here is only ever relative since, in light of the doctrines of creation and providence, nothing is ultimately autonomous from God, strictly speaking.

This brings us to a final observation regarding the rejection of the secular.

[4] “Temporal and eternal orders”

When radical orthodoxy rejects the secular, it is rejecting a modern notion of the secular defined as a social space constructed over against a privatized space of the religious. This “secular” is part of a wider modernist set of assumptions that pit reason against faith, the public against the individual, and so on. This secular remains decidedly neutral to the supernatural and grace, but such supposed neutrality is in fact predisposed against grace, according to radical orthodoxy, by supposing that the sphere of the secular is not always already ordered towards grace.

In rejecting this particular notion of “the secular” constructed by modernity, radical orthodoxy does not thereby reject the notion of the saeculum, a sphere of reality that is not so much a particular defined space, as it is a time – the temporal ordering of this present world that is continually passing away and is set in contrast with the church, which bears a final, eschatological destiny.

As I just noted, as a society constituted by grace, the church reveals the possibilities of human society, including the social-economic or civil spheres. Rather than offering a utopia, the church offers an eschatology and takes up the role of mediation between human social formation and the grace of God – though the church does not merely mediate grace and salvation, but is, in fact, the very form that grace and salvation take at the present time since it is the church that will someday constitute an eschatological humanity.

Thus, part of what it means to be political and to take political action, is to be the church, to begin to live out in the present, as the church, what God intends human beings to be. The preaching of the gospel and the celebration of the sacraments are, seen in this light, political actions. This does not give us a blueprint for transforming society or give us a set of concrete historical steps to take in that process of transformation. But it is an attempt to live and anticipate, by grace, another way of being human in order that, through the example and mediation of the church, that way of life can begin to analogically transform even the temporal structures of the world, though that transformation will always have the character of a gift.

Once again, far from diminishing the value, importance, and relative autonomy of the temporal order of society, radical orthodoxy would likely see the centrality of the ecclesial as establishing it.