Reading Notes on Theology & Social Theory by John Milbank

I’ve heard people complain that Karl Barth is hard to read. Those people should read John Milbank and then shut their mouths. I’ve just started reading Milbanks highly influential, controversial, and dense work Theology & Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (2nd ed.). The second edition contains a new preface. My advice: do not read this preface unless you are a PhD in Systematic Theology or extremely well versed in the debates surrounding Radical Orthodoxy. The preface was even more technical than the first chapter and was a response to criticisms of a book I hadn’t even started reading.

That said, Milbank’s thesis is sweeping and audacious: he wants to give an accounting of everything grounded in Christian theology. He believes that this should be the defining myth and meta-discourse of the West, not so-called secular reason. This will of course send most people backing slowly into the corner looking for the panic button. Just what is Milbank advocating for? Some kind of theocratic control of the political and academic establishments? A return to the Dark Ages of medieval Christendom?

Milbank argues that secular reason is itself theological, only that its a Christian heresy or a revival of ancient paganism, and so a Christian theology that attempts to work within the bounds of this so-called secular realm is in fact nothing more than idolatry. There is nothing neutral or natural about modern secular reason, it is a human creation that facilitates a certain arrangement of power, namely that of the monopolization of coercive power in the hands of nation-states whose main end is to facilitate and enforce the functioning of capitalist economies and the fast interests and resources they represent.

Once upon a time there was no secular. Where did it come from? The word secular derives from the Latin saeculum which referred not to a theoretical “space” free from religion but a period of time between the Fall and the eschaton where humanity had to struggle with the effects of the Fall on all of creation (9). Thus the secular had no independent existence from the sacred, and in fact sacred significance was deeply embedded in it. The shift that occurred in the late Middle Ages was a shift in anthropology which went from stressing Adamic dominion as the exercise of authority for the sake of the proper ordering 0f creation to dominion as the absolute free exercise of power over creation for the sake of securing and protecting private property for oneself. It was a shift from propriety to property as the end of dominion, a shift which had massive consequences in the creation of natural rights and modern liberal democracies. The secular became not the time between the times, but the entire realm of creation as it was granted its autonomy by God to runs under its own rules and manage its own affairs. The secular became human turf, God may have created it, but He left us to govern its affairs (it’s not hard to see why Deism was so popular in the early modern period).

With the emergence of an individualist anthropology rooted in a dominion of property came the birth of the notion that there needed to be an absolute coercive authority to protect and defend personal liberty when it came to property. True individual freedom required absolute state sovereignty.

This new anthropology accepted the doctrine of the fall and even a notion of total human depravity. How does one protect liberty under such a deeply sinful and broken set of circumstances? The answer is that this threat of violence that pervades all of society must be met, suppressed, and even overcome by an even greater threat of violence by the civil authorities. Milbank calls this framework under which the nation-state operates a “ontology of violence,” that is the belief that all of existence at its core is a struggle for survival, violence is everywhere and everything, and so all we can hope to do is manage and contain this violence toward certain ends, namely the ends of liberalism and positivism.

This ontology of violence is a perversion of the Christian doctrine of the fall and rules out any possibility of construing the world as ultimately good, created for Edenic peace and finding its fulfillment in eschatological participation in God’s very own being.

The re-imaging of the secular as a realm free from divine interference lead to a conception of Christian faith as largely interior and private, of churches not intruding into affairs of state, methods of biblical interpretation that demoted tradition and the quadriga for the ‘scientific’ historical-critical method, and embraced a conception of science acting etsi deus non daretur (as if God didn’t exist).

After reading my rather inept summary you might be temped to ask, “and what’s the big deal with this? Isn’t Christianity a private faith that should keep its nose out of the affairs of secular politics?”

I think Milbank would respond that this conception of the secular has been shown by Nietzsche to be a realm of amorality and violence. In a purely secular world all that matters is the exercise of the will to power to make the world a more pleasurable place for oneself. All human relationships in such a world are governed by violence, the need to secure my rights over and against others, and such can only lead to and end in more violence. To do theology under such circumstances is to provide theological cover for the enemy which is Death, Evil, Sin, and Nothingness.


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