Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Radical Orthodoxy, for and against
I posted on Speculative Realism here, and I have more to say about my reservations and enthusiasms on it; but I also want to provide a bit more of a take on Radical Orthodoxy. This is an approach that, all agree, has its start in the theological work of John Milbank, whose Theology and Social Theory argued trenchantly that when theology took its bearings from psychology, sociology, cultural critique, anthropology, and so on, it had already conceded too much. However, Milbank traced the questions and answers of various secular disciplines to Christian problematic, underscoring the way that these disciplines were themselves forced to veer from the Christian context of their origins. In other words, the history of secularism is a history of heresy. Milbank’s founding contention is that (Christianly speaking) one can only coherently critique secularism if one critiques it precisely as heretical. This allows him to formulate an old critique in new guise, and he has strong words both for the liberal notion of autonomous philosophy, and for commitments that are merely fideistic—both old targets of theology.
“Heresy” is obviously a fighting word, and Radical Orthodoxy is a polemical stance. This is one of the things I like about it: it names names, points fingers, and asks hard questions: What did Western Civilization claim to not know, and when did it not know it? Like some other schools that are usually deemed conservative or reactionary, R.O. sees modernity and postmodernity as in a crisis of values, unable to articulate its own claims about right and wrong, to coherently defend itself from enemies or even look after its own; and it sees this precisely as a crisis of faith. Thus R.O. formulates a critique of liberalism familiar from Leo Strauss, Max Picard, or Russell Kirk, a critique from a transcendent not immanent ground. However, unlike these conservative critics, R.O. tends to veers not to the right but to the left. This is a general impression of mine, and I am sure one can point to any number of exceptions; but my sense is that this left-tendency is what makes people double-take, and some of them, inevitably, just don’t buy it.
Milbank’s initial arguments were picked up, and soon several other thinkers were closely associated. Graham Ward and Catherine Pickstock co-edited with Milbank the first anthology of essays concerning R.O. (there have since been others); Philip Blond has recently made some headlines in the UK due to being associated with the Red Tory movement (confirming some folks’ suspicions that R.O.’s leftism was only word-deep). Rowan Williams, once Milbank's teacher and now Archbishop of Canterbury, is a fellow-traveler at least. The movement began amidst Anglicans, particularly high-church Anglicans, but there are Roman Catholics and Reformed and Lutherans amongst them now.
I think one can venture a three-part sketch of basic Radical Orthodox cultural critique. First, R.O. tends to argue that the swerve to secularization always involves the option for a position rejected, either explicitly or implicitly, by the Church: modernity and post-modernity is the playing out of the consequences of heresy, though it is sometimes a heresy that the Church bought into. Moreover, the original reasons for rejecting the secularizing option remain in force. The centerpiece of this sort of argument in R.O. is the theology of Duns Scotus, in particular his doctrine of the univocity of Being: “Being” means the same thing when applied to God and to creatures. This means (goes the R.O. line), both that Being comes first, logically, and then come God and nature; and also that one can investigate nature without God, as though God did not enter the picture. Starting in the generation after Aquinas, RO thinks, the West progressively separated the spheres of meaning and practical life. And, things being what they are, practical questions took over until meaning was entirely edged out.
Not that secularism thinks of itself as Scotist (or indeed as nihilist). On the contrary, Radical Orthodoxy argues (secondly) that in its both animus against religion and in its eventual torpor, secularism has forgotten its origin in these disputes. Therefore, while its positions remain determined by these problems, it is responding to a set of questions it no longer understands: disputes in which the stakes are spiritual. Note, this is not simply an argument that some commonly-held contemporary position has spiritual consequences, but that it follows from spiritual premises. This is not unlike a kind of psychotherapeutic take on human relations. Just as there, hidden or repressed motives still motivate, even (or especially) if they are unacknowledged, so too in the history of ideas. (I might add, it's vulnerable to an analogous critique as is the psychothereutic, namely, that the question of motives can be distinguished from the truth or falsity of claims).
So, lastly, Radical Orthodoxy seems to claim that if one returns to the sources, one can formulate a coherent alternative to secularism, an alternative that will be not a mere mouthing of pieties but will be respectful of spiritual yearnings, and will avoid a nihilism incipient in postmodernity (particularly late capitalism, but also its secular critique). By itself this could suggest that R.O. is a tour de force of nostalgia, a kind of philosophers’ or theologians’ Society for Creative Anachronism. But Milbank, Pickstock, Ward et al. do not argue merely that, say, nominalism was wrong then and remains wrong now. Rather, they urge that because “ideas have consequences,” the secular and the sacred are never really separable. From this it does not follow that they envision some sort of theocracy. Indeed, a good many of the social and political positions urged by R.O. are distributivist or socialist. The particulars of this alternative are not agreed upon by every R.O. thinker. But Radical Orthodoxy’s blend of committed social gospel and high-church theology is a genuine tradition inherited from the Tractarians and the Oxford Movement; the liturgical focus upon the senses and the body finds an “applied” correlate in the concern for the concrete economic, social, cultural and political contexts of human life, and a “theoretical” correlate that makes scripture, doctrine and creed a matter of doxological practice rather than of epistemological assertion.
In providing a genealogy of secularism which traces it to various Christian problematics, Milbank is not particularly original, or even very surprising; Lowith and Voegelin before in the 20th century had already argued that many crucial developments in the West were secularizations of Christian thematics, and Weaver had already traced the relativism of the West to William of Ockham. Hauerwas (an oft-cited comrade-in-arms of Milbank’s) made similar points of cultural critique earlier, also on theological grounds; and MacIntyre has also argued that the West made a crucial false step in abandoning the Aristotelian discourse of virtues, in a way that, again, makes it impossible for it to understand What It Talks About When It Talks About Values.
In any case, it is hardly shocking news that sociology or anthropology or economics or even biology should have been decisively shaped by Christian doctrine; there is hardly a corner of the sciences or humanities which has not descended from some Christian thinking. The West simply was Christian; this is where people did their thinking. Moreover, when confronting such grand narratives that trace whatever is now amiss to some faultline where Everything Went Wrong, it is all too easy to find, well, fault. These arguments are always too simplistic. Everything went wrong with Plato (said Nietzsche and Heidegger); everything went wrong with Charlemagne or the filioque; or with Luther; or with William of Ockham; or with Joachim of Fiore; or with the influx of Greek philosophy—mainly Aristotle—from Moslem sources; or with Descartes; or with Machiavelli. I’ve heard and read all these positions argued at length, and they all remind me of a line from the prologue to the Hitchhiker's Guide: “Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.”
Not only will some detail from at least half a century previous always turn up to falsify one’s history, but a plausible alternate evaluation will almost certainly be offered countering one’s whole picture. In the case of Radical Orthodoxy, its main whipping boy, Duns Scotus, could just as easily be lauded as condemned for “separating God and nature,” and so making possible the Western development of science. Precisely this line has been taken by historians who have wanted to assert and explain the development of science in the Christian west and nowhere else. (This has not always with reference to Scotus, and sometimes is merely refered to the Bible). Preeminent among these have been Rejer Hooykaas, Robert K Merton, Stanley Jaki, Pierre Duhem, Oppenheimer, and Whitehead, though I would not argue that these thinkers all meant the same thing.
It should also go without saying that R.O.’s attack on Duns Scotus have not gone unnoticed by fans of the Doctor Subtilis. If you check out the blog The Smithy, you can read several rather contemptuous rejoinders to haughtily dismissed R.O. "pseudo-"scholarship. Of course, these aren’t the only criticisms R.O. has garnered, even online; the folks at An Und Fur Sich can be sort of persnickety about them too (one of the funniest accounts of it I know is Adam Kotsko’s description of it as “an assertion that we need to get back to the slightly nuanced Neoplatonist ontology that Jesus died on the cross to give us”), though it is tempered with respect (and Anthony Paul Smith is doing academic work at Nottingham with (though not supervised by) Milbank). In their case the reservations seem to be partly political—suspicions of what strikes me as an undeniable flavor of conservativism about R.O. despite some of its leftist-sounding social agenda—partly concerns that R.O. is too cavalier about rejecting “autonomous” science, and partly just chafing at the tone of some of R.O.'s polemics.
There is also a pretty reasonable criticism of R.O. in Democracy and Tradition by Jeffrey Stout, who argues that Milbank, alongside MacIntyre and Hauerwas, in staking the claims of Tradition against pluralism, must come to terms with Democracy as a rival tradition, and not as the mere negation of tradition.
But by far the strongest criticisms of Radical Orthodoxy that I know of are contained in the books Deconstructing Radical Orthodoxy, edited by W. J. Hankey and Douglas Hedley, and Interpreting the Postmodern: Responses to Radical Orthodoxy edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether and Marion Grau. The papers collected by W. J. Hankey and Douglas Hedley, two scholars of no mean standing, tend to paint R.O. as a trendy new fad (inevitably a weak spot for any approach that begins to gain attention), and while they are not wholly dismissive, are clearly impatient with some of R.O.’s more sweeping gestures, and they stop just short of accusing Milbank & company of deliberate obfuscation, of taking refuge in apparent erudition—an erudition they aim to challenge. Deconstructing Radical Orthodoxy disputes the interpretation not only of Duns Scotus, but of Plato, of Augustine, of Aquinas, and Heidegger., and freely speculates upon what might be behind R.O.’s own tendentious readings.
If Stout in Democracy and Tradition argues from the pragmatic center, and Hankey and Hedley argue as it were from the right—not necessarily politically, but academically and certainly with an eye on R.O.’s “anti-modern” agenda—Ruether and Grau, both well-known liberal and feminist theologians, come at it from hard left. While the critique of H&H’s book is scholarly, that of R&G (and their contributors) is ideological. R.O. remains Eurocentric, sexist, heterosexist, caught in the same-old-same-old: “a very masculine, technocratic theology whose notions of contesting modernity hardly seems to consider that this means contesting notions of whose discourse gets to count as theology.” It isn't whether we're hearing Wittgenstein or Suarez right that's at issue here, but whether we're hearing “women, African Americans, Latinos, peoples inhabiting the (former) colonies of the British Empire” at all.
Well. At the risk of flirting with an inchoate philosophy of persecution, I’d say that anything that has that many people riled up, from all sides of the spectrum, has got to be doing something right.
Be all that as it may, what I find immediately and intuitively appealing in Radical Orthodoxy is summed up in the subtitle to Pickstock’s After Writing: “the liturgical consummation of philosophy.” This is a thesis rife with implication for metaphysics and politics alike: the dependence of thinking upon a realm beyond thought which is nonetheless not a mere blank horizon, but a context to which we can orient ourselves in practice—a practice that is inherently either doxologic (praising), or else must constitute itself as negation and denial (nihilism, or nihilism by another name). But what I find most exciting about R.O. is its claim that these larger existential questions are not merely Ivory Tower matters but are inherently bound up with practical day-to-day questions about how we shall live. No wonder it invites contention: it hits us where we live—whether in the academy or not.