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FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE: IS THERE A ‘RADICAL ORTHOPRAXY’?

A snapshot of the dialogue between Rowan Williams and the sociologist Bruno Latour on the topic of climate change, in 2014, chaired by the Director of the LSE, Craig Calhoun, in the LSE Faith Centre.

Radical Orthodoxy begins from a rejection of the assumptions of secular modernity. The modern nation state had arisen out of the religious wars of late medieval Europe, adopting the premise that faith needed to be excluded as much as possible from the public sphere. As the founders of Radical Orthodoxy lament: ‘It is a world in which the theological is either discredited or turned into a harmless leisure-time activity of private commitment’ (Milbank, Pickstock & Ward, Radical Orthodoxy). Under secular modernity, the public life of the nation claims to operate on grounds that are independent from religion, deriving its values from sources that claim to transcend any particular religious system. But all this is now being challenged, in both theory and practice.

Radical Orthodoxy begins from a rejection of the assumptions of secular modernity. The modern nation state had arisen out of the religious wars of late medieval Europe, adopting the premise that faith needed to be excluded as much as possible from the public sphere. As the founders of Radical Orthodoxy lament: ‘It is a world in which the theological is either discredited or turned into a harmless leisure-time activity of private commitment’ (Milbank, Pickstock & Ward, Radical Orthodoxy). Under secular modernity, the public life of the nation claims to operate on grounds that are independent from religion, deriving its values from sources that claim to transcend any particular religious system. But all this is now being challenged, in both theory and practice.

What we are now realising is just how localised and short-lived secular modernity actually was! The European nation state model may have been exported around the world, but it rarely looked (or remained) as secular as its western theorists envisaged. Now, in our post-9/11 world, the notion of supressing religious convictions in the public sphere seems rather naïve. Renewed religious movements from Pentecostalism to Hindu nationalism to the so-called Islamic State are capturing the imagination for good and ill in different corners of the world, including those formerly governed by atheist communist regimes. Recent data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that the proportion of the world’s population who are affiliated to no religion will drop from 16% to 13% by 2050. Secularisation has gone into reverse.

The Radical Orthodoxy project of reclaiming the world by ‘situating its concerns and activities within a theological framework’ rather than operating on secular assumptions is no longer one confined to academic ivory towers. It is happening all around us. Part of the success of the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Letter Who is my neighbour? on the 2015 General Election is that it set out a fresh moral vision for British public life based on some confident theological language that ‘Christ’s incarnation confirms the fundamental truth that every human being is created in the image of God. Because of this, we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves.’ At a time when popular political discourse is almost completely devoid of substantive vision and values, this is indeed a powerful and highly practical ‘reclaiming of the world’ for what is sometimes called a ‘post-secular’ age.

But increasingly, on the ground, this kind of theological re-imaging of citizen-ship and public engagement has to be done in dialogue across faith communities. Christianity is still the largest religion in the world, but its numbers in Western Europe continue to decline and what has led to the post-secular situation of this part of the world has been the immigration of large numbers of non-Christians for whom faith is a central motivator in their lives. Addressing this issue has sometimes been identified as a blind spot of the intellectual leaders of Radical Orthodoxy who seem more inclined towards some sort of resurrection of Christendom than a realistic contribution of Europe’s Christian roots to a more complex pluralist present. So how do we act and interact in a public sphere in which secular principles no longer provide an adequate framework? How do we move from Radical Orthodoxy to Radical Orthopraxy in societies where Christianity cannot simply reassert its former dominance, but must bring its wisdom into dialogue with other faiths?

I want to modestly propose that one such example is the new multifaith centre we have established at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Costing £1.6 million and featuring some world class stained glass designed by the President of the Royal Academy, the LSE Faith Centre’s objectives and mission reflect some significant post-secular changes that permit what might be termed a ‘radical orthopraxy’ of engagement with the world.

The LSE was not founded with any radically atheist agenda (the Bishop of London was the first Chair of the Council), but rather with the conviction that the social sciences required an ‘objectivity’ that was necessarily compromised by religious convictions. Religion (then almost exclusively Christianity, of course) was respected as a private matter but needed to be left at the door of the university, having no bearing on the objects of study. As such the founding ethos of the LSE reflects precisely the secular materialism that is the target of John Milbank’s critique of the social sciences (see Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason).

The first significant shift that the LSE Faith Centre represents is that many students are not prepared, and should not be required, to leave their faith outside the classroom. The most obvious example of the Muslim need to pray five times a day (a practice praised by St Francis!) has in fact led the way for a whole range of students to reject the liberal Protestant notion that faith is purely about private beliefs and bring their daily religious practices onto campus. These include the mass, different forms of meditation, dietary requirements, and a range of devotional practices from the recitation of the rosary to Hindu chanting.

The agenda of the Centre is not simply to make space for religion alongside the sports facilities or other ‘leisure pursuits’. Our contention is that the crisis of secular logic means that religious wisdom will be essential in solving the problems of the future. Through the events that we hold and the Faith and Leadership programme that we run, we seek to allow students to bring their religious conviction into the academic conversation, addressing issues from the financial crisis to conflict resolution. In October 2014 the Director of the LSE chaired a dialogue in the Faith Centre between Rowan Williams and the renowned sociologist Bruno Latour on the topic of climate change. In the course of the conversation Professor Latour attributed the ecological crisis to a nihilistic and secular idolising of free market logic. He blamed the LSE itself for not challenging this purely materialistic economic thinking and proposed that the religious wisdom arising from the Faith Centre would need to be the ‘antidote to the poison produced by the rest of the university!’

We are but one small initiative in one university, but we are very conscious of the contribution to leadership in all sectors that LSE students go on to make around the world. They cannot study theology at the LSE so most would have no idea what Radical Orthodoxy was, but we hope that in giving them confidence to bring their faith into dialogue with the other religions on campus and the different disciplines they study, we are cultivating a ‘radical orthopraxy’ that can reclaim and heal a troubled world. f

 

James Walters is chaplain to the London School of Economics.page 7 James Walters