Radical Orthodoxy – Counter Ethics

John Milbank

As discussed in the previous article, Milbank argues that, Christian theology and sociology has to provide, first, 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.

Second, Christian theology/sociology has to provide a “counter-ethics.” There has to be a different practice that emerges as Christian ethics differs from either pre-Christian or post-Christian ethics, because it is in fact the difference from all cultural systems, exposing the nihilism inherent in them.

For Milbank, while there is continuity between the “antique understanding of ethics” (e.g. Plato, Aristotle) and Christian ethics, the latter critiques it and modifies it to a significant degree.

The polis is the ultimate center of virtue and ethics, but the Christian polis is the community of the Church. Similarly, this distinction between the social polis and the Christian polis should not imply that Christian ethics retreated to mere personal ethics as in modern liberalism, because the early Church remained in the social context in which it was generated.

One of the central aspects in this continuity/discontinuity structure of early Christian ethics that was neither pure social ethics nor mere individual piety is the concept of the Christian household, which included women, children and slaves as well as adult free males. This “came to be regarded as the primary context for paideia, a ‘laboratory of the spirit,’ in a fashion virtually unknown to antiquity.”[1]

Another important element was the combination of submission to the civil authorities as a rule (in its perceived God-given role of coercion and discipline of sin and disorder), with the disobedience of civil authorities when they would require Christians to participate in imperial worship or other forms of explicit paganism. Later, there was a gradual shift in the practice of Christian ethics in relation to the State, in that the gradual conversion of Roman citizens and rulers was expected to have implications for the character of political governance – and this culminating with the ascension and conversion of the emperor Constantine.

Following Augustine, then, Milbank argues that “worldly justice and government as paideia are not thereby abandoned as desirable objectives. On the contrary … they are truly realized in the city of God: fully in heaven, but also partially here on earth.”[2] Partially, because as long as time persists, there will be some sin, and therefore a need for its regulation through worldly dominium and the worldly peace, which takes the form of a bare compromise between competing wills.

The power of the State is necessary – it ought to be incorporated as an expression of the Christian community, and yet it will still regulate power negotiated between fallen wills and purposes. The political, then, is necessarily imperfectly social, because it contains elements of compulsion and of mere compromise.

At the same time, Milbank argues that “all political theory, in the antique sense, is relocated by Christianity as thought about the Church,” and that for Augustine, there is “nothing recognizable as a theory of Church and State.”[3] Milbank sees Augustine’s idea of the city of man not as a legitimate State, but as a vestige of ancient Babylon, which uses finite goods for bad ends; the city of God, by contrast, uses finite goods for good ends, with a different faith, and different hope, and a different love.

The city of man is now, after the Fall, at the same time an illegitimate State and a necessary evil, so that coercive political rule curbs human sin – thus sin curbing sin. Milbank thinks Aquinas has moved somewhat from Augustine’s position, and, accordingly, he criticizes him for it:

By beginning to see the social, economic and administrative life as essentially natural, and part of a political sphere separate for the church, Aquinas opens the way to regarding the Church as an organization specializing in what goes on inside men’s souls; his affirmation, for example (possibly inconsistent with his own affirmation of the “consequences of charity”) that the new law of the Gospel adds no now “external precepts,” seems to tend dangerously in this direction.

Once the political is seen as a permanent natural sphere, pursuing positive finite ends, the, inevitably, firm lines of division arise between what is “secular’ and what is “spiritual.” Tending gardens, building bridges, sowing crops, caring for children, cannot be seen as “ecclesial” activities, precisely because these activities are now enclosed within a sphere dubbed “political.”[4]

Milbank proposes rather that it is better that the bounds between Church and State be extremely hazy, so that a social existence of complex powers may emerge and curb either a sovereign State or a statically hierarchical Church.[5] Ideally, then there should be a state of total peace, where even the ancient virtues are subsumed and fulfilled in charity alone, and thus society would anticipate heaven and act as if sin was not there.

In fact, Christianity is to deny the necessity of sovereign rule and absolute ownership, and instead to seek to recover “the concealed text of an original peaceful creation beneath the palimpsest of the negative distortion of dominium, through the superimposition of an third redemptive template, which corrects these distortions by means of forgiveness and atonement.”[6]

Milbank goes as far as to argue that Augustine’s concession to punishment as inevitable in the fallen realm was inconsistent, even a mistake. For Milbank, non-sinful “pedagogic” coercion partially violates Augustine’s ontology because it makes some punishment positive. Since punishment must inflict some harm, however temporary, it has an inherently negative relationship to Being.

Milbank seems to have moved somewhat from this position in one of his later works: he writes in Being Reconciled (2003) that violence is violence “only when it is also evil,” i.e., there is violence that is evil, but it is also evil not to fight “evil violence” with proper violence.

To become a mere spectator of violence, and not oppose it, even with violence, is an evil act in and of itself. In this way, “evil and violence are convertible but not identical,” and “looking at violence is actually more violent than participating in violence . . . pacifism, as looking at violence, is at least as violent, and probably more absolutely violent, than actual physically violent interventions . . .  gazing at violence is the greatest violence.”[7]

This later shift apparently seeks to correct some of the inherent tensions in Milbank’s arguments concerning violence and pacifism.

See Also:

Radical Orthodoxy – A Theological Vision

Radical Orthodoxy – Altera Civitas

Radical Orthodoxy – Reason and Revelation

Radical Orthodoxy – Metanarrative Realism

Radical Orthodoxy – Conclusion


[1] John Milbank, Theology & Social Theory:  Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford:  Blackwell, 1990) p. 403

[2] Ibid., p. 404

[3] Ibid., p. 410

[4] Ibid., p. 412

[5] Ibid., p. 413

[6] Ibid., p. 423

[7] John Milbank, Being Reconciled:  Ontology and Pardon (New York:  Routledge, 2003) p. 28-30.

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2 comments on “Radical Orthodoxy – Counter Ethics

  1. […] arguments has to do with his vision of peace as the antidote to postmodernity’s will to power. As already shown, Milbank seems to correct this in his later work, but correlative to his views of the altera […]

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