God’s Own Knowledge

“Satan is real,
Working his spirit.
You can see him and hear him,
In this world e-ver-yday.”
The Louvin Brothers, “Satan is Real”

Stained GlassThe funny thing about fundamentalists is that for all the blood and thunder, the dark nights of the soul giving way to the glory of the light, for all the tears a repentant Jimmy Swaggart can weep, fundamentalism is a cut-and-dried textbook faith. It’s a creed that in seeking to establish theocracy and make God the answer to every question accidentally leaves God out of the picture. For in fundamentalist theology, God-incomprehensible G-d-takes a backseat to his own Word.

Or rather, the words his or her servants have written; the authority of the Bible displaces the more nebulous authority of the Lord. Literalist readings of scripture reduce the most enduring of stories to pre-processed Bible-in-a-box, a series of if-then and A-leads-to-B logic formulas by which we are to know a world where all nuance can be dismissed as the devil’s deceptions. When you examine the hard-and-fast propositions of fundamentalism, the comparison that calls science a religion cuts both ways: Fundamentalism is science with a choir.

Logic proofs make for a small god. Some say a dead one.

But now from the politest, sleepiest of faiths—Anglicanism—comes a group of theologians who proclaim that God isn’t dead, he or she or it is merely in forced retirement, driven from our lives by the hubris of science. “Science” is a term they use, Enlightenment-style, to mean all knowledge, whether it’s of physics or fundamentalism. As knowledge, they say, physics stutters for meaning in the absence of faith. As faith, fundamentalism exists in a space circumscribed by rationalism, if not reason. Only the murkiness of an orthodoxy in constant revolution can begin the work of bringing God back to the world, or the world back to God, or maybe revealing the unity of the two. The notion that religion can somehow be quarantined from the daily life is a figment of political imagination, they charge-a denial of the fact that the very word “secular” has no meaning absent the divine against which it’s contrasted.

“The new theology no longer expresses false humility,” declares John Milbank, the movement’s founder, referring to the way theologians in recent decades have accepted their restrained roles on the fringe of rational knowledge. He holds that since modern philosophy was born of a “modification or a rejection” of theology, it remains thus bound.

To what, exactly? Suffice it to say: God. Say it again, roll it around in your mouth: God.

If the word sounds odd upon repetition, then you’ve got it. “The Word made strange,” Milbank says, the story of Christ made fresh through constant “re-narration”—that’s the creed of Radical Orthodoxy, the knife’s edge of a broader trend called postsecularism which looks to be the biggest development in theology since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door.


To the Radical Orthodoxy theologians, the modern world born that day is itself heresy. Heresy, they point out, is an act undertaken by the believer, a deformation from within. Such was the Christian creation of modernity—the nation-state, capitalism, the individual, and most of all, what Radical Orthodoxy views as the abomination of “private religion.”

Modernity’s every facet is built on a framework of seemingly empirical facts wrenched, in European tradition at least, from vaster oceans of theology. Shorn of their theoretical contexts, facts fell prey to a literal devaluation at the hands of Hobbes, Locke, and Hume; or for that matter, more recent prophets of the modern age such as Henry Ford. What counts? The short and brutal bottom line, whether it’s one of ideology or assembly.

But ideology requires some assembly, points out postmodernism; our beliefs are conceived, not brought to us by storks. Accepting that seemingly simple premise, though, leaves you with nothing to stand on: there are no absolute truths, only a void without intrinsic meaning. Into the emptiness we pour language, but it all disappears into the darkness.

Only theology can turn on the lights, insists Radical Orthodoxy—using, of course, God’s love. But to do that, they declare, theology must reclaim its spot as the mother of all knowledge.

Some say such notions makes it fundamentalism for sophisticates. Not at all, Radical Orthodoxy replies, for it seeks to not only re-conquer the sciences but to do away with the very thought processes that makes the certainties of science—or fundamentalism—possible. “We’re not fascists,” Milbank told me. “Theology alone among all disciplines is committed to non-mastery.”

But to save the world, he seems to believe, we must make theology our master.


Luther looked and sounded like a revolutionary. “The world is an asshole,” he once declared, “and I am its ripe shit.”

Milbank, on the other hand, doesn’t seem in person radical, or orthodox, or like a man who delights in a bit of chaos. But insofar as there’s an earthly creator of Radical Orthodoxy, it’s this sandy-haired, red-faced, British professor sipping cranberry juice in a coffeehouse in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the air is much too humid for his taste, and where an Anglican church worthy of the name can hardly be found.

He takes the word “radical” for what it means—back to the roots. Those carry him toward orthodoxy. The Gospels. Holy Ghost power. Milbank, who teaches at the University of Virginia, scoffs at anthropological readings of Jesus that reduce the resurrection to nothing but a metaphor for Freudian longings. Christ died for your sins, he insists, and then he rose from the dead. Angels move among us. Satan is real.

But that’s where his agreement with fundamentalism ends. “Fundamentalism reduces Christianity to a tight set of propositions,” he said, dismissing his Bible-thumping American brethren. “Fundamentalists tend not to think there’s a strong connection between the way you put things and the content.” For Radical Orthodoxy, “the message and the means are indivisible.”

As is so often the case with those who would topple the world, speech patterns tell the tale. Milbank didn’t really have any. His speech was neither light nor dark, soft nor hard, quiet nor loud; he just talked. And talked. His voice halting but not hoarse, his sentences complex but clear, his monologue long but never dull.

“All philosophy is inside theology, and it can’t get out,” he said.

“Theology is God’s own knowledge of himself,” he said.

“Radical Orthodoxy rejects the idea that there are fixed secular standards. That theology must justify”—he rolled the word off in three hard syllables, in a rare expression of contempt—”itself before this court.”

A sip of cranberry juice. The sweat of the glass dripped onto his neat blue shirt. He didn’t notice.

“Today, the discrete realm of philosophy is collapsing,” he said, leaning forward in his seat while a freight train rumbled by outside the coffeehouse, blotting out the sun as if on cue. “Today, the logic of secularism is imploding.”


For Milbank, raised an evangelical Methodist, that logic blew up shortly after he’d decided to become an Anglican priest. He was in his second year of seminary when he took a course from a man named Rowan Williams. Last fall, his former teacher became archbishop of Wales; now he’s whispered about as a future candidate for the Anglican Church’s top spot, in Canterbury. Although he disputes aspects of Radical Orthodoxy, he and Milbank have been fellow travelers since they met as teacher and student years ago.

Back when Bishop Williams was still teaching, he assigned his pupils the work of Hans Urs von Balthazar, an ultraconservative Roman Catholic theologian who had been sowing the seeds of postsecularism and quietly transforming the church with his insistence that it hew to its roots and abandon its attempts to accommodate the modern world. Not long after, Milbank began reading the French theorists of postmodernism. To him, the worldview of the medieval church and that of postmodernism looked an awful lot alike. Both denied the primacy of fact. Both considered symbols—those of the liturgy or those of pop culture—just as real as that which they stood for.

But postmodernism leads to nihilism: What, it asks, can really be known? Premodernism offered an answer, but one it insisted was radically unknowable: God. If God is the root of everything, the thinking goes, God is beyond definition. To define God would be to use terms God created to explain their creator. As postmodern theory, an unknowable entity that precedes existence reduces all being to self-reference. But as faith, just the contemplation of such an idea reveals at least a small part of a chain of interconnected ideas and things-an infinitely vast outline of the divine.

“The revival of that [premodern] trend in theology and the espousal of postmodern rhetoric were parallel developments,” Bishop Williams told me, speaking from his office in Monmouth, Wales. “It’s hard to say why [postsecularism] happened when it did, after hundreds of years during which modernity’s divisions were rarely questioned. But we must see that theology, all knowledge, happens in history. We don’t think from nowhere. What’s been happening in the last 50 years, with theology, with postmodernism, might be a reaction to the assumption that the ‘individual’ was the dominant paradigm. Then, in the 1960s, came a group of theologians who wondered about the death of God. And theology found that unless it did something, it was going to disappear like the Cheshire Cat, leaving nothing but a strange smile.”

The postsecular theology that arose in response “broke up the sterile ground between fundamentalism and liberalism,” he said. “At last we could see a way to read the Bible intelligently, critically, and obediently.”

Milbank the student found the mix of pre- and postmodernism nothing short of revelatory. “If God is radically unknown, that amounts to saying there’s a dimension of everything that’s unknown,” he reasoned, delighted to find a way of thinking by which reasoning itself was not so much informed by revelation as dependent upon it. The new approach, though, led him not to the church, but to the university. He didn’t hear the calling to be a priest. Instead, he would be a theologian.


In 1985, an academic publisher asked him to write a volume on the relationship between theology and secular social science for use in seminaries. It was a plum assignment for a young scholar, and he started out in good faith. “But I knew by the time I’d finished the proposal that I was onto something different,” he recalled.

“Once, there was no ‘secular,'” begins Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, but the book quickly abandons the style of a fairy tale for a tone of apocalyptic urgency: “There can be no going back: Only Christian theology now offers a discourse able to position and overcome nihilism itself.”

How did nihilism come to pose such a threat? Milbank traces revisionist history of the Western world in which the main villain isn’t Machiavelli or Attila the Hun, but a 13th century Scottish “metaphysician” named John Duns Scotus (from whose name “dunce cap” is said to have been derived). “Scotus inaugurated a tendency for talking about reality as if it consisted of discrete objects, atoms, facts,” Milbank told me. “Things that we can talk about without any values.”

Following Scotus, thinkers during the Enlightenment derived what they believed were “natural” laws of society: the shape of states, codes of justice, principles of commerce. In due time, modern social science arose to shore up those beliefs-and send God into exile, according to Milbank. Then, during the last several decades, postmodern deconstructionists tore down the assumptions of the secular world. But although postmodernists are powerful enough to take modernity to pieces, he writes, that’s all they are: powerful. Dependent just like modernity on the black and white of either/or assumptions, postmodernism is no more than so many slings and arrows.


When D. Stephen Long read a photocopy of Milbank’s handwritten manuscript, which made the rounds in theological circles in advance of its publication, he thought the then-unknown scholar had found a way beyond the stuffiness that had so long defined his field. “He took a theology that’d been predictable, boring, stagnant, and turned it upside down,” Long, a theologian at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago, told me. “Milbank appealed not to reason but to beauty. He said Christianity isn’t an argument, it’s a story.”

Milbank sees stories as the shifting surfaces of the world made by God. Whereas modernity holds that every person is the subject of his or her own sentence, capable of the deduction necessary to know essential truth, the peeling away of superficial layers in order to reveal something deeper, better, more authentic, more original, the medieval thinkers from whom Milbank draws intellectual sustenance concerned themselves with the world as it appeared, the given as the received, creation marred only by human hands. The devil isn’t in the details, they thought; God is.

By turning our gazes away from the world, inward to something called the individual rather than outward to creation, Milbank charges, modernity brought not enlightenment, but the darkness named by Nietzsche. “What is the modern?” D. Stephen Long paraphrased the German philosopher: “God is dead, and we killed him. No up or down, left or right. We’re just here on a little blue ball floating in space-beyond good and evil.”

If Nietzsche’s conception of modernity sounds postmodern, says Milbank, it should. “Postmodernity is the reverse face of modernity, and in the end is really identical with and fulfills modernity.” But the choice between two unsavory views of the world is a false one, he says—Radical Orthodoxy is a third way. “We’re the real postmodernism. We are the critique of modernity that is not simply wanting to go back. Make a half-move back, yes. Then go forward.”


Where to? In The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture, a recent collection of his essays, Milbank writes that in the past, ritual-the performance of the liturgy- made the word of God “strange” by acting it out, so that the faithful could forever hear it anew with the “shock of the divine.”

Milbank is an odd sort of traditionalist-he thinks not only Christianity, but all religions have ceded to mass media too much power to perform our stories for us. Ritual has lost even the power of repetition; in most houses of worship it amounts to little more than a misunderstood gesture, a quick two-step for the superficially pious and zoning-out time for everyone else.

Feeling the pressure to offer a better alternative, he met in 1997 with Catherine T. Pickstock, then a graduate student of his at the University of Cambridge and Graham Ward, an Anglican priest also teaching at Cambridge. Together they came up with the name Radical Orthodoxy. It was denounced immediately as a joke, an accidental irony, or just too deadly earnest. Liberal theologians said it carried things too far, and feminists feared the implications of “orthodoxy.” Priests said Milbank and company were blinded by theory; postmodern theorists didn’t deign to comment.

But a conference at Cambridge that year drew critics and Radical Orthodoxy born-agains alike. If there was disagreement among the theologians, it was welcome. Their tangles over Augustine and Aquinas, identity politics and pastoral procedure, tumbled out of the creaky departments in which they’d been fretting for years and into the realm of philosophers, historians, literary critics, musicians, artists-the thinking worlds from which theology had long ago been nudged away.

Radical Orthodoxy has built up enough momentum to produce a half-dozen books in the three years since. In 1998, Pickstock, now a research fellow at Cambridge, published After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, about the Eucharist as model for a participatory community. As philosophy it’s as difficult as anything out there, but as a guide to worship, After Writing has found followers beyond academe. In Anglican and British Catholic circles, it’s had the effect of a stone skipping across water—no big splashes so far, but multiple points of contact with circles of influence rippling outwards.

Ward has released several books of his own that spell out the connection between God and such seemingly godless thinkers as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. D. Stephen Long published a book earlier this year on Radically Orthodox economics. And last year, Milbank, Pickstock, and Ward edited a definitive collection, Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, including many even younger scholars who’ve flocked to the movement. It sold unusually well for an academic volume, and in surprising places. In England, church bookshops that normally do a brisk trade in tales of country vicars found themselves filling orders for a jargon-filled jeremiad against certainty, security, and the existing moral order.


“We get letters saying, ‘How can I join?’ or ‘Send me a manifesto,'” Ward, a professor at the University of Manchester, told me one day over lunch in Cambridge, where he occasionally preaches in an ancient stone church called Little St. Mary’s that’s a sort of home pulpit for Radical Orthodoxy. But despite a book he’s writing for a series called “Manifestoes,” he insisted there can’t really be a manifesto for this theology.

“Radical Orthodoxy is not ‘the answer,'” he said, a hint of disdain in his voice. A mostly affable, slender man with a rustle of mild red hair, he leaned forward on the table as he talked, his hands shaping his words as though framing questions, not declarations. “It’s not the latest. It’s not just this season’s object.”

Why then bring out the heavy artillery of French theory to deconstruct mass media, I asked. “In order to make our critique of culture relevant, it’s imperative that we learn how to read the signs of culture,” he said.

Ward finds those signs in shopping malls built to resemble pyramids, and in churches built to resemble shopping malls; in movies like The Matrix and Alien Resurrection; even in sex stores, where he’s gone to do research on the theology of eros. He’s very concerned with desire. Desire for “the longest orgasm, the biggest hyper-ride, Disneyfication harnessed to commodification”—all of which, he believes, mask a desire for meaning. And because he’s a Christian, he understands that as the desire for God— which leads him to the political as personal.

“The desire Christ attracts comes from men and women,” he said. “That is the core of eros. Don’t reject the idea that because Jesus was biologically male, he cannot save women. Rather, rethink Jesus. You don’t have to reject the representation, you have to reimagine it, question its meanings. I’m used to people saying, ‘Do you really believe in the virgin birth?,’ or the resurrection, the miracles, these things liberal modernity rejected. I would say, ‘Yes, of course we believe.’ But what we’re saying is that this story is a complex theological statement that none of us fully understands. The idea that it’s nonsense, that it doesn’t fit scientific principles, is in itself a secular form of knowledge. The virgin birth is not just a metaphor. Calling it a myth, or a metaphor, assumes objective knowledge we don’t have.”

The truth that Radical Orthodoxy finds in the Logos, he explained, is much like the truth that postmodernists find in the play of culture: Words are bigger than we are.

“I can say we’re all part of the body of Christ,” Ward continued. “But that doesn’t mean I can then say, ‘I’m the toe, you’re the pinky.’ But because I don’t know the meaning doesn’t make the Logos meaningless. Mystery has substance. Our confusion is our pedagogy.”


Maybe confusion sounds like chaos. Maybe orthodoxy sounds like theocracy. Maybe, coming from the mouths of theologians firm in their faith, “radical” sounds like revolutionary terror. After all is said and done, what is the actual program of Radical Orthodoxy?

Its theologians say there is none. They say they are merely holding a conversation. They say their ideas are little discussed beyond seminary walls. Of course, beyond seminary walls are parishes and pulpits, Sunday schools, ministers who marry the faithful, priests who counsel politicians. Radical Orthodoxy’s confusion allows it an admirable suppleness, or perhaps a disturbing slipperiness. It begs the question of just where believers stand. Nowhere, they answer—we reject the metaphor of a social grid.

More to the point, then, I wondered whether a Radical Orthodox world might resemble a premodern one, in which the church ruled, and heretics, instead of waxing philosophical in endowed chairs, were burned alive at the stake.

“Ours is a theological approach, but it needn’t be Christian,” responded Ward, who added that he doesn’t believe in classifying people as infidels. “You could just as easily be a Muslim and make this critique.”

Perhaps the Muslims of the Taliban already have.

In an essay for a just-released collection called Radical Orthodoxy? A Catholic Query, edited by Laurence Paul Hemming, Milbank dismisses the notion that his movement would lead to anything recognizable as traditional theocracy. “Theocracy,” he writes, “is predicated upon the very dualism [Radical Orthodoxy] rejects.”

Hemming, a lecturer at London’s Heythrop College, a Catholic deacon, and a contributor to last year’s Radical Orthodoxy collection, suspects that Radical Orthodoxy is disingenuous in its disavowal of intolerance. “The difference between the pope and John Milbank,” he told me, “is that the pope says that faith redeems philosophy. John argues that faith [invalidates] philosophy.”

Hemming is disturbed by Radical Orthodoxy’s approach to the branch of Christianity that lays the greatest claim to orthodoxy: Catholicism. “They have a tendency to pluck what suits them from the tradition,” he said, whispering in the gentlemanly tones demanded by the Oxford Club, where he’d suggested we meet. “A nastier and sharper way of phrasing it would be to say that Radical Orthodoxy is colonizing Catholicism.”


If Radical Orthodoxy makes colonies of other traditions, to what sort of country do those colonies contribute their riches? Call it “anarchic theocracy,” if it must have a name, Milbank concedes. Under pressure, he is willing to acknowledge that like the second Martin Luther to shake the world, he, too, has a dream. In this dream, Christians will live in a community of beautiful liturgy, of participation in the unstable body of Christ and the unreliable fruits of the land. No one will ever be forced to join this city on a hill, and no one will ever be turned away from its streets. More than that, he can’t really say. “God,” he said when I asked, “wouldn’t that be enough?”

“The point of life,” he writes in Radical Orthodoxy, “is to set up, in hope, certain contingent structures of truth and justice—to set up Jerusalem, not Babylon.” A city of God, not one of laws.

Late one afternoon, walking up the Charlottesville hill over which Jefferson’s university drapes itself, Milbank said again that the boundaries between the two would not be hard and fast. “Extremely fuzzy,” he remarked of the line between theology and philosophy, faith and reason.

“That’s what makes Radical Orthodoxy so interesting,” Bishop Williams had told me. Perhaps dangerous as well. “Good theology in the wrong hands…,” he’d mused.

Milbank and his collaborators don’t want to take anyone back to the dark ages, and for now, at least, there are no Torquemadas or latter-day fascists among them. In the city of God, Milbank said as we parted ways, nobody will worry if the trains run on time.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).