INTRODUCING RADICAL ORTHODOXY: MAPPING A POST-SECULAR THEOLOGYWritten by James K. A. Smith Reviewed By Mark Elliott
This book is an attempt to expound the main themes of the Radical Orthodoxy movement. The unofficial leader of the movement, John Milbank, has written a preface where he welcomes the common cause with the Reformed way of looking at the world and that the Inter Varsity Fellowship ‘has shown increasing sophistication in recent years’. There are occasions where it all seems a little bit too much about trying to be clever. In the ‘Theological Cartography’ attempted by chapter 1 we get something that is a bit broad-brush, with lots of references to Amsterdam and Yale and Tübingen. These nodding references are not always explained.
There follows a good exposition of Catherine Pickstock and of Graham Ward. We also see that, even if not Aaron to Milbank’s ‘Moses’, how Ward’s gifting is most of all as an explainer of other people’s difficult ideas. Anyway, RO is not a ‘movement’ but a ‘sensibility’. That is only the first and the main example of annoying acronyms which appear throughout the text.
Smith makes the important point that RO’s target audience is not the Church but is ‘culture’: Milbank after all is Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics at Nottingham, not Theology. There should be a place for confessional pluralism in the academy. Secularism is never a UN force between confessions but very soon becomes a totalizing religion. That is the political message of RO.
But there is also place for interaction with Milbank and Pickstock’s work as it relates to embodiment, temporality and liturgy. Add embodiment to participation and one gets the essentials of theurgy—keeping the transcendence and immanence of the human together.
One might expect from having read Milbank’s foreword that the contribution of The (Dutch) Reformed will come to the fore. I would have expected a lot more about the Reformed Non-foundationalism. There are odd references to Dooyeweerd throughout—but it seems a bit gimmicky at times.
It is good to give a section to ‘The Scotist Case’ (aka, whose fault is modernity?), but Smith seems to miss the debate between Pickstock and Richard Cross (see Richard Cross, ‘ “Where Angels Fear to Tread”: Duns Scotus and Radical Orthodoxy’, Antonianum 76.1 (2001): 7–41; C. Pickstock, ‘Modernity and scholasticism: a critique of recent invocations of univocity’, in: Antonianum 78 (2003) 3–46). The matter of John Caputo’s Augustine versus RO’s Augustine is well handled.
We are told a few times that the secular has its own theology such that there is no such things as a neutral or naked public square. The state can be ordered towards the creator without becoming the church (255). The Church is a workshop for humanity on the way to the heavenly polis.
When it comes to conclusions, one of the interesting theses which could have used more attention is that Milbank has gone soft about boundaries—maybe under Ward’s bad influence! When it comes to things that Reformed evangelicals can learn from RO, then well, Reformed churches should have more catholic worship.
James Smith has done us all the service of trying to demystify and engage with Radical Orthodoxy. He has not been so shy as to offer no critique thereof. It is to be hoped that his impressive talents will resource the Reformed tradition wherein he is cradled.
St Andrews University