Radical Orthodoxy is the most intellectually sophisticated version of postmodern Christianity — a class that for me includes Hauerwasianism, the Emergent Church, the evangelical development of “worldviews,” and creationism, to name just a few examples. The postmodern versions of Christianity are all helpful in understanding what postmodernism was all along: a moralizing discourse that approves or rejects various ontologies based on their putative moral effects. Modern subjectivity? Immoral — it caused the holocaust, environmental degradation, etc. The disseminatory play of difference? Moral — it helps us to be open toward the other. Though postmodern Christianity does sometimes deploy what purport to be factual critiques of its target ontologies, the emotional charge is ultimately on the moral effects: evolutionary theory, for instance, is immoral because it undercuts belief in God and in human dignity.
In the case of Radical Orthodoxy, a particular version of Neoplatonism is put forward as the only “robust” ontology, the only ontology that can ground a peaceful, presumably socialist polity. Such an ontology is supposed to have prevailed during the High Middle Ages. There are occasional gestures toward demonstrating how much better things were back then, but it all takes place on a very formal level — and when push comes to shove, it is claimed that the goal is to rejoin an alternate future (because apparently “progress” occurs in this ontology).
More generally, in clear defiance of the etymology of “ontology,” there is very little serious effort to base their robust ontology on how things actually are. Analytic philosophers studying brain sciences presumably have the “metaphysics of a serial killer”: alright, but does Radical Orthodoxy have a better way to account for the results of brain science? I suspect that any such attempt would amount to yet another reassertion of the ontology that they know is true because, in some imagined alternate future, it produces beneficial moral effects.
The only credible way forward for a genuinely robust ontology — i.e., one that would be persuasive to those for whom actual reality is a more decisive factor than purported moral consequences — is Pannenberg’s. In my view, his method in Anthropology in Theological Perspective charts the course for any attempt to hold speculative thought — and here I would count non-vuglar-materialist philosophy and psychoanalytic theory along with theology — accountable to empirical evidence.
For those who are not familiar, I include my description of Pannenberg’s method from my 20th Century exam. (As a teaser for the much anticipated Žižek and Theology, I include a section comparing Pannenberg and Žižek.)
Wolfhart Pannenberg’s engagement with the human sciences is demonstrated primarily in his Anthropology in Theological Perspective, which is nothing short of a tour-de-force, covering virtually all the human sciences with an amazing level of detail and nuance. To keep with my scheme of assigning adjectives to the various theologians, we might call Pannenberg’s approach a dialectical one. On the one hand, Pannenberg takes very seriously the insights of the human sciences and believes that theology must take them into account in a very rigorous way if it is to be credible. Thus, to take a simple example, if science tells us that the scenario of a “first couple” historically falling from a state of original perfection is not credible, theologians cannot allow themselves simply to dodge the question—particularly not by using the customary method of shifting the importance to a transcendental or symbolic level while still leaving basically intact the presumption that there historically was some originally perfect state. But on the other hand, Pannenberg does not believe that theology can simply take up the findings of the human science as neutral “raw data” that can then be deployed at will. Rather, Pannenberg takes seriously the possibility that the traditional dogmatic themes of original sin and the image of God can help to clarify the problems of the various human sciences—while at the same time rethinking those very doctrines in light of the human sciences.
The artificial division between secular science and spiritual theology is thus discarded in favor of an integrated vision of theological anthropology that is founded on the premise that “religion” is an essential part of what it means to be human. Moving from biology (here represented primarily by behaviorist psychology) through to human sociality (psychoanalysis, etc.) and culture (language, theories of play, political theory, etc.), Pannenberg stakes out his position practically as an “insider” to each of the human sciences, but in such a way that contrasts sharply with the more traditionally apologetic approach of Tillich or Niebuhr insofar as Pannenberg does not take the Christian revelation to be some immutable thing but rather allows it to be altered by what he takes to be incontrovertible results of modern scientific research. While he does advocate for a kind of “return to Christianity” in the Western world as a way of achieving genuine social integration and personal identity, his is a Christianity that has been chastened and has matured through its modern travails—and his very method demonstrates what he means by that “maturity.” Though Pannenberg clearly believes that Christianity is the highest form of religion—a point on which the white male European authors on the reading list are nearly unanimous—he has a non-triumphalist approach and is sensitive to Christianity’s own responsibility for its increasing marginalization in Europe. (Indeed, his non-triumphalism extends even to the claim that not all pagan worship is idolatrous.)
As for his concrete use of the human sciences in his work, the only complaint one can really bring is that he is too thorough—such that virtually no other single person can adequately assess the entire work. The overwhelming nature of the book thus tends to militate against the possibility of having a genuine impact.
(I don’t necessarily advocate the results Pannenberg comes to, just the “dialectical” method.)