Radical Orthodoxy – Metanarrative Realism

John Milbank

First, Christian theology and sociology has to provide a “counter-history.” It has to deny that history is reducible to purely humanistic and pragmatic socio-political arrangements, and rather it has to argue that there is a transcendental dimension to history that grounds its ethics, as well as its political and social practices (since theological and metaphysical assumptions have guided societies’ praxis, and such assumptions are not reducible to mere preference or collective fantasies).

In order to fulfill this task, Christian theology has to provide a “metanarrative realism.” The objects of Christian faith and the modes of Christian experience are derived from a particular cultural practice which organizes subjects and objects, signs, images and actions, not just a set of propositions. The Christian metanarrative is performative, and the performance of its praxis takes place in the stage of a historical and mythical scene.[1]

Here again Milbank wants to use Hegelian principles in that the Incarnation brings together theoria and praxis, idea and history, doctrine and narrative. The incarnation “demands a return to the concrete, narrative level: if Jesus really is the Word of God, then it is not the mere extrinsic knowledge of this which will save us, but rather a precise attention to his many words and deeds and all their historical results.”[2]

This metanarrative is not be turned into a mere paradigm, isolated from its historical genesis, but there has to be a dialectic relationship between the “paradigmatic” and the “syntagmatic.” In other words, there is an organic relationship between the paradigms of the narrative that in a sense “stay in place” and the breaking out of this frame of reference into the temporal course of events – and that, of course, is performed by the Church in history.

In this way, the metanarrative is the story of Jesus and the story of the Church. No historical story is ever “over and done with,” and the Church’s history is the unfolding of both the history and story of Christ, so that there is no “disappearance of our own personalities into the monistic truth of Christ.”[3]

Rather, Jesus’ mission was the preaching of the Kingdom, and thus the inauguration of a new community, the Church. There is a displacement of time and chronological sequence in that the continuing story of the Church has already been finalized in an exemplary way in Jesus, and yet it is still to be realized universally by all generation of Christians – not in a mere repetition, but in a different reenactment of the metanarrative until its eschatological conclusion.

The metanarrative, then, is “the genesis of the [historical] Church” outside of which Christianity becomes a set of ahistorical propositions about Christ – indeed a sort of Gnosticism. For Milbank, however, this metanarrative of the Christ/Church has an interpretative, regular function with respect to all other history – it becomes a somewhat Hegelian “philosophy of history,” although based on faith, and not on reason. That is to say, the exclusivistic and universalistic claims of Christianity concerning ultimate truth and salvation are an intrinsic part of its faith, theology and history.

As Milbank puts it, “the logic of Christianity involves the claim that the interruption of history by Christ and his bride, the Church, is the most fundamental of events, interpreting all other events.”[4]

Not only Christianity makes its claims in its paradigmatic aspect, but it also continues the narrative syntagmatically, becoming the whole story of human history which is still being enacted – and that means that Christianity will have a fully social and political dimension, which nonetheless will give priority to the normative narrative – the way things ought to be will constantly be the goal of the way things are.

This normative aspect, for Milbank, is the possibility of critique of the Western tradition, and he argues that Augustine’s model in the City of God succeeds where Hegel and Marx fail – the latter being “gnostic’” versions of the former. Surprisingly, Milbank’s criticism of Hegel and Marx at this point is not that their models seem to be too idealistic, based on “reason,” but rather that their dialectics necessarily incorporate antagonism and violence.

Augustine’s model of the altera civitas, on the other hand, has “no logical or causal connection with the city of violence.” It is at this point that Milbank’s arguments for a counter history may run the risk of becoming ironically impractical and ahistorical – and, accordingly, he did in later works refine some of his views on violence and pacifism. I will expand this discussion in the conclusion.

Milbank argues that Augustine’s model in his Civitas Dei presents a non-antagonistic, peaceful mode of life grounded in historical and mythical narrative, as well as in a Christian ontology that gives priority of peace over conflict (which, for Milbank, is arguably the key theme of Augustine’s entire thought).[5] The city of man is marked by sin, the denial of god, self-assertion and self-love – a kingdom of power over others, the libido dominandi – power is pursued as an end in and of itself.

By contrast, the city of God is marked by real peace, worked out in a state of harmonious agreement, based upon a common love, and the realization of justice for all. The city of God has not been founded, as Rome, by the exertion of violent power, but by peaceful donation, in fellowship, in self-forgetting conviviality, illumined by an overarching vision of peace:

Whereas the civitas terrena inherits its power from the conqueror of a fraternal rival, the “city of God on pilgrimage through this world” founds itself not in a succession of power, but upon the memory of the murdered brother, Abel slain by Cain. The city of God is in fact a paradox, a “nomad city” (one might say) for it does not have a site, or walls or gates. It is not, like Rome, an asylum constituted by the “protection” offered by a dominating class to the dominated, in the face of an external enemy. This form of refuge is, in fact, but a dim archetype of the real refuge provided by the Church, which is the forgiveness of sins.[6]

Accordingly, mutual forgiveness and bearing on each other’s burdens becomes the modus vivendi of the Church, an atoning way of life. The Church itself is a continuing atonement to God, following Milbank’s metanarrative that starts with the life and work of Christ and continues in the life and work of the Church. Atonement, forgiveness, harmony, and ultimately peace, are the foundations of the city of God, whereas in the city of man, where there are no objective standards of truth and goodness, every act of persuasion is a violent act.


[1] John Milbank, Theology & Social Theory:  Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford:  Blackwell, 1990) p. 385

[2] Ibid., p. 387

[3] Ibid., p. 389

[4] Ibid., p. 390

[5] Ibid., p. 392

[6] Ibid., p. 394

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3 comments on “Radical Orthodoxy – Metanarrative Realism

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