Radical Orthodoxy

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!



  1. Rad orthodoxy has some really weird stuff, not to mention obtuse writing that is hard to read or comprehend. Check out this John Milbank quote:

    To be divided about love and physical love may not be so trivial. Moreover, this is also a division about authority. Although I favor the gay cause, I actually think the conservatives are more or less right about the Bible. Only disingenuousness fails to see that the ancient Hebrews and later the rabbis associated homosexuality, like other forms of sexual deviancy, with idolatry. To turn from the true God and the true mode of worship was linked with a turning away from the true objects and modes of sexual devotion. Failure to acknowledge this reading is often linked with an old-fashioned denial that there was an ancient Hebrew (more than Greek) obsession with the question of what was “naturally” fitting and what was not. This is both a ritual and a moral matter, since the Torah makes no such distinction at bottom.

    But what we need to see is that this biblical view of idolatry and sex fails to be radical enough. Building upon the spirit rather than the letter of Scripture, we should recognize that there can be non-idolatrous homosexuality just as there can, of course, be idolatrous heterosexuality. At its weakest, the biblical view that we are to bow down to no idols seems to mean “worship Israel’s god, not other gods,” or acknowledge only this mode of material mediation and not others (for example, writing but not pictures). This, then, coordinates with the idea that one kind of sex and not others is exclusively good and pure. Yet, at its profoundest, the Bible means by non-idolatry that the One God, beyond even the one and the many, is above all other powers of any kind whatsoever as their creative source.

    And the more we see God’s height beyond height, the more we see and recognize the sheer variety of what that he has created and how all finds its distinctive niche. The petty numbered gods vanish, yet the incalculable host of angels takes their place. Just because God is unimaginable, he can be imaged and imagined in an incalculable number of ways, even if these ways are not sheerly equivocal. Likewise, we grasp that while most of us are created heterosexual and for us, indeed, an over-love of our own sex would be narcissistic and timid idolatry, this is not so for others created homosexual and given the grace to see even in the same sex a singular otherness that transcends gender, which is generic for animal life.

    (end of quote) for an interesting read, see this:


  2. Wow, obtuse is definitely the right word. From the quote that you posted and the link that you provided it almost seems like Milbank loses some of the clear teachings on homosexuality when he explores the more ethereal topics.

    What do you think of this movement overall? Does it have anything to offer?

  3. Well, like so many things I can’t claim to be an expert. I’ve followed Garver and Jamie Smith, read some Pickstock articles and attempted to read Milbank’s *Theology and Social Theory* but gave up. I do believe that ‘by their fruits you will know them’ and this bunch has a lot of Anglo-Catholic, pro-homosexual stuff going on. I do think they are valuable for their critique of modernity and their embrace of liturgy, but it needs improvement (and clarity).

    Leithart studied under Milbank BTW and I think he has a better version of what they are saying in his own way. Milbank once remarked that rad orth is not a movement but a book series. I think it might stay that way, how do you explain their obtuse theories to the guy in the pew?

    • I appreciated the critique of modernity as well. Pointing to orthodoxy as a solution at least tries to provide a solution. Postmodernism’s critique of modernity is a great tool, it seems, but it’s sort of like going into the nice neat room of modernity, trashing it, and then saying “be happy with the mess.”

      I didn’t think of Leithart as being in the same vein as RO but now I see the connection. He makes his critique of modernity in a very learned way while at the same time being very understandable and very orthodox. That’s not an easy combination.

  4. Greetings,

    If I might stumble upon a conversation late a stranger. ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ is not fully restricted to the trio of John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward; but includes many others even if they feel their association is a critical one. James K A Smith who you mention figures himself RO, though being Reformed he is critical of some aspects of high-church anglo-catholicism.

    Many in the RO ‘camp’ take heavy influence from folks like Stanley Hauerwas and Rowan Williams among others, and even Milbank, though on the accepting side on the homosexuality debate, is catholic enough that he is not one trying force the Church to accept his views. Besides his views on sex he is really quite “orthodox” taking huge influence from Aquinas and Augustine.

    All that to say, as with any theological sensibility, you take some and leave some; but I think RO has a ton of great things to say.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s