In many ways AUFS lasting contribution to on-line theological discussions has been to refuse and end the hegemonic reign that Radical Orthodoxy had for many graduate students interested in Continental philosophy and theology. It goes without saying that this hegemony was, of course, mostly found amongst students of Christian theology, many of them post-evangelical and so suffering from a certain piety inescapable for such damaged individuals. I think what many of these students turned to RO because of a deep sense of the wrong state of things present in their own Christian life. Of course RO only presents, as all forms of apologetics, various theodicies and so this perpetuates the split, the wrong state of things, that these students try to heal by parroting the assumed masters, like John Milbank. But by presenting these often meaningless words to students, whose only knowledge of the figures and forms of life being critiqued by RO comes from those claiming to have mastered them, we’ve been able to move the debate simply by demanding one.
It is for this reason it was intensely gratifying to hear the anger in John’s attempts to dismiss blogging in a recent poorly produced podcast at the new, um, blog written and run by his disciples. While the new blog has something of the feel of a ponytailed high school civics teacher sitting on the desk trying to “rap with the kids”, it also represents an attempt to insert a dead letter back into the conversation: radical orthodoxy is that dead letter. This is something of a response, written not late at night into a journal, not written as something that I wouldn’t say to his face (indeed, much of my troubles in graduate school came from the fact that I would say these things to his face), and certainly without any sense that there should be some etiquette set by him (this will all make sense if you listen to the podcast in question).
John’s voice is hilarious as there is a Darth Vader effect to his stumbling confident timber, and you can hear that always near anger come out in his discussion of blogging. He compares it to drug taking and says younger graduate students do it to gain readerships without having to do the hard work. Setting aside the irony of the quasi-catholic theologian using such a Protestant argument, the intended figures are clearly those of us here. He did, after all, demand I stop blogging after I liveblogged a talk where he claimed we would be fine after oil ran out, because God’s creation is infinite and we’d simply find something else (and some people want to study eco-theology with him!). His stated reason, along with Conor Cunningham’s, for demanding I stop had to do with a lack of respect. I wasn’t showing the proper deference to the august learning of John.
This is a theme that runs throughout his short remarks. Remarks, ironically enough, that are said rather authoritatively (as everything in his voice is) but seemingly enough without much reflection (the same lack of reflection that so much of his “public theology” work shows, let’s not forget he enthusiastically supported a disastrous Tory government as well as the increase in tuition at English universities). What John, and despite my own nasty dealings with him he really stand here for a certain kind of reactionary theologian that you can find throughout our discipline, but what John hates above all is true debate, where he might be affronted with the same strong polemic he trades in, where he might be called to account for the presuppositions so much of his argument leaves scattered about like spittle spurting the angry mouth of an angry would-be-god. All of his remarks on etiquette and the lack of wisdom come down to this. What is it that we are told when we question authority? You don’t understand. You don’t know get how power politics is played. You need demands. You too will have to sell out. And of course some of this is true, but it’s veracity ought not distract from the ruse of power at work. For this is just how authority demands your silence and in so doing truly becomes an authority.
This theme is present throughout the podcast with Baker and Bader-Saye since they are discussing public theologians. They spend a lot of time hyping up ABC Religion & Ethics, run by Scott Stephens, who is held up as a gatekeeper for public theology allowing only quality through. It’s a rather rich claim, considering the lack of editing that goes on there, especially with Milbank’s rambling and incoherent musings on subjects he’s unqualified to speak, mostly the ramblings of a paranoid, old Englishman concerned about the biological threat to England and Europe posed by Islam. But it’s also rich considering Stephens own lack of a successful academic background, making his name precisely through the medium that Milbank and the disciples reject. Or, to take it another step further, the fact that they all hold up Phillip Blond as a paragon of theological thinking in the political realm, despite his rise to that level being impeded by never completing his PhD and making his name in a few opinion pieces. None of this should be taken to mean that I think any of these worldly markers of respectability are true markers, in fact I don’t, but it points to the fundamental incoherence of these demands for gatekeeping and rigor you get from insular gasbags trying to shut up any criticism of them. It is only in accepting that incoherence that one can become the true student of Radical Orthodoxy, only there it is given the name paradox.
Confront them with incoherency and they will scream at you; they will demand you accept the hierarchy that props them up; if you are particularly unhelpful they will even go so far as to tell people not to hire you, tell other students that you are a threat and a bad influence, and maybe even try to fail you, all while other decent people let them. But if you yell back, if you are unrelenting in your demands that they too must give an account, that they can’t hide behind their title and demands for etiquette while they preach violence, you will have at least resisted and not lose your soul – regardless of how damaged it may be after.