Down Is Up: John Milbank's Radical Orthodoxy Project


Recently, theologian John Milbank of Radical Orthodoxy (don’t bother to ask, just read the title as a contradiction in terms) wrote an article on the relationship between Christianity with the Enlightenment and Islam.  Apparently, it is with great regret that the Christian European empires fell and “allowed” nations such as India, Pakistan, and Algeria to overthrow the colonizers: “This surely has to do with the lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires (as a consequence of the European wars) and the subsequent failure of Third World national development projects, with the connivance of neo-colonial, purely economic exploitation of poorer countries.”  I am sure of course, that Christian orthodoxy has always been for some time now affiliated with an apology for the existence human oppression.  Milbank’s Radical Orthodoxy project is radical in the sense that it is a radical RE-interpretation of Christian history, especially the past two hundred years. He claims in the article that Roman Catholicism found itself allied with the ideals of the Enlightenment, the 17th/18th century philosophies of the John Lockes, the Edmund Burkes, and Benjamin Franklins of those days. However, he is forgetting one crucial element: the evidence, especially the Roman Catholic theological texts contradicts his arguments. In fact, even an amatuer reader of history would know that even as late as the late 19th century, with Vatican I, Catholicism rejected modernity.  I do not see how it is feasibly possible to defend Milbank’s position, but I digress.

It seems as if Milbank desires to see the Muslim world in the image of European-style high-church Christianity of a generic stereotype, mystical and sacramental.  The article definitely reeks of Orientalism and racial hegemony, regardless of one’s theological disagreements with Islam.   I can only hope, with the likes of Adam Kotsko and Halden Doerge that future theorists within the Radical Orthodoxy movement challenge cultural assumptions such as these.

But what’s the point of agreeing with this post? I am coming from a radically subjective angle……..

Halden wrote some excellent pieces on Radical Orthodoxy here and here.

For my critique of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, see the first chapter of my thesis, Beyond Liberated.

0 thoughts on “Down Is Up: John Milbank's Radical Orthodoxy Project

  1. Isaiah

    Thanks for the post. Read Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory and thought it was brilliant, his Catholic socialism intrigued as someone who is not Catholic but has socialist leanings. This whole turn in Milbank is very sad.. one of britain’s top theologians argueing for this kind of cultural imperialism is sad. Although this imperialism seems to follow quite naturally from his rejection of pacifism despite his theological ontology.

    Rod, have you read Yoder’s Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution? I ask because he has a chapter on revolution and colonial empires where he suggests that as opposed to being liberatory the revolutions in Latin America, for instance, actually increased oppression by seperating themselves from Spain they upper class was able to shape the colonies in their interests. Perhaps this kind of idea is where Milbank starts, not to say his ending is anywhere justified.

    1. Rod of Alexandria


      thanks for your comments.

      I will have to read up on that essay by Yoder, but at any rate, I think Milbank would have articulated that position if he had agreed with Yoder. I can see Yoder’s point, but I do not think that is where Milbank was headed with his conclusion.

      1. Isaiah

        On Hauerwas’ facebook page there is a picture of Milbank in between Hauerwas and Benedict XVI. What a fitting visual metaphor for the conceptual space Milbank occupies. I am not sure if that space is at all stable.

  2. Brian LePort


    I almost couldn’t believe he would lament such a thing so I forced myself to read the whole bloody article. He does! He laments the fall of Western empires.

    So what is this Radical Orthodoxy movement and how in the world does J.K.A. Smith connect with this guy?

    1. Rod of Alexandria

      Hey Brian,

      The best summary of the Radical Orthodoxy movement is found on their facebook group:

      “An exploration into the role of the church and shaping theology in postmodernity, Radical Orthodoxy tends to engage the philosophical foundations of postmodern culture and conclude that it is a robust church, well-schooled in the ancient traditions handed down through Scripture as well as liturgical practice and the rigors of the Reformed traditions, that can prophetically speak truth to the emergent cultures in Europe and North America (presumably Australia/New Zealand would be included as well, but I have yet to encounter much writing in the RO realm by Aussie or Kiwi theologians — Jason).

      Scholars and writers in the Radical Orthodoxy vein come from a wide array of traditions including Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Reformed Protestant, Anabaptist, and Wesleyan, and there are a number of theologians who did or would not necessarily use the label of RO but whose work nevertheless at least touches on the concerns of Radical Orthodoxy.”

      Not everyone in RO is the same; they lean from more center-right like Milbank to more moderate and progressive like Catherine Pickstock here in the U.S. J KA Smith is on the Reformed side of RO and has a completely different perspective, but their concerns are similar, mainly, traditional Christian doctrine and postmodern culture.


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