chapter  12
Radical orthodoxy: beyond secular reason
Pages 20

Colin Gunton’s account of divine revelation and Thomas Torrance’s account of theological science – which informed our discussion of judgemental rationality visà-vis Trinitarian theology in the previous two chapters – both set out to establish the inherent rationality of Christian theology in a manner that does justice to its intrinsic integrity. They argue that, taken on its own terms, and in comparison with other rational enterprises, Christian theology legitimately lays claim to a capacity for judgemental rationality that enables it to penetrate beyond cultural relativism and establish epistemic purchase on ontological realities without recourse to a blind leap of irrational faith. As such, any refutation of Christian truth claims cannot take the short route of dismissing them as inherently irrational, but must rather take the longer route of a sustained intellectual critique grounded in the presentation of an alternative retroductive account of the ultimate order-of-things capable of demonstrating its greater inclusivity and explanatory power. In this chapter we explore an alternative ‘defence’ of the integrity of Christian truth claims, as presented by a prolific group of contemporary theologians operating under the umbrella of ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ (Milbank 1990a, 1990b, 1997, 2003; Ward 1995, 1996, 2000; Pickstock 1998; Milbank et al. 1999; Milbank and Pickstock 2001; cf. Hanby 2003; Miner 2004). Since the early 1990s Radical Orthodoxy has emerged as a distinctive and controversial theological school, rooted in (though not exclusive to) the Anglican tradition, and of sufficient stature to have generated a wealth of secondary commentary (Hemming 2000; Smith 2004; Ruether and Grau 2006; Shakespeare 2007). Unlike Gunton and Torrance, most theologians who identify themselves with Radical Orthodoxy follow John Milbank in rejecting all attempts to demonstrate the compatibility of Christian theology with the canons of occidental reason generated by the Enlightenment – including those, driven by a desire to protect the integrity and distinctiveness of Christian theological discourse, that are willing to critique and reformulate modern accounts of reason and rationality – by defending the startling and altogether more radical claim that human intellectual enterprises that are not grounded in the Christian account of reality are themselves inherently irrational. Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory attempts ‘to disclose the possibility of a sceptical demolition of modern, secular social theory’ from the perspective

of Christian orthodoxy (Milbank 1990a, p. 1). He argues that ‘the most important governing assumptions of such theory are bound up with the modification or the rejection of orthodox Christian positions’ (p. 1). As such, occidental reason cannot legitimately claim to be grounded in objective universal human reason, but rather, and in common with all intellectual enterprises, is irretrievably bound to local constraints and considerations. Consequently, and contra Gunton and Torrance, Christian theology has nothing to gain by striving to demonstrate a level of compatibility (however qualified) with the legacy of the Enlightenment and its claim to access universally warranted reason. Rather, if the ‘Christian perspective is persuasive, then this should be a persuasion intrinsic to the Christian logos itself, not the apologetic mediation of a universal human reason’ (p. 1; emphasis in original). The claims of Radical Orthodoxy are introduced here in order to highlight the richness and diversity of orthodox Christian responses to the epistemic challenges of modernity, and – primarily for reasons of space – no attempt will be made to adjudicate between the perspectives of Gunton and Torrance on the one hand, and Milbank and his colleagues on the other. Given the orthodox Christian commitment to ontological realism and epistemic relativism, Milbank’s distinctive approach to the employment of judgemental rationality constitutes a significant contribution to our exploration of the relationship between Christianity and critical realism.