Ours is an age of genealogy—of narrative mastertext, that is, which frames the advent of the present through the contingencies of history. Among the most stimulating genealogies on offer belongs to the syndicate of high-octane Britons who do their work under the antimodernist banner of Radical Orthodoxy. What began as an academic conference became, well, what exactly? Not a set of doctrines, not a school, not even a movement—better, they prefer, a “theological sensibility”1 or a “style of metaphysical vision.”2 Labels aside, the Radically Orthodox share a common charism in assaying the world by Christian canons. Their goal, then—that toward which they severally and collectively order their efforts—seeks a comprehensively Christian account of the world. And doing that, or trying, typically means narrating a story about how we got from premodern to postmodern. That story’s likely to be a theological fable of some kind or another that draws deeply from the Christian archive and lexicon. Or so the work of John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, Conor Cunningham, and others.
Ingredient to all genealogy is a villain—sometimes several. Most usually, this means an ideologue whose intellectual specter excites heterodox thought-forms that together conjure modernity. Think Charles Taylor and his Reformers (Catholic and Protestant), Cyril O’Regan and his Valentinians, and so on. So too with the Radically Orthodox. Their rake? This laurel, or one of them, falls about the neck of John Duns Scotus, the late-13th century Franciscan scholastic. And his crime? That his intellectual gifts were tempered and overwritten by blight: his (in)famous univocal concept of being. Most basically, the concept of being for Scotus includes both God and creatures. Or being is “univocal.” And while being may be either infinite or finite, being’s univocity means God and creatures “exist” in exactly the same sense, if not in the same mode.3 The Radically Orthodox argue that here Scotus innovates a distinction between theology, which studies infinite (and finite) being, and ontology, which concerns being as such.4 And this, regardless of Scotus’s intentions, names the condition for the eventual possibility of a space called the secular. In other words, Radical Orthodoxy’s problem concerns the very form of Scotist thought. It conceives being in a space somehow outside or beyond God. From there, it becomes possible to conceive being without God. Once, there was no secular—then came Scotus. So construed, modernity spells not the end of the dark ages, but “a ‘certain Middle Ages’ which has never ceased to be dominant.”5
That, at least in the crude shades I’ve here sketched it, represents what Daniel Horan, OFM, calls Radical Orthodoxy’s “Scotus Story.” And it’s exactly this story his Postmodernity and Univocity: A Critical Account of Radical Orthodoxy and John Duns Scotus means to dispute.
But defending the doctor subtilis is no mean task. His texts are intricately woven things, embroidered with technical scholastic idiom and delicate argumentation. Horan begins with the via negativa, something Scotus didn’t much like. I am not a Scotist specialist, Horan confesses in a loud voice, nor do I pretend to the role. But the hour grows too late and the stakes too high, he continues, to let the theological shade-throwing at Horan’s Franciscan confrère pass unchecked. Postmodernity and Univocity means only to contest Radical Orthodoxy’s portrait of Scotus as “protomodernist” and to disentangle Scotus’s univocity theory from its subsequent abuses. Neither, last, does Horan seek the reader’s baptism in Scotist waters. He asks only that Scotus be heard before he is condemned, if condemned at last he be.
Chapter 1 surveys Radical Orthodoxy texts for the Scotus story in its native habitat. Horan begins where Radical Orthodoxy begins: with Milbank’s intellectual deviation narrative that stretches from Scotus’s univocity theory, through early modernity, and finally to the construction of the secular. But if Milbank renders Scotus’s likeness for the wanted posters, Catherine Pickstock details Scotus’s crimes. She indicts Scotus for his formal distinction and his preference for the possible over the actual, both of which “open the way for modern metaphysics” (46). Pickstock’s charges animate the work of other Radical Orthodox—Conor Cunningham’s Genealogy of Nihilism, Graham Ward’s Cities of God, Gavin Hyman’s The Predicament of Postmodern Theology.
But what began as a tribal etiology of modernity among the Radical Orthodox spreads beyond their shire. So the Scotus story finds theological raconteurs in Stanley Hauerwas, Bishop Robert Barron, and Adrian Pabst. The story spreads further still—to the great secularologist Charles Taylor, the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, Brad Gregory, Karen Armstrong. Even to Francis Cardinal George, the late Archbishop of Chicago. It’s the proliferation of these retellings, it seems, that most worries Horan. Almost always absent reference to Scotus’s texts, these retellings aid “the unchecked repetition of Radical Orthodoxy’s misreading and misinterpretation of Scotus’s thought” (96).
Chapter 3 tenders the witness to the defense. Horan first hears cross-examinations of Scotus by Richard Cross and Thomas Williams. Against Radical Orthodoxy, Cross defends a sharp distinction between the grammar and metaphysics of univocity in Scotus. Such ought to allay concerns over idolatry and ontotheology in Scotus, neither of which Cross thinks Scotus indulges. Thomas Williams pushes further still. Not only does Radical Orthodoxy misconstrue Scotus’s theory of univocity “in support of their genealogical assertions about modernity” (121). Radical Orthodoxy also misses the fact that Scotist univocity is systematically “true and salutary” (126). Why then can the Radically Orthodox not see? What explains their “Scotist illiteracy” (142)? Horan argues that Radical Orthodoxy’s fever pitch to recover a theological metaphysics forces hurried juxtaposition between Scotus and a Thomas fashioned after their own image.6 For Radical Orthodoxy, Scotus has as his primary role the “not-Thomas”—a habit of reading they learned from Étienne Gilson and Éric Alliez. In this way, Radical Orthodoxy conscripts a highly idiosyncratic Thomas to battle a historically unrecognizable Scotus. All this idiosyncrasy provokes a deeper question: “What’s so ‘orthodox’ about Radical Orthodoxy?” (152).
Chapter 4 returns to Scotus without, Horan hopes, courting the errors of Radical Orthodoxy. That means, first, reading Scotus against his historical interlocutor—not Thomas, but Henry of Ghent. It was Henry’s stronger account of analogy that Scotus resisted. Scotus worries that Henry’s position—that there be only a confused notion that’s somehow “analogously common” to God and creatures (168)—renders theology impossible. Speech about God depends for its intelligibility upon a concept whose extension includes both God and creatures. And that concept is being. How else to talk? Notice, Horan asks, how Scotus plays “logician and not a metaphysician” (173), roles Radical Orthodox readers confuse. Again, Scotus means only to endorse a concept of being common to God and creatures. And concepts, Horan argues, name “vicious abstractions” for Scotus. Being does not, then—as Scotus repeatedly denies—name a genus under which God and creatures fall as species. No, the concept of being as an abstraction remains “formally distinct” from the “really unified being proper to either God or creatures.” The upshot of Horan’s emphasis on semantics against the Radically Orthodox seems clear: “God and his creatures do not actually share being in common” (181).
Still, why retain Scotus’s doctrine of univocity? Isn’t it quite literally just semantics? Because, Horan concludes, Scotus was right to worry about analogy’s ascendancy over God-talk. At best, analogy courts a “suspension of theology”; at worst, “exclusive apophaticism and theologically discursive dogmatism” (186). More, univocity’s role in Scotist defenses of natural theology and haecceity—or irreducible particularity—makes it especially attractive to postmodern theologies. Most, serious engagement with Scotus’s doctrine of univocity invites the weaving of a new story, one that refuses to incriminate Scotus for all of modernity’s offenses. A return to Scotus, Horan thinks, may prove crucial “for responding to the signs of our times and developing a postmodern theology” (191).
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So Horan’s proposal across Postmodernity and Univocity. Our expert panelists receive it variously. Still, understanding Scotus-talk demands an exorbitantly high price of admission. In hopes of relieving reader buy-in, then, I indulge a bit more summary of panelist responses than is typical for Syndicate introductions.
Justus H. Hunter asks “so what?” Suppose we agree that Radical Orthodox retrievals of scholastic figures remains rather doxographic. Suppose we even agree that their readings betray deeper interest in arranging genealogy than in discipling oneself to a text. Even then, this doesn’t get us far. Radical Orthodox thinkers, Hunter suspects, aren’t terribly interested in “getting it right.” They’re interested in telling a story. The Scotus police can blow their whistles until dizzy or syncopal. And they have: Horan is hardly the first whistleblower. What, then, does Horan hope to accomplish? One clue lies toward the end of Horan’s book, where he recommends Scotus’s thought as “relevant today.” It’s one thing, Hunter writes, to defend Scotus’s univocity doctrine. But it’s quite another to wax doxographic about Scotus’s continued relevance for postmodern theology. And anyway, isn’t Scotus’s happy relation to contemporary theology exactly what Radical Orthodoxy prophesied all along?
Lydia Schumacher begins before Scotus. She’s interested in the very inception of Franciscan scholasticism: the so-called Halensian school gathered about the discalced feet of Alexander of Hales. These first generation Franciscan scholastics enshrined their thought in the Summa fratris Alexandri—the Summa of Brother Alexander. There “Alexander” ventures a bold innovation: he adopts the controversial epistemology of Avicenna, the great medieval Islamic philosopher. Schumacher argues that this move betrays a primordial Franciscan impulse. Avicenna’s epistemology holds that God impresses transcendental terms onto the mind. But isn’t this how the various vitae depict St Francis himself, bearing a constant and innate connection with God? Discerning distinctly Franciscan impulses behind conceptual innovations may well offer a new strategy for reading Scotus. Maybe what’s at issue, Schumacher suggests, isn’t Scotus himself. Maybe what’s at issue is the gradual “de-contextualization” from a Franciscan milieu that Scotus’s thought has suffered.
Richard Cross thinks Horan gets the Scotus story exactly right. His response, then, focuses attention not on the story but rather on Horan’s positive retrieval of Scotus. First, Cross wonders about Horan’s claims to relationality. Second and against the Radically Orthodox, Cross reaffirms that Scotus’s univocity doctrine has vanishingly little to do with ontology. Third, Cross assays the contest Radical Orthodoxy has staged between Thomas and Scotus on metaphysics. Too often have the Radically Orthodox conflated the grammatical and metaphysical. Usually this means pitting Scotus’s “univocal” ontology against Thomas’s “participatory” one. But if univocity concerns semantics and so bears no ontological implications, then the same holds for analogy. That Thomas prefers analogous semantics does not mean he claims special privilege to the metaphysics of participation, a metaphysics Scotus too endorses. Not that Thomas and Scotus always agree. No: Unlike Thomas, Scotus denies identity between divine attributes and the divine essence. Cross finds interesting Scotus’s refusal to make of the divine attributes—power, wisdom, and goodness, say—spooky characteristics of God upon which our language has no bearing whatever. It’s this, Cross thinks, that forms the principal theological implication of Scotus’s semantic move. Why hasn’t Horan considered it?
John Milbank’s long and rich response resists neat summary. Consider two of Milbank’s interlocking theses: first, that the strictly semantic reading of Scotist univocity commits anachronism; and second, that close attention to the text and context of Gilson’s Scotus book reveals its cogency, elegance, and correctness. In support of the first thesis, Milbank argues that Horan fails to map Scotus scholarship accurately. The decisive fault line yawns not between idiosyncratic French scholars and the mainstream, but rather between Anglophone analytic interpreters and Scotus’s more historically-keyed readers on the continent. This cartographic mistake leads to hermeneutical prejudice. Horan uncritically privileges the semantic line on univocity over and against the metaphysical one.
The remainder and majority of Milbank’s magisterial essay defends his second thesis. Sure, Gilson’s Jean Duns Scot sometimes lacks subtlety. His comparisons between Scotus and Thomas as variously voluntarist versus intellectualist, essentialist versus existentialist, and Augustinian versus Aristotelian are finally too tidy. No doubt Gilson’s Thomistic bias tinctures his reception of Scotus. And Gilson could be better, too, on Avicenna’s deep and abiding influence on Scotus. On the whole, though, Milbank thinks Gilson’s project mostly right-headed. Whatever its shortcomings, Gilson’s book was right to worry about the damaging philosophical, theological, and even political sequelae that attend Scotus’s thought. This means that following Gilson’s “speculative lead” entails deepening his historical verdict on Scotus while “purging the philosophical one of all ambiguity.” So sound the war-horns that summon the Radically Orthodox to battle—with the Scotus story their battle hymn.
Graham Ward, “In the Economy of the Divine: A Response to James K.A. Smith,” PNEUMA: Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 25 (2003): 117.↩
Catherine Pickstock, “Radical Orthodoxy and the Meditations of Time,” Radical Orthodoxy? A Catholic Enquiry, ed. Laurence Paul Hemmung (Burlington: Ashgate, 2000), 63.↩
Richard Cross, “‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’: Duns Scotus and Radical Orthodoxy,” Antonianum 76 (2001): 15.↩
John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 305.↩
Catherine Pickstock, “Duns Scotus: His Historical and Contemporary Significance,” Modern Theology 21.4 (2005): 568.↩
Horan acknowledges his debt to and admiration of Paul DeHart’s Aquinas and Radical Orthodoxy: A Critical Inquiry (New York: Routledge, 2012). ↩