Under the category of “Things I will work on after tenure”, I’ve long wanted to more fully develop my ideas for an incarnational political theology. Previously, I published the following here, but I repost it now because I believe readers at CLR Forum may be particularly able to offer constructive comments. Whether in my reading of Radical Orthodoxy scholarship or my own writings on religious freedom in comparative perspective, I find myself returning repeatedly to the idea that sustainable pluralism will require a theological foundation.
William T. Cavanaugh is a scholar of Radical Orthodoxy – an intellectual movement that originated in 1990s Britain (especially Cambridge University and the University of Nottingham), and one that can broadly be characterized as postmodern Christian theology.[i] It proclaims its radicality in four parts: 1) a return to patristic and medieval roots, most particularly to the Augustinian formulation of knowledge as divine illumination; 2) efforts to deploy this recovered sensibility to offer bold criticisms of modern society, culture and philosophy; 3) simultaneous to the criticism of modernity, a realization that the inherited tradition itself must be rethought in light of the challenges of the postmodern era; and 4) a recognition that, just as Christian critics of the Enlightenment identified the destruction by secularity of those things it claimed most to celebrate (e.g. embodied life, self-expression, sexuality, aesthetic experience and human political community), “only transcendence, which ‘suspends’ these things in the sense of interrupting them, ‘suspends’ them also in the other sense of upholding their relative worth over-against the void”.[ii] Put briefly, Radical Orthodoxy refutes secularism in favor of a Platonic-Christian participatory theology “which alone can lead us to God”.[iii] Though it is not unproblematic, Radical Orthodoxy is nevertheless a significant intellectual endeavor that merits serious engagement by scholars writing within a variety of disciplines and theological/philosophical traditions.
In his stimulating essay, The City: Beyond Secular Parodies, Cavanaugh opens with a Biblical narrative – the themes of which have appeared in the work of Luther, Calvin and Niebuhr, among others. For example, he uses the New Testament writings of Paul and John, alongside patristic texts, to present Christianity’s story of creation, fall and redemption as “the loss and regaining of a primal unity”.[iv] This is central to his political theology, for, as Cavanaugh argues, modern social contract theorists such as Hobbes (but also Locke and Rousseau) were attempting, fundamentally, to redeem human society from the effects of brokenness (e.g. pride, violence, theft, war) through the mechanism of the state.[v] Cavanaugh deems these efforts a failure for three primary reasons.