Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Miroslav Volf on John Milbank

One way to embrace the evildoers would be simply "to act as if their sin was not there", as John Milbank has suggested in Theology and Social Theory. Jesus on the cross would then be our model. Like him we would say of the perpetrators, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing". In an act of sheer grace, justice and truth would be suspended, and reconciling embrace take place. We seriously misconstrue forgiveness, however, if we understand it as acting "as if sin was not there". More significantly , whereas the suspension of truth in an act of forgiveness is meant to help create a new world, a world without deception and injustice. Suspend justice and truth, and you cannot redeem the world; you must leave it as it is. Acting "as if not" in the face of sin might indeed anticipate heaven in which there will be no sin, as Milbank argues. However, the price of such anticipation is abandonment of the world to the darkness of hell; the world will remain forever awry, and the blood of the innocent will eternally cry out to heaven. There can be no redemption unless the truth about the world is told and justice is done. To treat sin as if it were not there, when in fact it is there, amounts to living as if the world was redeemed when in fact it is not. The claim to redemption has degenerated into an empty ideology, and a dangerous one at that.
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, p. 294.

I haven't read all of the Milbank book yet (and reading the first hundred pages makes me wonder how many who applaud it actually has), but this criticism of Volf's seem to me to be very apt. I wonder if this is in fact the major division line within modern theology, oh sorry, that is post-modern: between those who feel the gospel should work towards to redemption of the world and those that don't.

13 comments:

John P. said...

This is a great passage from Volf...however, I would point out that if you read the chapter "Violence: Double Passivity" in Milbanks newer book Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon, you will find that Milbank has seemingly flip-flopped on this position.

In it, he considers the violence of spectatorship and how this corrolates to those who choose not to act (violently?) to prevent injustice. Ultimately, he suggests that those who watch the violence of injustice without engaging it are actually committing an act infinitely more violent.

I am not convinced, but his consideration of spectatorship is compelling. You can also find a response to this position from Hauerwas in the book Must Christianity be Violent?

Halden said...

Milbank is one of the most brilliant idiots to ever become a theologian.

Seriously, he is brilliant. But so many of his ideas are really innane.

byron said...

Thanks for reminding me of this great Volf quote - I read it before I read any Milbank and seeing it again I realise how important it is.

Patrik said...

Yeah, it struck me as very accurate and significant too.

Patrik said...

halden, that is a remark that has real potential to become notorious... ;)

Halden said...

I'll see if I can include it in a paper sometime. :)

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

While I think the evil of spectatorship cannot be ignored or downplayed, I also think Volf sets up a false dichotomy in that part of Exclusion and Embrace--spectatorship or violent action. I reject nonresistance and violence for nonviolent direct action.

Patrik said...

I think that is Milbank's dichotomy, not Volf's. I think Volf's treatment is rather nuanced, and is also informed about the reality of violence in a way most theologians aren't.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Volf is VERY informed about violence. Don't get me wrong: I liked most of Exclusion and Embrace very much. I just always got the opinion that Volf tragically knew more about the many dimensions of violence than about the power of nonviolence. I always thought that Volf should sit down for some very long talks with Desmond Tutu.

I consider Milbank to be a hopeless Constantinian and am always surprised by the seriousness with which folk like Hauerwas take him.

John P. said...

there was a similar discussion on a different quote from Volf over at Joshuas blog a little while back.

The quote which Joshua posted was on the topic of Human nonviolence in its relationship to God's judgment. I think it is relevant to this discussion.

You might check it out:

http://blog.joshuaralston.com/?p=97

John P. said...

on second thought, joshua's blog no longer exists...

a moment of silence...

Brandon Sipes said...

You also might want to read Volf's new book "The End of Memory". It would be very enlightening for this conversation.

Lawrence of Arabia said...

volf's criticism seems a little off-base. already in t&st, if anything, one ought to worry about the use of power in milbank since his interpretation of how to deal with evil is very augustinian. force can be educative and in the end not violent at all. we act in the faith that our actions will-not-have-been-violent.

spectatorship was always the greater evil in milbank and his essay in being reconciled does not really change his position it just clarifies the great extent to which he was never pacifist (his critique is one i am sympathetic too, even if i suspect he would have to be much more nuanced in order to make pacifists feel like they had been represented fairly).

LoA.