Sunday, March 7, 2010

Eugene McCarraher on the "ecclesial fetishism" of Radical Orthodoxy

"I’ve noticed that among RO’s American avatars there seems to be something of a Wendell Berry cult. You’d never know it from the way that they talk about him that the agrarian proprietary ideal is also what fueled Indian genocide and segregation. So enough already about rural life from disaffected suburbanites.

Like all intellectual laziness, that of RO has political implications that are debilitating and even insidious. I’ve long thought that what I’ve called the ecclesial fetishism of the movement is a problem. As Eric Gregory reminds us, the kingdom is much bigger than the church. By the same token, the movement’s portrait of church is sociologically unreal; it certainly doesn’t correspond to any church I know. If they want to say that their conception of church is an ideal, I wish they’d put the adjective eschatological in front of the word; but then, come the eschaton, there will be no church, only the kingdom. Like all fetishes, the church comes to bear an imaginative and political weight that it just can’t bear."

"Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss: An Interview with Eugene McCarraher, Part Three of Three," by Chris Keller, in The Other Journal, January 27, 2010.


Joshua Lore said...

Well Michael, here I am once again contending with your thoughts online instead of in person, with a bottle of cheap wine between us perhaps, and a large sky overhead, as it should be. Given the medium, please forgive the flat tone of my own thoughts as I react to Dr. McCarraher's words.

I'm not altogether familiar with the principles Radical Orthodoxy as a movement, only with some of the notions associated with it, many of which, I must admit, I share strong sympathies with. I am less familiar still with Dr. McCarraher, and so I'm aware that any reaction to such a small sampling of his words is more than likely going to be somewhat off target.

My initial thought will most likely lend only to affirm his first claim, but I'm inclined to share it because I'm not quite sure he is being fair in his deduction. Wendell Berry, or any following he may have inadvertently garnished himself with over the years, appears an unlikely target of harsh words such as "cult," or even "agrarian proprietary ideals." The man certainly doesn't represent any notion of an exclusively agrarian ideal. He lays down essential notions of human scale--in terms of placedness, histories, and sustainable relationship--which, through their particular demands, offer insightful eruditions into the underlying values of modernity. In terms of "RO," I'm afraid I also fail to see how Berry, through any deed of his own, fuels any "ecclesial fetishism." Perhaps you could draw this line somewhat more clearly for me. The closest that Berry comes, it seems to me, could be said to be a notion of "subsidiarity," or that small, local solutions are better than grand, abstracted ones.

Beyond this, I feel that I just don't see how the concerns or approaches of RO are necessarily symptoms of an "intellectual laziness." It seems that Dr. McCarraher has a tendency to select his phrasing for maximum insulting effect. His diagnosis is no doubt true of some, but it also seems to oversimplify a movement--a much needed one, I would think--to bring philosophical and political conversation closer to the church.

Looking at the weak, uncourageous state of the Western church today, I would say that his critiques sound somewhat premature. I would love to hear your response to some of these questions, as it isn't my intent to say them as I have to carry a bitter tone. I have both a deep respect for Mr. Berry, and for the "eschatalogical ideal" laid upon the church. I feel that viewing both of these figures within their actual contexts makes his analysis appear somewhat harsh and off-center.

Michael Serra said...

"But how do any of us stay out?

To teach ourselves how not to be played in the ideas market, perhaps the best we can do is practice the art of silence, specially in this period of over-publication and shouting controversialists.

After learning the art of silence, then we can relearn the lost art of conversation, so to become conversable men."

- Philip Rieff, Fellow Teachers, 1973.