Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Defending John Milbank, sort of.

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.
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).


  1. Thanks for this post. I had started to write something similar but decided against finishing. I think that his comments about colonialism probably were asking for the swift response of these bloggers, but in the same breath he spoke against the neo-colonial result... it seemed pretty obvious to me that he wasn't advocating a colonial situation of any sort. While I agree with some of the critiques about his notion of "political Islam", I think people have underestimated the extent to which good constructive work can be done between the traditions and by working with categories of religious practice and thought (I did something like this myself a little while ago in speaking of "exegetical" v. "speculative" theological work in Islam and Christianity, and how either interacted with various secularisms), and at least Milbank has taken a stab at it.

  2. I'm confused by the "sort of" in the post title.

  3. Also, it's amazingly naive to say, "People can respect Schmitt and Heidegger even though they were Nazis," implying that colonialism is more forgivable (especially since Milbank has presumably come up with some fantasy version that would've been beneficial to the colonized) -- in the Third World, colonialism is considered to be equal on the "evil scale" to fascism and communism, and I'm going to take their word for it.

  4. Finally, your last paragraph is way out of line. I'm disagreeing with Milbank's actual statements, not with his bluster -- how is Zizek's rhetorical style relevant here? And what is your evidence for the notion that I disagree with Milbank because I'm favorable toward Zizek? I disagree with Milbank because I've considered his position and found it to be wanting; I continue to disagree with him not because I've joined some kind of "knee-jerk anti-Milbank party," but because he continues to advocate the same positions that I've come to disagree with. It's insulting that you can't seem to conceive that I could disagree with Milbank in good faith and have to come up with some kind of psychologizing explanation.

  5. I for one don't forgive Heidegger for being a Nazi. I think it a tell that casts deep suspicion on his entire project. However interesting his philosophy may be, it certainly didn't lead him to wisdom. I think Heidegger to be the perfect example that the Madhyamaka Buddhists would hold up to show the dangers of the metaphysical speculation that has (looking for a not too pejorative word) preoccupied the west. I am not dismissing in any way his brilliance as a thinker and his enduring value to academia--another place I would never look for wisdom. I guess it is obvious that I hold the same deep suspicion about Christian churches and their complicity in so much of Europe's tragic history.

    I don't think you can throw the word colonialism around as if it were a simply defined object. It was a mixed bag. The Guatemalan doctors I stayed with when I was there, for instance, despised the Spanish (and didn't like Americans much either). They felt that the Spanish had come to rape their land (and not just their land) and take their plunder home leaving only destruction behind. They were very fond, however, of the Germans. The Germans had come to live there. They brought their knowledge and shared it. They built trains and schools and married the locals and raised their families there. I just don' think you can lump all colonial experiences into one slur no more than you can say that the National Socialists of Germany are equivalent to all forms of Socialism a la Glen Beck.

    I'm quite sympathetic with Zizek's attempt to rehabilitate the term communism. In our age where the Rand/Friedman form of radical marketism is in ascendancy I'm happy to hear voices that insist that we are after all in this together.

    I realize my comments probably seem very tangential. I just don't have much to say about the internecine disputes of an ideology as alien to me as RO. I'm casting my lot with the secularists and praying (as it were) that the Christians and the Muslims don't take us all down.

  6. Hi Adam, and welcome.

    To take your points in reverse order:

    The last paragraph, and indeed most of the post, is aimed not at those whose differences with Milbank are well-known, but at what I perceive to be the ship-jumping crowd, those who I take to be saying something like, "My God, this changes everything." As to your own opposition to Milbank, I know nothing of your motives and would not presume to speculate, but I have never thought they were anything but honest and substantive (i.e., not based on just not liking his style, though I doubt one can really distinguish so well between the medium and message). I look in puzzlement and in vain at what I wrote for the really offensive line you are clearly reading here. I meant neither to say or to insinuate that that your disagreement with M comes from following some sort of knee-jerkism, and nor because you are following Zizek (blindly or in any other way). I thought I was pointing out that your enthusiasm for Zizek seems willing to overlook his bluster and his questionable and willfully provocative politics. Perhpas i was merely projecting my own enthusiasm for Zizek, which is indeed often willing to do just this. I did have in the back of my mind your review of The Monstrosity of Christ in which you put it rather bluntly, saying in essence: those who thought they could be in both Milbank's and Zizek's corner are going to have to choose. At the risk of condescension, I am sorry you felt insulted, but I think you have misunderstood me on this. This isn't to say we don't disagree, but merely that I disavow any intention to psychololgize you.

    Re, Schmitt & so forth, I don't choose to play the "better/worse" game about historical atrocities and victims, and I submit it is a little disingenuous to suggest that I am playing it down (calling it "more forgivable"), but I do think that colonialism is a far more complicated affair, lasting for hundreds of years and played out in many different contexts. You sound more informed about opinions and assessments in the post-colonial world than I consider myself to be, but I am a little troubled by playing the "the Third World says" card, which automatically puts me in the position of not listening to the cries of the wretched of the earth. Again, my real point with the Heidegger Schmitt etc comparison was simply to say that if we are prepared to countenance these thinkers despite their appalling politics, why does Milbank's far more nuanced view suddenly ruin him in the eyes of onetime-RO'ers? (again, I simply don't concede that he is lamenting the passing pf the Empire per se. I am corrigible on this point, however. Tim McGee pointed out some writing from the early '90s which I need to re-look at).

    About the title. I really am only "sort of" defending Milbank here. I actually agree with his line that the Enlightenment is historically bound up with Christian culture, but the case is far more complicated than he makes it out to be; I think he ought to have anticipated this firestorm (and perhaps he did, and if so, it's a cheap way to generate publicity); I hold that his nuances, while real, do not suffice; I don't see what he means by his hoped-for vision of Islam and I don't think he has any idea how to "encourage" it; I even find this vision condescending and (to psychologize for a moment) motivated by fear-- a fear I share. But I don't think these faults justify casting him as a propagandist for the powerbrokers of Europe -- even if I think he might do well to ask himself if he's in danger of becoming this.

    So yes, I have a "moderate" view, which I hope does not just sound mealy-mouthed. I felt that the prosecution was doing more than enough, and the other side wasn't being said at all; but I didn't want to come out guns-blazing, because, well, I only wanted to defend him, not vindicate him.

  7. To clarify: Euro-Catholicism was a kind of middle term to capture how Milbank sees Anglican (religion, space, ethnicity) theology as the pinnacle of the West, so stretching out to Europe and also, though a little bit less, to the U.S (in good Milbankian fashion, it is a hierarchy based on analogical proximity to the highest cultural form, which he obviously represents and speaks for).

    On conversion: if by "need" you mean "necessary in order to embody the proper form of human existence" then there is no doubt that Milbank thinks they will need to convert (and also that they will ultimately be unable to convert as they are not Western: see his essay "End of Dialogue" for more on this point).

    I also fail to see how your charitable read of Milbank's "lamentable" comment escapes the critiques leveled at it: on your read (which is also how I read it), it is still steeped in the paternalistic and presumptive arrogance of imperialistic mastery over people. What is more, this "lament" for the brutality of the colonial project was part of the rhetoric used to justify the colonial endeavor: Britain must hold onto and expand its imperial reach because only Anglican Britain can benevolently lead the world to a harmonious arrangement free from the ravages unleashed by those secular French powers (an argument made by one of Milbank's theological heros, S. T. Coleridge). It's theology as mastery, even read "charitably."

  8. Evan, welcome.

    The article (& I hasten to add I don't think it's an especially brilliant one) is being read, through the lenses of orientalism and Islamophobia, as racism-in-code and apologetics for the old world order. There may be some truth to this, but as you can tell I don't see this as making it worth throwing out the whole RO project. McGee made some fair points in rejoinder to me over at Inhabitatio Dei, and emphasized that for all of Milbank's apparent nuances in his account of Islam, "the “nuances” from doing any positive work" because of Milbank's persistent binary Us v. Them stance. This made me realize that it's clear Milbank is writing partly out of fear of radical Islam; and frankly this is a fear I share (whether realistically or not). I think that not being quite clear and frank and aware of this fear forces thinking into one of three bad-faith modes: either alarmist, triumphalist, or denial. The first is in a way the most honest, since it at least knows it is afraid, but it reacts in fear and wants to go to Defcon 1. The second pretends it need not worry as long as it acts prudently since God is on its side. And the last pretends there is nothing to be afraid of. Tim declines to see fear of radical Islamism as decisive, and points to some writing of Milbank in the '90s which I need to revisit, but I am not sure this will clinch the case in any event. I agree that orientalism is a persistent problem in the west, and in particular mis-perceptions and tendentious misconstruals of Islam have a pernicious history; but these fears are of this moment, and they certainly inform this latest article. Nor are they easy to overcome.

  9. dy0genes, I wonder if to you this whole debate doesn't look like a case study in why to throw the whole thing over.

    re. Heidegger, I also see him as a cautionary figure. That's a matter for a post in itself. The difference between him and John Milbank, aside from intellectual stature, as of course that JM is still alive and can be called on his mistakes, and those he influences can reflect on them. If I thought this was being done in a way that really forwarded the conversation, I'd have no problem with it.

  10. Tim, welcome, and thanks for this clarification. In re-reading my post I think I was a little catty about this ("whatever that is") Mea culpa. I have yet to re-look at "the End of Dialogue," so I may change my tune on this.

    I of course know that colonial powers did a good deal of breast-beating and fretting about the brutality of their overseas regimes--their own and others'. Insofar as this was mere coverup for imperial ambition, it's worthy of condemnation. But if we read it as this and nothing but this, then it is just a trump-card, and there is no defense against the charge of hypocrisy. It just means you don't have to actually engage the argument because it's already paternalistic or imperialist or etc. This is fine, but the grounds for this dismissal need to be more spelled out; one can't just say, "your argument is invalid because paternalistic", etc; one needs to show how this term paternalistic cashes out, as the analytic philosophers say; e.g., "but you are assuming that Muslims, in converting, will have to change in ways X & Y, which given how you construe X & Y really means becoming European." And to be clear (and fair), I think you do some of this in your post I linked to above.

  11. I apologize if I overreacted or misunderstood. I still don't see the point of putting forward a more charitable read simply because there's such a negative consensus, though -- which seems to be what you're doing, even after all your clarifications.

  12. Milbank seems to believe that Christianity is the Way, the Truth and the Life and that it would be a great thing if everyone were to take it up. Welcome to the party. All faiths believe that their brand is best. Muslims are keen on this, so are Buddhists, Hindus claim not to proselytise but keep a standing arms of swamis in the West. Amongst Christians who are mindful of their former cultural triumphalism the talk is of culturation or finding the expression of the Christian faith that suits the convert's background. Thus in India you will find padres in saffron dhotis chanting the mass whilst in padma asana.

    His remark about 'premature collapse' can be no more than a kick against the goad of pc. The Scots are like that, it's part of their charm. No collapse could be timely, really.

    The unreasonable fear of Islam is part of the perennial quest for an enemy of the American which infects even the best minds. In time that will move on to some new threat. It's part of culturation for Islam or becoming American. There already is a functioning mosque at the Cordoba Centre. Who felt the terrible psychic pressure of this?

  13. Ombhurbhuva: Yes; substantive encounter between religions will not be accomplished by setting the price of admittance to the negotiating table the acceptance of the PC line. The "army of swamis" in the west is matched by a Hindutva movement in India; and even the perennialists (Guenon, Corbin, Schuon, Evola, etc) almost all were ("exoterically" at least) Muslims; the Dalai Lama is quite clear that Buddhism is the way and the truth, despite his very civil and accommodating dialogue with Christians and others. This is, in a sense, as it should be. Of course what (among other things) rubs people the wrong way about Milbank are the political corrolaries to his positions (and, it must be said too, his outright political positions). As for radical Islamism, I try to remind myself that when Christianity was as old as Islam is now, Christians were burning witches. What a difference 500 years makes (though there are still abortion clinic bombings). Of course, 500 years ago, there was also no enriched uranium. Had there been, it is possible we would not now be having these diverting debates.

  14. Skholiast writes:
    "and even the perennialists (Guenon, Corbin, Schuon, Evola, etc) almost all were ("exoterically" at least) Muslims;"
    Clearly a Sufi plot. Were they merely homesick after the fashion of Novalis?
    "Philosophy is properly Home-sickness; the wish to be everywhere at home, "

  15. Sufis? I assume they were philosophical Hashishim, in the pay of the Old Man of the Mountain!

  16. I commend to everyone the follow-up discussions at An Und Fur Sich and at The Well at the World's End, in particular the comments. Brendan Sammon's at The Well especially seem fairly close to my own take, insofar as I understand him, and they are better put than anything I have written here.