Radical Orthodoxy – Conclusion (Part 6 of 6)


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.


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

Radical Orthodoxy – Reason and Revelation

Milbank explicitly draws from the criticisms raised by Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) and Franz Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) against their contemporary philosophical trends. Both were Lutheran and Milbank sees them recovering a “knowledge by faith alone” as a counterpart of “justification by faith alone.” According to Milbank, their main project was to question the idea of a reason-revelation duality, and recover a Patristic framework of participation in the mind of God.

Milbank argues that “to reason truly one must be already illumined by God, while revelation itself is but a higher measure of such illumination . . .”[1] According to Milbank, Jacobi and Hamann “insisted that no finite thing can be known, not even to any degree, outside of its ration to the infinite” and for this reason “there can be no reason/revelation duality: true reason anticipates revelation, while revelation simply is of true reason . . .”[2] Here Milbank admits that Jacobi and Hamann allowed “even less autonomy to a universal reason than that permitted by the Church Fathers,” but he agrees with their stance.[3]

It is at this point Milbank’s argument seems to be subject to criticism. It is not entirely clear that Aquinas’ view (which Milbank proposes to follow) is that revelation is “but a higher measure of such illumination” of reason. If what can be known by reason and what can be known by revelation are on a continuum, it would seem that they are not two different modes of knowing, but only two different intensities of knowing. In this case, there is nothing that can be known apart from some revelation, and that does not seem to fit with Aquinas’ view on reason and revelation.

This is precisely what Milbank favorably ascribes to Jacobi and Hamann – the view that “no finite thing can be known, not even to any degree, outside of its ration to the infinite.”[4] If this is to be taken in the sense that whatever possible knowledge there is for creatures, it is knowledge made possible by the grace of God who endows minds with the ability to know, then this would consonant with a Thomistic framework – indeed, this would be agreeable to classical Christian theology and epistemology. On the other hand, if this is taken in the sense that there is no any possible knowledge of any finite thing apart from presuppositions of participation and transcendence, this seems to conflict both with Thomistic thought and with empirical observation.

Within a framework of analogical knowledge, there is nothing that can be known by creatures in the same mode as God’s knowledge. Whatever can be known about and said of God, it is known and said analogically. Similarly, whatever can be known about finite things, it is known according to creaturely proportion, i.e., in a finite way and in a qualitatively different way from God’s knowledge. But that does not mean that it is not known in a very real sense.

The laws of mathematics, from the most complex to the most simple, are known by persons in a way different than God knows them, and yet they are truly known; I can know that 5+4=9 in a real way, even though God knows so in a different way that I, as a creature, do. Similarly, in a very real sense I can know that there is a keyboard and a monitor in front of me, even though God knows this not only in an infinite way, but also in a different way. Science, technology, literature, philosophy, biology, arts, and so on, are known in a real sense by those who might even deny any theistic presuppositions altogether. Objects, propositions, mathematical and physical laws, etc., can be known as well by an atheist as by one who, with Milbank, rightly understands that such things do not have any reality apart from an ontology of participation.

Of course, it can be argued that all knowledge that denies any ontology of participation is simply borrowed knowledge, i.e., that one cannot really know any mathematical propositions or that he had coffee in the morning without presupposing the laws of logic, etc., which depend on metaphysical assumptions. Nevertheless, even if there is a very fundamental inconsistency in knowledge that denies ontological participation, it does not mean that it is not knowledge – it simply means that it is not properly grounded.

In this way, it seems that Milbank overstates his case to a degree that epistemology is laid on a univocal continuum, which would compromise the distinction between reason and revelation as two modes of knowing (even if not independent), and would deny the legitimacy of any knowledge whatsoever that is not exercised in faith. Aquinas certainly did not allow for independent existence and knowledge apart from God, but it would be difficult to demonstrate that he denied that reason has any power to function apart from faith.

For Aquinas, there are two theologies – first, a theology that is part of philosophy and is investigated by human reason, and second, a theology included in sacred doctrine that operates by way of revelation (cf. Summa Ia.I.1). There is therefore a mode of knowledge about God that is accessible to human reason, and another mode of knowledge inaccessible to reason, beyond man’s knowledge, and accessible only to revelation.

Aquinas’ maxim that “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it” (Summa Ia.I.8ad2) seems to be taken by Milbank in the sense that grace perfects nature by swallowing it up, so that there is no reason apart from faith; whereas Aquinas’ point is that grace allows for the integrity of reason while also coming to its aid by way of revelation, providing knowledge which is otherwise inaccessible to reason. The difficulty seems to be in understanding precisely in what sense reason can be said to be or not be autonomous. Milbank correctly argues that reason is not a purely autonomous operation that can function entirely apart from God, but rather that it operates only on the basis of an inner divine illumination.

This is true because sight, whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual, is a gift from God in whom we live, and move, and have our being. But it does not follow from this that God’s illumination of the intellect (allowing reason to function properly within the limitations of finite knowledge and of the noetic effects of the fall) is of the same mode of the illumination God grants in revelation. Otherwise, natural theology and revelation are not really distinct, but only different intensities of the same continuum – and this would entail an identity between nature and grace that would be entirely foreign to Aquinas. One can say that Aquinas argues for the integrity of creation versus brute autonomy, or a graced autonomy versus a seized autonomy.”[5]

Therefore, rather than denying any legitimacy whatsoever of reason apart from faith, it seems a better strategy – which Milbank also adopts – to argue that apart from an ontology of realism and participation, things lose depth, knowledge becomes arbitrary, ethics lose real grounding, and evil becomes the counter-equivalent of the good. This is sufficient for a sustained critique of modernism, postmodernism, univocity, sheer relativism, difference without unity, and the illusion of the neutrality of science and secular praxis.

[1] Milbank, Radical Orthodoxy, p. 24

[2] Ibid., p. 24. Emphasis in the original.

[3] Ibid., p. 25

[4] Ibid., p. 24

[5] Smith, p. 163

Radical Orthodoxy – Altera Civitas

Milbank argues that theology is itself a social science, and the queen of the sciences for the inhabitants of the “other city,” the city of God, the altera civitas. This is the city which itself is in pilgrimage through this temporary world. This city has (or should have) its own social science because it has it own theology, and should not “borrow from elsewhere a fundamental account of society or history, and then see what theological insights will cohere with it.”[i] In other words, Milbank denies that Christian theology and practice should adopt, face value, the conclusions of modern social theory, political theory, history, and so on. This is not to say that such conclusions should be ignored or discarded altogether, but it means that they are to be carefully assessed and revised, for they are the result of methodologies that are not neutral – and the presuppositions informing such methodologies are incompatible with a Christian view of the world, of ultimate reality, of ethics, etc.

Therefore, “it is theology itself that will have to provide its own account of the final causes at work in human history, on the basis of its own particular, and historically specific faith.” Milbank goes on to argue that there can be a “distinguishable Christian social theory because there is also a distinguishable Christian mode of action, a definite practice.”[ii] In this sense, ecclesiology is also a sociology, but Milbank argues that this is not a “Christian sociology” in the sense of “Christian mathematics,” but in the sense that such ecclesiology/sociology adopts the vantage point of a distinct society with all its unique presuppositions – the Church. Again this is not to say that sociology becomes a branch of systematic theology, but rather that “all theology has to re-conceive itself as a kind of Christian sociology” whose task is to tell the Christian mythos, logos and praxis in such a way that this will be “strange” to the secular mind.

This means that this Christian theology/sociology will ask, like Hegel, how Christianity has affected human reason and practice, and not treat them as ahistorical universals. [iii] That is to say, it will seek to define “a moral practice embedded in the historical emergence of a new and unique community.” There are four main tasks that this Christian theology/sociology will have to perform in order to fulfill its goal: it has to provide a “counter-history,” a “counter-ethics,” a “counter-ontology” and again a critical “counter-history” of the Church herself. I will address each one in turn, concentrating specially on the first two.

See Also:

Radical Orthodoxy – A Theological Vision

Radical Orthodoxy – Reason and Revelation

Radical Orthodoxy – Metanarrative Realism

Radical Orthodoxy – Counter Ethics

Radical Orthodox – Conclusion

[i] Milbank, Theology & Social Theory,  382

[ii] Ibid.,  382

[iii] Ibid.,  383