Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology

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Puritanboard Clerk
Review of Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology by James K. A. Smith

It is always interesting to find “coincidences” in theological movements. That is, when group A arrives at a theological position/conclusion that looks eerily similar to what group B believes. It is even stranger to find that they never borrowed from the same sources or even interacted. Such it is with the rise of Radical Orthodoxy (hereafter RO) and its critique of modernity.

RO is a group of theologians who saw the bankruptcy of modernity, and the inability of post modernity to answer the tough questions, thus positing a critique that seeks to avoid both secularism and pre-modernity. It is similar to a Parisian Augustine. RO is sensitive to post-modernity’s critiques of secularism. The book offers a multi-angled critique of secularalism: epistemological, ontological, and ecclesiological.

Once Upon a Time there was Plato
RO’s epistemological critique of secularism is a retelling of the story of Western philosophy. According to RO, philosophy took a fatal turn with Duns Scotus. Scotus posited a univocity of being stating there is only one kind of being in everything real, though infinite in the case of God and finite in the case of creatures. According to RO, this flattened ontology, removing the transcendent and giving us a metaphysics of immanence. Smith writes, “The created, immanent order no longer participates in the divine and thus is no longer characterized by the depth of that which is stretched toward the transcendent (93).” In other words, man is now able to interpret reality apart from God or any notion of the transcendent. This opened the door to secularism.
The antidote to Scotus, then, is Plato. If Scotus unhooked ontology, Plato (or his Christian disciples) can reconnect it. In short and in contrast with modernity, RO offers, not a univocity of being, but a participatory metaphysics. Popular opinion on Plato is that Plato denigrated the material in favor of the spiritual (I will resist applications to some Reforme—never mind). But RO suggests, on the other hand, that it is nihilism, with its denial of the transcendent that denigrates the material. But can Platonism make the claim that it values the material?
RO inverts Platonism on this point. Following Phaedrus, RO argues that when the material participates in the spiritual, the physical is rightly energized and affirmed. For example, the physical embodiment of beauty excites the soul's desire such that its wings sprout and are nourished." On one hand I agree. I value the material very much (almost too much), but is this an accurate reading of Plato? I really can’t (and neither can Smith) follow their reconstruction of Plato. Plato spoke often of soma sema: the body is a prison for the soul. But we need not accept their reading of Plato to grasp their point.

Ontology: Unfolding Reality
This was arguably the toughest section of the book. And the most surprising. Smith reintroduced Dooyeweerd to the Reformed and academic scene. If nihilism/modernity flattened their epistemology, it also flattened its ontology. Secular ontologies, according to RO, “claim to fully define the conditions” for reality (187). This section will be shorter since the same critique of epistemology will be used for ontology. RO counters the secular ontology with a new move on RO’s part: an Incarnational or participatory ontology. In rephrasing RO’s ontology, Smith uses the arcane philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd, particularly his modal scheme.

Conclusion: What does this mean for the Reformed Tradition?
Will this movement make the current Reformed discussions? Probably not. Should it? Maybe. RO is philosophically dense and even this introductory book was a difficult read. But what can RO teach its Reformed friends? First of all, RO has demonstrated that it can mount an alternative worldview to modernity without falling into the trap of postmodernity. It freely uses the language of postmodernism without endorsing the concepts. Accordingly, many of its criticisms of modernity sound a lot like what Cornelius Van Til said. Also, many of RO’s critiques of secular politics sound very much like Christian Reconstructionism’s critiques of statism (we won’t go there at the moment).
Secondly, it demonstrates that Christians (I was about to say “conservative” but that word isn’t useful on the international scene) can effectively engage the international academia. RO is able to mount an intellectually rigorous critique of unbelieving thought without compromising either scholarship or faith.
There are criticisms of RO. It is not Reformed by any stretch of the imagination (but they do not see themselves as Arminian, either). Rather, it is a movement kind of like an umbrella: it is not necessarily Reformed or Arminian or Catholic. Secondly, it posits a socialist political agenda. It gave a good critique of soulless capitalism and concluded that the only logical alternative to soulless capitalism is Christian socialism (it didn’t consider the option of Christian capitalism).
I would recommend this book to the philosophy student who is interested in life outside the Reformed ghetto. I don’t really have to caution anybody about their “errant” thoughts. I don’t really find them compelling and they are obvious.
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