In case you haven’t seen them yet, I thought I should mention that the women of WIT have come down with two scathingly brilliant responses to Milbank’s latest article: Mystery Theology Theater 3000: John Milbank and a Followup to the Milbank post.
Halden Doerge has written before about a concern with the way Anabaptism is ‘appreciated’ in contemporary ecumenical circles, by expressing a vague gratitude for its witness to peace—a witness that can just be lifted off and appropriated by another tradition without any kind of structural conflict.
What’s even more bewildering, and unfortunately very common, is when the same kind of gratitude is shown by Anabaptism’s critics, as in Milbank’s most recent piece for the ABC, “Power is necessary for peace: In defence of Constantine.” The article aims at the total demolition of any ‘anti-Constantinian’ position, but for some reason Milbank feels the need to offer a little paean to Mennonites at its center.
Mennonites avoid the trap of individualism, he says, by recognizing that the practice of the power of weakness, the nonviolent and reconciling power of Jesus, is a real power that must take real form in a community. “What is most precious about the Mennonite tradition,” he says, is “that they offer, not the path of misguided purism, not the illusion of ‘beautiful souls’, but rather their own middle way between apoliticism and political compromise.” We know that Christian charity have to be animated by a certain form of power, cannot be reduced to a vaguely spiritual and inward longing. So he acknowledges that the anti-Constantinianism of the radical reformation is not driven by the obsession with purity, the singular concern with one’s own private salvation, which he criticizes at the beginning of the article.
But the Mennonites don’t see that one can’t choose the power of powerlessness rather than “contaminated, compromised coercive power”; Christianity has to have them both. The gloves come off: Mennonitism does turn out to be obsessed with purity after all (how?), as well as being Marcionite (rejecting the political level of the OT), Gnostic (“because God creates us as hybrid material-spiritual creatures, the church includes certain physical spaces that one may have physically to defend”), obviously unrealistic (because Christianity wouldn’t even exist if Christian kings hadn’t slain the pagans), incapable of redeeming the state (like the venerable Justinian did), and—best of all—in practical denial of the resurrection (an accusation he doesn’t even try to explain).
In other words—the Mennonites are very inspiring and all, but they’re also wrong in every essential respect. Mennonites are the tragically misguided heroes, the clever but immature children, stuck on a step on the ladder to ‘true Christian love’ that other traditions had legs long enough to skip.
What’s so odd about this kind of ‘appreciation’ is that, unlike some of the genuine ecumenical overtures, Milbank is explicitly aware that the Mennonite peace witness is structurally opposed to the use he wants to make of it. That is, he knows that he has no sympathy with the Mennonite peace witness in itself at all; he makes use of the tradition to say that even nonviolent love must exercise a certain power, and then discards it. That argumentative strategy isn’t invalid—’even so-and-so who disagrees with me completely would agree that x‘—but it makes no sense to go from there to speaking of Mennonites’ “specifically Catholic witness” (his emphasis, big-C, whatever that could conceivably mean) or to praising our “new and more profound” way of combining charity and power.
A nice bit of evidence that the Niebuhrian tradition lives proudly on.
I’ve only just now, twenty years and many thick layers of satire after the fact, come around to reading Theology and Social Theory cover to cover. It’s always interesting to read a book for the first time that it seems you’ve ‘known’ forever, just by virtue of its being so integral to the academy’s collective consciousness. In these cases I almost always end up feeling sorry for the author. The book is usually so much better than the caricatures or isolated nostrums that get remembered. But once the simplified version has cemented, it is extremely difficult to see anything else even when the book is right in front of you. (This fact both confirms and complicates Harman’s advice to avoid reading much secondary work on an author that really matters to you until you’ve worked out what she’s saying all on your own. Secondary work is a seedbed of clichés, but when dealing with someone as ubiquitous as Milbank, the clichés take root without needing to be attached to any text at all. In those cases, a few carefully-chosen secondary works can open up interpretive space rather than covering it over.)
Still, in my experience, one or two features of the book usually stand out to you as completely misrepresented or unaccounted for by the caricatures. One of the things that struck me most about Milbank’s book is how little theology it actually contains. It’s often said that one of the book’s main contentions is the absolute superiority of theology over all ‘secular’ disciplines, a re-enthroning of theology as the queen of the sciences. That idea is certainly not foreign to Milbank, but to the extent that it’s argued at all, it’s confined to the book’s final chapter. The vast majority of the book is better read as a work in the philosophy of religion than in theology strictly speaking, arguing simply that ‘secular’ attempts of whatever kind (political, sociological, philosophical, or historical) to ‘position’ or explain religion by reference to a broader, supposedly self-evident whole, all fail. They fail because they are unable to recognize that their own view of the whole is just as controvertible, just as rationally contingent, as any ‘religious’ view. And none of this is argued by appeal to specifically Christian sources taken as normative. It’s presented as a philosophical ‘metacritique,’ depending for its substance on Hamann and Herder above all (who represent, he says, a “phantom Christian modernity which has never been” [p. 151, 2nd ed.]) and for its method on the same Nietzschean genealogical tradition he’s trying to overturn. What the metacritique really aims to establish is not the intrinsic superiority of theology, but on the contrary, the essential equivalence of theology with other discourses that have tried to claim their own ‘scientific’ superiority.
What’s particularly interesting to me is not the claim for theology’s superiority (which, in his metacritical idiom, amounts to not much more than that a view of the whole ‘positions’ the view of the parts), but the source and status of this metacritique, and the relation between this metacritique and Milbank’s actual preference for Christianity.
To go along with this interview with John Milbank just posted at the Immanent Frame, be sure to check out Cyril O’Regan’s short review essay on The Monstrosity of Christ, “Žižek and Milbank and the Hegelian Death of God,” in the most recent issue of Modern Theology (April 2010, 26.2). Written in O’Regan’s typical kaleidoscoping style, and so not the easiest thing to read, it’s nonetheless a really interesting take on the issues at stake in that debate.