At Endued, Rick references a good article by Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith on how Calvinist and Pentecostal beliefs can complement each other. From the notes at the end, it appears that Smith has written on a movement called “Radical Orthodoxy” (RO). Wheaton College professor Ashley Woodiwiss provided a tantalizing introduction to this movement in Christianity Today in 2005. She He shows that the RO movement combines a devotion to orthodox Christianity with a postmodern critique of modern Western society. Here’s the crux of her his portrayal:
In the RO version, modernity, that historical moment that witnesses the rise of liberal democracy and capitalism (and the philosophies and theologies that affirm them), must be seen as a pure project of power whereby the church and its account of reality (again, in “thought, word, and deed”) has been forcibly ejected from its earlier and necessary public space whereby it forms the soul according to the truth and beauty of God. As such the modern state has arisen as a device of and for liberal absolutism. Its message is individual human liberty, and it brooks no counter-version to its story.
In terms similar to those found in certain postmodern philosophers, from whom they borrow without completely buying, RO theorists and theologians (re-)describe the modern state not as “tolerant,” “pluralistic,” or “free” in the standard sense of those terms, but rather like Hobbes in Leviathan when he describes the state’s sovereign power as that “mortal God.” For them, the state has become the actual replacement for the church, replete with its own liturgies, vestments, rites, practices, saints, holy days, and disciplines. Rather than fitting us for heaven, the state and its multiple apparati (media, education, professions, etc.) form us for service and allegiance to the state and its needs. At one time, Christian subjects fought and died, they believed (perhaps mistakenly), for the sake of Jesus; now Christian citizens fight and die for the American way of life.
Some would say that this is in fact just what the state (carefully regulated and watched) should be about; and that a certain amount of material or cultural excess is well worth the price for a secured personal and religious liberty. After all, soul-crafting as the hobby of states (ancient and modern) leads almost inevitably to internal oppression and external war. But the concern for RO theologians extends beyond a critique of the modern state and its operations; it extends to why we as Christians must recognize what modernity (with its liberal state and free market) is really up to. So in the words of William Cavanaugh (the most accessible RO theologian):
“The invention of religion as a private leisure activity allows people to fit into the state and market without conflict, … Private religion is meant as a refuge, a solace for tired shoppers and harried office workers. Religion helps us escape from or cope with, but not change, the frenetic pace of life in consumer society.”
I find much to admire about the liberal democratic and capitalist framework of the society in which we live. It provides for a basically humane society that allows people the freedom to live their own lives and participate in society as Christians or non-Christians. However maddening and disappointing the results can be, I think that those principles provide an important bulwark against tyranny from the right or left.
But as I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m also concerned about the way that the state vies for people’s loyalties, seeking to channel Christians’ commitment for its own purposes. I will be intersted to see what solutions the RO movement offers. Even if one doesn’t fully accept the critique that RO makes, it’s a good reminder that our ultimate loyalty as Christians lies above and beyond the modern state.
UPDATE (6/10/09): A helpful commenter pointed out that Ashley Woodiwiss is male, not female, so I changed the post to reflect that. Also, while he was a Wheaton professor at the time that he wrote the article in 2005, he is now at Erskine College. Thanks to the commenter for the corrections!