What's so Radical about Orthodoxy?
As the popular radical philosopher Slavoj Zizek routinely points out to his audiences, in our age of ordained transgressions, there is nothing quite so radical as what G.K. Chesterton called the "thrilling romance of orthodoxy." Thus in our besotted age, orthodoxy becomes for Zizek (the fighting atheist) as for Chesterton (the traditionalist Catholic), "the most dark and daring of all transgressions." We ought not to be surprised then, that at the dawn of the 21st century a movement dubbed Radical Orthodoxy (RO) has emerged at the cutting-edge of theology and postmodern philosophy.
What this movement is aboutits key thinkers and their texts, its strengths, and its weaknessesis the purpose of James K.A. Smith's recently published volume, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy (Baker Books, 2004). Smith announces at the outset that he writes for three audiences: 1) the academy of theorists, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates; 2) theologians, both in the movement itself and in the Reformed tradition (in which Smith places himself); and 3) the church, in particular its pastors, worship directors, and other leaders.
It is a difficult task to write a volume to satisfy each of these constituents; one that is learned enough for the academy and yet accessible enough for the educated but non-academic professionals. While there are certainly portions of the volume from which non-professionals will be able to glean insight, for the most part Smith has written a work best calibrated for theorists and theologians. Happily, his volume also possesses a number of aids for further study. Each chapter leads off with a side-panel of key related readings and contains copious footnotes throughout. There is an extensive 14-page bibliography of sources by and about RO. Separate name and subject indexes provide an efficient tool to guide selective reading. Altogether, Smith has put together a comprehensive (albeit fairly technical) introduction to and guide for the further study of Radical Orthodoxy.
After a thorough and searching interrogation of RO by means of his own Kuyperian Reformed tradition, Smith concludes: "Radical Orthodoxy should push us to reconsider our faith and practice in a post-secular world."
The same, however, can be said about many movements, theories, and incidents. But Radical Orthodoxy is no small matter. At its heart, RO might be understood as a massive theological project to re-narrate reality.
Its target is the modern notion of the "secular" as an autonomous realm of thought, word, and deed. So the founding text of RO, John Milbank's Theology & Social Theory (Blackwell, 1990), begins like a fairy tale: "Once there was no 'secular.' The secular as a domain had to be instituted or imagined, both in its theory and in its practice."
The totalizing nature of this constructed reality leads adherents of RO into just about all realms of inquiry in a sustained effort at critique. RO interventions can be found in academic disciplines such as politics, economics, linguistics, poetics, history, social and cultural theory, and even the natural sciences.
Not surprisingly, criticism of RO has arisen at each juncture, surfacing from both religious and secular sources. While religious critics often go after RO theorists on theological, denominational, or biblical grounds, more secular critics find the movement, in Smith's words, either "too Christian, too confessional, or too dogmatic."
But RO theologians remain undaunted and continue to produce their theologically inspired, postmodern informed re-narrations of economics (Daniel Bell and Stephen Long), culture (Graham Ward), politics (William Cavanaugh), and theology/philosophy (Milbank and Catherine Pickstock).