Theology at the barricades


Catholic scholars
have taken the dynamite
of the church,
have wrapped it up
in nice phraseology,
placed it in an hermetic container
and sat on the lid.
It is about time
to blow the lid off...
-Peter Maurin

Few today can imagine that Catholic social thought has the pyrotechnic promise that Peter Maurin identified in his "easy essay," "Blowing the Dynamite." However idiosyncratic, the Catholic Workers’ coupling of doctrinal orthodoxy and radical politics epitomized a faith in the church as an exemplary form of human community, an imperfect but anticipatory effort, in the words of the Catholic sociologist Paul Hanly Furfey, "to reproduce heaven on earth."

Among contemporary Catholics of all political stripes there seems little desire to recreate this radical ecclesial and political imagination. In short, the lid seems firmly sealed. Can it ever be pried loose again? A new movement of intellectual, ecclesial, and political regeneration calling itself "radical orthodoxy" offers some hope that the dynamite can still be ignited. These flamboyant advocates of change have already made the pages of Time and the Chronicle of Higher Education. That’s not surprising given some of their virtuoso intellectual performances. Michael Budde’s well-received (Magic) Kingdom (Westview Press, 1997) is a good example. With a formidable grasp of both theology and neo-Marxist theory, Budde sketches the political economy of culture, demonstrates its corrosive impact on spiritual life (primarily but not exclusively through the sheer volume of commercial imagery), and suggests forms of resistance. He is especially devastating on the co-opting of church leaders. From the Archdiocese of Chicago’s corporate-designed restructuring of educational and pastoral resources, to the intellectual mediocrity of episcopal, curial, and papal pronouncements on the mass media, to the proliferation of Vatican and other product tie-ins, licensing agreements, and marketing ventures, church leaders are, Budde charges, tragically "remaking the church in the image and likeness of the global culture industries." And that, Budde and his compatriots argue, is a far more fundamental betrayal of the gospel than sexual immorality or ecclesiological deviance.

Or take Graham Ward’s Cities of God (Routledge, 2000). Promising to "read the signs of the times through the grammar of the Christian faith," Ward studies numerous artifacts of postmodern culture-Epcot Center, Leaving Las Vegas, sex shops, cyberspace, and virtual reality, to cite a few-and concludes that modernity’s effort to create "a world without transcendent values" is rapidly and desperately imploding. The book is a tour de force that invokes the gamut of cultural criticism from church fathers to proponents of queer theory.

"Radical orthodoxy" is to some extent a British import. Its foremost figures are associated with the University of Cambridge: John Milbank (now at the University of Virginia), whose Theology and Social Theory (Blackwell, 1990) could be taken as the urtext of the movement; Catherine Pickstock, whose After Writing (Blackwell, 1997) combines history, theology, and philosophy to argue for the unavoidable religious culmination of Western thought, what she calls "the liturgical consummation of philosophy"; and Ward, who has written or edited several incisive works on theology, philosophy, and critical theory. The three co-edited Radical Orthodoxy (Routledge, 1999), a collection of essays by British and American contributors devoted to a Christian reconstruction of epistemology, ethics, sexuality, politics, aesthetics, and other subjects.

In this country, Stanley Hauerwas of Duke is the best-known representative, followed by Michael Baxter of Notre Dame (a Holy Cross priest and former student of Hauerwas’s); Budde, a political scientist at De Paul; and William Cunningham of Saint Thomas, whose Torture and Eucharist (1998) is a searching theological examination of modern political thought. Budde and Robert Brimlow, a philosopher at Saint John Fisher College, have recently edited The Church as Counterculture (SUNY, 2000), a collection that could be read as a more accessible American counterpart to Radical Orthodoxy. (I’ll be quoting these and other sources largely without attribution.)

The names and movements cited by the radical orthodox compose a motley syllabus in twentieth-century theology, philosophy, and social thought: Alasdair MacIntyre, from whom they borrow a mutable sense of tradition and a twilight sensibility; George Lindbeck, "post-liberal" theology, and the "Yale school" of religious studies; "liberation theology"; the Catholic Workers; Jacques Maritain and "integral humanism"; Anglican socialists such as Maurice Reckitt, R. H. Tawney, and J. N. Figgis; "supernatural sociologists" like Paul Hanly Furfey and Luigi Sturzo; the nouvelle theologie that embraced Maurice Blondel and Henri de Lubac; the "politics of Jesus" espoused by the Mennonite John Howard Yoder. Add Hans Urs von Balthasar, as well as French heavyweights like Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Gillian Rose, and Luce Irigaray, and you have the intellectual pedigree of the movement.

The editors of Radical Orthodoxy assert a "commitment to creedal Christianity" that entails a "return to patristic and medieval roots," especially to Augustine. Faith must mean a distinctive thought and practice. This creedal fidelity provides the intellectual and ecclesial foundation from which radicals attempt to "criticize modern society, culture, politics, art, science, and philosophy with an unprecedented boldness." And, like good students of MacIntyre, they recognize that this project includes "rethink[ing] the tradition."

However abstruse this enterprise can get-one finds references to everyone from Gregory of Nyssa to the neo-Platonists to Nietzsche-radical orthodoxy’s most visible concern is the church. Because discipleship is, "an inherently ecclesiocentric proposition," the state of the church is a recurrent occasion of analysis, anger, and hope. Their jeremiads about the dilapidated condition of Christianity, especially American Catholicism, often sound as if they belong in the pages of the reactionary magazine Crisis. Yet the diagnosis of our religious ills differs sharply from the conservative critique. The new radicals contend that the contemporary erosion of the church represents merely the most advanced stage of an illness called "Constantinianism"-the church’s wrong-headed and suicidal offer to be a "sponsor of the world," a reliable partner in the creation and maintenance of economies, empires, and cultures defined apart from the gospel. Under Constantinianism, personhood is understood as self-mastery, possession and ownership are elevated as moral ideals, and power and manipulation are relied on to maintain an unloving and tenuous peace.

In this context, secularity emerges as the real enemy. Tracing its origins to late medieval theologians whose work was completed by modern social scientists and philosophers, the creation of the secular insists that society, economics, politics, and so on are independent of divine power and ecclesial supervision. By "policing the sublime," in Milbank’s apt phrase-by redefining Christian life in "spiritual," private terms, and by recasting the church as a spiritual entity with no claims on the secular-secular reason enables capital and the state to proceed unchecked.

Represented by John Courtney Murray and Reinhold Niebuhr, modern "Constantinianism" proscribes Christian language and suppresses the political character of the church and the gospel. Baxter, for example, notes that Murray’s work is "remarkably bereft of references to Christ, the sacraments, Scripture, the saints, and other tradition-specific terms and categories." As a consequence, Murray ends up affirming "the myth of the modern liberal state as a religiously neutral institutional arrangement." Hauerwas and Milbank indict Niebuhr and "Christian realism" on the same charges. Niebuhr, Murray, and their acolytes effect a subtle transfer of allegiance from the church to the market and the state. Capitalism-even the "democratic capitalism" hosannahed from the pews of neoconservatism-is identified as the principal vessel of secularism and spiritual atrophy. Drawing on the disparate histories of guilds, liturgies, theology, and classical economics, Milbank and Pickstock compose rich and penetrating accounts of capitalism as it is linked to unprecedented violence. Capitalism embodies a "mean little heresy" that destroyed a guild system in which work was endowed with a liturgical character. As a consequence, its pinch-penny "virtues" (frugality, sobriety, punctuality, sexual restraint) have become the marrow of Christian divinity, and its displacement of charity by accumulation the defining principle of social relations.

The only hope for the world, the radicals claim, lies in a revitalized church and a theology remade (or rather recovered) as social theory and cultural criticism. If "to be a Christian must mean to live in the church, to be formed by the church," then salvation is the social participation in the "body of Christ"-an old but venerable ecclesiological parlance. For radical orthodoxy, there is no individual salvation to which one attaches social implications; as Hauerwas puts it, "the church is a social ethic," anticipating Milbank’s assertion that "salvation is only in common."

Although church membership is open to all, it must be, as Walter Brueggemann puts it with superb nuance, "inclusive, but not casual." It mandates scriptural and theological instruction, individual and communal prayer, liturgy, and mutual encouragement. The church, Milbank writes, is the communal anticipation of the heavenly city, a caravan of brothers and sisters "on pilgrimage through this temporary world." Marked by the imperfect and incessant practices of charity and forgiveness, the church is "a particular historical practice" that resists and overthrows the earthly city through "the imagination in action of a peaceful, reconciled social order." It’s not unwarranted to note the affinities between radical orthodoxy and Marxism. For Milbank, Ward, Baxter, and the rest, theology becomes a form of historical and revolutionary theory, and the church assumes a role akin to that of the proletariat and the party. Milbank contends that theology reads "all history as...anticipation, or sinful refusal of, salvation"-a salvation (recall) defined by inclusion in the body of Christ, a revolutionary vanguard and the destination of history itself.

These new proponents of "orthodoxy" emphatically reject the neoconservative baptism of capitalism and just as clearly repudiate the accommodation with capitalism enjoined by Catholic liberals. While indebted to Marxism, they are deeply ambivalent about and even hostile toward liberation theology. Milbank demonstrates how Gutierrez, Segundo, and the brothers Boff do nothing more than swing a thurible around the totem of "progress" constructed by liberals and Marxists. Nor do they genuflect reflexively before the social encyclicals and pastoral letters. Milbank contends that much of modern Catholic social teaching is a "grotesque hybrid" of liberal market economics and organicist, patriarchal social ideals, underwritten by discredited notions of essentialism and natural law.

Still, despite all the brave talk about "unprecedented boldness" and the "political nature of the gospel," radical orthodoxy hasn’t displayed much in the way of political acumen or imagination. Budde insists that discipleship is "incompatible with voting, holding state office, and other direct state-supportive practices"-in other words, incompatible with the only large-scale and effectual means we currently have to mitigate the damage he spends an entire book detailing. Baxter’s celebration of the Catholic Worker raises flags, for this observer, about the movement’s uncritical and debilitating technophobia. Cunningham’s "eucharistic anarchism," while it rightly roots Christian social life in liturgy, provides no guidance about production or consumption, and Milbank’s Christian socialism goes nowhere beyond gestures toward John Ruskin and Eric Gill. I suspect that some radicals would not be averse to refurbishing anarcho-syndicalist or guild socialist schemes that sought direct worker control of production and the revival of artisanal creativity. (That’s why I’d suggest less Derrida and more Simone Weil.) But while such gestures remain bold and enticing in comparison with the exhaustion of the secular left, they’re not unprecedented, and their precursors at least spelled out in some detail what they wanted.

Some of radical orthodoxy’s cultural criticism is all too tiresome and predictable. Marianne Sawicki, for instance, conjuring up the "paleochurch" and its diminutive resistance to Rome, calls for "small-scale refusals" of the "pomps and glamours of middle-class life." Well, we don’t live in Rome; we live in a culture that retains traces, often strong ones, of a moral lexicon to which Christians can appeal. Second, absent any concrete translation of ecclesiology into a politics of work, technology, race, or sexuality, "small-scale refusal"-along with "eucharistic anarchism" or "Christian socialism"-looks like a dreamy and self-righteous form of resignation. Third, the rhetoric of "pomp and glamour" belongs to a tradition of imprecation against "materialism" that’s critically unconvincing and theologically threadbare. The life of the contemporary bourgeoisie is a wearying frenzy of work, work, spending, and work, with some time left over for civic duties, commodified leisure, sex, family, and-maybe-a spiritual life. Anyone acquainted with Juliet Schor’s "overworked" and "overspent" Americans, or with Lendol Calder’s brilliant Financing the American Dream, knows that pleasure and gratification are often the last things consumers experience.

I’d also propose that secularism has become a misleading and even inaccurate term. Assaults on the secular effectively hit only a limited range of targets-namely, intellectuals, outside of whose uncharmed circles religion is as vibrant, if not as Christian, as ever. If secularism is the denial or negation of the sacred in the name of reason and science, then American culture-with its spiritual smorgasbord of religions, denominations, sects, New Age groups, and individual collages-is hardly secular. Thus, I’d suggest that the terms secularism and materialism are of limited value in understanding the erosion of Christian commitment or the enchantments of capitalist culture. I’d propose instead Augustine’s notion of sin as "perversion"-the misdirection of our love and energy. Because it understands and does not despise our bodily desires, the concept of "perversion" holds together the good and the evil of some of our most insistent and potentially blessed longings.

Which is to say that radical orthodoxy ought to get out into the world. The movement is still too socially incubated in academia, too marinated in postmodernist palaver. If the church is indeed a new way of being, then that life must radiate its redemptive energy throughout our fallen but still beautiful world. Through its theory and practice of ecclesiology, radical orthodoxy has an opportunity to solve one of the persistent dilemmas of politically engaged intellectuals: how to link the pursuits of a professional intelligensia with the daily experience and critical power of workers (blue- and white-collar), farmers, and others. The radically orthodox must discover and create venues outside of conferences, seminars, or e-mail lists; they must grasp the hands of labor unions, feminists, gay and lesbian activists, and other secular or religious groups. If they don’t-if they remain content, as I fear some of them do, to carp and posture before gatherings of the anointed-then the movement will become at best a beloved clique and at worst another academic vaudeville show.

Such an outcome would be a sorry waste of talent and opportunity. For radical orthodoxy revives Chesterton’s hope to sing both the "Marseillaise" and the "Magnificat," and repeats his call to the romance of orthodoxy. Like him, the radical orthodox assert that genuine faith is an adventure and not a possession, an insistence on love and peace as the very architecture of creation, a state of rebellion against every false god and perverted longing. It offers us the chance to lift the lid off Catholicism and detonate the charge of the gospel.

Published in the 2001-07-13 issue: 
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Eugene McCarraher is associate professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. He is completing The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.

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