Tuesday 29 November 2011

Explaining Neo-Orthodoxy and Its Non-Realism

I am asked by Peter Carrell in a comment (older post comments need my approval - it stops personalities attacking one another beyond my notice)

I would be interested in hearing more from you on this [Neo-Orthodoxy]. Why does it lead to non-realism? Why would trinitarians of old dismiss it as heterodox? Would you care to name who are the neo-orthodox in the Anglican theological world today?

It leads to non-realism because of a dismissal of culture and worldy reality as sources of objective truth. All neo-othodoxies, whether Catholic or Protestant, are Platonist - idealism is based in the pure in the heavens. Karl Barth has nature corrupted to an absolute degree, as a loyal Roman Catholic states:

...if we believe this new gospel of his [Barth], God would be reputed as having said that, ever since the sin, nature is so corrupted that nothing of it remains but its very coruption, a mass of perdition which grace can indeed still pardon, but which nothing henceforth could ever heal. Thus, then, in order the better to fight against paganism and Pelagianism, this doctrine invites us to despair of nature, to renounce all effort to save reason and rechristianize it.

Gilson, Etienne, 'The Intelligence in the Service of Christ' from his book Christanity and Philosophy (1936) in Pelikan, Jaroslav (1990), The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought, London: Little Brown and Company, 218-233.

The relationship of Christianity and reason, then, is best grounded in the Aristotle approach given its marriage into Christianity by Thomas Aquinas, for here reality is grounded in our world and being, and that is a reality which needs healing (says Christianity).

Of course there are degrees of extraction, but I am referring to neo-Orthodoxy which is double specific line. The God of Barth is entirely one way, from God downwards, and so is invisible and unreachable. That God exists in a dramatic encounter, and that becomes a textual inheritance. So it is text, but text devoid of cultural root. Now we might say that the cultural root is obvious - it is Hebrew and Greek - but these are no more than wrapping paper for the text as the drama. If you happen to be a chosen believer, the encounter almost goes through the culture and indeed through the text. But the point is how to understand if from where we are. It becomes then a drama in itself, a narrative, and a story.

It is no accident that this stuff, with help from Bonhoeffer, becomes part of secular theology, that is theology of a humanity come of age when it no longer asks religious questions. This busy person just gets on with life. To ask questions, Tillich style, is to wallow in cultural issues, including cultural issues of religion. But where there are cultural issues, or a Church likely to be corrupt itself, these are entirely transient. Indeed many in their religions are entirely mistaken.

So from a cultural perspective, the religion of Christianity is non-real. It starts with revelation and encounter, but it translates as being unreal. It is not rooted in anything, other than the invisible.

The Catholic side of neo-Orthodoxy self proclaims its Platonism (so what if Plato is also cultural!) and it produces its premodern Christianity inside the postmodern space identified. Far from the Church being corrupt, John Milbank's Anglo-Catholic Church is pure truth. It is the deposit of peace and reason; its reason triumphs over secular reason. Secular reason is untrue, because it is a false theology. Therefore the world is false, and indeed has broken down into postmodernism. In that bubble of space, this non-realist Platonic source of truth, the Church (under God and Christ) is a non-objective anywhere else existence. In the Protestant version there is Lindbeck's ecumenical Church, and people in it simple have 'standards of role performance' rather than any other truth claim. Like with the biblical version, you can only perform.

So there is a sharing of non-realism with Cupitt, but from an entirely different angle, as Cupitt retains connection with the world's dominant narratives rather than the failure of the Church and Bible to connect with a larger modernity (and most of postmodernity) and therefore its sectarianism.

It is heterodox because the older folks, including the liberals, retained a connection in reality with this world. It either was full on Aquinas, or, in the liberal sense, the limitations introduced by science and social science - in other words, research.

The Unitarians of old used all the language: Christ (our brother, our leader), the Holy Spirit (the energy of God - as said Rev. in episode 2) and God the Father, the creator. The Incarnation became general and complete rather than tradition-and-person specific. Of course they were labelled as heterodox, because it isn't enough to have modes of activity or a plurality of actions, or the often heard today of the social and collective nature of the Godhead getting on nicely with each other. The Trinity is about philosophical precision of the relationship of the Godhead, and one that is both in the heavens and redeeming the earth in a dynamic eternal relationship. These days, unable to explain it, people shortcut it. Neither Milbank nor Lindbeck nor Frei nor Barth are redeeming the earth.

So I know about Milbank and a few of his fans (including some Lutheran). As for the biblical bunch, well there's my mate Anglican curate Rachel. She likes nothing better than a good trip to some New Wine church or some independent gathering for an arms-out knees-up. She is, she says, a poststructuralist. She says that many tutors in her just left theological college are fans of Frei and Neo-orthodoxy. Perhaps they live isolated lives.

I'm a liberal soft-postmodernist when it comes to religion. Otherwise I'm not, really. I think religion is culture, but culture is transient and we make religion up, including God. It's like the arts. Research in the arts is no more than the latest trend, or how we arrived at where we are. Research elsewhere is more important.

I do allow for signals of transcendence. A fundamental one might be chaos theory. Anyone listening today to the UK Office for Budget Responsibility and the Chancellor adjusting his plans should refer to chaos theory. It is a fundamental in weather, in economics, in evolution and in mathematics. It gets very little treatment in theology because too many people have become sectarian and retreated to their neo-orthodoxies. The simplest mathematic equations with virtual numbers, just repeated, produce fantastic shapes, and you can never know the starting point sufficiently to know the outcome. What a theology of creation and sustaining that makes.


Louise said...

Hi Adrian, not sure that I fully understood much of this as I am not familiar with some of the concepts. I have certainly thought myself about the human construction of religion and god rather than the other way round.

Your reference to chaos theory and what is termed 'emergence' is something that I have toyed with for some time. I think that I may have spoken about it at an annual meeting a couple of years ago. Certainly for community building there only need to be a few 'rules' and the 'thing' can take on a life of its own.

Somewhere more focused than the universe that is the internet we need some focused writings on neo-Unitarianism - if this is the right term?! This is Unitarian thought making use of modern ideas. Whilst being living unitarianly may be the most aspect of our religious lives I do think we should have an intellectual core to underpin our actions. xx

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Adrian,
Thank you for a whole post in response. I see more clearly now! Mind you I am left with questions: why are you not an Aquinas realist Trinitarian? (!!) But also: is not Milbank's pure church a redeemed seed in the world which can grow to redeem the whole world? Can Barth's transcendant God not be held in tension with an immanent God? (Barth being commended for preventing the collapse of 20th century Christianity into an immanent theology)? (Or is the classic 'tension' between God's transcendance and immanence a non-sense and thus God does not exist?) But, in the end, I think the most important question for me from this post is whether the cultural clothing of the incarnation of God in Israel/Christ (i.e. the Hebraic, Hellenistic clothing) is a straitjacket from which Christianity cannot break free into other cultures, nor into other times, and thus no Word of God has spoken through Israel/Christ to all people? But I think otherwise, so am left somewhat Barthian in believing that God has spoken in the particular to people in general (all cultures, all times). The reality is the receiving of the Word into many cultures, the infiltration of those cultures by the Word, with real changes emerging as the gospel transforms cultures (or, alternatively, the real being experienced in the resistance of cultures to the Word).

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I try to knock out ideas occasionally that might be neo-Unitarian (!) ideas. It's difficult to see an overlapping or coherence of ideas which would be around the religious space Unitarians occupy. There's a lot of different stuff, old stuff, much that is clapped out. Diversity does lend itself to issues of meaning making from 'the homeless mind' and its liberal plurality (subjectivity) through to the postmodern, which is really a break down of subjectivity.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Surely I am not an Aquinas trinitarian! I said that religion is like art, and there isn't a unity of reason, and certainly not from a means of thought in contrast to dominant narratives.

Milbank's Church is ethically horrific. The idea that it is the centre of peace is simply not historically so: when it had such dominance it was dreadful. Witness what happened in Eastern Europe during the Reformation when the Church did have the ability to 'redeem' the world. Premodernism is to be avoided.

Barth is not immanentist or in tension with anything other than his own dialectic because God is not within the world. God is high and dry and very distant.

I don't think there is 'a gospel' that penetrates different cultures, that against Barth it is all cultural. To me Lindbeck and Frei are cultural - just Greek-Jewish and frozen.

I might use your comments to make another full posting or Louise's on making chaos religious.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Adrian
Thanks for clear responses.
I think I am still with Barth on the gospel penetrating cultures, keeping in mind his horror both during WW1 and the 1930s as to what 'culture' could produce.
Interesting comment about Milbank's church ... I also have concerns that it may be represented in a fusty, irrelevant, scarcely attended version of CofE worship!
I shall look forward to the possibility of further posts ...

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Culture like religion produces pretty horrific stuff, and the best. Barth didn't penetrate culture - he condemned it, ignored it, bypassed it. But no one does.

Barth on culture is like Marx on false consciousness. How come Marx avoided false consciousness and had 'the truth', how come Barth, a cultured person, could escape culture himself and talk beyond it?

Peter Carrell said...

I need to read more Barth before I comment further, but I am told the later Barth appreciated Mozart!