Monday, October 16, 2006

Benedict's Regensburg address and "Radical Orthodoxy"

I am far from learned in the ways of theology, but one thing that struck me in reading Benedict's Regensburg address was the similarity between his themes and those of the "Radical Orthodoxy" theological movement. (The latter is a mostly Anglo-Catholic trend in academic theology with connections to the current Archbishop of Canterbury. Its leading lights are John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock).

This is an interesting fact in part because Radical Orthodoxy is politically leftist, not rightist, and hostile to the "Global War on Terror" (as, of course, Benedict has been).


Luther entertained no such project [as "knowledge by faith alone"]: on the contrary, he broadly accepted the framework of late medieval nominalist philosophy. Now this philsophy was itself the legatee of the greatest of all disruptions carried out in the history of European thought, namely that of Duns Scotus, who for the first time established a radical separation of philosophy from theology by declaring that it was possible to consider being in abstraction from the question of whether one is considering created or creating being. Eventually this generated the notion of ontology and an epistemology unconstrained by, and transcendentally prior to, theology itsef. .. The very notion of a reason-revelation duality, far from being an authentic Christian legacy, itself results only from the rise of a questionably secular mode of knowledge. By contrast, in the Church Fathers or the early scholastics, both faith and reason are included within the more generic framework of participation in the mind of God [...]

"The Theological Critique of philosophy" in ed. J. Milbank et al., Radical Orthodoxy


In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness.


In the year 1277, the Christian West reached its crisis: certain drastic edicts issued by the archbishops of Paris and Canterbury meant that it decided more or less to outlaw the common Hellenistic legacy of Aristotle fused with Neoplatonism, and blended with allegorical readings of the Hebrew Bible, which it shared with Islam, Judaism, and Byzantium. A common culture of mystical philosophy and theology, focused around analogy and ontological participation--—which has also tended to favor social participation--was rendered impossible. The West went in one direction and Islam in another, since Islam, too, inclined in this period to outlaw this perspective. Islam became a doctrinally orthodox, scriptural, and legalistic civilization to the exclusion of dialectics and mystical theology (apart from newly enhanced Sufistic tendencies).

The conventional view is that from that point forward, the West became secular and Islam became theocratic. But that seems to me to be a half-truth. In fact, by abandoning the shared mystical outlook, Western Christian theology started to look more and more itself like Islamic orthodoxy; it started to read the Bible more like the Qur'an, allowing only the literal meaning and construing that meaning more narrowly than it had. The new stress in the fourteenth century, that only God's will makes things true and right, echoed earlier Islamic Kalam theology and some of the ideas of Al-Ghazali.


Dehellenization first emerges in connection with the postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word.

The common narrative is the following:

*Patristic and meideval Christianity was characterized by a beneficial synthesis of faith and reason. The critical concept was Platonic "participation" as the link between the created and the creator.

*This synthesis was first disrupted in Islamic thought, where Platonic and Aristotlean conceptions of divine rationality were thought to limit God's freedom.

*The Islamic emphasis on God's freedom as against God's rationality migrated to Europe through Duns Scotus and the nominalist late scholastics (boo!)

*Duns had a huge impact on the Reformation and on modern philosophy and, through it, the scientific idea of rationality and the liberal concept of justice.

*The whole thing leads to a dangerous choice between nihilism and fundamentalism.

*Islam and Western secularism are not opposed -- they are variants of the same heresy.

*We need to somehow get back to the Patristic/medieval way of thinking about faith and reason.

I'm not learned enough to know if Benedict and Milbank are theologically related by common descent or mutual influence. Milbank thinks the counter-Reformation, with its emphasis on the authority of the hierarchy and ultimately the Pope was also part of the unfortunate development of modernity; not surprisingly, that theme is absent from Benedict's lecture.

Much of Milbank's political analysis has the weakness of a lot of Chomskyan critiques -- the West is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. UNOCAL seeking pipeline opportunities in Afghanistan and American toleration of Saudi norms in the interests of making a buck are denounced in neocon terms, but neoconservatism is denounced as imperialist. Milbank makes some sensible points (terrorists are not like medieval pirates) and some not-sensible ones (" Detailed and objective analyses by Le Monde and many other reliable sources show that what is currently being played out in Afghanistan is not a war against terrorism nor a response to the attack on the Twin Towers, but le nouveau grand jeu de Kipling. Multiple interests are trying to seize control of one of the largest pools of natural resources in the world in the former Soviet and largely Islamic territories to the north. " Dude, there are cheaper ways to get natural resources.) Benedict is a bit more worldly.

But the critical point, which few of my bretheren and sisteren on the secular left have grasped, is that we cannot begin to understand the issues of the day without learning some medieval theology.

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