Radical Orthodoxy and the Promise of Resurrection

John Ehrett
Friday, July 2nd 2021

Not long ago, I finished reading (with a sleeping baby on my lap) Catherine Pickstock’s excellent new book Aspects of Truth: A New Religious Metaphysics. It is undoubtedly one of the most difficult—and yet profoundly stimulating—volumes I’ve read this year. I actually set it aside for a month or so between starting and finishing, wondering if I needed to do some additional intellectual homework to fully appreciate Pickstock’s argument, before finally deciding to forge ahead.

On its face, the book is Pickstock’s comprehensive attempt to answer Pontius Pilate’s question “What is truth?” by drawing on the tradition of orthodox Christian metaphysics; beneath the surface, it is a brilliant defense of that tradition against all metaphysical rivals from both the analytic and continental traditions of contemporary philosophy. Aspects of Truth wastes no time on figures like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who (as David Bentley Hart and others have witheringly pointed out) are often not even talking about the God of classical Christian theism. Instead, it offers deep engagement with ongoing intellectual projects as diverse as the speculative realism of Quentin Meillassoux and the object-oriented ontology of Graham Harmon. It is, in short, a work that exemplifies what Christian scholarship can look like at the very highest echelons.

I must admit that I’m predisposed to be sympathetic to Pickstock, given that she happens to be one of the leading lights of the “Radical Orthodoxy” movement in Anglophone theology, alongside John Milbank and Graham Ward. It is impossible to properly distill this project into a single pithy phrase, but at its core, Radical Orthodoxy develops a totalizing critique of modern discursive presuppositions—about the sacred and secular, nature and grace, and so on—and in so doing draws on the distinctly Neoplatonic dimensions of Thomas Aquinas’s thought to assert the centrality of theology to all things. And it is a project that, I freely confess, has had a great influence on my own theological, philosophical, and political-theoretical development over the last several years.

That isn’t to say this model is beyond criticism, though. In its emphasis—following the Platonic tradition—on eternal verities over transient historical phenomena, certain dimensions of the Christian faith naturally receive rather less of an accent. Chief among these is the weight of history: Rusty Reno argued as early as 2000 that movement thinkers “often express a deep ambivalence about its concrete particularity and the authority it exerts over the Christian life,” such that work in this vein “demonstrate[s] an overall ambivalence about the role of Scripture, creed, and inherited ecclesial practice that moves in a modernist direction.” The messy scrum of practice and reflection across finite time, in short, tends to fall by the wayside.

Reno’s critical view has been joined by others, including Lutherans. Some years ago, Mark Mattes—author of the stimulating Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal—penned a lengthy critique of this movement from a Lutheran perspective, affirming Milbank’s “insightful analysis of modernity” but ultimately concluding that “Lutherans will not be able to follow Milbank in most of his constructive proposals.” There’s a good deal that I agree with in Mattes’s assessment, but I would note that he generally argues for a stronger disjunction, metaphysically speaking, between Thomism and Lutheran theology than I would; my reading of the Lutheran scholastics leads me to conclude that there are substantially greater theoretical affinities between these two traditions than has often been stressed. (Indeed, certain Thomistic metaphysical distinctives—such as a firm rejection of the “univocity of being”—emerge in the work of Lutheran writers as celebrated, and chronologically “late,” as Francis Pieper.) I don’t think I would uncritically endorse any contemporary theological project root and branch, but I’ve concluded over the years that the work of Radical Orthodoxy’s proponents can open up avenues for theological reflection and synthesis that don’t always come to the fore within the circles of confessional Lutheranism, a tradition that sometimes tends to emphasize certain familiar aphorisms in lieu of “doing the work” of Christian philosophy itself.

That being said, it must squarely be acknowledged that the only God that is accessible to philosophic reason, the unconditioned metaphysical Absolute, may logically be the proper subject of religious worship (as the source of all things), but in itself is quite far from a God that inspires devotion or that can rightly be called “Abba, Father.” Mattes’s sharpest observation, I think, is his insight that “[w]ith Milbank”—and, presumably, with Radical Orthodoxy writ large—”we would never experience the ‘preached God,’ only the hidden, unpreached God.” And to the extent one affords reason absolute pride of place over revelation, that criticism lands; apart from some alternative indicia of genuine divine goodness, this Absolute must always be encountered as the deus absconditus who rightly inspires primal dread.

The precise nature of this dread, though, becomes clear only upon deeper reflection. Whereas Luther depicted the dread of the “unpreached God” as a matter of divine wrath—as in, the moral holiness of God juxtaposed against the reality human sinfulness—that is not the only way in which the “unpreached God” can be a source of fear. In the simplest terms: does the Neoplatonic metaphysical vision at the heart of Radical Orthodoxy really do justice to fundamental human longings, without more?

Mattes remarks at one point in his critique that “for all [Milbank’s] defense of participation”—that is, participation in God—“we must recognize that such talk can serve as a defense against our finitude.” That is, Mattes submits, to speak too incautiously of participation in God is to risk improperly elevating the creature to quasi-divine status. But I think Mattes gets it precisely backward: from a certain perspective, talk of participation serves to heighten one’s sense of human finitude, to the point of triggering genuine existential despair. Because everything that one is—both finite essence and finite existence—comes from and returns to God, to be a contingent being is ultimately to be suspended above the metaphysical abyss of the Absolute. And metaphysical reason tends naturally toward the conclusion that, at the conclusion of one’s life and the dissolution of one’s finite body, one must experience final extinction into the infinite reality that is God.

To put a finer point on it, there is no promise of a Parousia within this cosmological scheme. The rhythm of exitus and reditus—the departure of all finite existents from, and their inevitable return to, the unitary divine—is not necessarily a benign experience for the individuated soul: the human creature’s final “divinization” may be akin to a candle being snuffed out, the dissolution of the individual soul in the holy depths of God. (The point is contested by scholars of comparative religion, but there are similarities here to how the Buddhist tradition has traditionally described the experience of moksha, or liberation from the karmic cycle of birth and rebirth.)

The Christian tradition’s promise of the “resurrection of the body,” within the span of redeemed time, stands over against such an end. If the promise of resurrection is taken at its word, this means that the final consummation of all things entails the preservation of human beings in their individuality, and thus their capacity to be in relation to other human beings and to God. And the sheer gratuity of the resurrection of the dead—its non-necessity within the terms of Neoplatonic metaphysics—is the stuff of the Gospel, over against the Law (of exitus/reditus, the metaphysical rhythm of the God not preached).

In short, while Radical Orthodoxy is undoubtedly an intellectual movement characterized by its courageous willingness to dissolve longstanding polarities (sacred/secular, nature/grace, etc.), it seems to me that the Law/Gospel dialectic that plays so foundational a role in Lutheran theology cannot be so readily brushed aside. In the end, it is that dialectic that grounds the particularity of the eschatological promise, over against the sterile metaphysical conclusions toward which unassisted human reason naturally inclines. Apart from the “preached God”—the God who promises something more for us as individuals than our final dissolution into the glory of the infinite—we are indeed lost.

John Ehrett is editor in chief of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

Photo of John Ehrett
John Ehrett
John Ehrett is an STM candidate at the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a Commonwealth Fellow at the Davenant Institute.
Friday, July 2nd 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church