Radical Orthodoxy – Conclusion (Part 6 of 6)

Counter-Ontology

Erik Olin Wright

Erik Olin Wright, President of the
American Sociological Association

For Milbank, Christian theology/sociology has to provide a “counter-ontology” because, as required by the provision of a different ethics, it has to establish an ontology of participation united with an epistemology of analogy, both of which are necessary to provide depth to all reality.

Outside of such ontology of participation, all reality is flattened; all social, political and cultural aspects become reducible to the mere human and humanistic level, all ethics are reducible to preference and power games, all language reducible to mere signs, and all men reducible to chemical/biological machines.

Within an ontology of participation, there are no things, no ultimate substances, only shifting relations and generations in time which only exist in their constitution of ideal, logical patterns; knowledge is not a representation of things, but is a relation to events, and a action upon events, because truth, for Christianity, is not correspondence, but rather participation of the beautiful in the beauty of God.[1]

Secular reason is part of an antique-modern scheme, and this is counteracted by an ontology of difference where narrative and ontology reinforce each other, the transcendent God announcing himself in the narrative as the God Who Is.

In this ontology, “there can be no more ‘truth and falsity’ . . .  because no positive non-being is posited, as by Platonism, and not pure material potency, as in Aristotelianism, [and] nothing that is, can be in any sense wrong.”[2] The other important points Milbank makes concerning this ontological outlook have been already highlighted in the first section of this paper.

Counter-History of the Kingdom

Lastly, this Christian theology/sociology has to take up again the “counter-history,” but this time under the aspect of ecclesial critique. Milbank has no intention of adopting a naïve perspective in which Christian theology and Christian praxis have been perfect, mere victims of secularization and distortion coming from outside. Rather, the failures of Christian theology and practice themselves have given occasion to ontological and epistemological shifts that have eventually led down the path to secularization and nihilism.

The Church failed to bring about salvation, but instead ushered in the modern secular – at first liberal, and finally nihilistic – world. [3]

For Milbank, the invention of the secular began at least in the eleventh century.[4] The Church helped to unleash a naked violence and failed to displace politics; it engendered a newly rationalistic and formalized approach to law from the twelfth century onwards, even to the degree that theorists of papal absolutism pressed for a doctrine of unlimited absolutism, and the State assumed the form of a perverted Church, an anti-Church.

In the midst of history, the judgment of God has already happened. And either the Church enacts the vision of paradisaical community which this judgment opens out, or else it promotes a hellish society beyond any terrors known to antiquity: corruptio optimi pessima.

For the Christian, interruption of history decoded antique virtue, yet thereby helped to unleash first liberalism, then positivism and dialectics and finally nihilism. Insofar as the Church has failed – and has even become a hellish anti-Church – it has confined Christianity, like everything else, within the cycle of the ceaseless exhaustion and return of violence.[5]

Milbank’s contention then is that the Catholic vision of ontological peace now provides the only alternative to a nihilistic outlook; there can be again the emanation of harmonious difference, the exodus of new generations, the diagonal of ascent, and the path of peaceful flight.

Conclusion

John Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy project have made important criticisms of postmodern philosophy, and it has great merit in trying to recover the classical Christian tradition in a way that not merely repeats it, but adapts it and applies it to contemporary issues and challenges. Modern and postmodern insights are not just discarded, but rather incorporated and reoriented when they are helpful.

Beginning with the Enlightenment, the idea that there can be a neutral ground of thought – whether in politics, hard sciences, sociology, philosophy, etc. – became generally accepted. The reaction against the influence and authority of the Church over all areas of human life led thinkers to remove its yoke and seek knowledge independently, for its own sake, and for the sake of human achievement and profit. The illusion created was that knowledge can be acquired without any theological and philosophical presuppositions.

Radical Orthodoxy successfully challenges this outlook.

There can be no knowledge without presuppositions (as postmodernism recognized) and there can be no presuppositions without a theological outlook grounding them. There can be no thought without theology, and it is a matter of which theology will inform one’s presuppositions. As theologians have been arguing for centuries now, secular reason has a religion of its own, with its own sacraments (e.g. empiricism), and its own canon law (e.g. closed natural systems).

Milbank’s arguments, however, at times seem to be inconsistent, both internally and with the Augustinian/Thomistic tradition he seeks to recover.

As discussed in the other articles of this series, Milbank presses his arguments too far when challenging the autonomy of reason. There is no purely autonomous reason indeed, but there are serious difficulties in arguing that revelation is “but a higher measure of illumination.”

In this area, Milbank should follow his own directive of appropriating what is useful in the modern/postmodern context; there is legitimacy to reason and knowledge that does not make reference to transcendentals – one can know things in this way, but ultimately, what needs to be shown is that there is no reason why one should be able to know anything in a universe not sustained by God’s Logos.

We can know the laws of physics, biology, mathematics, logic – but they are only borrowed capital from the God who sustains all things and gives order to all things. In a secular universe, there cannot be any order, and therefore there cannot be any law. Moreover, there can be no ethics that is not arbitrary; in a secular universe, all that can be known about ethics – and some things are rightly known – ultimately can be reducible to preferences and power games, if ethics does not participate in the being of God.

Another deficiency in Milbank’s 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 societas of pure peace and pacifism is the denial of the full legitimacy of the State/Church distinction.

Milbank’s arguments fail to account for the fact that the Church arguably will never engulf all societies before the eschaton. That means that the work of the theologian, as an expression of the work of the Church, is to recognize that God has granted legitimacy to certain aspects of culture – law, government, politics, and so on. Milbank argues that “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.”

But what is the alternative? A totalitarian Christian Church that engulfs governments, civilizations, cultures, denying their freedom to believe as they will, and the legitimacy of the value of life to those who are not Christians (or at least theists)?

This will not do.

Christian theology has to view the public square not only as something that is, but also as something that should be, and then address it, precisely because before the consummation of all things, the Kingdom of God advances by the presentation of Christ and him crucified – as Augustine, Aquinas, and many other Church fathers understood – within a context of loving persuasion, not domination. It is ironic that the very context of the early Church that Milbank seeks to recover was one that is the most similar to our contemporary context when it comes to the existence of the Church in a thoroughly pluralistic society.

Christianity did eventually became mixed with the State, but for three hundred years it flourished, even under persecution, in a context in which Christian thought and practice was only possible in a pluralistic context. And this flourishing was not by denying legitimacy to the pluralistic world.

This seems to be Radical Orthodoxy’s greatest weakness: it fails to recognize that we live in a pluralistic world in which globalization is here to stay.

Christian theology should not use this as an excuse to dissolve its message under a relativistic banner of radical correlationism, but neither should it spend its energies outlining a Christian world where there is “no secular.”

Christian theology has to confront nihilism with the core of its message; the center of Christianity is not participation and transcendence – although they are indispensable for it – but the Incarnate, dead, buried, resurrected, and ascended Christ who is the revelation of the Triune God from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things.

When that is obscured, one runs the risk of reifying transcendence and participation, which is precisely one of the main complaints Radical Orthodoxy has concerning postmodernity: reifying things apart from the One who gives them depth.

Therefore, it seems that Milbank’s concerns with relation to the nihilistic path Western civilization has taken are well grounded, and many of his criticisms and suggestions are needed, but there has to be a certain refining towards consistency in his work when it comes to our present global pluralistic context.

If Milbank rightly does not want the One to be swallowed by the many, neither should he allow the many to be swallowed up by the One.

***

See Also:

Radical Orthodoxy – A Theological Vision

Radical Orthodoxy – Altera Civitas

Radical Orthodoxy – Reason and Revelation

Radical Orthodoxy – Metanarrative Realism

Radical Orthodoxy – Counter Ethics


[1] Milbank, Theology & Social Theory, p. 434

[2] Ibid., p. 438

[3] Ibid., p. 383

[4] Ibid., p. 441

[5] Ibid., p. 442

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7 comments on “Radical Orthodoxy – Conclusion (Part 6 of 6)

  1. Marcelo,

    I’ve read/scanned your various posts on Radical Orthodoxy and have to say that you’ve done quite well. You really got to the heart of Milbank’s TST. However, in your critiques in this post you switch from critiquing Milbank (usually altogether, but implicitly in TST) to critiquing Radical Orthodoxy. I’m not sure this fair. First of all, and John would be the first to say this, he is not the sum total of Radical Orthodoxy. His voice is not the only one that matters, even if it is often the loudest. Second, TST is one of the books that predates and lays the foundation for Radical Orthodoxy. It is not, however, an explicitly Radical Orthodoxy book. John himself sees Pickstock’s After Writing as being the book that really launched this theological sensibility. Also, as you tacitly acknowledged, it isn’t really fair to critique Milbank as such purely for what he wrote in TST when he has continued this line of thinking in his later work. It is, of course, more than fair to critique TST on its own basis, but to treat it as if it were the summation of John’s work as related to Radical Orthodoxy rather than the foundation.

    Anyway, this was an excellent post. Thanks.

    Yours,
    David

    • Thank you David.

      I agree. These are articles that I wrote in 2008/2009, and the two figures that I really worked on were Professors Milbank and Pickstock.

      I did concentrates on Milbank, because, even though he is not the only voice for Radical Orthodoxy, clearly he is (or at least was) its main exponent.

      Also, I do not think it is unfair to point out inconsistencies between earlier and later works, especially if the author has not explicitly indicated that he has changed or refined his views. Plus, at the time I wrote, Theology and Social Science was is his most comprehensive work.

      But I do admit that I have not read anything on Radical Orthodoxy since those years – that is, at least for five years now. So your criticism is well founded. I do look forward to revisiting the movement and reassessing its contributions.

      • Marcelo,

        You’ve definitely got some excellent, in my opinion, reading ahead of you. John’s working on a new book on prayer which sounds fantastic and Catherine has a new book coming out as well. Conor Cunningham is currently writing a book on the soul. Even Simon Oliver is working on a new book on teleology. The next few years should definitely see a resurgence in books published by those who willingly identify themselves with RO (as much as one can identify with a theological sensibility).

        Yours,
        David

  2. […] this leads to a “flattening” of reality. Marcelo Souza (in dependence upon Milbank) rightly notes that on this way of thinking “all reality is flattened; all social, political and cultural […]

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