One thing usually missing from discussion on this blog and, from what I have seen, all others, is extended, thoughtful discussion. We often see thoughtful posts and responses, though frankly not usually in response to anything controversial. Controversial topics most often tempt us to start yelling at each other without thinking at all, repeating the same dogmatic things over and over again. We seldom see discussions that take on their topics in real depth, especially not controversial ones. I’m sure that a lot of that has to do with the medium itself: blogs are set up to encourage brief comments, not long ones, and brief comments usually have to skim lightly over the surface of things rather than to delve into them deeply.
With this post, I would like to try something different, so I am going to refer to an essay on political philosophy that is available on-line, ask several people to post longer-than-usual replies to get us started, and then oversee the discussion that follows.
The essay that I suggest discussing is actually not a finished essay. It is a draft of an essay posted by its British author, John Milbank. The essay is “Liberality vs. liberalism”. In it, Milbank makes an argument that probably fits roughly within the “communitarian” strand of political thinking. (Think, for example, of Albert Borgmann or Alisdair Macintyre.)
Milbank is an important contemporary theologian, with Catherine Pickstock, a founder of a movement called “Radical Orthodoxy.” Those in the Radical Orthodoxy movement oppose the modern attempt (with roots in medieval philosophy) to understand the natural, human, and social orders independent of the divine order. They deny that faith and reason are even separate realms, much less that they are opposed to one another: “Every discipline must be framed by a theological perspective; otherwise these disciplines will define a zone apart from God, grounded literally in nothing” (Radical Orthodoxy 18). But this does not mean an anti-intellectual rejection of science. They see “Creationism” as a mistake in that it accepts the scientific assumptions and then tries, unsuccessfully, to use them against themselves. Their argument “against” science is more subtle and less irrational. Science does not, as is often at least implicitly assumed, give us an ontology of nature. Instead, it reveals “the technical transformability of the world, thereby allowing it to be potentially subservient to charity” (ibid.).
Theologians of this stripe see themselves as orthodox Christians, but they are radical in the sense that they seek to go to the roots of Christian religion and experience, behind the accretions that have come to it with the advent of modernism (and its precursors in thinkers like Duns Scotus). For them, the thinkers to which we should pay more attention are Augustine and the Church Fathers–and they are especially committed to the doctrine of the Trinity. With the results of that return to Christian roots, the Radical Orthodoxy movement wishes to criticize contemporary society, culture, philosophy, etc., arguing that such criticism will allow for a Christian society in the best–and true–sense (rather than in the sense of the fundamentalists).
As R. R. Reno points out in First Things, according to Radical Orthodoxy:
Christian theology counters the Nietzschean nihilism of foundational violence (in the language Radical Orthodoxy borrows from postmodernism) by advancing a participatory framework, an analogical poetics, a semiosis of peace, a metanarrative that does not require the postulate of original violence. Put more simply, Radical Orthodoxy hopes to recover Neoplatonic metaphysics as an explanation for the glue that holds the world together. Something can be what it is–a unit of semantic identity or meaning, a person, a social practice–and at the same time depend upon and reach toward something else. Or more strongly, something is real only in and through this constitutive dependence and fecundity.
In other words, using a Platonic focus on participation, those who count themselves in Radical Orthodoxy wish to use Christianity to criticize contemporary society. However, they do not try to do so naively. They recognize that the Christian tradition itself must be rethought: “the fact that such a collapse [of late medieval Christian thought] was possible can sometimes point to even earlier weaknesses” (Radical Orthodoxy 2).
In the introduction to Radical Orthodoxy, Milbank, Pickstock, and Graham Ward describe the essays in that volume in a way that reasonably describes the project of the movement as a whole: “The present collection of essays attempts to reclaim the world by situating its concerns and activities within a theological framework. Not simply returning in nostalgia to the premodern, it visits sites in which secularism has invested heavily– aesthetics, politics, sex, the body, personhood, visibility, space — and resituates them from a Christian standpoint [. . .]. What emerges is a contemporary theological project made possible by the self-conscious superficiality of today’s secularism” (1).
Mormons will not be able to fit themselves into the framework of Radical Orthodoxy effortlessly, if at all, for their understanding of the roots of Christianity differs from our own. Nevertheless, there are points of contact between us and them that are worth thinking about. For example, our doctrine of the soul–that the spirit and the body together constitute the soul and that we are not whole without both (D&C 88:15)–is at least similar to their rejection of dualism.
Further, those in the Radical Orthodoxy movement argue that Christian order is fundamentally liturgical–a matter of rites and ordinances–rather than metaphysical. Though Mormons will wish to add the notion of covenant to the notion of liturgy, we almost certainly can learn from thinkers who have emphasized the importance of ordinance.
And what could warm the cockles of a Mormon heart more than someone who recognizes that the Christian tradition must be rethought, even if we disagree with them as to the needed degree of that thinking.?
In this particular essay, as part of his attempt to use Christianity to criticize and rethink modern politics, Milbank thinks about what a Christian alternative to classical liberal political philosophy, on the one hand, and Marxism, on the other, should look like. Here are some quotations and notes that I hope will tempt you to read the essay:
“Democracy, which is ‘the rule of the many’ can only function without manipulation of opinion if it is balanced by an ‘aristocratic’ element of the pursuit of truth and virtue for their own sake on the part of some people whose role is legitimate even if they remain only ‘the few’ although they should ideally be themselves the many.”
Milbank argues that capitalism and communism both share the assumption that the community is an aggregate of individuals, in other words, that the individuals are primary and come together in contract. In contrast, he says, in Christian thought the individuals are never outside of relationship; they are fundamentally related. Thus: “As created, things exceed both temporal process and fixed form; out of these they constantly weave the exchange of relation, and relation persists all the way down, because the created thing is at bottom outside itself as relation to another, namely God who gives it to be.”
The “normal” person of liberalism is “the freely choosing and contracting autonomous 31-year-old. But no human person is forever like this; it is rather only a moment in a coming to be and passing away.”
“Producers of well-designed things do not just contract with consumers. The latter give them effectively counter-gifts of sustenance in return for the gifts of intrinsically good things, even though this is mediated by money.”
“Christianity renders all objects sacred: everything is a sign of God and of his love. Moreover in Christ this is shown again, and he provides the idiom for rendering all sacred. Hence there need be no more neutral commodities just as there are no more strangers — not because we are citizens, even of cosmopolis, but because we are sons, daughters, and brothers in Adam and now in the new Adam who is Christ.”
“There is simply no truth in the Marxist assumption that, once freed from the shackles of oppression, people will ‘by reason’ choose equality and justice: to the contrary, in the light of a mere reason that is not also vision, eros and faith, people may well choose to prefer the petty triumphs and superiorities of a brutally hierarchic agon of power or the sheer excitement of a social spectacle in which they may potentially be exhibited in triumph.”
Rules for this discussion
Anyone may respond. No one has to agree, neither with the author of the piece nor with others. But if a response is off-topic, inflammatory, or otherwise irrelevant, I will delete it in order to keep the conversation going as well as possible. (However, because I have work to do, I’ll probably only delete once or twice a day.)
Things not to forget as you read and respond:
1. When Milbank uses the term “liberal,” he uses it in its classical philosophical sense. He does not mean what Americans usually mean by that word. For him, the word is closer, though certainly not identical to, something like what Americans mean by the word “conservative” or, better, “libertarian.”
2. By “Catholic,” even with the capital “c,” Milbank does not mean “Roman Catholic.” As he uses the term, “Catholic” refers to Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches. Indeed, the Radical Orthodoxy movement sees itself as an ecumenical movement, not by reducing Christianity to its least common denominator, but by returning to its origins. (Here, as with other points he makes, Mormons will find much to be sympathetic to as well as at least some things to disagree with.)
3. It is clear that Milbank does not like President Bush. It is also clear that he has strong ideas about the failings of American democracy. But those are generally irrelevant to his argument as a whole. They apply equally well to other contemporary democracies, and you could probably substitute the names of most other Western leaders for President Bush’s and get Milbank’s agreement. So don’t allow these things, things likely to irritate you, to obscure the argument itself. I am interested in your responses to the argument, not in your defense of the U.S. or GWB II. Comments like “Anyone who says that about the U.S. is wrong about everything else” are irrelevant to the discussion. On the other hand, it is relevant to show (rather than merely to claim) that his attitudes toward the United States and his argument are of a piece. Of course doing that then requires also answering the $64 Question, “So what?” In any case, neither the policies of the U.S. nor President Bush are the question for discussion here. Rather, the question is whether or to what degree Milbank’s understanding of government makes sense.
Milbank is arguing for what Catherine Pickstock (one of his colleagues) sums up thus (as quoted by Denis Sereau):
«Le culte liturgique n’a pas pour but premier d’améliorer la qualité de notre vie collective, il est le couronnement même de cette vie collective. Nous travaillons, que nous le voulions ou non, à l’édification d’une société fondée sur la justice quand du surplus de notre production nous faisons collectivement une oeuvre de beauté, visible au regard de Dieu».
My translation: The purpose of the liturgical cult [NOTE: “cult” is not a pejorative term in this context] is not to ameliorate the quality of our collective life; it is the very crown of that collective life. Whether we want to or not, we work to build a society founded on justice when, from the surplus of our production, we collectively create a work of beauty, visible to the gaze of God.
Sereau’s site gives a good introduction to Radical Orthodoxy for those who read French. For those who do not, a Google search for “radical orthodoxy” will get you a number of good book reviews. I’ve not read James K. A. Smith’s book, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, but it looks good and may well be a place to start. Christianity Today‘s review is particularly good in that it gives an excellent overview of Radical Orthodoxy.
The collection of essays that I’ve referred to in this post, Radical Orthodoxy, edited by Milbank, Pickstock, and Ward, is good. I also recommend Pickstock’s After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, but only to those with some background in contemporary European philosophy. Pickstock is anything but a contemporary French philosopher, but she assumes that her readers are familiar with their work and their style.
Here are some thoughtful responses to Milbank’s work. They model the kinds of responses that are appropriate. I’ve requested a couple more, and as they come in, I will add them to the list.