Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Rant on John Milbank

Yes, I have read Milbank's Theology & Social Theory. All of it. My original intention was to write a critical and serious review of it, but then I thought what the heck, I'll just write what I feel about it instead.

To be honest, Milbank lost me even before the "acknowledgments" part. In the dedication. "For Alison (fair enough, that's presumably his wife) and the Remanant of 'Christendom'." How is it possible to get so much arrogance, snottiness and sentimentality into a single line? Ok, here we have a guy that feels nostalgic about a time when dissent from "Christian" faith would mean death by fire.

I won't deny that Milbank's book has its merits. The very first paragraph: "Once, there was no 'secular'" is an important point to make and Milbank's arguing for the invention of the secular is very good. He has a width of knowledge about the history of modern philosophy and sociology that is nothing short of amazing, even though he presents it in a way that seems to be intentionally difficult. The ironic thing is that his sense of Christianity is so puny. First of all, and this really annoys me, he is constantly arguing out of what "Christianity" is and what is "Christian", as if the content of these concepts were given and clear. It gets absurd at times because Milbank nowhere gives his criteria for what is genuinely Christian theology, he just refers to it as if he had a secret knowledge about what this really is. What do we call that, again? Yeah, right: gnosticism.

Here's my favorite example: "Eriugena's ontology, based on God as internally 'maker' and then on different degrees of participation in creation, is therefore more profoundly Christian than that of Aquinas." Incidently I agree with him here, Eriugenas understanding of creation is really good, but how can one just claim that it is more Christian than Thomas? According to what? Who?

The problem for me with Milbank's theology is that is so lacking in religious value. Milbank's entire credo seems to be "I believe in the Church". God Father, Son and (especially) Spirit all play very peripheral roles in his theology. His alternative to a world based on secular reason is the Church, which is not so much a place where the Word of God is preached nor where the sacraments are celebrated and the Mystery is worshiped, but a kind of alternative society. And what kind of society is this? This is again extremely ironic, but it seems that Milbank's vision of a society based on Christian Socialism is essentially a kind of liberal state where some aspects of life are centrally governed but for the most part it is a free market economy. Sounds familiar? That's exactly what we have in the Western world today. Only Milbank would like people to be a bit nicer, because that is more "Christian".

Another problem with this book is that the practical applications of his argument always come as complete surprises, like the half-hearted criticism of capitalism mentioned above, or the championing of non-violence. It has a very loose connection to his over-all line of argument.

An then we have the final chapter. In these few last pages we find out that Milbank actually don't think the Church is such a great place after all. It has failed miserably at what it was supposed to be and do, and created liberalism, nihilism, violence and power-politics in the process. And then it stops with a kind of "but at least it is better than secular reason". And that's it. 433 pages to get to this result?

How about an eschatological perspective on the Church? Nope. How about some notion about the importance of the believers relation to the ultimate? No, not that either. How about the Church as place of overcoming of sin and learning the behavior of the citizens of the Kingdom of heaven? Not in there.

Not much of a point then, really?


Rev Sam said...

he he he. Glorious.

WTM said...

A very nice rant, Patrik!

Sandalstraps said...

I'm very suspicious of anything that speaks of "the Church" or "Christianity" as though there were a single thing that we could label as such, a single set of propositions that fit all who carry those labels.

As I'm sure you know, from the beginning our faith has been pluriform, and you can follow various strands through history. But if there is a single thing that connects each strand, it certainly can't be summed up by a neat set of propositional descriptors. Yes, all of the strands of Christianity arise out of some kind of experience of God as revealed through Jesus. But there has never been a common understanding of exactly what a line like that means.

But, more to the point, I think you summed up the whole problem with this sort of academic project before you ever dealt with the substance of this book, when you said:

He has a width of knowledge about the history of modern philosophy and sociology that is nothing short of amazing, even though he presents it in a way that seems to be intentionally difficult.

I suspect - though haven't read any of Milbank's work - that you're right about it being "intentionally difficult." It seems that some academics actually take pride in how few people can understand them, as though that were a good thing. Yes, I understand that academic depth and rigor sometimes make one's work difficult for those who are not already experts in one's field to fully understand. But, more often than not, I suspect that arrogance and bad writing (two related phenomena, by the way) are the biggest obstacles for comprehension.

Simply put, far too many of us academic types simply can't communicate.

Patrik said...

Can't or do not want to.

Eric Austin Lee said...

I agree that Milbank's prose is extremely terse, but he does write rather accurately. I guess that is one way of putting it. Haha!

However, sheesh! I understand your post is a 'rant' and all, but your response is rather unusually and unnecessarily demanding of him. It's only one book -- he's written more, ya know. Give The Word Made Strange and Being Reconciled a spin, as he works some of these ideas out more fully, but he is never going to offer a perfect 'system' of thought, which it seems like you're demanding. Like Hauerwas, he is not interested in being systematic like that. Yet all too often in critiques such as yours, that is what is demanded, that he answer all your questions.

I understand that Milbank is somehow all too often perceived as 'arrogant', and I am not sure where people get this. I also do not think a response in 'kind' (which it is not) to perceived arrogance with further arrogance is very helpful.

Have you met Milbank before? I met him about five months ago, and he was quite nice and a humble guy. And, he was extremely charitable in offering comments and further thoughts on a paper I presented.

Theology is as much about friendship as it is a second-order reflection on worship, and I fail to see how such posts would ever set oneself up for seeking the friendship of a guy like John Milbank.

For instance, witness Ben Witherington's recent critical review of Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis. As I had just read this for the first time this morning, and then reading this post a few hours later, I couldn't help but compare this response to the generosity displayed by Dr. Witherington toward the work of Bell. I want to encourage you to proceed along these lines if at all possible! :)



Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Milbank is thoroughly Constantinian that I am always surprised that people like Stanley Hauerwas and Rowan Williams take him as seriously as they do. Even when critical it is with hushed overtones of respect. I don't get it.

Halden said...

Like I said before, Milbank is the most brilliant idiot ever to become a theologian.

The biggest problem with his book is his nostalgia for Christendom and his arrogance. Ultimately I have no idea what "church" he's talking about, and ultimately I think it's an abstraction.

arvid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
arvid said...

An interesting read (both your rant and Milbanks book). I think you'd get the most out of Theology and Social Theory, if you'd read it as mainly the story of secular reason and social theory. Also social theorists should read this book.

By the way; am I the only one enjoying his arrogance?

arvid said...

PS! And sometimes I'd rather say bold than arrogant. DS.

Patrik said...


I have re-read my post and I have no idea where you get the idea that I want a theological system.

I guess my main point is that if you're going to demand the dismantling of the sociological and philosophical traditions you're gonna have to have something to offer in its stead. Millbank claims to have that, but he does not tell what it is. As Halden says, you have no idea after reading the book what he means with the Church.

Of course, you can always say that there is more in other writings by the man, but I'm sorry, after reading through this, there is not much of a chance I will ever pick up another book by him unless I have to.

Arvid, no, I don't enjoy his arrogance. I find it extremely annoying. I think a scholarly monograph is no place to be arrogant. It devalues the entire discourse. On a blog on the other hand...

Macrina said...

If I remember correctly (its a while since I read it and I don't have the book with me) Coakley had some similar criticism of Milbank and the RO crowd, especially in respect to arrogance - somewhere near the beginning of Powers and Submissions. (Of course she said it in a much less ranting fashion!)

I must admit to rather mixed feelings about Milbank. When I first read TST several years ago I really appreciated it as a resource for calling into question the captivity of so much western theology to Enlightenment norms - which rather reflected my own situation in an academic context where the social sciences reigned supreme! But I do share your concerns.

D.W. Congdon said...

Patrik: I love your line that Milbank's theology reduces to "I believe in the Church." Right on! I think this is precisely what is wrong with the entire Radical Orthodoxy movement. (And, for the record, that is a critique which John Webster and David Ford give against R.O., so I can't really claim it as my own.)

Eric: I do not demand a perfect system, as if such a thing is even possible in theology, but we should all demand well thought out ecclesial theology. When Milbank wreaks havoc on central doctrines of the faith, he is not only failing at offering a decent system; he is failing at his task to think through the faith. That is, he fails as a theologian.

Lawrence of Arabia said...

i find it odd that you think milbank's theology reduces to a theology of the church AND you think his understanding of the spirit is peripheral. those two just do NOT compute, and it is incredibly inaccurate with respect to milbank whose trinitarian theology drives his ontological committments.

aquinas's ontology is less christian than eriugena's because aquinas is already beginning the slide into the secular according to milbank, due to the emerging split between the potentia absoluta and the potentia ordinata.

i also do not understand why hauerwas is so sympathetic to milbank. certainly milbank's ontology of peace is pacifist. on the other hand i am not very sympathetic to hauerwas and i think any group that wants to name a "heresy" after one of the saints of the church (i.e., constantinianism) need to be approached with a great deal of skepticism.

i think you overlook that this book is set up to function much like aug's city of god or vico's new science. the critique of the pagan virtues often contains constructive proposals, though certainly most of the constructive material is the in the last chapt (the other city); though it sounds like you were fed up with the book by then.

if you arent going to read word made strange (which is where i always recommend people start), you should at least look at the short article from modern theology called something like "a short summa" which is indeed both short and illuminating.

in my humble estimation the only other theologian who is as important as milbank in the last 25 years is marion so i think to walk away from him would be a mistake.

best wishes,

Lawrence of Arabia said...

editorial correction (always hurts when you leave out a negative)...

*milbank's ontology of peace is NOT pacifist

Halden said...


I'd really question the idea that Milbank's ontology is driven by his trinitarianism. It really seems that its the other way around. His ontology of participation precedes his incarnational and trinitarian discussions which comes into play only to bolster he pre-existing ontological commitments. His recent obsession with Sophiology only underscores this more. He brings in Sophia as a principle of mediation between the God and creatures, while presisely seperating it from the persons of the Trinity, creating a goddess behind God, as it were. At any rate, the idea that his theology is driven by a trinitarian ontology is very suspect.

And, I don't think you understand Milbank on Aquinas. Perhaps you've only read the first edition of TST, but in the second edition and in Truth in Aquinas, he says some very different things about Aquinas. For Milbank, the bad guy is Scotus.

Lawrence of Arabia said...

regarding thomas...the original question regarded a statement milbank made about thomas in t&st. yes, milbank has, rather pointlessly in my opinion, softened his stance on thomas. and even in t&st the franciscans as a whole are more suspect than thomas and the dominicans (throw in a criticism of francis's poverty and little boff bashing and all in all not a good day for the frannies).

as for the trinitarian nature of milbank's ontology...milbank's account of poesis and mythos in t&st makes no sense without the underpinnings he gives it elsewhere, especially in his understanding of the logos and spirit. likewise a doctrine of participation needs the grounding of an internally dynamic trinity to support it (one of the great improvements of xty over pagan neoplatonism, from ps.dionysius forward) otherwise there is no accounting for why the divine overflows into finitude. in milbank the divine overflow into finitude is inseparable from the infinite dynamism of the trinity.

finally, there is no ontology of peace, according to milbank, without the trinity. trinity passes beyond simple monotheism which has its own tendencies to totalitarian violence.


Halden said...

But that, precisely the point, I'm making about Milbank's "trinitarian ontology", he needs the Trinity to support the ontology that he already has, and the way he constructs that ontology is done independent of trinitarian thinking, with it only being brought in the back door to legitimate it.

This made especially clear in regards to neo-platonism and Pseudo-Dionysius, which you mention. Milbank's thought is platonic through and through, and that's where is account of participation comes from. For him, participation is methexis, not koinonia. Milbank brings the Trinity into his platonic ontology, which results, not in a trinitarian ontology, but a platonized trinitarianism, with an amorphous ontology of participation, which can mean, pretty much anything Milbank wants it to mean (and this is made even more clear when he equivocates on his ontology of peace in Being Reconciled).

::aaron g:: said...

I've just ordered Theology & Social Theory (BTW, it's now in a 2nd edition). I look forward to comparing my reading with your ranting.

Lawrence of Arabia said...

i think if (like milbank) you believe that creation, revelation and peace (etc) are only possible if god is trinitarian, then the doctrine of the trinity is pretty central to your thought. saying that xty solved problems internal to platonism, that milbank is platonic, is simply to say that xty provided a more attractive account of the world than did pagan platonists.

but i think it is unfair to say that milbank develops his ontology independently of the trinity since without the trinity milbank would have no ontology at all.

not liking platonism and thinking that a platonic xty does an injustice to the gospel is a separate matter from him being fundamentally trinitarian. he is neoplatonic; there is no disputing that.

also, i dont see any significant change in his position on the ontology of peace in being reconciled over what was articulated in t&st.


Halden said...

I don't think it is a seperate issue. A neoplatonic ontology is utterly incompatible with a trinitarian one. Milbank is neoplatonic and he constructs his theology of the trinity to fit that framework. If you deny that, then I just think you're engaging in much to carelessly enthusiastic a reading of Milbank.

The point is that Milbank throws around terms like "peace", "difference", and "participation" with a definition imported into them that does not come from reflection of the revelation of the Triune God in the economy of salvation through Christ and the Spirit. I'm not saying that the Trinity doesn't show up in his thought, but how he constructs his theology of the Trinity is based on his neoplatonic metaphysics, not a transcendental Christology, or a theology of the cross.

Same thing on Being Reconciled. His whole legitimation of violence therein is very much at odds with how he set forth an ontology of peace in the first edition of TST.

Lawrence of Arabia said...

whether you think neoplatonism can be xn or not is beside the point; we are not going to agree on that topic and it would take us too far afield from the issue of the importance of the doctrine of the trinity to milbank's thought. but in the end it is not just that the trinity shows up in milbank. the fact is milbank has NOTHING to say without a doctrine of the trinity. trinity controls every level of his thought in the same way that election controls barth and schleiermacher doesnt want to say anything that can't be deduced from the feeling of absolute dependence.

again the fact that milbank doesn't methodologically begin where you would wish doesnt mean that the trinity isnt driving his thought. milbank is never going start with a transcendental anything. and while he doesnt have anything against you starting with a theology of the cross if you wish, he certainly doesnt think its mandatory. it doesnt matter where you start, in milbank, because everything returns to the trinitarian god, and such a return is only made possible b/c of the incarnation (trinity requires a robust theology of history: hence his critiques of lindbeck and macintyre). etc.

milbank's interpretation of violence has, from his very earliest work, been rather augustinian: i.e., that which may appear to be violent can in fact be educative and we act in the hope or faith that our actions will-not-have-been-violent. there was never any danger of milbank being a pacifist, and the question has always been what are the limits of the use of force in milbank? even when milbank says that the actions of the criminal are self-exclusionary that certainly doesnt mean that the community does nothing, but that the actions of the community are reflexively contained in the original mis-action.


Halden said...

Well, I'd just recommend that you read James K.A. Smith and some of the other catholic critiques of Milbank. There really aren't too many people that share your opinion of how the Trinity functions in his thought.

David J. Walsh said...

I may be wrong, but I believe the dedication to "Christendom" is in reference to the "Christendom Group" with which Milbank has many sympathies.

David J. Walsh said...

I'm also rather confused as how you can fail to see the link between Milbank's "championing of non-violence" (though he is not a pacifist) and the rest of the book. His major critique of secularism is that it rests on an ontology of violence with which he contrasts Christian theology. It's a significant theme throughout a book that is a critique of secularism and the nihilism implicit in it.

R.O. Flyer said...

It is good to hear a rant on Milbank, I have to say. The other night I was reading him out loud to a blind friend of mine at a pub. After a short while my friend stopped me and said, "Okay, what the frig is up with this guy; he's sounds like an arrogant jackass." I really couldn't argue with him after that because he was so right. I'm also about to write a critique of TST, but it is just so annoying. I feel like writing a rant. Thank you for making me feel better about my feelings!

Chris said...

Milbank ticks me off, too. :-)

Burk Braun said...

Thanks for your blog post, and I agree fully. I linked to it from my own discussion of RO, from an atheist perspective.


Ben said...

I appreciate Milbank's criticism of sociology, especially as a former student of the discipline, but you have to realize that Milbank is from the academy, and like the majority of his colleagues has an extremely unfavorable view of particular facets of Christianity. I just read an interview with him from 2005 where he thumps on the tired (to me, anyway) theme of "suburban evangelicalism" as encapsulating NOTHING right in the realm of Christianity. I am still reading through his "Theology and Social Theory" (Second Edition), for it was much over my swamped head as a senior in college a couple years ago, but I think his future work might be unpacking the theology a bit more? Good to hear a rant on Milbank, for it seems that some, perhaps naturally, are accepting his account unreflectively, when people don't fully understand exactly WHAT he's proposing. I must say as well, it IS some tough reading.

Andrew said...

I'm commenting on this post VERY late. However, I think it would be prudent to note that Milbank is simply - both here and in his later work (such as his most recent collection of essays - betraying how decidedly Catholic his theology is.

In other words, there is little that has been said by Milbank which is not simultaneously affirmed by Catholic teaching.

guy mcclung said...

As we say over here, this is from "out in left field"-I don't know jack about theology or social sciences etc., but I thoght I would enjoy anything that spoke aobut the limits of natural science and of human reason. I am learning, tiny bit by tiny bit, from Milbank's Theol & Soc. Theory-but I'm just a 64 year old patent atty with a degree in Physics and a smattering of study of philosophy. The "rant" and "counter rants" are very helpful for someone who has never studied theology on a grad. level and who has never before read a word of Milbank. I don't see arogance-guess that is in the eye of the beholder or of the envious. guy mcclung, rockport, texas 12 sept 11