Symposium Introduction

What does Beyond Secular Order have to do outside of the quibbles of the theology and religious studies academy? What might Milbank be saying to plebeians like me who have to live our lives in a world whose order is understood as ‘secular’?

Milbank’s answer is to present two sequences, signaling that Beyond Secular Order is not to be read so much as a technical text, but as art, poetry, music, perhaps even a map. As an artist, poet, and musician (and geographer), Milbank has crafted a first sequence on ‘modern ontology’ tracing the strands of modern philosophy that serves as the basis for a second sequence on ‘political ontology’ that proposes nothing short of a full-fledged merger of Anglican, Byzantine, and Roman Catholic polities for a Christian socialist recovery of global Christendom. Underlying both sections is what Milbank claims to be the ‘hidden dimension of humanity’ of ‘trans-organicity,’ understanding that human persons are not only natural organisms but are teleologically oriented toward the supernatural.

Milbank’s argument is that this trans-organicity has largely been lost in modern accounts of human existence. In the first sequence, a ‘modern ontology’ depends on the separation of ‘philosophy’ and ‘theology’ into autonomous spheres, an effort that was accomplished (as readers of the Radical Orthodoxy camp will understand readily as one of their most core and contentious arguments) through medieval Franciscan theological moves, especially through the archnemesis of Radical Orthodoxy, Duns Scotus. Reality, Milbank argues, doesn’t refer to the actual essence of things, events, and persons anymore; he claims that, since the Franciscan triumph after the Middle Ages, it has tended to refer to virtual possibilities of what things, events, and persons could be.

This modern ontology looks egalitarian, Milbank says, but it is a false egalitarianism because there isn’t any more actuality in a world where everything is a substitute for a substitute that is substituting for another substitute. Acknowledging that phenomenologists (like Husserl) and radical empiricists (like Hume) have been looking for a way back to the ontological actual, one of Milbank’s most frequent refrains in this sequence is ‘common sense,’ that even as human persons living in a flat, modern world of substituted virtual realities, we literally sense in a pre-modern way that priority should be given to the actual and the analogical, that things, persons, and events have inner essences and participate in hierarchies. It’s a Romantic common sense, Milbank admits, but the Romantic is a sign that the eclipse of trans-organicity has not been fully successful in modern philosophy.

Recovering this trans-organicity has several political implications, Milbank claims. First, the animal rationale and sociale means that the ‘diminishing of the Few’ in a misguided effort toward the egalitarianism of the Many has to be reversed, revitalizing the intermediary community associations that buffer the masses from the political state and the market. Second, there has to be a recovery of ‘Christological constitutionalism’ in which the Many find themselves participating in the One who is the king who participates in the risen Christ’s reign, which is not hard (as Milbank claims) because even contemporary representative democracies (especially the most egalitarian social democracies) channel power to the One on top anyways. Third, because this political ontology of the One and the Few depends on Byzantine and Anglican readings of Latin sources discussing the subsuming of the royalty in the church, there needs to be an ecumenical Byzantine-Anglican-Roman Catholic recovery of the Church as a cosmopolis in a global Christendom. In this way, the One and the Few are not modern virtual substitutes for the Many, but are higher orders of a trans-organic humanity in which all can find themselves being a part. With the Many participating in the charitable constitution of the One and the Few, all are invited to be part of the co-creation of a social order that is infused with supernatural grace, exemplifying (as Milbank suggests) in the democratization of exaltation.

These sequences have in turn elicited the five comments we are hosting on this forum. One of the most sympathetic is perhaps one of the most surprising, as Bethany Joy Kim finds herself resonating with this Byzantine-Anglican-Roman Catholic ecumenical project as a scholar in the charismatic Vineyard tradition of healing prayer because such ecstatic activities exemplify for her the co-constitution of the fabricating animal and supernatural charity, a point with which Milbank himself openly agrees in their discussion. Another point of agreement can be seen in Matthew Tan’s piece, as he discusses how Milbank’s excoriations of modern substitutionary representations is useful for understanding how much of popular culture is just simulacrum after simulacra piled on top of each other. Jonathan Tran waxes practical, noting that the end of Radical Orthodoxy’s heyday seems to be making Milbank more interesting while attempting to nudge Milbank to give prescriptions in Beyond Secular Order’s projected sequel On Divine Government on how to do the practical work of governance. Devin Singh is also sympathetically critical, acknowledging that Milbank’s political theology makes for convincing reading but wishing that Milbank would consider African, Near Eastern, and Asian influences on Christendom. Finally, Eugene McCarraher launches a scathing critique of Beyond Secular Order, with excoriations of Milbank for all manner of theocratic colonization that has in turn brought a surprising and interesting response from Milbank: he might actually be a working-class socialist.

Panelists

Bethany Joy Kim

Matthew Tan

Jonathan Tran

Devin Singh

Eugene McCarraher

About the Author

John Milbank is Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics at the University of Nottingham, where he also directs the Centre of Theology and Philosophy. Considered one of the leading contemporary theologians, Milbank first gained international recognition with Theology and Social Theory (1990), which laid the theoretical foundations for the movement which later became known as Radical Orthodoxy. In recent years he has collaborated on three books with Creston Davis and the controversial philosopher Slavoj Žižek: Theology and the Political: The New Debate (2005),The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic (2009), and Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology (2010).

Bethany Joy Kim

Response

Healing Prayer and Fabricating Animals

A Charismatic Evangelical Reading of Milbank’s Homo Faber

[John] Wimber at his core was not a modernist. Rationalism had not indoctrinated him. While the modern church tried, it did not socialize him. It burned him out. He kept asking, “When do we get to do the stuff?” By the “stuff” he meant what Jesus did: minister to the poor, heal the sick, cast out demons, and even raise the dead . . . Wimber was more like a premodernist, a man at home in the Christian worldview and experience that dominated the church and the West prior to the Enlightenment.1

Perhaps the Vineyard, a charismatic evangelical church-planting and renewal movement that began in the late 1970s in southern California, is an unlikely dialogue partner for John Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order.2 Unlikely, yes; but not unsuitable. Both claim deep roots in premodernity, both see theology as integrally connected to the life of the church, and Milbank’s insistence that we are “naturally oriented to the supernatural” brings to mind the many self-descriptions of Vineyard life and practice as “naturally supernatural.”3 In particular, I would like to bring the practice of healing prayer into dialogue with Milbank’s description of humans as “fabricating animals” who are “only human through making things and ‘making things up,’” such that the “‘artificial’ character which belongs to the individual through artefacting is an aspect of that individual’s integral nature” (136, emphasis original). In doing so, I suggest that healing prayer may be understood as a kind of creative act by which humans Christologically participate in the divine creative will. Furthermore, healing prayer is a creative act in the sense that it is a gift, a discovery, and experimental. Milbank’s description of the experimental nature of fabrication allows Wimber’s (and the Vineyard’s) approach to healing prayer to be seen as linked to premodern theological understandings of fabrication. Finally, by encouraging everyone to pray for healing, the Vineyard enacts Milbank’s vision of releasing the creative capacity of all people.

Milbank writes that fiction has an “indispensable role . . . in disclosing truth” (193). This was recognized in the premodern period, and was closely tied to understanding human creativity through a Christological lens. Milbank reads Ambrose as “opening up the possibility of understanding drastic human action as creative” when Ambrose draws a connection between the word of Christ creating the world ex nihilo and the word of Christ changing the nature of the Eucharistic elements (195–96). Human creativity is understood as a “participation in the transmission of this power to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ” (196). Milbank writes:

The very first “creative artist” in western Europe was taken to be Christ himself and in his wake the figure of the Pope . . . who had the power of drastic creative innovation, because he mediated first of all liturgically, but then legislatively, the trans-creation of Christ himself, Christ’s deployment of fictions, Christ’s institution of new birth at baptism, and finally Christ’s act of transubstantiation on Maundy Thursday . . . The power [to share in creation and to originate creation] is restored to us in the Incarnation and even newly augmented by it. (198)

However, Christ’s creativity is not limited to his use of fictions in parables, his institution of new birth at baptism, and his act of transubstantiation on Maundy Thursday, but also includes his ministry to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18–19). Milbank hints at this relationship between creativity and “proclaiming good news to the poor” when he points out that in the Enlightenment “benevolence . . . tended to mean a one-way sympathy towards the other person and as such it lacked the range of resonance of caritas in the Middle Ages” (227). He also hints in this direction when he describes human creativity as public, legal, and political, “the power to create new historical realities as such, new modes of living which human beings must perforce inhabit,” and writes that “human endeavour becomes a constant effort to discern and to repair” instead of “an elitist pagan retreat to already given norms” (210–11). Christ’s ministry created new historical realities for the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, and the oppressed, and the church’s Christological creativity is expressed when we do the same. As one of many ways that we participate in Christ’s ministry of “proclaiming the recovery of sight for the blind,” healing prayer may be understood as a creative act, a Christological participation in the divine creative will.

The idea of healing prayer as a way that we participate in the divine creative will and participate “in the transmission of this power to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ” strongly resonates with Vineyard theology (196). It is common to hear leaders in the Vineyard refer to human creative participation in Christ’s ministry as “doing what the Father is doing.” This is drawn from the Lord’s Prayer in conjunction with Jesus’ statement in John 5 that the Son can do nothing by himself, but only does what he sees his Father doing. Wimber writes, “The Lord’s Prayer to the Father was that ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10). Jesus’ entire life was built on the principle of doing the will of the Father, walking in His way and doing His works.”4 Milbank’s description of creativity holds two realities in tension: first, “only because an absolute non-human origination lies at the bottom of all human reality are humans able to a degree to share in this,” and second, the power of creativity is “restored to us in the Incarnation and even newly augmented by it” (198, emphasis original). Similarly, Vineyard theology holds in tension an insistence that power for ministry (including the ministry of healing prayer) can only originate in the Father’s will, and a belief that Christ’s incarnate ministry of “doing what the Father is doing” restores to us the possibility of “doin’ the stuff” (as Wimber liked to say) that Jesus did: ministry to the poor, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead.

Healing prayer may also be understood as a creative act in the sense that it is a gift, a discovery, and experimental. Milbank writes, “Because the creative human being is ‘inspired,’ and because she does not fully grasp or command the new thing which she has brought about, there is no absolute creation here: the new thing invented is also ‘discovered,’ given to the creator herself as a mysterious new potency” (196). Similarly, healing prayer in the Vineyard is understood as both a charism, and as something which Christians discover through experimentation. Much like Milbank’s sense of integral hybridity, it is impossible to divorce the “gift” of healing prayer from the “discovery” of healing prayer through experimentation. When Wimber led healing conferences and seminars, after the teaching portion, all the participants would practice what had been taught by praying for one another. Wimber called these portions of conferences “clinics.” While Wimber believed that supernatural healing was a gift from God, he also thought that all Christians could be taught to pray for healing, and that “clinics” such as these could provide the context for gifts of healing prayer to be discovered. Nevertheless, healing prayer is never a “discovery” or “gift” that is fully grasped. Healing prayer remains “mysterious,” as anyone who has wrestled with experiences of seeing some people healed while watching others continue to suffer will testify.

Wimber was occasionally critiqued as having a too “scientific” or “modern” approach to healing prayer. In addition to describing these times of prayer training as “clinics,” he taught healing prayer through a five-step model, and wrote that he tried “to create an atmosphere that is clinical and rational . . . while at the same time it is powerful and spiritually sensitive.”5 However, I would suggest that Milbank’s description of the experimental nature of fabrication provides a better way of interpreting these apparent concessions to modernism. In response to Ficino’s and Galileo’s “hubristic claims . . . that humans could univocally equal divine creativity had they but sufficient materials to command,” Milbank writes, “this absolute open power ceases to be a power of exploration through the genuinely ‘experimental’ contingencies of fabrication, echoing not simply the absolutely powerful divine creator but also the eternal Paternal kenotic generation of the Verbum” (219). Homo faber only participates in the divine creative will via Christ, and the power of creativity is only given to humanity via the Incarnation. In light of this, Christological creativity has a kenotic shape, and is enacted in an experimentation that embraces the contingencies of fabrication. In this way, the conception of healing prayer as a gift discovered through experimentation can be seen as connected to premodern theological understandings of creativity and fabrication, rather than modern scientific hubris.

In closing, I would suggest that if healing prayer is understood as a creative act, the Vineyard insistence that all Christians may pray for healing enacts Milbank’s vision of releasing the “creative capacity of all” (264). Vineyard pastor Marty Boller tells the following story:

[Wimber] asked people who wanted prayer for healing to come forward. Then, rather than getting up and praying for these folks, he asked for any children in the audience to come up front with him. I recall a handful of kids bravely came up on the stage, gathering around him. And with the patience of a loving grandpa, he encouraged the children to gather round those who needed prayer and after about five minutes of simple instructions, folks who needed healing were being blessed big time as the powerful presence of the Spirit began moving across the room. Later that day, he asked for those who received healing that morning to come tell their stories and I recall a large number of folks sharing amazing testimonies on how the Lord touched them powerfully as these kids prayed for them. “You see,” Wimber proclaimed, “Everybody can play!”6

The phrase “everybody can play” was frequently repeated by Wimber, and continues to be prominent in Vineyard theology and teaching. Imagining healing prayer as a kind of “play” underscores the sense in which all people are understood to have this creative capacity, not unlike Milbank’s statement that “the necessary creative fiction . . . will not allow . . . that art is something exceptional or reserved to the isolated genius” (211). Rather, the “creative capacity” of healing prayer belongs to all, and all participate Christologically through the inspiration of the Spirit.


  1. Don Williams, “Theological Perspective and Reflection on the Vineyard Christian Fellowship,” in Church, Identity, and Change: Theology and Denominational Structures in Unsettled Times, edited by David A. Roozen and James R. Nieman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 166–67.

  2. John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2013).

  3. The phrase dates back to John Wimber, but has been widely employed by numerous Vineyard leaders, including as the title of a book by Gary Best, former national director of the Vineyard in Canada. In a short video describing Vineyard distinctives, Phil Strout, the current national director of Vineyard USA, describes this “Vineyard distinctive” as follows: “When we say naturally supernatural, what we mean is, just, in the natural way that we are in our humanity, we carry on in the works of God: we pray for the sick, we pray for the demonized, we’re kind to the poor . . . Wherever we are, in whatever situations, it’s the Kingdom, the Kingdom’s realm. You never know when the Kingdom’s gonna break in, so go for it!” (Strout, “Being Naturally Supernatural,” http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.vineyardusa.org/site/phil-media/vineyard-distinctives/naturally-supernatural).

  4. John Wimber and Kevin Spring, Power Evangelism (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1986), 66.

  5. John Wimber and Kevin Springer, Power Healing (New York: HarperOne, 1987), 174.

  6. Marty Boller, The Wisdom of Wimber: As I See It (Woodinville, WA: Harmon, 2014), 83.

  • John Milbank

    John Milbank

    Reply

    Response to Bethany Joy Kim

    Introduction

    I am deeply honoured by the close attention shown by all the respondents to my book Beyond Secular Order, and I learnt something from them all. In response I would like to do them the reciprocal honour of attending to each one of their contributions in turn. But I have divided them into three groups: those in agreement and trying to build on my approach; those in partial agreement and partial dissent; and finally the one person in outright disagreement—this being, of course, no less useful a stance for the forwarding of any discussion.

    Several respondents perceptively say that Homo Faber seems to be at the heart of my vision in this book and elsewhere. I would agree, and suggest that the three most notable themes of my whole trajectory are (1) ontological peace versus ontological violence; (2) the participation of created creativity in the Trinitarian and divinely creative origin; (3) the nature of the gift as asymmetrically reciprocal and as the pivotal ontological linkage of “thing” with “symbolic meaning.” Taken together, these start to suggest a lurking Trinitarian ontology of the trans-numerical and harmonious One, the Word and the Gift which I am still building towards. They are also supported by (4) a genealogy whose axiology, never mind content (despite widespread misperception), is not unique to either me or to RO: that is the claim that a predominantly Franciscan current of theology has given rise to the majority report of the modernity we know—characterised by univocity (never merely semantic, but rather “transcendental” in a way that newly derives ontology from the Semantic at the Scotistic outset!) representation, possibility and concursus—and that this is a questionable development. The genealogy is related to 3 insofar as I locate in Nicholas of Cusa and later thinkers up to and beyond early romanticism (including the astonishing Félix Ravaisson, Bergson’s teacher, for example) an attempt, in an originally “Dominican” line (from Albert the Great as well as Aquinas), to think modernity differently by incorporating dynamic habit and creative initiation within a participatory and analogical scheme. It is related to 3 insofar as I reject the Franciscan unilateral gift as much as Franciscan univocal being (they are linked), and so also modern subjective rights which are its corollary. Univocity and unilaterality combined, together with the Franciscan anti-emanationist and “atomic” approach to the nature of substantive form, after Avicenna, tended to generate an approach to the Trinity which ruled out both substantive relations and a creative participation in their interplay. Thereby a Trinitarian ontology was also precluded, in favour of an approach both to metaphysics and to revelation focussed upon the divine will and essentially extrinsic relations between the world and God, and within the world itself. For me, to be critical of modernity is to be critical of just these things. That can seem wilfully esoteric and obfuscatory, but to my mind it is exactly this which ensures that my critique is no mere obscurantist reaction. To Franciscan-inspired liberalism which eventually has eroded the Christian itself, I wish to oppose an orthodoxy thought of in its “radical depth” and indeed radicalised—to newly stress, in line with the Russian sophiologists amongst others, the work of divine creation and salvation as the immanent work of creative development, of community formation and of the liberation and rescuing of the victims of sin (a more “Jewish” and apocalyptic “liberation theology” theme perhaps originating in the “absolutist” seventeenth-century French court theologian Bossuet—as might tend to bewilder McCarraher) besides the sinners themselves. For me, finally—as for David Bentley Hart and Catherine Pickstock—this work implies a Pauline and Origenist rescuing (apocastasis) of the entirety of the cosmos at the “end” of time. Without this reclaiming of his glory, which God, as being Love, exists to risk, God would not be God. So far am I from being the rigorist reactionary that Eugene McCarraher imagines, that I fully embrace Charles Taylor’s thesis that it was in part the utterly unbiblical doctrine of everlasting punishment, combined with the moralising denigration of the popular and festive aspect of faith, that helped to usher in secularisation.

    *  *  *

    With respect to theme 2, Bethany Joy Kim most astutely grasps the way in which notions of participated creativity are linked to notions of liturgy. To praise or to invoke God is to deploy a certain technology of words, sounds, pictures and gestures. It is to believe that these may in some sense entice down the divine, attune us to the eternal, render thereby our artefacts efficacious. Inversely, as Rowan Williams contends in The Edge of Words, to existentially invest in our cultural productions is to consider that, though they are no mere imitations of nature, they in some sense “re-present” (not “represent” in BSO’s sense) nature in further teleological fulfilment. Thereby they become already “offerings” to the truth, as much as gropings towards it. Thus, if one attends to its necessary dimension of techne, liturgy is seen to be, at its heart, theurgic. Equivalently, if we regard all technology as also art, also, in its necessary stylistic and pervasive idiomatic excess (the way a car travels; the way a film moves, the feeling of computing) over mere means (faster, closer, larger, smaller, etc.) then it is also aesthetic expression which, if it is not arbitrary and yet not just theoretically “equivalent,” must itself be a more general theurgic offering if it is to be any degree of participation in the truth. The theurgic perspective reveals culture, which is techne, as to both means and product, to be already liturgy; equally it reveals liturgy as still technology, but as its most intense cultural output.

    It is exciting that Kim wishes to think of modern charismatic Christian developments in this light. Thereby she opens them up beyond marginality and anti-intellectualism, while also indicating something in them that is missing from the usually acclaimed Catholic norm. And one can note here the crucial fact that the Pentecostal movement aligns with the Catholic Churches against the catastrophically proto-secularising tendencies of the magisterial Reformation, in believing in the possibility of post-apostolic miracle. We should indeed be “trying to do the stuff”—rescuing the poor, curing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead—in every possible sense, both literal and metaphorical. We need to think of practice more liturgically, but also of liturgy more effectively, both in terms of our inner attunement and our outward effectiveness. Kim perceptively sees that this involves a certain revisionary ritual embrace of the specifically modern sense of the importance of the experimental. In this sense yes, Christianity is a “pragmatism” and there is even a “Christian science,” although a foundational pragmatism—where “working” is the final norm and aim—as recommended by Jeffrey Stout, must still in the end (as even with Pierce) reduce to the utilitarian. “Supernatural pragmatism,” as already recommended in Theology and Social Theory after Blondel, instead makes the partial and the theoretical fully coincident: no goal is partially constructed unless the truth is newly seen again, unless the final truth partially descends.

    To pray effectively and to work towards vision is indeed, as Kim says, to do the Father’s will. But when we read the gospels we have to do so in a credal light that induces a positive irony: for the Logos incarnate to do the Father’s will is only to do his own will, the will of the Father which he already is. Moreover, he has taken on human nature, the human condition, and in a more modern light we can say that this is a technical condition. As Bernard Stiegler has stressed, there is no human existence without language and without the tool and yet these things are (as Jonathan Tan here so well understands) somehow integrated into our natural biology. The natural, as Stiegler indicates, has, with the human project, paradoxically deviated into the artificial, attaining its ends by these indirect means, because these new ends remain in their very finality also themselves in part artificial. Thus Christ, as fully human, knows his own and his father’s will only with its entire artistic or poetic realisation in his actions (that reach a double and inseparable aesthetic-ethical culmination in the originally-repeated events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday) which, in a certain sense, must take him in their completion by surprise, just as the Father is surprized by the outgoing art of the Son—though surprized originally and from all eternity.

    Thus Kim suggest that we need newly to link the technological to the miraculous—to see both the “magic” of technique within miracle-working and the surprising, miraculous dimension of all technical performance. It is a profound challenge and I feel that she is right to see it as in keeping with my theological vision.

    • Bethany Joy Kim

      Bethany Joy Kim

      Reply

      A Response to John Milbank

      Many thanks to Professor Milbank for his thoughtful and generous response. I particularly appreciate his discussion of liturgy as a theurgic technology, in which our “words, sounds, pictures, and gestures…entice down the divine, attune us to the eternal, render thereby our artefacts efficacious.” Might I suggest that the “technology” of liturgy also includes the ways we attend to experience, as well as how this structured attention shapes our experience? In particular, I am thinking of psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann’s study of Vineyard prayer practices (When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God), in which she proposes that the practice of thinking of the mind as a porous and non-private space for encounter with God trains the mind so as to bring about distinct shifts in mental experience itself, for example, an increase in what she calls unusual sensory experiences.

      In charismatic worship, prayer entails an opening of the body to the possibility of healing, and entails a parallel opening of the mind–to the possibility of healing, and to many other possibilities as well: words of knowledge, prophecy, tongues and interpretation of tongues, etc. This liturgical “technology” of habituating people to attend to their minds and bodies as porous and non-private spaces for encounter with the divine is not quite the same as liturgical technologies that habituate people to believe that “words, sounds, pictures, and gestures…entice down the divine.” In charismatic evangelical liturgies, the body is not only a vehicle for participatory encounter with the divine (via words, sounds, pictures, and gestures), but is also itself the site of this participatory encounter. Liturgical participants are not only the instruments of the words, sounds, pictures, and gestures that “entice down the divine, attune us to the eternal, render thereby our artefacts efficacious”; they are themselves the “artefacts.” Thus, it is not only our “cultural productions” which become “‘offerings’ to the truth, as much as gropings towards it,” but also we ourselves who become offerings, “living sacrifices,” if I may adopt the language of Romans 12. Indeed, the suggestion that liturgical participants may be understood as “artefacts” aligns with Milbank’s suggestion (via Stiegler) that “there is no human existence without language and without the tool,” and the natural attains its ends (which “remain in their very finality themselves in part artificial”) by the “indirect means” of the artificial.

      However, if charismatic evangelical liturgies habituate participants to attend to their minds and bodies as porous and open to encounter with the divine, these same liturgies habituate participants to consider their experiences as fickle, in need of discernment and interpretation in the context of ecclesial community. This charismatic heedfulness regarding experience has a predecessor in Jonathan Edwards, who understood the “religious affections” as requiring discernment: they are potentially “truly gracious and holy affections,” and potentially false and delusive; his treatise describes how the affections may be discerned. Might this discernment fall within the “revisionary ritual embrace of the specifically modern sense of the importance of the experimental”? Could we perhaps even describe “gracious affections” as “efficacious artefacts”?

      Finally, a few brief thoughts on the “technical” human condition and the integral relationship of language and human existence. Language is not an inculpable technology, but rather is like a musical instrument that refuses to stay in tune. One need not believe in total depravity to acknowledge that we cannot linguistically quarantine ourselves from the misuses and abuses of language. Occasionally the consequent linguistic dissonance intrudes upon the effectiveness of liturgy. Our prayer and doxology are quickened by Beauty, yet enervated by this dissonance. Thus, the technology of language is not simply the means by which we pray for healing and deliverance, but is also itself in need of healing and deliverance. It is precisely in this respect that healing prayer may be understood as a creative act, and the “surprising, miraculous dimension of all technical performance” reveals itself. Effective deployment of linguistic technology is miraculous because language is therein healed, delivered, and exorcised, through the power of creativity restored to us in Christ’s Incarnation.

Matthew Tan

Response

The 800-Year-Old Simulation

It is almost academic cliché to say that we live in an “order of the simulacra,” to use the phrase coined by Jean Baudrillard. Images of things have taken on such a gravitas that they have become the determinant, rather than the reflection, of the ordering of things themselves. Popular culture is one that is more saturated with digitally enhanced imagery than any age before. Body images are being shaped by photoshopped images of models on glossy magazines, generating new income streams for plastic surgeons in Australia, China, America and Brazil. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have generated communities even fomented revolutions. The proliferation of massively multiplayer online role-playing games has become an avenue not only for the forging of communities, but also for lives to be lived out and even money to be made. At a more banal level, the normalisation of twenty-four-hour news cycles has undergirded a twenty-first-century spin on the nineteenth-century anarchist “propaganda of the deed” in the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, with the looping television sequences of planes slamming into buildings being more potent a form of warfare than the actual slamming of planes into buildings.

The reference to television might make one (rightly) think that the origins of this “order of the simulacra” predates social media, to the age of the big screen and the radio, both of which were used to propagate simulated images of enemies real and imagined, with devastating consequences. Historians in the vein of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities might locate the origins of simulation to a time before there was electricity, with the arrival of the printing press. Indeed, Baudrillard traces this text based simulation to a premodern era. Given Baudrillard’s genealogy, the question to be asked is not just how it all came to this, but also how long it had been like this. Moreover, it should be asked what the length of the genealogy of the simulation would say about not just pop culture, but contemporary culture in all of its institutional varieties.

It is here that Baudrillard’s work dovetails with John Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order. A reader familiar with Milbank’s work would recognise a criticism laid out in his other important work, Theology and Social Theory, a criticism that has in many respects undergirded the theological project named Radical Orthodoxy and many other sympathetic theological currents. According to this criticism, a fundamentally theological distortion—in which God could only be understood and spoken of if he were situated at the same level of being as his creatures— was perpetrated by the Franciscan Duns Scotus in the 1200s. Post-Scotus, it had grown possible to conceive of a creation as ontologically independent of God, whether in terms of a Platonic participation by creatures in God, or in terms of an Aristotelian orientation of all creatures to a common end in God. This move would slowly give way to the metaphysical current known as nominalism, which would in turn give way to a societal attitude of voluntarism, in which the individual will, rather than participation in a community of virtue aiming at a common telos, was given primacy in societal arrangements.

This revisiting of Milbank’s most famous thesis might initially be a call for patience for a reader already familiar with this line of argumentation. This patience, however, will be richly rewarded once this review of the emergence of Scotist metaphysics fans out to encompass its various ontological and political implications. The bridge that Milbank deploys to keep these paths of inquiry together is the move from a politics of identity to a politics of representation. The fascinating corrollary to this inquiry, however, was the series of simulations that suddenly became possible post-Scotus.

Simulation becomes possible in a univocal world, according to Milbank, because the integrity of being is defined in terms of its not being a divine creation. The ground of existence, in other words, is not a positive affirmation but the “upshot of a double negation” (52). With no solid foundation on which to ground the claim, Milbank argues that such a ground is manufactured by taking only one negation out of a whole series of possible options and making that negation normative. In a univocal schema, the negation that is sheer nullity (as a direct contrast of being) becomes the normative ontological ground. In Milbank’s words, “the decision to make ‘is not not’ normative is a decision for the priority of the not,” thereby generating in ontological terms from Scotus onwards “the new priority of the possible over the actual” (52). When possibility is to be given the same ontological status as what actually is, one notices the beginnings of a deterioration of the actual. Unfortunately, the deterioration of the actual does not stop with mere equivalence when being becomes conceived in a univocal mode. Indeed, as Milbank argues, the actual undergoes a double negation post-Scotus, first in the being “thinned out by possibility” and second in the being “hollowed out by nullity.”

This deterioration of the real at the metaphysical level seeps into the epistemological. In Milbank’s estimation, premodern knowledge in its Judaic, Augustinian and Thomistic vein was founded upon the acknowledgement that when something is apprehended by the intellect, something ontologically higher gave that thing its own reality. At the same time, this ontological other also was responsible for casting a light upon the images of the thing formed within the intellect. In other words, the reliability of the images of the temporal thing formed by the intellect, like the apprehended thing itself, relied upon the images hanging off a transcendent anchor. What a univocal framework did was to unhinge the former from the latter. When this happened, says Milbank, one not only speaks of God sensibly by bringing God down to our rung of the hierarchy of being (for indeed, no hierarchy can exist in a univocal mode). As we brought God down to the same level as our language post-Scotus, we have also elevated our knowledge to the same level as God’s, whereby thought alone is enough to ground the being of things. In a univocal register, there is no longer a need for any ontological other to anchor the apprehension of a thing. There is now not even a need for the thing itself to serve that purpose. Post-Scotus, what is known now has the same ontological status as what is, and thus the image now has the same ontological status as the actual.

However, as univocity gives way to nominalism, one also witnesses more than mere ontological equivalence between the imagined and the real. Indeed, Milbank argues that, in a univocal mode of being, one actually witnesses an ontological reversal in the relationship between the imagined abstract and the real concrete. Whilst the premoderns post-Aristotle, especially post-Aquinas, affirmed the primacy of concrete substances, one post-Scotus gets a more intimate and “fundamental kinship with the abstract than the . . . concrete” (138). This paves the way for the bias Descartes would later give to thought over sense. Milbank sees such a neat continuity between Scotus and Descartes, which partially grounds his argument that even now, we are still living out “a certain middle ages.”

If the metaphysics of modernity and postmodernity are an extension of the middle ages, its politics are also similarly medieval. However, where Milbank seems to break with caricatures of the medieval is that instead of a crass materiality justified by irrational ideology, politics is built upon a foundation of a rationally justified simulation, simulations that appear from as early as the Renaissance onwards. The complex layerings of medieval society that were nonetheless bound by a common participation in a real transcendent reality via a life of virtue, had now become flattened out in a univocal age. In such an age, rather than embodied exemplars of virtue, it is now concepts of society—Milbank uses the term “representations”—that have assumed the greater organisational agency. In other words, images of the polis, now having a higher ontological significance than the real, have now taken on take on a more powerful organising role than the actual polis itself, and artificiality comes to pervades every sociopolitical category in a univocal mode. In the case of the polis, organic communities become superceded by fictions of nationhood defined as sociality solely at a “centralised and overarching level”—the basis of modern statehood (156). More than supercede, these fictions actually rob organic communities of any social, economic and political legitimacy, as “the state” or “the economy” become politically fetishised. As for the members of these now eviscerated communities, Milbank argues that under the guise of representing the people, “representation . . . in reality . . . substitute[d] for the people the body of citizens” (143). In other words, actual residents now have to conform to these simulations of political life by becoming themselves a simulation, which is achieved through “a uniform civil mask” of radical individuality. Both these simulations thereby feed off each other, generating their own base of legitimacy and perpetuating themselves at two levels. At the political level, this is done by presuming the state to be an outlet of the will—and it matters little whether that will be that of an individual despot or a faceless mass (163). At the social level, this is done through the mechanism of the market, where the point of exchange of commodities between buyer and seller becomes the inevitable and sole expression of human freedom—and it matter little what gets sold, who gets sold, and how it gets sold.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, with its advances in technical wizardry—in particular the rapid proliferation of the screen through tablets and smartphones—and we see hyper-intensifications of this post-Scotist fetish for simulation over reality, covering even more areas of activity than in the middles, but still operating on the same logic of ontologically favouring the simulation over the actual. Newscasters drive, rather than reflect, policy agendas. Governance is now a manifold simulation, whereby bureaucratic imperatives are deemed to reflect those of elected representatives, which in turn are the simulation of the will of the polis, which in turn are comprised of typecasted fabrications of actual residents, which we now call “voters,” “consumers” or “citizens” (176–77). Photoshopped magazine covers circulated in websites now determine the contours of beauty. Computer-generated imagery on advertising simultaneously stoke human desire and perpetuate fictions of customer sovereignty. The masturbatory process of online pornography now gives more sexual pleasure than actual intercourse between two actual individuals. Economic well-being is judged with reference to modelling that does not account for, nor need, actual persons living in it (because what counts as a person in such fictional models is itself a fiction). In this age of the simulacra, it is not important if it does not work in practice. What matters is that it works in theory.

Milbank has done a wonderful service insofar as he has diagnosed the medieval (and metaphysical) roots of post/modern simulation, and from that the threats to the practice of true democracy within any polis. Where the enthusiasm might be tested is in his veiled suggestion of a restoration of the role of “the few” as an embodied mediator between the one and the many, which might strike the modern reader as a questionable prospect within the civic body. Nevertheless, Milbank has planted seeds of an alternative program to theocracy in this work, the heart of which is a liturgical antidote to simulation, in which a liturgically constituted few standing outside and alongside the civic framework constitute this bridge between the rulers and the ruled. For “in the narrative of Christ and the continuous emergence of the Church” as a distinct civitas which sits alongside and moves within the civic body (without succumbing to it),(247–50) Milbank suggests the beginnings of a doing away with the chasm between representation and identity in which simulation resides. It is yet to be seen how such a diagnosis and antidote will play out within the warp and woof of life within the civic body, but we should be grateful to Milbank for resisting the inevitability of being lorded over by the hosts of simulacra.

  • John Milbank

    John Milbank

    Reply

    Response to Matthew Tan

    Stiegler is in many ways extending his teacher Derrida’s thoughts about “original supplementation.” Though radically extra to thinking intention of which they are the result, they had always already to be there for human beings to be able to shape such intentions at all. Stiegler, balancing Derrida with his first interlocutor, Husserl, is rather less prone than his teacher to see this theoretically irresolvable aporia in terms of a “gnostic” original usurpation, violence and rupture. It seems as if it is more for him that we must allow with Derrida the necessity of technology (language, writing, computing, the tool, the machine, etc.) as a requirement for spirit and not its inevitable corruption, and yet at the same time ensure, after Husserl, that its mechanisms and automatisms do not override human intentionality and comprehension altogether. I tend to read Matthew Tan’s piece in this light. We need to oppose “supplementation,” as more irenically conceived by Stiegler, to Baudrillard’s “simulation” which Tan so well describes as dominating our cultural present. The postmodern philosophy of the former can be taken as critiquing postmodern culture as conceived by the latter.

    But how so? For both supplement and simulacrum substitute the apparently secondary for the supposedly primary. However, the simulacrum as endlessly multiplied reproduction seeks to impose itself as the authentic and original. Its illusory assumption is one of identical imitation and repetition of an original that need no longer appear, precisely because it has been supposedly deputised for adequately and according to an algorithm that permits reduplication ad infinitum.

    It then follows that postmodern cultural “substitution” is paradoxically in league with a cult of the purely manifest original. Thus Tan with great acuity grasps that it runs with and not against the modern epistemological paradigm of “representation.” It is the myth of “the mirror of nature” which ensures that eventually the artificial mirror images alone will serve to do the job of the original scene of nature. As Tan also sees, it is for just the same reason that pure possibility can be taken fully to substitute for actuality, since it is taken as having just the same essential structure.

    As Tan says, I see this post-Scotist reliable mirroring which leads to epistemological displacement of the ontological original as also at work within the political field. Any degree, however weak, of “democratic” representation as mandation, leads, paradoxically, to a subversion of the democratic process. Those claiming fully to speak in the name of the people with be just those (from the French revolutionaries onwards) who displace the popular will with their own, and in the name of representation construed (after Rousseau) as a kind of redirection of direct democracy through the centre, will tend to eradiate any real, local, participatory exercises of direct democracy—as in the case of trade guilds, corporations, boroughs, religious monasteries and parishes, for example.

    Tan hesitates only as to the role of “the few” in my political conception. But presently I shall show how this fits fully with the logic he has so well grasped, and is necessary to its outworking. So he has no need to hesitate—even thought this thematic can sound misleading and has to be properly understood.

Jonathan Tran

Response

Radical Orthodoxy

Alive and Kicking

 

It’s not quite clear when Radical Orthodoxy stopped mattering, but what is clear is that John Milbank hardly cares. In Beyond Secular Order not only does Milbank continue unabated the impossible quest he initiated in Theology and Social Theory but indeed Beyond Secular Order’s arguments double down on that quest. What I find most fascinating is Beyond Secular Order’s central proposal and the context of Radical Orthodoxy’s irrelevance in which it is made. Briefly I will try to say something about how Beyond Secular Order completes Radical Orthodoxy’s vision at a time when that vision has lost its luster. I suggest that this feature is what makes Beyond Secular Order so important and intriguing.

I take Beyond Secular Order’s central constructive proposal to run as follows: ontology and politics relate analogically to one another.1 The best way to speak of this analogical relation is to use the language of participation whereby creaturely political life participates in the ontological life of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—to imagine one life is to imagine the other, though in uniquely occurring ways. Analogically, creatures live the relationally creative and creatively relational life of God by taking up their share in this politics of making, organisms participating in God’s life as they make in their manifold respective ways (hence Beyond Secular Order’s central character, homo faber).2 All creaturely life is hardwired for making it through the bodied pragmatics of adaptation; one could say, crudely, that survival-by-making just is what it means to be an organism.3 But, and this is crucial to Milbank’s proposal, survival is not all that creaturely life (creaturely participation) amounts to. There is more, indicated by Milbank’s term “trans-organicity,” organisms transcending bare survival, striving beyond themselves. While survival proves the mechanism for transcendence, survival is ultimately a function of adaptation (and not vice versa) as transcendence becomes adaptation’s final form, the creature adapted to life in God, adaptation shown in its realization. In this rather novel way Milbank ties a philosophical account of participation to animal behavior through an ecological formulation able to affirm the dignity and integrity of creaturely life from start to finish. Christian theology aesthetically imagines this transcendence as life’s striving toward the Good, True, and Beautiful, and this metaphysics can be seen materially—the materiality is hermeneutically understood as displaying the metaphysics. The material display of creaturely transcendence is nothing less than the cultural deposit of goodness, truth, and beauty that results from creaturely adaptation and thus exceeds the sum of pragmatic considerations and can be, at this point in the proposal, described as creaturely self-showing where what is shown is creation seeking after God.4 Though all animals are thusly hardwired, humans are those animals whose constitution make for self-showing by wording the world, and “church” names those gathered humans whose words explicitly and determinatively intend the linguistic universe in terms of the One in whom it journeys.5 For Milbank, the church has the best chance of arranging political affairs for journeying in God; all culture as deposits of self-showing organic life materially displays goodness, truth, and beauty, but the church uniquely orders itself to the through-and-through graced structure of creaturely life that manifests the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and will hence organize political life in ways hospitable to the political forms this manifold trans-organic manifestation of creaturely (i.e., self-transcending) life takes up.6 It is the church that strives most determinatively toward the interdependence of all life, where interdependence finally names the analogical relation between ontology and politics such that the trans-organic culminates in the trans-natural as the source of all life. Insisting on crude terms one could put the church’s making along the lines of survival of the fittest, that society, in more appropriately positive terms, most adapted to and expressive of life in the Spirit. It follows the drift of the proposal to conclude, “a genuine ecumenical project is inseparable from the project of establishing a global Christendom—the distinction of Christianity from Christendom being rejected as semantically and theologically confused” (233). The same logic entails a particular mode of government: “for democracy to work, it must be complemented by a non-democratic ‘Socratic’ sense of the importance of the role of the few as pursuing truth and virtue for their own sake” (264). The project of legitimating the establishment of a global Christendom and its governance, the “impossible quest” and doubling-down to which I alluded earlier, imagines the world allegorically as the display of God’s beauty. Beyond Secular Order lays out the “political metaphysics” of the proposal and Milbank’s promised On Divine Government will, ostensibly, tell us what judgments the proposal practically warrants, with the two volumes completing the vision Milbank started in Theology and Social Theory.

*  *  *

Do I register my admiration and my worries clearly enough if I say both that I can’t wait for On Divine Government and that I am less than confident that it can succeed? Going forward, Milbank to me feels caught between two equally undesirable outcomes. Here is what I mean. Beyond Secular Order means to show how political arrangements in every facet of late modern life—for example traffic jams (154)—reveals a rotten ontology, setting On Divine Government up to make good on a better ontology/politics. The best version of On Divine Government, the version Beyond Secular Order promises, would advance proposals that simultaneously deal in eventualities—and their “all too real suffering”—while reflecting in the manner of those dealings the beauty of God. Yet, On Divine Government can only make good on its promise by explicating the kinds of objectionable judgments intimated by its political metaphysics. And here, speaking of traffic jams, we can imagine the suggestion of philosopher kings directing the course of civil engineers in the organization of interstate highways. If On Divine Government does not deal in these kinds of practical engagements and remains at the level of theory, it will leave us feeling hoodwinked with yet another, however elegant and learned, argument for analogy when no one seems to be seriously questioning it as a theoretical framework. (This is where the stakes of doubling down are highest—for all of us; the inability of the framework to parallel salutary engagements unleashes a vicious counterexample inside the theory.) Either outcome will continue Radical Orthodoxy’s shockingly quick departure from the broader guild of Christian theology, which of course isn’t necessarily a bad thing except when it means the marginalization of voices that need to continue to inform us. Professor Milbank insists on arguments and kinds of arguments that for many have outlived their usefulness and while I see here, as I said, genuine innovations, the sense will feel unfortunately familiar to those of this persuasion. Remember—Beyond Secular Order seemingly forgets—that plenty has happened since the appearance of Theology and Social Theory. Two quick things come to mind: first, the ascendency of the Augustinian liberalism (i.e., a tragicomic view of politics necessitating something like a pragmatist approach to normativity) that Jeffrey Stout encouraged from Christian theologians through Democracy and Tradition; second, Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination’s sobering account of what happens when people are caught unawares by self-consciously confident political metaphysics (i.e., the sad history of European colonization wasn’t Christendom off the rails but Christendom right on track).7 It may be that Milbank does not consider these serious challenges to his case, but isn’t it enough that others will, since he, presumably, is doing more than preaching to the Radical Orthodoxy choir? One would expect that he would at least try to show that Augustinian liberalism cannot be both Augustinian and liberal or that global Christendom does not have to, or ever, look like the Christian conquest of the Americas. Democracy and Tradition and The Christian Imagination represent the kinds of sensibilities (call them post-Christendom sensitivities—we might also call them Christological or eschatological sensitivities—that both predate these two publications and break new ground in them) that would receive a seriously engaged On Divine Government with skepticism and even alarm, if not also a little morbid curiosity.

But maybe our lack of confidence is part of Milbank’s point. To him, it’s just obvious that society should be organized accordingly (that our highways or commuter choices shouldn’t be dictated by civil engineers not asking philosopher king questions), and he takes as indication of a lack of intellectual nerve our stopping short of imagining the world—and its interstate highways—as God’s, the civic equivalent of indecorously stripping the altar of some parish. His case is made stronger, I think, or at least I find myself more attracted to it, now that fewer are listening and so a congruence between the asceticism of its message and its feasibility. And maybe the arrival of serious challenges to Radical Orthodoxy’s program is something that is anticipated as exactly the kinds of false humility it was meant to call out—perhaps Milbank doesn’t engage Stout and Jennings not because he doesn’t see them as serious challenges but because he always has and thinks he’s addressed them, headlong in a text called Theology and Social Theory. The affective difference for the unconvinced-but-still-listening is that amidst the reports of Radical Orthodoxy’s demise, indication of its ongoing life and unabated quest begins to feel less like triumphalism and more like fortitude, that sliver of a difference where Christian faithfulness and worship take place. Overconfidence here stems from a commitment to a vision broad enough to cover any manner of eventuality, from traffic jams to the publication of competing accounts, a vision politically metaphysical.

 


  1. The proposal is made in contradistinction to the inelegant model of concurrence and its artless metaphysics and politics, a model derivative of heterodox judgments—once there was no concurrence; it had to be theologically imagined!

  2. Compare Milbank and then Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception: “Human history, one might say, has always been biological—it has involved the surprisingly regular unfolding of the human organism. Yet equally, human biology has always been historical: the peculiarity of human organicity is its resort to endlessly original artifice and its invention of variations sometimes so astonishing that they equal or exceed in significance the import of the generic organic categories” (155). Now Merleau-Ponty: “Everything is both manufactured and natural in man, as it were, in the sense that there is not a word, not a form of behaviour which does not owe something to purely biological life—and which at the same time does not elude the simplicity of animal life, and cause forms of vital behaviour to deviate from their pre-ordained direction, through a sort of leakage and through a genius of ambiguity which might serve to define man. Already the mere presence of a living being transforms the physical world, bringing to view here ‘food,’ there a ‘hiding place,’ and giving to ‘stimuli’ a sense which they have not hitherto possessed. A fortiori does this apply to the presence of man in the animal world. Behaviour creates meanings which are transcendent in relation to the anatomical apparatus, and yet immanent to the behaviour as such, since it communicates itself and is understood” (220).

  3. “Bodied” as in “the orientation of bodies to things, bodies to bodies and subjects to subjects” (70).

  4. On ecological self-showing, see Merleau-Ponty’s late Nature and Elizabeth Elizabeth Grosz’ Darwinian eco-political theory.

  5. The phrase “wording the world” is Stanley Cavell’s. For Milbank’s own ordinary consideration of language (considerations favoring natural relation over concurrence-like predication), see his Christological understanding of language as self-originating rather than derivative of metaphysical substance in “The Linguistic Turn as a Theological Turn,” in The Word Made Strange). “Intention” Milbank uses in Husserl’s phenomenological sense as corrected by Merleau-Ponty and journeying in terms of the ecstatic in Nyssen, identity in Augustine, and fittingness in Aquinas.

  6. Worth quoting here: “A sense of breaking with formal rules, of democratic creative expression by all, and of the ‘grotesque’ combination of aspiration and fantasy with realms which does not ignore the strange, the hybrid, the weak or what is distorted by sin and death . . . creation ex nihilo by a personal God suggest at once the release of an inventive freedom into the finite, and the symbolic significance of the strange, different, and uniquely detailed . . . at once seemingly natural and organic in its endlessly varied adaptation of form to function, and yet also highly artificial in its subordination of structure to ornament and instruction, through modes of technological innovation which yet never obliterate ‘natural’ form with a decorative covering (as often with the Baroque) but rather permit detail to elaborate form through its elaboration and even reinforcement” (210–11).

  7. Stout directly engages Milbank in Democracy and Tradition; Milbank notes and dismisses political Augustinianism. Milbank engages Jennings not at all here and so far as I can tell, anywhere.

  • John Milbank

    John Milbank

    Reply

    Response to Jonathan Tran

    Like Kim, Jonathan Tran sees the importance for me of “theme 2,” Homo Faber. And he understands exceptionally well how, more recently (against the rather “culturalist” bias of TST) I have tried to rethink this in terms of that strange naturalness of the artificial, or the naturalness of culture, already referred to. He discusses my notion of the “trans-organic” as a kind of preparation for the reception of the supernatural, and develops well the alignment of my ideas here with those of Merleau-Ponty, as BSO indiates. I am much indebted to him for the insight that, if culture is somehow on nature’s teleological agenda, then one might say that survival is subordinate to adaptation, and preservation to manifestation. No conatus without eidos, one might say. As Aristotle’s De Anima already indicates, it is theoretically difficult to claim primacy for either form or function. And as one has to work implausibly hard in order to claim that form is the upshot of function and a struggle for survival, it is more plausible to say that the struggle to survive and perform efficiently is the struggle of otherwise constituted form, whose instance is irreducible. It exists indeed to show itself and to adapt reactively through the modification of habit, as Hans Jonas, Rupert Sheldrake and other heterodox biologists have argued.

    As to the currency of RO, from where I am standing it is very much alive and expanding its influence across denominations, to Continental Europe, Russia, China and Latin America. It is a long-term, collective project, with extremely fuzzy and porous boundaries with respect to other “postliberal” theological currents. In the long term these may well flow more together, new labels be adopted, etc. That is a matter of little significance but some desirability. If RO has apparently “ceased to matter” in the American Academy then that will only be because it has been deemed crucial to suppress it by the forces who uphold ruling higher educational norms. These include secularism, liberalism, political correctness and the somewhat exaggerated importance (to the neglect of constitutive human sympathy) of allowing everyone to speak “in their own voice” and not to offend any expressed opinion—unless of course this be deemed, Western, white, male, heterosexual, unambiguously gendered, able-bodied, imperialist and no doubt right-handed, etc., etc. Within theology and religious studies this more recent mood is strangely compounded by the perceived need to defend older and stiffer intra-disciplinary boundaries and to sustain post-Schleiermachian academic respectability which demands, as Miroslav Volf has recently pointed out, that the bulk of theology be placidly and inoffensively “descriptive” in character. Naturally RO is feared, because it calls time on the established pseudo-theological game, by suggesting that the proper pursuit of theology would be as construed by the church fathers, Aquinas or Cusanus—it would be always “about God and the mediations of God,” but such an inquiry would involve inevitably and in the end seamlessly philosophy, the theologically committed interpretation of Scripture, the history of religions and church history—with both the latter ultimately construed as a reflection on “divine government” or of the workings of providence.

    Given this aspect of the RO programme, it would be surprising if RO had proved to be any more than a fleeting flavour of the month within US academia. But it retains in North America a more substantial presence, with much potential for future growth and influence. In my experience there, as everywhere else, the serious, inventive, imaginative, witty and spirited, reflective but outgoing young people of integrity within theology are almost all of them drawn to RO or to cognate currents.

    The more specific issue which Tran cites as the current fortune of RO concerns its practical implications. Both for better and for worse this tends to be the centre of American cultural concern and I have already commented on the limits of pragmatism. And I’m afraid that Tran’s suspicions are right: I have not answered either Stout or Jennings because I consider that TST has answered them already in advance. Pragmatism must be supernatural—a theory of participation in the Trinity—else it reduces to relativism and convenience. As to some sort of warmed-over Niebuhrianism, of course every liberalism simply is a distorted Augustinianism, based on late medieval and early modern misreadings of the North African master—ones that specifically overstate his pessimism in order to resign themselves to a merely human rule of fudge, compromise and routinised (so supposedly and in the long term delusorily) restricted violence. Jean-Claude Michéa and several others, besides myself, have set forth this crucial genealogy. There is nothing more here to be said.

    As to a more detailed statement of my practical politics for today, I never indicated that On Divine Government would be about that. It won’t, but on the other hand, The Politics of Virtue, by myself and Adrian Pabst, forthcoming in 2016, will.

    • Jonathan Tran

      Jonathan Tran

      Reply

      Response to Milbank

      Responding to my suggestion that Radical Orthodoxy has “ceased to matter”, Milbank observes, “the serious, inventive, imaginative, witty and spirited, reflective but outgoing young people of integrity within theology are almost all of them drawn to RO.” One doesn’t have to read Professor Milbank’s response here as only question-begging (i.e. that these people are “serious, inventive, imaginative, witty and spirited” just insofar as they are drawn to RO). One could receive the comment as I think Milbank intends it, and then look for evidence that supports his observation, evidence contrary to my suggestion. But, just in case, Milbank covers himself with a second strategy, namely, telling us that if evidence to the contrary can’t be found, if RO has indeed ceased to matter, there’s reason for it, namely suppressive educational norms (e.g., secularism, liberalism, political correctness, and their ilk) make it unlikely that RO will prove to be anything more than “a fleeting flavour of the month” in such a place as America. I suppose the implication of the strategy is that Radical Orthodoxy is serious in a way that theology in America is not, and that serious people will know the difference. Ouch! Milbank brings the point home with this zinger of a comment, “Naturally RO is feared, because it calls time on the established pseudo-theological game…” In other words, Radical Orthodoxy wins exactly when its detractors gain ground, and any victory to be had by its detractors only proves the point (out-narrating, indeed!). But, if what the second strategy presumes is true (namely, that people fear RO because it is right) then the first strategy is unnecessary, and indeed, in certain contexts, the success of the first strategy undermines the presumptions of the second (unless of course, the contexts of Radical Orthodoxy’s new cultural relevance has nothing to do with trendiness in those places—a proposition I find unlikely). One wonders at this point what Milbank seeks to achieve then in pursuing the first strategy. I ask this question because I had in my commentary said that some of the importance of Beyond Secular Order comes from the position from which it is stated, a position where not mattering does not matter. Milbank seems to have surrendered that position while trying to reclaim lost currency, for reasons that are unclear to me.

Devin Singh

Response

Provincializing Christendom

Once, there was no Christendom. And Christendom was not latent in the Greek and later Hellenistic philosophical schools that preceded it, awaiting catalysis and ferment by the dew of heaven, the word made flesh. Rather, there emerged a ragtag group of social, cultural, and economic nobodies who invoked strange tales of messianic fulfillment. They gathered in houses to celebrate and enact these stories, outside the watchful eye of Rome and its regulation of superstitio. Very soon, wealthy patrons were involved, hosting these assemblies in their homes and providing food for their celebratory “love feasts.” As the community grew, the story goes, so did persecution and clashes with the regime. Defenses and appeals were made. Eventually, some high-profile governmental officials joined the movement. Finally, an emperor.

What began as a marginal and particularist sect (its arguably universalist claims notwithstanding) would have its vision (or, better, one of its many internally competing visions) projected across an empire. The voices and views of a small community, initially pursued by power, came to be extended from the seat of power itself, an inversion that has long-ranging consequences. Christendom had to be instituted and imagined. And disciplined. And enforced. This institution is not meaningfully grasped in the language of inevitability or with the hindsight of what would come to be called, agonistically, orthodoxy.

John Milbank knows these roots and must celebrate them in the name of incarnational materialism and truth as historically developed. For the origins of the church according to apostolic and patristic witness depend upon “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1). Ecclesial historical actualization required “seeing our teacher, and hearing his voice with our own ears” (Irenaeus Haer. 5.1.1). In short, the ragtag team-turned-fathers-of-the-church emphasized the necessity of a material encounter with an initially nondescript human in a backwater province of the Roman Empire. This encounter was specific and its universalization denotes a transition.

Such a problematic is, of course, nothing new for the history of Christian reflection in theology, ecclesiology, and, in particular, missiology. I review it here because it raises questions about where we begin narrating the history of the church in the claims we make about its relation to power, politics, and broader society. My aim is not to wave an anti-Constantinian banner1 but to flag the periodization that begins and ends with Christendom. This is relevant to the question of an outside, an externality to the system (of thought and practice) that Milbank proposes.

For Milbank’s tale is unapologetically totalizing. And yet it leaves out so much. My aim, therefore, in the first part of this review is to note the possibility of alternatives that may work within the strictures of Milbank’s project as presented in Beyond Secular Order. In particular, I claim that provincializing Christendom (to take a page from Chakrabarty) opens up suppressed strands of thought that provide interesting challenge to the narrowness of his vision. Recalling the marginal particularity at the heart of Christian tradition thus helps recall the provinciality of one of its moments, the European imperial Christianity that serves as both centerpiece and horizon of Milbank’s proposal. I then go on to consider two provocative aspects of Milbank’s political theology: his advocacy of an elite, virtuous aristocracy and his recuperation of an imperial Augustine.

Part 1 of Beyond Secular Order is a refreshingly lucid and irenic recapitulation of claims asserted by Milbank and many of his Radically Orthodox associates.2 We find a review of the original sin of late medievalism—its fall into nominalism—and its issuance of a cursed progeny: the modern. Platonic and Aristotelian ideals are recalled as correctives to the divergence toward four cardinal philosophical vices: univocity, representation, possibilism, and concurrence.

In light of the unswerving European focus of Milbank’s vision (which includes the classicist induction of Greece and Rome into such heritage), what if we seek to tell a different tale and to think with, alongside, and against Milbank on the conceptual roots of Christendom?3 What if we pursue the specter of origins and ask why we must stop at Augustine or the early councils? Pressing further, why stop at Plato and Aristotle?4 In the name of archaic authenticity, what might it meant to recall African, Near Eastern, and Asian influences on early philosophy as it came to be incorporated into Greek, Roman, and eventual Christian tradition.5

In keeping with “tradition,” we might take up the quaint patristic claim that Plato and Aristotle had been tutored by Moses (invoked to graft such philosophical forbears into biblical tradition) to assert a more probable genealogy: that the Greek philosophers were influenced by ancient Near Eastern thought systems. We should recall, further, how potentially diverse the “pre-Socratics” are, a category that could be taken to include an Afro-Asiatic heritage, one ignored or suppressed by most Western philosophy, as Lewis Gordon recalls.6 To this end, Martin Bernal’s controversial work has done much to posit the lines of influence from Africa to Greece.7

Our periodization and the sources we recognize as instrumental to Christian thought and eventual Christendom might thus take into account Africa and its role in ancient Mediterranean culture and philosophy.8 (This is also to note the eventual centrality of Egyptian Alexandria in theological tradition and even to reclaim Augustine as a North African, both of which require attention in the scholarship.) Allowing for such genealogical links opens up fruitful reconfigurations of inherited thought systems.

For instance, Akan thought provides us with a temporalized, participatory ontology that might find creative resonance with Milbank’s system. In this paradigm, a past founding event exhibits the “thickest” ontology, as the ground of being, while the present, and then decreasingly the future, participate in this origin.9 Visually, we might depict this as a horizontalized chain of being seen in Platonized schemes. Rather than a ladder of ascent, with beings exhibiting varying vertical proximity to and participation in the One as source and/or ground, here the gradation moves horizontally through history.

This accords well with Milbank’s move ad fontes and provides ontological justification for it in a way not supplied by, and possibly in tension with, both the stasis of a vertical scheme and the futurity implied in the developmental and historical manifestation of truth he proffers. The upshot is that rather than a synchronically (because eternally) ranked chain of beings that transports the hierarchy unchanged through history (as in Platonism), all beings in a given historical moment participate equally in the past source of being, standing relatively subordinate instead to preceding generations.10 This perspective may offer a salutary counterpoint to the latent presuppositions of European ontological discourse that included questions about “the place of the savage in the chain of being,” queries that were not ancillary to its overall self-construction.11

This is but one brief example of an alternative ancient sourcing that might allow for cracks in the façade of the unbearable whiteness of being as set forth by Milbank.12 While I don’t share his vision or agenda, it might help his proposal if, in advocating for a participatory ontology, he attended to the possibilities of participation by those outside Europe. More nuanced attention to origins and the polyphony of voices in the invention of orthodoxy may offer imaginative routes forward.

Part 2 of Beyond Secular Order provides a remarkable and insightful exploration of the political, where Milbank expounds on the correlates to the philosophical ideals set forth initially. There is so much to laud and critique. I will only here briefly question the pristination of ancient political thought, idealized as a pragmatic blend of kingly, aristocratic, and general populace interests, mediated by a virtue ethic horizon provided by the ethical aristocracy. As Milbank recalls, almost wistfully: in the ideal condition of ancient Aristotelian norms, “where one man was obviously outstanding [in virtue], it was considered that he should rule, although this notion was generally viewed with sensible ambivalence. On the other hand, if there was an elite body exemplifying the right virtues relevant for politics, then this body should rule” (161).

This state of affairs being before the (post)modern hermeneutic of suspicion, there is no space to ask the obvious (by contemporary standards) question: right virtues relevant according to whom? Clearly it is this elite class that decides that its virtues are in accordance with its ideals, for if the demos was in a position to render such judgment this would imply the conditions of possibility for democracy—or “polity.” Organic, sacramental incorporation into such a body politic apparently requires trust (pistis) by the many that their interests will be beatified through participation in and eventual conformity with the interests of the few. Remarkably, Milbank admits potential for corruptibility among the elite (172), but offers no guidance on discernment except to advocate the training in true virtue, which puts the cart before the horse. Furthermore, predicating corruption assumes an outside from which to render such judgment, which the virtuous aristocracy might disallow.

Milbank heralds “folk tradition” as the ideal repository of virtuous wisdom and practice that should be reclaimed in the face of modern state encroachment (166–67). Perhaps this might be the corrective to a corrupt aristocracy? The problem is that one could defensibly cast lynching as part of folk tradition.13

One way this aristocracy of virtue might extend its governance is hinted to in Milbank’s stimulating excursus on Augustine’s three cities. As Milbank shows, compellingly, Augustine can be read as much more supportive of Rome as trope and as earthly vessel of divine justice and ecclesial administration. Rome is not simply the Rome of libido dominandi and corruption of virtue, but also, per Milbank’s rereading, stands for glory and the “manliness” (234) of true virtue, as a legitimate tool of ruling according to divine plan and purpose.

What is not yet fully persuasive (and in fairness is Milbank’s preliminary sketch to be fleshed out in the next volume) is Augustine’s apparent vision for a plurality of spheres, a variety of overlapping institutions and corporate bodies that aid in distributing justice and training in virtue. These align with Milbank’s call for intermediaries between subjects and the state, for institutional forms that embody the few, the virtuous elite. To the end of clarifying this balance of powers, more could (and perhaps will) be said about Augustine’s carrying forward of a Eusebian vision of sharing in rule, a prominent theme in the latter’s Oration. Milbank identifies a value for sharing that legitimates authentic kingship. This echoes Eusebius’ observation that Constantine’s grandeur is augmented though sharing his rule with his sons and various delegates, a sharing that mimes the Father’s sharing of rule with the Son, and the Son’s co-rule with Constantine.14 Such sharing of power may ground theologically the interlocking spheres of rule limned by Milbank.

The sketch of Augustine here does at least provide some answer to the quandary of aristocratic enforcement of virtue alluded to above. If it is the few who decide what virtue and justice are, according to their interpretation of tradition, how is this to be foisted upon the one and the many if discord arises? At least one tactic emerges, made possible through the mediation of a one-world empire and Augustinian cosmopolis: “‘stern necessity’ in the face of injustice will sometimes require ‘the good’ imperially ‘to make war and to extend the realm by crushing other peoples,’ understood as a form of “international ‘policing’” (230). While this is problematic in its own right, its coincidence with “the project of establishing a global Christendom” (257) is particularly troubling, even more so when a Schmittian “nomos of the earth” is invoked as template!15

I do find Milbank’s presentation of Augustine here interesting, fascinating, and at least preliminarily persuasive. I find refreshing the implication that Augustine continues rather than miraculously and radically diverges from a Eusebian template. This opens up possibilities for rapprochement between Eastern and Western traditions of political theology.16 It also helps establish lines of transference for Eusebian political thought westward and not simply to Byzantium. While Milbank finds the rehabilitated imperial Augustine salutary for his purposes of a theology of ruling, some readers, including myself, might find this as additional confirmation that the Augustinian legacy is to be viewed with deep suspicion.

Overall, Milbank has offered a helpful reprise and a bold and provocative set of new proposals. His project’s openness to asynchronicities and alternative temporalities provides welcome challenge to the fixities of the modern. In eschewing the charge of anachronism (used as a geopolitics of regulation and control),17 his project offers possible sites of productive reconfiguration of the present. To avoid getting in its own way of doing so, it should resist the modern temptation of totalization and embrace the particularity and provinciality of the origins it exalts.


  1. I don’t feel myself invested in the Constantinian vs. anti-Constantinian debate in terms of an “authenticity” of Christian witness, although I do find Milbank’s rather cheeky response to such challenges noteworthy (and humorous). After advocating for an imperial Augustinianism (to which I will return below) he anticipates a critique: “To those ‘anti-Constantinian’ Christians who would have preferred that the church remain a quasi-Montanist nomadic puritanical sect, whether in the deserts of North Africa or those of New Mexico, one can reply that this is to have a somewhat deficient sense of both mission and common humanity” (248). While I tend to agree, I’m not sure how I feel about New Mexico. Incidentally, if Milbank is referring to the Penitentes, the reference is telling, for they signify the savage other and outside “wilderness” in Huxley’s Brave New World, and thus might actually be a trope of Catholic resistance to modernity that he could recuperate.

  2. Such a comparatively pacific stance, however, may come at the cost of ignoring most critiques, as Daniel Horan suggests. See Horan, Postmodernity and Univocity: A Critical Account of Radical Orthodoxy and John Duns Scotus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014). It has been suggested that critique and, in particular, the capacity for self-scrutiny are what at base characterize the secular. See Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood, Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Bruce Robbins, “Is the Postcolonial also Postsecular?” Boundary 2 40.1 (2013) 245–62. This may explain why such a tone appears absent in Milbank. He marches on, appearing at least rhetorically unfazed and assured. More remarkably, he expresses fascination and amazement at the intellectual modesty of some of his interlocutors, noting, for instance, that Karl Ankerschmitt is “even astonishingly candid about the possible future limitations of [his proposals]” (146) and that Ankerschmitt “almost in self-criticism” (151) expresses the possible shortcomings of his project. What is truly astonishing is that such scholarly humility should itself provoke astonishment. Perhaps Milbank has so successfully excised the secular from his approach that such self-critique, too, appears foreign.

  3. The challenges raised against a project such as Milbank’s by those informed by social, cultural, ethnic, gender, and sexuality studies concerning the conceptual problems and potential dangers of a monolithic, totalizing, and universalist European vision might be construed in Milbankian terms as based upon assumptions derived from the modern social sciences. (At least, so the story might go, no one was asking those questions before modernity.) As such, the force of their critique might be sidestepped, relegated to the dustbin of secular modern identity politics, invalidated as heretical imperatives. In the interests of immanent criticism, then, the challenge is to think otherwise and otherness within the premodern paradigm that is offered, which, in actuality, is not difficult.

  4. I understand that one might respond that we stop here because this is where “orthodoxy” stops. To which I reply, there are a variety of ancient philosophical and patristic voices that have influenced the development of Christian thought, and it is in no way apparent that “orthodoxy” has established clear strictures on all the specific voices that might be recognized as influential. While one might appeal to conciliar tradition for a critical mass of ideas that have been deemed authoritative and to a who’s who of favorite thinkers commonly drawn upon by the communion of inheritors of such tradition, this does not preclude other more minor voices, traditions, or regions from being given their due as instrumental in the development of what comes to be called “orthodoxy” and hence as orthodoxy’s rightful heritage.

  5. While I do not support such a quest for “authentic” roots or origins, I think such moves are in keeping with Milbank’s project and open up interesting disruptive possibilities. My sensibilities are here shaped by decolonial perspectives. See, e.g., Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995); Walter Mignolo, “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference,” South Atlantic Quarterly 101.1 (2002); Enrique Dussel, The Invention of the Americas: Eclipse of “the Other” and the Myth of Modernity, trans. Michael Barber (New York: Continuum, 1995). See also the important preliminary critique of Milbank in Nelson Maldonado-Torres, “Liberation Theology and the Search for the Lost Paradigm: From Radical Orthodoxy to Radical Diversality,” in Latin American Liberation Theology: The Next Generation, ed. Ivan Petrella (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2005), 39–61.

  6. Lewis Gordon, Introduction to Africana Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

  7. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, 3 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987). Laudably, Milbank does cite Bernal (7n6), although he does not appear to engage Bernal’s conclusions or consider their impact on his own project. Cf. Frank M. Snowden, Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience (Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard University Press, 1970). V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).

  8. As Matthew Engelke recalls in a recent article on approaches to the secular: “Africa—as both a place and an idea—is inconvenient [for studies of the secular] more in terms of how, beyond its invocation in church attendance statistics (or growth of the ummah, or community), it relates to social thought and social analysis.” See Matthew Engelke, “Secular Shadows: African, Immanent, Post-Colonial,” Critical Research on Religion 3.1 (2015) 86. Engelke goes on to claim that “Africa is still often understood as the Europe of a time ago,” which I think is too generous. This grants Africa a place on the timeline of development that leads to Europe. More often, I submit, Africa is simply and violently narrated out of such a spectrum, for Africa, following Hegel, “is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit.” But Engelke is correct that the problem of Africa for social theory—and, I would add now, genealogies of “Western” thought and tradition—has yet to be adequately addressed.

  9. See Kwame Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

  10. As Gordon notes, this system combats “liberal moral philosophy [in] its rejection of teleological reasoning” with a teleological “metaphysics of values from the past onward” (Gordon, Africana Philosophy, 235).

  11. Margaret T. Hodgen, Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964).

  12. Additionally, Milbank’s positive invocation of Romanticism needs to be complicated by Romanticism’s own rhetorically constructed relation not just to various imagined European or classical pasts, but to its contemporary “pasts” of colonial otherness, to the “retrograde” and exotically other temporalities of Africa and Asia. For Romanticism itself exhibits a (repressed) spatial awareness that incorporates Europe’s relation to its imagined periphery. Milbank is critical of spatialization as a mode of thought, in part because of the distantiation it admits according to the logic of representation. Identity allows no space between. But in his foregrounding of historicism and temporality he misses another spatialization, one that Walter Mignolo terms the geopolitics of knowledge. On geopolitics and colonial spatiality in relation to the thought of Schleiermacher, in particular, see Steven R. Jungkeit, Spaces of Modern Theology: Geography and Power in Schleiermacher’s World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

  13. I mean here both to problematize the potential terrors of “folk tradition” itself and to signal the direct link between Aristotelian virtue and the inscription of slavery within cosmological hierarchy through talk of human nature and corresponding social position.

  14. In addition, the emperor is taken to embody and represent both Father and Son, not the Son alone (pace Milbank on p. 250), a Eusebian template that is reactivated in the Norman Anonymous, for instance, and is at the heart of the Investiture Controversy. For a fuller explication of these dynamics in Eusebius, see Devin Singh, “Eusebius as Political Theologian: The Legend Continues,” Harvard Theological Review 108.1 (2015).

  15. Milbank also speaks of the “rapidly proceeding Christianization of the globe” in concert with a contemporary extension of Christendom in a way that occludes the global history of premodern Christianity. Thus, to circle back to my opening claims, if we begin not with Europe as Christianity’s center which serves as launching point for global (charitable) conquest, but instead with the always global and polycentric history of Christianity, different proposals may emerge. See, e.g., Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died (New York: HarperOne, 2008); Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

  16. Issues of transference from East to West might be another place to consider re-narrating Milbank’s totalizing model. Laudably, again, Milbank gestures toward Islamic tradition’s conveyance of Aristotelian thought to Europe, and also mentions West African ideals of kingship as emblematic of themes he advocates (251), providing windows into a possible outside to his system. But these are not developed, and the question, e.g., of Islam’s influence on (as opposed to mere conveyance of) the Aristotelian thought engaged by medieval thinkers is not seriously addressed.

  17. See Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 237–55.

  • John Milbank

    John Milbank

    Reply

    Response to Devin Singh

    Devin Singh is broadly sympathetic to my genealogical approach and attempt to see homologies between ontological theories and political structures, as mediated by political theory. His main complaint is that I am too provincial and Western-centric in elaborating it. By no means does his complaint fall neatly into a matrix of political correctness, as is shown by his sympathetic view of my diagnosis of a “rather more Eusebian Augustine.” Here a desire that we might listen to more oriental voices is rightly aligned with the need sometimes to attend to more “conservative” perspectives. As to the general charge, I fully admit it, and the lacuna in my work here is one I would like to try to make good in the future, and have already begun to do so in some small degree, though it will always likely prove well beyond my knowledge and capacities to go far enough in this direction.

    Indeed, as Singh says, other currents stand before and behind the Greeks—though on the other hand, according to some recent scholars, it may be that the final redaction of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament took place in the Hellenistic period under and in relation to Greek influences, both philosophical and literary. One welcomes Singh’s stress here upon Asia and Africa as from the outset already inside the West, instead of the older liberal Protestant notion that Greek philosophy is just an “accidental” cultural vehicle for the gospel, such that Hinduism, Taoism, etc. would do just as well. Rather, as my point about the Hebrew Bible most drastically indicates, a Western philosophical and poetic legacy is already in part constitutive of the gospel—which nevertheless may well, in the future, be further expounded and unfolded through a renewal of engagement of Asia and Afria in all their later developments.

    I am not quite sure though as to how Christianity would be compatible with a doctrine of purely inevitable decline form the time of the remote ancestors, as here mentioned—pace McCarraher, this might well be a Burkeanism too far . . .

    Nor by the role of the few do I mean anything like the subordination of the many to “their interests”—were that to be the case, then their impact could not possibly be a virtuous one. But again, I will revert to this.

    • Devin Singh

      Devin Singh

      Reply

      Rejoinder to Milbank

      Note to the reader: my reply here includes comments on aspects of Milbank’s response to McCarraher, for the latter and I share similar misgivings about Milbank’s project.

      I’m happy to be grouped by Milbank among those who offer a generous if mixed reception of this work. And yet, for the sake of clarity, further critical distance appears necessary. In his response to McCarraher, Milbank reports that his own work has been characterized as “a strange combination of forceful belligerence and subtly-argued nuance.” My writing has also been described as nuanced; and yet it is usually combined, as characterized in my case, with a tactful and irenic tone. The risk is that the nuance will be missed without my sounding the horn of blatant antagonism. I want to reiterate my points here more stridently.

      As I do state in my review, I am not in fact “broadly sympathetic to [Milbank’s] genealogical approach.” Though Milbank would probably dismiss it as falling “into a matrix of political correctness,” I regard his project as not simply too provincially European but as racist—or, more precisely, white supremacist. The conservative quest for origins that his project embodies plays with a hope for purity and logic of pristination, and combines with a nostalgia for a particular vision of European high culture. Milbank might protest that:

      There was no single “white, Christian, racist, capitalist” imperial project in the way often spoken of within religious studies departments, with insufficient attention to the work of real historians. Instead, there were often entirely contradictory aims and sometimes clashing exigencies—that could not have been avoided unless one fantastically imagines that all “encounter” between Europeans and other peoples should have been avoided.” (See response to McCarraher)

      The irony here is that Milbank’s project is not historical but primarily theoretical and so can and does set forth a unified vision of a Christian imperial project. Displaying (forgivable) fascination with the world of ideas, Milbank offers a total and exclusive reassertion of white, European Christianity that does not incorporate its actual internal diversity in any meaningful way. To do so would fragment his monolith—and this may be too Scotistic.

      The steamrolling, white monolith is confirmed by Milbank’s misinterpretation of my intervention as a call to graft “oriental voices” (sic!) into his pre-formulated and unalterable framework. My point was in no way to shore up and provide fodder for the centrality of Greek origins through the ingestion and digestion of African forbears. I intended to decenter the West and explode the classicist mythology through which Europe lays simplistic claim to Greece and Rome as its fount. But rather than simply dismissing Milbank’s project from the outset, I chose a more interesting path (to me, at least) of trying first to think along the lines of his problematic, originist logic, insert otherness as a Trojan horse within his system, and imagine its deconstruction.

      I must therefore forcefully reject the view of “Asia and Africa as from the outset already inside the West,” a preposterous attempt to colonize the past. (Milbank also seeks to buttress his claim to Greek centrality through specious appeal to the “final redaction” of the Hebrew Bible in the Hellenistic period—a red herring.) Why not say, instead, that the West is always already inside Asia and Africa? If “a Western philosophical and poetic legacy is already in part constitutive of the gospel,” this means African and Asian philosophical legacies are constitutive as well. In such case, we should be open to the hopeful possibility—indeed, likelihood—that the Eurocentric vision set forth by Milbank will not be “further expounded and unfolded” through paternalistic co-optation of Afro-Asiatic voices, but disrupted, reconfigured, or nullified through acceptance of their preeminence, following the logic of origins.

      If I exhibit a “sympathetic view of [Milbank’s] diagnosis of a ‘rather more Eusebian Augustine,’” it is to claim that both should be regarded as highly problematic. I am happy to see Augustine inducted into a Eusebian legacy, because it adds further challenge to the simplistic counter-posing of Eusebius as political theologian of empire vs. Augustine as the good liberal advocate of separate spheres (see, e.g., Erik Peterson’s work and most Anglo-American Augustinian scholarship). Milbank recalls the imperially coercive vision in Augustine. This aids consideration of the ways Augustine is a possible source for ideologies of Western imperialism and vindication of state violence, calling for pause before his typical invocation as remedy for what ails Western society. Concerns about Augustine’s legacy may also coincide interestingly with investigations into how Calvinist and Jansenist redeployment of Augustine (charges of revisionism notwithstanding) helped birth the modern market economy and laissez-faire capitalism.

      In relation to my concerns about the oppressive applications of a Platonic chain of being with its attendant hierarchies, consider Milbank’s comments:

      There can be few better examples of utterly ridiculous prim academic smugness than the claim “not to know” whether there is a chain of being—not to know, then, the manifest difference and yet link between dust, grass, alder, squirrel, dove, ape and human—but to know for certain that belief in the great chain of being brought about slavery, genocide and misogyny. It almost certainly didn’t, whereas for absolute exegetical certainty it did help to generate, for example, John Locke’s doctrine of human equality: we are, for him, all on the same level in the ontological hierarchy. (See response to McCarraher)

      I agree that epistemic humility is called for in both cases. It does appear to me, however, that we could achieve much more epistemic certainty about the possible causal relation between an idea and its social consequences than we could about reaching back behind the “manifest difference and yet link” to apprehend with confidence the hidden ontological depths of creation!

      As for Locke, Milbank’s comments are (at least) doubly problematic: to claim that Locke regarded all humans as equal evades the broader contest around inclusion within the category of humanity. The ongoing debate about “the place of the savage in the chain of being” allowed the positing of some humans as outside the scope of humanity and thus as inherently unequal. This is a truism that Milbank ignores. Furthermore, we can instead find “absolute exegetical certainty” that Locke was a supporter of the plantation system (even serving on its boards of trade), was an investor in the Royal Africa Company and its commerce in enslaved black bodies, and that his notions of property rights could be and were extended to chattel slavery. To invoke Locke here to resist the oppressive implications of the chain of being is astonishing.

      Milbank claims that “Constantinianism was likely in continuity with Christian aspirations from the outset (see St. Paul) and the church seems to have contained wealthy and influential members from this outset also.” This sidesteps the fact that the presence of the wealthy in the early church was a profound conundrum for the fathers and source of great consternation and debate in terms of both theology and practice. The fathers condemned the wealthy and yet knew they needed them to fund the churches. This pragmatic negotiation and evolving set of (doctrinally legitimated) concessions is a far cry from the regal, unified, and inevitable logic of Christian imperial dominion that Milbank assumes at Christianity’s inception. Milbank’s remark also appears to conflate a vision for a politicized and imperial Christianity with the empirical existence of wealthy Christians, two separate issues.

      Finally, Milbank wonders “how Christianity would be compatible with a doctrine of purely inevitable decline from the time of the remote ancestors,” a notion that I suggest from Akan philosophy—although never put by me in terms of “decline” (or “purity,” for that matter!). Milbank’s nostalgia for origins might coincide with this kind of declinative reading, however, for the longing to restore what once was is to claim that what once was is closer to the Truth of Being. The ritual of nostalgia, which Milbank assiduously performs, pays homage to this past and the thick ontology it mediates. To be sure, the triumphalist vision of Christianity Milbank exalts may not fuse well with such a metaphysics of history, but a self-effacing, self-negating, and kenotic version might. But this may be too strangely foreign.

Eugene McCarraher

Response

Christendom, Take Two

John Milbank’s Dominion Theology

 

John Milbank invokes Edmund Burke at key points in his brief on behalf of the restoration of Christendom. The epigram—from Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)—sets an ominous and accusatory tone:

In the groves of their academy, at the end of every visto, you see nothing but the gallows.

The “academy” to which Burke refers is a school of instruction in a “barbarous” philosophy: the appalling and disruptive idea that political institutions are human contrivances, not the edicts of an omnipotent divinity, and that underneath all pomp and rectitude lies the vulnerable flesh of human beings:

A king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order . . . Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity.

This iconoclastic rationalism is “the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings” and is “as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance.”1 Once reason reduces monarchy, family, and religion to fables of power, then society will degenerate into an orchestrated anarchy, as individuals vying for self-interest will respect only the terrors of legalized violence. Hence, Milbank contends throughout the volume, the pandemonium of liberal modernity, inaugurated with the French Revolution and continuing for the next two centuries and counting.

Later, Milbank calls again on the Burke of the Reflections, arguing that the only alternative to a further descent into chaos is Burke’s Christian teleological politics—presumably free of coercion and carnage, with no gallows in the groves of its academy—that fuses “the animal, the artificial-historical and the human orientation to their final end in God” (BSO, 182). Milbank rehearses “the most famous of all the passages in [Burke’s] writings” (BSO, 182):

Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible worlds, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and moral natures each in their appointed place.

This “great primeval contract” attests, Burke argues, to “a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection.” It’s a Great Chain of History, this partnership—continuous, Burke implies, with the Great Chain of Being that unites the “visible and invisible worlds”—for it is contracted “not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” G. K. Chesterton, that most charming of reactionaries, would later dub this lineage “tradition,” a “democracy of the dead” to counterbalance the weight of “that small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”2

Of course, this means that the present is forever outvoted—and by an accretion of the small and arrogant who themselves once merely happened to be walking about—and Burke’s “partnership” similarly weights the scales against both the living and the unborn. It’s because of this charming mendacity that critics of Burke from Thomas Paine onward have rejected his Reflections as ideological camouflage, servitude to power masquerading as sagacity, propaganda for a decadent ancien regime dressed up in “the equivocal idiom of politeness,” as Mary Wollstonecraft characterized the orotund prose. Whether tagged as a “conservative” or a “patriot” Whig (as Milbank prefers to think of him), Burke cared more for the maintenance of extant hierarchy than for any “tradition.” Perhaps no one knew this better than Burke himself. For all the grandiloquence he lavishes on behalf of the feckless and beleaguered Bourbons, Burke is no dewy-eyed fabulist. Even Paine missed the joke when Burke described Marie Antoinette as “glittering like the morning star,” for he was not paying her a compliment; her dazzle exemplified the decadence of a dynasty too soft to bludgeon its opponents. Later, in one of his Letters on a Regicide Peace (1795), Burke expressed a grudging admiration for the radicals whose “barbarous” philosophy he despised. “In ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views, the Jacobins are our superiors,” he conceded; seeing through the Bourbons’ glamour, they knew a decrepit order when they saw one.3 With a ruling class so indefensible, Burke had nothing but the frippery of eloquence to prettify its injustice and dissipation.

Yet Burke thought the “distinctness” of Jacobinism an iniquity as well as an advantage, and his reasons for preferring obfuscation to transparency shed light, not only on the counter-revolutionary mind, but on the shortcomings of Milbank’s political thought. Burke’s Reflections should not be read apart from his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756), where he argues, in effect, for the virtue of ignorance. “It is our ignorance of things,” he writes, “that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions.” A “great clearness” about anything or anyone “is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” Get too close or become too curious about a beloved object, idea, or person, and the inexorably depressing result is a thoroughgoing “loathing and weariness.” (The end of “simplicity” would appear to have a similar effect, as the complications produced by knowledge erode the incredulity necessary for obedience to a law whose origins we dare not question.) This unlovely thought reveals much about the depressive psychopathology of conservatism, which seems to consist of a simmering stew of disinheritance, disappointment, and grievance; but what I want to underline is Burke’s political linkage of ignorance and “admiration” in the Reflections. Recall this, the truly most famous passage of all his writings, in which he rhapsodizes “ancient chivalry”:

All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle and obedience liberal . . . All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature . . . are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.4

Many readers find the sentimentality of those lines unbearable, but we should give the devil his due—Burke tells us quite clearly that the wardrobe of chivalry is comprised of an ensemble of “illusions.” Covering our “naked and shivering nature”—the nature shared by Bourbons and peasants—the costumes of illusion ensure ignorance, obscuring the knowledge that, yes, the king is but a man, and the queen is but a woman, both of whom require a “pleasing” embellishment of lies to guarantee their station. Burke’s keenest fear is that the emperor’s body will be seen through the beguiling but threadbare raiment of political and religious illusion, and that the fabric of the “great primeval contract”—the fraudulent “partnership” of monarchs, nobles, clergy and commoners through the ages—will be unraveled to reveal the naked truth of men and women without rank, status, or title. To “explode” these phantoms with criticism (a jarring but effective change of metaphor) is to peruse and abrogate that contract, discovering in its clauses the illegitimate pretentions of bodies like ourselves.

Like ruling classes and their lackeys everywhere, Burke insists that most of his fellow human animals—“the swinish multitude,” as he hisses in the Reflections—are unfit to manage their collective affairs. When the multitude goes without the “habitual social discipline” of “the wiser, the more expert, and the more opulent,” Burke mused in his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791)—a subordination intended, of course, to “enlighten and protect the weaker, the less knowing, and the less provided with the goods of fortune”—then “they can scarcely be said to be in civil society.” Their daily labors incapacitate the swine for the exalted deliberations of political life. “The occupation of a hair-dresser, or of a working tallow-chandler, cannot be a matter of honour to any person,” Burke harrumphs in the Reflections, “to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments.” While graciously averring that such rabble “ought not to suffer oppression from the state,” Burke insists that “the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule.” “Such as they,” or slaves in the American South, whose masters Burke breezily compared to the citizens of “ancient commonwealths” and “our Gothic ancestors.” An ocean away from the inferno of slavery, Burke could write with the callous insouciance of the clueless that the grandees of mint-julep tyranny tempered their “haughtiness of domination” with a “spirit of freedom” that was invincibly “noble and liberal.” It’s not hard to see why Burke was beloved by John C. Calhoun, John Randolph, George Fitzhugh, and other ideologues of plantation paternalism.5

I’ve dwelled at some length on Burke because Milbank upholds him as a paragon of Christendom—and he is, which says a lot about Christendom—and affirms his “great primeval contract” as an exemplary expression of Christian political ontology. It’s a perfectly apt choice, in its way, for it suggests that Milbank’s version of “Christian socialism” is precisely what Marx derided as “the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heartburn of the aristocrat,” and that the “democratization of exaltation” he envisions (BSO, 269) means the evacuation of democracy. Indeed, the present volume confirms what many have long feared since the publication of Theology and Social Theory (1990), Milbank’s sprawling, provocative, and pugnacious treatise on the ills of and cure for modernity: that what began as an effort to revitalize theology as a form of social and political imagination would evolve into a bizarre and fantastical enterprise in Christian imperialism. Beyond Secular Order is (so far) the most daring and grandiose argument for Christian imperium made in our time outside of fundamentalist circles—the “Christian Reconstructionism” or “dominion theology” that has percolated into American Protestantism is eerily similar but not as highbrow and humane.6 (I say “so far” because Milbank warns us that this book is the prolegomena to a tome entitled—God help us—On Divine Government.) “Radical orthodoxy” has finally culminated in a genteel dominion theology, shorn of the punitive moralism and capitalist economics advocated by Reconstructionists. (If Milbank wouldn’t let gays and lesbians marry, he certainly doesn’t want them stoned to death.)

It’s not as if there weren’t any warning signs of Milbank’s retreat into political chimera. Always combative, Milbank has grown steadily more strident, quixotic, and offensive over the last fifteen years. It’s loopy enough when a theologian of politics turns to J. R. R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings as a model for political life in the twenty-first century. (“Monarchic anarchy,” Milbank calls it elsewhere; “no law in the Shire, but the orderly echo of remote kingship”—remote, of course, as long as the hobbits remember their place.) But things get no better when he turns from medievalist fantasia to the realm of history. Christianity, he informs us, is “the sustained source of feminism”—which would be news to the countless suffragettes who encountered little but opposition and vilification from the churches. Unable to restrain his ill-tempered brio, Milbank winds up adopting some truly unedifying and even downright sinister positions. He once referred to liberal Protestantism as “nihilism lite”—a flippant dismissal of a theological lineage whose most courageous political archangel was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then there’s his hysterical opposition to gay marriage, or his equally delirious pronouncement that “the separation of sex and procreation” is a “state capitalist programme of bioethical tyranny.” And consider Milbank’s melancholic twaddle about “the lamentable premature collapse of the Western colonial empires.”7 The white man laid down his Burden too soon, in Milbank’s infallible judgment; the swinish multitudes needed more Euro-Christian tutelage in the disciplines of divine government.

That’s the inexorable terminus of every longing for “Christendom,” and it’s sad to see so learned a theologian waste his mind on so discredited and futile a project, especially as our politics desperately needs a strong and engaging theological presence. Alas, Milbank’s is not that presence. It is strong, to be sure, replete with his ostentatiously encyclopedic erudition and laced with polemical braggadocio. The prose alternates between turgid disputation and romantic evocations of the power of divine love. Calling on Christians to nurture “the steady fire of a confident and yet absurdly hopeful charity” (BSO, 221), Milbank reminds us that

genuine interpersonal love—both erotic and generous—begins as the supernatural love of God for us, which we share in by loving him in return and by echoing this bond in terms of our mutual relations with other human beings and other creatures. (BSO, 222)

Amen; yet it doesn’t warrant the political ontology that Milbank outlines in this book. Milbank’s voice is certainly vigorous (I would say “robust” but that’s one of the most overused words in our theological vernacular these days). But it is also less than engaging, and its unpleasantness stems from the imperious benevolence it so gorgeously and sophistically defends. Committed, like Burke, to a Great Chain of History sanctioned by a Great Chain of Being, Milbank derives an elitist theory of democracy from an “ontology of participation” in a similarly hierarchic and unalterable cosmic order.8 Profoundly suspicious, like Burke, of “the many” yet resigned to their historical achievements, and determined to reinstate some ascendency of the virtuous that he imagines to have characterized “Christendom,” Milbank argues for a democracy of the few: an enfranchised but circumscribed populace, overseen by an aristocracy of righteousness and united in thrall to some principle of monarchy.

It’s a vision without political purchase anywhere save in the groves of the theological academy, where resentful savants of divinity disinherited from cultural preeminence can imagine their restoration. Like other mandarins divested by modernity, Milbank rightly identifies the dynamic hierarchies of money and technology as the culprits of their dispossession. Yet the irony of Milbank’s “Christendom”—embodied ideologically in the “Red Toryism” associated with his former student, Philip Blond—is that far from promoting a new medievalism or a “Christian socialism” (itself of dubious provenance), it assists in furthering the neoliberal project that Milbank claims to abhor. As desperately as we need alternatives to the insidious ascendency of neoliberalism, another round of Christendom is not one of them.

Milbank has never made a secret of his desire to resurrect the broken body of Christendom. He dedicated Theology and Social Theory to “the remnant of Christendom,” at once a reference to the Christendom Trust (now renamed the M. B. Reckitt Trust in honor of its founder)—an Anglican research foundation devoted to “Christian social thought and action”—and also a nod to those longing for the restoration of Christianity to cultural and political supremacy in Europe and in the rest of the world as well. In that first book, Milbank was more concerned to deconstruct “the secular” than to reconstruct a vision of Christendom, so his gestures in that direction were relatively reticent. Over the 2000s, Milbank gradually dropped any pretenses. In a representative 2010 essay, he brashly defended Constantinianism against critics such as John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, characterizing their opposition as “politically disingenuous and theologically dangerous.” (He even threw in a charge of Marcionism for good measure.)9 With “Radical Orthodoxy” as his Fellowship of the Ring, Milbank became the Gandalf of Christian theology, calling for an Army of the West to do battle with the Sauron of liberal modernity.

In Beyond Secular Order, Milbank is straightforward and dismissive in calling for a postmodern renaissance of Christendom. “The idea of Christianity without Christendom is a self-deluding and superficial illusion” (BSO, 233). He writes scornfully of “‘anti-Constantinian’ Christians” who “would have preferred that the Church remain a quasi-Montanist nomadic puritanical sect, whether in the deserts of North Africa or those of New Mexico.” Such fools and cowards display “a somewhat deficient sense of both mission and common humanity” (BSO, 248). As he has in his previous work, Milbank enlists Augustine, citing approvingly the bishop of Hippo’s dictum that Christian emperors should exercise their power “towards the promotion of the ecclesia” (BSO, 228). He even quotes—again, with apparent approval—Augustine’s observation that “stern necessity” will often force “the good” (or to be more specific, the Christian emperor) to “make war and extend the realm by crushing other peoples.” Milbank sees here, not a tragic perversion of the Gospel, but rather “the incarnation of cosmopolis in ecclesia,” a conception of an “international commonwealth” (BSO, 230–31). What Milbank envisions, in fact, is an ultramontane Christian imperium—“peaceful” and “ecumenical” he assures us, superintended by “a symbolic and representative centre of world government” (which replicates “the lapsed imperial role”) that would ideally recognize “the spiritual primacy of the Pope.” This new world order would champion “the collective pursuit of innately desirable human goals”; only in this imperium can humanity be oriented to enter “the eternal kingdom of love” (BSO, 257–61 passim).

To be sure, Milbank suggests an illustrious and seductive prospect, so beautiful that many readers might experience a rapture of theo-political ecstasy. But that’s why we developed that hermeneutic of suspicion that Milbank and his ilk find so nettlesome; it compels us to examine the picture and ask if its loveliness conceals something flawed, even hideous. And when one recalls Milbank’s more outrageous statements about liberal Protestantism as “nihilism lite” or the “lamentably premature collapse” of Western colonialism, a broader and much less enchanting ensemble of possibilities comes into view. Let’s start with Milbank’s invocation of Augustine’s “Christian emperor” who acts with “stern necessity” to promote the church and “extend the realm.” If God acted through Rome in antiquity to spread the gospel and promote the ecclesia, then surely the Western colonial powers who brought Christianity to the indigenous peoples—and whose “premature” departure from their conquests Milbank professes to find so lamentable—surely they were the agents of divine providence? The stern necessities of genocide, slavery, and colonial brutality, atrocious and regrettable as they were, were surely unpleasant but small prices to pay for the global promotion of the ecclesia. Were the slaughtered and commodified natives the unavoidable collateral damage of providence?

And what of those today who oppose the promulgation of the gospel by a Christian state? The dominion theology of Christian Reconstructionists is clear on this point: death. As the theorist of what purports to be a kinder and gentler Christendom, Milbank is elusive on this point. He tells us that the advance of Christendom will provoke “enemies,” but he argues for downgrading their status from “terrorists” to “criminals, who still have souls worthy of saving” (BSO, 260). I feel less than reassured by this. Who are these criminalized enemies? It would appear to include those who do not participate in “the collective pursuit of innately desirable human goals.” But who will identify these goals? And what if—as I sense Milbank is really saying here—it will be Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox who determine them? Will “enemies” then include atheists? Muslims? Liberal Protestant “nihilists lite”? Mennonites, Quakers, and other pacifists who would not defend Christendom with violence? Theologians and philosophers who purvey “univocity,” the ontological position that Milbank and his cohorts consider the modern road to perdition? Surely all of them will be enemies of Christendom, for in one way or another they would deny or inhibit the purpose of the Christian imperium. Will they be jailed? Executed? Sent to camps for re-education in orthodoxy? It would seem that in practice, Christendom would have to be much less “peaceful” and “ecumenical” than Milbank claims.

All of this should end speculation about Milbank’s thinly veiled leaning toward theocracy, an inclination he has long denied but which he might as well stop repressing after this volume. In Being Reconciled (2003) he contended that “theocracy” rests on the very dualism of secular and sacred produced by modernity. “A theory which limits rule only to a sacral class,” he explained, “requires there to be a distinct secular sphere over which to exercise this authority.” On the other hand, he reasoned, “where access to the divine is mediated throughout by an elusive participation [the ‘ontology of participation’ that serves as the substratum of Milbank’s political thinking], the secular is less distinct, and theocracy finds no scope for its peculiar logic” (BR, 175; see also TST, 225, for a brief precursor to this argument). This is pure sophistry: however lissome the elision of the secular, the dualism is still abolished by absorbing the secular into the sacred—the realm where ecclesial hierophants reign.

In Beyond Secular Order, Milbank tries to continue prevaricating, but the pleasing illusion is wearing pretty thin. The slippery move that allows Milbank to avoid an open avowal of theocracy is his insistence that “secular office” must be both inside and outside the church. While “secular office” should remain outside the church in some conveniently hazy fashion, it should also, Milbank maintains, be “also partially located within the Church” (BSO, 229). It belongs inside the church because “political rule, and especially monarchic rule” (for which Milbank demonstrates an unmistakable and extravagant affinity) should “reflect the general order of the cosmos”—a cosmic order apprehended, of course, by ecclesiastical officials and their theological preceptors (BSO, 241). But political office must also sit outside the church because, as the community of divine charity, the ecclesia cannot use coercion or violence to extend its boundaries. “A certain externality of the political to the ecclesial helps to ensure that the latter will remain true to its vocation to be a society of charity without exception” (BSO, 245). Again, this is sophistry, this time a way of keeping two sets of ledgers. If the rulers of the Christian state must employ “stern necessity” to promote the church and “reflect the general order of the cosmos,” the church can claim innocence, for to the extent that “stern necessity” remains external, the ecclesia can dote on its beautiful soul, safe in the knowledge that—as with the Inquisition—no ecclesial fingerprints will be found on the implements of violence and coercion.

If the peaceful ecumenism of Milbank’s Christendom is dubious, so too is the “democracy” that he claims will come into its own in the Christian imperium. Here, the “participatory” ontology and “analogy of being” (analogia entis) that underwrite Milbank’s political imagination are crucial, and they come together in this passage (BSO, 56):

Finite being as such is hierarchical, because it “participates” in various analogical degrees (and in different spheres in different degrees) in that infinite actuality which, for Dionysius the Areopagite, was “thearchy” beyond hierarchy.

Here is Burke’s Great Chain of History (“finite being”) that partakes of a Great Chain of Being (“infinite actuality”); and since “infinite actuality” is itself hierarchical (Pseudo-Dionysius’ and Aquinas’ “celestial hierarchy” of seraphim, cherubim, etc.), then so, by analogy, is “finite being.” The political import is unmistakable: someone has to be in charge, for as Milbank contends, “while the differences of being may often be egalitarian, they can only strike us at all within certain complex hierarchical patterns of overarching and overarched, predominantly influencing and subtly inflecting” (BSO, 56). Equality must always exist within a larger framework of inequality. That’s just the way the world is.

I’m not going to even attempt to adjudicate the controversy over the analogia entis. Thomist scholars such as Ralph McInerny and Fr. Herbert McCabe have argued that analogy in Aquinas concerns the language we use to apprehend the divine, not what the visible world tells us about God. Even if we must use analogies from the world to understand God, they insist that it is dangerously misleading to rely on them too heavily. “We always do have to speak of our God in borrowed words,” McCabe once mused. “He is always dressed verbally in second-hand clothes that don’t fit him very well. We always have to be on our guard against taking these clothes as revealing who and what he is.” I’ve long found this more “apophatic” mode of theology congenial, just as I find attractive the agnosticism of Mary Jane Rubenstein about the ontological order that Milbank seems to know so well. “I do not know whether there is a great chain of being or not,” Rubenstein has written, “but I do know what happens when Christians act like there is”: slavery, genocide, and misogyny, for starters, all of which conservatives routinely slough off as the tiresome resentments of liberals.10

For Milbank, the hierarchical nature of finite being is distilled politically in the classical ideal of “mixed government,” a constitution that combines monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—the “the one, the few, and the many” in Aristotle’s formulation that Milbank appropriates. Even though he devotes quite a few pages to a paean to the monarchical principal of “the one” (lamenting the atrophy of “the old dynastic mechanisms,” he remarks that “we need either to preserve or restore them in a new way or find equivalents for them”—“in the interests of democracy,” he adds hastily), he is most concerned about the role of “the few” and what he sees as their plight in liberal democracy. Modern political theory—“which is always liberal political theory,” Milbank emphasizes (even when it’s Marxist or anarchist?)—represents “an attempt to excoriate and remove the role of the few, regarded as the seat of privilege, of non-consensual power, of debatable claims to ethical value and as a threat alike to overall unity and individual liberty” (BSO, 159). It’s the perennial mandarin (first enunciated by Plato in the Republic, and resounding from Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville to Leo Strauss, Russell Kirk and Michael Oakeshott) about the fate of the talented and virtuous in a world where democracy levels everyone to rubble. Democracy empowers the illiterate, the workaday, and the boorish, in this view, the masses too busy to enter the shrine of philosophy, the hairdresser who believes herself the equal of a professor of religion and ethics at Nottingham. The resentment is as old as Plato, who expressed his disdain for the Athenian demos in this memorable ejaculation of bile:

For as compared with other occupations, philosophy . . . enjoys a higher prestige, and attracts a multitude of stunted natures, whose souls a life of drudgery has warped and maimed no less surely than their sedentary crafts have disfigured their bodies. For all the world they are like some bald-headed little tinker, who, having come into some money, has just got out of prison, had a good wash at the baths, and dressed himself up as a bridegroom, ready to marry his master’s daughter, who has been left poor and friendless. Could the issue of such a match ever be anything but contemptible bastards? And, by the same token, what sort of ideas and opinions will be begotten of the misalliance of Philosophy with men incapable of culture? Not any true-born child of wisdom.

What was begotten, of course, was democracy, a “contemptible bastard” that landowning families (like the one that begot Plato) were always itching to drown in the Aegean.11

Milbank can protest all he wants that Christianity represents a “democratization of virtue as charity” (BSO, 10) but—as his sourpuss hero Burke demonstrates—nearly two millennia of Christendom did little to mitigate this outraged sense of entitlement, this effrontery at the idea that ordinary people are quite capable of participating in intellectual and political life—given the time and power to do so without interference from the few. Platonism is inexorably an ideology of authoritarian rule, and it’s for that reason, I suspect, that Milbank is artfully ambiguous about “the few” and their role in his renovated Christendom. The few will perform “necessary functions of guidance” and preserve “an objective sense of the human good and its promotion” (BSO, 215, 263). He is not always clear about who “the few” are, writing at one point that he means both “the expanded Christian sense of mediating free associations”—trade unions, professional organizations, hospitals, universities, etc.—and “the antique Greek and Roman sense of the guidance of the wise” (BSO, 263).

Milbank clearly favors this latter “sense,” as becomes clear when he discusses the relationship of the few to “the many” in Christendom. Eager to swipe democracy away from liberals and socialists, Milbank maintains that the hierarchy of Christian imperium, far from smothering democracy, is rather the precondition of its full development. “The viability of democracy,” he insists, “depends upon a continued constitutional commitment to ‘mixed government.’” Since, in a new Christendom, mixed government would be “transfigured” by “the Christian democratization of virtue as charity” (BSO, 10), then all levels of hierarchical human being will be harmoniously leavened by divine love. “The few or the one are ‘identical’ with the many,” he explains, “since they are all involved in a common participation—for the Middle Ages in the body of Christ under the governance of an invisible head” (BSO, 145).

This nimble ontological move enables Milbank to completely redefine democracy. Rooted in his “participatory” ontology, “true” democracy, for Milbank, is not characterized so much by popular agency as it is by popular acquiescence, more or less avid, to the wisdom and will of the few. Because the one and the few are “identical” with the many through analogical participation, they “also ‘represent’ by consent or acclamation the needs and even the will of the many” (BSO, 145, my italics). Milbank equivocates on this score so as to preserve his democratic bona fides. He remarks that direct democracy is possible within “small-scale bodies”: monasteries, workshops, streets and neighborhoods. Indeed, he writes, “at every level, people should be able to shape their own collective lives as much as possible.” So far, so democratic, even anarchist; “but,” Milbank then adds, “the question remains of what options are put to them in the first place.” Put to them, not generated by them. It is not “true to reality,” he argues, that these options should “come from the people themselves”; “it tends to be the dynamic few, from whatever social stratum, who shape and present new options” (BSO, 215–16). (That “from whatever social stratum” is a really adroit move, enlisting the spirit of egalitarianism in its own demise.)

If Milbank were trying to argue that major historical transformations have often been triggered by the thought and action of creative minorities, I would have no objection; history if full of “dynamic few” who shaped and presented “new options”—even anarchists, who possess the most extravagant faith in popular agency without elites, are in present circumstances “the few.” But he wants to say something more: that the creative dynamism of “the few” will always be the sole catalyst of political life. In his idealized Christendom, Milbank wants to institutionalize the spirit of the vanguard—a group that by definition tries to bring others with them, and aiming to no longer be a creative few—and make it an elite, a “few” in stasis. Genuinely popular politics is inconceivable to him—mainly, as he suggests himself, because despite his profession that Christianity “democratizes” virtue, he cannot conceive that virtue and truth are truly open to popular access. Even though Milbank insists at one point that “genuinely educative processes . . . must keep pace with the extension of direct democracy,” he writes later that “the ‘educative’ dimension cannot be itself democratized without an impossible infinite regression” (BSO, 216, 264). I’m at a loss as to what “infinite regression” means; but the crux of the matter appears when Milbank continues that democracy must be complemented by “a non-democratic ‘Socratic’ sense of the importance of the role of the few as pursuing truth and virtue for their own sake” (BSO, 264). The “Socratic sense,” that is, that bald-headed little tinkers are incapable of “philosophy,” that the many cannot possibly pursue truth and virtue for their own sake, mired as they are in everyday labor.

In this way Milbank is able to redefine democracy as popular consent to the wisdom of the few. The few, he assures us, will “respect democracy as the importance of free consent” and as a “majority testing” of elite proposals, but they will “resist any idea that what people want en masse defines the nature of the good itself” (BSO, 263). Milbank never explains why something desired “en masse” is ipso facto not good; like the antique triad of his political ontology, it is asserted or assumed rather than argued. Since all “participate” in the transcendent reality that exceeds their differences, their interests are by definition harmonious, if not identical; and since the one and the few are wise enough to discern the terrestrial import of this participation, they can speak and act on behalf of their many, less sagacious brethren in transcendence. Thus the role of the many in a renewed Christendom will be to accede to policies already formulated for them, not to govern themselves through popular forms of deliberation. The next Christendom will be a democracy of the few, an aristocracy of wisdom and virtue.

What will happen if the many reject or dispute the rule of the one and the few? What if the demos refuses consent, or if, after “testing,” the majority flunks rather than acclaims the proposals of the few? Milbank never really answers these questions—perhaps he will in On Divine Government—but he clearly hints that such misbehavior will be countered with some elite interdiction of popular will. “Sometimes the advice of the few or the will of the one must override the popular will in the interests of equity” (BSO, 263). Just as we never learn how domestic “enemies” of Christendom will be handled, we never learn how this annulment of democracy will be enacted—perhaps through some (educative) exercise of “stern necessity” among the populace.

This transfiguration of democracy into the rule of the few is paralleled by the metamorphosis of “socialism” into a benevolent capitalism. As in his previous work, Milbank advances “Christian socialism” as both a critique and an alternative to the secular socialism of the left. Drawing on Marxist, Romantic, and distributist writers—Marx, John Ruskin, Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Eric Gill—he rejects the view of capitalism as an arduous but necessary phase of history, chastising the modern “left” for embracing its antagonist’s mythology of “progress” and for sanctioning the industrial centralization that pulverizes skill, perverts poesis into productivity, and eviscerates political community.12 I’ve long thought that this form of anti-capitalist critique is both more historically defensible and politically fertile than Marxist “dialectical materialism.” But that’s why his account of “Christian socialism” here is such a huge disappointment, for we need a vibrant and credible alternative to revolutionary socialism and social democracy. In this volume “Christian socialism” amounts to “the extension of chivalry and noble aims to all through the formation of ‘knightly’ guilds of work and trade,” “high standards,” and “virtuous practice” (BSO, 268). All of this is unobjectionable, but it is moral exhortation, not political economy, and it is not “socialism”—unless, as Milbank puts it lamely and abstrusely, socialism means simply “the primacy of ‘the social’ as against the economic or the political” (BSO, 168). Elsewhere, he calls for “the greatest possible equal distribution of private property and a justification of larger private property always in terms of both the specific needs and capacities of different individuals . . . and the fulfillment of functions which genuinely serve the common good” (BSO, 175). Milbank leaves “private property” undefined, even though it must be distinguished from capitalist property if its existence is even to be considered, let alone accepted, as compatible with “socialism.” And there is nothing here about workers’ control of technology, or the abolition of wage labor, or the eradication of class society—all classic demands of socialists (as well as communists and anarchists).

What Milbank seems to be advocating is not socialism but rather a more localized and parochial capitalism. Although he states that “Christian socialism” represents “a ‘left’ reading of Catholic social teaching” (BSO, 268), the scare quotes around “left” are telling: they signal that his reading isn’t really left (since a repudiation of the left-right binary is part of the upshot of “Christian socialism”) but that it’s sort of left in that it contains a critique of capitalism. Yet in both papal-encyclical and lay forms, Catholic social teaching has never been fundamentally antagonistic to capitalism; it has never envisioned anything like a rearrangement of property and class relations, and its ahistorical and flexible account of “private property” has enabled it to embrace capitalist enterprise (with a number of qualifications). Emerging from a sickly Christendom confronted by a burgeoning industrial society, mass democratic politics, a powerful socialist movement, and an emancipatory cultural modernity, Catholic social teaching is best understood as an attempt to graft a medieval moral economy onto a capitalist political economy, an effort that ends either in “Christian democratic” politics (Adenauer in West Germany and De Gasperi in Italy after World War II, who advocated moderate business regulation, a modicum of welfare provision, and moral traditionalism) or in some “corporatist” brand of reaction (Austria under Dollfuss, Spain under Franco, Portugal under Salazar). Milbank’s references to guilds, chivalry, and the “common good” reflect this medievalist moral imagination, as does his ideological filiation with the “Chesterbelloc,” idealists of all things organic and patriarchal, champions of the yeoman farmer and village artisan.

But when one inspects closely the “Red Toryism” of Milbank’s former student Philip Blond—founder of the think-tank ResPublica and erstwhile guru to Prime Minister David Cameron—the medieval veneer drops to reveal a paradise of the petty bourgeoisie, an arcadia of local accumulators suffused by a magnanimous paternalism. As the political distillation of “Christian socialism,” Red Toryism attempts to separate conservative moralism from neoliberal capitalism, a bond forged in Britain under Margaret Thatcher and in the United States under Ronald Reagan. The antipathy toward corporate globalization, cosmopolitan sensibility, and moral libertarianism is palpable, but it winds up suborning a homespun capitalism, not a distributist retro-medievalism. (Unless, of course, a homespun capitalism was really what distributism was always about.) In the Red Tory republic, public policy would enable small towns and villages to predominate over metropolitan areas; markets would sell products made locally; small farmers and artisans would supplant agribusiness and mechanized production; families (with heterosexual monogamous couples at the head) and voluntary associations would both revive civic life and assume many of the duties now performed by the alienating welfare state.13

Yet although the “big society,” as Blond calls it, would reinstate a hierarchy based on virtue rather than money or technical expertise—the goal, Blond and Milbank have stated, is to “link social and economic prestige with virtue”—the “justifiable inequality” that would result would not, by definition, be onerous or oppressive. As in the larger political hierarchy of Christendom, the virtuous few of the locality—rewarded with “prestige” and superior material wealth—and the not-so-virtuous many would be united in ontological harmony, so the small-town notables (which would include, one imagines, the local clergy) would oversee the common good, mostly free of the intrusive regulations of the distant social-democratic welfare state.14

None of this has a chance of ever happening. (Blond was soon kicked to the curb once Cameron no longer found his guru useful.) Blond and Milbank seem to expect the overlords and institutions of the neoliberal political economy—ensconced in both the Conservative and Labour parties—to simply disassemble and disempower themselves. The idea that Cameron and the Conservative Party would foster or tolerate anything that contravenes the interests of their wealthy donors is preposterous, as is the idea that a “Blue” insurgency could reverse the neoliberal drift of the Labour Party. Ironically, the primary historical significance of Red Toryism will be, I suspect, to have placed an unwitting imprimatur on the advance of neoliberalism by providing a “populist” language with which British social democracy could be further undermined. Its uncritical celebration of “localism” will not in fact empower localities, or even the small-time plutocrats who would rule if they were empowered; it does undermine the state’s welfare and regulatory functions, the last bastions of defense against the neoliberal transmutation of all things and people into commodities.

The fanciful quality of both “Christendom” and “Red Toryism” stems, I think, from the vagaries of a theological intelligentsia displaced from cultural hegemony, a dispossessed clerisy still searching for some kind of relevance to a world in which theology is no longer a lingua franca of intellectual life. It emanates especially from theologians who, conditioned in the mental reflexes of “establishment,” cannot imagine a world without Christians in charge. Especially when experienced at a time when Christians as a whole are in a state of drift and confusion, this fraught sense of displacement and perplexity can lead to compensatory delusions of grandeur. In what has to be one of the most laughably self-important sentences he has ever written, Milbank himself once complained about the burden of the contemporary theologian. “Uncertain as to where today to locate true Christian practice . . . the theologian feels almost that the entire ecclesial task falls on his own head.” Uneasy lies the head that wears a church. But it voices an anxiety that Christians are incapable of bearing the ecclesial task themselves, and that a new church must somehow arise from the febrile intellect of its theologians. It’s the same charge Edmund Burke leveled at the French revolutionaries he condemned as “barbarous,” except that in this case, it’s legitimate: a cadre of intellectuals attempting to create a new order out of their own grandiose lucubrations.

The attraction of Milbank’s reverie is, of course, undeniable, especially in the face of a neoliberal ascendency that reduces everything to pecuniary values. But we should always recall that the first Christendom collapsed, not because of nominalist or univocal theologians, but because of the confusion of faith with credulity, hope with hubris, and love with compassionate domination. Milbank would have us undertake a second venture in dominion in a haze of theo-political incense, assuring us that, the second time around, we will avoid the grotesque mistakes of our forebears. We should resist the siren songs of Constantinian imperium that Milbank and his cohorts compose, and decline their invitation to a vain and self-deluding reenactment of Christian hegemony.


  1. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (New York, 1999 [1790]), 77.

  2. Ibid., 96; G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York and London, 1909), 85.

  3. Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace (London, 1893 [1795]), 97.

  4. Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (London, 1767 [1758]), 105, 108; Reflections, 77.

  5. Burke, Reflections, 79, 49; An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (London, 1791), 107. On Burke’s significance among Southern proslavery ideologues, see the concise discussion in Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South (New York, 2011), 11–14.

  6. “Christian Reconstructionism” or “dominion theology” has sparked a wave of journalistic commentary—most of it quite good, albeit tendentious—but the first scholarly treatment is Michael McVicar’s relatively dispassionate Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (Chapel Hill, 2015).

  7. John Milbank, “Liberality versus Liberalism,” in The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology (Eugene, OR, 2009), 253; “Christianity, the Enlightenment, and Islam,” ABC Religion and Ethics, August 24, 2010 (www. abc.net.au/religion/articles/2010/08/24/2991778.htm); “John Milbank and Stanley Hauerwas in Conversation,” www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxPkEgRU1BE; “The Impossibility of Gay Marriage and the Threat of Biopolitical Control,” ABC Religion and Ethics, April 23, 2013 (www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/04/23/3743531.htm).

  8. On the “Great Chain of Being,” the locus classicus is Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge, MA, 1936).

  9. Milbank, “The Power of Charity: What Has the Church to Do with the State?” ABC Religion and Ethics, May 29, 2012 (www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/05/29/3513425.htm). Although Milbank and Hauerwas are often lazily associated, some of their differences, such as this one, are in fact quite significant, as they both would readily acknowledge. As Hauerwas once pithily explained, “John wants to win; I want to endure.”

  10. Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters (London and New York, 2005 [2002]), 3; Mary Jane Rubenstein, “Onward Ridiculous Debaters,” Political Theology 10 (Winter 2009), 125.

  11. Plato, The Republic of Plato (Oxford and New York, 1941), bk. VI, 495c–96a. On Plato’s misrepresentation of Athenian democracy, and for a brilliant discussion of the issues between Sophists such as Protagoras and enemies of democracy such as Plato, see Ellen Meiksins Wood, Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages (London and New York, 2011), 55–79.

  12. For the most elegant statements of Milbank’s views, see these four essays, all from The Future of Love: “Were the Christian Socialists Socialist?”; “‘The Body by Love Possessed’: Christianity and Late Capitalism in Britain”; “On Baseless Suspicion: Christianity and the Crisis of Socialism”; and “Liberality versus Liberalism” (63–130, 242–63).

  13. Philip Blond, Red Tory: How the Left and Right Have Broken Britain, and How We Can Fix It (London, 2010).

  14. Blond and Milbank, “No Equality in Opportunity,” Guardian, January 27, 2010. At almost the same time, Adrian Pabst, another Milbank protégé, argued for the necessity of “locally driven paternalism”: “The Spectre of Power,” Telos, January 20, 2010.

  • John Milbank

    John Milbank

    Reply

    Response to Eugene McCarraher

    I come finally to the outright opposition and indeed hostility of McCarraher. A reviewer once remarked that my writings were a strange combination of forceful belligerence and subtly-argued nuance. Were they all nuance, then one might lose any sense of strong claim or shape. But McCarraher, for reasons best known to himself, wilfully elects to focus only on the belligerence (and even that very selectively). But without the nuances I do indeed sound completely fatuous and intolerable. Thus reading McCarraher’s piece I found myself largely agreeing with him: “Yes, the prematurely ageing Milbank is an intolerable twerp, lost in the bizarre twilight fantasies to be expected of one of the last representatives of a disappointed Brit mandarin class. I agree—I loathe him; he is as infuriating as he is despicable and irrelevant.” But then I had to pinch myself, remind myself of my relatively humble origins and history of tussles with an older British establishment, never mind a newer—and to check McCarraher’s references with my own statements in the text of BSO and elsewhere. There was hardly ever any alignment that I could see.

    This seems sad, because I suspect that if I met Eugene McCarraher face to face we would probably have a civilised discussion and agree about much, besides nuancing our disagreements. Exaggeration of the latter is one of the “standardising” perils (as alluded to by Stiegler) of that technology called “writing,” and is a reason why the Phaedrus’s exaltation of orality is partially right, even if not entirely, as Plato may well have known.

    But in lieu of such a perhaps more fruitful engagement, here is my rebuttal of McCarraher’s apparent points against me:

    1. The “democracy of the ages” does not reduce to a defence of the given and an assault on the present. This is primarily because we never live in the present, but always in the continuous passage from the past to the future. Thus any revolutionary claim, like that of Paine, to represent only the present, must dogmatically and undemocratically freeze an imaginary synchronisation of time. The only antidote to this would be permanent and terroristic “Maoist” revolution as every present had to overthrow the previous moment, with ever-mounting delirium and hysteria. Presentism will tend both to foreclose the future, that always emerges from continuing past tradition, and to deny the authenticity of un-voted-for traditions that persist into the present. These may both enjoy tacit, popular assent and also represent the wisdom of cumulated experience, which may not be fully conveyable by abstract formulation. To denounce all that as obvious obfuscation is crudely to side with rationalism against the most deeply valid aspect of an empirical and positive attitude. And the enemies of past legacies are always as much the destroyers of folk habits and the loves of the people as they are (sometimes rightly) of entrenched privilege.
    2. Burke, as any Burke scholar will tell you, remained an enemy of every ancien regime. His thoroughly unexpected assault on the French revolution rather entailed a belated grasp of how currents in that progressive whiggery which he had hitherto espoused could themselves engender a novel kind of oppression: manipulation of the national debt, the primacy of commerce before cultural mores, the cult of individual right.
    3. One cannot just ride roughshod over the sheer complexity of the relationship between Burke’s aesthetic and political stances. There is, for one thing, no simple correlation to be made between Burke’s earlier sublime and his later defence in the Reflections of “pleasing illusion.” Indeed, Mary Wollstonecraft complained that he had abandoned the aesthetic sublime which he might (and as McCarraher indicates, fleetingly does) have recognised in the Jacobins. This interestingly aligns Wollstonecraft’s feminism with what, in The Sublime and Beautiful, is clearly a male gendered category. And Wollstonecraft is here perceptive: there is a notable aesthetic shift in the more Romantic Reflections towards the primacy of beauty and of “grace” as a kind of “picturesque” mediation of the beautiful with the sublime (this being the technical meaning of “picturesque” at this period). Thus Burke’s thoroughly picturesque account of Marie Antoinette, etc., with which he illustrates the need for cultural fictions is gender-coded “female.” It is not complete nonsense to suggest here that it is then by no means clear who is the feminist, Wollstonecraft or Burke? The issue is problematic and difficult—something evidently not much to McCarraher’s taste. For by both authors the sublime is regarded as the natural, the raw and the unencumbered. The later Burke’s point is that this will likely mean the rule of violence and of mainly male violence—a sheer imposition of bodily force and mental will. And his point has a correlate in what we know of the history of this period. The revolution saw a notable decline in the influence of women (as still explicitly celebrated by a current French conservative defender of the revolutionary legacy, Eric Zemmour!) especially in the aristocratically sponsored salons. Conversely, the counter-revolution in the Vendée and Britanny was sometimes led by women, including fighting women, modern Joans of Arc—as some feminists in France are now studying. It was also women who were newly to the fore in the sustaining of Catholicism though a time of persecution. One can reflect here that traditional female power is often linked to family, kinship, economic productivity and the sacrality of domestic and peaceful norms rather than to the public, male sphere of market exchange and political legality. When these are challenged in the supposedly “progressive” name of citizenship removed from family, religion and locality, then it is inevitably male power and freedom that are celebrated. If, nevertheless, women are subsequently and gradually “emancipated” (and the revolution quite soon generated its own liberal feminism in France) this necessarily requires that they adopt male, “sublime” roles, albeit often in a conveniently (for men) more amenable, docile and disciplined form. The alternative, non-liberal feminist course would be to exalt the public and political impact of the more traditional female functions and attitudes through a further merging of polis with oikos that Christianity has always implied and has partially achieved. The visionary here is Ivan Illich, in his great work Gender—surely the most cogent and apposite ever written on the subject. Equivalently, for Burke, women are associated with the “birthing” of culture, rather than with brute, natural force. Hence his linking of “femaleness” to all artifice and charm, and all “superadded ideas.” For McCarraher to protest here that Burke is simply defending the empty shams of ritual, fashion and parade that occlude unjust power is almost laughably simplistic: because clearly Burke is rather saying (in a somewhat proto-anthropological and postmodern way) that if one laughs too quickly at things like monarchs, court rituals, religious ceremonies, etc., then one may be failing to see that “decent drapery” is the whole of human existence, the symbolic technology peculiar to the human animal as such. Of course McCarraher can then validly point out that Burke is also being more specific than this—indeed offering a defence of monarchy and ritual hierarchy. But even this specific defence is not so easily dismissed: Burke is suggesting that, of course all human rule over other humans tends to the “sublimely” rude and violent. But the mere “tempering” of such power, even by somewhat dubious claims to legitimacy, style and social beauty may, therefore, be something not to be too readily derided. Above all, the channeling of male energy through something like “chivalry,” through a feminine coding of what is to be sacrificially defended, including women themselves, may be all that can ever possibly stand between women and male sexual violence in every sense. Would an honest reflection on our contemporary predicaments suggest that Burke is manifestly wrong here?
    4. As to that “vague” aspect of the picturesque which is the relatively sublime, this is nothing to do with blind and ignorant obedience to laws. It is rather, as in Coleridge’s Burkean stress on the importance of the “tacit,” a defence of all those traditional forces, more often than not popular, which are not able completely and fully to articulate their character, for all their undeniable reality. It is a plea that substantial personal bonds and local attachments, that cannot be put into words, not be overridden by the instrumental and conveniently classifying instincts of the metropolis. It is also a plea that we not wilfully destroy some inherited cultural inherited features whose true potential and virtue may not have, as yet, fully emerged. This thematic relates closely both to the “democracy of the ages” and to the non-alienation of obscure, not fully expressed will by representing powers which try to make things more explicit. (See further, point 10 below.)
    5. As we have already seen, Burke is wary of “the naked truth” about people, in a way that McCarraher is not. He fears that this would be first a purely animal nakedness and second that it might not after all be the truth, the specifically human truth. There are two points to be made here: first, that for all his understanding of culture as fiction, Burke still thinks that fiction and even fiction exclusively may mediate transcendent truth. One could even say that for him religion makes the necessary difference between culture as purely arbitrary and culture as somehow also “trans-organically” natural. Second, that Burke is not necessarily oblivious to something like “ideology critique” in Marx and Marxism. Instead, he points to a critical dimension that Marx fails ever to reach, even if Burke (very limited and blinkered in some ways indeed—as with his entirely condemnable failure to allow that there can be “working poverty”) by no means sees its full implication. Marx quite rightly sees capitalism as still a kind of religion—a religion of fetishes. But this gives rise to the pervasive notion that, in order to criticise capitalism, one must complete the critique of religion—one must strip away its more subtle idols, ruses and symbolic subterfuges. But just for this reason the usual secular left possesses no really adequate account of capitalism and this is surely one major reason why the left is declining and perhaps vanishing in our own time. For even though capitalism is itself a kind of anti-religious religion, it is more fundamentally a denial of any symbolic sacrality whatsoever—this is the precondition for it being able to melt all that is solid into the abstract air of finance or equally to conglomerate and enclose all solid particulars into one compoundable and redivisible mass. Of course there can then be a vestigial cult of the abstract and a vestigial cult of sheer extension and these cults are just as arbitrary or else more so than any other. Marx is not wrong. But to go along with his inadequate project of first dismantling every pre-capitalist sacrality is inevitably to side with the drift of capitalism itself. Just for this reason, all radical “critique” and especially the “hermeneutics of suspicion”—of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche—has always ultimately proved to be the advance-guard of liberal capitalism, just as ’60s new leftism so carefully, if inadvertently, prepared the ground for the rise of ’80s neoliberalism on the so-called “political right” of today. Beyond Marx, the later Burke saw more clearly that what “capitalism” does is convert the sacred—in the French case the ecclesiastical patrimony—into abstract speculation—in the French case the paper assignats securitised on seized monastic domains. Burke notes that the revolution abolished everything bequeathed by the ancien regime save the national debt, which it greatly exacerbated. And as J. G. A. Pocock suggests (roughly): if Marx had been able to say to Burke “but you have ignored the fact that the French revolution is the political eruption of the capitalist system of production,” Burke might well have replied, “No, it is you who have ignored the fact that capitalism is a system of financial speculation before it is a system of manufacture—and so a system of destruction before it is a system of production, which the revolution much extended.” It is a thesis that we might well ponder today—did Marx regard capitalism as a more rational project than it really is? But Burke in effect did not. For him, rather, the purely rational never gets a look-in because the human-constituting fictional “addition” is always in excess of reason. So the choice is between “conservation” on the one hand and an iconoclastic nihilism on the other. McCarraher ignores the sheer weight of evidence that those ready to overthrow idols—from the Puritans, through the Jacobins, to the Bolsheviks to ISIL—are often happy to deface many human faces and to topple many human bodies also.
    6. I am happy to admit that Burke failed, unlike Ruskin later, to see the virtue and preparation for citizenship inherent in every human occupation. But William Cobbett already started to democratise and radicalise Burke’s positions. Where Burke rightly argued that political power and franchise exercised without responsible and propertied influence was dangerous and therefore desired to restrict the qualification to vote, Cobbett instead—in anticipation of distributism—argued for the extension of property and so of responsibility in every sense as naturally going along with an extended franchise. The later “chartists” thought something similar, and in lieu of available rural property in Britain often emigrated to North America and Australasia in order to find it.
    7. Burke’s relation to the abolition of slavery is complex and disputed, but it would seem that, in the end, he was one of the first people to propose a partial scheme to realise it. One can also note here his notable protests against British economic and political exploitation of India and failure to respect India’s cultural and legal norms. He is not answerable for the Confederacy.
    8. Hobbits of the Shire will note that McCarrer has little sense of fun, allusion, play or paradox. He might at least respect their anarchic dimension, according to his own lights. I know this being one myself and certainly no Gandalf—whom perhaps the West awaits.
    9. Apart from opposition to the redefining of marriage (shared by many gay people, even now) which is partially based on a respect for homosexual difference, my positions on homosexuality are wildly liberal and accommodating by any historical or past ecclesial standards. As to my fears of a total separation of sex from procreativity and its consequences, that is exactly the main topic of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a book not usually regarded as obviously wild or contemptible.
    10. As to the role of the few I am not an advocate of aristocratic domination. Rather, like many other political theorists at present, I am suggesting that the phrase “representative democracy” is a misnomer, and that advocates of “representative government” from the eighteenth century onwards rather, and logically, understood it as a mode of “mixed government.” Democracy means mainly direct, participatory democracy, and I am so far from being haughtily opposed to it that I even regard it as paradigmatic and wish to extend it as far as possible. But in any reasonably extended and complex polity, the interplay of the one, the few and the many is less a Classical recommendation than always a description of actual reality. In some sense, there must be the consent (voluntary or forced) of the many for the working of a viable polity. In addition there will be the role of (an often highly fluid and recomposable) few, whether as prior “proposers” or as subsequent “representatives.” Then there will be the executive One (monarch, president, first minister, symbolic ultimate power, etc.) where the buck always stops and without which there does not seem to be, so far, any possibility of drawing a political circumference. McCarraher says why cannot proposals just emerge spontaneously from the people themselves en masse? Fine and wonderful if they do, but this is rare, while the notion that it should be normative is first a fantasy and second not always desirable. We need the influence of the more inspired, creative, gifted, generous, detached and virtuous wherever they are found throughout society. But the few should not, for me, in any straightforward way constitute a circumscribed political class. Rather the point is that some such class, however arranged is always constituted (the United States, Cuba, France, Venezuela, etc.) and always plays its part. But for me, as already indicated, the crucial paradox is that, where such a variegated class is seen as entirely subordinate to democratic opinion, whatever it may be, or as “representative” is regarded as being in some way mandated, then first one gets the substitution of monetary influence, bad corporatist lobbying, spin, second-guessing populism and manipulation of opinion for wise guidance, and second one gets the substitution of the representing class for the supposedly exhaustively and adequately represented. Thus in either case less democracy and above all less latitude for regions of informal, spontaneous and participatory democracy. Inversely, where the “aristocratic” function is directly acknowledged as irreducible, and no spurious claims to pure democracy or even the ultimacy of democracy as a value (this must always tend to the licencing of sophistry and the downgrading of objective truth, justice and beauty as the only final legitimate standard) are made, then in reality more democracy will be exercised. For one thing, more space will be left to informal self-management and to “latent” forces and potentials. For a second, people will be offered more educated, nuanced and responsible options. For a third, representatives reflecting and acting according to their own views will be all the more also inclined to consider and not take for granted the symbolic resonance of their own positions with those of the many whom they represent and will tend to search for substantive horizons of agreement as to the nature of true human flourishing. So in absolutely no sense whatsoever am I advocating a supreme role for the few or the triumph of their perspective, much less their material interests. If I stress their role it is because liberalism tends definitionally to remove its operation between that of the one and the many, as paradigmatically instanced by Hobbes, the most crucial liberal theorist, as Leo Strauss rightly asserted. But this role is a mediating and therefore in a sense a modest one—sometimes to be trumped by personal executive decision from above and always to be tested by the many whose acceptance should finally prevail and must of actual necessity do so. Nor do my interlocutors seem to grasp the way I link the hierarchical role of the few to education as a temporal process which means a ceaseless—and temporally democratic—process of initiation, induction, education and eventual reversal. Finally, my linkage of the few as an “aristocracy” or “clerisy” to “the few” in the sense of intermediary associations was by no means arbitrary, as I should have made clearer. For, as Burke for one stresses, the traditional role of the aristocratic few is inherently linked to their representation of specific localities and corporate bodies, rather than to an aggregated franchise of individuals taken one by one. Today we need to rethink and reconstitute “aristocracy”—for example by reconstituting second ruling chambers as chambers representing various vocational groups, trades, religions and regions. Otherwise one is left with the ever-extending grip of spectacle, funded propaganda, faction and secretive cabal—which is most assuredly not democracy at all.
    11. As to the usual and unreflectively naïve crochet about “who decides” as to the nature of the good and just, etc., the first answer is of course, no one, else these values would not be such. The second is that naturally only good people can recognise the good, as Aristotle taught—whereas if it is rather a matter of majority acclaim, then we are denying the goodness of the first lone protestors against slavery, etc. Should they have attended to the mass opinion of the non-enslaved, rather than to their own novel reconsideration of the deep implications of the gospel? If one finds this circularity frightening and precarious then it is—but this is one aspect of the terror of our existential condition. Worse horror can only follow from the suppression of its terms. This is not to say that we do not need democratic checks on rulers and calls to public accountability. But if it would be naïve to deny this need—which amounts to a balancing of the desired and required more intense virtue of the few by the more dispersed but sometimes securer virtue of the many—then it is more subtly and yet more profoundly naïve to fail to see the inevitable limits of checks and accounts. Without the inner check of conscience and its cultivation they will always be evaded. We need therefore both to be always suspicious of our governors, and yet somewhat to trust the process of their education into trustworthiness—a process which is today considerably lacking.
    12. As a “postliberal” I advocate a politics concerned with the production of human flourishing (as opposed to the mere promotion of negative liberty or utilitarian comfort) which I see as entailing a civil economy (as articulated in outline, after the Italian economists Bruni and Zamagni, in Pope Benedict’s great and yet far-too-ignored social encyclical Caritas in Veritate), a mixed constitution, an aesthetically educative culture and a culturally-based foreign policy, again after Edmund Burke and later “the English School” (which included the theologian Donald Mackinnon) not bound to the ultimacy of the nation state, nor driven by either Niebuhrian “realism” nor Kantian “IR utopianism.” These positions have roughly in the UK come to define “postliberalism” as represented both by “Red Toryism” and by “Blue Labourism.” I have always stood in the latter camp, not the former, and well before the arrival of Blue Labour had already spoken of a “blue socialism.” There is, of course, as the teasingly swapped colours indicate (it is of course doubly confusing that in the US the right is normally red and the left blue!), much shared ground, but I am considerably more anti-capitalist, pro-egalitarian and ecologically romantic than is Phillip Blond. Just as crucially it would be a total mistake (and an altogether false boast) to imagine that postliberalism is the eccentric, maverick child of RO. To the contrary, many other forces have been pressing in this direction, in the UK and elsewhere. A certain shared “communitarian” or perhaps better “associationist” front has appeared between a Labour MP like Jon Cruddas and a Tory one like Jesse Norman. And although “the big society” has supposedly now taken a back seat, the new Tory government (arguably more left wing without the Liberal Democrats . . .) has taken over (albeit in diluted form) several “Blue Labourish” Labour policies that Ed Miliband foolishly and bizarrely kept hidden during his disastrously vacuous general election campaign: the living wage (greeted with horror by some pure Thatcherites), vocational training, machinery for national infrastructural development, some new tax restrictions on banks, humanitarian prison reform (to which even US Republicans are now starting to convert) regionalisation of government and the economy. Meanwhile, to everyone’s surprise as much, no doubt, to that of McCarraher, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has gone in a “Syriza/Polemos/Bernie Saunders anti-austerity direction. But so far, in each of these cases, this just looks like a more dogmatic mode of social democracy and Keynesianism, somewhat mired in statist nostalgia and only acquiring a big popular following in countries who remember fascism too well to be tempted by a rightwing populism that prevails elsewhere. Any examination of, say, Cruddas’s proposals would suggest that he wishes truly to encourage just economic structures, rather than merely and forlornly to “corret” market excesses, which remains Corbyn’s horizon. To my mind Cruddas, a Catholic, is the real socialist and the real radical.
    13. In this respect I do not advocate a merely reformed capitalism—even if my socialism is not fully laid out in BSO. Capitalism is hard to define but I prefer to think of it simply as a distorted market economy where the interests of capital, of shareholders and profit are always paramount and the welfare of workers, the needs of consumers and the excellence of products are only ever of incidental and indirect concern. This definition makes it apparent that there are degrees of capitalism and that today it gets ever perversely “purer.” I want instead a truly fair market, a genuine “social market,” which means that I reject the extraction of surplus labour (with Marx) and of surplus desire for profit; that I believe that it is possible for social justice to enter into contract (with the civil economists of Italy from Genovesi in the eighteenth century to Bruni and Zamagni today) and for social purpose to be demanded as a precondition of the establishment of a business corporation (with Will Hutton); that there can be a just distribution of profits amongst workers, managers, shareholders and consumers; that there be “just pricing” after Aristotle and Aquinas; that extraction of profit from monetary loans is in general wrong and usurious. Many socialists have ruled out also share ownership; but Aquinas did not do so and yet he can scarcely to be considered, with anachronism, as an advocate of capitalism. I would follow Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox social teaching at this point—but where, anywhere, are the socialists today realistically pointing in any other direction? I believe in cooperative ownership wherever possible and sensible—otherwise in worker stakeholding, workers on management boards, etc. It all sounds socialist enough to me . . . As to “class,” if that follows from unjust economic extraction then it is wrong; if from a sense of vocational and cultural solidarity and organic belonging then not necessarily so. It may be either harmless or positively useful. Today’s increasing encouragement of the declassé and the non-deferential (towards the plumber, as much as towards the doctor) is manifestly but another ruse of capitalism, and goes along with the ever greater extension of economic equality. To imagine that it is in apposition to it—as if a cultural gain, as with some illusory “advances” of women, were balancing out economic regression—is not to have begun to think seriously at all about our contemporary predicament.
    14. To think of my return to the thematic of a “new Christendom” as hopelessly out of touch is itself to be stuck in the past—namely the second half of the twentieth century. For today Europe languishes with a low birthrate, an inadequate army, and a shared commitment only to inegalitarian wealth that is perhaps becoming still worse than in the United States. Having forgotten what it is—the outcome of Athens, Jerusalem and Rome—it is a double prey to both nihilism and to a politicised and debased mode of Sunni Islam that offers (as Michel Houillebecq so well delineates in his novel Submission) a much more simplistic, intolerant, misogynistic and totalitarian version of the combination of economic equity, social traditionalism and gender-reciprocity which neoliberalism and a renewed Christendom would seek to promote. Unless Europe is able to repeat its authentic past differently into the future, it could conceivably crumble.
    15. Ah Bisto! Ah empire! There is too much that could be said here. The nation state is not more innocent than empire—just as much based on founding coercion and often more prone both to racism and to cultural intolerance. My statement somewhere about the regrettably premature collapse of modern empire has to be balanced by my citation of Lionel Curtis in BSO and his pre-war desire that the British empire mutate into a real collaborative and shared “commonwealth.” What I am talking about is the failure—both racist and admittedly to a degree culturally realist—of the British (despite considerable advocacy of this by some within the UK) much earlier to inaugurate the development of the “non-white” colonies towards the independent dominion status of the “white” nations (all eventually and manifestly much more successful democracies than the US, though equally or more multiracial and multicultural—as Obama comes ever closer to pointing out.) That would have involved cultivating the habit of representative government, as desired by the Indian National Congress itself from the late nineteenth century onwards and by other indigenous groups elsewhere. Failure to do this proved to mean the forced handing over, by war-exhausted powers of colonies based to a large degree on economic extraction and exploitation to new, indigenous rulers who could then prove still more tyrannous and capitalistic than the colonial powers they replaced—in part because the restraining hand of London or Paris, etc., in defence of beleaguered minorities was now absent and London’s equal need sometimes to qualify purely capitalist considerations with political ones and so to somewhat rein back (for all the more fundamental and undeniable fact of British, etc., encouragement, promotion and collusion) the most naked economic predation. Unlike many post-colonialist accounts I reject the reading of the two world wars as the desperate last act of already threatened European colonial powers and rather consider that the huge losses entailed in global mass warfare scuppered any chances for an evolution of European empires into substantive collaborative maritime commonwealths—even though this dream must still today haunt us and may have, of necessity to be returned to. Europe (and America) may eventually, in the face of ever-increasing mass migration have to ensure, through their assistance in the setting up of new trans-border frameworks of political and economic regulation and guarantee, that Africa, the Near East and parts of Asia—threatened by political corruption, capitalist exploitation, ecological degradation, climate change and religious extremism—become once again habitable.
    16. Everything positive that has ever happened, in any degree, and every redeemed thing is an act of divine providence, within the operation of divine government. Everything else that has occurred is a degree of privation of this—a lack of providential rule. This consideration has to govern our assessment of empire, ancient and modern, as of everything else within history.
    17. Missionaries were often opponents of military, economic and settler empire as has now been abundantly shown by historians. In a parallel fashion, traders (like the British East India Company) were often annoyed by attempts at religious conversion; free-traders were often opposed to political and settler empire, while wanting a more effective economic one; and frequently the (initially at least) usually reluctant makers of political empire were anxious to protect native populations against settler predation—partly in the interests of trade, but also in response to public humanitarian cries of outrage which date right back to the 1830s—for example in Britain concerning the fate of the Australian aborigines, as woefully and disastrously impotent as this was later to prove. There was no single “white, Christian, racist, capitalist” imperial project in the way often spoken of within religious studies departments, with insufficient attention to the work of real historians. Instead, there were often entirely contradictory aims and sometimes clashing exigencies—that could not have been avoided unless one fantastically imagines that all “encounter” between Europeans and other peoples should have been avoided. In what ensued there was much wickedness and more collectively culpable blindness, but also perhaps just as much sheer tragedy. I recommend the remarkable balance of John Darwin’s book Unfinished Empire—which scarcely skimps on the iniquities of Albion abroad and their possibly worst instance in the final endgame of the 1950s.
    18. I am not technically a theocrat because, to repeat, I do not believe in political rule by a sacerdotal class, or directly on the basis of revelation. But on McCarraher’s apparent definition of theocracy, all mainline Christian thought has always been so tainted. But this charge is surely inaccurate and obscures the importance of the Christian desacralisation of political rule. That this was but partial was nonetheless good—for otherwise politics would have been rent away from all ethical considerations of the good life and of our final transcendent end. Boundaries are here blurry—but that is good and both ethical and realistic, not something to be triumphantly pounced upon, as though the very dangerous, middle-brow and deliberately anti-Catholic crudities of the divisions imposed by the American founding fathers could be passed off as evident revelatory truths. But this is rather the wrong kind of boldness—overriding that subtlety that is benign league with the determining beyond.
    19. No one seriously now supposes that Aquinas’s account of analogy is “only semantic.” As scholars like Alain de Libera have shown, it is at once semantic, logical and ontological. Thomas directly speaks of univocal, equivocal and analogical modes of being and reality.
    20. There can be few better examples of utterly ridiculous prim academic smugness than the claim “not to know” whether there is a chain of being—not to know, then, the manifest difference and yet link between dust, grass, alder, squirrel, dove, ape and human—but to know for certain that belief in the great chain of being brought about slavery, genocide and misogyny. It almost certainly didn’t, whereas for absolute exegetical certainty it did help to generate, for example, John Locke’s doctrine of human equality: we are, for him, all on the same level in the ontological hierarchy and so therefore . . . Mary-Jane Rubenstein has usually done a great deal better than this, but the pressures of the American (and increasingly the British) liberal academy to conform are terrible.
    21. Ellen Meiksins Wood, a highly sophisticated Marxist writer whom I much admire, even where I dissent, does not treat Plato with the disdain that McCarraher claims. The demand that politicians come from occupations accustomed to taking a broad synthesising and achitectonic view is not obviously reprehensible and in Plato it is in any case balanced by an acknowledgement that artisans also consult the Forms and in The Laws by a mode of ritual and oral government that is in one respect suffused throughout the populace.
    22. Catholic social teaching has mainly been explicitly anti-capitalist (and it is politically important not reversely to confirm the wildly incorrect readings of American Catholic neoliberals here)—recently not quite with John Paul II, but certainly with popes Benedict and Francis—between whom there is far greater continuity than the press allows. Neither the abolition of property nor of class in every sense is requisite for anti-capitalism, but most certainly ST has regularly condemned that exploitation of labour which is partially constitutive of capitalism as such. On McCarraher’s account of CTS as a disingenuous moral and organic overlay upon essentially capitalist relations, what it really advocates would be fascism. Yet just this hatefully kitsch characteristic of fascism was condemned by Jaques Maritain and others. Corporatism, on the other hand, is certainly implied (and still implied, if one reads carefully) by CTS and is the radical doctrine, also shared by the early British Labour Party, that economic groupings should enjoy a degree of political power in exchange for the exercise of economic justice responsibility. Any serious critique of capitalism should embrace corporatism (as opposed to the Marxist fantasy of the withering away of the political) because it opposes that artificial separation of an economic from a political class and so of professional businessmen from professional politicians which was the precondition for the emergence of an anti-republican (in the technical sense of the participation in government of significant economic actors) and capitalist mode of political economy in the British eighteenth century—as continuously critiqued by the “country party” and belatedly by Burke. Corporatism of a less distorted kind than with the Nazis played a considerable role in German and Austrian recovery after WW II alongside some survival of guild regulation. These things are then just as much medieval fantasies as the fine engineering of a BMW automobile . . . One can effect to scorn relatively small differences of justice with respect to a utopian ideal, but the fact remains that German worker participation and stakeholding has helped to engender a relatively more just and economically stable manufacturing base than with the UK, for example. (In fact even the United States is more benignly and rightly corporatist—and so more “medieval” and “feudal”—in a positive sense of the term than is the UK!) If it is now eroding then this is the result of a neoliberal drift becoming considerably more severe in Europe than in the United States under the somewhat Keynesian Barrack Obama. The main point here is that features of a “medieval moral economy” have only continued to make some impact on the European continent (also in Italy) just because they have truly modified a capitalist economy. A little may not be enough, but anything that makes a crucial difference to many peoples’ lives is not to be despised, especially by secure academics. A political left hopelessly on the economic retreat for some time (and so confined to a cultural liberalism that covertly advances economic liberalism also) cannot afford to ignore these slightly alternative evidences —that encourage us to rethink, without compromise, just what “socialism” is and whether any real anti-capitalism has to recover a more conservative dimension that would be truer to the character of pre-1900 socialism, prior to its blending with the revolutionary and Jacobin tradition which only commenced in France in the twentieth century, as Michéa has now shown. I submit that I am a far less complacent radical than McCarraher, taking seriously the secular collapse of “the left” as defined in the previous century. And far more interested in real possibilities and making a real difference. The relatively more successful left in Latin America may well be just in a time warp, while newly modish anarchism remains but half the truth, if an important half—the half that rightly values spontaneous participation, which the internet can encourage, even if its more usual effect is disguisedly to suppress it. The half it ignores is that, today, the main problem is not law as such, but the displacement of law by contract and criminal coercion. Here again, a general, undifferentiated attack upon law is likely to work in capitalism’s favour, as the British Hegelian Gillian Rose rightly discerned, from the 1970s onwards. It will always prove more effectively anarchic than any left anarchist can imagine in her wildest dreams turned nightmares . . .
    23. It would be news to the Liverpudlian Phillip Blond that he is a ruralist . . . More true of me, I admit, but then the Catholic teaching of the primacy of the countryside over the city now looks like sound ecology. It needs rethinking for our time.
    24. Constantinianism was likely in continuity with Christian aspirations from the outset (see St. Paul) and the church seems to have contained wealthy and influential members from this outset also. The idea that Christendom collapsed because of credulity, hubris and domination is moralistic tosh, lacking a shred of evidence; but my view that it collapsed because of a loss of symbolic enchantment, of synthesis with certain pagan elements both in practice and in theory, combined with an anti-festive and excessive focus on ethical discipline is not implausible—since thereby it started to engender and construct an autonomous, secular space, often in the name of piety itself.
    25. My view remains that none of this was ever inevitable but was contingently occasioned. Therefore all remains possible in the future—even a new and extremely different repetition of Christendom. If we believe that the incarnation was the final revelation, what other recourse in the face of nihilism, other religions and other civilisations, would we imagine that there could be? I am only asking that we return to being serious before it is too late within foreseeable time.

    But many thanks, once again, to all five contributors for taking the time to ponder my case.

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