Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Trouble with Romantic Orthodoxy

In recent centuries a series of movements have arise within Christendom which might be characterized as "Romantic Orthodoxy" (I believe Fr. Alexander Schememann coined the term, and applied it to certain persons whom he was critical of within EO).

  There are a number of examples of this phenomenon, but the first of note was Oxford movement in Britain beginning in the mid-Nineteenth century.  The movement was successful and ultimately gave rise to the phenomenon of "Anglo-Catholicism."  Like the Romantic movement before it on the Continent and Britain which had reacted to the Enlightenment, the Oxford movement was a constructor of imaginary pasts.  Finding post-Enlightenment Protestant Liberalism and Evangelicalism equally odious, and unwilling to convert to post-Tridentine Catholicism (which for them had its own problems!) the founders of the movement sought to reconnect with an earlier catholic Christianity.  In order to do this, they constructed an imaginary patristic-medieval Christianity (which never really existed!) from bits and pieces of actual patristic and medieval texts and liturgies.  Part of this drive to return to this invented past was the desire to return home to an original and pure organic community already present in Romanticism.  The Enlightenment and the industrial revolutions had constructed atomistic individuals by displacing people from their ancestral homes.  To counteract this, the Romantic movement sought to construct an ur-community, that connected disparate individual into an organic unity- hence the rise of make-believe national communities in the 19th century such as "German" or "Italian."  For the Oxford movement, the organic ur-community became the Church-catholic, with its three branches of EO, RCC, and COE.

Newer versions of Romantic orthodoxy have been invented in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  The first would be the Nouvelle theologie of Henri de Lubac, which came about as a reaction to the Neo-Thomistic revival of the 1870s and the so-called "Manual Theologians."  Again, the proponents of this position sought to "retrieve"(their favorite term!) an older form of the Great Tradition through patristic and medieval scholarship.  More so than did the Oxford movement, the de Lubac constructed a narrative of the fall of Catholic Christianity: Cardinal Cajetan (the inventor of modern Thomism) had, in his commentary on the Summa, separated nature from grace.  By contrast, Thomas had only spoken about pure nature as an abstraction.  In the abstract, nature could be separated from grace.  Nevertheless, in the concrete it always existed in a form saturated by grace.  The separation of nature from grace in modern Catholic theology had led to individualism and created secular society (i.e., a realm in which nature, independent of grace moves toward purely natural ends!).  It goes without saying we here again see the ideal of organic community and the need to return to an earlier integrative vision (i.e., all things participating in God through the order of grace).

Radical Orthodoxy (which, as many of you know, is all the rage at the moment) is something of a synthesis of the two.  John Milbank (the school's founder) studied under Rowan Williams at Oxford.  Under William's influence Milbank became an Anglo-Catholic (before this he was a Methodist, interested in Liberation theology, and studying to become a minister rather than a theologian!).  Radical Orthodoxy combines the Nouvelle theologie's  belief in the omnipresence of grace with an insistence on "participatory metaphysics"- i.e. a reliance on the Thomistic doctrine of the analogy of being.  According to the narrative constructed by Milbank in his now classic Theology and Social Theory, the fall of western Christendom came with the separation of grace and nature, and the introduction of the hated Scotistic doctrine of the univocity of being.  The univocity of being claims that qualities can be predicated of God and creature not analogically (as the earlier tradition had claimed) but univocally.  According to Milbank, this both brought God down to the level of creatures, but also distanced him and turned him into a distant monarch who bullied around his creation.  Secular human beings could only be repealed by this and necessarily sought their autonomy from this tyrant.  Moreover, the distance of God and the removal of grace from nature opened up a space called the "secular" where purely natural ends and arbitrary violence ruled.  The Radical orthodox call Christians back (yet again!) to the organic community of the Church catholic and away from the inauthenticity of the secular.  Also, it calls for Christian theologians to adopt a participatory or Realist metaphysic as opposed to a Scotistic or Nominalist one.  As we can observed, the participatory metaphysic is preferred because it suggests that human beings (and indeed all creatures!) are most real when they participate a reality (i.e., universals) which is greater than themselves.  Milbank also understanding the Trinity in this fashion ("Unity and harmony in difference").  In other words, the metaphysics of participation parallels the Romantic quest for organic, integrative community.

These movements have been (for a variety of reasons) appealing to many different theologians.  I was recently asked to review a book by a Reformed theologian (Hans Boersma) who essentially accepts the narratives they offered as objective historical truth.  Some Lutherans have also expressed interest in this vision. The historian Brad Gregory has also recently written an indictment of the Reformation assuming the narrative offered by de Lubac and Milbank as well.

In response to this, I would like to suggest that there are at least two major difficulties with the vision offered by these disparate forms of Romantic orthodoxy.

First, though I cannot go into things in too much detail in this small space, their understanding of Church history and history of Western civilization is questionable at best.  For example, the claim about the Scotistic univocity of being are particularly odd since 1.) Even if they were correct about its dominance (which they are not!), how do they make a credible argument that secular rulers were somehow inspired to create the secular State in the 16th and 17th centuries by some abstract theory about universals?  This presupposes  a very unusual notion historical causation.  2.) The overwhelming majority of Catholic or Protestant Scholastics operating between the 14th and 18th centuries rejected the idea of the univocity of being.  I was having a conversation with Dr. Richard Muller recently and he's written an article that examines 20 different Protestant scholastic theologians and all of them accept the analogy of being and quite openly reject the univocity of being for the same reason as contemporary Thomists do.  Similarly, the claim about pre-14th century theologians (including Aquinas) adhering to a belief in "grace saturated nature" is equally questionable and there have been several recent monographs written debunking this view.  Overall, the vision of the ancient and Medieval Church present by the Romantic orthodox is (in varying degrees) a fantasy.  The real Church of this era was as messy a reality as our own is- this is indeed as it always will be!  I also find the idea of trashing Nominalism to be unfortunate: I enjoy modern science (particularly modern medicine!) and modern democracy (both byproducts of Nominalism!).  I prefer the emphasis of the Nominalists on God's covenants and his individual acts in history.  This led the Reformers away from mystical fantasies about ascending through the heavenly hierarchies and back to the concrete narrative of the Bible (theologia crucis, not theologia gloria!).  I could go on, but you generally get the point. 

Secondly, I would make a theological criticism.  Christianity is about the forgiveness of sins and about the promise of eternal life set forth in the gospel.  Unfortunately, for these folks that becomes secondary for the search for a make-believe mystical organic community.  One can see the problematic effects of this emphasis.  Instead of valuing the real Church (sinners gathered around altar and pulpit), they invent a Romantic Church that is not real, but satisfying as an idea because it fulfills their need for feeling of being integrated into something larger than themselves.  Their own historically bound desires for a particular kind of community dictate for them what real Christianity is, rather than God's Word and his promises in the sacraments.  Ultimately, such a problem and solution are more Neo-Platonic and Romantic than they are Christian.  Pastorally, this is a disaster.  It ignores real sinners and their need for real forgiveness in favor of a view of the Church not unlike the "Platonic Republic" that Melanchthon criticized in the Apology.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings Jack,

    Ditto on Brad Gregory. He's an apologist for Rome. I have viewed his 'History of Christianity in the Reformation Era' DVDs put out by The Great Courses and I felt as if I was paying for a class in Catholic apologetics. To be fair and balanced The Great Courses should put out a set of DVDs on the history of Roman Catholicism and have the Rev Ian Paisley as the lecturer ;-)

    It would have been more honest if the DVDs were put out by Tan books and co-authored with Scott Hahn.