Cornel West on Radical Orthodoxy

“Hauerwas’ radical imperative of world-denial motivates Milbank’s popular Christian orthodoxy that pits the culprits of commodification and secularism against Christian socialism. His sophisticated wholesale attack on secular liberalism and modern capitalism is a fresh reminder of just how marginal prophetic Christianity has become in the age of the American empire. But, like Hauerwas, he fails to appreciate the moral progress, political breathroughs, and spiritual freedoms forged by the heroic efforts of modern citizens of religious and secular traditions. It is just as dangerous to overlook the gains of modernity procured by prophetic religious and progressive secular citizens as it is to overlook the blindness of Constantinian Christians and imperial secularists. And these gains cannot be preserved and deepened by reverting to ecclesiastical refuges or sectarian orthodoxies. Instead they require candor about our religious identity and democratic identity that leads us to critique and resist Constantinian Christianity and imperial America” (Cornel West, Democracy Matters p. 162-163)


13 thoughts on “Cornel West on Radical Orthodoxy

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  1. it’s the prophetic religious voice that i resonate with the most, and thus, the one most difficult to dismiss. scratch that: it’s impossible to dismiss it. without the prophetic voice, the church never moves and the world cannot change. the prophetic is the link between the two.

  2. Ant,

    If Cornel West is the prophetic voice, will you please give the interpretation? 😉

    Seriously, I think I’m following the dude, but can you give me the Reader’s Digest Condensed/Cliff’s Notes/”Philosophy for Dummies” version?

    Thanks, bro!
    Steve K.

  3. Steve,

    The main thought, to me, is here:

    “But, like Hauerwas, he fails to appreciate the moral progress, political breathroughs, and spiritual freedoms forged by the heroic efforts of modern citizens of religious and secular traditions. It is just as dangerous to overlook the gains of modernity procured by prophetic religious and progressive secular citizens as it is to overlook the blindness of Constantinian Christians and imperial secularists.”

    Basically, West is saying that Hauerwas (as he interprets him) and Radical Orthodoxy (in the case of John Milbank) are calling the church to leave the public square without having a more profound appreciation of the various ways Christians have participated in democracy (e.g. the abolitionists and the Civil Rights workers). West thinks that Hauerwas and I would say to a greater extent Milbank are calling Christians to abandon participating in democracy and struggling for relative justice in the land. For Milbank and those in the RO camp there is only one legitimate “politics”…the church of Jesus Christ. To some extent I agree with that, but they also suggest that all other politics (e.g. the nation-state) is almost if not completely illegimate because it is a “secular” polity based upon the self-love of man, so it is interpreted. So the church is held, by many in these camps, to be the only form of politics that is legimitate. For instance, on a recent blog James Smith, a representative thinker of this group, suggests that his attending a marriage ceremony was more prophetic and a better form of protest than actually demonstrating and exercising civil disobedience. Such move, as they see it, would be submitting to some form of what they call “statist” Christianity. I think I’ve rambled on too much. Essentially West is saying this:

    Hauerwas (to some extent) and Milbank (to a greater extent) are calling Christians to abandon participation in the democratic process. That somehow struggling for relative justice is to submit to an unfaithful form of Christianity that is using the power of the state to fulfill a particular goal. West believe that Hauerwas and Milbank have much good to say to the church they nevertheless have under-appreciated how different Christians in America’s past have participated in the democratic process in various ways making this country a decent place to live (e.g. women’s suffrage, child labor law movement, abolition, Civil Rights, and so forth). In many instances Christians lead the charge in these movements. West is simply saying be careful. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Christians can participate in democracy without becoming idolaters…basically is what he is saying.


  4. provoked,

    Thanks for hittin up the blog. You asked a very good question here. Of course there is prophetic in the Pentecostal/Charismatic sense in which one utters ecstatic speech said to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Which I think is a part of it. But I would add that prophetic is simply uttering God’s heart for how his people should live in the world. Prophetic names the practice of calling God’s people back to concern for justice, peace, love, faith, hope, and so forth. The prophetic is about calling people back to love for God and love for their neighbors. Being prophetic is also about uncovering the various potential idols (whether they be race, citizenship, socio-economic status, possessions, ideologies, and so forth) that get in the way of God’s people from being faithful citizens of God’s kingdom. The prophetic utters an alternative way of seeing and living in the world as opposed the way of seeing and living proposed by what Paul describes as the “principalities and powers”. The prophetic “names” those idols or obstacles to authentic faithful practice of the Christian faith. That’s the skinny version.

    Holla back,


  5. Also…the prophetic gives us the alternative. It declares to us what it believes God wants to do given our current context. It also informs us as to where God is taking us if we so decide to co-labor with God for that better and faithful tomorrow.


  6. I understand what Cornel is saying and I always admire and respect his thoughts. But I wonder if he misreads Milbank. I think Milband might just say that there has been a place for the prophetic voice’s work within the mainstream secular. But that kind of forum might not hold the same authority today that it once did.

    So as we transition out of modernity into postmodernity- where does the prophetic voice find it’s space? It’s through the radical civitas- the Christian polis.

    James K.A. Smith goes into this a bit in “Introducing Radical Orthodoxy”.

  7. jonathan,

    Its good to hear from you again. I haven’t picked up James Smith’s book. Your comment here makes me want to go get it.

    The concern I have is how abstract this alternative Christian polis is. Of course there have always been faithful Christian bodies in history. My falling back on past prophetic Christian witnesses to the State and Church is all I have. These were concrete historical social embodiedments. Milbank’s (and I assume Smith for I have only read brief essays by him) vision for an alternative civitas that renders illegimate all other polities seems more like an abstraction than a continuous concrete historical reality. Its almost like Hobbes’ Leviathan…except it is some kind of Christian Leviathan. Which is probably what he wants. And I am all for a project of the body of Christ to gird itself up and become more of a profound redemptive presence in the land, but I fear that there insistence that we “wait” for the Church to become virtuous is dangerous. For it seems to me that it is quite easy for a Milbank or a Smith to ask Christians to give second thought to participation in Democracy. Their social/ethnic location provides them the luxury of using this kind of discourse. What about others? Those who don’t have the luxury of this kind of discourse about the church? the example I would use would be Rosa Parks. Although this is a bit anachronistic (for I am sure we can find examples of Christians today living in oppressive situation where there is the possibility of beseeching the State to do something about it). Was Rosa Parks (and others today in her situation) supposed to wait for white Christians in power to realize that they have idolized their particular ethnic heritage and flip the script? Was she supposed to have waited on the back of the bus and been quiet? I would love for the Church to be that alternative civitas (and it has from time to time), but what do people do who don’t have the privlege to live in a society where Church is always the alternative civitas? Especially when those that run the State are Christians?

  8. jonathan,

    Also. I actually disagree with West on a couple of points. Primarily his way of descring democracy. For he seems to do the very same thing that ROs do. While RO seems to conflate the Eschaton with the Church, West (although he says otherwise) seems to conflate “democracy” into the Eschaton. As if “democracy” is the telos of God’s salvation in the earth. West, to me atleast, seems to place democracy within some kind of eschatology. That democracy is inevitable. I don’t know if I buy that. Actually I don’t. For me participating in democracy is more of a pragmatic issue for me. Of course I could be reading West entirely wrong here, but while Milbank’s (and Smith’s) ecclesiology seems to suggest the possibility of a “perfect” ecclesial space in history West seems to do the same thing except his ecclesial space seems to be what he calls “democracy”. I think the weakness in West is his failure to propose a distinctly Christian ecclesiology. To me, and I could be wrong as two left shoes here, democracy is Church! Which I think is just as dangerous.

  9. On that last comment I said:

    “To me, and I could be wrong as two left shoes here, democracy is Church! Which I think is just as dangerous.”

    I meant to say:

    “To me, West’s confession seems to be democracy is the church! Democracy is Church! Which I hink is equally dangerous.”

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