Wrestling with Milbank (via Burrell)

Burrell, David B. “An Introduction to Theology and Social Theory, beyond Secular Reason.” Modern Theology 8, no. 4 (October 1, 1992): 319–29.

David Burrell presents an introduction to John Milbank’s constructive critique of secularism Theology and Social Theory to open a special issue of Modern Theology engaging with the work. In what follows, parenthetical page references inside quotations are Burrell’s citations to Milbank; page numbers outside quotations are my citations to Burrell.

Milbank’s work operates within and emerges from the discourse of European philosophers with whom I am largely or entirely unfamiliar. This makes it difficult for me to assess the validity of his arguments, and at times even to follow them. (Indeed, I have the same difficulty with Rene Girard, which is why I have absorbed his work primarily through his American and British interpreters.)

His critique of modernity is foregrounded in his work; like MacIntyre’s, from whom he draws, it is a type of critique concerned with insistently asserting the Christian origins of all that is good in the Western liberal tradition, and willing to offer certain pre-modern values as remedy for post-modern malaise. I am suspicious of this type of critique, which strikes me as agenda-driven and unrealistically nostalgic for the good old days which, to the extent that they ever existed, were much less good for some than for others. That said, I’ll attempt to engage fairly with Milbank’s work as presented by Burrell.

Milbank asserts that social science cannot be coherent and complete in the absence of a prior — that is, external — understanding of the telos of human beings, which is necessary to provide a source of values that cannot be reduced to either sheer power or mere preference. He argues that an understanding of this telos inevitably arises, explicitly or implicitly, from the creation myth that is rhetorically operative in discourse. Thus, he positions the Christian myth of creation as God’s good self-giving gift over against the secular narrative of “rational action as the ‘inhibitor of chaos’” (321) or “nihilism’s ‘preference for, or resignation to, an imagined cosmic terror’ (296)” (326).

I must say, I don’t see cosmic terror in the dominant secular creation myth, narrated by cosmology and astrophysics, about how the universe came to be. I suppose that if we restrict the discussion of origins here to human origins, then the Darwinian myth of eat or be eaten has some existential terror in it. So I’ll proceed by supposing that when he says creation myth, he means myth of human origins, since it is with humans that he is primarily concerned.

I’m also underwhelmed by

his use of Mt 19:4 (mis-cited in the text as 19:8) as the prototypical Christian argument “from the beginning” (329), because this verse has been wielded as a text of terror against GLBT persons and divorced persons, and entirely erases the existence of intersex persons; nor do I see this verse or its pericope as foundational or prototypical of Jesus’ teaching content or method.

When considering possible sources for the telos of humanity, Milbank appears to reject sociology, politics, and even science on the grounds that they have been corrupted by key philosophical errors committed along the way, even falling into gnosticism; and rejects narrative and myth-based approaches on the grounds that the hermeneutic of suspicion yields an inherently unresolvable series of “complex narrative negotiations (268)” (324).

It’s not clear whether his assertion that there can be no “account of human nature independent of revelation” (324) is the cause, or the result, of this rejection; but assuming that he identifies revelation with special revelation — and if he’s rejecting all of western philosophy and science which interprets general revelation to us, then I think he must be — it doesn’t sound very catholic to me. Catholic tradition embraces the “two books” written by God: the universe itself is a revelation of and by God, which we call general revelation as it is revealed to everyone, while scripture and tradition comprise special revelation, revealed only to Christians and comprehensible in the proper sense only by Christians under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

If I am understanding correctly, this looks like an epistemic power play that reverses traditional Catholic epistemology, asserting that general revelation, too, is only comprehensible when informed by special revelation: thus, no longer actually general after all.

To be fair, Milbank is trying to do something worthwhile here, that is, to demonstrate that peace is prior to, and thereby superior to, violence: a challenge necessitated by the modern turn towards violence and nihilism. And he says some interesting things along the way.

He urges the rejection of a split between doctrine and practice where either takes priority over the other, and urges instead a “a single, seamless, theory/practice which has one privileged canonical moment (252)” (324) — though Burrell doesn’t give enough context for me to understand what the privileged canonical moment is meant to be.

He has an interesting take on why, if Christianity is ordered towards the prior, peaceful, reign of God, Christians still suck are not noticeably more peaceful than anyone else. In Burrell’s words:

“What distinguishes Christianity from the others is the life and death of a Jesus who expressly appeals to what it was like “from the beginning” (Mt 19:8), and whose resurrection discloses “the concealed text of an original peaceful creation” (417). That the community of followers of Jesus has not consistently professed its faith in that original peacefulness, but has resorted to coercion to attain its goals, is but one more indication of the fact that this community lives under the sign of an eschatological judgment, re-enacting the death of the Lord until he comes.” (329)

That’s a very interesting deployment of “re-enacting the death of the Lord.”

That passage is preceded by this one, which greatly confuses me:

While the route may seem roundabout indeed, Milbank has in effect despoiled the current Egyptian intellectual hegemony[1] to remind Christians (and Jews and Muslims as well) that their faith in a free creator of the universe dare not be left entirely implicit. Everything turns on the account we give of “in the beginning”, and lacking a revelation, pretenders will come forward to offer their descriptions of what the beginning was like[2], thereby fixing an account of the human species and of the culture it spawns as well. What distinguishes the faith-assertion of a free creation is that it includes a crucial caveat lest anyone attempt to describe what it was like[3], so one is pressed to follow the contours of the development of that assertion in the life and thought of those communities which profess so startling a faith.

1. What Egyptian intellectual hegemony is he talking about???
2. Is this equivalent to the creationist anti-evolution rhetoric that no one was there at the beginning, therefore humans can know nothing about it, except through the witness of God (who was there) given to us in special revelation??
3. What?? What caveat is he talking about? I think he’s saying here that, because it’s a faith assertion, it’s actually opaque, and so rather than being able to know anything about it directly, you have to infer what it was like from the doctrine and practice of the professing community. And this apparently is presented as a good thing?

Burrell states that Milbank’s critique “points to the need for a non-mythical account of the human telos, which he finds in a socialism inspired by Christianity, which can offer a critique of the secular logic of capitalism which is also a critique of modern political economy.” (322) Presumably, this is what he finds when he follows the contours of the Christian community. I expect other people would find other things when they followed those same contours using a different hermeneutical key.

Overall, I was unconvinced and annoyed by Milbank’s project as presented here, although I found occasional bits that were appealing. A ludicrous description of liberation theologies as “subordinat[ing] justice to a ‘natural’ freedom” (324), as well as a comment about an absence of adequate theologizing in the field, raised doubts in my mind about how valid his presentation, critique, and use of other sources were. A bit of research turned up a paper by Hans Joas (“Social Theory and the Sacred: A Response to John Milbank,” Ethical Perspectives: Journal of the European Ethics Network 7, no. 4 (December 1, 2000): 233–43) which identifies grave omissions and distortions in Milbank’s reading and critique of sociology. I conclude that Milbank’s reading and critique of other disciplines is unreliable, which undermines the foundation of the entire project.

As mimetic theologian Scott MacDougall points out, although Milbank’s stated motivation is a solution to violence, his rhetoric is itself violent and polemical towards the secular. He not only rejects, but scapegoats, the secular as the source of error, the original sin of modernity. (Scott MacDougall, “Scapegoating the Secular: The Irony of Mimetic Violence in the Social Theory of John Milbank,” in Violence, Transformation, and the Sacred: They Shall Be Called Children of God, ed. Pfeil, Margaret R. and Winright, Tobias L., College Theology Society Annual Volume (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011))

I would add that his rhetoric is often actively and gratuitously contemptuous of other disciplines, which does not inspire respect for his own arguments.

I engaged with this material at the suggestion of the second reader for my thesis, who observed that if I’m going to talk about whether and how theology should be informed by the social sciences, I need to at least mention Milbank’s work, especially in an ecclesiological context. I conclude that Milbank’s goal is rather the reverse: he asserts that the social sciences must be not only informed, but directed, by theological claims, and purified from secular error. Thus theology would be restored to its medieval place as queen of the academy, to which all other disciplines are handmaidens.

On the bright side, this paper has introduced me to 19th century Catholic philosopher Maurice Blondel — I’ll be blogging about his work sometime in the future.

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One Response to Wrestling with Milbank (via Burrell)

  1. It just occurred to me: Why on earth would a Christian anthropology, which is already insisting that special revelation holds an essential element of the social sciences, turn to the beginning to identify the telos of humanity, rather than to Jesus Christ himself??

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