Empire Strikes Back
It seems there's not a single uncontroversial bone in Milbank's body. His recent piece over on the ABC Religion and Ethics site ("Christianity, the Enlightenment, and Islam") has caused quite a stir in the blogosphere and, in a rare feat of ecumenism, he's managed to unite theologians of all stripes in a common outrage. Here Milbank's cultural prejudices are on full display and they all but beg for the critical lashing they've received on the blogs.
The entire piece strikes me as odd: Milbank aligning Christianity with the Enlightenment under any pretext? Parsing mystical Islam and political Islam in the puzzling way he does, when elsewhere he insists that to view any religion as less than a "social project" is to concede too much ground to modern liberalism? But of course the real beef concerns the optimistic view of western colonialism that seems to shine through. After chastising those who ignore the violent and repressive streak in political Islam, he concludes:
The proper response to our present, seemingly incommensurable tensions is not to gloss over or seek to rehabilitate the past in such a dishonest way, but to analyse why exactly Islam has largely taken such a dangerous, non-mystical and often political direction in recent times.This surely has to do with the lamentably premature collapse of Milbank's prudence. The postmodern side of him has always stressed that there only are particular narratives and traditions. Yet he is surprisingly comfortable with overly-generalized concepts ("the East," "the West," etc.) that appear more at home in reductive sociological discourse than in theology; the kinds of concepts post-colonial scholars both have in their cross-hairs and, ironically, employ all of the time. These few paragraphs put the question in stark relief: to what extent does Milbank exhibit dangerous colonialist tendencies?
This surely has to do with the lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires (as a consequence of the European wars) and the subsequent failure of Third World national development projects, with the connivance of neo-colonial, purely economic exploitation of poorer countries.
Political Islam offers itself as a new international, but non-colonial, vehicle for Third World identity. Unfortunately, it also perpetuates over-simplistic accounts of the imperial past and fosters a spirit of resentful rather than self-sustaining and creative response to the ravages of Western capitalism.
First the "good news." The majority of the essay is chock-full of the kinds of qualifications I'm not used to seeing in Milbank's work: he has at least tried to make his sweeping claims less sweeping, avoiding "monolithic" characterization and citing "significant minorities." And as Skholiast has noted, Milbank is not arguing that the Western colonial empires should never have fallen; but, if we are to read him with a dash of charity, he seems to think that things would have been better for everybody had the empires collapsed more gradually. And he does get some points for explicitly denouncing the economic exploitation of "neo-colonialism." It would be a leap indeed to claim that Milbank is calling for a new era of empire.
But here's the "bad news." Milbank's emphasis is troubling to say the least. Where he explicitly mentions imperialism elsewhere, he almost always adopts a suspiciously apologetic tone: he is far more worried about empire not getting its proper due from overzealous post-colonial types than he is about, say, denouncing the hell out of its manifest sins. The brand of colonialism associated with modern capitalism gets plenty of negative attention, but his rhetoric makes it sound as though he longs for the traditional colonial powers. Of course the history of empire is a complicated affair, but isn't all of this about as helpful as saying Stalin wasn't that bad compared to Hitler? Milbank also prefers the rather cavalier idiom of providence when describing "the West" and its cultural formations; an idiom that all Christians should find themselves hesitant to invoke when judging an institution or a history so burdened with its crimes.
Adam Kotsko's criticisms are on target, I think. Adam brings up three compelling counterpoints to challenge the wisdom of Milbank's judgments. Tim McGee's comments are also helpful. In particular Tim reminds us why we shouldn't be terribly surprised by this kind of thing: when one looks at some of his earlier political writings, things start to look bleak for Milbank. One can trace this attitude back to his 1990 essay, "The End of Dialogue," republished in the collection The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology (Eugene: Cascade, 2009). Tim was a classmate of mine in J. Kameron Carter's course on Radical Orthodoxy and post-colonialism, in which we were exposed to the scaffolding of Carter's critique of Milbank. I've expressed reservations about Carter's approach, mostly due to what I perceive to be an uncritical appropriation of genealogy (ala Foucault) in service of his deconstructive reading. The hermeneutical principles that Carter offered pose problems not only for basic Christian doctrinal commitments, but also for any privileged perspective of critique supposedly immune from the same kind of deconstruction (the will-to-power does not discriminate). This also brought with it an inadequate view of the relation between theory and praxis: such that Milbank could "say" everything right "up-here" while nonetheless reducing all of his correct dogma and metaphysics to tools of an independent will-to-power "down here" (as will-to-re-colonize). Long story short, I believe the class fostered an environment in which minds were already and too easily made-up. Students often felt safe to offer rather bold and dismissive claims, comfortably abstracted from close textual analysis. My first impression of the experience was not unlike watching a farcical witch hunt: "We did do the nose...but he is a witch!!!" However I am grateful to Carter for forcing me to reflect on Milbank's attitude toward empire. One of Carter's most illuminating points is that colonialism arose with and depended upon a particular theological discourse. One need only to look at the writings of John Major or Gines de Sepulveda to find a perverse theological justification for the enslavement of the Indies (a justification against which Montesino, las Casas, and the other Dominicans of Hispaniola had to fight so ardently). It is to Christianity's potential for such abuse, and its actual abuse in history, that Milbank seems so dangerously inattentive.
In "The End of Dialogue," Milbank stresses the essential nature of Christianity's "ecclesial project," uniquely understanding itself as an international society with "deterritorializing" effects for the men, women, and children that it accepts as equal members (286). However, he also claims that "all the major religions are associated in one way or another with the 'imperial,' nomadic ventures of the Indo-European peoples" (288). Imperialism is, like the kind of universalization associated with the Christian polis, a deterritorializing phenomenon. While Milbank notes that empires tend to enshrine power "in the natural order, or in principles" and thereby create a more effective and stable brand of tyranny, he nonetheless stresses that "most empires are ambiguous rather than sheerly deplorable" (288). He also includes an odd and manifestly reductive genealogy of the fundamental difference that makes "the West" and "the East" culturally incommensurable (all in three pages!). This of course translates into two different views of religio-political power and thus two different kinds of empire: because the East has an essentially arbitrary understanding of divine and regal power, it has no resources within itself to regulate or redeem its imperial strain; but for the West, justice and the Good "are themselves the vehicles of Western imperialism." And while the latter may occasionally don the mask of domination, at the very least the Western type can (theoretically) produce an internal cultural critique (295). Hence, the antidote to the Western abuse of power can only come from within Western culture itself. Further, because the idea of an "essential Christianity" free from all cultural attachments is a myth, a non-Western cultural expression of Christianity "is just nonsensical" (292). This seems to account for both why Milbank would be relatively disinclined to listen to voices outside of the West and why it seems unavoidable for him that conversion to the Gospel will necessitate conversion to a particularly Western cultural formation. In this piece, then, one can see the foundation of Milbank's "East-West" dichotomy in "Christianity, the Enlightenment, and Islam," which somehow takes precedent over the more conventional Milbankian dichotomy of "Christianity-Modernity"
Following Tim's insight, one can also trace some of Milbank's points back to his 2002 essay, "Sovereignty, Empire, Capital, and Terror" (also republished in The Future of Love). Here again he calls out the capitalistic neo-colonialism of Britain and the US, but he can't resist contrasting this to the relative virtues of the old empires. For some reason the problem with the new colonialism that demands our attention is the uniformity it imposes. At least the "older European imperialism held the other at a subordinated distance, permitting its otherness..." -thank God for that-"even while subordinating it for the sake of an exploitation of natural and human resources." He's also concerned to note the nuances overlooked by "pseudo-left-wing American 'postcolonial' discourses"(226). I have little doubt the pseudo-left-wingers miss all kinds of nuances, but is it really necessary to apologize for traditional imperialism in order to get the point across?
This same essay provides some clues to Milbank's take on Islam. In the course of just a few pages, Milbank manages to present the Cartesian turn to the subject, "the idea of knowledge as detached representation of spatialized objects," and Milbank's greatest enemy- the univocity of being- as Oriental ideas derived from Avicenna. Medieval Islam was the "crucible" in which "protomodern ideas concerning subjectivity were forged and then handed over to the West." A "common culture of mystical philosophy and theology, focused around analogy and ontological participation- which has also tended to favor social participation- was rendered impossible" (230). To put it bluntly, the central ideas of modernity and the downfall of analogy were conditions contracted from the East. As was, it turns out, the arbitrary conception of absolute power that Milbank identified as a characteristic feature of Eastern understanding in "The End of Dialogue"(linking the absolute will of the Caliph and the will of Allah in Sunni Islam). He contrasts this with a "shared mystical outlook" in Shi'ite and Sufistic alternatives; explaining why he judges that Islam needs to go in a mystical direction if it wants to avoid extremism. Apart from eventually adopting the germ of modernity from Oriental thought, the West gets away pretty unscathed in this story; contributing to the impression that Milbank has a stake in narrating a purified history of Western culture (even in its empires).
As I've mentioned, I think there are problems going the route initially suggested by Carter, because a critique based on will-to-power just opens a pandora's box of other problems while risking some pretty serious hermeneutical mistakes. One need not open that box to effectively critique this aspect of Milbank's thought. I find Oliver Davies' criticisms the most illuminating thus far ("Revelation and the Politics of Culture: A Critical Assessment of the Theology of John Milbank" in Radical Orthodoxy?-A Catholic Enquiry, ed. Laurence Paul Hemming (Burlington: Ashgate, 2000)). Davies challenges Milbank's internal consistency: in effect, Milbank leaves himself open to the kind of tendency I've been talking about by not being Radically Orthodox enough. Uncritically adopting too much from 20th century postmodernism, Milbank (to use his own characterizations) lets in too much paganism and too much heresy. Davies notes that in his early work Milbank actually champions certain postmodern dogmas as the delayed realizations of Christian Revelation; including the redefinition of truth as persuasive power and a deep commitment to narrative incommensurability (so deep that he finds himself incommensurable with MacIntyre towards the end of TST). Davies argues that these two commitments in particular conflict with the narration of Milbank's "ontology of peace." "Incommensurability licenses a polemical and oppositional view of narrativity, setting the Christian story over and against alternative narratives." In short, Milbank severely limits the ways in which any narrative can express itself peacefully as the space in which all narratives find their fulfillment. It seems any narrative claiming the kind of privilege that Christianity does would have to appear imperialistic. Further, when Christianity must subsist as an exercise of persuasiveness, it becomes difficult to distinguish between Gospel and ideology; that is, "if conversion is the sole or chief criterion." "And how are we to judge whether conversion is deeper than the rehearsal of a narrative which in some societies has been a near universal form of cultural practice?" Rhetoric and persuasion, even masquerading as peaceful, can serve as the consummate manifestations of privilege and power (116). Davies concludes the point nicely:
Although there are also important rhetorics of asceticism, liberation and detachment within our society, the uncritical alignment of Chrsitianity and ideology through the epistemology of bare-fisted rhetoric will inevitably pose the question of whether the uncritical alliance of Christianity and "radical incommensurability" might not result precisely from a failure to interrogate the philosophical underpinnings of Radical Orthodoxy in the light of the non-coercive and empowering dispositions of the Gospel (116-117).I find this approach helpful because it does not grant that Milbank checks-out on the level of theory and only fails on the detached level of praxis. It has the benefit of linking practical consequences to apparent inconsistencies in his philosophical appropriation.
Just my two cents. Would love to hear what people think.