So what was our problem with Radical Orthodoxy?

Many years ago, AUFS was arguably best known among theology blogs for its rejection of Radical Orthodoxy. It was regularly alleged that we had no substantive critique but were simply trashing Radox, presumably out of a desire for attention.

At this late date, I think it should be clear that our critique was well-founded: Radical Orthodoxy, as exemplified by its founder and champion, John Milbank, has shown itself to be an openly imperialist and anti-democratic approach to theology. Far from being an unfortunate accident or dispensable supplement, the political consequences are very clearly put forward as intrinsic to the theology itself — an unsurprising result when we recall that one of the distinctive features of Radical Orthodoxy is the insistence on an ontological hierarchy. Further, it has grown increasingly Islamophobic, as Milbank has insistently pinned the blame for modernity’s “heretical” innovations on the influence of Islam.

One can forgive abhorrent political positions in a writer who delivers profound insight — I am an avid reader of Schmitt and Heidegger, for instance — but there is no such payoff for Radical Orthodoxy. The readings of modern and especially contemporary philosophers is tendentious to the extreme, while the interpretation of classic figures in theology is often contrived at best. Everything is forced into the mold of a Christian orthodoxy that owes more to Plato than to Christ, rejected as a dangerous enemy to this orthodoxy, or (at the most “generous”) read as a failed attempt to attain the pure insight of orthodoxy.

The core problem, however, is that the Radical Orthodox position strips Christianity of literally everything promising or attractive. The God of Radical Orthodoxy is not the God of the oppressed — instead, Milbank feels comfortable asserting (with utterly no basis) that Christianity was an aristocratic movement from the very beginning. There is no meaningful theology of the cross, apart from an attempt to hijack the prestige of Agamben’s homo sacer concept by applying it to Jesus. There is no sense of the apocalyptic tension between God and the earthly ruler — instead, monarchism is put forward as a straightforward logical corollary of Christianity.

So in short, our problem with Radical Orthodoxy was: everything.

4 Responses to “So what was our problem with Radical Orthodoxy?”

  1. khl Says:

    Hi Adam, thank you for this post. I actually started following AUFS for because Radical Orthodoxy and have always appreciated your critiques of it. But I have always had some questions about the reasoning behind AUFS’s ‘problem with Radical Orthodoxy’, and I would like to ask some of them here if that’s okay:

    I am intrigued by your remarks on how ‘the Radical Orthodox position strips Christianity of literally everything promising or attractive’.
    What do you mean by ‘promising or attractive’—how do you determine what is that?
    Leaving its apparent lack of Christology aside for a moment, it seems to me RO is a kind of robust outworking of the logic/ideology of pre-modern Christianity (and I guess post-Constantine) , one which is deliberately or indeed provocatively anti-modern.
    If one judges ‘everything promising or attractive’ about Christianity by modern standards, democratic anti-imperialism or, well, religious pluralism, then of course RO would be offensive. But I am not sure whether such a position would be simply against RO, or all forms of conservative or ’orthodox’ Christianity per se?

    (So to go back to Christology:) It is perhaps insensitive or even nonsensical for the modern mind to say that ‘Islam is a Christian heresy’, but doesn’t Islam fundamentally posit a form of Arian Christology? Wouldn’t an orthodox Christianity (esp. one which affirms the uniqueness or exclusivity of the Christian faith or church) always inevitably going to be somewhat Islamophobic or anti-Islamic?

    And, perhaps one last question: I noticed you emphasised ‘was’ in this post, does that suggest a change in position regarding your ‘problem with RO’ now?

    Thanks!

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    There has been no change in our position. The past tense refers only to a time when we used to talk about Radox more.

    Look at the concrete things I say are absent from Radox: do they sound like a checklist of modern liberal points? Is it inconceivable that one could embrace positions that are in some ways homologous with modern left-wing positions precisely on theological grounds?

    What the Qur’an says about Jesus, it says for its own reasons. Framing it in terms of Christian heresies obscures that fact. Indeed, one of the worst instincts of a heresy-hunting Christianity is that everything can be construed as just another version of an old heresy — as though orthodoxy not only defines the truth, but also defines in advance every possible deviation from the truth.

  3. khl Says:

    Sorry I didn’t intend to suggest your position was ‘liberal’ etc. I was just hoping for some views on how I can selectively affirm the ‘promising/interesting’ aspects of Christian ‘orthodoxy’ and refute ‘heresy-hunting’ aspects without following some ‘liberal’ or at least extra-Christian criteria (or some re-invention of Christian orthodoxy).
    Anyway, thank you for taking the time to reply to my question.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Why should the orthodoxy established under the auspices of the empire that crucified Christ be the self-evident standard of what counts as loyalty to Christ?


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