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WHAT IS RADICAL ORTHODOXY?

In the context of a church not only suffering decline but actively embracing it by allowing the secular world to write its agenda, the movement known as Radical Orthodoxy is an heroic attempt to return to our common roots in the early church, its creeds and its theology of participation, while seeking to take on postmodernism, and the critique of Enlightenment rationalism within it. For RO, only Christ makes sense of the world from its politics to its cinema, and we seek to restore theology as a way of making sense of everything – and for everyone.

This has drawn considerable numbers of younger scholars and students in many denominations from Presbyterianism to Russian Orthodoxy, but it has attracted considerable opposition, often quite vituperative. We cut across established parties, tending to be politically radical, embracing Catholic Social Teaching with its attempt to critique both capitalism and communism, but seen as ‘conservative’ in that we delight in the doctrines of the creeds, and assert the value of tradition and liturgy as grounding our being. Addressing contemporary philosophy and engaging in debate, such central figures as Slavoj Žižek or Alain Badiou, means that some of the writing is necessarily technical and difficult to those untrained in philosophy. But it is essential work if Christianity is to challenge these secular world-views and show that we offer a challenge to a nihilist account of the world as pure power and a violent struggle. We are talking to political theorists, philosophers and cultural critics and we use their language.

I am not a philosophical theologian and for me, the heart of radical orthodoxy is its return to an earlier understanding of how we know God and everything in the world: by participation. I am a creature, and that means I am not God – ‘we did not make ourselves’ as Augustine imagines the mountains saying in the psalms, but my creaturehood means I am God’s: I share in his life by analogy and participation. My life is a gift and it comes with a giver.

This was the common view of centuries of common Christian belief and practice and it affects our knowledge of everything else. To know anything is similarly to reach out and unite with it. I can learn some French verbs without being changed, but to really learn French I have to give myself to it and become one with it. This is true of our life in the church, in society and in marriage. For full human flourishing we need this deep mode of knowing, as St Francis himself makes us aware. To call the moon his sister is to have this sense of a world all sharing in its difference and variety in the life of God. The peaceable kingdom of the church in its envisioning by Christ – though we fail in practice – is the model we believe we have to offer the world. And our failure means we are always involved in the hard work of reconciliation, and that too, is what we have to offer.

When I was training for the ministry I was taught to do a mode of theological reflection in which the secular world presented a situation, and we were then to ‘apply’ biblical reflection to it. For RO that is impossible because we do not accept that there is a pure secular, and we offer sophisticated historical accounts of why this is not the case that I cannot even begin to discuss here (see the bibliography downloadable at http://www.calvin.edu/~jks4/ro/ ). For us theology is a way of looking at everything in the light of Christ. I, like some others, have been influenced by the charism of Fr Luigi Giussani, whose lay Catholic movement, Communion and Liberation, uses all that is best in culture as a way of mission, by which reality is seen always to be calling us beyond itself. By nature, humankind is made for the transcendent, and we can awake this deep longing in people by offering works of truth and beauty, which precipitate this collision with reality, and so open a path beyond, since things are always more than themselves: there is an excess.

For yet another of RO’s heroic projects is to try to heal the separation between faith and reason. This is helped by modern philosophy, which now questions the Enlightenment gentlemanly playing-field of an abstract secure reason that we can all share. This has been deconstructed to show the role of power and perspective in its seeming neutrality. Truth for us is not ticking a box but a mode of participation and in God Truth and Beauty are one. Truth is a mode of life as much as a philosophical idea. Truth matters, however. Without a reasonable faith, Christianity will become a private hobby, without any way of challenging structures of injustice. RO hopes to heal other dualities, such as grace and nature, following here Henri de Lubac and others in the twentieth-century catholic resourcement movement of going back to sources in the early church and Thomas Aquinas. It matters that our whole humanity is so created as to be fulfilled by union with God (teleologically directed in theological language), though the relation between grace and nature is always paradoxical, so that God gives us freely what we desire. Separating grace and nature leads to an autonomous realm of the natural, and out of this bad theology comes a separate secular order. In the recent general election in Britain, political parties lacked very much a sense of the common good. This was because they had no sense of a teleologically-ordered human flourishing. With nothing beyond to hold us to account, politics degenerates into competing self-interest groups. Meanwhile and conversely, religion can become a mode of pious navel-gazing that is not genuinely salvific.

Another important theological concept we stress is mediation itself, which, thanks to the Trinitarian creation of the world through the Logos and his Incarnation, is central to our faith and makes mediation a blessed thing, not a getting-in-the-way between us and God. Andrew Davison and I made this central to our critique of the ecclesiology and often the practices of the Fresh Expression developments in the Anglican and Methodist churches. We sought to show the danger of separating form and content, of fleeing from tradition, not using it creatively, of accepting secular agendas and reproducing them. This too caused controversy as we questioned institutional orthodoxies and the practice again of letting the secular world have a reality it does not deserve.

In our practice as teachers or priests, we find a great desire among young people particularly for challenge, mystery and beauty, and a faith that can be tough enough to stand up to intellectual challenge while offering a complete form of life. If you’d like to find out more about us do get in touch, or look at our online journal, Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy (click here).There are several book series connected to us and a sermon anthology is on its way. We do believe the time is ready for an orthodoxy that is no straitjacket but a romance and an adventure. f

 

page 2 Alison MillbankAlison Milbank is Associate Professor of Literature and Theology at the University of Nottingham and priest vicar at Southwell Minster. Among her books are Dante and the Victorians, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians and with Andrew Davison, For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions. She edited Josephine Butler: Theology, Prostitution and Social Action and is currently completing a theological study of horror fiction – God and the Gothic – as well as an anthology of sermons radical and orthodox.