John Milbank has published an article claiming Christian paternity for the Enlightenment and more or less chiming in in agreement with parts of Pope Benedict's line-in-the-sand between Christian and Muslim presuppositions. This has made a lot of folks indignant, mainly due to (parts of) two little sentences:
Muslims....need to find their own Islamic path to Christ.and
why [has] Islam has largely taken such a dangerous, non-mystical and often political direction in recent times[?] This surely has to do with the lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires.I commend the entire article for some useful context which does somewhat leave these sound-bites more sound than bite. Warning, though: after the expected opprobrium at An und für Sich and Inhabitatio Dei, the article itself was kind of a let-down. These are blogs I read regularly to my edification, so I expected something more, I don't know, shameless. When Milbank says Moslems "need to find their own Islamic path to Christ," he says it as a qualifier:
[Ayaan Hirsi Ali] appears to think that it would be better if Muslims all converted to Christianity. And yet, as a Christian theologian, I would say that, even where they do convert, they need to find their own Islamic path to Christ. (My emphasis)."Even where they convert" implies, "and they may not," even admits "need not." This rather belies the way this is being read as just more evangelical colonialism with a condescending pat on the head thrown in. It is clear that Milbank believes there are substantive differences between Islam and Christianity, that these differences have to do with truth, and presumably, "as a Christian theologian," Milbank believes truth to be on his side. But at least from these sentences, it is not clear that he believes Muslims need to convert to Christianity, and certainly not, as Tim McGee (another blogger with whom I often agree) accused, under the auspices of "Euro-Catholicism," whatever that is.
Even the already mildly infamous "lamentably premature collapse of Western colonial[ism]," seems to me to admit a more charitable reading than the one that it has received, which is more or less treating it as if Milbank had said, "the lamentable collapse." Now one must admit the reaction is hardly surprising; Milbank should know better, unless he was intentionally baiting his opponents, and if so, well, he should still know better. At AUFS, Adam Kotsko said that
The problem with decolonization was ...that the only state structures that had been put in place in most colonies ...were geared solely toward population control and the extraction of natural resources,and thus these were all that could be "turned over to the natives." But I would like to suppose that one of the things Milbank means by "premature" is "before it could happen responsibly," "responsibly" entailing, in such a context, "after colonialism itself had become responsible." Obviously even to talk this way is to court accusations of pining for ye good olde days when Her Majesty's Empire never saw the sun set. But of the many connotations of "premature," one of them is not "should never have happened, alack the day." It means it should have happened, should have happened better (yes, later, but better) and was botched. I humbly submit that Milbank means, or may charitably and plausibly be taken to mean: Given that there was all this balderdash about White Man's Burden, it is lamentable that so few white men really lived up to their own cant. Moreover, the fact that he's being read meaning something else, something more...sinister... is only partly attributable to his (willfully?) provocative phrase.
What Milbank rightly does is decline to subsume Muslim-Christian encounter under the liberal rubric of "religious studies," in which the tacit premise is that we are all talking about the same thing. He does not share the assumption that Islam and Christianity must not have real and substantive differences, or that all of these differences must be resolvable in the lecture-hall; but he does make a distinction between Islam and what we may call radical "Islamism," a distinction I can only call realistic. Now, one man's realism is another man's alarmism; and for every snide mockery of liberals playing ostrich one can find urbane and reasonable assurances that the radical Islamism remains a minority position despite its headline-grabbing. I am a non-expert, dismayed by instances of Islamism that I encounter out of context (and resolutely suspicious of claims that context could ever correct for some of it), but I feel sure that the truth lies between the urge to circle wagons and the readiness to present the keys to the city. What Milbank thinks should be done, is still not evident from his article. He seems to imagine that "we" can hope to "encourage" the development of certain strains of Islam ("mystical" strains, he calls them); I would like to know just what he means by this. But even in this dubious prospect, it must be admitted, he does not (here) call for such "mystical" aspects to be seen as a praeparatio evengelica.
Well, Milbank isn't needing my defense or my advice. But what's really striking is that, at least in the blogosphere, so many commenters are shaking their heads and wondering where it all went wrong; or even whether it was not wrong from the start. When I read folks now wanting to make amends for having "drunk the R[adical] O[rthodoxy] kool-aid"... I just have to sigh. Certainly, Milbank gets a great deal wrong. He is too quick to condemn Tariq Ramadan. He is making some moves and political alliances (with David Cameron) about which I am not sanguine. It is always, always dangerous for the church to cozy up to Caesar. Dangerous, but not a priori damnable. Does this really throw into disarray the entire Radical Orthodoxy project? Does it now stand exposed as just Christian imperialism all over again? What RO meant, fundamentally, (I thought) was a refusal to present or think theology in other terms than its own. This was and remains, just to remind everyone, an utterly audacious stance-- dangerously so, like religion itself. It declines to let sociology, anthropology, psychology or, yes, politics left right or center, tell us what good theology (or indeed any theology) is or should be about; and in asserting that theology is irreducible to these, it also claims that these are not the final word about humankind or the world. So if now Milbank is declining to think in the obligatory terms of "colonialism=BAD", are critics really entitled to their dismay? (Kotsko, of course, is just telling us we should have seen it coming.)
Milbank's, ahem, lamentable choice of words aside, I find it perplexing that this article seems to be the one that is making everyone consider jumping ship. I grant you that Milbank is not quite Heidegger, but if we weren't prepared to dismiss him, or Schmitt, or etc etc, for their dalliances (and much worse) with the Nazis, why should this article of Milbank's be so decisive? I'm also amused that a great deal of anti-RO animus seems (at least at AUFS) to be generated in part by the enthusiasm for Zizek, who has five times the bluster of Milbank and is at least twice as willfully provocative (Stalin, anyone?). I guess we just choose our favorite blusterers. I like 'em both, JM and SZ, and I think they both go "too far;" but from a Christian standpoint Milbank is (and I know I am oversimplifying here) wrong for the right reasons, and Zizek (on Christianity anyway) is right for the wrong ones. (This may, of course, only aggravate Milbank's offense, but it doesn't make him the fallen (or false) prophet some are casting him as).