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Radical Orthodoxy: Anarchy and the Civilizational Project

The online journal Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics has just produced its inaugural issue, and an impressive team of authors, editors, advisors, and the folks at Wipf and Stock who will be producing the annual print volume have a whole lot to be proud of.  The journal offers that blend of rigorous argumentation and hospitality towards varying perspectives that has been the signature of the movement since it first took form in an edited volume some 13 years ago.

Their description, for instance, says,

“RO: TPP is a new online journal dedicated to the discussion of the proposition that credally orthodox Christianity is the most transformative of all cultural phenomena and that it remains the ineliminable core of the Middle-Eastern and European-originated civilisational project. It freely invites contributions both from those who agree with this proposition – in whatever sense – and those who reject it.”

The hospitality of the last sentence—and, as Neil Turnbull rightly points out in his introductory essay, anyone who has been to one of the RO-influenced international conferences in Oxford, Nottingham, Grenada, Krakow, or other places around the world will attest to the sincerity of this call for disagreement—coincides with the gutsy statement in the first.  We tend to think that diversity of voices is at odds with a firm propositional ethos.  “We want lots of different opinions,” some journals say; “we want people who all agree about this or that doctrine,” others say.  But who says, “we are dedicated to the discussion of the proposition that credally orthodox Christianity is the most transformative of all cultural phenomena” and “we invite contributions from folks who don’t agree”?  The radically orthodox, apparently.

Now, I want to say that this hospitality is particularly pleasant for me, since for the following three reasons I am somewhat hesitant about that proposition to which the journal is dedicated.  First, because, as all the editors and advisors are of course aware, there’s more to the core of the “civilizational project” than creedal Christianity.  Thomas Aquinas, who lived during what many of us consider the high point of western civilization, would have been the first to point out that there is a good bit of paganism and Islam at the core of the civilizational project (think Athens, Cordoba).  Further, he would have counted these pagan and Muslim heritages as a not altogether negative element within civilization.  Creedal Christianity developed and evolved in part through intellectual and practical struggles with these heritages, and thus these heritages remain, in a sense, at the “core” of what grew through the ancient and medieval centuries into both civilization and creedal Christianity.  But again, I don’t think the editorial team would argue me on this point.

My second hesitation may simply stem from the fact that I am American, and I am not quite sure what it would mean to affirm creedal Christianity as the ineliminable core of this civilization, which largely originates from the European one.  In fact, language about the Christian core of civilization will always ring in my ears with shrill tone of South Carolinians lobbying to outlaw sharia and Florida pastors preaching on the radio about burning the Qur’an. 

America is the great political experiment of the Enlightenment (although many of us wish the Revolution had waited a few more decades so that our founders might have been imbued with a bit more Idealism or Romanticism).  What does Radical Orthodoxy’s political turn mean for a country founded post-Christendom, and whose only national festivals and liturgies, as one nineteenth century visitor to Manhattan put it, are the opening and closing of markets?  A more radicalized church-contra-state model, though disastrous in other contexts, still often seems the most theologically sensible one for Christian politics in the US.

Which brings me to my third hesitation.  To put it simply, I don’t have a great deal of confidence in the “civilization project.”

Let me be clear about what I mean here.  I am not a Yoderian.  I do not think that all alignments of the church with political authority are evil.  I generally approve of Christendom, at least in theory, and think that we were on the right track with the old notion of a ruler who was endowed with power from God, and therefore open to critique from church as well as from state.  Also, I do not think Constantine was Constantinian. 

I first began to suspect this latter to be true years ago, when a Romanian Orthodox priest gave me a tour of his church, and I saw the Emperor and his mother in the first row of the iconostasis. Noticing my gaze, the priest remarked, “Westerners think that he destroyed Christianity by aligning it with the state.  Easterners celebrate him for ending the era of persecution.”  I’ve always felt there was something to not being eaten by lions, and so Constantine couldn’t have been all bad.  Later, David Bentley Hart and Oliver O’Donavan gave me some better historical and theological evidence for this feeling.  I often hear people berating Constantine and then celebrating the accomplishments of Nicaea, but I wonder whether anything like a creedal tradition could have begun had there not been an emperor with both the wisdom and the power to establish it.  The creed has authority now at least in part because Constantine had the authority then to call a council to compose it.

So in that sense, the “civilizational project” has, at least since 325 A.D., been deeply tied up with the preaching of the gospel, and the good that has come of this is too great to list.  Systems of justice, institutions devoted to charity and education, the image of the “good ruler,” all have this creedal tradition deep within.  The very fact that we continue to debate the proper channels for works of mercy and the provisions for just economies is good evidence that there’s still quite a lot of the gospel lingering in our ideas of what good cities ought to look like.   

But my hesitation is simply that civilization itself is, theologically, an ambiguous project.  While the God of the Israelites was certainly active in forming and organizing a people, there was always a kind of anarchic “sed contra” lingering over this project as a whole.  As Yoram Hazony points out, God made Adam leave the garden to till the soil, but still chose the nomadic Abel over the Neolithic Cain.  And it was Cain, after all, who built the first city (thus, according to the Bible and current anthropology, farming is the beginning of civilization). 

Later, God chose the boy-shepherd to rule instead of the blood-heir of the king, and the shepherd of Tekoa to deliver words of doom to the people of Jerusalem, and the shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem to witness the birth of the Messiah over the kings and governors in the city.  The curse of Adam lingers over the cities of the Bible, and God seems to prefer hill wanderers and nomads to tillers, builders, and kings.  Israel’s original promise, recall, was not for a holy city, but for a land between rivers—a land flowing with milk and honey, the drink and food of herders and wanderers.  The uncivilized gardens, rivers, and hills came first, and no amount of Ezras or Nehemiahs can make civic life primary.

The ambiguity of Israel’s monarchy fits this pattern.  Israel demands a king, and Samuel tells them that Yahweh’s people need no king but Yahweh.  But Samuel should have known:  farming leads to city-building, and cities lead to kings.  The monarchy is itself tied to the curse of Adam, and all kings sit on thrones east of Eden.  But God can still promise that David’s heir will sit on Israel’s throne, and the chroniclers can recognize the good kings who followed Yahweh.  For every Ahab there is a Josiah.   

I take all of this to mean not that Israel was meant to wander the hills of Canaan forever, but rather than when they came into the land and began to set down roots and foundations, they were to remember that “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”  They were to dwell in cities like shepherds and nomads who had stopped to rest awhile.   As soon as they become over-confident in their structures and buildings and civic institutions, the prophets call on them to remember that they remain, even in their walled city, the wilderness wanderers. 

So my reservations about the civilizational project do not consist in blanket statements like “the God of the Bible is against farmers, kings, and cities.” Farmers, kings, and cities, instead, always stand under judgment by shepherds, prophets, and river-bordered garden lands.  (Amos the shepherd, after all, tells Judea that the Lord will rebuild the northern cities, and that the sower and the reaper will race one another through Israel’s fertile fields.) 

It’s simply that the project is always ambiguous.  I don’t think Constantine was Constantinian, not because I trust kingships, but because he seems to have been more a good king than a bad—more Josiah, less Ahab.  Charlemagne probably tilted the other direction, using his power to conquer weaker peoples and forcing them to convert, and to the degree he did he was “Constantinian.”  Insofar as the kings and cities of Israel and Christendom proceeded with the ever-present acknowledgment that their thrones and citadels were curses/provisions of a graceful hand that exceeds human civilization,  they ruled more or less gracefully.  (I am thinking of something like David L. Schindler’s distinction between the “constitutive relations” within the world and the more primary “constituting relation” of God to the world.) 

So Radical Orthodoxy’s political turn is a good turn—a turn to the question of the theological foundations of civilization.  It’s simply not the only turn to make, the only question to ask.  If that is all we ask, after all, we risk missing the anarchy that retains a theological priority over all polities.  We forget that life begins (and ends) in a garden, and that God prefers those who wander after sheep to those who settle, till and build.  A theology that focuses primarily on the civilizational project risks placing too much confidence not only in kings, city councils, and legislatures, but in universities, hospitals, and the arts as well.  We might settle in, that is, among the lovely and beautiful things we’ve built, and forget that we are at heart still nomads, citizens of heaven, subjects of a kingdom not of this world, aliens and strangers in the very cities we construct.

Anthony D. Baker

Anthony is a theology professor at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, and a co-founder of The Theology Studio.

Author: dopderbeck (not verified)

Great post, and as an American sympathetic to RO I resonate with those American concerns.  Question:  if Hauerwas is identified with RO -- and surely he is -- how does that fit this description?

Post date: Saturday, September 29, 2012 - 11:58
Author: tony.baker

Thanks Nathan.  I agree.  There is some civilization project.  And it's not a simple dialectic:  "God's city comes down to earth, ours doesn't build up to God's."  I think our culture and civilization can share in The City.  I just don't want to reduce the divine city to the human one. 

Post date: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 - 13:47
Author: Nathan Jennings (not verified)

Nice, Tony. I like this web log post.I also think of Peter Leithart when I read this post.I agree with the ambiguity this creates in an American context.I still think it ends with the City of God, so there is some "civilizational project" in God.But I like your emphasis on its ambiguity.We wander in this world.Thanks

Post date: Saturday, September 22, 2012 - 13:29
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