The Gift of Difference is perhaps best understood in its ambiguous subtitle, “Radical Orthodoxy, Radical Reformation.” Just what is the relationship between these two expressions? Any number of conjunctives or disjunctives could have been used; on, against, and, etc. But this volume neither set out to define the relationship nor did some definitive view emerge. In many ways the comma, noting a pause and space, a fragile jot, in the end may be all that is holding these traditions in relationship whatsoever. While this volume at times offered an invigorating maybe even synergistic exchange where a “\” could have been the best syntactical divide, however, for the most part I was not convinced anyone came out of the exchange changed. In trying to clarify my view of this work I realized that my criticisms are with the whole while my great appreciation comes in the parts. I will begin with the whole.
There are several criticisms that can be levelled against this work as a whole. First and foremost is the almost complete absence of contributions from anyone directly associated with Radical Orthodoxy (RO). John Milbank offers the foreward and D. Stephan Long, a contributor, could perhaps be called a friend of RO (though I can’t claim to know who is in and who is out). It is then in many ways Radical Reformation (RR) on Radical Orthodoxy. Even within this initial limitation there is further narrowing of the conversation. Most articles focus on an exchange between Yoder and Milbank. This is to the exclusion not only of other modern RR thinkers (though the contributors themselves constitute this in some ways) but also a complete absence of historical figures. What is more is that there tended to be a focus on Milbank’s contentious understanding of pacifism. Milbank rejects pacifism because of its posture of gazing. If you look at violence you are being even more violent. If you look away from violence you betray the victim. Numerous articles within the collection address this exact point and accept some value in critiquing a ‘secular pacifism’ but reject it as a model of Jesus’ incarnational peace. Milbank appears unmoved by these various critiques and in his foreword makes a point of re-emphasizing “the uncomfortable historical fact for contemporary Christians [which] is the debt that they owe to kings” (xvi).
Milbank’s foreword and Chris Huebner’s concluding chapter form a dissonant inclusio to this precarious relationship. Milbank asserts the role of the kings (and therefore the sword) in the preservation of Christianity. “For the survival of Christianity was enabled by acts of military defiance and its survival otherwise would have been marginal or non-existent” (xvi). This provides a type of historical justification that says because we still exist and in the past we used the sword to survive the sword therefore the sword was necessary to exist. Contrast this to Huebner’s closing paragraph, “[Mennonite theology] more appropriately embodies the essential riskiness of a theological vision. Its appreciation of theological riskiness can be seen in its refusal of the temptation to make Christianity necessary, and its corresponding embodiment of an ethos of dialogical vulnerability that cultivates a readiness for the Radical Reformation” (216) [emphasis mine]. The logic here is almost inverted. Christianity exists as a gift from God. To the extent that we seek to secure it by violence it already ceases to exist. Therefore Christianity only exists as a gift from God.
Perhaps these initial comments indicate that I did not enjoy or appreciate the book. That would be entirely misleading. While there were some definite limitations I did find the content, the parts, of this work invigorating. And perhaps I am too harsh on it as a whole. What should I have expected from encounters with some of the ‘highest’ and ‘lowest’ church expressions? Would I have been happy with a tepid ‘middle’ church? Perhaps the whole accomplished exactly what it should have namely a respect for difference and openness to any gifts involved even if the gifts were meagre or even non-existent. I imagine this is necessary to except and even celebrate when we hope that the theological agenda is set outside of our own agenda. I am not saying that the contributors did not receive from their encounters only that ‘middle ground’ was never presupposed or aimed at. Hmmmm, I recant. I now endorse this work as a whole.
In the next post I will move to direct engagement with particular chapters of interest.