A CHRISTIAN HUMANISM
Christianity in the Emerging Post-Modern, Post-Secular, Post-Christian Age
Exploring a Christian theology capable of constructive engagement with the post-modern, post-Christian, post-secular culture of today and beyond.
4 – A SOPHISTICATED & BEAUTIFUL APOLOGETICS
I’m convinced that most people don’t know what they believe, rather, they only know what they wish to believe.
– Criss Jami
THE TASK OF A NEW APOLOGETICS
Apologetics is a task of Christian theology that seeks to present and explain Christian insights to a skeptical and uncertain audience. This task is of vital importance today, and anyone engaging in it should understand that opportunities to dialog are becoming increasingly rare.
Most mainstream apologetics involves detailed arguments seeking to convince someone who is critical or unaccepting of various Christian insights. Unfortunately, the tone of much of these efforts is condescending and the arguments and explanations themselves rarely speak to the actual concerns and values of the post-Christian, post-secular culture. Simply regurgitating traditional theological positions of orthodox Christianity won’t do, despite how slick or sophisticated the presentation.
Old ways of speaking and explaining are not working for most. The continued cultural and practical decline of our churches demonstrates this. And no, it’s not the sin or hard-heartedness of the masses that keep them from engaging. Rather, to paraphrase Anglican Bishop John Robertson, “we Christians offer the world a thousand fantastical things to believe before they even have their breakfast.” And we often fail to provide friendship, genuine welcome, hospitality, or love to these same people.
Notions of “winning converts” and “bringing people back to the church and bible” are somewhat off the mark. Our visions of a new evangelism are skewed, and often towards the past. Sadly, our efforts to evangelize are all too efforts to control others.
What’s need is genuine love of all our neighbors, how we act and treat others is central. After that, how we explain our love also matters. We must find sophisticated, sane, reasonable ways to bring forth the meaning and value of core Christian insights coupled with the deft ability to convey that meaning within today’s cultural and intellectual contexts.
TRANSLATING ANCIENT MYTHOPOESIS FOR A LITERAL, FACTUAL CULTURE
As we’ve previously noted, the worldview, culture, religion(s) of the ancient world in which Christianity too shape do not neatly align with the worldview, culture, and religious notions of our own age.
Christianity was birthed 2,000 years ago, within an even older Jewish tradition, situated in a Hellenistic culture, within the political, economic, and social structures and customs of the Roman Empire.
Christianity took shape in a world very different than our own – different in terms of methods of reasoning, different in terms of mores, and different in terms of what they knew about the world. Christians must realize that many of our terms, concepts, metaphors, and symbols lack context and meaning for many people today. Our theology often speaks a language foreign to contemporary ears and minds.
Crosses, virgin births, angels, grace, salvation, and so many other symbols, metaphors, concepts and terms have either little or no meaning today, or are interpreted in ways that significantly differ from what the original renderers intended and even how such ideas evolved historically.
To the secular, modern mind, the cross is as likely to evoke vampire movies, Madonna, or a fashion accessory as it is to symbolize self giving and sacrifice. Perhaps even more concerning, the cross is seen by many as a symbol of oppression and hostility, wielded by Christians hostile to women, LGBT people, and others not living lives aligned with conservative Christian values.
Salvation? What do I need to be saved from? Sin? Please stop your guilt mongering and hyper moralizing. Grace? Now you’re talking magic. I’m redeemed. Really? You see more screwed up that I am. Transubstantiation? Enough of your esoteric nonsense. Jesus will come again. What fantasy! I’m covered in his blood. How gross. You need God. No, I don’t and how dare you tell me what I need.
Most of today’s Christians, when speaking about their religious convictions and/or theology, are speaking in foreign or even hostile terms to much of the popular culture and population.
For Christianity to be meaningful or even mildly interesting, no less inviting, Christians need to learn to speak in new ways. We need to learn to speak in terms that the postmodern mind can understand and relate to, while conveying our point clearly. We need to find new ways of speaking ancient truth and wisdom in the lingua franca.
HOW WE LIVE IS MOST IMPORTANT
Before we discuss apologetics, let’s not forget that while intellectual and personal dialog have their place, a person’s most effective conveyance of their core values is demonstrated in their actions more so than their words.
Speaking in lofty terms about grace, love, and service to others is merely engaging in empty rhetoric if we are not living actual lives of love, kindness, generosity, and service. Virtue signaling on social media or in conversation rarely convinces anyone and likely won’t gain a hearing. Our lives need to align and conform to our message. Our lives, how we live, is the most powerful conveyance of our values and convictions.
The behavior of Christians has played a significant role in Christianity’s cultural and actual decline. A religion whose core is a radical social vision of love, openness, and generous mutual care and support is now seen by increasing numbers as a religion of bigotry, narrowness, animosity, and moralism. The so-called culture wars – ongoing social and political debate over issues of gender, race, sexuality, and economic policy – saw many Christians fiercely defend and promote iron age mores that cannot be justified in the postmodern world. Doing so has cost us our credibility on other issues where the mainstream might be more in agreement with us.
Among the younger generations (millennials, gen z, and even gen x) Christianity now signifies and stands for hostility toward women, LGBT people, immigrants, and political liberals. What happened to the open table, the preference for the lowly and marginalized, and living lives of kenotic love? What happened to the robust defense and affirmation of all human dignity and the sanctity of all life?
People are typically not naive. The sign in front of the church may say “All are Welcome” and “Come Experience God’s Love”, but many know that only some people are welcome and that the congregation really believes that God only loves people like those inside the building.
Taking moral and social positions contrary to the mainstream culture is indeed often required by those seeking to promote the Kingdom of God. But isn’t strange how rarely Christians stand in opposition to consumerism, mistreatment of the poor, wealth inequality, and racial bigotry while being fixated on what some refer to as pelvic theology?
Christianity has beautiful, profound, and powerful things to say about immigration, capital punishment, end of life decision making, family life, the economy, and so much more. Yet we’ve allowed our fullness to be drowned out by our obsessions.
Christianity has been seriously damaged, perhaps even mortally wounded, because Christians attempted political and cultural control and were all too often the persecutors, rather than the persecuted, for generations. Christianity won’t receive a genuine hearing or be seen as potential benefit to the culture until this stops, apologies are made, and Christians once again return to the gospels.
A NEW METHOD OF APOLOGETICS
How we live and treat others is primary to our witness, but our words and explanations for our insights matter too. Few people in the secular culture object to love, kindness, equality, and generosity, but they certainly stumble over virgin births, magic bread, and zombie Jesus.
On a personal note, I’ve had many secular and atheist friends directly ask me, “Can’t you simply be a loving and good person without all the crazy stuff?” By the crazy stuff, they usually mean the stories of miracles, exorcisms, the strange rituals involving bread and wine, robes and incense, and so-called sacred texts that tell women to submit to their husbands while being quiet in church, and talk about Jesus returning on the clouds with a sword and rivers of blood.
We must humbly and honestly admit that such things are off putting, even repellent to contemporary sensibilities and values. Then we must seek to understand why our spiritual ancestors wrote such things and attempt to grasp the meanings they intended to convey. And then our task becomes either rejecting those meanings and teachings (such as women not teaching or being ordained) or find ways to relevantly and clearly show the value of these meanings to our real lives, real culture, and real world today.
How exactly do we do this? What methods, what steps should followers of Jesus use and take to explain and share their insights in rational, clear, accessible manner in order to convey the Good News?
I suggest the following steps when engaging those who are secular concerning Christianity:
First, we must earnestly place ourselves in context of the conversation and attempt to adopt the perspective of the other participants. How familiar are they with theology or academic discussion? What are their central concerns? Are they operating from a specific manner of thought or set of ideas?
Second, we should refrain from employing theological jargon and technical terms. Elaborating on the doctrine of homoousios and the dual, yet unified nature of Jesus, will likely fall flat on postmodern ears. Plain spoken language, clear and concise, is the preferred starting point for theological or spiritual discourse.
Third, unless necessary, avoid metaphysics and related claims. The concept of the Trinity, for example, was an attempt to phenomenologically describe the human experience of God in tripartite fashion. Carrying on about divine nature in three persons serves little benefit and will likely take the conversation astray.
Fourth, focus on the existential, the real, and the practical impact of one’s theological claims and convictions. How does the particular topic at hand matter in our day to day lives? Our attention should be given to how Christianity shapes our daily lives, relationships, and way of being in the world, rather than a multitude of fantastic notions one must accept in order to belong to some denomination, tradition, sect, group, church, or community.
Fifth, rely on and only use evidential theology in your presentations and explanation. This means no magical thinking and no lofty poetic flourishes about bending arcs of history or final, eternal truths. Be prepared to rationally and sanely, offer justifications, evidence, and repeatable arguments to support your conviction. Appeals to authority – that of scripture or ecclesial nature – don’t work and are frankly offensive. So are appeals to personal faith, subjective experience and wishful thinking.
Sixth, and finally, seek to establish common ground and topics that unify and connect rather than those that separate and prompt discord.
There is value and positive meaning to much of the Christian tradition and its metaphors, symbols, images, and rituals. That value and positive meaning can only be appreciated and brought forth when we stop literalizing and reifying the mythopoetic statements of ancient and pre-modern Christians.
Our rapprochement with naturalism requires that we reform our thinking and rise to the intellectual challenges of science and the sensibilities of postmodernity. We must craft theologies rooted in evidential reasoning understanding that this will require much effort and discomfort.
Christian theology and Christian living are rooted in insights about human nature, morality, and the meaning of human life and happiness. As such, deductive reasoning will only carry one so far in these matters. Conveying what one sees in the world and one’s convictions related to what one sees requires elaboration, story telling, examples – all efforts to help another see something as we do.
Therefore, the new apologetic task is a phenomenological effort – a pointing to and focusing on certain perceived parts of wisdom. Our tools therefore aren’t so much inductive and deductive reasoning, but illiative reasoning, attempting to help another to see what we see.
Such manner of reasoning is foreign to many overall, but even more so to those familiar with a style of theological argument that is dogmatic and relies on appeals to authority. Such arguments no longer work, if they ever did in the first place.
We must accept, and then perfect, our phenomenological abilities, grow adept with illiative reasoning and argumentation, and be willing to offer justifications for our concepts and thinking, the main thrust of adhering to foundational modes of evidential reasoning.
DOING THEOLOGY – REFLECTING ON MEANING & MYSTERY
Christianity, like most significant religious traditions, is focused on meaning – the meaning of human life, goodness, and reality, a probing of the existential issues in life, and a pondering of transcendent (but not necessarily supernatural) truths.
Virgin births, resurrections, healing miracles, the scriptures and the tradition are replete with stories, metaphors, and sings of wonder wrapped in mythopoetic language spoken in a pre-scientific, pre-modern world.
Our theological and apologetical task is essentially two-fold – sort through the mythopoetic claims to arrive at the core meaning(s) of the authors and then apply evidential reasoning to those meanings and claims so as to render a genuine postmodern theology.
We first immerse ourselves into the sources and their claims and then turn our attention to what sort of claims are these? How do we sift the factual-historical from the mythopoetic-metaphorical? And it’s essential to keep in mind that the ancients making these claims didn’t differentiate those modes of reasoning and language as we do today and that claims can overlap into both categories.
Second, we allow science, advanced human learning, and reason to aid our assessments. This is, in fact, a significant aspect of seeking an evidential turn in theology.
What we don’t do is establish a central authority to tell us the right or correct position to adopt. This is the default response of most strict orthodoxies – create an authority to settle the matter, require conformity with the judgment, and then allow that authority to expel those who don’t accept that judgment. Doing such, while perhaps satisfying on some level, doesn’t actually settle anything, even if one believes that their authority is infallible.
Mysteries are not matters to settle, rather they are matters of existential truths that must be ongoingly engaged, reflected on, and lived through. Nor does communal unity require that everyone think exactly the same on such issues. Obviously, unity urges all to engage such mysteries earnestly, and together in dialog, but it doesn’t require narrow intellectual conformity.
The above theological process is intended to be a balanced application of reasoned experience to the claims of the Christian tradition. Extreme approaches – simply writing off the claims as naive, superstitious nonsense or uncritically accepting the narratives in a literal sense (which is actually impossible, because they are disjointed and contradictory) – leaves one impoverished on many levels.
Obviously, one is free to set aside the claims and not engage Christianity at all. That is one of our freedoms in a liberal, secular society. But those who find meaning in engaging the Christian tradition have an obligation to participate in understanding and applying the Good News as they best understand it, with the interpretive help of their communities and scholars and experts, while resisting the temptation to allow others or ourselves to impose their interpretations as mandatory or definitive.
ORTHODOXY & AUTHORITY
They don’t realize, he argues, that “this deployment of the term ‘orthodox’ is recent, innovative, and narrow.” Historically, he maintains, orthodoxy was understood as commitment to the great ecumenical creeds—Nicaea and Chalcedon. These creeds taught “the conciliar marks of the gospel”–namely, creation, Incarnation, the virgin birth, Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, his second coming, the Trinity, the one holy, catholic and apostolic church, one baptism, and the hope of bodily resurrection.
But these zealots for a narrowly-conceived orthodoxy, Smith complains, are “reduc[ing] Christianity to a morality,” just as Kant did. They are taking second-order matters (my use of the term) and elevating them to first-order status—just as some Christians regard Christian non-violence, the mode of baptism, the ordination of women, and the rapture as necessary parts of orthodoxy. Bakers who are persecuted for refusing to bake cakes for gay weddings are not suffering for orthodoxy but for things that are not “at the very heart of Christian faith.” Smith concedes that these views of sexuality and marriage which the bakers are defending “have been the historic teaching of the church.” But they are “traditional” rather than “conciliar. If we regard them as central to orthodoxy, they will “start to overwhelm and supersede what the church has defined as orthodox.”
RO on Rapprochement
In the current cultural and political context, Christian orthodoxy represents a “radical” position, and only such radicalism gets to the roots of the crises of late modernity. It attempts to confront the idea of a secular reason on philosophical and theological terms, complete with their own historical narrative of the development of the culture of modernity.
According to RO, the proper understanding of the grand narrative of Western
thought is one in which the predominant cultural-intellectual imperium went awry, resulting in the secularization of the culture and rise of various social sciences and social theory that justifies that outcome, all which result in marginalization and privatization of Christianity.
The Radical Orthodoxy narrative traces this development of secular reason through modern and postmodern thought and sees significant connections between the univocity of being and the undercurrent of nihilism in much of postmodern thought. Radical Orthodoxy, then, is an attempt to confront this nihilism with a distinctly Christian philosophy which rejects all notions of scientism.
In fact, the entire basis of the Radical Orthodoxy critique of the development of modern philosophy centers on the rejection of the analogy of being following the late scholastic development of the univocity of being, which is in fact a rejection of grammatical thought in favor of dialectical thought.
The result are various related arguments for a Christian involvement with secular modernity that is perhaps best described as critical engagement.
The forms of this engagement differ among RO thinkers. Milbank argues that political ecclesiology is therefore not one of church versus state, neither is it one of church and state alongside each other. Instead, Milbank envisions an arrangement of “hazy” boundaries between church and state as the church seeks to redeem all of society. To be sure, the primary political practice of Christians, in this view, is not to engage and transform the state, but to build up the church as the only true polis with a genuine justice and peace that cannot be found elsewhere. Nevertheless, Milbank calls for a blurring of the boundaries between church and state so that, in the overlap of authorities and communities, Christians
would seek to bring the policies of the state into conformity with Christian practices as far as the continued need for coercive rule allows, while at the same time the church increasingly absorbs and hence redeems social functions and interactions (including economic exchanges) that are currently assigned to secular society and overseen by the state. The remnant of Christendom should, therefore, strive to grow within a society it no longer
seeks to conquer by force but rather to subsume peacefully into the church through the public witness of Christian reconciliation, our only alternative to and restraint against the catastrophic violence that Milbank apocalyptically predicts will otherwise destroy society.
Milbank cannot accept Gaudium et Spes’ affirmation of “the autonomy of earthly affairs” predicated on God’s endowment of human society with an order and laws that can and must be discerned by reason. Hence, Milbank rejects not only the secularism that claims society is independent of God’s rule, but also the secularization in which society might be properly conformed to its divinely established telos without explicit acceptance of Christian revelation.
His position on church–state relations is therefore very close to the model of Christendom as well as to some forms of “Dominion Theology” currently popular in the United States (in which lay-Christian rather than clerical rule is sought and religious freedom is now frequently and rather bizarrely described as the right to attempt to make the majority’s religious practices the law of the land). When Milbank’s zeal to ensure that no space is autonomous from God translates into an effort to absorb as much space as possible into the visible church, we must conclude that Milbank’s remnant Christendom ecclesiology is inconsistent with a religious freedom that is more than bare tolerance and non-coercion of those who do not adhere to the Christian faith.
There is diversity of thought within RO. Graham Ward offers an alternative to Milbank’s vision of Christendom and rather argues that our current postmodern, post-secular culture is devoted not to ideals but to endless desire. The postmodern culture of desire, Ward argues, exaggerates and thus makes evident the social atomization and overconsumption latent within the modern culture’s individualism. In Ward’s view, it was precisely this modern individualism that both privatized Christian faith and prevented the modern city from achieving its promise of social harmony with freedom and personal development for all.
Ward contends that what our culture desperately need, and what Christian theology can provide, is a truly radical critique of secular modernity and postmodernity. This radical critique must reassert an “analogical” perspective countering social atomization and calling forth instead “a desire not to consume the other, but to let the other be in the perfection they are called to grow into” because each person participates in all others and so cannot achieve fulfillment alone. Lacking such a vision of mutual participation (predicated, as Milbank also insisted, on belief in a transcendent and triune God), our modern and postmodern cities have been caught in an oppositional logic that Ward (like Milbank) maintains will inevitably lead to individualism and to self and-other consuming forms of desire in place of the true fulfillment we can achieve only through relations of mutual care and support.
How then, given the entrenched individualism and patterns of narcissistic consumption in our postmodern global capitalism, are we to effect the required therapy of desire and recover the awareness of our interrelationality that can heal our social atomization? Ward interestingly argues that, since we do in fact exist in relations of mutual participation, we each affect and are affected by all others. We should, then, be confident that Christians living their eucharistic faith will ineluctably have a positive influence on the larger society.
We must also recognize that since we are so interrelated that each person affects all others, one might conclude that non-Christians, including people living a hedonistic consumerism, will also influence Christians. Yet this is not fully a reason for too strong concern, since Christianity has a significant contribution to make to society, but we also acknowledge that Christianity has blindnesses and distortions that will not always be adequately uncovered through self-critique, but must at times be revealed to us by others.
Therefore, the role of the church in the postmodern world is to provide a theological critique of its root cultural metaphors and work with any point of cultural connection that will allow a theological critique to be heard. Therefore, Ward advocates a transformational praxis of civic and cultural engagement that harkens to the gospel notion of Christians being leaven in the bread of the larger culture.
Therefore, rather than focusing on a witness against the perversions of a secular culture that is only tolerated,, or advocating for Christian withdrawal from the culture, or any form of Integralism, Ward wants Christianity to “give to secularism a legitimacy that saves it from nihilistic self-consumption” by providing the inter relational perspective that secularism needs to function as secular.
Ward clearly affirms the potential of secular societies as secular, not of course in the sense of being independent from God (since he maintains that all cities should strive to embody the city of God), but certainly in the sense of constituting a common life shared no less by non-Christians than by Christians. Ward’s approach does not conflict with religious freedom, then, insofar as he does not posit an ideal in which society is united in a common commitment to God or is explicitly guided by Christian revelation.
Given RO’s central concern with the development of a political ecclesiology in which the church has something more to offer the world than mere motivation.
Ward’s “critical engagement” is the only Radical Orthodoxy position thus far able to envision a substantive Christian sociopolitical praxis that is not inherently incompatible with religious disestablishment, because he accepts and encourages a Christian transformative politics that works with non-Christians for the greater good of all
Ward’s work also clarifies the significant ambiguity at the heart of the Radical Orthodoxy project, evident in that Milbank (especially) interprets the tenets of the Radical Orthodox credo according to an either–or logic, whereas Ward outlines a both–and understanding of these propositions in a manner similar to that of the Second Vatican Council. This ambiguity may be why commentators on Radical Orthodoxy are often ambivalent about its theological project: much depends on whether this credo is understood as proclaiming that only insights founded on Christian revelation are of real socio-political value, or rather as affirming the sociopolitical significance of Christian revelation without necessarily rejecting all non-Christian insights.
APPLY THIS TO SCIENCE ^
those interested in the Radical Orthodoxy efforts to develop a critical and socially transformative political ecclesiology would do well to reconsider the manner in which Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis humanae affirm both religious disestablishment and the sociopolitical relevance of Christian faith, on the grounds that our rational capacity to discern the proper principles by which society should be governed are complemented and not contradicted by revelation. Though we may indeed need to develop further the critical engagement between Christianity and the various cultures of modernity and postmodernity, a reading of the Second Vatican Council as accepting either a privatized faith or an uncritical socio-political stance is not adequate to the documents the council produced.
The logic of secularism, however, cannot be divorced from a lack of values and a lack of meaning. Thus, secularism has naturally ushered nihilism in all its many manifestations, and Radical Orthodoxy’s project is to “reclaim the world by situating its concern and activities within a theological framework.” For the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy, there is no neutral realm of ontology, epistemology, metaphysics, or any other realm of human knowledge and activity. Every realm includes presuppositions, and there is no escape from the fact that one’s presuppositions lead either to a transcendental, participatory philosophy or theology, or else a nihilistic philosophy that creates its own counterfeit theology. Radical Orthodoxy’s project is to critique modernism and postmodernism’s assumptions (while retaining and incorporating their helpful insights) in a way that is both radical and orthodox.
According to Milbank, Radical Orthodoxy is radical in four main ways: first, it is radical because it seeks to recapture Christian theology from its roots, i.e., patristic and early medieval. Second, it seeks to criticize modern society, culture, politics, art, science and philosophy with “unprecedented boldness.” Third, it is radical in that it seeks to rethink the tradition when that is necessary for meaningful engagement with postmodernity – as well as in assessing the problems in the tradition that eventually led to the secularization of Western culture. Fourth, it is radical in the sense that it argues that only transcendence suspends embodied life, self-expression, sexuality, aesthetic experience, human political community, and everything else the Enlightenment was seeking to save and ended up ruining.
For Milbank, there is an inevitable choice between an ontology of participation, where every aspect of life, and every discipline must be framed by a theological perspective, or else an ontology and epistemology of univocal being and autonomous reason, which dreams of territories independent of God and end up ushering nihilism, because these territories are not grounded in anything. Radical Orthodoxy chooses the former, challenges the culture in that it has chosen the latter, and proposes an alternative.
COMMUNION – BERRY
The Christian metanarrative is performative, and the performance of its praxis takes place in the stage of a historical and mythical scene.
For Milbank the logic of Christianity involves the claim that the interruption of history by Jesus and the Kingdom of God is the a meta-event, interpreting all other events.
Whereas Radical Orthodoxy holds that philosophy is concerned with
being as such, theology investigates the ground of being.
If theology no longer seeks to position, qualify or criticize other discourses, then it is inevitable that these discourses will position theology: for the necessity of an ultimate organizing logic . . . cannot be wished away. A theology positioned by secular reason suffers two characteristic forms of confinement. Either it idolatrously connects knowledge of God with some particular immanent field of knowledge – ‘ultimate’ cosmological causes, or ‘ultimate’ psychological or subjective needs. Or else it is confined to intimations of a sublimity beyond representation, so functioning to confirm negatively the questionable idea of an autonomous secular realm, completely transparent to rational understanding.
RO’s account of the secular is partly deconstructive. For Milbank, there is no purely “natural” human ordering of life. Human life is always a nature-culture hybrid, ordered by beliefs, codes of conduct, symbols, rituals. What political philosophy (e.g., Locke, Rousseau) has treated as a “natural state” of equality is simply an alternate coding. We cannot peel off the layers of cultural coding and belief and get back to a human nature in a pure and undefiled state.
Secular modernity is a particular coding/organization of human social life, no more natural than any other – just different. The secular wasn’t lurking behind the mask of sacrality, but had to be imagined, instituted and constructed. Secular order seems natural because political and economic theorists of the early modern period imagined the secular.
His message to the first is to persuade them that the governing assumptions of modern theory are bound up with shifts within Christian theology and practice, which contests social theory’s self-image as a secular discourse. For theologians, his message was even more challenging: Milbank seeks “to restore in postmodern terms, the possibility of theology as a metadiscourse.
It is radical, according to Millbank and his compatriots, in the sense of a return to patristic and medieval roots, and insofar as attempting to bring an Augustinian vision of all knowledge as illumination to the postmodern world with an unprecedented boldness. It is orthodox insofar as it holds a straightforward sense of commitment to credal Christianity, and the exemplarity of its patristic matrix. It holds a strong attachment to various forms of philosophical Christian thought, against both strict Protestant fundamentalism, and Biblicism, as well as against post-Tridentine Catholic positivism, RO finds fundamental accord with nouvelle théologie in seeking to recover and extend a fully Christianized ontology, and practical philosophy, consonant with authentic Christian doctrine.
At the essence, RO is telling a story about the decline of modern Western culture, and is searching for a remedy for the problems of modernity. The overall approach taken by RO can be described as narrative, non-foundational, and non-apologetic.
RO embraces postmodern theory and method and finds doing such a strength and source of freedom for the Christian worldview. Postmodern skepticism clears away the prejudices of the Enlightenment against anything which is not a self-evident, almost mathematical, truth. If secularism is just one more story, it can’t have the last word. So, the Christian story can once more be told and heard.
Secular liberalism is not value-neutral; it is not a scientifically-based, objective view of reality and has, in fact, established itself as an alternate religion, opposed to Christianity. RO recognizes the myth of the secular as, in the larger sense, just one more story—a truly malignant and violent one—striving not for tolerance and reason, but for domination, authoritarianism and conquest. It seeks to reclaim the place of the Christian Church as a viable alternate reality.
The Christian story, by its very nature, according to Milbank, simply has to recommend itself to the world as a story. No amount of apologetics can persuade. It should stand by itself as something that is an attractive, compelling world-view.
Theology purports to give an ultimate narrative, to provide some ultimate depth of description, because the situation of oneself within such a narrative is what it means to belong to the Church, to be a Christian. However, the claim is made by illiatively, not from deductive reasoning which seeks foundations. The foundation for the Christian worldview is the world itself as it reflects its participation in the logos.
By setting up the terms of engagement in this way, it refuses all dialogue and so refuses any accountability to standards other than those internal to itself. The irony is that the picture of the world that is created is one of incompatible, competing discourses.
Authors associated with the Roman Catholic nouvelle théologie movement, who themselves went back to the patristic and medieval periods and reinterpreted the tradition, are now themselves also being reinterpreted by RO for its own reading of the Christian tradition. Among the fathers of ressourcement, who play a huge role in the formation of the thought of RO, is Henri de Lubac. He is a prime inspiration in that Radical Orthodoxy considers Henri de Lubac a greater theological revolutionary than Karl Barth, because in questioning a hierarchical duality of grace and nature as discrete stages, he transcended, unlike Barth, the shared background assumption of all modern theology. In this way one could say, anachronistically, that he inaugurated a postmodern theology.
Underpinning the present essays, therefore, is the idea that every discipline must be framed by a theological perspective; otherwise these disciplines will define a zone apart from God, grounded literally in nothing. Although it might seem that to treat of diverse worldly phenomena such as language, knowledge, the body, aesthetic experience, political community, friendship, and so forth, apart from God, is to safeguard their worldliness, in fact, to the contrary, it is to make even this worldliness disappear.
RO sets at the heart of its cosmology the notion of participation. The universe emerges from and is sustained by the Logos. The Logos permeates all of reality and reality participates in the creative, ordered nature of the Logos. Therefore, the traditional distinctions of natural and supernatural, of grace and nature, and of sacred and profane as ontological categories are illusions.
RO elaborates this core vision in two subsequent sets of insights. First, participation is not identity. The being of the world (or our own human being) is not the same as that of Logos (God). Only by keeping to this rule do we stop ourselves taking a part of the world and turning it into an object of unlimited worship. This is our protection against idolatry, and all the domination and cruelty which flow from it.
Second, participation does not assume a genuine relationship. We can only understand the being of the world in relation to transcendent Logos. It is Logos’ creative, ordering nature which gives being to the world. It is the same creative power which makes it possible for nature and humanity to reflect Logos. The infinite is revealed in and through the finite, limited, worldly, time-bound, material world.
All created reality, including thought and concepts, are relational, and thanks to participation, all is situated within our relationship with Logos. Both matter and time are made up by relationships, and rooted in an original relationship with Logos which unifies all of reality.
In summary, RO employs the tools of critical reflexivity honed by continental thinking, especially phenomenology, taking on board the full implications of what has been termed the linguistic turn, Radical Orthodoxy reads the contemporary world through the Christian tradition, weaving it into the narrative of that tradition.
Radical Orthodoxy is not a school of theology in the traditional sense of the term. There are no hard and certain rules to which a theologian must subscribe to be part of RO. Yet the core theological conviction shared by its members is that reality is radically one, interconnected system that may be understood and described from various perspectives, and that the perspective of orthodox Christianity is the fullest and most holistically accurate perspective.
Perhaps these four tenets can more fully, albeit imperfectly, describe RO’s vision and project.
- Secular modernity, while having legitimate benefits, is the creation of an incomplete and mistaken theology.
- The artificial separation of reason and revelation is a modern error rooted in misunderstandings of both the nature of reason and revelation.
- All thought which brackets out God, even a conceptual, metaphorical God tied to notions of logos, noncontingency and transcendent creative grounding powers of being, is ultimately nihilistic.
- The material and temporal realms of bodies, sex, art, and sociality, which modernity claims to value, can truly be upheld only by acknowledgement of their participation in the transcendent.
Once, there was no ‘secular.’ The roots of the secular order and many of its benefits emerge from and were nourished in Christian soil. There is no reason objectively why secular reasoning need be exclusionary to other forms of reasoning or be taken as the norm.
RO therefore is a way, a style of doing theology in the postmodern, postsecular world.
attempts to reclaim the world by situating its concerns and activities within a theological framework. Not simply returning in nostalgia to the premodern, it visits sites in which secularism has invested heavily—aesthetics, politics, sex, the body, personhood, visibility, space—and resituates them from a Christian standpoint; that is, in terms of the Trinity, Christology, the Church and the Eucharist. What emerges is a contemporary theological project made possible by the self-conscious superficiality of today’s secularism. For this new project regards the nihilistic drift of postmodernism (which, nonetheless, has roots in the outset of modernity) as a supreme opportunity. It does not—like liberal theology, transcendentalist theology and even certain styles of neo-orthodoxy—seek, in the face of this drift, to shore up universal accounts of immanent human value (humanism), nor defences of supposedly objective reason. But nor does it indulge, like so many, in the pretence of a baptism of nihilism in the name of a misconstrued “negative theology”. Instead, in the face of the secular demise of truth, it seeks to reconfigure theological truth
I’m critical of theology deploying social science when this means taking over theological or atheist positions uncritically and in disguise. Theology in a secular age has to give an account of the secular and of why secularization has occurred. This should include recognizing how Christianity secularizes (in a good sense) by desacralizing politics, law, and nature to some degree—but without total disenchantment. At the same time, I think we need an account of why secularity (in a bad sense) has left the West with realms autonomously indifferent to the sacred. Persons, land, and money without reference to God become, as Karl Polanyi pointed out, either idols or else mere instruments to be exploited—or both at once. Charles Taylor, I think, has part of the answer for why this happened; the West became over-disciplinary and the ethical displaced the religious. Another part of the answer is the way in which bad theology paradoxically invented a “pure nature,” so that a rather simplistic notion of God as something supernatural and intervening could all the better stand out. Defending mediation, by contrast, is once again crucial here.
One of the tragedies of modern theology has been its systematic renunciation of this ambition. The deep end of “truth” has been ceded to science, while theology swims in the shallow end of “meaning.” Aesthetic expression has been relinquished to the cult of original self-expression and “what-it-means-for-me.” Morality becomes a subset of utility, or a creation of private conscience, and Christians are reduced to “sharing their values.” An impoverished realm of “spirituality” or “transcendence” remains the rightful property of Christian reflection, and running on these slight fumes, theology drives toward relevance in a world over which it has renounced its authority. Radical Orthodoxy is nothing if not intensely opposed to this renunciation; for its adherents the whole world is fit for absorption into a theological framework. Christian theology should shape the way we talk about everything.
This is the Christian “metanarrative” within which all other stories and events must find their meaning. Christianity is the metanarrative, because it is the most holistic and complete concerning human life. Yes, there is validity and merit to the narratives of science, history, politics, and so on, but they in and of themselves are not capable of being metanarratives. In fact, they owe their genesis to the Christian narrative in the first place.
HANS URS VON BALTHASAR
How does all happen? How do we present and argue for Christianity in the post-Christian, postmodern, post-secular culture?
Balthasar grounds his theological aesthetic in the three objective transcendental realities of truth, goodness, and beauty. A basic defense for an objective reality might look something as follows: The three transcendental realities of truth, goodness, and beauty find their objectivity in the fact that their ultimate form comes from the eternal and unchanging nature of God. So as one observes the world around him while contemplating and living in accordance with the transcendentals, he grows closer and closer into a state of blessedness because he draws nearer to the character of God. This is why it is ultimately impossible for an objectivity in aesthetics without theology; ultimate realities require an ultimate being from which they can be derived.
What was unique to Balthasar’s theological aesthetic was his emphasis on and reasoning for beginning with the reality of Beauty, then Goodness, and Truth. To better understand why, one ought to start where Balthasar does, seeing the form of Glory.
When Scripture speaks of God’s beauty, it uses words like radiance, splendor, loveliness, holy array. These words can be summed up in trying to describe the ultimate form of beauty, the Lord’s glory. It is this culmination of beauty described as the glory of the Lord, which Balthasar designates as the unifying principle behind Beauty, Goodness, and Truth,
Glory is absolutely necessary in order to reveal its beauty, goodness, and truth to the world. Balthasar also describes this glory as love, and continues to show that the greatest form of love has been revealed most fully in Jesus. The incarnation then, becomes the greatest form of beauty and from this beauty flows goodness and then truth.
The perceptual, affective, and expansive flow Balthasar sets up from beauty, to goodness, to truth – the person is moved to respond to Logos through beauty, he then responds through his ethic or goodness, and then gains wisdom and is able to discern the truth.
HILDEBRAND VALUE RESPONSE
As transcendentals, meaning qualities of all reality and beings, beauty, goodness, and truth are always co-present with one another. The truth is beautiful and that beauty is capable of showing what is true. Goodness is beautiful, and virtue and acts of human love are, indeed, beautiful, and that beauty can intrigue, conjol, convict, and convince. The relationships are reciprocal, but beauty, according to Balthasar, is easier for the secular soul to grasp and more likely to be found appealing and inviting.
Beauty does not bring the infinite down but lifts us up into the mystery. Being moved by the beauty of a moral act, or by love and kindness, or by liturgy or ritual, or the teachings and example of Jesus can motivate, even captivate, through the pull of eros (understood as the human desire and response to beauty).
Theological aesthetics is therefore about the captivating intelligibility of beauty, and if beauty is about anything in particular it is particularly about love, a love which Jesus, the archetype of all forms, embodies and expresses perfectly and against which all created forms are to be measured and to find their ultimate telos.
Unless theology begins here, von Balthasar repeatedly insists, we will get neither truth nor goodness right. Without beauty, goodness will turn hedonistic and/or utilitarian, while truth will turn cold. Without beauty, we will neither live right nor know how to love.
Two primary elements mark the beautiful, according to von Balthasar: form and splendor. Together, as “light” transforms the object in view (the species) into something comely (or speciosa), form and splendor produce something love-worthy.
When we encounter beauty, we encounter it as a kind of epiphany that 1) pulls us in to the object of beauty (as an act of eros, where we simultaneously lay hold of and are laid hold of by the beautiful object), 2) pulls us up towards the Source of beauty (as an act of contemplation), 3) pulls us outside of ourselves (as an act of ecstasy), and 4)pulls us out towards others (as an agapic act).
Therefore, RO, aware of Balthasar’s theological aesthetics, recognizes that only a bold, clear, confident presentation of Christianity’s vision of the world, of the human person, and of the nature of the divine will receive a hearing in today’s world. In other words, we need to help people see the beauty of Christianity and its wisdom.
Milbank agrees with Balthasar, theology should rearticulate the Christian metanarrative in a way that demonstrates the nonnecessity of presuming an ontology of violence, defending aesthetically a Christian-narrated practice of peace that persuades people “for reasons of ‘literary taste’” that Christianity has the better story.
Despite Milbank’s dislike of theological humility, we must be humble in our presentation. First, by not leading with propositional proclamations of truth or by moralism and finger wagging. No, we must lead with beauty, but humbly. This sense of humility is due, in part, as an attempt at healing reconciliation, seeking to overcome the errors, abuse, and hostility of other Christians, as well as our own. Only beauty can overcome Christianity’s negative reputation.
It can be argued that Anglicanism is simply historic English Catholicism.
Anglicanism simply is the Catholic church in its English tributary. Though John Henry Newman made his way across the Tiber for his own reasons, there is no need for other Anglicans to swim across that river in order to find what is already there on one’s own shore.
Whether it be the historic episcopate, the sacred altar, the shape of the liturgy, beautiful church ceremonial, the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, ancient hymnody, a traditional (Western) calendar, the Daily Office, the blood of martyrs, the intercession of saints and angels, the veneration of Our Lady, or any other facet of the life of one, holy, catholic and apostolic church—there is no need for the thirsty soul to keep searching for what is already richly present in the spiritual resources of the Anglican Way.
Anglo-Catholicism was born out of dissatisfaction with modern Anglicanism, coupled with a deep and abiding catholicity and appreciation for Catholicism, and for complex cultural, practical-personal, and theological (mostly of ecclesiology) reasons, this dissatisfaction could not come to rest in conversion to the Roman Catholic Church.
Anglican practice understood as Protestant or rooted in Protestant theology could not provide an adequately rich, catholic tradition, and the Roman Church, as currently constituted, could not provide an adequate institutional basis for faithfulness to the tradition. Therefore, true to the Anglican notion of media via, a tradition of middle ground had to be formed and promoted.
Just as Anglo-Catholicism could not inhabit an inherited tradition—i.e., neither Canterbury nor Rome—Radical Orthodoxy cannot take up a theological tradition, at least not directly. The Christian metaphysic must be discerned, the participatory sphere (which alone can lead us to God?) must be uncovered, and under its guidance, theological imagination and creative theoretical production will perfect and complete that which has been received. Thus the redemptive potency of the Christian witness is unlocked and realized.
For me, Anglicanism is what Catholicism should be in form and practice. My understanding of Catholicism is that of orthodox Christianity throughout the ages. And those forms, convictions, insights, and practices have coalesced in three fully catholic, but diverse branches – Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican. Therefore, I understand the Western Catholic Church as being comprised of the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions.
All content copyrighted with all rights reserved. Gregory Gronbacher, 2021. (C)