John Milbank and the Deconstruction of the Secular, part one

John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory

"Once, there was no 'secular'."

Even if not quite an Barthian bombshell, John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason[1] did really chock its audience (theologians and social theorists) when it first appeared nearly two decades ago. Even if the chock has worn off, the book in some ways rewrote the theological (and sociological) landscape. The book was the precursor of what later should be known as "Radical Orthodoxy".

Milbank starts with the counterintuitive claim: "Once, there was no 'secular'" (p. 9). The secular realm is not something given in the "beginning of times", it is imagined. And the interesting thing about this imagining is that it is fundamentally religious and theological in origin and constitution. The secular discourse, argues Milbank, "is actually constituted in its secularity by 'heresy' in relation to orthodox Christianity, or else a rejection of Christianity that is more 'neo-pagan' than simply anti-religious" (p. 3).

In trying to support this claim, he focuses on modern social theory and traces through an 'archaeological' approach the genesis of the main forms of secular reason. While tracing the genesis back to the late middle ages, the carving out of a secular space becomes especially evident with the development of the "new science of politics" (e.g. Hobbes' "heretical" version talking about "the war of all against all" and the necessity of contractual relationships, and Machiavelli's "pagan" version, appealing to a different mythos of civic virtù and instrumental manipulation). Through an appropriation of the Christian semantics of dominium and imago Dei, equated with a conception of the autonomous will, the secular becomes understood in terms of pure autonomous power and complicit with an 'ontology of violence'.

If the creation of the secular, with emphasis on freedom and autonomy, was the important thing for "new science of politics", the eighteenth century "political economy" (e.g. Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus) was interested in the regulation and conservation of power (by the State and the market) and appropriated the Christian semantics of providence (talking about a God regularly present and holding everything together rather than the ultimate arbitrary power behind human power). It becomes a kind of "social theodicy". We find here, says Milbank, "a concern to display history as the natural process of the self-emergence of an immanent reason, within which 'man' or 'humanity' arises. ... Here again, the institution of the 'secular' is paradoxically related to a shift within theology and not an emancipation from theology" (p. 28)

The "new science of politics" and "political economy" is the roots and the content of the liberal discourse. It presupposed the isolated and self-conserving individual and it was from the interrelationship between such individuals that the political and the economic were constructed as an artifice. In the nineteenth century a French positivism arose (e.g. Malebranche and Durkheim), which not only talked about the individual, but also about the "social whole". The "social" or "society" was something given, a "positive" datum, a fundamentally ahistorical category, with which one could explain other human phenomena. Here we have the emergence of "sociology", and also of a new kind of social theology.

Beside the French tradition we also have the German tradition (e.g. Rickert, Simmel, Weber and Troeltsch) with its Kantian and neo-Kantian philosophy, as the second source of modern sociology. Here the "religious" and the "social" become separate realms and the former relegated to the private sphere. Religion becomes in its essence an extra-social affair. And so the underlying conception of the autonomous secular realm persisted.

The twentieth century sociology in general and sociology of religion in particular continues this tradition and is described by Milbank as a "secular policing of the sublime" (p. 106). Religion becomes reduced to mere social functions, e.g. integration, coping with the exceptional and problematic, and as social self-occlusion or ideology.

From this treatise on positivism, Milbank goes on to dialectics, giving mixed reviews of both Hegel and Marx. While they give helpful analyses of history and society, they still worked with a kind of "original violence" as they formulated their modern myths of progress and conflict. In the end Hegel's political theory, says Milbank, "begins with the self-seeking individual and concludes with the quasi-subject of the State organism" (p. 173). Marx remains, in the final analysis, couched within a scientific positivism and also within the perspectives of liberalism and secular modernity when talking about the eschatological socialist utopia as "the unleashing of human freedom and the unlimited possibility of human transformation of nature" (p. 177).

I stop the summary here, as we will cover the second half of the book in a second blog.

It is an interesting (even if rather sweeping) "archaeology" of the genesis of the secular and the secular social theory Milbank gives. It becomes evident that despite all its pretensions to the contrary, secular modernity is not areligious, just differently religious, a religion of immanence and autonomy. It is simply another mythos, an alternative confession, whose governing assumptions actually are more or less "bound up with the modification or the rejection of orthodox Christian positions" (p. 1). And therefore, "'scientific' social theories are themselves theologies or anti-theologies in disguise" (p. 3).

It is tragic that Christian theology has become so attracted to this mythos, has accepted secularization and the autonomy of secular reason, instead of seeing the world - without apology - from inside the Christian metadiscourse itself. And therefore it has inevitably been positioned by secular reason, with the consequence of either dressing theology in some immanent field of knowledge such as natural science, sociology or psychology, or letting itself be confined to the private sphere or a sublimity beyond representation.

Is there a risk that Milbank perhaps replaces false humility with a kind of absolutifying arrogance, a kind epistemological violence and possessive mastery that makes a fruitful dialogue with other sciences difficult?

Maybe it is as Milbank says, that the "pathos of modern theology is its false humility" (p. 1). But is there a risk that Milbank perhaps - in his way of developing a kind of rhetorical hyper-narrative and his claim to offer theology as "the ultimate 'social science'" (p. 6) - replaces false humility with a kind of absolutifying arrogance, a kind epistemological violence and possessive mastery that makes a fruitful dialogue with other sciences difficult? Shouldn't the church practice the epistemological virtue of patience, in which knowledge unfolds in fragments and ad hoc alliances and resists the violent tendency to silence the other? Milbank says that "theology, alone, remains the discourse of non-mastery" (p. 6) - doesn't this book in itself, in a way, contradict this standpoint?

And what does it mean in practice, when he declares theology to be the master discourse of the future? What does it mean for the academy? For the Church?

Part two »

[1] Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1990, 2006. This blog is a summary of pp. xi–205.

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Av Bengt Rasmusson

Bengt Rasmusson är teolog och mediakonsult.

Bengt Rasmusson is a theologian and a media consultant.