Romantic Orthodoxy, Militant Atheism, and a Question of Style

In a recent article, “The New Divide: Romantic versus Classical Orthodoxy,” Modern Theology 26 (2010), the Anglican theologian John Milbank, has identified a new divide between “romantic” and “classical” orthodoxy, one which replaces the older divide between theological orthodoxy and liberalism. Romantic orthodoxy affirms a link between reason and eros and opposes strict rationalism, while classical orthodoxy locates in a particular reading of Thomas a proper use of reason and a scholastic legacy. The difference between them, claims Milbank, is a difference in the understanding of the relationship between nature and grace. Classical orthodoxy, while arguing for the power of reason to supply proof of the existence of God and the plausibility of revelation, simultaneously confesses its own inadequacy and embraces “the completely supernatural content of the act of faith” (Milbank 29). Fideism accompanies rationalism. For proponents of romantic orthodoxy, however, “critical mediation” between the realms of nature and grace plays a crucial role. Reason itself descends, restoring and exalting damaged human reasoning processes. This reason is the Incarnation, while the words of the Bible “anticipate, echo, enforce and again anticipate the epiphanic descent of reason itself to humanity” (Milbank 30).

One cannot obtain a priori knowledge of this reason. Rather, the natural world “constitutes a book signed by its author in whose being it participates by virtue of that author’s creative action” (Milbank 30). As Terry Eagleton puts it in Reason, Faith, and Revelation, (2009) citing Albert Einstein, looking at the world and finding that it admits of rational explanation is the most incomprehensible thing about it. Rationality itself needs to be explained. It cannot be the one thing the “neutral” scientist is allowed to accept unquestioningly, at least not if she wants to play by the strict rules of detached objectivity. Rationality itself vitiates that project. Participation or illumination, on the other hand, accounts for this phenomenon and rehabilitates rationality. Thus, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams writes:

My intellection is – in the Germanic phrase – ‘always already’ addressed, impressed, illuminated; but therefore also acting upon, processing, and transforming raw data. There is never a confrontation between those two mythological entities of modern epistemology – the innocent receptacle of the disinterested mind and the uninterpreted data of external reality. (Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love [2005], 24)

Milbank has pursued this theological vision and its implications throughout his storied career dating back to his radical intervention into social theory with Theology and Social Theory (1990), a book that has been called a “bombshell” and a “shock.” His efforts with peers Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward in establishing Radical Orthodoxy (RO) have inspired theologians and cultural theorists as diverse as Anglo-Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals. Milbank was for more than a decade the enfant terrible of both theology and social theory; his vision took its place among many different critiques of Enlightenment rationality. If humanists indebted to the Enlightenment project, who often followed their premises to the conclusion of atheism, were dismayed by the rise of postmodernism, they had all the more reason to find RO provocative. That was the point. Milbank had fashioned a discourse in which he could participate that could no longer easily be dismissed as irrelevant simply because it was theological. It might be postmodern. At the same time, Milbank displayed an impressive mastery of those very postmodern critiques and offered a stunning critique of them. It was, of course, a theological critique. Instead of an ontology of violence he asserted an ontology of peace. If his opponents marshalled non-foundational arguments, he could do the same. In many ways RO pushed the non-foundational arguments farther than their opponents. Milbank tells part of that story here, identifying RO as a main participant in “romantic orthodoxy” (Milbank 29-30).

As a component in his description of the new divide, he identifies the rise of “a more militant atheism” as marking a cultural shift that helps define the new divide. Interestingly, though, he leaves unconsidered a significant aspect of this shift. It is quite possible that a rise in militant atheism is at least in part attendant upon strategies deployed by romantic orthodoxy. In establishing the program of RO, Milbank deliberately carried the fight to the ideologies of unbelief. He instantiated the need for bearing witness in the absence of a mythological neutral ground. Such a witness could be preemptive and authoritative. Milbank hints at how such a strategy could find itself at home in Catholicism when he writes, “The sense of crisis and the need for a common Christian defence of basic values of our humanity has led to a far greater Protestant understanding of the Roman Catholic Church and even to a partial acceptance of the need for the kind of authority which it embodies” (Milbank 26). While in Milbank’s description the crisis of militant atheism precedes and necessitates the embrace of authoritative Catholicism, the latter has enabled RO’s non-foundational positioning.

Insofar as romantic orthodoxy is proactive and not merely reactive, it arguably helps to create atheistic hostility. Even if its ontology is peace, it will not necessarily look that way in medias res. Just as the Dufflepuds in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader could not, in their impoverished spiritual condition, see that certain actions on the part of the local lord and magician were in their own best interests, so too atheists cannot see that authoritative witness bearing on the part of Christians is in theirs. It can look militant. The question thus arises as to whether Milbank and RO have been justified in adopting the aggressive strategy for which they are known. Have Radical Orthodoxy miscalculated the relative gains and losses of their approach? The objectivizing rhetoric in which Milbank reports the datum and the aporia on the question of reciprocity would suggest some anxiety about the matter on his part. Perhaps a less acerbic style of engagement might not have contributed to the rise of militant atheism.

The cultural criticism of Milbank’s great friend and mentor Rowan Williams provides an instructive alternative approach, though with shared theological commitments. Milbank’s style of engagement stands in marked contrast to that of Williams. After Theology and Social Theory and the publication of his dissertation on Giambattista Vico, the father of sociology, Milbank has concentrated his efforts within the field of theology with The Postmodern God (1997), The Word Made Strange (1997), and Truth in Aquinas (2001), among other works, though he has also published a volume of poetry. Williams, by contrast, has delicately striven to apply a similar theological vision to the reading of culture in terms that more obviously invite non-Christian engagement. His Lost Icons (2002) provides a superb model of Christian cultural criticism, as does his imaginative conversation with Phillip Pullman regarding Pullman’s aggressively anti-Christian trilogy, His Dark Materials. Williams was at once disarmingly affirming and remorselessly precise in redescribing the issues Pullman would address. His recent book on Dostoevsky similarly takes him into a subtle engagement both of Russian literature and Bakhtinian literary theory.

Williams’s introduction to the aesthetic theory of Jacques Maritain, the latter a notable proponent of “incarnational humanism,” exemplifies his careful, enticing, and uncompromising dialogical approach. At the start of Grace and Necessity he introduces religion into the discussion of aesthetics by alluding to “a very ambitious religious metaphysic” and pointing out that “as a matter of fact this specific metaphysical essay proved to be a scheme that made sense to a number of practising artists.” He acknowledges that “It sounds an unpromising beginning in some ways; a religious metaphysics is surely a potently ideological ground for interpretation…” but balances this concession with the insistence that “one of the serious underlying questions raised by looking at this scheme is whether there is an unavoidably theological element to all artistic labour” (Williams 4-5). Remarkably, he does not press a direct point but rather only insists that a serious question is raised; at the same time, thought, he suggests that it has implications not only for those influenced directly by the essay but for all art. At the end of the study he similarly holds back from making a direct claim, yet presses the relevance of Christian theology for art nonetheless:

As I have said, I don’t intend to argue that only Christian theology can make sense of art; but the tradition I have been examining would claim that theology has, as we might put it, a story to tell about artistic labour which provides a ground for certain features of it and challenges it to be faithful to certain canons of disinterest and integrity. That this helps to foster art which is intensely serious, unconsoling, and unafraid of the complexity of a world that the secularist too can recognize might persuade us to give a little more intellectual house-room to the underlying theology than we might at first be inclined to offer. (Williams 169-70)

Williams gently insists, like a good detective or scientist, that Christian theology accounts for certain features of art and gives art a way to be true to itself; his primary goal here is to put theology in a good dialogical position, to combat an assumption of Christian anti-intellectualism beyond the narrow purview of theology.

Milbank is not Williams, nor should he be. But the difference between their approaches is suggestive. On the one hand Milbank’s more aggressive enactment of the tenets of romantic orthodoxy occurs within what is at least superficially the narrower scope of theology proper, while Williams instantiates humanistic cultural criticism, aesthetic theory that celebrates the message-free nature of art, and Bakhtinian literary criticism. I strongly suspect that the Archbishop is far less likely to provoke militant atheism. Nor does Williams dodge the responsibilities of romantic orthodoxy, for it is precisely in the difficult area of humanistic studies that the de Lubacian understanding of nature and grace must be teased out. Milbank has taught us that Enlightenment humanism cannot be allowed to construct its own self-referential categories like rationality or aesthetics. Undoubtedly we will continue to confront the secular assumptions of liberal humanism and agonistic postmodernism; perhaps no one has done so more uncompromisingly than Milbank. But skirting the issue of how militant atheism may have arisen in direct relation to some of the most exciting developments within theology may amount to a missed opportunity for reflecting on various strategies to advance the project of romantic orthodoxy.

Eventually the anti-humanist attack within orthodox postmodernism, which significantly enabled Milbank’s own intervention into modernist assumptions, collapsed. As a telling example Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in their recent book Empire, try to rehabilitate the reputation of one of the most famous of anti-humanists, Michel Foucault, as a proper humanist:

Michel Foucault’s final works on the history of sexuality bring to life once again that same revolutionary impulse that animated Renaissance humanism. The ethical care of the self reemerges as a constituent power of self-creation. How is it possible that the author who worked so hard to convince us of the death of Man, the thinker who carried the banner of antihumanism throughout his career, would in the end champion these central tenets of the humanist tradition?…In fact, this antihumanism follows directly on Renaissance humanism’s secularizing project, or more precisely, its discovery of the plane of immanence. Both projects are founded on an attack on transcendence. (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire [2000], 91)

The argument here, that Foucault’s antihumanism “follows directly on Renaissance humanism’s secularizing project,” in one sense exemplifies the recent manifestation of militant atheism that Milbank identifies. Radical Orthodoxy deserve no small credit for having a role in necessitating a redescription of Foucault’s project, for they were among those who showed how anti(modernist)humanism created space for a different understanding of reality, an ontology of peace. Yet a more basic opposition reveals itself between philosophy and theory (social and literary theory especially) on the one hand and Christian belief (or even, more generally, transcendence) on the other.

This antagonism, however, including its expression in quite militant forms, is not altogether newly on the rise. To give just one example of a significant hostility between humanism and belief, Simon Critchley has recently described the task of philosophy in such a way that pits philosophy as a core human enterprise (with a living tradition) against religious belief. “Heidegger notes,” he writes,

in a striking remark from 1925, thinking of Nietzsche, “philosophical research is and remains atheism, which is why philosophy can allow itself the ‘arrogance of thinking.’” Philosophy is nothing if not arrogant, and furthermore it should be arrogant, a continual arrogation of the human voice….So, in my view philosophy – at least under modern conditions – is atheism, and to have an experience of faith would mean stopping doing philosophy…stopping immediately…right away. (Simon Critchley, Very Little…Almost Nothing [1997], 3 first emphasis his, second mine)

The modern, narrowly humanistic tradition of philosophy (with its arrogation of the human voice) has set itself staunchly against transcendence and against the intellectual credibility of believers.

Nouvelle théologie has been one of the most significant sources of resistance to such an opposition. Milbank’s short but poetically dense introduction to de Lubac’s thought in The Suspended Middle (2005), together with his more cursory treatment of the latter’s theology in “The New Divide,” explores the paradoxical relationship between the supernatural and the humanistic, the realms of grace and nature. “Le Surnatural, c’est du réel précis” [The Supernatural is the real in all its precision], he writes epigraphically, quoting filmmaker Robert Bresson. Milbank sees this statement as embodying a sensibility “at the heart of the Catholic cultural revival in the twentieth century” ( Milbank, Suspended Middle, x). Williams similarly resists such an opposition between intellectual life and belief when he suggests that theological explanations of art deserve “a little more intellectual house-room…than we might at first be inclined to offer” (Williams 170).

Both de Lubac and Williams have been more broad and more coy than Milbank in their engagement of culture, de Lubac by sheltering his thought as historical investigation and Williams by redescribing the losses and the questions of contemporary culture in terms that only very quietly urge the intellectual relevance of the Christian tradition. Milbank has chosen a different strategy, one not without its merits but different nonetheless. The question of styles of engagement remains as a metaquestion behind these varied efforts, in particular Milbank’s fresh delineation of two forms of orthodoxy in “The New Divide.” There is scope for discussing those strategies more explicitly. Though the goal cannot be to minimize the rise of militant atheism, to mollify one’s opponents, it is worth our asking if our strategies are contributing to its rise.

Norm Klassen
St Jerome’s University

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One Response to Romantic Orthodoxy, Militant Atheism, and a Question of Style

  1. Charles Fernandes says:

    Norm–Thanks for the illuminating comment on Milbank and Williams. I have long thought that one of the key questions in this discussion has to do with the status of “raw data.” As somebody who studied statistics at a fairly basic level some years ago, I noticed that there is no “raw data.” There are always research questions, and templates for tracking phenomena which give, in advance, form to what we can notice. Von Balthasar, in an interview I think, says that his own metaphysics, is derived from Goethe’s morphology. I think that von Balthasar’s extended essay on Hopkins in the Glory of the Lord is a good entryway into this perspective–especially if you enjoy Hopkins. Many modern/post-modern conundrums fall away if the forms within which we note things are primary. This leaves “raw data” as a secondary construction of the analysis of the phenomena–still useful, but not foundational.

    In this light, I think that “militant atheism” may be a more worthwhile form for the church to engage with (a la Williams on Pullman) than the social atheism of a world which doesn’t know how to say no to God, much less to say yes. In practical conversation in my ministry with young people, I find much more fruitful dialogue possible with the militant atheists than with the indifferent Catholics.

    Pax et Bonum,


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