John Milbank and the Life of Pi: Why ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ is Neither Radical nor Orthodox

My teenage son and I sometimes get together with friends to watch movies and then analyze the worldview behind it. The last time we did this we watched Life of Pi, a movie based on Yann Martel’s book by the same title. The award-winning 2012 production is a beautiful drama full of stunning visual sequences which takes the viewer to the edge of fantasy while exploring important spiritual themes.

Directed by Ang Lee, the movie opens with a man named Pi telling a writer of his perilous journey from India to the coast of Mexico following a disaster at sea. As Pi narrates his epic adventure, we watch his survival with an unlikely travel companion: a fearsome Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Pi’s deeply held spiritual convictions (his religion is a mishmash of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam all rolled up into one) sustain him through his ordeals at sea and later in his life. As he tells his story to the writer, one of the recurring questions is whether he will be able to persuade the writer (an atheist) to believe in God.

The travel narrative Pi recounts seems pretty straightforward, but as Pi and his tiger travel in search of land, the story becomes incredibly more surreal until the viewer has a hard time distinguishing fact from fantasy. Just as Pi’s adventures are stretched to the limits of believability, the viewer is introduced to an alternative storyline without the tiger, one that is more realistic, yet brutal and depressing.

This alternative storyline is introduced shortly after Pi’s rescue when insurance agents of the sunken ship visit him in the hospital to ask what “really” happened. As the agents do not believe the fantastic story, Pi tells a grotesque—but more believable—story of cannibalism and carnage.

Did Pi make up the alternative story to satisfy the skeptical insurance agents while the story with the tiger is what really happened, or was the story with the tiger simply something Pi invented to mask over the suffering and butchery he had been unable to face?

The writer who is investigating Pi’s story naturally wants to know which of the two versions is the correct one: the beautiful-but-difficult-to-believe-story, or the ugly-but-easy-to-believe-account. In response to the writer’s questions, Pi intentionally avoids saying which story is objectively true. Instead Pi probes him to consider which story he prefers. The writer chooses the one with the tiger because it is “the better story.” Pi responds, knowingly, “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

And so it goes with God? How are we to take this enigmatic phrase, which functions as a culmination of the movie’s central themes? We can better answer this question if we attend to a conversation that ABC news published with Yann Martel, author of the book. When asked why he chose Pi for the name of the protagonist, Martel replied,


Yann Martel

“I chose Pi as my main character’s nickname because Pi, the number used so often in mathematics and engineering, is an irrational number; that is, a number that goes on forever without any discernible pattern. It stuck me that a number used to come to a rational, scientific understanding of things should be called ‘irrational.’ I thought religion is like that, too: It’s something ‘irrational’ that helps make sense of things.”

Pi was able to make sense of his sufferings through his relationship with the tiger Richard Parker

In this therapeutic understanding of religion (e.g. as something irrational but helpful), the question isn’t so much whether any particular religion is true or false, but whether it is meaningful to us on a subjective level, as a mechanism for helping us make sense of the world, even as Pi was able to make sense of his sufferings through his relationship with the tiger, Richard Parker.

On this level, it isn’t a question of which narrative in the story is objectively true, but which narrative is the better story (“better” judged by the criterion of what is more therapeutic). Thus, Martel continues, after being asked by a reader which of the alternative story lines is the actual one.

“I leave it to the reader to choose which is the better story. It can go both ways. Both stories are offered, one is on the outer edges of the barely believable, the other is nearly unbearable in its violence… The investigators must choose and the reader must choose. When the investigators [or the writer in the movie version] choose the story with animals, Pi answers “And so it goes with God.” In other words, Pi makes a parallel between the two stories and religion. His argument (and mine) is that a vision of life that has a transcendental element is better than one that is purely secular and materialist. A story with God (‘God’ defined in the broadest sense) is the better story, I argue, just as I think the story with animals is the better story. But you choose.”

On this perspective, the story of God is like the story of Pi’s adventures. It is misplaced to ask which of Pi’s two stories is actual; the real question is what story is preferable to me? In a similar way, because we supposedly can’t argue for God from rational considerations (elsewhere in the interview Martel dismisses arguments for intelligent design as not “hold[ing] up logically”) all we can do is try to show that God is the better story, as Pi did to the journalist when he said “And so it goes with God.”

After years of knee-jerk skepticism against religion, it is refreshing to find the kind of openness to spirituality that suffuses movies like Life of Pi. But this postmodern approach to religion also comes with a catch. While there may be increased openness to religion for its therapeutic value, and while there may be a growing hunger for the gospel as a potentially more attractive story than the empty narratives of modern secularism, this openness comes with a corresponding antagonism to Christianity as objective truth. Christianity as truth does violence to competing visions, giving an either/or disjunction that stands at odds with the both/and approach to truth exhibited by Pi when he developed his own religion as a synthesis of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.

Trapped in our Stories

In the last section I referred to the Postmodernism approach to religion. It may be helpful to explain what I mean by this.

In much Postmodern ideology, all explanations of reality (“stories”) are constructions, and consequently there is no transcendently real vantage point to assess these competing constructions. All we are left with are various ‘discourses’, ‘narratives’ and ‘stories’ about the world that may be edifying or compelling on a psychological level but which cannot claim to give us insight into how reality actually is on an objective level.

On this scheme of things, all worldviews and philosophical systems are reduced to the stories we tell to edify ourselves, or worse, to justify power. Postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty expressed the Postmodern mood when he declared that instead of seeking to develop “systematic philosophy” we should aim for “edifying philosophy” which “aims at continuing a conversation rather than at discovering truth.”

The idea that we are trapped in our stories, unable to make transcendent claims about how reality actual is, was partly the result of developments in German hermeneutics, French linguistics, and American sociology throughout the twentieth-century. It will help to briefly consider each of these three strands and what they tell us about the concept of stories. This will set the background for exploring how Christian academics are surrendering to many of these postmodern idolatries.

All readings are misreading: the influence of German hermeneutics

Even before Martin Luther, Germans took a keen interest in hermeneutics, the science of interpretation. In the twentieth-century, the questions that German literary critics were asking began to shift. Instead of asking about the appropriate way (ways?) to interpret a text, they began exploring whether the notion of correct interpretations was even a viable concept. Do texts even communicate the mind of the author? One important thinker in this process was the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900 –2002). Stanley Grenz summarizes Gadamer’s approach to hermeneutics in A Primer on Postmodernism:

“…the goal of hermeneutics is not to discover the ‘one meaning’ of the text. The meaning of the text is not that strictly circumscribed: the limits of a text’s meaning are not confined to just the author’s intent or the reader’s understanding. In fact, we can never claim that any one interpretation is correct ‘in itself.’”

While Gadamer denied that his view led to relativism, many others built on it to suggest that genuine communication is impossible. After all, if we can never claim that a given interpretation of a text is more correct than alternative readings, if we can never say that a text’s meaning is limited to what the writer intended to say, then can a text mean anything? The answer seems to be yes, and if a text can mean anything, then another sense texts mean nothing, so that all ‘readings’ actually become misreadings.

If all interpretations are both equally valid and equally invalid, then this also applies to our interpretation of the world. The discourses by which we interpret the world may have persuasive power on aesthetic grounds, but no one can say that one interpretation is objectively better than any other.

Giving Words Infinite ‘Free Play’: the Impact of French Linguistics

Philosophers in France during the middle of last century reached similar conclusions by exploring linguistic theory. Going back as far as the Middle Ages, French philosophers have taken a keen interest in the relationship between words and reality. But last century French philosophers began asking whether there is objective correspondence between language and the “reality” that language describes. I am over-simplifying things here, but many philosophers began pointing out that because the meaning of any word is anchored by its definition, and because a definition is only as good as the other words which make it up, the entire network of verbal signs collapses in self-referential circularity. But if the entire network of verbal signs is self-referential, then any term has a potentially infinite semantic range. Put another way, any word can drift anywhere in the ocean of meaning, a notion known as ‘free play.’

If a word can have “free play”, then why not the sentence, and if the sentence then why not the paragraph, and if the paragraph, then why not the entire text? In this way all narratives become deconstructed. We are thus trapped in what Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998) called “an infinite plurality of language games.” We cannot assume that our words actually refer to an independent reality that is ‘out there.’ All language thus collapses into radical subjectivity. Consequently, any narrative is just as true and just as false as any other: we simply pick the stories we like, either because they edify us or because they justify power.

Shattering all Metanarratives: the influence of American social sciences

The Germans and the French were not alone in deconstructing the objective status of all discourses. The Americans also contributed to the same mood through developments in the social sciences. During the mid to late twentieth-century, public life in the United States began to be characterized by numerous groups all competing for public attention. Each group wanted to carve out a bigger share in the political, cultural and educational systems that made up America’s national life. Whether the groups in question were feminists, Christian activists, racial minorities, gay activists, environmentalists, etc., it seemed that the best each of these groups could do was to talk past each other. Whereas at one time all Americans participated in common national meta-narratives that gave a shared reference point, as the twentieth-century progressed these various groups came to be characterized only by their own mini-narratives, rendering futile even the possibility of communication across the ideological divide.

Observing this trend, American social scientists suggested that there are no universal metanarratives but only small local individual narratives. All the big stories are broken up into billions of little stories with no relation to each other. This emphasized the multiplicity of valid theoretical standpoints and the relativity of our beliefs. Indeed, when any of us tells a story, we cannot do it in reference to any larger narratives even if we wanted to, because there are no larger stories that are true for everyone.

Under this new paradigm, the only story that is worth any of us telling—indeed the only story that any of us can ever tell—is either my own personal story or that of my group. Jean-Francois Lyotard described this well in The Postmodern Condition when he suggested that we have moved “from the muffled majesty of grand narratives to the splintering autonomy of micronarratives.” Isolated in our own groups, all hope of intelligible interaction across the ideological divide becomes lost. This leaves us with only “Shrieking voices/Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,” to borrow a line from T. S. Eliot.

Richard Rorty
Richard Rorty

Since there is no story that is true for everyone, the way to persuade someone to see the world through the lens of my group’s story is by appealing to their literary tastes, not by trying to show the adequacy of the story through objective reasoning or inner consistency. As the late postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty (1931–2007) put it in his book Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, “Conforming to my own precepts, I am not going to offer arguments against the vocabulary I want to replace. Instead, I am going to try to make the vocabulary I favor look attractive.”

Postmodernism: A Mixed Blessing

After my description of Postmodernism, it may appear as if Christianity has nothing in common with it, even as Tertullian famously declared that Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem. Most church fathers didn’t go as far as Tertullian in dismissing the philosophy of the Greeks, and this is an important lesson for us since the opportunities created by Postmodernism are similar to the opportunities afforded to the early church by Platonic philosophy.

The pagan philosophy of Plato was easy for the church to Christianize, in addition to providing the church with categories to intelligently explain the gospel to the surrounding culture. For example, Plato’s understanding of participation would be used by Basil the Great and other church fathers to help articulate the realities of union with Christ. But Plato’s philosophy also presented a challenge, and the church had to be careful not to assimilate the gospel to unbiblical tenants of the Platonic system, such as a negative view of matter. The church Fathers used what they could from Platonism to communicate the gospel, but they did so with caution and discernment.

When it comes to Christian appropriations of Postmodernism, we need to exercise similar wisdom. That means cautiously appropriating Postmodernism’s legitimate aspects while rejecting those parts which run counter to the revelation of God in Christ.

The legitimate aspects of Postmodernism that the church can appropriate include the trenchant critique of Enlightenment rationalism, a new receptivity to the spiritual dimension, a greater appreciation of the fact that human knowledge is situated in our creaturely embedded-ness, the role that naming plays in clarifying and even generating meaning, the role that communities play in establishing hermeneutical frameworks, the importance of metanarratives in understanding cultures and worldviews, and a recognition of the fact that even the most seemingly ‘detached’ and ‘objective’ statements are part of a narrative structure that may include human bias. At the same time as recognizing these points of overlap, Christians must be uncompromising in rejecting Postmodernism’s radical relativism, the suspicion of all abstract truth-claims, the notion that language cannot describe objective reality and the deep suspicion of all organizing principles and metanarratives.

Whatever blessing postmodernism has to offer the church, it should be clear the Postmodernism is not an unqualified good. The point needs to be emphasized since it is becoming increasingly trendy for Christians thinkers to talk about Postmodernism as if it is the greatest thing since sliced bread. All too often, Christian academics naively appropriate the categories of Postmodernism without exercising the same discernment that the church fathers used when appropriating Platonism. Indeed, the fashionable embrace of Postmodernism is leading many Christians back to the problem of Life of Pi where questions of actuality are absorbed into the concession that, at the end of the day, all we can do is to simply announce that God is the better story. Truth, reason and the appeal to objective actuality become subordinated to aesthetics and literary taste; rationality becomes subordinated to rhetoric.

‘Radical Orthodoxy’

John Milbank
John Milbank

The surrender of Christianity to postmodernity is apparent in the writings of John Milbank and the, so called, “Radical Orthodoxy” movement. “Radical Orthodoxy” began at Cambridge in the late twentieth-century and was initially associated with the work of Milbank, Graham Ward and Catherine Pickstock. After the publication of Milbank’s iconic Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, dozens of aspiring intellectuals began jumping on the ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ bandwagon hoping to cash in on intellectual stardom. By 2001 Time Magazine was describing ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ as the “biggest development in theology since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door.”

Although ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ is neither radical nor orthodox, it has some enormously helpful insights. Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory uses the tools of Postmodern deconstructionism to deconstruct secular social theory. He shows that secularism offers its own narrated interpretation of reality, one deeply embedded in methodological atheism. This renders suspect modern secularism’s claims to neutrality. Building on this, Milbank argues that secular Modernism is an inadequate partner for theological dialogue.

Milbank is reacting against theologians who have tried to make religion more respectable by subordinating their methods to the theories of the secular academy. He calls on theologians to give up their false humility and claim the high ground, to let the church be the church and, in the process, to subvert all competing narratives.

Ironically, it is from secular Postmodernism that Milbank has derived the categories with which to make this point respectably. Building on the postmodern idea that different interpretative communities are hermitically sealed off from each other, Milbank asks why Christians need to subordinate their discourses to secular narratives, to measure their beliefs by the assumptions of discourses rooted in the functional atheism of the Enlightenment. By showing that theology need not measure herself by the standard of a spurious secular reason (which is shown to be an “ontology of violence”), Milbank frees theology to reassert herself as Queen of the sciences.

Milbank makes many much-needed points. In order to attain a respectable voice, it has become commonplace for Christian scholars working in the history of religions, and even theology, to assume the methods of secular Modernity. Milbank is right that as Christians we ought to do things the other way round: all the disciplines ought to be subordinated to theology.

Subordinating Dialectic to Rhetoric

How a person reaches their beliefs is often just as important as what that person believes. By using the canons of postmodern philosophy to reach his positions, the type of theology that emerges as Queen for Milbank is a very different type of Queen than what we find in historic Christian understandings.

‘Radical Orthodoxy’ thinkers claim to have found a great affinity between historic Christian belief and contemporary French philosophers like Jean-Luc Marion, Paul Ricœu, Jean-François Courtine, Michael Henry. However, my concern is that more is going on than simply the discovery of affinity: historic Christian theology is actually being reconfigured to “fit” with the dominant Postmodern assumptions. The writings of the Christian tradition (particularly Augustine and Aquinas) are being reinterpreted through the lens of contemporary French philosophy and subverted in the process.

One of the areas where this is most evident is when it comes to questions about objective truth. At its heart, RO presents the same vision of truth that we find in Life of Pi, whereby the best we can do in presenting the gospel is to say, “Hey, listen to the gospel because it’s the better story.” Truth, reason and any appeal to objective actuality become subordinated to aesthetics and literary taste through epistemological moves that would be unrecognizable to Augustine and Aquinas. This comes out clearly in Theology and Social Theory when Milbank takes exception to ethicist Alexander McIntyre’s desire to actually argue against the myth of secular nihilism.

“I want to insist against McIntyre that at this level of ‘objective’ reasoning one is only talking about the inner consistency of a discourse/practice, and that in so far as Christianity is able to render such a discourse/practice more consistent, this in no sense necessarily suggests a new adequacy of discourse to ‘reality.’… McIntyre, of course, wants to argue against this stoic-liberal-nihilist tendency, which is ‘secular reason’. But my case is rather that it is only a mythos, and therefore cannot be refused, but only out-narrated, if we can persuade people—for reasons of ‘literary taste’-that Christianity offers a much better story.”

As these words suggest, the best reason can do in Milbank’s schema is to reveal the inner consistency of a discourse, while being useless in providing access to reality, which Milbank (in good postmodern fashion) puts in inverted comas. How the world objectively is remains inaccessible to us, so all we can do is tell our competing stories.

But why can’t we argue against secularism and for Christianity? Why are we reduced to simply trying to persuade the world that Christianity is a better story? Why must there be such a sharp dichotomy between dialectical vs. rhetorical modes of persuasion? Milbank gives insight into this question in his discussion of Augustinian in The Radical Orthodoxy Reader. He writes,

“In postmodernity there are infinitely many possible versions of truth, inseparable from particular narratives…. Outside a plot, which has its own unique, unfounded reasons, one cannot conceive how objects and subjects would be, nor even that they would be at all.”

If the above words are understood in context, Milbank seems to be suggesting that because there is no absolute unbiased rationality that stands outside our various stories, we are left with no way to adjudicate between them. All we can do is to choose the story we like the best. This choice is not entirely arbitrary for Milbank, since he thinks there are good aesthetic reasons—at least, if we are people of good taste—for choosing the Christian discourse. But he sharply avoids offering any rational grounds for believing that the Christian discourse is objectively true. John Marenbon draws attention to this problem in his essay in the volume Deconstructing Radical Orthodoxy:

Deconstructing Radical OrthodoxyMilbank’s views about the validity of an infinite number of narratives, about necessary fictions (with or without inverted commas), make it hard for him to offer any good reason why we should believe Christianity, or anything else for that matter…. He does not—and cannot, in view of his starting point—give any reason why we should choose to be led by theology, or rather his version of theology. …It is hard to see how, in the end, their position amounts to more than fideism in the face of the unbearably nihilistic conclusions of the postmodern thinkers that, to a large extent, they uncritically accept.

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Enlightenment, together with much Modernist Christian apologetics, gets it wrong when it assumes that there is a neutral realm of pure rationality that somehow stands outside all bias, independent of our assumptions and philosophical orientations. RO, like so called “presuppositional apologetics”, is entirely correct to point out that we cannot even begin using reason without prior worldview commitments, however tacit or unconscious those commitments might be. Where I part company is when this is taken to legitimize the collapse of Christianity into a hermitically sealed discourse. Indeed, in collapsing Christianity into literary myth, one has to ask whether ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ really takes seriously the reality of the incarnation. Steven Shakespeare summarizes this concern in his Radical Orthodoxy: A Critical Introduction:

…if reason and philosophy are wholly emptied out into theology, what is left for reason to do? The truth is just something we either see or do not see, depending upon whether we let ourselves be overwhelmed by the force of the picture that is painted…. And this leads to a ‘gnostic Christology’, in the sense that Christ simply becomes part of a freewheeling literary myth, with no connection to the empirical world. The only authority this theology can claim is a secret, esoteric one, “the special ‘intellectual intuition’ or the prophetic ingenuity of the few”….

Radical Orthodoxy fosters the view that religion works by an entirely different logic or grammar to any other language game. Its effect can be to confirm religion’s withdrawal to the margins, and give credence to secularist assumptions that religious faith has nothing to offer public debate.

Common Rationality and Public Discourse

Enlightenment secularism asserted that the only way to have public conversations about reality is by making reference to a neutral secular realm of value-free discourse rooted in a common rationality. Not wanting to be left without a voice in the public conversation, many Christians attempted to subordinate their faith to this supposedly neutral secular realm. In the process, they not only bought into the lie that modern secularism is worldview-neutral, but they did violence to the integrity of theology in the process. Radical Orthodoxy is right to point out the folly of this project. However, in emphasizing that there is no common ground between faith and unbelief, Radical Orthodoxy goes way beyond the antithesis presented in scripture.

The Modernism of the Enlightenment and the Postmodernism of ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ both assert that if there is not a universal ‘neutral’ rationality, then intelligible discourse across worldviews is impossible. The only difference is that Modernism claims that a universal rationality does exist whereas Postmodernism says it does not. What needs to be challenged is the basis assumption behind both traditions, namely that unless there is a neutral secular rationality that spans the Church and the world outside of it, theology has no intelligible way of communicating outside its own walls.

It is simply not the case that without a universal ‘neutral’ rationality there can be no intelligible discourse across worldviews. On the contrary, there can be real communication between the Christian community and those outside, not because of some spurious neutral secular reason which Postmodernism rightly deconstructs, but because those outside the Christian faith are still living in a world which only exists in, and toward the Logos, in all its details.

One of the realities we all share in common is a normative rationality. Such rationality does not arise because of there being a place of ideological neutrality but quite the reverse: it is because believers and unbelievers share a common identity as images of God, and because we all share jointly in God’s creation, that there is a common rationality that can be appealed to even when engaged in dialogue with those who deny it. Consequently, it is deeply anti-creational, and anti-incarnational to collapse Christianity into a realm where questions of “aboutness” meaning, intention and reference are absorbed into the categories of rhetoric, myth, politics, aesthetics and commitment. As David Bentley Hart explained in The Beauty of the Infinite,

the beauty of the infinite“I dislike the tendency that certain adherents of (the Yale school) have of employing ‘narrative’ as such as an “antifoundationalist” shelter against critique and against the ontological and epistemological questions that theology must address (inasmuch as it is a discourse concerning Logos); I believe the Christian story is the true story of being, and so speaks of that end toward which all human thought and every natural human act are originally oriented, and so can and must speak out of its story in a way that is not ‘narrative’ only, in a simple sense, and in a way that can find resonances and correspondences in the language and “experiences” of those who are not Christian.”

See Also

Of course, all this assumes the Christian story is the right one (which is why this account of rationality cannot be said to be neutral or value free), which is exactly what Milbank wants us to do (for reasons of literary taste). Yet the crucial difference is that the argument I am putting forward assumes the Christian story is actually, ultimately, really, objectively correct, not just a better tale. The fact that we can’t step outside the truth of the Christian narrative to reason our way to it, does not mean that we cannot know it is correct any more than the fact that I cannot step outside my wife’s love for me and reason my way to it negates my ability to truly know that she loves me.

But can we really know that the Christian story is correct? According to Postmodernism, the absence of a value-free neutral reason results in our inability to claim anything for certain about how reality actually is. That is why postmodernists like to put the word reality in inverted comas. In this regard, Postmodernism shows itself to be nothing but Modernism dressed up, for both hinge on the spurious notion that any dialectic, if it is to achieve legitimacy, must necessarily hinge on a metaphysic of foundationalism and an epistemology rooted in a value-free neutral reason.

To simplify things to the extreme, Modernism says that a value-free neutral reason exists, and therefore we can know things objectively; Postmodernism says that a value-free neutral reason doesn’t exist, and therefore we cannot know anything objectively. But Christianity says that there are other ways to arrive at objective knowledge than by the spurious route of a supposedly value-free neutral reason. Christianity asserts that there is such a thing as a normative rationality that spans all perspectives, but this is rooted not in value neutrality, but in the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of the imago dei and ultimately in God the Logos, toward whom our reason is directed.

RO denies a normative rationality by promoting what Paul Janz called “a radically free-floating coherence.” In the next section I will suggest that this anti-creational epistemology ultimately collapses the claims of the Christian faith into a form of Gnosticism.

Radical Orthodoxy as the New Gnosticism

In his article for Modern Theology titled ‘Radical Orthodoxy and the New Culture of Obscurantism’, Paul Janz (one of my PhD supervisors) raised concern that RO’s “free-floating” notions of truth leads to “a commitment to associations rather than to substance in building their cases: a commitment to the syntactical over the semantic, a commitment to questions of tactic and politics over questions of “aboutness” meaning, intention and reference.”

Janz continued: “The severing from reason of even this most modest of moorings in self-reflection, together with the immunity from rational scrutiny which that severing yields, now imbues such free-floating strategies with the appeal of a kind of pristine isolation…”

This approach leaves RO stranded in an attempt to preserve the best of both worlds: to try to claim the ‘radicalism’ of rejecting any normative rationality at the same time as still preserving the ultimate authority of orthodoxy. But Janz asks, “Where does Radical Orthodoxy find the solution to its own internal conflict between this double rejection of authority on the one hand in the radical claim, and yet the demand for authority on the other in the orthodox claim?” The problem is complicated by the fact that RO own methods makes it difficult for a solution to be found in either reason or scriptural exegesis.

Janz warns that Milbank escapes from this dilemma by appealing to a kind of Gnostic ‘secret’ knowledge. To quote again from Janz’ paper:

“in the absence of either reason or scriptural exegesis as the stabilizing authorities for orthodoxy, Milbank appeals via Hamann to ‘the secret depth of corporeal things’, to the ‘unseen density’ or invisibly deep ‘solidity’ of nature, which in turn (via Jacobi) opens up ‘imperceptibly’ to the transcendent ground of things. On the other side, since these claims to secret depth cannot be authenticated, rendered credible or, in the truest sense of the term, substantiated by rational or empirical means (otherwise they would not be ‘secret’), or at bottom by exegesis (otherwise they would not be ‘mediative’ but ‘positive’): therefore they abandon the requirement for answerability to anything that could count as a ‘public’ authority and come to be based instead on the special ‘intellectual intuition’ or the prophetic ingenuity of a few.”

Where this leaves us is not ‘orthodoxy’ at all but a kind of modern-day Gnosticism.

“in the absence of reason or exegesis or confession (or anything else involving the intentional activity of a conscious subject) as normative or stabilizing authorities, a new kind of gnosticism (i.e., a secret depth open to a higher, prophetic and political exercise of reason) appears to be the only way of preserving the normativity or authority that orthodoxy demands.”

Towards Mutual Dialogue

In the end, the problem with ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ is that it makes the Christian faith too modest, for it concedes to unbelievers a realm not informed by Biblical truth. The irony, of course, is that Radical Orthodoxy claims to do precisely the opposite, yet it is hard to see how the claim that there is no common base to communicate across worldviews isn’t simply a concession to some of the most misleading lies of both Modernism and Postmodernism. For consider, we can only say that there is not a common base for communication across worldviews if we begin by denying the Christian account of the imago dei. If the Genesis narrative is correct (and I mean correct in the objective sense of how reality actually is), then unbelievers can never escape the fact that they are recipients of common grace; they can never escape the fixities of our God-informed world. Christian apologetics can look for ways to exploit the inconsistences in unbelieving thought, and use that as a bridge to share the Biblical picture of things. For example, we might say to an unbeliever, “I applaud the way you often express moral outrage at the hypocrisy of Christians, although I would challenge you to consider whether your worldview provides an adequate foundation to sustain moral truth-claims.”

Recognizing this should make us cautious not to overstate the antithesis between the city of God and the city of man. At first it may seem obvious that secular discourse is an inappropriate dialogue partner for Christianity, as Milbank claims. But atheistic secularism, like all false religions, is never wholly bad: it often begins with a kernel of truth or goodness that gets twisted out of shape. Voltaire was right to be concerned about Christian hypocrisy but wrong when he used this to justify crushing the church; Karl Marx was right to be concerned with helping the poor but wrong to think the problem could be solved through political means or that “goods” are truly good in themselves; modern secularists are correct to be concerned about violence potentially resulting from religion being a public phenomenon, but wrong when they suggest that it is preferable or even possible to have a religiously-neutral public square; radical feminists are right to repudiate the degradation of women in patriarchal cultures, but wrong when they would use this to justify the elimination of all gender roles; transhumanists are right to try to use creation to advance the interests of the human race, but wrong to think this can be pursued outside the Biblical doctrines of dominion and stewardship.

The same point can be made more philosophically by saying (following Augustine and Aquinas) that since evil is a privation of goodness, the former is parasitical on the latter; consequently, pure evil is impossible.

This has enormous practical ramifications since it means that the apologetic endeavor can be one of bridge-building as we take that which is true and good in various idolatrous systems and show how Christ is the fulfillment of these things. Indeed, recognizing the commonalities between believing and unbelieving thought allows the Christian apologists to empathize with unbelievers, to proceed on the basis of our shared heritage as human beings rather than the assumption of total estrangement.

By contrast, for Milbank there is no connection between Christian tradition and natural wisdom. Milbank uses the idea of absolute difference as a platform to liquidate metaphysics and absorb all fields into theology. However, he cannot proceed consistently on this basis, for while he decries a common rationality between believers and unbelievers, he often implies a common aesthetic standard. This is a point that Alister McGrath makes in his critique of Milbank in A Scientific Theology: Reality. McGrath points out that radical Orthodoxy leaves us without the type of natural theology that “both undergirds and encourages a critical engagement with other traditions.” In the place of natural theology we are given a Barthian hermeticism which “insulates Christianity from its intellectual and spiritual competitors.” However, McGrath believes that the appeal to the “literary taste” of unbelievers only works if we assume a common aesthetic discourse between unbelieves and unbelievers:

“Milbank vigorously refuses to engage with other traditions, precisely because they do not, and cannot, share common premises. Christian discourse and practice is apparently sealed off in a hermetic container from the remainder of human life and thought. …he posits the use of rhetoric, arguing the need for those outside the Christian tradition to be persuaded to accept the Christian tradition…. The grounds of persuasion are: negatively, that non-Christian traditions are spiritually empty and devoid of meaning and depth; and positively, that Christianity has a certain appeal to people of good taste….

Yet if the entire Platonic triad of truth, goodness and beauty are tradition-specific, how can an appeal be made to an aesthetical norm? Does not Milbank’s rhetoric of persuasion ultimately depend on the assumption of shared ideas or values across traditions? Is he not obliged to posit that what I recognize as beautiful and tasteful will be appreciated as such by others, who do not share my beliefs concerning God and the creation of the world? It is not simply reason which is a false universal; goodness and beauty are subject to precisely the same difficulty. The criteria by which Milbank hopes to persuade are thus linked, however indirectly, to the tradition to which he hopes to recruit those whom he persuades. This would seem to require such people to accept the values and virtues of the Christian before they can accept Christianity itself.

Yet Augustine’s analysis of beauty, which is grounded in his natural theology, allows the human perception of divine beauty, however attenuated, in advance of conversion, precisely because the human mind has been created to respond to God. Augustine thus neatly avoids the trap into which Milbank falls. Yet I would suggest that this trap is simply a hole that Milbank has dug for himself, as a result of his failure to consider the meta-traditional implications of a Christian doctrine of creation, particularly the implications of a natural theology.

The Gospel in the Ghetto

Augustine’s appropriation of Plato and Aquinas’s appropriation of Aristotle both challenge the estrangement of Christianity from pagan learning advocated by Milbank. Moreover, the Church Fathers like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine and many others, followed Paul in Acts 17 in showing common ground between the gospel and paganism. They show neither an uncritical rejection nor an uncritical affirmation, but what McGrath describes as a “critical appropriation.”

Milbank claims to trace his ideas back to Augustine and Aquinas, but he would do better to emphasize continuity with the anti-intellectual Tertullian. In creating a theology of extreme difference, Radical Orthodoxy creates a split between the church and the world that is reminiscent of Tertullian, if not the heresy of Gnosticism which was the supreme example of disparaging the world.

The paradox, of course, is that Milbank cannot even consistently follow his own criteria, as his dependence on pagan French philosophy demonstrates. For consider, if Christianity is really hermetically sealed from unbelieving thought, if there is no point of contact between the faith and competing discourses, then why is Milbank able to overcome these limitations in his own appropriations of various narratives within contemporary French philosophy?

Once again, Milbank brings some important insights into philosophical theology. Apologetics has often merely consisted of trying to form persuasive arguments, neglecting the fact that people are rarely, if ever, persuaded on the basis of reason alone. A crucial part of apologetics should be concerned with showing that the Christian faith isn’t simply true, but lovely and worthy of adoration. We can applaud Milbank redressing this balance. But we must be careful not to sell the farm in the process. If I am testifying to the truth of the resurrection, it may be entirely appropriate to show unbelievers that the resurrection is a wonderful story, that competing narratives are depressing and boring by comparison. Indeed, the sheer poetic drama of the Christian faith may be just as compelling as its rationality, as Dorothy Sayers so aptly pointed out in her numerous writings. But following Saint Paul, Dorothy Sayers also acknowledged that it matters—in fact, it matters infinitely—whether the resurrection really happened (1 Corinthians 15:17). As great of a story as the Christian faith is, it amounts to very little if our story isn’t objectively, historically, concretely, actually true.

When he was appointed to his position at the University of Virginia, conservatives were angered since Milbank had said that arguments for an historic resurrection played no part of his project. Yet Milbank does offer a type of apologetic, urging that Christianity is the best discourse because it seeks a peace in which ‘difference’ is acknowledged. In making this move, however, Milbank is not arguing for the objective truth of Christianity, but simply trying to show that Christianity is psychologically appealing and aesthetically attractive.

The tendency to sequester Christianity from questions of objective veracity strikes at the heart of the incarnation itself. In the end, ‘Radical Orthodoxy’, like pietistic fundamentalism, ghettoizes the gospel by cutting it off from everything outside.

This point is often missed since on the surface radical Orthodoxy can appear to be doing just the opposite. Indeed, one of RO’s trademarks is its eclectic appropriation of a vast cornucopia of thinkers from a variety of traditions. If anyone knows how to plunder the Egyptians it seems to be Milbank, who reads contemporary philosophy through a neo-platonic Augustinianism, and draws on thinkers as diverse as Aquinas, Hamann, Heidegger, the Nouvelle Théologie, and countless others.

When asked which of the two versions of his story were correct, Pi answers "which do you prefer?"
When asked which of the two versions of his story were correct, Pi answers “which do you prefer?”

Significantly, these intellectual appropriations are not borne out of an acknowledgement that all thinkers share certain truths in common by virtue of our identify as God’s creatures; rather these appropriations are put to the service of free-floating concepts of truth that must ultimately be either accepted or rejected on non-rational grounds.

Bereft of any discourse with which to intelligently communicate to unbelievers about the objective reality of our story, all we can do is to echo Pi when asked which of the two versions of his story were correct: which do you prefer?

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