What makes an ontology “robust”?

It often happens to me that when I begin using a term ironically, it eventually works its way into my sincere vocabulary. That is exactly what happened with “robust,” which I initially intended as mockery of Radical Orthodoxy’s gold standard of ontological adequacy. At a certain point, however, I realized that I was using it straightforwardly to describe the message of the Hebrew prophets, which (in another favorite Radox term) can “account for” the exile and present sufferings of the Jewish community while providing them with practical guidance and future hope. The system was self-reinforcing, insofar as any future sufferings would only demonstrate the importance of sticking to the program, since insufficiently faithful or overly assimilationist Jews were presumably never in short supply. Though the paradigm broke down in the Maccabean crisis, as I argue in The Prince of This World, ever since the destruction of the Second Temple, it has proven remarkably resilient throughout the subsequent history of rabbinic Judaism.

This concept of robustness came to mind again as I have been reading Augustine’s City of God with my class. One student expressed satisfaction that Augustine provides an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people, and while that answer may seem a little too convenient from an outside perspective, it is at least an answer — certainly a more convincing answer than the critics of Christianity were offering, if we judge by Augustine’s presentation. Like the prophetic paradigm, it accounts for present experiences of suffering, provides present-day guidance, and opens up a future hope that is genuinely desirable on the paradigm’s own terms. It is self-reinforcing in that apparent counterevidence is just another reason to double down — and indeed, the most serious challenge to the medieval Augustinian synthesis, namely the Reformation, was precisely an attempt to double down on its terms. This is because of the self-referentiality that it shares (and arguably takes from) the prophetic paradigm: what happens to us is ultimately our own fault or at least aimed at instructing us in some way, and that incites us to take action that further reinforces the authority of the paradigm.

From this perspective, the Radical Orthodox ontology is nearly the opposite of robust. The self-reinforcement mechanism is missing, because the decline of Christendom is blamed on external actors — either the quasi-pagan moderns or else, increasingly, the insidious influence of Islam. It does not “account for” present sufferings or any other particular present fact at all, but only for the purely theoretical entities that Radox itself posits out of thin air and holds up as a model for other ontologies. And it doesn’t give us much to do in the present other than to participate in some fantasy version of the liturgy. This is because its appeal is entirely counter-factual — if only we would embrace this robust ontology, everything would be so much better!

In this sense, it is formally homologous to libertarianism. Both posit a desirable system that has an answer for everything, but that is not presently being implemented in its pure form anywhere — hence it is not disprovable. Both obfuscate their roots in actual-existing present-day social realities (capitalism and Western hegemony), by claiming a vantage point from which everything undesirable about those systems comes from outside impurities. And this prevents it from deploying the self-reinforcing mechanism of both the prophetic paradigm and classic Augustinianism: namely, the admission that the experience of suffering and failure is built into the system, that it is functional and not an extrinsic addition, and that it is therefore both meaningful and pointing toward a better future, however distant.

By contrast, the claim that the state just up and decided to wreck the market or those devious Muslims tricked us into embracing the univocity of being sounds downright childish — the counterpoint to the naive trust that a presently non-existent system or “ontology” would automatically solve all our problems.

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.

Radical Orthodoxy’s Cure for Misogyny

Call me nostalgic, but sometimes it is good to remind ourselves of Radical Orthodoxy.

I’ve recently been writing on the controversy between John Milbank and Slavoj Žižek in The Monstrosity of Christ (my specific interest is how they disagree about the importance of Kierkegaard and the nature of paradox). In the process of reading the book again, I was stopped short by Milbank’s accusation that that Žižek ‘favors essentially gnostic thinkers (Boehme, Hegel and Schelling) for whom birth implies alienation and the involvement of evil, thinkers for whom birth must be painful, through ontological necessity and not mere ontological lapse. But it is just such metaphysical misogyny which Catholic orthodoxy alone has always challenged’ (194; my emphasis).

The implication is clear: Milbank accepts the literal sense of Genesis 3, in which childbirth is only painful because of the Fall. Originally, ‘in the (unreachable and untraceable) prelapsarian golden age . . . in which human beings took full part’ (171) there was no such pain. For Milbank, to argue otherwise is to give in to ‘metaphysical misogyny’, to present an ontology in which pain during childbirth is fixed in the nature of things.

This is a fascinating exercise in contemporary Catholic apologetics. It outbids feminism by claiming a higher form of feminism. In this ‘higher form’, all trauma and pain can only be seen as alien, and ultimately empty, intrusions of irrational evil. Ontologically, the only reality is a peaceful and harmonious one, in which women have babies without murmur. To suggest otherwise is to inscribe ‘hatred’ of women into the nature of things.

This is bizarre on a number of levels. First, it depends upon the pure fantasy of an Arcadian golden age, which stands in wilful denial of human evolution. Secondly, it attributes pain in childbirth to an ‘ontological lapse’ – to sin, basically. Rescuing us from the supposed spectre of a woman-hating pagan nature, it delivers us into the comforting thought that ‘if it hurts, it’s your own fault really’.

Finally, it ties in with a general orientation of this kind of thinking: secular feminism, it asserts, is predicated on the war of the sexes, upon the need to fight a positive evil. The radically orthodox feminist, by contrast, sees salvation in recalling the world back to a proper, harmonious ordering of things. In other words, this ‘higher’ feminism denounces fighting feminism as a symptom of the problem it seeks to cure, one which further fragments and traumatises the world. This is the line of Sarah Palin: secular feminism turns women into whining victims.The only alternative, then, is to remain within the hierarchical structures of family and church and to reorient them to their proper calling. A woman’s salvation can only lie in and through a restored patriarchal order. And, if we look beyond childbirth to issues of domestic violence and rape, we might wonder how this differs from the recommendation that an abused woman sticks with the abusive partner in the hope of redemption. The logical extension of this perspective is that the solution to women being made to feel like victims is to deny the process of victimisation exists. If you say rape is a reality, you are ontologising rape, and you are therefore a misogynist!

I am not attributing this kind of absurdity to Milbank. However, the logical structure of it is not far from what he actually says about childbirth. And I am tempted to see in this not merely an unfortunate symptom of contemporary conservative apologetics, but its constitutive core. Peace is proclaimed, but only via the myth of the pure, Edenic virginal mother who never was; the finite material world is celebrated, but only by dematerialising the female body; creation is liberated and healed, but only in and through women who keep their place – in silence.

No, really, what does Christian theology want from philosophy?

Back in 2009 I asked the question, “what does (certain) contemporary Christian theology want from philosophy?” No one from among the “certain” Christian theologians answered the question. Hardly surprising, as they rarely do answer questions, or engage outside of their own very closed circles. Perhaps it has to do with something about pearls before swine or, just maybe, something about cockroaches scattering when you turn the light on them (I’ll allow the reader to choose their preferred speciesist insult). Without anyone willing to answer, I still have the question rattling around. Recently a few friends and acquaintances on Facebook have been raving about David Bentley Hart’s recent The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss and exchanging Christian high-fives about how Hart has really given it to those stupid, incoherent (new?) atheist materialists. I admit it, something about Christian triumphalism in a world bleeding under Christian knives means I couldn’t help but make a few jokes and ask a few aggressive questions. Now, I have never enjoyed reading Hart (his prose so often praised by other Christian theologians has struck me as bloated and pompously overblown, typical of an aggressive 16 year-old overachiever) and I haven’t touched his most recent books (after trudging through the burnt husk of a body that was his reading of Deleuze in The Beauty of the Infinite I had used up all the charity I had for his work), but this question is not really one about Hart in general. Rather, the question has to do with the kind of general condition of the kind of contemporary Christian theology that Hart and others do. When I see a book like The Experience of God or a recent article in Modern Theology by Aaron Riches called “Christology and Anti-Humanism” I cannot help but wonder, who are they writing for? Read the rest of this entry »

A vaguely shared sensibility

One thing that has always puzzled me about Radical Orthodoxy is their refusal to acknowledge that they are a school of thought. Recently, this befuddlement has been reawakened by reports that a Theology Studio member regards their group as highly diverse compared to the more homogeneous viewpoints represented here. What could this mean, I wondered? Are we to take such claims seriously, or are they nothing but “I know you are but what am I?”-style provocation?

Read the rest of this entry »

The Third Way!

You know how every so often I’ll say that any political ideology putting itself forward as a brave new path beyond the stale opposition of left and right is always going to be either boring old liberalism or else a new variant on fascism? And you know how everyone always gets really really pissed off about that and thinks I’m giving short shrift to the innovative new ideas of communitarianism and subsidiarity, etc., etc.?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Phillip Blond’s proposal to build the Big Society by means of military academies! Thank you, Mr. Blond, for proving my point for me!

AUFS’s published critiques of Radical Orthodoxy: A beginner’s guide

It has come to my attention that we here at AUFS are famous as critics of Radical Orthodoxy, but at the same time, many people believe we have no substantive critique. It is true that many of our posts here are occasional and underdeveloped in nature (i.e., are blog posts), so that one might come away with the idea that we are solely occupied with scoring cheap points. Yet there is a whole world outside the blogosphere, where we have actually published various books and essays! It is in that extra-blogical world that one can find our substantive critiques of Radical Orthodoxy. Read the rest of this entry »