The Gift of Difference: Radical Orthodoxy, Radical Reformation
ed. Chris K. Huebner and Tripp York. Winnipeg, MB: CMU Press, 2010. 220 pages.
The Gift of Difference seeks to bring together voices from two quite different traditions, namely Radical Orthodoxy (RO) with its Anglo-Catholic roots, and the Mennonite-Anabaptist heritage of the sixteenth-century Reformation.
The central question of the volume concerns the relationship between church and state and the character of discipleship between the Resurrection and the eschaton. In the foreword, John Milbank presents Mennonite theology as the cultivation of a “middle way between apoliticism and political compromise. This is because, as [Mennonites] rightly say, they see the church itself as the true polity and (unlike most of the magisterial Reformation) they see the possibility of ‘living beyond the law’ in terms of a new sort of social and political practice.” Thus this collection of essays attends to a variety of topics, including ontology, metaphysics, epistemology, pacifism/nonviolence, Scripture and hermeneutics, music, different kinds of power, and ethics.
One of the most thought provoking contributions is Peter Blum’s essay, “Two Cheers for an Ontology of Violence: Reflections on Im/possibility,” in which the author takes up Milbank’s critique of Jacques Derrida. Milbank argues that deconstruction, as a product of modern secular reason, results in an ontology of violence and is therefore essentially antithetical to a Christian narrative. In response, he asserts that Christianity upholds an ontology of peace. This counter-narrative seeks to reclaim Christian theology from the grip of secular philosophy. Blum, however, questions the nihilistic necessity of deconstruction (on which Milbank premises some of his most significant arguments) by offering a reading of Derrida’s im/possibility as a way of giving our implication in violence—the im/possibility of nonviolence—serious attention. Blum insists that we ask ourselves, “What if non-violence really is impossible? What if violence is not only practically unavoidable, as many people assume, but somehow radically inescapable?” These questions are not uncontroversial. Not only does Blum’s critique specifically address Milbank’s reading of Derrida, it also serves as an internal critique for Mennonites, interrogating common understandings of pacifism. Mennonites, as a historic peace church, often think they have some sort of definitive claim on nonviolence. An intentional consideration of our complicity in violence, however, undercuts any a priori claims on peace. It also complicates the dualistic way Milbank frames the ontological debate between himself and Derrida. Ultimately, Blum writes, “the point of [his] ‘two cheers’ for an ontology of violence is not to finalize the choice of one ontology, so much as to warn against finalizing the choice of another.”
Though this collection takes up a wide range of theological questions, in the final analysis the debate seems to privilege the work of John Milbank and John Howard Yoder as representatives of their respective traditions. While this gives a rich account of the thought of Milbank and Yoder, it does so to the detriment of other theologians in each tradition. Voices from RO are especially lacking, D. Stephen Long being the sole contributor from that tradition. Additionally, Milbank’s contentious position on pacifism seems to preoccupy Mennonite readers and draw them away from the rest of his work and from RO more generally. In that sense, the book is perhaps best read as a Mennonite engagement with RO rather than a reciprocal exchange.
It is clear that Huebner and York have tried to initiate a dialogical relationship by offering essays that read RO carefully, take their concerns seriously, and submit challenges for further debate. This is the book’s greatest strength, and is also in keeping with the ecumenical spirit of Mennonite theology. Where RO has received critique it is often caricatured and written off. Milbank is evidently appreciative of the dialogical gesture from representatives of the Radical Reformation. He concludes his foreword with the following words: “I in particular and Radical Orthodoxy in general are immensely indebted to the composers and editors of this really fine collection. It will take the debate in political and cultural theology much further forward.” My hope is that Milbank is correct. I will definitely be watching for a response from the RO community for further participation in this exchange of the gift of difference.