Radical Orthodoxy – A Theological Vision

John Milbank

“Once, there was no ‘secular.’”[1] The first line of Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory is not only witty – it profoundly expresses, in condensed form, the major presupposition of Radical Orthodoxy, i.e., that ontology, epistemology, metaphysics, social theory and practice, and indeed all realms of human culture and knowledge, were, during the first millennia of Christianity, both grounded in as well as suspended by a vision of a cosmos in which the Trinity created and sustained the heavens and the earth, and gave it meaning and purpose. Once there was no secular, but instead there was a single community of Christendom, living in the space between the fall and the eschaton, where coercive justice, private property and impaired natural reason made shift to cope with the unredeemed effects of sinful humanity – and yet as explicitly participating in God by virtue of being a nature guided by grace to glory.

Around the 14th century, however, key aspects of this holistic Christian vision began to erode, and a supposedly neutral space of reason and metaphysics gradually began to open up under the foundations of Christendom. Radical Orthodox theologians generally credit John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308) as the first major figure to successfully influence medieval thought towards univocity of being, and away from Thomas Aquinas’ analogy of being – shift which paved the way for secularizing tendencies that took place in the high and late Middle Ages. Milbank states:

Now this [late medieval nominalist] philosophy was itself the legatee of the greatest of all disruptions carried out in the history of European thought, namely that of Duns Scotus who for the first time established a radical separation of philosophy from theology by declaring that it was possible to consider being in abstraction from the question of whether one is considering created or creating being. Eventually this generated the notion of ontology and an epistemology unconstrained by, and transcendentally prior to, theology itself.[2]

Aquinas, taking his place in the long Augustinian tradition of that made critical use of the Platonic tradition, had argued that God is infinite, and therefore we as finite creatures cannot adequately comprehend him and talk about him using straightforward or univocal language. On the other hand, names are not applied to God and creatures in a purely equivocal sense either; rather, we know according to the proper mode of knowing creatures possess, namely, we know analogically, i.e., according to proportion. God is wise in a relatively similar sense that we are wise, but he is also not only wiser (quantitatively) but also wise in a qualitatively different sense that we may be wise. We are not in the same scale of being as God, and therefore he is not just an amplified version of human virtues. Rather, those concepts and virtues point to God in a way that he exceeds both in quantity and in quality what we can say of human beings.

According to Milbank, there was a generally agreed upon outlook in which human beings and the created order participated in the divine life, but this participatory ontology became problematic with Scotus’ univocity of being. If it is true that we can apply the term “being” to God and to his creatures in the same way – which is what univocity means – then “being” becomes an overarching category in which God and creatures both share, and this will have profound implications for epistemology and ontology. If being is a genus under which both God and creatures are species, then God and creatures are different poles in the ontological scale, wide apart as they may be; and epistemologically, it follows that, rational creatures can know things in the same way God does (even if not as much as he does).

Two other significant influences in the shift toward naturalism are the (later) Ockhamist nominalist epistemology and voluntarist ethics. A proper assessment of Scotus’ views on univocity of being, as well as the following nominalism (and the connection between the two) is beyond the scope and interest of this paper. While inescapably making reference to these concepts and developments, I will concentrate on Milbank’s arguments towards a restoration and appropriation of Augustinian/Thomist thought for postmodern society

Milbank argues that for centuries now secularism has been defining and constructing the world – a world in which the theological is either discredited or relegated to the private individual. 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.”[3] 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:[4] 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.

Thus, Radical Orthodoxy, according to Milbank, is more mediating than Barthianism, and less accommodating than liberal theology. For Milbank, both Barth and liberal theology accepted Kant’s distinction between the noumena and the phenomena – Barth concentrating on the immediate revelation of the noumena, since the phenomena could yield no knowledge of God, and liberalism concentrating on the phenomena as a way to accommodate Christian theology to secular thought.

Radical Orthodoxy, in contrast, mingles exegesis, cultural reflection, and philosophy in a complex but coherently executed collage. 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. Undergirding the politics of modernity (i.e., liberal and secular) there is an epistemology of autonomous reason which is in turn undergirded by an ontology of univocity and the denial of participation; Radical Orthodoxy proposes an alternative in which behind politics there lies an epistemology (illumination) which is in turn undergirded by an ontology (participation).

[1] John Milbank, Theology & Social Theory:  Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford:  Blackwell, 1990), p. 9.

[2] John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward (eds.), Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London:  Routledge, 1999) p. 23.

[3] Ibid., p. 1

[4] Ibid., p. 2-3


3 comments on “Radical Orthodoxy – A Theological Vision

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