John Milbank and the Deconstruction of the Secular, part two

John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory

After the collapse of the modernist metanarratives of Marxism and sociology, what is left? Only postmodern nihilistic difference?

(This is the second part of my summary of John Milbank's here.)

In the final chapter of his sub-treatise on "theology and dialectics" Milbank once more asserts that a Christian social theology cannot hope to succeed by dialectical accommodation, by seeking a kind of alliance between Christianity and the thought of Hegel and Marx. The result of such an alliance is only a religious legitimation to an unmodified secular vision. He takes here political theology and liberation theology as his examples. In the wake of the "integralist revolution" (integrating grace and nature, sacred and secular), initiated by the second Vatican Council, these theologies (rightly) argue that since all of life is imbued with grace, you cannot separate socio-political concerns from "spiritual" concerns.

But the problem is, according to Milbank, that these theologies allied themselves to the German source of the integralist revolution (Rahner and transcendental Thomism), with its attraction to correlation and mediation in trying to "naturalize the supernatural", instead of the French source (Blondel, Lubac, Congar, Urs von Balthasar, and the nouvelle théologie), with its trying to "supernaturalize the natural" by simultaneously emphasizing the supernatural end of human nature and that this end always must be received as pure gift. Therefore, contends Milbank, these theologies "remains trapped within the terms of 'secular reason', and its unwarranted foundationalist presuppositions" (p. 207). The French version of integralism points instead, he concludes, in a benign "postmodern" direction.

After the collapse of the modernist metanarratives of Marxism and sociology, what is left? Only postmodern nihilistic difference? This is, one could say, the question of the fourth and last sub-treatise on "theology and difference."

In Milbank's expository dialogue with the postmodernism of our times (with special reference to thinkers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Deluze, and Lyotard) a picture emerges that shows how this postmodernism in the final analysis turns out to be not a rejection of secular reason but its most radical expression.

This postmodernism is characterized by, says Milbank, an absolute historicism or nihilistic genealogy that stops telling the stories of a constant human subject and discloses the will-to-power behind all knowledge, narratives and cultures (even so called "scientific" knowledge and narratives, see ch. 9). This historicism requires and is built upon an ontology of difference or violence which tells us that violence has both the first and the last word in human history.

Despite its historicist perspective this postmodernism presents this ontology as something more than mythical, as a kind of fundamental ontology, and so lapses back into a kind transcendentalism. And all of these flows into an ethical nihilism that "teaches the needlessness of regret, and the necessity for resignation ... freedom is only a reality as arbitrary power" (p. 317, 318).

What emerges in postmodernism is a mythology which is, contends Milbank in his devastating critique, "the final, most perfect form of secular reason, in some ways reverting to and developing the neo-paganism of Machiavelli ... the best, the least self-deluded, self-description of the secular, which fails only at the point where it will not admit that it has shown the secular to be but another 'religion'. ... The secular episteme is a post-Christian paganism ... an 'Anti-Christianity'" (p. 279, 280).

This "malign", nihilistic postmodernism is according to Milbank today challenged by a more "benign" postmodernism, which "advocates some form of return to the perspectives of antique political philosophy" (p. 327) and is best represented by Alasdair Macintyre. Milbank agrees with his emphasis on virtue, narrative and tradition, but sees in his argumentation against nihilism in the name of virtue and tradition in general a new mode of foundationalism. Instead Milbank argues that it is the specific content of Christian virtue and tradition (e.g. charity and forgiveness, in contrast to for instance Aristotle's heroic virtue which fortify the ontological priority of conflict) that can stand as an alternative to nihilism. And in this context he also shows that narrative is not a formal appendage to the Christian faith, because "the story of the development of a tradition ... really is the argument for the tradition" (p 349).

Milbank then concludes with a discussion and presentation, inspired by Augustine (and Dionysius), of the Christian vision, by sketching out a "counter-history" which tells the story of all history from the point of the emergence of the Church as an altera civitas but also as an ecclesial self-critique, a "counter-ethics" which describe the different practice of the Church, and a "counter-ontology" which forms the frame of reference implicit in the Christian story.
 

And here appears - against the background of God's creation as free gift and God's being as Trinity - a vision of reality that is not chaos, violence or nihilism, but the "infinite flow of excessive charitable difference" in participation in God.

And here appears - against the background of God's creation as free gift and God's being as Trinity - a vision of reality that is not chaos, violence or nihilism, but the "infinite flow of excessive charitable difference" (p. 381) in participation in God. Virtue is to be found in friendship with God, friendship with God resolves around the practices of charity and forgiveness, truth is "participation of the beautiful in the beauty of God" (p. 434), and the Church "is the telos of the salvific process" (p. 407). This is a vision where peace has the first and last word.

This is an impressive book, intelligent in its argumentation, fascinating in its historical surveys and archaeologies, and provocative in its conclusions. It is a classic. But still, in the end I feel a little bit of a disappointment regarding his constructive conclusions.
 

If the Church is a "counter-polis", why then is Milbank's discussion about the church as a concrete social alternative so vague? Why doesn't he talk about the Church as the "other city" in the context of witness and missio Dei? Can it be because of an inadequate Christology?

This is not only a book about theology and social theory, but also about theology as social theory. And a Christian social theory is, says Milbank, "first and foremost an ecclesiology" (p. 383, his emphasis). But why then has he so little to say about the embodied social content of this ecclesiology? If the Church is a "counter-polis", why then is his discussion about the church as a concrete social alternative so vague? Why doesn't he talk about the Church as the "other city" in the context of witness and missio Dei? Can it be because of an inadequate Christology (which maybe is also reflected in later works, see e.g. The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? written in dialogue with Slavoj Žižek)? In his eagerness to lift up the power of God as Creator, he seems to downplay the suffering power of the crucified God. In his emphasis on the incarnated logos, he seems to downplay the identity and character of Jesus, the concrete details of Jesus life, death, and resurrection. And doesn't this run the risk of emptying the content of the Church, making it stand out more in it's negative contrast than as an concrete, positive, socially embodied argument? (It is here interesting to note the huge difference between Yoder's The Politics of Jesus and Milbank's argumentation in the end of this book.) Is perhaps Chris Huebner right when he says that Milbank's project (in the light of what he contends to be an inadequate Christology and a relativizing of the people of God as both Israel and the body of Christian disciples) "appears to be devoted to the Constantinian task of developing a civilizational religion. ... [O]ne gets the sense that he wants the church to simply supplant the world rather than embodying a concrete alternative in the midst of it."[2]

And in the final analysis this also cast a shadow over his ontology of peace. This problematic is not only to be found in his kind of possessive argumentation which I in my first blog asked if it not exemplified an epistemological violence, but also in his discussion about the need in some circumstances for a non-peaceful coercion that "can still be 'redeemed' by retrospective acceptance, and so contribute to the final goal of peace" (p. 424, cf. 428-429). Isn't this instrumental reasoning an example of a residual "secular reason", which you could contend has its background in his downplaying of Jesus life, death and resurrection?

Notes
[2] A Precarious Peace: Yoderian Explorations on Theology, Knowledge, and Identity (Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press, 2006), p. 157-158. Some of my reflections in this and the previous blog is heavily influenced by several of Huebner's brilliant discussions in this book.

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Av Bengt Rasmusson

Bengt Rasmusson är teolog och mediakonsult.

Bengt Rasmusson is a theologian and a media consultant.

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