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What is radical orthodoxy?

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Radical orthodoxy is a school of thought that seeks to embrace Augustinian and medieval thought and sees no separation between the sacred and secular; rather, radical orthodoxy promotes a sacred evaluation of all spheres of living. It is considered “radical” in that it embraces a wider view of all knowledge and reason as illumination, but it is considered “orthodox” in that it still adheres to credal Christianity and has roots in Anglicanism and Catholicism. Radical orthodoxy arose in the 1990s.

Radical orthodoxy is usually credited with having its roots at Cambridge University in 1990 when John Milbank published Theology and Social Theory. The vein of thought grew with other theologians like Graham Ward and Catherine Pickstock. Though there is no single, uniform version of radical orthodoxy, there are a few common threads.

Radical orthodoxy seeks to do away with the idea that there can be a separation between the sacred and the secular. That dichotomy has been forced upon society and accepted by the church, but there is no good reason to divide things as either “secular” or “sacred.” Milbank looks at history and writes, “Once, there was no ‘secular’” (Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd edition, Blackwell Pub., 2006, p. 9). Radical orthodoxy rejects modernism and postmodernism and promotes a view of the world in which theology is brought to bear in all of society’s issues, concerns, and activities. In order to make sense, all of life must be viewed through the lens of theology. Instead of a faith vs. reason dichotomy, Milbank asserts that faith is an intensification of reason with divine illumination. Faith itself is a means of knowing.

Summing up the basic philosophy of radical orthodoxy are “four crucial claims”:

• Secular modernity is the creation of a perverse theology;

• The opposition of reason to revelation is a modern corruption;

• All thought which brackets out God is ultimately nihilistic;

• The material and temporal realms of bodies, sex, art, and sociality, which modernity claims to value, can truly be upheld only by acknowledgement of their participation in the transcendent.

(Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, Routledge, ed. by Milbank, J., Ward, G., and Pickstock, C., 1999, frontispiece).

Whether one subscribes to radical orthodoxy as a whole in its appeal to Augustine, Aquinas, Plato, and other thinkers, the ideology does bring up important points about the role of faith in the world and the lordship of Christ over all creation (Ephesians 1:22; 1 Corinthians 15:27; Philippians 2:9–11). Radical orthodoxy rightly encourages believers to engage with the world from a distinctly Christian perspective in all things and not to compartmentalize life and belief into the sacred and the secular. We cannot exclude God from any so-called secular domain.

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This page last updated: September 28, 2022