At the time of his death in 2014, aged just thirty-five, John Hughes was widely regarded as one of the Church of England’s most promising theologians. Serving as both Dean and Chaplain of Jesus College at the University of Cambridge, Hughes was known as both an outstandingly gifted philosophical theologian in the faculty of Divinity and a tireless pastor and chaplain to the University community. The collection Graced Life edited by his friend, fellow ordinand, and minister Matthew Bullimore serves as an introduction to Hughes’ Anglican social theology and comes replete with endorsements from high profile theologians. Would that Hughes have had the long career expected the volume would no doubt be far longer. In the wake of his tragic death, this slim volume which includes all his published work, aside from his 2007 monograph, is all we have left. The purpose then, of this review essay, is to outline Hughes distinctive intellectual theological project, to provide a broad overview of its influences and aims, and also to point out some potential limitations of the theological world within which Hughes wrote. The point is not to be unnecessarily critical or dismissive, but rather to subject the idea of Anglican Christian socialism to critique and thus to find ways of extending and continuing it through the overcoming of internal limitations or epistemic horizons. 

Bullimore’s introduction to the volume serves as an excellent contextualisation of Hughes and his work. The three primary influences are, firstly, the Anglican tradition of Christian socialism, embodied historically by F.D Maurice, R.H Tawney, and in the contemporary by someone like Rowan Williams. Secondly, the so-called nouvelle theologie of mid-twentieth-century European Catholicism, exemplified most particularly in Hughes’s case by Henri de Lubac and the integral relationship between nature and grace. Thirdly, the influence of “Radical Orthodoxy;"1 particularly the work of John Milbank, and his critiques of secular ontologies and modernity more generally. In the introduction Bullimore sums up these influences clearly—those unfamiliar with de Lubac, for example, will find the introduction extremely helpful. In drawing on these three traditions Hughes sought to articulate a distinctively integrated theological vision that was both attuned to historical theology and a broadly Christian socialist politics. What is notable about Hughes’s work as presented here is the emphasis given to culture—firstly with the essay on King Lear, with which the volume opens and secondly, an essay dedicated to the idea of Christian culture which comes towards the end of the book. 

The essay on Lear with which the book opens is one of the first pieces that Hughes published, written when he was still an undergraduate student. Heavily influenced by “Radical Orthodoxy” writings on forgiveness, gift, and charity, the essay makes an interesting argument for reading King Lear theologically. Hughes hopes to find a via media that lapses into neither the conservative interpretation of the play as essentially about the restoration and maintenance of order, or the more radical position that violent, vitalist Nature must triumph over the old, ossified order. For Hughes, both sides have a common materialist agenda which places a primacy on ‘power and violence,’ (Hughes, p.9). The solution to breaking out of this commonality is the divine economy of forgiveness, an asymmetrical but reciprocal relation which is best modelled in the play through the Fool. As Hughes writes, forgiveness is irrational ‘because it does not promise the immediate success that a utilitarian calculus might require.’ (Hughes, p. 27). In short, Hughes posits that forgiveness is a profoundly political act – ‘nothing less than the ongoing business of society being reborn afresh.’ ( p. 29). Following that comes a shorter paper on Bulgakov and Aquinas before turning to one of his most long standing concerns: work and labor. This forms the theme of chapters three, four, ten and, somewhat more indirectly, twelve. Thus, it’s easier to approach this thematically rather than try and go through each chapter in turn. 

First comes a historical approach. Chapters three and four are in essence a theological and historical genealogy of the category of labor, as Hughes traces first the ways in which the distinction between earthly and spiritual work waxed and waned in importance through to the Reformation. Post Reformation, the interest in earthly work decreased thanks to Lutheran scepticism around the theological category of works more generally. However, work or labour is a distinctly modern phenomenon and so chapter four considers theories of work from the political economists of the eighteenth century onwards. Locke particularly comes in for harsh criticism as Hughes argues the Lockean theory of value reduces labor to a ‘matter of mere utility, an expression of our animal necessities.’ (p. 66) From there, Hughes gives an overview of the French Romantic and utopian socialists, before turning to Marx. 

Marx provides a novel synthesis and his anthropological view of labour significantly expands the scope of what labor is. For Marxists, labour is not simply a fact of nature; there is no pure state of nature as we are irreducibly historical. This goes all the way to the ground as it were, as in Marx’s words, it is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness (quoted in Hughes p. 71). Hughes’ criticism is that Marx is not nearly as scientific as claimed and that his work ignores the theological-ethical aspect of revolutionary politics, which might be seen as more fundamental to this issue at hand. Frankly, Hughes’ claim edges on the reductive insofar as it ignores Marx’s humanism—which thinkers such as Raya Dunayevskaya have well explored—and overemphasizes the apparent scientism of “Marxism.” Whilst Hughes might see that Marx has no exteriority to turn to in order to ground an ethical project, this misses the Marxist understanding of human potential and a shared Gattungswesen, or species-essence, on which human advancement could stand. Yet there is a valid point here: all too easily can Marxism fall into an arid economism which is perfectly capable of smuggling in utility through the back door, as it were. Hughes quotes Walter Benjamin’s famous point about the theological dwarf operating the Marxist robot, which opens the door for a serious synthesis between the two. Hughes’ own preference, however, is clearly for the Romantic anti-capitalists like Ruskin and Morris. The danger here, though, is that an anti-capitalist politics mixed with the fondness for a theological order of the past can easily lapse into a kind of theopolitical nostalgia which is inimical to thinking a politics which is post capitalism. 

The second predominant theme is theological. Chapter Ten offers a response to Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate, finding in its mild reformism and rather tepid critiques of global capitalism a ‘radicalism which arguably goes further than any previous papal encyclical in this direction.’ (p. 150) Frankly, this suggests more about the narrow political theology of papal encyclicals than any kind of shift towards a more radical critique of political economy. Here, and in chapter twelve on Anglican social thought, the potential limitations or horizons of Hughes’ writing become more clear. While acknowledging that the William Temple era of Anglican social thought is over as British society and capitalist modes of production have altered, the boundaries of thought have shifted to a critique of liberal modernity exemplified particularly by the work of John Milbank. Hughes, then, sees Milbank as the alternative to a return to Temple, preferring the scholasticism of Radical Orthodoxy to the Hegelian-inflected theology of someone like Rowan Williams. To be blunt, this represents a limitation of thought: a horizon beyond which his analysis cannot precede. Hughes’s indebtedness to French Catholic theology, socialist politics, and critiques of capitalist economy offer ways of widening the terms of contemporary theological debate. The turn to Milbank, however, traps Hughes’s writing in a narrow, scholastic range of references and concerns. Rather than looking out into the wider world by engaging with the way ordinary people live and work, the reliance on Milbank’s work leads to theological writing that is far more at home in a Cambridge seminar.

 Whilst Milbank’s social thought may have much to recommend it—decentralization, and an emphasis on the guild or trade union as a key aspect to life for example—it becomes little more than ‘petty bourgeois capitalism decked out in Tolkienesque drag, a Rotary Club of the Shire’ to quote Eugene McCarrahar. Secondly, as Hughes puts it, Milbank refuses to ‘simply give up on Christendom,’ (p. 181) which, when coupled with Radical Orthodoxy’s interest in ontological hierarchies (discussed in this excellent paper by Adam Kotsko here).2 make it seem as though Radical Orthodoxy is far closer to an endorsement of a theocratic and hierarchical state than anything recognisably socialist. The developments of Radical Orthodoxy, but most particularly the political trajectory of Milbank over the past decade bears this out entirely. Whilst Hughes may have found Milbank’s work interesting and intellectually engaging, it is far less new than when it first appeared, far more narrow in its interests, and continually unwilling to dialogue with those who do not already agree with its presuppositions. Radical Orthodoxy may well have been appealing to Cambridge theologians for its polemical style and ambitious goals but this speaks more to the narrowness of the horizons of theologians and the introspection of Cambridge theology than any positive content within Radical Orthodoxy itself. The vast majority of theologians and writers Hughes turns to are, like himself, Oxbridge educated Anglophone writers whose theological projects are conducted at elite institutions within a fairly narrow intellectual range of influences and references. 

There are two final examples which clearly illustrate this. Firstly, there is only one page of writing on liberation theology in the entire collection, and it is dedicated almost entirely to Gutiérrez; there’s no mention of thinkers like Frei Betto, Leonardo Boff, or the New Left Catholics of the 1960s. Whilst Gutiérrez is widely regarded as one of the founding thinkers and theologians of liberation theology, it is rather disappointing to see a self-identified Christian socialist gloss over such a vital theological tradition, especially given the ways in which the political thought of liberation theology has been so influential. This is a rather typical aporia of Radical Orthodoxy more widely; whilst interested in politics, liberation theology and black theology are areas which Milbank and others after him seem reluctant to explore. 

Secondly, there is no mention of class, which, from a writer and theologian interested in politics and in the possibility of Christian socialism, is a colossal and revealing omission. To quote the Catholic theologian and lifelong socialist, Herbert McCabe: ‘the class struggle is not something we are in a position to refrain from. It is just there; we are either on one side or the other. What looks like neutrality is simply a collusion with the class in power.’ For an academic and chaplain at one of the richest universities in the world to neglect this point avoids some hard and necessary questions. Admitting the reality of class conflict would force Hughes to investigate issues about the relationship of the Anglican church to political and economic structures, which could have done more to advance Anglican theology out of the limiting sphere of that restrictive Cambridge horizon. Furthermore, for a writer so interested in the concept of work, to neglect class is to neglect a vital determining force in how and why certain kinds of work propagate through capitalism. Labour isn’t an abstract concept but is structured and mediated through class relations. Hughes’s vision of bucolic labor organised towards noble ends sounds very much like the secular monasticism of an Oxbridge college, with class as the unspoken determining factor of who gets to participate within that work and who is left ultimately excluded. While this is not a necessary precondition of Anglican theology, I cannot help but think how essential and fruitful Hughes would have found McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon, or Kathryn Tanner’s Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism as ways of broadening his own project and escaping the theological dead end represented by Milbank’s “Radical Orthodoxy.” It’s sadly telling that in McCarraher’s monumental 800 page book, Hughes’ work makes no appearance. 

In short, it seems that the question motivating Hughes’s work is the possibility of a radical Anglicanism. However, the inability for Hughes to see beyond that Cambridge horizon of thought severely limited the tools at hand with which such an idea could be built. It’s in this regard that Hughes’s glossing over of liberation theology seems an oversight—especially when liberation theologians’ synthesis of Marxism and Catholicism allowed for both a theoretical critique of political economy with pastoral and practical theology. This more rigorous accounting for the reality of class and political economy as it is lived and felt by ordinary working people would have offered a way out of the restrictive avenue of Radical Orthodoxy’s neo-scholasticism. Hughes’ death is a great loss but this collection also serves to underscore the fact that his work was not finished. Whilst a fine intellectual memorial, this book should not become a mausoleum of thought. The point should not be to maintain his ideas and insights in a theological and political stasis but to put them to use, subjecting them to critique where necessary, in order to extend and build a theology that not just describes the problems of capitalism but helps point the way beyond it, to a better world to come, that lies beyond that Cambridge horizon.

  1. I refer to Radical Orthodoxy as a prominent theological influence on Hughes’s writing though it should be acknowledged that the term used as an identifying mark of a distinct theological movement has always been contested with some theologians associated with Radical Orthodoxy. Whilst it may not make sense now to talk of a Radical Orthodoxy movement in theology that certainly hasn’t necessarily been true over the past decade or so. For the sake of simplicity (and, I believe accuracy) I deal mainly with Milbank’s influences on Hughes’s work as presented in this collection.
  2. Kotsko’s paper makes the case that Radical Orthodoxy’s dependence on the analogia entis and ontological hierarchy are firstly, not necessary and secondly, ignore theological ideas such as the ransom theory of atonement which would provide much more fruitful ground for the necessary project of developing an ontology which does more than nostalgically hark back to the era of Thomistic scholasticism.

Jon Greenaway is a writer and academic from the North of England who writes on theology, culture and politics. He is the co-host of the podcast Horror Vanguard and tweets @thelitcritguy