ISSN 1393-614X Minerva
- An Internet Journal of Philosophy Vol. 12 2008
A Contemporary Platonic-Christianity?– On Radical Orthodoxy
An Extended Review of the ‘The Grandeur
of Reason: Religion, Tradition and Universalism’ conference,
1. The Opening Remit – Visions and Principles
Jacques Derrida, in one of his later essays, spoke to the theme of ‘On An Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy’. It is clear that this apocalypticism has now become a more generalised phenomenon across the humanities and social studies areas, and theology (and specifically British theology) has become its latest purveyor. The movement (or ‘shared sensibility’) of Radical Orthodoxy, originating in Cambridge but at this point more associated with Nottingham Theology department, is focused on the work of John Milbank, but also extends to several other thinkers associated with Milbank, most but not all his ex-students; Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, Gerard Loughlin, Phillip Blond, Conor Cunningham. This well-publicised Rome conference was the second global gathering of the Radical Orthodoxy group, but was also notable for its invitations to thinkers who, on first inspection, might appear radically opposed to the tenets of Radical Orthodoxy and indeed theology per se, such as Giorgio Agamben, Francois Laruelle, James Williams, and the new face of ‘speculative realism’, Quentin Meillassoux. Additionally, other speakers at this plenary-laden conference came from theological backgrounds which might have more intra-theological reasons for opposing or at least questioning Milbank’s approach to theological thinking – Oliver O’Donovan, Fergus Kerr, Stanley Hauerwas and Cyril O’Regan, amongst others. Alongside this rich seam of plenary speakers, more than a hundred papers were given at parallel sessions, again demonstrating the depth and openness of the proceedings, for which the organisers are to be highly commended. With sessions extending from 9am until 9pm, and with some plenary sessions including three extended presentations, the conference was one of immense intensity and excitement, giving credence to the idea of there being a certain kind of ‘apocalypticism’ at work, albeit only within the confines of the conference hall and dining rooms.
The remit of the conference
gave a signal of its ambitious intentions, theologically, but also
philosophically and politico-culturally. Entitled ‘The Grandeur of Reason: Religion,
Tradition and Universalism’, the conference called for a response to the ‘grave
incertitude’ faced by twenty first century humanity, whether such a crisis
relates to technological overdetermination and the resultant problems in
bioethics, the intercultural clash of ‘Islam and the West’ or the intra-Western
crisis in values based on the problematic relationship between secularism and
religion. The vision of the conference was taken from Pope Benedict XVI’s
This new way of understanding the relationship between faith and reason, while it undertakes to critique certain aspects of the premodern tradition, has however as its key target the edifice of modernity and most especially the paradigm of modernist reason which has culminated in what might be referred to as a hegemony, not simply of science, but of ‘scientism’. What brings this reductionism to pass, it is claimed by both Benedict and Radical Orthodoxy, is the ‘self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable’. This would seem to refer most accurately to only a particular version of modernist reason, associated initially with empirical method in science, which in more recent times has come to also be identified with a certain critique of God and religion, emanating most especially from biologists such as Richard Dawkins. In Philosophy, the reach of this paradigm of ‘empirical falsification’ has always been much more restricted (even within analytic philosophy). However, implicitly what is being claimed here is that the self-limitation of reason is a problem not simply for the empirical sciences or such localised philosophies as Logical Positivism but also for the whole of modern thinking itself. Indeed, for Milbank, the problem goes back even prior to modernity (as Scotus is the precursor of modern decline). What is thus crucial to realise here is that the central issue concerns the ‘self-limitation of reason’; the empirical sciences are just one example (albeit a particularly important example) of this problematic phenomenon. Significantly, this is a view shared by several key recent philosophical thinkers (Derrida, Heidegger, Levinas, amongst others). Even more recently, the philosophical ‘movement’ known as Speculative Realism (Messailloux, Brassier, Toscano etc.) has developed such an ‘anti-Kantianism’ (for Kant becomes the paradigmatic enemy in this context) in a singularly more vehement direction. Ray Brassier’s text Nihil Unbound is exemplary here. It is thus no coincidence then that several figures associated with Speculative Realism were invited to the conference and were also namechecked by Milbank in his keynote paper as (at least to a certain extent) allies of the Radical Orthodoxy project. The key allegiance here is to a methodological ‘anti-Kantianism’, although the conclusions reached by the method differ acutely in the respective cases. Once we agree that reason has been limited by ‘self-imposed’ demarcations and reductionism and once we identify the current metaphysical and political crises in our societies as a direct result of such a limitation, it is clear that what is required in a general sense is that we, as Benedict observes, ‘must disclose it’s (i.e. reason’s) vast horizons’. On this, as a general methodological principle not simply Benedict and Radical Orthodoxy, but also Speculative Realism (and most Contemporary philosophy of whatever persuasion) can agree. It is what draws much postmodern and premodern philosophy together in their differentiation from modernity.
is not simply an intra-philosophical problematic, at least as defined by
Benedict in his
a certain intra-philosophical problematicity, in political and social terms the
visionary remit of the conference is also certainly heady stuff – the
enrichment of reason must be tied to the religious vision of life and in so
doing we can overcome the pitfalls of a dry and worn out securalism:
Christianity and Christian philosophy as the foundation of a new global
interculturalism. Once again, however, this would seem to flatter only to
deceive. It is of course true that some of the most innovative and enriched
readings of the intercultural problematic have developed from an
inter-religious perspective or context. But in what measure can a
‘re-hellenization of Christian faith’ (even if taken at its own word)
constitute an inter-religious horizon? This would seem to be more a dialogue or
fusion between paganism and Christianity, and if as already suggested, it is
more in reality a ‘re-Christianisation’ than a ‘rehellenization’, the problem
seems even more acute for the possibilities of an authentic interculturalism.
Where might Islam, for example, fit into this picture? Again, there are real
positive potentialities here. One only needs to look at the relation between
Avicenna and Aquinas (or indeed Aquinas and Averroes; not to mention the Latin
Averroists) to see within the premodern philosophical and theological context a
real resource for intercultural harmony. The key influential figures for all
religious philosophy within the medieval period were of course Plato and
Aristotle – thus one has the Islamic Aristotelianism of Averroes and the
Islamic Platonism of Al Farabi, while Avicenna is a kind of Islamic
Platonic-Aristotelian; equivalent examples abound in Christian and Jewish
medieval thought respectively. When one adds in the extraordinary dependence on
translations and interpretations of the original Hellenic texts across the
three traditions especially (Muslim, Christian, Jewish), one has a clear
example of a genuinely intercultural theoretical milieu. Of course, this
is not very often acknowledged within the specific traditions themselves (not
very often then, even less so now) but the facts nonetheless remain.
Politically and socially, one might look to the history of a medieval city like
2. Analysing the Content of the Conference – Keynotes, Panels and Papers
With over 180 papers in less than four days, and extended plenary sessions which involved sometimes two or three plenary speakers, an exhaustive survey of the conference presentations would be obviously impossible, not least because I could not be in more than one place at any one time. To this extent, my analysis and foregrounding of specific issues will be selective. This is thus hardly meant as the final word on the conference content but rather as an admittedly individual intervention. Before looking more specifically at papers, some general points are worth making. There was a terrific atmosphere at the conference, a strong critical commitment to ideas and discussion amongst the participants which was also accompanied by a genuine respect for speakers and for differences in viewpoint (however this was sometimes despite rather than because of the conference structure; see my Concluding Remarks below). More than any conference I can remember, there was a sense of urgency to the proceedings, a feeling that something was happening, that what was being discussed at each and every panel was relevant and important in practical-political as well as more philosophical terms. The plenary speakers were highly impressive, each and every one of them taking the event very seriously and being very gracious in questions. The organisers are to be highly commended for choosing such a diversity of plenary speakers, which again shows how thinkers who come together in their so-called anti-Kantian methodology can differ so radically in their conclusions and respective findings.
significant number of the panel presentations focused on discussions within
philosophical theology, concerning themselves with key figures from the
tradition such as Augustine, Aquinas or more recent thinkers such as
Chesterton, Balthasar and De Lubac. From a philosopher’s perspective, the
apparently unproblematic referencing of God was initially quite a culture
shock, but probing deeper in each case, I found the presenters to be rigorously
and impressively engaging with philosophical issues from a more avowedly
theological perspective. The student session which I chaired on the opening day
(with contributions from Jackson, Jacobs and Cheung) demonstrated both the
terrific variety but also the interconnection between different approaches and
This question by taken up in a more sustained way by one of the plenary speakers, James Williams, when he addressed the paradigm shift from ‘reason’ to ‘thought’ in more recent Continentalist thought (most especially in Michel Henry and Gilles Deleuze) but also extending back to Kant and Nietzsche. This move from reason to thought also importantly involves a change in the status of the universal, from being originally a universal truth to being a ‘universal individual … where the universal is no longer a matter of content but of process and limitless connection’. To the extent then that the universal becomes connected to ‘flesh’, for example in Henry, or ‘event’, for example in Deleuze, Williams posed the question: can the universal individual truly claim to be universal in the traditional sense? In a different key, this is also one of the themes of Quention Meillassoux’s work (Meillassoux unfortunately had to cancel his appearance due to a bereavement). His ‘absolutization of contingency’ was referred to in Dustin Mc Wherter’s paper on ‘Indifference and Irreligion’. Mc Wherter, one of Brassier’s PhD students at Middlessex, developed the position of Speculative Realism at the conference, invoking Schelling’s notion of Gleichgultigkeit and his conception of a ‘universality of non-relationality’ to seek to undermine the status of a religious God as the Absolute underlying the system. Rather, for Mc Wherter, the invocation or positing of God becomes some kind of arbitrary and unjustifiable move, but what is also significant (referring back to Williams’ paper) is that Mc Wherter and Speculative Realism still lay claim to some kind of ‘universality’, albeit not a universality of ‘content’. The question remains – what kind of universal is this exactly or, more importantly, why do such supposedly ‘nihilist’ thinkers remain seduced by a residual Kantianism? Francois Laruelle’s plenary presentation was on the same panel as Mc Wherter’s and was entitled ‘the Science of Christ’. If I understood this correctly, Laruelle seemed to be doing to theology what he has already tried to do to the philosophical tradition, that is, to look at the decisional structure of a discipline from outside the discipline’s ambit. Here, then Laruelle was presenting a kind of ‘nontheology’ (rather than ‘nonphilosophy’) of theology, and specifically of Christology. Christology would remain blind to its constitutive decisional underpinning. To this listener, Laruelle’s approach (despite all protestations to the contrary) itself seems to involve some form of ‘transcendental decision’, which means that for me his supposed move from an early transcendental (Philosophy I) to a later nontranscendental (Philosophy II-IV) phase masks a fundamental continuity in his work. I found myself (for once) agreeing with the Christologists, contra Laruelle.
Perhaps the most exciting plenary session of the conference was on Wednesday afternoon and entitled ‘Politics and Theology’. Here, the audience was treated to three very specific but related papers, from the big intellectual heavyweights of the conference, Oliver O’Donovan (‘Deliberation, Reflection and Responsibility’), Stanley Hauerwas (‘A Worldly Church: Politics, Theology and the Common Good’) and John Milbank (‘Transcendence and the Scope of Reason’). O’Donovan has long been one of the leading thinkers in British theology, an Augustinian with a special interest in political theology. The son of the late Irish writer Frank O’Connor, O’Donovan presented a paper of near-exquisite precision and poise, guiding the audience through the thicket of Aristotle’s conception of moral practice in the Ethics with ease. Criticisms of O’Donovan’s approach as overly-epistemological seem misguided to the extent that the recourse to Aristotelianism already allows for a grounding of ethics in an ‘ontological’ everyday being-in the-world. However, the tensions between Aristotle and O’Donovan’s usually more Augustinian method would be interesting to look at, as indeed would the tensions more generally between Radical Orthodoxy and the extraordinary Aristotelian bias in Thomism. Hauerwas’s spirited defence of the ‘worldly church’ drawing on Aristotle, MacIntyre and O’Donovan, also elided this problematic issue. When one questioner commented that Hauerwas’ analysis ‘needed more Plato’ (i.e. ‘and less Aristotle’), Hauerwas heroically riposted: ‘no, my friend, I think you need more Jesus’!
Speaking to an already mesmerised audience, John Milbank’s presentation showed why he is the most extraordinary figure to appear on the theological/philosophical scene in quite some time. With a shotgun delivery, Milbank proceeded to declare to the audience how our time was a time of ‘anti-Kantianism’, citing the movement of Speculative Realism as a fiery example (Brassier, Toscano, Meillassoux!) within philosophical circles. But it is Radical Orthodoxy, Milbank claimed, who take this ‘anti-Kantianism’ to its zenith, demonstrating the poverty of rationalism and secularism, but also the poverty of a great deal of what passes for Christian theology but which fails to live up to the ‘radical’ responsibility of an authentic Christianity (Milbank was here vehement about the ‘travesty’ of Karl Barth’s endeavours). The key concepts for Milbank here are ‘transcendence’ and an ‘enlarged reason’ and what he has called elsewhere a ‘theological critique of philosophy’. The heroes of Milbank’s story are the ‘radical pietists’ of the end of the eighteenth century: Hamann, Jacobi, Wizenmann and, to a lesser extent, Herder, but this was a critique of philosophy which was occluded by Barth’s distorted re-telling of the story. Within the premoderns, Scotus lays the foundations for Kantianism by allowing for the ‘autonomy of philosophy’. Against Scotus, Radical Orthodoxy looks back to Augustine (and to a lesser extent Aquinas) as the true source for the evolution of a contemporary ‘post-liberal’ theology. Milbank’s presentation (even for the nonbeliever) was intoxicating and also philosophically precocious. It is clear that he gets up the noses of more traditional theologians who see his work as ‘too philosophical’, but in O’Donovan and Hauerwas, for all their differences, he had two worthy interlocutors, who recognise the inter-dependence between philosophy and theology.
Two other notable plenaries were given by Cyril O’Regan and Fergus Kerr respectively. O’Regan delivered a magnificent analysis of the complex relationship between Balthasar and Heidegger, citing both a ‘welcoming’ and an ‘unwelcoming’ of the latter in Balthasar’s theology. It was the unwelcoming which O’Regan was especially interested in, citing evocatively Balthasar’s conception of a ‘gigantic misremembering’ on Heidegger’s part which distorted the relationship between Heidegger and Christian thought. Kerr’s presentation, while very different in tone, was no less engaging. Introduced as the ‘Sean Connery of British theology’ by the chair Conor Cunningham, Kerr gave a lunchtime plenary while supping from a beer glass (most impressive!). He gave a wonderful reading of the enigmatic relation between Wittgenstein and Marx, full of hilarious and sarcastic asides, which had the audience doubled up. He also outlined an unrelenting critique of the rationalistic hegemony within British philosophy which has had such a terrible effect on British philosophy per se, but also on such philosophy’s wider impact (or consequent lack of impact and alienation from) wider society and culture. Listening to Kerr was a chastening experience for those of us who have experienced the worst excesses of Anglo-American philosophy first hand. This critique of British society and culture was also present in Phillip Blond’s paper, ‘Red Tory: A New Type of Politics’. A stalwart of Radical Orthodoxy from the beginning, Blond is an engaging figure who combines a radical economic egalitarianism with a conservatism about values. His position seeks to restore notions of the common good alongside ‘populist consensus’ (a nod to Laclau) and individual liberty. His references to Chesteron and Belloc would also seem to signify the evolution of a new kind of Catholic social thought.
Cardinal Angelo Scola’s (the Patriarch of Venice) presentation began with a citation from the great Italian poet, philosopher and film-maker Pier Paulo Pasolini: ‘I am filled with a question that I don’t know how to respond to ... It’s impossible to say what type of yell this is …’. This connected with my own paper, ‘A NonMisologist Platonism: Sketching Pasolini’s Roman Truths’, where I focused on Pasolini’s satire on Christ’s passion in his film La Ricotta to exemplify how Pasolini’s work complicates the relationship between Christology and Platonism. In La Ricotta, orthodox Christology finds itself undermined by a more plebeian (Platonic/Socratic) ‘participation’ in the divine, in the figure of the ‘good thief’, Stracci. Stracci’s death by indigestion on the cross next to Christ parodies the death of Christ, but Pasolini’s work also testifies to a serious interrogation of the possibilities of a Platonic-Christian metaphysic, and indeed of a Christian Marxism (as was pointed out to me perceptively in questions by Julian Coman). His work, as Scola’s comments testify, has much to say to the contemporary era. One of my co-presenters on the panel, a Romanian theologian Corneliu Simut, invoked a similar interrogation of Christology, but this time from within an apparently intra-Christian framework (the third paper on the panel was Darrell Lackey’s passionate eulogy to the Christian church, If). Simut’s extraordinary presentation outlined the complex theology of Edward Schillebeeckx. Starting with the moderate assertion of the historicity of the Church and of Christ, Schillebeeckx moves (speaking through Simut) to a much more provocative claim: Jesus is dead. Moreover, in effect, and as Simut brought out engagingly and provocatively, for Schillebeeckx, the Church is also by implication dying or almost dead. For Schillebeeckx, it would seem, Christianity is itself now dead or in its death throes. In a Kierkegaardian key, the Church must die to itself. Against all expectations, our panel turned out to be a harmonious one, from Pasolini to Schillebeeckx, with the irony (not lost on the audience) that the latter appeared the more radical figure.
the most enigmatic plenary of the conference was left until the very last, that
of the distinguished Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben. Agamben’s
presentation, based around his new text Il Regno e La Gloria (‘The
Kingdom and the Glory’) was, for all its subtlety and politeness, reminiscent
of a kind of intellectual guerrilla attack within enemy territory. Ostensibly
hospitable, Agamben’s work on the hierarchical relation between power and glory
and ‘the secret centre of power’ would appear to be highly detrimental to the
Radical Orthodoxy project (Milbank’s politeness as chair may have been less
motivated by a naïvety and more by a complementary faux-hospitality).
Developing what amounts to a neo-Foucauldian analysis of the ‘governmental
machine’, Agamben delineated how what he translated as ‘inoperativity’ is the
description most proper to God and humanity alike. After the Last Judgement,
all that will be left to do for the chosen ones will be ‘glorification of God’.
But, more importantly, so Agamben claims, this ‘inoperativity’ or void (Agamben
also referred to a passage in Aristotle Ethics where humanity is defined
as anergos or ‘without function’) is at the heart of the messianic
community, here and now, and is thus constitutive of God’s being God per se and
of the whole eschatological project of orthodox religion. For (invoking
3. Some Concluding Remarks
After Graham Ward’s rather disappointing presentation on ‘Hegel and the Messianic’ (I am a great fan of Ward’s writings and was expecting more), I asked a rather provocative question. In the context of the supposed remit of the conference as a ‘re-hellenization’ of reason and a new engagement between philosophy and theology, in what measure had anything really changed for Radical Orthodoxy with regard to its methodology? Despite Ward’s claims to be offering an ‘immanent critique’ of Hegel (i.e. demonstrating the internal contradictions of Hegel’s theology and logic), all that was audible to these ears was an externalist critique of Hegel from a Radical Orthodoxy standpoint; ‘the problem with Hegel is...’; ‘what Hegel needed to do was this…’. Underlying this approach, of course, is a stultified and patronising relationship between theology and philosophy which, to be fair to Ward, is not as obviously apparent in his written work. The answer to my question was defensive – simply the reiteration of the claim that the critique was ‘immanent’ rather than externalist, with some rhetoric about the fact that Radical Orthodoxy was simply a ‘shared sensibility’ rather than a ‘movement’.
This, while understandable in the context (my question was itself wholly rhetorical), was, it seems to me, a missed opportunity to say something more significant about the much vaunted ‘re-hellenization’ of reason and the philosophical (as well as theological) status of the concept of ‘transcendence’. For all the bravado of the conference, as well as the genuine excitement and energy, there was a feeling amongst a considerable number of delegates that this question of the fundamental relationship between philosophy and theology had not been addressed adequately. Part of the problem stemmed from their simply being far too many papers and not enough time for discussion. This marginalisation of discussion in favour of presentation sits uneasily with the continual referencing of Plato and Platonism. ‘Participation’ may be an ontological category in Plato’s dialogues but it is also tied to the process of elenchus (refutation) and irreducible dialogue which grounds the Platonic vision of philosophia. Without this dialogical element constituting the space of theoretical speculation and consideration, there is always a danger that what passes for philosophy may simply be mere eristic, or sophistry. The relationship between theology and dialogue may not be so straightforward, but if a new engagement between philosophy and theology is to be an authentic event rather than a simulacrum, then such methodological issues need to be addressed.
Nonetheless, after such an
extraordinary event in
 Given this is an Irish-based philosophy
journal, it seems appropriate to comment on the significant number of
presentations from Irish philosophers and theologians – O’Regan, Mc Donnell, Mullarkey,
O’Murchadha, O’Reilly, Ryan, Irwin. The absence of a discourse in the Irish
context to articulate the same metaphysical and political problematics evinced
by Radical Orthodoxy is, in many respects, a tragic reality. The reasons for
such an absence, both at civic level but also at university level, would be
interesting to investigate. Perhaps the various presentations here (and other
related thinkers working in an Irish context) are the first stirrings of a more
complementary approach in
 In my analysis of Agamben’s Italian text, I would like to acknowledge Adam Kotsko’s excellent work of translation and interpretation, which I have found very helpful in my reading. Cf http://itself.wordpress.com/
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Jones Irwin is a Lecturer in Philosophy at St Patrick's College, Dublin City