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RADICAL ORTHODOXY – DOES IT AID CHRISTIAN MISSION?

My introduction to Radical Orthodoxy was John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory. Milbank’s book, utilising his skill in economics, philosophy and theology was very useful in writing a critique of Capitalism, if at times not an easy read. Like much of the material produced by Radical Orthodoxy it was aimed at the philosophical academy. There is much of value in Radical Orthodoxy’s engagement with philosophical thinkers and theologians within and outside the Christian tradition; a robust advocacy of a Christian vision for church and society viewing all things as sacred and only comprehensible when viewed from within the vision of God in Christ. This is especially so in offering an alternative to nihilist readings of the world and in recognising the importance of issues of power.

I drew on this in my post-graduate study on mission in postmodernity and the New Age movement and Contemporary Paganism. However, as Radical Orthodoxy has developed it has increasingly offered a very different voice to those like myself inspired by cross-cultural missiology.

Radical Orthodoxy’s approach to mission is clearest in For the Parish. This is a sustained critique of fresh expressions of church and the Mission-Shaped Church report of 2004. Bishop Graham Cray, one of the authors of the report has written a response, that can be found at http://tinyurl.com/qgh3dxm. As Cray notes, Mission-Shaped Church had a limited brief. I wrote Mission-Shaped Evangelism in 2010 in part because sharing the gospel in a cross-cultural situation had not been in that brief. My arguments here draw on that work. With Radical Orthodoxy, I share a concern that the relationship of form and content is not addressed in the assumptions of many evangelistic practices. These evangelistic approaches have been forged in Christendom, and the loss of this faith background amongst children during the twentieth century has exposed that they have little impact on those without it. Radical Orthodoxy rightly spots a tendency to see the answer as a repackaging of the kernel of Christian faith in new clothing. Form and content can’t be separated like this. To change the ‘package’ is to change the message. I would add this ‘kernel’ thinking shows a modernist reductionist assumption that we can strip the Christian faith down to a core ‘seed’, whereas in reality there is a ‘whole seed packet’ that is needed to create the full garden.

Our society has, I would argue, moved away from religious traditions but not religious beliefs, if often no longer those of the Christian inheritance. However, people increasingly explore these in consumer ways. Because people see elements of truth in all religions and spiritualities, but take no one tradition to be true, they tend to create their own belief systems and become clients of religious product rather than disciples of a religious tradition. In such a culture the attempt to re-clothe Christianity can become a rebranding exercise in which the message becomes whatever the consumers want to hear, affirming whatever lifestyle they chose to live. This is what Radical Orthodoxy fears is happening in fresh expressions and other responses to cultural change.

Radical Orthodoxy’s alternative seems to be a return to an expression of Catholic Christendom done well in each locality, drawing inspiration from the medieval scholastic tradition. If this fosters a renewed missionary vision in Anglo-Catholic parish churches, this is a good thing, but I don’t share this vision for the whole Church’s mission because I understand the church and its history differently. I agree that Paul’s understanding of the Church as Christ’s body sent in mission means it really does mediate Christ. I also agree that we cannot separate form and content. Equally I share their insight from Wittgenstein that meaning is not formed by the individual but in community, but which community? As Church goes out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, is Christian identity formed with each new cultural community or must the Church remain faithful to the Jewish culture in which Christ came?

Acts shows that the Jerusalem church assumed only Jews could be Christians and conversion to Christ necessitated a Jewish lifestyle. This position did not last and Greeks and Romans became Christians without becoming Jews. For Radical Orthodoxy the debate about this in Acts 15 is about the absorption of the Church into the wider culture of the Empire. To many readers Paul’s point is that one does not have to change culture to become a Christian. This is what happened in the Church beyond the Roman Empire, in the West for instance in the Germanic and Celtic churches, and in the East in the Syriac churches in modern day India and China. These expressions of Church were not the same in every context because it was within those other communities that meaning was formed, in line with Wittgenstein, rather than being brought there pre-formed by the missionaries within an another community’s culture. Indeed Radical Orthodoxy’s adherence to form in order to preserve content in different contexts is a failure to recognise that each community gives different meaning to the same form and that to preserve content requires different forms in different contexts. This follows Paul who changes his message as he moves from Jewish to Gentile contexts in Acts, using poetry by Epemenides and Aratus in praise of Zeus as the only creator God as part of his message to a Greek audience. All of this suggests a far more positive attitude to culture and religion beyond the Church than Radical Orthodoxy offers. That local cultures and religions are part of the community forming Church does not, as Radical Orthodoxy implies, mean an uncritical adoption of culture. It is in the discussion of food sacrificed to idols that Paul talks about becoming a Jew to Jews and a Greek to Greeks; the Church’s entering different cultures showed an engagement that critiques and transforms rather than simply accommodates.

Finally, Radical Orthodoxy wants to promote the thought of medieval Catholicism as the only true vision of Church, and yet the implication throughout For the Parish is that the true Church is an Anglican parish church. Our contemporary culture brings our global and local diversities together; potentially embracing all that is good in human culture, but also bringing the prospect of violence between cultures and diversities as they clash. In such a context the Body of Christ as an expression of unity with diversity vitally offers God’s ministry of reconciliation. If the Protestant church has failed to be this by setting up churches for break-away limbs, the Catholic tradition has tended to the opposite, and Radical Orthodoxy follows suit; creating an understanding of Church that is a procrustean bed upon which the limbs that don’t fit can be lopped off. The challenge for mission in our age is to rise beyond both and embrace a truly diverse church that can enable Christ’s Body to be born in each culture, but truly hold them together as expressions of one Church that both celebrates the diversity of human culture but reconciles them in Christ. At present Radical Orthodoxy in adopting a medieval Catholicism that sought to confirm all expression of church to its Roman imperial model cannot do this. I believe the future of the Church lies in the other direction. f

 

Steve Hollinghurst is a freelance researcher, consultant and speaker on contemporary culture, evangelism and the formation of new Christian communities and a part-time tutor for the Anglican mission community Church Army.page 7 Steve Hollinghurst