TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On Radical Orthodoxy

On Tuesdays at the TELOSscope blog, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Jennifer Wang looks at John Hughes and Matthew Bullimore’s “What is Radical Orthodoxy?” from Telos 123 (Spring 2002).

In “What is Radical Orthodoxy?” John Hughes and Matthew Bullimore provide a fascinating overview of Radical Orthodoxy’s intervention into a philosophical and theological climate that they considered stale. Rooted in the Cambridge theological tradition, this project also draws on thinkers like Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Alasdair MacIntyre in order to critique the violence of secular social theories. Currently, its three main figures are John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, who, in 1999, along with various supporters, issued a manifesto “proclaiming the bankruptcy of the secular and the urgent necessity to return to the theological afresh.” For them, the theological is able to account for the secular as a heretical deviation from orthodox Christianity (as found in the writings of the Church Fathers and Doctors like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas), which alone is truly radical. This paradoxical position has attracted criticism from theologians both liberal and conservative, as well as from opposing camps on issues in philosophy and politics. Hughes and Bullimore, however, think that they are not striking a middling compromise:

Is this then just the typical grey fudging characteristic of non-offensive and compromising Anglicans? Radical Orthodoxy claims that theological mediation, rather than mere positivism or crude dialectics, is the only critical position—a conviction instantiated in their unapologetic rhetoric of critique and persuasion. This rhetorical strategy is employed to proclaim their common convictions regarding: 1) the diagnosis of modernity/post-modernity; 2) philosophical dualisms; 3) radical politics; and 4) the Christian theological tradition.

Radical Orthodoxy holds that “modernism” and “postmodernism” share many similar problems, which are rooted in their secularity and “capitalist logic.” A definitive aim, then, is to deconstruct in various ways (post-)modern “dualisms.” For example, both the rational proofs of either theism or blind fideismand a compromise that keeps them independently operating in parallel are rejected. This follows from Radical Orthodoxy’s rejection of the “secular,” “an inert, value-free realm of the factum, somehow imagined as subsisting outside of any relation to God.” Such an idea is not original insofar as the project is a radical return to Christian orthodoxy.

One core commitment is a radical politics of Christian socialism in which all the world is the responsibility of Christianity as part of itself, rather than as an Other; for even the secular mediates transcendence, an idea drawn from Henri de Lubac. The organic and aesthetic dimension of social and political life is rediscovered through a “vision of the liturgical polis in the face of the dehumanizing processes of modern mechanization”—a violence underwritten by secular liberalism. To that end, the genealogy of the contemporary predicament is retraced:

Two genealogies are blended: the standard Left critique of the Cartesian legacy, and the Balthasar-influenced Catholic recognition that this critique must extend further back to the theological problems inherent in late medieval nominalism and voluntarism. Radical orthodoxy mourns the loss of the participatory metaphysics of Aquinas, which was abandoned in favor of the representational account of language in William of Ockham, and the willful God of Duns Scotus. The advent of nominalism and voluntarism opened up the horizons of the project of modernity, culminating in the Fichtean ego, the abyss of the Kantian Ding-an-sich, and the textual nihilism of poststructuralism—all of which inevitably dissolve into apolitical nihilistic construal of the world in their common denial of the theological. Radical orthodoxy offers instead, not a nostalgic romantic reaction, but a “resuming the thread” with the help of a counter-modern repressed romantic tradition. The patristic and medieval tradition is wedded to the best in Luther, Kierkegaard, the meta-critiques of Hamann and Jacobi, and the tradition of Christian socialism opened up in various ways by Coleridge, Maurice, and Newman.

Furthermore, Radical Orthodoxy recovers metaphysics so as to secure the transcendent ontological basis for participation by rehabilitating the Christian Neoplatonist tradition exemplified in Augustine and Dionysius the Areopagite. These two strategies lead to a radical return to the Christian tradition (with, e.g., Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, and Aquinas) but not as a romantic longing for the Middle Ages, as an attentiveness to the “contemporary, radically linguistic worldview” is still maintained.

The return to Christian orthodoxy has yielded insights that focus on the ethical and lived aspects of doctrines. The revival of epektasis allows for an infinitely dynamic God who gives ecstatically. He is characterized by the “relational substantive” model of Trinitarian personhood, which involves the logos as temporal mediator. God is conceived as only understood through the mediation of culture, but not reduced to it. A “high” Christology is allied to Christ as the homo sacer, the sole exception to human societal norms. The individual, political, and social bodies are related in their analogical relation to the Body of Christ and are thus reconsidered in light of Christ’s transfigured body. Against the positivism of death and a secular vitalism, Radical Orthodoxy points to “a joyful socialism based on the freely-given gift,” an ontological priority of the continuous Good, and a core ontology of peace. Finally, the sacramental semiotics present in the Eucharist embrace both the nearness and absence of God. Thus, both the “existentialist absolutizing of the present moment” and the ennui of “Beckett’s eternally unfulfilled Waiting For Godot” are staved off through an initiated but not yet completed eschatology, which embraces the hope of apocatastasis (universal salvation).

Hughes and Bullimore conclude with the hope that Radical Orthodoxy will continue to attract dialogue partners from all theological and philosophical camps. Ultimately, they place this movement within the continuing project of Christianity to remain faithful to its logos.

Read the full version of John Hughes and Matthew Bullimore’s “What is Radical Orthodoxy?” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $5/article.

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