Monday, November 14, 2005


I enjoyed putting together the WEEK WITH... STEPHEN LONG. I hope you enjoyed it too. I caught up with Steve at the beginning of the week and asked him a few questions. So now I'm sharing them with you. Enjoy!!


Jonathon: Steve,thanks for taking time out to do this interview for the folks who check in and read The Phaith of St. Phransus. One of the newer and exciting movements in theology is Radical Orthodoxy. And I know that you have been a part of that conversation. In what way can Radical Orthodoxy inform how we "do church" as United Methodist?

Steve: Radical Orthodoxy, in its current form, may not be able to inform how we "do church" as Methodists. It tends to be more of an intellectual exercise, bringing back to theology the importance of philosophy and even metaphysics. It may have more to do with how we train clergy into the theological tradition. Our history as Methodists has been to think of the formation of clergy primarily in terms of the so-called "social" sciences. Thus we focus on sociology and psychology and neglect doctrinal, philosophical and metaphysical issues.

I often chide the church's leadership in that everyone knows her or his Myers-Briggs score, but few clergy would be able to explain the doctrine of the enhypostaton. The reason for this is that the church hierarchy sets forth psychology and sociology as useful and practical tools for ministry, but not doctrine. Whether or not pastors can explain how Christ's two natures are related in his single Person and how that Person is related to the Second Person of the Trinity is no longer recognized as "practical" for Christian ministry.

If Radical Orthodoxy can inform the church as to what it means to be church, it will be to recover from its loss of theological nerve and begin again to take seriously the kinds of knowledge Mr. Wesley himself told the clergy we should have in his excellent "Address to the Clergy." We need to recover a theologically educated clergy, and not just a clergy who have academic credentials from an education based primarily in the social sciences. We are losing a theological and philosophical articulacy today, and I think this is associated with a loss of obedience; for obedience is not a virtue of the will. There is no such thing as "blind" obedience. Obedience is a virtue of the intellect. As the Dominican Herbert McCabe argued, obedience comes from the Latin -- ob audire -- whether to listen. If we do not have an articulate and faithful telling of the Christian story, theologically and philosophically compelling, then we cannot have obedience. Radical orthodoxy could help the leaders of the Church become more articulate, better tellers of the story, instead of functioning primarily as bureaucrat managers or therapists, which is what an emphasis on sociology and psychology inevitably turns clergy into.

Jonathon: Can you think of some practical ways that the theology of Radical
Orthodoxy inform and get played out within the context of a local

Steve: My initial response is: 'no, next question.' Radical orthodoxy is an elite, academic exercise. Even those within it call it a "sensibility." It is not really much more than a sensibility as to how one goes about the task of doing theology in the University, which I think is important because the modern secular University polices all conversations about God so that they are harmless. This often happens through university chaplains who are hired and paid well in order to make sure no outbreak of religion or piety occurs on campus. I am glad philosophy departments in secular universities are reading and engaging Radical Orthodoxy, even if it is primarily to point out its limitations. But what role does it have in the local church? That is more difficult to determine. At its best, what it does is confuse the assumptions that one either has to choose between an evangelical, orthodox Christianity and a progressive politics.

Radical orthodoxy would require recovering certain key liturgical acts. We would have to have Eucharist every Sunday. We would need to begin to confess, with the vast majority of Christians throughout the earth, the Nicene Creed. I think recovering something like Wesley's General Rules and viewing them as a basis for our common life would be helpful. These rules would have to be updated and they would have to be embodied and offer the Methodist people a distinct way of living, both as Christians and as Methodists.. They could be as simple as reminding the Methodist people that we don't play the lottery and as complex as setting forth certain economic practices in which we cannot participate at the risk of losing our freedom to come to the Eucharist table.

I tried to show the similarities between Wesley and Radical Orthodoxy in my John Wesley's Moral Theology: The Quest for God and Goodness. I think there are a number of important similarities.

Jonathon: Does having an emphasis on Trinitarian ontology affect how a church
"practices" its faith together? What might be the practices that would
reflect a more trinitarian idea of church?

Steve: I think I mentioned a few above. I do think we need a substantive form of catechism which teaches our people that our pledge is the Nicene Creed and not the pledge of allegiance to the flag. If we could simply accomplish that recognition, we will have gone a great way toward listening and responding well to the Holy Spirit in our midst. That would not, of course, mean that the Kingdom of God has come, but it would help us begin to see that all this discussion of diversity, open hearts, open minds, open doors (even though the doors remain locked after hours) is really just in service to the pledge of allegiance to the US flag and what it stands for -- e pluribus unum. There is really nothing at all radical to this. It just makes Christianity and the church ineffectual, a consumer choice among a variety of choices.

Jonathon: For those of us in the UMC who feel the need to be "bridge builders"
among conservatives and liberals- what do you see as the best "practices" or ways to engage that vision?

Steve: I guess it depends on what bridges you want to build. I don't know what people mean when they say conservative and liberal and the need to bring them together. Are they talking about the Republican and Democratic parties? Are they talking about communitarians and social contract theorists? Are they talking about orthodox versus 'progressive' Christians? Are we to build a bridge between those who think Christ was Incarnate and born of the Virgin Mary with those who think he became the Christ at his baptism? I want to know what bridge I'm building before I begin the labor. I worry about all this need to bridge differences these days; it too easily legitimates the dogmatic 'inclusivism' that says we are inclusive; you are not and therefore we exclude you exclusivists, all in the name of inclusivism. That is language performing a contradiction. I want to build a bridge that begins with orthodox, evangelical, catholic and anabaptism theology but moves away from the troubling right wing market fundamentalism. I want to build a bridge to those who have been really tending to issues of poverty, violence, life at the margins (and not those who have simply made a cottage industry out of talking about it) without leaving faith behind. I also want to build the bridge with faith that seeks reason, not a faith that is anti-intellectual or a reason that falsely thinks it has somehow moved beyond dogma.

Jonathon: I know you've been doing some work on Radical Orthodoxy in conversation with Wesley. Why are the two compatible?

Steve: This is simple: Christianity. I have no more stake in being radically orthodox than I do in being Wesleyan. Both are only useful inasmuch as they help order our lives to the Triune God and follow Jesus on the way that leads into truth and life. There are other less significant reasons I think they have much in common -- a Christian platonism grounded in a sacramental and metaphysical understanding of creation is a key one.

Jonathon: For the American church- how do we respond to social/polital issues in such a polarized time and not alienate one another? (We're so poloarized
even within our congregations)

Steve: I'm not sure we can. I think we simply have to embrace this alienation as God's judgment until someone comes along who can offer a compelling vision for our way forward. That has not yet happened.

Jonathon: Who have been your major influences to help inform your theology?

Steve: Of course Stanley Hauerwas. He went to Duke the same year I did and when I first met him I found him somewhat obnoxious. He offended my evangelical piety. He was my advisor and kept telling me to take theology courses even when I told him the courses I had to take were required for graduation! He grew on me over the years because of his profound piety and love of God. There is also Karl Barth, Henri de Lubac, Hans urs von Balthasar, Aquinas, Anselm, Julian of Norwich.

Jonathon: For those who want an "on ramp" primer to Being Methodist In a Postmodern Context, what books would be good to read?

Steve: Read anything Phil Meadows is producing. We need to get his important work out. I would also read the work of Michael Cartwright and Amy Laura Hall. I've already mentioned my own John Wesley's Moral Theology so I won't be so crass as to mention it again. Hauerwas's work remains an important development within Methodist theology; it seems to scare most people. Perhaps Bishop Willimon's work is a good place to start. I would also read Archbishop William's On Christian Doctrine. Anglican theologians are doing some really important work that we Methodists could benefit from greatly -- Milbank, Pickstock, Connor Cunningham, Michael Hanby. And of course the best presentation of RO in the US is James K. Smith's Introducing Radical Orthodox.

Jonathon: What might a "radically orthodox" United Methodist Church look like on Sunday morning?

Steve: I don't think I would ever use "radically orthodox" as marks of the Church. I would stick to one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.

Jonathon: In your honest opinion- do you think John Milbank indeed looks like
Harry Potter on steroids?

Steve: I've never known John to use enhancement technologies to get a theological advantage, but now that you mention it. . . .

Jonathon: Steve, thanks for taking the time out to be a part of THE PHAITH OF ST. PHRANSUS.


Jonathan said...

What a wonderful interview. Thanks for this and all your posts in "a week with D. Stephen Long." One observation: it seems like you kept on trying to get Steve to say something "relevant," and he kept on resisting. Did you get that feeling? Observation # 2: Milbank does indeed look like Harry Potter on steroids.

gmw said...

Fantastic, thanks for sharing the interview. Nicely done.

Also, where are you moving? I hope Sunday went well for you.

St.Phransus said...

you are right- one of the things that i've been really interested is if radical orthodoxy as a "sensibility" has something to actually say to inform how we "do" church.

i am so fascinated by RO and how it might get played out practically in the life of a congregation. thanks for picking up on that. he probably felt like i was probing a bit and i was. i just think there's a lot of good that can come out of RO for the UMC and where we are as a church.

Im going to Hermitage UMC,

My first day there is the Monday after Thanksgiving.


Eric Lee said...


Great post! You score all the cool interviews!

A friend/neighbor of mine is going to be studying with Long next year, so I'll be hearing more from that direction as well.



Eric Lee said...

Hey, I tried looking up some Phil Meadows stuff and I can't find who he's talking about on Amazon. Is he published by some lesser-known publishing houses that we need to know about or in some online journals? Thanks again for your mad interviewing skills.



jason said...


thanks for all of your work in putting the posts up and conducting the interview - all of us have benefited from your labors

i guess i'm like you in that when i'm studying any theology i wonder how we can "do" it in the church - i wonder(in my case) if a utilitarian bent sometimes gets in the way of spiritual growth or if what goes on in academia doesn't matter if it does not affect the Church

jason said...

oh yeah i liked what Steve said about know what bridges we are trying to build before we begin working with them and that the least we can ask of those we are building bridges with is that they be concerned with those in the margins - that's practical

St.Phransus said...

concerning phil meadows. i did a search too and came up empty. i may email steve and ask him where to find his stuff.

Thunder Jones said...

Blogger ate my earlier comment. It was a masterpiece that is now lost to us forever. I will try to recreate it, but consider this a mere redaction of my previous comment...


this interview is the kind of slickness that merits, nay, requires much discussion at The Flying Saucer.

It does touch on many mainline denominations embracing the social sciences as a grounding rather than theology and philosophy. That's really important.

There is one manner in which RO's influence is definitely felt in churches and that is in the theological formation of seminarians. If we can shift the emphasis of education from the sociology, psychology, and even social ethics to a more robust theological center on the truine God revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ and in his Church, I think we get big results. That's something you and Long didn't talk about. By shaping seminarians, we are able to shape their preaching. The preach to their congregations and we see serious local impact. The movement has a chance to reach the masses in that manner. We do need to make sure that there is a Christological emphasis, something missing in Milbank.

Solid work.

St.Phransus said...

as always thunder- you da man! i think you're right on.

i think milbank and the ro crowd goes so far, but yoder, hauerwas and likeminded thinkers pick up the christoligical emphasis.


Zoomdaddy said...

cool interview, no other exciting comments, however, after a day of subbing at a local middle school. still on detox from 6th grade overload. just one more reason i am reminded why i discontinued doing youth ministry. i am awed by you guys who are certified (certifiable) in your call to youth ministry.

Joel Thomas said...

Although I use both the Nicene and Apostle's creeds, they also have significant weaknesses because they fail to squarely identify God as embodying and enacting love and justice. There is too little connection in those creeds to the Social Gospel, relying instead almost entirely on salvation at the personal level. That is why I think it is very important to also use the Korean Creed, the Modern Affirmation, and the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada.

The Nicene and Apostle's creeds make it clear we believe in a Triune God, but hardly touch on explaining the nature of that Triune God.

What are we called to be, to do? What kind of church are we to be? How does God relate to human society? What is our purpose on earth? What is faith? These matters are greatly ignored in the Nicene and Apostle's creeds.

Jonathan said...

Joel, I still think you fail to acknowledge how subversive the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed are for the Empire. They call us to pledge allegiance to God's kingdom above all other false idols, such as Mars, Eros, Mammon, and the other gods of the Roman/American Empire. This is much more radical and all-emcompassing than giving us a list of moralistic do's and dont's. For the church to be a people formed by the Apostles' Creed is Caesar's worst nightmare. That's why, insisting that the UMC is non-Creedal makes the UMC more thoroughly American, and thus less able to resist the principalities and powers of this present age.

St.Phransus said...

I hear ya on using other creeds such as the Korean or the modern affirmation of faith.

however, the nicene and apostle's creed our two of our oldest "affirmations" of faith. they don't have to connect with "the social gospel" because they embody and presuppose a gospel that is already "social".

the idea of a "social gospel" or even a gospel that is devoid of the social/political affirmation is a modern idea and weakness in our modern thinking.

those affirmations when said in the context that they were written are highly subversive and socially revolutionary- written by a marginalized people who had to distinguish themselves from "empire".

i like the fact that both creeds are bare bones- what we believe as a community of followers of Jesus. it leaves a lot of room for a very large and diverse family.

we cant have it both ways can we- to give conservatives permission to use the ancient creeds as a litmus test for doctinal purity and allow liberals who want to use modern affirmations as a litmus test for a purely social justice creed?

maybe we should let the ancient creeds just speak for themselves and allow them to provide a bare bones foundation out of which to build from.

out of that bare bones- different faith communities will define how they view and practice social justice according to their geographic and socio-political location.

thinking out loud on this one,

Joel Thomas said...


Yes, but they don't give little clue as to who God is and what God's Kingdom is.

I often hear of people speaking of someone dying of cancer or in a car accident as "being God's will." How can we use the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed to fight such heretical views of God's providence?

St.Phransus said...

as much as i like the little clues, i also like the space between the words that allow us not to box God in too much.

those creeds give us just enough of a framework to agree on what's important. in order to keep us from heretical views we have

1. wonderful writings passed down from our traditions,

2.we have scripture (of which we view through the lens of tradition, experience and reason)

3. and obviously, some aspects of God and the nature of God are largely mystery that we cannot contain nor know, even though that scares the hell out of us at times.

i don't know if that speaks to your concerns but that's all i've got right now.

faith is a lot messier than we'd (especially those of us who like to talk theology, or doctrine, or anything systematic) like to admit.

shalom friend,

Scott said...


Thanks for this interview and your reflections. I really appreciate the writings of Long that I've come across. However, I was a little puzzled about his first comment that the place for radical orthodoxy is in the seminary and probably not in the local church. With regards to the language spoken in RO, I agree; however, if this is the only place, it only duplicates the path of much modern liberal theology, an interesting intellectual exercise. I see that there are many wonderful and rich ways for the theological insights of radical orthodoxy to play out in the church.


St.Phransus said...

it's funny that you say that scott. i am reading "journey with jesus" by robert webber. in this book he lays out model of evangelism and discipleship for the church that is rooted in the wasy of the early church.

he spends a couple pages at the beginning of the book talking about radical orthodoxy.

i'm beginning to see in robert webber's work (younger evangelicals, ancient future faith, and now journey with jesus) a robust practical theology and framework on how to structure church that is both orthodox and has a lot of space to breathe, and models the early church.

thanks for bringing that point to light.


Joel Thomas said...


We have to acknowledge, however, that people were put to death for refusing to believe in the creeds. Did they serve their purpose then?

Again, I'm sympathetic to use of both the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds. But we as United Methodists claim that the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation. Creeds as holding some traditions together, fine. But the traditional creeds just dont adequately convey a sense of God as loving, in my opinion. The fact is that for generations, many people didn't see any disconnect between the creeds and the church as an oppressive power. I go with the Nicene and Apostle's when they can be related to the Good News, but not standing alone.

The problem I see is that Scripture came to be seen inordinately through the lens of the Creeds instead of the other way around.

Further, we simply must recognize that the merger of the Methodist Church and the EUB brought into the Discipline theological statements of faith that simply cannot be entirely reconciled. That doesn't mean I opposed the merger -- in fact I'm old enough that I went to a service in 1968 celebrating the union.

Zoomdaddy said...

I have to say you are asking a lot out the creeds. They are summaries of the faith. Not treatises. The kinds of things you want addressed involve a lot more than the basics that creeds define. The creeds provide a launch point for us to do the work of the Gospel Christianly. They do not give specific guidance for how a Christian lives out the details. And I kind of worry about things that do, because the more you get into the details, the less you have to rally around for essential unity. As much as I have read you talk about bridging the gaps with the disparate elements and factions in the church, I am befuddled that you don't seem to appreciate the unifying force the creeds provide for all Christians.

St.Phransus said...

i'm not even sure what we're discussing anymore or if we disagree so much. i'm almost positive that theologically we are at a similar place, I think i'm just trying to get there from a different place (but i'm unsure).




St.Phransus said...

thanks lenny,
that's what i'm talking about. for someone who seems to be concerned that the ultra-conservative side of things could use the creed in such a way that it begins to define who we are in a very rigid way- joel you seem to think the creeds are TOO open and need more flesh around them- only that flesh seems to lean more towards the "social gospel" of justice.

as much as i agree theologically with that- i appreciate the sparseness of the creeds which like lenny said give us a launching point with SPACE to "fill in the rest" as a community.

i do believe there are some things that are non-negotiable- those are the foundations of which all christians ought to believe. but then around those our life experience, our communal faith experience begins to put the "interpretive flesh" around those foundations.

thinking out loud on this one bro,


Joel Thomas said...

Again, I would be a lot happier if we would put "descended into hell" back in the Apostle's creed.

Yes, I'd like a unifying creed as long as it is for the purpose of defending the faith and not being the faith, or a test thereof. However, to me one of the biggest differences of all between Christians isn't whether they regard Mary as having been a virgin, but whether or not Christ came to offer hope of salvation to all. Calvinists belief that he came to save the elect that God had already chosen leaving to damnation all others. That's a chasm far deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon.

St.Phransus said...

i know that when we say it, we use "decended into hell".

Joel Thomas said...

One of the things that makes a difference to me is how the Nicene Creed and others are used. I want the pastor to carefully explain that reference to God as "Father" doesn't mean that God is male.

St.Phransus said...

definitely joel. you raise a wonderful concern. i've had some really good conversations around this topic.

year before last at the emerging church convention stan grenz had a seminar on trinity. after the seminar was over, a friend of mine who is a female clergy person told stan that she had a real hard time with people using the term- God the Father, because of some gender sensitive issues and modern issues of what "father" means to some people (who've had abusive relationships and what not).

stan was very sensitive to this and explained that in a traditional sense- father is not a term that notes gender- it notes status in relationship to the son and the holy spirit.

he went on in further detail, but i thought it was a good point- made by both my friend and by stan in response.

thanks for yours, too.


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