A forward from the Hart

Our immediately preceding post mentions Encounter Between Eastern Orthodoxy and Radical Orthodoxy. I thought the forward insightful commentary (from one Orthodox theologian) on the relationship between Eastern Orthodox and Radical Orthodoxy. Here’s that forward by David Bentley Hart.

David Bentley Hart

Apart from an obvious and largely accidental homonymy, and perhaps something of a shared tendency towards combativeness, there seems little uniting Eastern Orthodoxy and the Radical Orthodoxy movement. The former is chiefly marked — or so it often seems — by its historically fated conservatism, its broad indifference to any but the Eastern Church Fathers, its diffidence in regard to philosophical schools and debates outside its own tradition, and its at times admirable and at times deplorable insularity; the latter by its frissons of theological and political radicalism, its militantly ‘Latin’ and ‘Augustinian’ approaches to theology, its fascination with everything au courant in the world of continental thought, and its cheerful openness to an endless variety of influences (the unwholesome on some occasions along with the wholesome). More to the point, perhaps, the former is an ancient Church, comprising (at least, on optimistic traditions and memories, while the latter is a theological movement of recent vintage, the adherents of which can be number (at most) in the hundreds and the purpose of which is to influence the development of speculative theology in all Christian communions. It is, needless to say, difficult fruitfully to compare creatures of such disparate species.
     That said, there is — it seems to me — a natural affinity between the two, and a sphere of interests common to them. Both are, if nothing else, expressions of a single metaphysical and theological traditions. One is a more organic, continuous, ramifying, and floriferous expression, with all the strengths and weaknesses of any purely natural phenomenon, and the other a more reflective and critical expression, nurtured under the conservatory conditions of the academy, with all the security and fragility that entails. But both subsist in an element of what should be described — honestly and proudly — as the Christian Platonist tradition. (Some among the Orthodox take exception to this designation, principally because it is so obviously correct, but it is a fact that Orthodoxy is never more Platonist than when denouncing ‘Platonism’). Everything the Orthodox treasure in the eastern patristic tradition — its emphasis upon the metaphysics of participation, the deification of the creature in Christ, the ascent of the soul to the vision of God, the spiritual reality of the divine image in the soul, the mystical co-inherence of the Body of Christ, and the real will of God to save all human beings, as well as its salutary ignorance of any real partition, conceptual or ontological, between nature and grace — constitutes the native atmosphere in which Radical Orthodoxy has evolved. Even the latter’s ‘Augustinianism’ is devoid of any of those special features of the late Augustine’s catastrophic misreading of Paul that are so profoundly distasteful to Eastern Christians: the doctrine of predilective predestination ante praevisa merita, the morbidly forensic understanding of original sin, the thrashing legions of unbaptized babies descending to their perpetual and condign combustion, and so on. The radically orthodox Augustine is the saner, more Platonist soul of the earlier theology, rather than the author of De correptione, the Retractiones, and the Enchiridion.
     All of that, however, amounts to little more than saying that Eastern Orthodox tradition and the theology of Radical Orthodoxy reflect many of the same broad currents of Catholic tradition. The more crucial rationale, though, for the sort of serious engagement between the two parties this volume represents is that they are already involved in a sort of tacit alliance against a single enemy. Each is, in its distinctive way, a kind of evasion of or rebellion against modernity. Granted, in the case of the Orthodox Church, the ‘evasion’ has been more a matter of omission and of historical circumstance than of a conscious resistance to the pathologies of modern thought and culture, and so the ‘rebellion’ sometimes degenerates into a depressingly imprecise hostility towards ‘the West’ as a whole. And granted, also, in the case of Radical Orthodoxy, both the evasion and the rebellion at times seem almost utopian in their abstraction from the concrete particularities of communities and nations and ecclesial traditions. But, in both cases, one encounters an ethos naturally antagonistic to post-Christian understandings of the self, of freedom, and of society, and to the dehumanizing and ultimately nihilistic consequences towards which they lead. And, in both cases also, one encounters an awareness that the most destructive forces within modernity were in some sense incubated within theology (though again, in the case of some Eastern Christians, this awareness is sometimes diffused into a more general, and somewhat vacuous, distrust of ‘Latin’ theology as a whole.
     It is a commonplace (though, happily, a sound one) to observe that much of the modern vision of reality — the ‘mechanical philosophy’, the reduction of the concept of freedom to that of pure spontaneity of will, the politics of the absolutist state, and so on — was to some extent obscurely born in the late mediaeval collapse of the Christian metaphysical tradition as it had developed over more than a millennium and especially in the rise of nominalism and voluntarism. The original impulse guiding these developments, of course, was a desire upon the part of certain theologians to affirm as radically as possible the sovereign transcendence of God; but the image of God thus produced — as hardly needs to be said — was ultimately of a super-rational and even super-moral God, whose divinity consisted entirely in the omnipotence and arbitrariness of his will, and who was not truly transcendent of his creation, but merely the supreme power within it. In detaching God’s freedom from God’s nature as Goodness, Truth, and Charity — as this theology necessarily, if not always intentionally did — Christian thought laid the foundations for many of those later revolutions in philosophy and morality that would help to produce the post-Christian order. It was inevitable after all, that the object of the voluntarist model of freedom would migrate from the divine to the human will, and that a world evacuated of its ontological continuity with God’s goodness would ultimately find no place for God within itself. And, in early modernity, when the new God of infinite and absolute will had to a very great degree displaced the true God from men’s minds, the new technology of print assured that all Christians would make the acquaintance of this impostor, and through him come to understand true liberty as a personal sovereignty transcending even the dictates and constraints of nature.
     Moreover — more crucially — the God thus produced was monstrous: an abyss of pure, predestining omnipotence, whose majesty was revealed at once in his unmerited mercy towards the elect and his righteous wrath against the derelict. And he was to be found in the theologies of almost every school: not only Jansenism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism, but also the theology of the Dominican Thomists, such as Bañez and Alvarez (though the Dominicans, through their superior faculty for specious reasoning, did a better job of convincing themselves that their God as a good God). That modern Western humanity came in large measure to refuse to believe in or worship such a God was ineluctable, and in some sense extremely commendable (no one, after all, can be faulted for preferring atheism to Calvinism or the old ‘two-tiered’ Thomism).
     In any event, these are old arguments and there is no need to rehearse them here. All I wish to point out is that Eastern Orthodoxy — and Radical Orthodoxy — through its rejection and abhorrence of them — are already in some way bound together in a single destiny; and, as the community of believing European Christians continues to dwindle away (as it certainly will, far into the foreseeable future), then should not hesitate to lend their strengths each to the other, and to mend their own infirmities thereby. What such an interaction might produce is difficult to say, but one might venture a few guesses. Perhaps certain Eastern Orthodox theologians might be moved to reconsider the Eastern hostility towards Augustine that has become such a vogue among the Orthodox in the past five decades, and that has made many of them insensible to the brilliance even of works such as De Trinitate, and that continues to produce offensively silly caricatures of Augustine’s theology in Orthodox scholarship. Perhaps, by the same token, certain of the radically orthodox could be weaned from their preposterous refusal to acknowledge that Augustine’s late theology of nature and grace, sin and election, must be accounted the chief cause within the Latin tradition of that tradition’s susceptibility to the appeal of voluntarism. Some Eastern theologians might be emboldened partly to abandon the Neo-Palamite theology that has become so dominant in their Church since the middle of the last century, and frankly acknowledge its incoherence, and come to recognize that in many ways Augustine or Thomas was closer to the Greek Fathers in his understanding of divine transcendence than was Palamas (at least, Palamas as he has come to be understood); these theologians might even feel freer to avail themselves of many of the riches of their own traditions that have been forgotten as a result of the triumph of the Neo-Palamite synthesis. And perhaps some of the radically orthodox, taking the example of modern Eastern theology more to heart, might learn better to integrate the mystical and spiritual dimensions of the faith into their expositions of doctrine and into their theological speculations. Most importantly, perhaps, the Eastern Orthodox might be reminded by their encounters with Radical Orthodoxy that a true defiance of the more nihilistic currents of modernity should take the form not simply of a retreat into liturgical and spiritual traditions, but of a social and political philosophy as well. And perhaps the radically orthodox might profit from an exposure to the sheer obduracy of Eastern Christianity — the effect of decades and centuries of misfortune and oppression — and learn to fortify themselves against the almost certain failure of their project as a social and political force.
     One could go on, of course, but the endless addition of one ‘perhaps’ to another leads nowhere, except in the direction of an ever more random association of ideas. Suffice it to say that the time is ripe for a collection of this sort and–both for the conversation it comprises and for the further conversations it portends — this book is a worthy object of celebration.


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