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Milbank’s metacritique

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.

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  1. July 16, 2010 at 12:57 am

    Great points! Milbank more so than most contemporary theologians seems to be very easily and glibly mocked. In his “The Word Made Strange” he has an essay on how “Only Theology Overcomes Metaphysics” and this and several other works with ‘grandiose’ claims seem to be the texts people use as the ‘key’ texts to understanding him. As you said, T&ST just doesn’t amount to a massive theological project.

    If people want a great ‘key’ text that illuminate much of his work I’d look to his “Postmodern Critical Augustinianism: A Short Summa in Forty-Two Responses to Unasked Questions”

  2. July 16, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Secondary lit is tricky, eh? Since I am formally outside of the academy now I have tried not to worry much about it letting myself slowly get acquainted with a new author. However, when approaching some works like those of Delueze and Guattari I found I had to get some foothold to orientate myself to just what I thought they were doing. With respect to Milbank though I find it amazing how much I start believing all the bad press without actually keeping up with his output.
    On another note. I just received a review copy of New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology and see you have a chapter in it. Looking forward to it. It will go in the print edition of Canadian Mennonite but I will likely also post it on my site if you want to give any feedback.

  3. July 16, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    @dcld: I’ve definitely had that same experience, needing to read some systematic, relatively brief exposition of someone’s work before I felt like I could grasp what they were doing at all. But then, once I feel like I can engage that work directly, I try to forget the secondary work as soon as possible. —As for NPBCE, I look forward to your review! I’m only slowly making it through the rest of the essays myself, though I heard most of them at the conference. Please do at least mention it on the blog.

    @adhunt: It’s true that T&ST doesn’t amount to a massive theological project (in a strict sense), but I still think it’s a massive and defining project. It’s just that most theologians seem to take the final chapter as the key to the whole, which on my reading leaves out some of what’s most interesting. On the other hand, it’s probably Milbank’s own fault—as usual, the most “shocking” claims (and there’s no doubt that’s what Milbank was aiming for) are the ones that get remembered.

    I remember reading “Postmodern Critical Augustinianism” a few years ago and finding it bewildering. Perhaps it’s time to try again.

    • July 19, 2010 at 8:53 pm

      Brian, where might acquire a copy of this book that dcld mentions here? I believe I need to read it.

    • July 20, 2010 at 6:38 pm

      Yah, I just accepted a position at First Mennonite in Winnipeg. Karl Koop’s wife is also a pastor there. I am looking forward to connecting with some of the folk at CMU they are pumping out some pretty good stuff these days.

  4. Robb
    July 16, 2010 at 6:17 pm


    This is a great post. I’m glad you took time to write this. It never ceases to amaze me how often I hear indigent criticisms of Milbank followed by a, “well, no…I haven’t read it yet.” I think there are aspects of Milbank’s thought that are way more interesting, provocative and of course, problematic, than the usual suspects found within TST (ie ontology of violence, theology as the queen of the sciences, etc). You’re point about Milbank working through Hamann/Herder highlights this perfectly.

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