Thursday, May 28, 2009

John Milbank: The Future of Love

If you, like me, have had a hard time to really understand what Milbank is really about, this is the book for you. What these essays do is really to clarify a lot of things that remains unclear in his other books. This happens in different ways. In the first section we get (mildly updated) versions of Milbanks really early eighties stuff, and this for me shows where he is coming from. These are readings of English theologians (!) that I have never heard of ( apart from Newman). These texts are mostly interesting to someone who wants to study Milbanks own development, but for the rest of us they are mainly interesting beacuase they are fairly ordinary. This is before TST, and he is not as well read as later (he mainly sticks to the writer at issue).

The fun begins with the TST era writings. There are two chapters (I think) must have been written while he was working on TST and here we see the Milbankisms starting to appear (sociology in inverted commas, references to nihilism and french philosophy by the truckloads). Then there are three chapters made up of responses to criticism of TST and these really help to answer some of the questions I had after reading it. In particular, Milbank really fleshes out his vision of the Church, the major flaw of TST, IMO. And obviously his politics is made much more explicit here.

But the most impressive part of the book is the three chapters under the header "Political Theology Today". Here Milbank uses his wide knowledge of western intellectual history to comment on current affairs, in he does this extremely well. In particular the essay on 9/11 is among the best I have read on the topic. As a critic of US policy he is defintiely on par with the chomsky's and Klein's of the world, and original too. I do not think I could say this about another theologian. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Then follows a part on theology and pluralism, and obviously this is much more problematic at least for me. If the "political theology" part is what attracts me to Milbank, this is what makes me hesitant. His stand on dialogue between religions goes beyond merely pointing out real problems in the field. His conclusion is bascially "convert!" and clearly this is a bit disappointing. I am not sure either that his rather fanatical view of theology as a field in academia is very helpful.

In the final part we find the superb "Postmodern Critical Augustinianism", which probably is the best text Milbank has written. Had I not chanced on this I would not have bothered reading a word more from him after TST. Why is it so good? Not only is it concise and well argued. It has a tone that is somewhat different from most of Milbanks writings, maybe because this is a rare moment where he is not polemicising against anyone (there are parts of "Being reconciled" that are similar in this sense). This feels like an important point to make, but I do not know what to make of it myself. It is clear that to be able to say what he says hear about Christianity and Theology would not be possible for him to say had he not first "liberated" himself from so much of the liberal and secular thinking he fights against elsewere.

All of these texts are published elsewere, so they can be dug up in the library. But the volume is really worth its price for anyone interested in political theology today.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

On Theology as "Resource"

This recently occured to me and I haven't really worked out the implications of this notion yet. There are certain kinds of theology that I just do not like, even if I agree with lots of what is said. I can be certain kinds of political theology, ecotheology, some feminist theology and so on. Why? Because it tries to make use of theology for other non-theological purposes. It speaks a lot of the Christian tradition as a resource for tackling various issues.

There are some obvious problems with this approach. Most importantly, it seems to imply that theology itself is not involved in the actual engagement with these problems, that happens on some different arena, be it the political world, everyday life or some kind of activism. Theology is then seen as a reserve of ideas or structures of thinking that can be taken out of its context and "applied" (is there any use of that world that is not corrupt?). Obviously very few of these theologians would agree with this image of theology, because paradoxically, that would be a extremely "conservative" view of theology, and the theologies I am now talking about usually thinks of themselves as progressive or even radical. So what is going on here?

What seems to be the motivation for this move is a wish to be relevant in a larger sphere of society than academia or church. This in itself is commendable, but there are a number of possible preconceptions that seem to be at work here that are problematic.

First, there seems to be an idea of the church as either isolated or insignificant, or both. To be relevant one has to engage with the secular, and then on secular terms, that is to bring in isolated ideas without connection to the messy religious stuff. Like, "See you can view nature as creation, with all the nice possibilities that opens up, without really having to think about God", which is obvious nonsense. So, instead of being relevant, you end up being incoherent or just confused.

Further, is not this an essentially market-based view of the world? Theology is then the production of marketable "ideas" as semi-products, competing in a imaginary marketplace of ideas. This is especially ironic if the "ideas" created are supposed to be a criticism of capitalism.

Ultimately this is a view of theology that presupposes that theology in fact is not "relevant" and thus has to become something else to be that. I wonder if one can say anything with some kind of importance if one starts by believing that one in fact cannot. Yet this seems to be the logic behind this kind of reasoning.

This brings me to the kind of theology that I do like. This would be the kind that instead of "exporting" ideas from theology to the outside, incorporates the world into theology. (see that I tried to continue with the market metaphor and say "import" but it would not fit). Now this is exactly what Tillich did, but I have to say that the ones that understand themselves to stand in some tradition from Tillich today are very often doing theology of the other kind. However, theologians that do theology more or less consciously against that tradition (Hauerwas, Milbank) end up doing what he did.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

More on the Monstrosity of ZIzek

Adam Kotsko of An und für sich do not see what my problem is with Zizek's position in The Monstrosity of Christ. Adam clearly knows much more than me about Zizek, so it might just be me who do not understand Zizek, or (more likely) that this is what Zizek always have been saying.

My point is simply this: The way I read Zizek's response to Milbank is as an attempt to show that even though he finds some aspects of Christianity interesting (The death of God as a basis for Athesim), he really has no interest in ledning his support to theological projects of other kinds. He simplt isn't interested in love as Christianity understands it, in redemption and so on. It seems to me he wants to make clear how far away he is from any more properly Christian position on ethics, on community or on a vision of a good society. In seeking to avoid the "disgusting proximity" of other humans, Zizek effectively and completely rejects the idea of Church.

In short: I read him as saying: "Fu*k off stupid theologians stop bothering me".

Monday, May 11, 2009

Louth on Litugy, Tradition and the Child

This is from Andrew Louth's Discerning the Mystery:

The importance of liturgy, then, for tradition is that by the very fact of its being performed, of its being the doing of something that others have done before us, of its being a matter of significant actions that suggest meaning rather than define it, it introduces us into a context, a realm of values, in which the significance of tradition can be seen. By the fact that it goes beyond speech, it impresses on us the importance of the inarticulate: and it is not without significance that inarticulateness about what is deeply important is characteristic of the child, whom we have to be like if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven.
This is exactly right. Isn't it so that traditions with little appreciation of liturgy either have little appreciation of tradition or a very legalistic understanding of tradition, as something that has to be obeyed? And his incredibly exact comment on the child has a very deep meaning, not only about how adults should approach the liturgy, but about how essential it is that we have children there - as teachers.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Kathryn Tanner: Economy of Grace

A collegue, upon hearing that I was reading a lot of Milbank, focusing on the political and ecclesiological implications, groaned and told me I should read Kathryn Tanner instead. Why not, I thought, there is plenty of room for other perspectives in relation to Milbank that is for sure. And the text on the back of this one was very promising, speaking of "alternatives to global capitalism" and "specific principles of economics and economic justice".

However, this is in my opinion false advertising. Tanner is not proposing an alternative to capitalism, she is concerned with modifying it in a slightly more humane direction. This is a pragmatic move, she wants to avoid utopia. Fair enough, I can accept that, although I personally think that we need a utopia to imagine what really needs to change.

Tanner's criticism of capitalism is rather shallow however. She criticises the rather obvious consequences of global capitalism - rampaging unfairness rather well, although anybody even remotely familiar with "leftist" writings will find little new here. She also argues for some "theological principles" based mainly on creation, trinity and grace in general that she maintains offers an alternative to capitalist economics.

But from a theological point of view i find the main part of the book "Putting a theological Economy to Work" the most problematic. None of the suggestions she actually makes here seems to need ant theological underpinning whatsoever. The Marxist "to each according to his needs" will work just as well. Furthermore, in order to be "realistic" she compromises each of the principles she argued for in the preceding chapters. In the end she ends up arguing for a model that "everybody" is profiting from, including (especially) the capitalist. In other words, what we have here is little but the now traditional "third way" socialism, an improved capitalism in an essentially Keynesian tradition.

This means that Tanner has to pass over some extremely important points. One, isn't it from a theological point of view less important if capitalism works or not, compared to what it does to us, what kind of human beings this system produces? In essence, capitalism in all its knows forms (including the famed Scandinavian model) makes use of (and thus encourages) greed, a vice an almost unanomous Christian tradition claims corrodes the soul. To try to improve this system thus ammounts to giving it a "human face" while its heart remains decidedly rotten.

There is a good discussion on method here, but apart from that, this just isn't very good theology. However, in the end that is not the point of this book. It is not driven by a theological motive, but a political one.

This book tries to provide such grounds for Christians, especially in the United States, advantaged beyond all decent proportions by the present system. The more economic benefits we enjoy, the more power we are likely to have to change things. We should use that power - say, the power of our vote in the most economically dominant nation on earth - to put pressure on the U.S. government to change its policies for international trade and financing agreements that only further disadvantage the already disadvantaged around the globe. (p 142)
While I do think a lot of the things she writes makes political sense, I would really like to see a more radical alternative than "vote for change".Because it is the lack of alternatives that at the moment continues to further capitalism today more than a real belief in its superiority.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Milbank vs. Zizek: The Monstrosity of Christ

I guess there should be a spoiler warning here, at least for me this book had what can be best describe as a surprise ending: I threw it away in disgust. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

A lot has happened since this infamous (in my universe anyway) post, where I went my frustration over Milbank's Theology and Social Theory. I have to admit that I am at the moment compeltely fascinated by Being reconciled, although there are large chunks of it I do not agree with, either regarding method (the chapter on forgiveness) or substance (violence, of course). However, the chapter on Church, Politics and Culture are about the best I have read in a long time.

I also enjoy(ed) Zizek a lot. His way of reading texts (in a very broad sense) is incredibly creative, and I will never see The Sound of Music the same way again.

This book leaves a lot of shattered dreams behind, I'm sure. A lot of attempts to do theology in dialogue with Zizek that will now have to be rethought, or abandoned. Because at least as far as I know, In his past discussion of Christian theology, he has always remained somewhat ambigous, always left things a bit open for interpretation. Not this time.

But no one can possibly be more disappointed than Milbank. I do not know where that blurb on the back of Being Reconciled comes from (does anyone know if there is an actual review of it out there somewhere?) where Zizek basically says that this is finally the real shit. Milbank must have been so proud of that. What theologian would not be when hearing praise like that from one of the worlds most famous intellectuals? And then this.

The first part, where Zizek presents his reading of Christianity adds little to The Puppet and the Dwarf. The most striking thing here is that it is really apparent that Zizek's knowledge is of theology is really patchy. He makes som really far fetched claims about Eastern Orthodoxy based on Lossky alone, and makes some rather obvious mistakes that Milbank rather kindly points out later on.

Milbanks part of the book, is not that revealing either. Lots of discussion on Hegel and more interestingly, Meister Eckhart. Milbank accuses Zizek of being protestant, basically. And for me this was the most interesting aspect of Milbank's text, his criticism of Lutheranism is fleshed out a lot more than what I have read so far. His attempt to make Kierkegaard an "Catholic honoris causa" is a bit awkward though.

So obvious it is Zizeks response to Milbank's criticism that is what ultimately makes this book worth its prize. After som niceties about the "authentic spirituality" of Milbank's position, he bluntsly states: "Of course i fail to see this ... because to me, there is no transcendent God-Father. " What that basically says is: "Nice120 pages, but did do miss the part about me being an atheist?" But it gets worse, much worse. For then he goes on to show Milbank that his Catholicism is basically a form of paganism, that is protestantism that is the kind of Christianity he finds interesting, with the focus on the Cross, and especially, get this, radical death-of-God theology in the vain of Thomas Altizer. Poor Milbank.

So that is the one big point of this book. Now a completely different kind of theology is endorsed by the great Zizek. However. The other point is that I am not sure if any theologian actually want tha endorsement anymore. Because the dialogue form of this book makes Zizek come clear on several areas at least I was not aware of his stance on. Maybe it is just me, but I kind of felt all this talk about being stalinist and so on was ironic posturing. Not so. Not only does Zizek's atheism in the end be like any other atheist's, only slightly more educated. But his ethics are described in a way that made me, as a christian, loose al my interest in whatever else he has to say.

At one points he discusses the situation where he would encounter one of thos doctors that aid in torture, helping the torturers decide how much the victim can take.

I must admit that if I were to encounter such a person, knowing that there was little chance of bringing him to legal justice, and be given the opportunity to murder him discreetly, I would simply do it, without a vestige of remorse about "taking the law into my own hands."
In another instance he seems to endorse a "violent totalitarian regime", but here there is some ambiguity. But no matter, for his final definition of his moral ideal in itself is enough, and that was where to book flew out of my hands in disgust.
This is where I stand - how I would love to be: an ethical monster without empathy, doing what is done in a weird coincidence of blind spontaneity and reflexive distance, helping others while avoiding their disgusting proximity. With more people like this, the world would be a pleasant place which sentimentality would be replaced by cold and cruel passion.
Surely, after this any theological engagement with this kind of philosophy will be nothing but a waste of time, a way of keep missing the point about Christianity?