Angels in dirty places

July 2, 1999

The radically orthodox, they call themselves,a group of academics who believe in miracles, write about sex shops and want to see theology at the centre of the university curriculum. Elaine Williams reports.

Theology in universities has fallen on hard times recently. Theologians have been mocked by scientists, have split into warring factions and have seen a steady fall in students wanting to take degrees in their subject.

But now a new group of young academics has emerged to challenge theology's decline with a radical world view and a combative attitude. As John Milbank, professor of philosophical theology at the University of Virginia and former reader in philosophical theology at Cambridge, puts it, theology no longer has to be so "pathetically respectful" of other disciplines.

The new theologians, in their twenties and thirties, drawn from universities across Britain, but with a strong base in Cambridge, call themselves the "radically orthodox" - and their beliefs hark back to an earlier less sceptical age.

The radically orthodox believe in miracles and angels as well as in the more standard elements of Catholic faith - the Incarnation (that Jesus is God made man), the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. They accept that Jesus ascended into heaven and they are even open to the possibility that ghosts exist.

Graham Ward, director of the Centre for Religion, Culture and Gender at Manchester University, says: "If you believe in the created order as the work of God then you have to suspend the material (view of the world). You have to say that there is more to the material than that which is described by empirical science. We accept science, but we say that its positivist view of materiality is reductive. People have to be open to things that cannot be explained."

He goes on: "We do not start from the premise, 'Can we talk about the existence of God? Can we talk about Jesus Christ as the Son of God?' We believe in them as we believe in the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, not as biological aberrations, but as something extraordinary that cannot be fully explained."

It is quite a departure from the liberal, "apologising" theology that has held sway in universities in recent years. Many academic theologians would not accept the literal truth of events such as the Resurrection. Rather, they have sought to explain them as symbolic stories, important for what they can teach us about Christian values.

But the radically orthodox have no wish to accommodate this humanist view of the Bible. They want to return the world to a grand theological framework; to "systematically criticise modern society, culture, politics, art and science, with an unprecedented boldness". There is no such thing, they say, as a world separate from what God is doing. By interpreting elements of contemporary culture - films, novels, even sex shops - as examples of God's work, they hope to convert many more to their cause.

Laurence Hemming, a deacon of the Catholic church, who is now a research fellow at Heythrop College, London, recalls being "desperately depressed" as an undergraduate because of a "serious watering down of the divinity of Christ" by his lecturers. He says: "The older generation was confronted by a stack of things that happened in postwar culture that shocked it to the core. They tried to accommodate these (cultural) changes. We younger theologians don't find ourselves at home with that kind of accommodation."

Milbank, too, believes theology has been reduced to reacting to secular thinking, and that this has resulted in a theological reinterpretation of the gospels to satisfy secular truths. He urges theology to take the lead and conduct its own inquiry into the suppositions of secular disciplines.

The return to orthodoxy by the bright young things of theological academe is attracting much interest. Publisher Routledge has offered a substantial downpayment on a book series contract. A recent conference at Heythrop College, London University, brought together theology students and teachers from all over the country and sent a frisson of excitement through the relatively young audience.

The group's first book, Radical Orthodoxy, was published earlier this year. Now more are in the pipeline, including Theology and Economics and Knowledge and Truth in Aquinas. The reference to Aquinas is significant. Part of the group's mission is to reread patristics, the work of the early church fathers, and re-present the Augustinian vision of all knowledge as an illumination of the work of God. They wish to overcome the separation of philosopy and theology which they believe began with the 13th-century theologians Duns Scotus and William of Ockham and led to a theology stranded in its own "private, marginalised discourse". The ultimate goal is an end to the divide between faith and reason, between body and soul and between the secular and the sacred.

There is a sense that there is a sea-change in attitudes, that young people generally are fed up with the postwar ways of thinking. Graham Ward points to a growth in interest in the medieval period, particularly within historical studies. "New Age" tendencies have also led to renewed interest in mysticism and a spiritual approach to the material world. And then there is what Ward calls "neo-tribalism" - the desire of people to belong to a community with clear and pronounced beliefs and values. "It is not theologians telling James Cameron to have a resurrection scene at the end of Titanic," says Ward. "It is not theologians creating all this stuff (in art) about angels."

As well as Ward, Milbank and Hemming, contributors to radical orthodoxy include Catherine Pickstock, who teaches philosophical theology at Cambridge, Gerard Loughlin, an avowed gay Catholic, who teaches Christian theology at Newcastle University and John Montag, a Cambridge PhD student and Jesuit priest.

Because the group does not fit into existing religious categories criticism has been fierce: "Gerard and I are condemned by evangelicals as pro-feminist and pro-gay", says Ward. Liberal humanist theologians have dismissed radical orthodoxy as sectarian fundamentalism. It has also been accused of phallocentricity - the book has only one female contributor. Because it focuses exclusively on Christianity it has been accused of imperialism. And the dense, intellectual style has prompted charges of elitism.

But if these theologians employ the tortuous language of critical theory it is because they wish to engage with it, to give it a theological reading. Radical Orthodoxy contains essays that give a theological spin to modern art, music and gender studies. The group's orthodoxy lies in their sacramental approach, their belief that God gives a gift of himself in the here and now, in the material present, in contemporary culture. Hemming says: "We believe we have to be in dialogue with culture because we are calling people to redemption out of it."

Ward is particularly eager to offer a theological reading of contemporary culture. He wants theology to be taken seriously by other disciplines, gender studies for instance. In an essay he is writing on sex shops, he reads something positive into the eroticisation of culture. "We have to see it as an affirmation of Eros, which has a strong Christian tradition. To understand the erotic and the sexual is to understand the nature of fragility, embodiment, vulnerability. That's why I want to look at the nature of erotics in the culture we are living in. It has something important to say, but with sex shops we are talking about commodification, a distorted sexuality because we make an idol of it."

The argument is that culture as commodity leads to nihilism, and nihilism is enemy number one. It is that place, according to Milbank, "where there is ultimately no meaning, where truth is just specific to a passing phantom". Against this they celebrate a sanctified and sacred world, a world made real, concrete and true by God.

But does this mean that the group would expect others to share their beliefs before they could call themselves theologians? This obviously worried the university panel at Manchester who interviewed Ward for his chair. "They said: 'Are you simply going to tell us that the work we are doing is wrong, that unless we believe in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection we shouldn't be engaged in teaching theology?'," he recalls.

His answer was simple. "No, I'm not. As a teacher of Christian studies in an academic institution it is one's duty to present all sides. As a lecturer you don't have to believe in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. But that is different from reflecting theologically from an ecclesiastical position, from within the church, which is what we are doing. Then you must believe these things."

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