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A glossary of some terms used in 

Radical Orthodoxy 

and in theology generally


Radical Orthodoxy uses unfamiliar words!  It is hoped that this mini-dictionary will be of use to those who wish to pursue it further. Except where I’ve raided the Concise Oxford Dictionary (indicated by*), the definitions are my own. Cross referenced entries are shown in italics.

Agnostic / -ism:  usually, someone who claims that one cannot know about the existence or nature of God*.  However , most of us (all of us?) will surely have some degree of agnosticism, since we are mortals and limited in our knowledge.  

Anti-foundationalism: the view that the world doesn’t contain reliable data or coherent principles. 

Atheism / -ist: see God.  

Catholic: universal, wide-ranging, relevant to everyone; of the church: the whole of Christianity, East and West.  See also Orthodoxy.   

Conservative:  averse to rapid change… tending to conserve *.  One speaks of ‘conservative’ Christians, Catholics, Evangelicals etc. 

Consumerism: the tendency for everything, including religion and culture, to be governed by what the public thinks it wants. 

Credal:  based on the creeds.

Daily Office: A cycle of prescribed psalms, scripture readings and prayers used by the Church for its regular prayer; sometimes known generally as Opus Dei, the work of God.  

Eucharist: the central rite of Christianity, in which the Church gives thanks over bread and wine, as symbols of the whole of life, in continuity with Jesus’ last meal before he died.     

Ex nihilo: Latin for ‘from nothing’ (as in creation ex nihilo).

Fundamentalism / -ist:  a term coined by a conservative Protestant movement in America in the late 19th century to denote the ‘fundamentals’ of their faith.  It rejected ‘liberalism’ and asserted biblical infallibility.  Now used in a derogatory way of any strongly-held belief system – including science, and even atheism.  

God: apart from the usual definitions, consider also in terms of Origin… Word… Gift…  See also Trinity.  (Which ‘god’ do atheists not believe in?)  

Humanist: concerned with human rather than divine or supernatural matters*.

Incarnation:  the doctrine that ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14) in Jesus of Nazareth.  One may debate whether the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus was a unique occurrence or a special case of a universal one.  Radical Orthodoxy tends to go for the latter, and this connects with one of its most important themes: our own participation in God, humanity and nature.      

Laborare est orare: ‘To work is to pray’ (said by S. Benedict, now almost a motto of the Benedictine order).   See work.

Liberal:  In theology: ‘regarding many traditional beliefs as dispensable, invalidated by modern thought or liable to change.’*

Literalist / -ism:  in theology, interpreting biblical stories or credal statements as if only the literal, or surface meaning (the ‘storyline’), mattered.   ‘Good practice’, however, is to follow the ancient system that all stories (and creeds) should be read at least three levels:  (1) the surface (‘storyline’) level; (2) the moral; and (3) the allegorical.  All good stories, and particularly fable and fairy stories, are to be read in this way (e.g. Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Pigling Bland; J.R.R.Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.  Unfortunately anti-foundationalism is a commonly held belief, so that many people are unaware that such meanings even exist.  

Liturgy: a form of public worship*, especially the Eucharist.

Logos: the divine ‘Word’, in Greek philosophy spoken of as a sort of ‘cosmic cement’ which orders the universe and the human world.   Spoken of by early Church theologians as the Second Person of the Trinity, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  See also Wisdom.

Music of the spheres:  Pythagoras (?582-?500 bc), who was a strong influence on Plato, discovered universal mathematical ratios between the notes of a musical scale; and he regarded the movement of the planets, by virtue of the ratios of each of their distances from the sun, as singing in a chorus of celestial music, which he called ‘the music of the spheres.’

Myth: a traditional narrative usually involving supernatural or imaginary persons*.  Should not be used in the popular sense of a story or statement that isn’t true. 

Nihilism: the view that existence has no meaning or purpose. 

Nominalism: the doctrine that universals or general ideas are mere names *. Cf Realism.

Orthodox / -y: what has been believed ‘everywhere, always and by all’ (Vincentian Canon, 5th century). Cf. heterodox, deviation from this.

Participation: a key word in Radical Orthodoxy, denoting the idea that all humanity and all nature shares in the life of God, and the expectation that individuals will share their lives with one another.  All of creation contains traces of the divine, which means that in such sharing we share in the life of God the Trinity.

Phallocentricity:  in feminist discourse, denotes the idea that the work in question has been written from a male perspective. 

Positivism / -ist:  the view that only what can be observed by the outward senses is valid.  Belief in God is therefore rejected.  In Radical Orthodoxy, however, the term is sometimes used in the sense of a credal statement being used in a literalist or  fundamentalist way, to imply it is being used as mere currency without real meaning, e.g. the ascension of Jesus, or the inerrancy of Scripture, in a context of ‘This is what you must believe!’  

Postmodern / -ism -ity:  in literature, art, music, politics, theology etc, a movement that reacts against ‘modern’ tendencies, largely by drawing attention to the styles and techniques that went into making them, thus exposing their ‘unconscious’ assumptions. 

         Cf. Modern / -ism / -ity: in literature, music and art, refers mainly to those works of the 20th century that rejected the styles and conventions of the 19th century, such as realism. In theology, modern is a loose term which can denote several things:  the school of ‘Honest to God’, and the work of the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins; the practice of analysing the text of the Bible in a systematic and scientific way; and the wrestling with the doubt and anger triggered by the dark evils of the 20th century.  It is used even more vaguely to denote any theology that is seen to have liberal tendencies.  For Radical Orthodoxy, however, the modern period begins with the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, since we say that by then – disastrously for the West – ‘reason’ had been set up as something separate from ‘faith’.   

         Cf. Premodern / -ism / -ity:  in literature, pre-20th century; in Radical Orthodoxy, pre 15th century, and includes the seminal figures of Plato (c.428-c.347bc), Augustine (354-430) and Aquinas (1225-1274).

Radical Orthodoxy: a recent movement within Christian theology, combining premodern theology, postmodern philosophy and somewhat left wing politics. 

Radical: revolutionary, showing a tendency to throw out accepted ways when they are considered past their sell-by date.

Realism / -ist: in medieval philosophy, the doctrine that universals or abstract concepts are not mere words but do have objective existence*. Cf. Nominalism.

In literature, ‘telling it as it is’, like a photograph or a recording.  

In theology, describing ‘reality’, i.e. what is presumed to have ‘actually happened’ or ‘is the case’.  This contrasts with theological non-realism, which may claim that a story or doctrine ought to be understood in a non-literal sense.

Reductionism: watering down, dumbing down, oversimplifying, e.g. understanding the Resurrection ‘only in a spiritual sense’.   

Semiotics: the study of signs and symbols, especially in culture, e.g. Why does this advert influence me?  

Tradition: the body of rites, beliefs, and modes of authority handed down in Catholic Christianity.  See Orthodoxy, Vincentian Canon. 

Trinity: the doctrine that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  As with incarnation, Radical Orthodoxy, in line with classical Christian theology, sees this doctrine as representative of all reality.  Augustine identified trinitarian ‘software’ in the human person, for example in our threefold function of memory, understanding and will. In this triad, memory corresponds to God the Father, understanding to God the Son, and will or vitality to God the Holy Spirit, each of which relate to the other two in a rather specific way.  See also participation.          

Vincentian Canon: see Orthodoxy.

Wisdom: similar to Logos, and used in both Hebrew and early Church theology in a similar way, but with a female gender.  See also Logos, Word. 

Word: in theology, translates Logos, spoken of as the Second Person of the Trinity, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. See also Logos, Wisdom. Also used of Holy Scripture. 

Work: not just what we do to earn a living, but expending energy in healing the world and bringing to it greater splendour and beauty.   See Laborare est orare.

  © ASF 2006




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