With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

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 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.

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?

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.

Pax Christi,


  • At 9/10/2010 10:50 AM, Anonymous Thomas J Bridges said…

    Thanks for the post. I had not read "The End of Dialogue," and am troubled by it (I read the one on capital and terror, and spent a while on TST).

    Since you invited thoughts, I have a couple, with no particular agenda: I always read Milbank's critique of MacIntyre as an extension of Milbank's critique of residual violence leftover from Greek conceptions of virtue and the polis. I am also a little more favorable toward some of the postmodern moves in Milbank, but I was always uncertain what to do about his claim that all narratives are finally to be decided between based on aesthetic taste. Whereas MacIntyre wants to argue with nihilists or liberals (says Milbank), Milbank wants to "persuade people – for reasons of literary taste – that Christianity offers a much better story” (TST 331). I am not sure that persuasion is automatically violent (maybe you could say more about what you mean specifically), especially when we get into the categories of beauty and form, but I also don't prefer the Christian story because I think it is better taste!

    Though Milbank is really an apologist of sorts (and I hate apologetics, in the popular sense of the term) what I appreciated in TST was his admission that no theo-logic (or any other kind of logic) can win an argument against "secular reason" (this is his postmodern side...)

    Finally, I too see Milbank as very contradictory and inconsistent. I am no fanboy, and now is especially not the time to defend him publicly, but it may be worth sorting out when Milbank is right or agreeable here or there, lest we all be so afraid of sounding like him or being thrown in with him that we run from orthodoxy or various good ideas (many will, of course disagree with me here). In fact, the latter reason is probably the only one for why I am willing to engage in conversations like this.

  • At 9/10/2010 5:22 PM, Blogger skholiast said…

    Thanks for the nod. I have just been reading "End of Dialogue" on Tim McGee's recommendation and I too was struck by the "all religions are bound up in Indo-European imperial expansion" line. Really? Say, Confucianism? and what counts as "major"?) In attempting to really listen to what JM's critics find so unsettling, I have noticed what you point out, his tone of apology (what you aptly characterize w/ the Stalin/Hitler comparison). My sense is that to really see why he says what he says, I ought to read the essays to which he's responding (in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness), but contrary to the impression some may have, I do not think that context provides extenuating circumstances for every utterance. I'll be digesting this over the weekend's camping trip, and will perhaps come up w/ something more satisfactory; right now I am still going 'hmmm'. But the short version is: some of Milbank's "nuances" (to employ the recently much-abused word) seem like just ambivalences-- not to say, like wanting to have it both ways. This undoubtedly goes for my own as well.

  • At 9/11/2010 12:30 PM, Blogger Timothy L. McGee said…

    I hate to prolong this discussion but want to make two points:
    (1) Carter himself questions the validity of a theory/praxis divide. The theory/praxis divide doesn't help your analysis, for it leaves you implying a commitment to show how all Christian malpractice stems from "unorthodox" influences (pagan...), a claim that leads to an idealized fiction, a chimerical thing called orthodoxy.
    2) Your critique (Milbank is himself contaminated, unorthodox) shares with Milbank a commitment to the purity and discrete nature of traditions/culture/religion (such that any failure in theology results from some contamination of the pure, orthodox tradition by its other, here labelled paganism). This thesis--about cultural/religious purity--is central to the orientalist and imperialistic framework (E. Said), thoroughly abstract and unhistorical (or textual, to use Said again) and implies the view you criticize, the incommensurability of traditions/cultures.

  • At 9/11/2010 12:52 PM, Blogger Timothy L. McGee said…

    Let me hasten to add that I don't see your interrogation operating in such a dehistorical or textual manner but am only suggesting that your criticism of M. for not being "orthodox" enough is itself insufficiently "radical," for it fails to get to, and in fact opens itself back up to reproducing, the root of the problem.

    And on (1), if you reject this consequence, then you accept the possibility that a theologian can get the "grammar" perfect and still enact horrors in the name of this pristine theology. In which case, one should interrogate the practice of this abstract theological practice.

  • At 9/11/2010 5:07 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    Thanks for bringing this piece by Milbank to my attention.

    Of all the positions being registered, I must say that I find yours to be the most compelling and insightful, a fact that I would probably attribute to Desmond's influence on your thinking. But before I get too ahead of myself, let my bring just a few minor points to the discussion.

    First, let me just briefly offer my meager credentials: I have read a good deal of Milbank's work; I have heard him present; I have corresponded with him in a limited way; I am friends with those who know him; and once I saw him publicly humiliated in Leuven just before he delivered the lecture for the feast of St. Thomas – well, “public humiliation” may be a bit harsh, but the speaker who concluded the session was quite rude.

    Anyway, it may not be obvious to many who read Milbank, but I would dare to say that the influence Desmond has had on his thinking cannot be underestimated. I bring this into the discussion only to ease the pressure that seems to have been generated by quickly linking this small, political piece to his (much) earlier works. As scholars, we are trained well to understand the method of paying attention to the continuity of a thinker's work. But this method as applied to Milbank seems to have compounded some of the problems understanding him.

    To be sure, I’m not saying I agree with what he expressed in the piece in question, or with his project overall. Rather, I’m questioning how helpful it is to set this rather minor piece side by side with work he did some 20 years ago and attempt to solve the apparent ambiguities and inconsistencies by seeking to squeeze him into determined positions.

    What I mean is that when he first appeared on the scene, he rose to influence through a certain appropriation of postmodern thought. This quite naturally gave the impression that he was in line with much of the “agenda” of postmodernism, and I think for a great part of his thought he was. But whenever his own truth claims or doctrinal commitments rear their “postmodernly unwelcome” head, he become a persona non grata.

    Now, over the last 20 years it is a fact that he began reading Desmond and that certainly Desmond would have at least confirmed in him the capacity to pass between equivocities all the while enduring the tension and ambiguity in the between. For many, this can be unsettling. As I understand it, Tim’s point about that “chimera” of orthodoxy seems to be an example of this. Now, if I misunderstand Tim's statement, I’ll happily reconsider the following. But it seems to me that – and this is something where a great deal of postmodern thought fails us, and where Desmond saves us – any rejection of the possibility of orthodoxy confuses an intelligibility with a determinate intelligibility; or to put it another way, faced with the ambiguity of an equivocation (orthodoxy vs. orthodoxy-as-chimera), this kind of thinking reduces both to a univocal determination that in fact does not exist in order to reject it. It in effect ‘throws the baby out with the bathwater.’

    But clearly, the view that any claim to orthodoxy is merely a chimera itself assumes at least a position above such claims, and thus claims for oneself a trans-orthodoxy that can now be used to deconstruct all claims to orthodoxy. Moreover, it assumes that all claims to orthodoxy are univocal determinations.


  • At 9/11/2010 5:09 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    From a metaxological perspective, though, orthodoxy is not conceived as a univocal determination. Rather, it is an intelligible reality that emerges in the between; that is, in between all concretions of it. Such a reading of it resists the urge to absolutize one concretion only (and so corresponds to the postmodern agenda), but it also resists the urge to deny any reality to it and firmly asserts the reality of orthodoxy (and so resists the postmodern agenda). This kind of orthodoxy is where I think Milbank has gone with his own understanding.

    As I understand them, both Tim and Adam respond to Milbank’s “surprising” migration beyond the middle to the more, let’s say, modern side of things by assuming that his commitment to postmodernity renders such a migration as nothing more than a betrayal or hypocrisy. That Milbank would trumpet his belief that Christianity is the truth and goal of all human longing and that this would, necessarily by his own thinking, commit him to also advancing one particular culture hastily assumes that by this Milbank has in mind a univocally determinate view of ‘Church’, ‘Christianity’ or ‘ecclesial.’ But nothing Milbank has said merits this judgment. In fact, in the context of his thought, the opposite would appear to be true - for him, the terms 'Church', 'Christianity' and 'ecclesial' are to be understood metaxologically (or analogously to use scholastic parlance).

    This is not to say that I don’t find their critiques insightful – on the contrary, I very much do. But I think that their judgment betrays a perhaps too firm commitment to the postmodern agenda that, in being hyper-sensitive to absolute claims, doctrinal commitments, and ‘grand narratives’ for the reason that they are often bound up with a univocally determinate interpretation of these, reduce any and every such interpretations of them to that univocal determinacy. I’m not sure I would agree that Milbank’s interpretation fits this mould.

    And let’s add that much of this may be a case of making a mountain out of a molehill. Let’s remember that this is a piece written for wide circulation to an audience that for the most part is not involved to the same degree in the conversations with which Milbank himself is occupied. Consequently, I wonder how fair it is to hold him the same sort of standard we would if he had published this either in some monograph or as a scholarly piece in a peer review journal. I understand that connecting this piece with such his earlier essay ‘The End of Dialogue’ attempts to justify holding this piece to such a standard. But as I’ve already noted, the 20 year disparity seems to call this method into question. Even as consistent a thinker as St. Thomas changed and nuanced his positions over a 20 year period.

    concluded below....

  • At 9/11/2010 5:10 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    And I think that the center statement around which most of the criticism gravitates – namely: 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 – is a statement jam packed with content that would require from Milbank a great deal of subsequent explanation.

    Consider the following. When he writes ‘premature’ does he in fact mean that it happened “too fast” (as Adam seems to conclude)? Or could he mean that the collapse ought to have been brought about when Western culture had matured a bit, so as to prevent, e.g., counterfeiting theology in the guise of sociology, psychology and other various science that are often blind to their theological pedigree (and so merely repeat a great deal of the problems associated with an earlier type of thinking)? Given Milbank’s staunch criticism of this massive act of counterfeit, it would appear that the latter meaning is the more probable since in this sense the collapse of Western colonial empires would have given way to a more (yep, RO’s favorite word) “Robust” Western culture free from the problems it once had. Now, such a reading doesn’t excuse him outright, but I think it should at least caution our hasty interpretations of his densely packed thoughts.

    And this is where I think your critique, Pat, is most compelling. You seem to grant the need to read him charitably. You also recognize the validity of his own truth claims and doctrinal commitments. And most importantly, you get beyond the oscillation between univocity and equivocity. As much as I appreciate Tim’s critiques of your thinking, I believe that it is a critique that is stuck in such an oscillation.

  • At 9/11/2010 10:14 PM, Blogger Timothy L. McGee said…

    A few points in response to Brendan
    (1) the "End of Dialogue" was originally published the same year as TST and then republished and reaffirmed in its totality in 2009, in __The Future of Love__. This makes this neither minor nor firmly lodged in the distant past (which allows me to avoid a thorough discussion on your "minor/major" split).
    (2) my claim about "chimerical orthodoxy" should be read within the discussion of the theory/praxis divide and also within the sentence: a claim that LEADS TO.... The point is that if "orthodoxy" necessarily excludes all malpractice, then the term "orthodox" operates as a cipher for an idealized and impossible cultural purity (remember religion is cultural form in Milbank).
    (3) Your defense of Milbank's "premature" comment exhibits a disturbing presumption of Western mastery, as if the rest of the world were merely the stage for the West's own processes of maturation. You never even mentioned that the colonial situation might involve matters of life and death for some non-Western people..."lamentable" because it didn't let "the West" get its proper theological footing...
    (4) Your defense that Milbank thinks terms like "ecclesia" etc. are analogical assumes precisely what I critique: Milbank's thought is so over-determined by the orientalist us/them that he cannot account for difference at all (it's ultimately just the same and its degradations into/as others, which is why he denies in 1990 and 2009 the possibility of Christianity in non-Western terms--no analogy b/n us and them....).
    (5) Finally, for Milbank, the analogical is a mode of religious/cultural activity and thus presupposes a culture that can read, determine, and arrange all other cultures (an argument in TST). Milbank's discussion of analogy maps perfectly within E. Said's outline of orientalist thought, both in its textuality and its productive operation in the world, and cannot be used to soften or defend his opprobrious colonial nostalgia.

  • At 9/12/2010 1:11 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    I appreciate your willingness to respond to the points I raised. I suppose its best for me to simply register my own responses to your enumerated counter-points, which will require that I use a few comment boxes:

    1) I’ll concede your point here, since I haven’t been following Milbank’s work all that closely these days. Still, I think a bit more caution, such as that shown by Pat, ought to temper one’s hasty connections between this piece, which as I noted was not written for scholars in a scholarly context, and his other, more scholarly work.

    2) Your defense of this issue in my view still assumes a univocally determined sense of orthodoxy. One can validly claim that orthodoxy qua orthodoxy excludes all malpractice if by this one allows for the overdetermination (and I’m not sure you and I use this term in the same way) of both orthodoxy and malpractice. It’s similar to saying something as simple as ‘There is absolute truth’ – now in this statement, one can only ever mean: the particularities of my cultural context allow me to affirm that there is an absolute truth – one cannot and does not assume to have positively captured what ‘absolute truth’ is within the limits of a concept. But in no way does such a statement force one into some sort of cultural triumphalism so long as one understand that this absolute truth is an overdetermined reality in excess of all valid (nb!) concretions. One can validly claim that ‘absolute truth excludes all error’ without claiming to know every determinate limit in which this is made concrete. And, if one can validly say ‘absolute truth excludes all error’, then one can validly communicate this in the more concrete terms of Christian doctrine and practice. Again, I think that there are more subtle points that your position is overlooking.

    Besides, I would put your own challenge to you: how do you justify your own trans-theoretical, trans-practical, trans-orthodox claim to know what can and cannot be uttered about orthodoxy? By your own logic, you undermine the very foundation of your own critique (and thus, the internal limitations of deconstructive thought rear their ugly heads….)

  • At 9/12/2010 1:12 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    3) To respond to this point, I need to make a few different points.

    First of all, you write “your defense of Milbank…” which leads me to wonder in what way you read what I wrote. Nowhere do I offer a defense of Milbank. I simply propose other possible alternative readings in order to give evidence that both you and Adam may have perhaps misread him on some level, or at least did not read him on his own terms but read him on your own terms (which, as I understand it, would be in keeping with Pat’s point about the presumptions of the class he was in). To be sure, I don’t fault you for this. Your terms may offer some value. What I would fault one for in this case is failing to recognize this fact of his/her reading.

    Second, your use of the word ‘disturbing’ indicates to my mind a rhetoric that is more polemic and less open to dialogue. But let’s analyze it. You support your claim that this idea would be disturbing as a defense for Milbank (which it wasn’t) by issuing this statement: as if the rest of the world were merely the stage for the West's own processes of maturation. But why is this disturbing? Is it not the case that, on a personal level, each of us contributes to the ‘stage’ upon which we all come to maturity? And on a larger scale, is it not the case that every culture contributes to the ‘stage’ wherein every other culture comes to maturity? These ideas do not necessarily harbor the negative sense of utility that you seem to infer, as if my being part of Pat’s maturity makes me nothing but an instrument to be used and tossed aside; as if the contribution of other cultures to the West’s maturity, because of that fact, renders them inferior and dispensable.

    Third, your final point in this #3, that I never even mentioned that the colonial situation might involve matters of life and death for some non-Western people..."lamentable" because it didn't let "the West" get its proper theological footing... is somewhat confusing to me. Perhaps it’s my own fault, but I’m not sure I follow your logic. First, remember again that I was not defending Milbank, so this point may be an issue you have with Milbank rather than with me. Second, if it is directed toward Milbank, it may indicate that we simply have different readings of him: as I read him, his claim about the prematurity of the collapse could mean that had this collapse occurred during a stage in which the West was more self-conscious of its own theological pedigree, it may have handled these “matters of life and death” with greater caution and care. Anyone who has read Milbank knows full well that his target is the rise of a secularism that is unaware of its own theological foundations. The premature claim the West made upon its own theological inheritance, especially within the social sciences, created a more dangerous form of triumphalism since it justified itself, not on “religious” grounds, but precisely on supposed ‘rational’ grounds. This is really where I think one ought to locate Milbank’s use of the word premature. And yes – it is lamentable because the West was not able to get its proper footing.

    Finally, on this point, I must simply say that you are perhaps too postmodern for my tastes. In part, this leads you to draw hasty conclusions about meaning that derives more from your postmodern sensitivity to ‘otherness’ and less from what is actually being written. I think your response to my own claims offers evidence of this in addition to the reading of Milbank you put forth. Just to reiterate this matter, you seem to interpret the idea that the ‘other’ could contribute to the structure (‘stage’ is your word) where the self (personal or cultural) comes to maturity in only negative terms. But clearly this is not the only way to understand this. Therefore, your reading infers your own assumed priorities rather than letting the meaning speak for itself.

  • At 9/12/2010 1:14 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    4) Here, you write: Your defense that Milbank thinks terms like "ecclesia" etc. are analogical assumes precisely what I critique: Milbank's thought is so over-determined by the orientalist us/them that he cannot account for difference at all and I would simply point out that once again, you read me as defending Milbank. But I’m not doing that.

    Rather, I am critiquing your critique. Simply because I reject your critique does not commit to being a defender of Milbank.

    Second, I don’t agree with your reading here. It’s simply far too exaggerated and hyperbolic to merit the credibility you seek. “Cannot account for difference at all”? That’s a pretty strong statement, and one that I think in its form cannot be defended.

    Third, I’d question your understanding of analogy. I know for a fact that Milbank uses the term quite technically in the scholastic sense most of the time, though at times he does use it to refer to its own various modalities. And when I make the suggestion that he views concepts like ‘Church,’ ‘culture’ etc. in an analogous way, I am also referring to this technical, scholastic sense of the term. Your response indicates that you may not be familiar with this sense.

    Fourth, your statement demonstrates an internal inconsistency, if not an unconscious contradiction, and here’s how: on the one hand, you claim that Milbank’s thought is so over-determined by the orientalist us/them, in effect asserting that he adopts a fundamental equivocation from orientalist (Eastern?) thought. Such an adoption would, as equivocal, elevate difference to an absolute status. Now, whether or not such an elevation accounts for difference in the most accurate and justifiable way, there is no question that it is certainly accounted for. On the other hand, you conclude that he cannot account for difference at all. But it seems that you just stated he elevates difference to an almost absolute status, following what you take to be an ‘orientalist’ notion of us/them (and again, I’m not sure how or why you associated the us/them with orientalist thought. Who precisely do you have in mind? And how would such a generalization be defended properly? Do no orientalists get beyond an us/them dichotomy?)

  • At 9/12/2010 1:15 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    5) To your claim about Milbank’s understanding of analogy, I think you overstate one of his uses of it. For Milbank, analogy is first and foremost a metaphysical reality that communicates itself in a variety of modes. As metaphysical, it is an event happening on the level of being, and presupposes nothing. To your statement, that for Milbank, the analogical is a mode of religious/cultural activity and thus presupposes a culture that can read, determine, and arrange all other cultures, I don’t think your ‘thus’ purchases what you expect it to. If something is understood as a mode of cultural/religious activity, it does not follow necessarily that it presupposes a culture that can “read, determine and arrange all other cultures.” If, though, you are asserting what you believe follows from analogy per se, I would reply that you mistakenly reduce it to a univocal determination. Analogia, in the scholastic sense, does require a ratio proprio to serve a normative status. But as a normative principle, it is porous to its others because precisely as ratio proprio it is overdetermined, capable of unifying all terms involved.

    Finally, at the risk of sounding pedantic (a flaw that I hope can be forgiven), statements like this: Milbank's discussion of analogy maps perfectly within E. Said's outline of orientalist thought, both in its textuality and its productive operation in the world, and cannot be used to soften or defend his opprobrious colonial nostalgia., while quite alluring in its rhetoric, and (unfortunately) indicative of so much of the kind of theology being done today, does not reflect a patient, thoughtful reading. It is far less a solid statement of sound scholarship and far more a rhetorical flourish. Now, yes, this is just a blog and the context of a blog invites such flourishes. But as a statement it does not really do anything except express your own misgivings with Milbank rooted on nothing more than your own presuppositions. You have entirely assumed and not validly defended the sense of “colonial nostalgia” in Milbank. It may in fact be there, but in my view you have not successfully brought it out.

  • At 9/12/2010 4:22 PM, Blogger Timothy L. McGee said…

    This is dragging out so I will respond and give you the final word. Also, thanks for translating my use of the word "defense" along the lines that you did (a rebuttal of a criticism is a defense, but not a defense that implies an endorsement; a clearer word could have been used).
    On (2), The basic point I'm making holds even granting your overdetermined definition--is it the orthodox one?--of orthodoxy: it renders a theory/praxis divide a poor conceptual tool (as you can't know whether a theological statement that appears grammatically orthodox is in fact orthodox until one examines its social productivity to see how it is performed).
    (3) on your charitable interpretation, what Milbank meant to say was not the lamentably premature collapse but the lamentable immaturity of the West at the time of the collapse. However, Milbank has excluded the non-West from any role in the collapse of colonialism ("as a consequence of the European wars") and has not accounted for how those suffering under and fighting against the colonial horrors would not in any way see it as coming "too soon." The fact that you would claim your interpretation is charitable (and hence making his remarks at least less insidious) is disturbing because it shows that you too seem to share this comfortability with Western mastery. Nobody would dare say that Nazism had an unfortunately premature ending for any reason whatsoever. What is lamented, correctly, is Nazism, not its ending. Same should be with colonialism.
    (4) Ad Hominens aside (for the record, I did a seminar on Aquinas with R. Huetter at Duke...does that mean I'm now not so "postmodern" but maybe closer to the "orthodox" so that you need not assume my ignorance...), the orientalist "same and its negation" isn't the prioritization of difference but a failure to read it at all, and thus there is no contradiction. I associate his binary us/them with orientalism because of the comments he recently made and most especially the paper "End of Dialogue" function exactly within that frame of thought.
    (5) actually my point is just a summary of Milbank: the" gigantic claim to be able to read, criticize, say what is going on in other human societies, is absolutely integral to the nature of the Christian Church, which itself claims to exhibit the exemplary form of human community" (TST, 390). Which, by the way, I stated in my post. So is the idea that analogy is metaphysical event within our cultural productions: it is "dynamic" where likenesses are "constructed" as a "participation also in the divine creativity"..."the analogical process is a constant discrimination of preferences and erection of hierarchies" and presupposes "adherence to a particular tradition" (pages 307-309). Now, to comfortably sound a little pedantic (since you have been a little bit insulting, consistently assuming my lack of theological acumen): read those quotes alongside "End of Dialogue" and E. Said's "Orientalism" and you will see what I mean when I say it fits perfectly within orientalist thought.

  • At 9/12/2010 4:33 PM, Blogger Steve Finnell said…

    you are invited to follow my blog

  • At 9/12/2010 9:05 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    Thanks to all for helping me think through this. Plenty to respond to.

    First off, Tim: how's life post-Duke? Are you in Rwanda yet? Hope all is well.

    Thanks for your comments. As to your first point: I know Carter questions the theory/praxis divide, as does Milbank himself. I'm not convinced that, at least as regards his appropriation of genealogy, he's questioned it in the right way. It's not really a question of denying the divide; its more a question of what one's denial looks like and implies.

    But the more relevant point is that my analysis doesn't imply the commitment you cite (to show how all Christian malpractice stems from unorthodox influences). This leads into your second point. Nor does my critique share with Milbank dependence upon an overly sterilized understanding of tradition/culture/religion. Notice that my proposed approach aims not to out-Milbank Milbank, but only to point to potential inconsistencies in his own position. I also explicitly wrote "to use his own characterizations" when referring to how he uses paganism and heresy to distance myself from any simple adoption of his line of thought. All I mean to do is point to Davies' article as an example of a more effective and convincing way of critiquing Milbank's attitude toward empire, because it doesn't need to get into whether or not Milbank is correct in his modern/postmodern-as-paganism/heresy judgments. It only needs to show how on Milbank's own terms, there are serious tensions between 1) his appropriation of postmodern concepts, and 2) his characterizations of postmodernism as pagan/heretical. I don't have to first justify my own presuppositions (say, my interpretation of the theory/praxis divide as it's relevant, or my own conception of orthodoxy, etc.) then begin the argumentation; just point out that Milbank may be falling on his own sword as much as he's cutting through his enemies.

    Now of course if subject to scrutiny, I (like Davies and others) would have to make a case that I've accurately represented an inconsistency in Milbank's thought. But I'm not at all committed to a dehistorical reading, the incommensurability of traditions/cultures, or (therefore) reproducing the root of the problem.


  • At 9/12/2010 9:06 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    I certainly don't deny that theologians and philosophers (and anyone for that matter) can use right-sounding abstract thought as a tool to promote some horrors at the level of action. But one need not be committed to the equation of theory/praxis to hold this. More importantly, one certainly need not be committed to the version of this equation that relies upon will-to-power. The reductive danger on this side of things shouldn't be hard for anyone to see: in Nietzsche, for instance, abstract theoretical commitments become all but epiphenomenal; truth itself is no more than will-to-power (in the end, so are all distinct identities). In this case, we see the denial of the divide (will-to-power is ultimately all there is) but nonetheless theory still has a kind of epiphenomenal existence; hence its difference is not substantive but can therefore admit a completely inconsequential grammatical consistency or "rightness". The only analysis that really has any traction is that which reads theories as tools or expressions of will-to-power and nothing more.

    Now I'm not pinning this on either Foucault or Carter per se, but this is the baggage and the constant temptation that comes with the genealogical approach. Just note how much harder it is to maintain a standard of interpretive accuracy with this method: if we begin with this framework, we know that the will-to-power is operative and all we need to do is articulate the opponent's theoretical statements in such a way that they can clearly be seen as the tool of his will-to-power. How do I even go about disproving something like, say, Carter's off-hand claim that (paraphrasing) there is no daylight between St. Thomas and Scotus on the issue of using metaphysics to exclude Christ's Jewishness from the list of relevant factors for Christology; thereby contributing anti-semitic structures of Christian thought? (feel free to correct me on that or to elaborate if you think I've read-into the comment; but I did record it in my notes). How do I even go about justifying the will-to-power framework in a way that doesn't simply presuppose it?

    This is just one of the beasts from pandora's box that causes me, and others from the class, to remain hesitant; because these were the kinds of things that were not seriously addressed or addressed at all(even when questions were raised in class). The temptation can provide exactly the same kind of false armor from all critique that Milbank's theology can.


  • At 9/12/2010 9:56 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    Now of course as one can see in Milbank's case, a great deal of what the critiqued has written will conform to the critique and exhibit something like will-to-power. But not all of his (or her) thought need fit so well; so, unless one is willing to go to the Nietzschean extreme, how tell when one is accurately describing a sub-structure of the opponent's theory and when one is simply articulating it to fit the presupposition that all theoretical claims are essentially will-to-power?

    Milbank's political writings seem to fit the mold in certain places (most explicitly in the essays/passages to which we've both referred). And actually I agree that, given his 2009 approval in the preface (introduction?) of _The Future of Love_, his understanding of analogy is still problematic and certainly an ideological step beyond the scholastic understanding (though, as any glance at this blog will confirm, I like Milbank think analogy is deeply important).

    The question is then why does he go this route? I happen to think that it is precisely his denial of the theory/praxis distinction that makes this problematic view of analogy intelligible and even attractive. At least in his earlier writings, he wants to unite truth to human poesis in a way that is thoroughly postmodern (which even he acknowledges) and very much un-Scholastic. This, it seems, allows him to closely align something like analogy (metaphysical) with human production (cultural formation); such that he no longer has the proper resources to conceptually parse them and protect a metaphysical doctrine from the manifest problems attached to his view of western culture.

    I think Brendan is right, though, that the influence of Desmond is Milbank's saving grace and the more Desmondian he becomes the more his theology will be redeemable. But I think with regard to how he reads analogy into issues of culture, the impact of Desmond is not yet visible enough.

    I can comment more about orthodoxy and a number of Brendan's comments, but I'll let you comment and see if you even have any desire to keep this conversation rolling.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 9/13/2010 7:28 AM, Blogger Timothy L. McGee said…

    Thanks for your comments. I am still in Durham, working at World Relief, and looking at more school in the future (for various reasons Rwanda isn't going to work out at least at this point).

    Given that I don't have time (work, new family) to keep up this conversation (I've had time as I've been on paternity leave, but that ends as of today!), I'll just thank you for your explanation. We obviously have different reads of the Carter class (e.g., appropriating Foucault to get an angle on the problems in Milbank, or, forcing Milbank to fit within will-to-power). Surprisingly, we share a similar sense of how to respond to Milbank (my original blog post tried to argue that Milbank cannot offer a compelling account of what he himself claims to, namely difference, because of the orientalist operations in his theology) but disagree as to cause of Milbank's failure (for me, not postmodern appropriation but orientalist ideology), and therefore the proper response (not a more scholastic, less postmodern analogy of being but a more rigorous theological reflection on the role of theology within the production of the colonial world).

  • At 9/13/2010 10:54 AM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    I think that sums it up pretty well. Sorry to hear about Rwanda but congrats on the new family!

    Pax Christi,

  • At 9/14/2010 9:33 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    Obviously, my not being in classes with you etc. puts a gap in my understanding of where you are coming from. I could only work off of what you had written.

    Moreover, I apologize if you took what I had said to be an insult – it was not intended as such. When I say, based only upon what you had written, that you may not understand analogy in the scholastic sense, I don’t consider that an insult or an ad hominem. It may not be true, and perhaps you do understand analogy in the scholastic sense, but based upon what you had written that didn’t come through as I understand it. Analogy is not an easy topic, though. I sat through an entire conference on the analogia entis a couple years ago and found that a number of distinguished scholars were still struggling with it. I myself have had to read, reread and reread again the great masters in order to arrive at what I consider to be a solid understanding of it. But that may be my own intellectual deficiency. In any case, it wasn’t meant as an insult.

    I also understand that you don’t want to drag this out, so I’ll just respond to your points in the event that you do find time or for the sake of other readers.

    The first point I want to make is that my whole MO in all this is, as I’ve stated, not to defend Milbank so much as to draw attention to what I consider to be problematic thinking of the critiques. Now, if this too is considered insulting, again I apologize. But is this not the foundation of your, Pat’s and Tim’s critiques of Milbank – that you ultimately find fault with his thinking. Moreover, as I also stated, I have not been keeping up with Milbank’s writing, so my responses ought not be read as a defense (a sentiment with which you seem to agree.) I claim no expertise over Milbank’s work.

    The second point is that when I claim you are too postmodern for me, I did not intend this as an insult either. I am quite comfortable with a thinker being persuaded by postmodern thought. And – again, based upon what you had written – it seemed that much of what you were writing emerged from a solid footing upon the grounds of postmodernity.

    To be sure, I have my own misgivings about postmodernity, but I do have respect for it as a program.

    Now, as I read it, I think there is a flavor of postmodernity in your assertion about orthodoxy/orthopraxis: it renders a theory/praxis divide a poor conceptual tool (as you can't know whether a theological statement that appears grammatically orthodox is in fact orthodox until one examines its social productivity to see how it is performed).

    But I do not wish to jump to conclusions. It is unclear to me whether your parenthetical explanation is your own assertion or whether it is intended to communicate why the theory/praxis divide fails. In other words, are you yourself asserting that one can’t know the grammatical orthodoxy of a statement until it is practiced? Or are you asserting that the theory/praxis divide is a poor conceptual tool because it requires that one can’t know the orthodoxy of a statement until it is practiced and that consequently this is a flawed position?

  • At 9/14/2010 9:50 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    2) what Milbank meant to say was not the lamentably premature collapse but the lamentable immaturity of the West at the time of the collapse. I wonder, then, if you are correct, why didn’t he say what you say he meant? Why did he write something other than what he meant? Nowhere does he use the word ‘immature’ – which carries the pejorative sense that you want to find in him. Rather, he used the word ‘premature’, which at least gives credibility to my reading.

    In any event, any claim to know what an author meant to say beyond what was actually said is quite suspect. Now of course all interpretation does this. But when I propose my reading, I try to unpack his use of the word ‘premature.’ It seems that when you claim to know what he meant to say, you are actually packing items that are not his into his container (like the word ‘immature’). But all this supports my original point of contention: that the statement in question is densely packed with typical Milbank abstruseness. And what I objected to in your and Adam’s readings were the rather hasty way in which you condemned this statement with what appeared to be little regard for such density or little regard for what Milbank was actually saying on his own terms.

    Your points here: Milbank has excluded the non-West from any role in the collapse of colonialism ("as a consequence of the European wars") and has not accounted for how those suffering under and fighting against the colonial horrors would not in any way see it as coming "too soon."
    …may be accurate as a reading of the strict sense of the statement, but again I think that your judgment makes a mountain out of a molehill. Again, failing to include something in such a terse statement does not necessarily mean there was a conscious exclusion. And I think you’re reading other issues into Milbank’s statement. Now, to be sure, I am very sympathetic with your point. And in terms of a wider debate, your point here would be very important. But in terms of Milbank’s terse statement, I think that such a connection is a bit unfair.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong. Just that, again, based upon what you bring to your reading, I’m not persuaded.

    And when you then turn this on me by writing: The fact that you would claim your interpretation is charitable (and hence making his remarks at least less insidious) is disturbing because it shows that you too seem to share this comfortability with Western mastery. again, is simply far too inferential to merit any credibility. When I speak of a charitable reading, I do not mean to make a statement less insidious. In fact, sometimes a charitable reading may make a statement more insidious. Rather, a charitable reading in my view means reading the thinker on his own terms - which means a) understanding the general trajectory of his/her thought; b) being attentive to the context of a given text; c) allowing the words used to speak for themselves; d) resisting the urge to impose our own issues into the mix (among other things).

  • At 9/14/2010 9:56 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    (continuing #3):

    Now, I’ll say it again – I concede your point about concern for non-Western cultures. I am very much with you on this matter. I just don’t think using that as a foil to beat Milbank (or me) in this situation amounts to an honest, sober reading of the text. If Milbank had uttered this statement in a piece that was specifically about the role of other cultures within Western development, then I think your point would be quite insightful. But as it is, it appears in a piece written about Chrisianity, the West and Islam. Colonialism and the horror of the Imperial movement are not the primary issue here.

    Your final point: Nobody would dare say that Nazism had an unfortunately premature ending for any reason whatsoever. What is lamented, correctly, is Nazism, not its ending. Same should be with colonialism. technically violates the Godwin principle (, and so forces you to concede defeat. But I’ve never been a believer in this principle. Anyway, I understand what you are saying here, and I don’t disagree entirely. Though I do think that your comparison between colonialism as such and the Nazis ignores a distinction that Milbank is trying to make which recognizes some positive outcomes of colonial empires.

  • At 9/14/2010 10:26 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    finally, to your #5).

    If your point was to simply summarize what Milbank states in your citation, then I don’t find it to be an accurate summary. As the remainder of the first citation indicates in TST itself, Milbank is speaking of Christianity’s unique position as a narrative being claimed by a truth that stands in excess of even itself. Theology, then, can never surrender this position to any other attempts to narrate this situation (especially the social sciences).

    The evidence you offer for his use of analogy seems to corroborate my point.

    So I’m not sure how all this fits together with your colonialist concerns.

    Let’s recall that you yourself criticized Milbank for having a “colonial nostalgia.” In defense you drew out his claim about the Church, Chrisianity and culture. I, in response, suggested that these terms ought to be understood analogously rather than in the strict univocal sense that your objection requires them to be.

    The very citation you provide for Milbank’s understanding of analogy seems to refute the idea of the sort of colonial nostalgia/cultural triumphalism of which you accuse him.

    He also writes: “If analogy is seen as entering into all unities, relations and disjunctures, then it is rendered dynamic: the likenesses ‘discovered’ are also constructed likenesses (whether by natural or cultural processes) which can be refashioned and re-shaped. And if certain things and qualities are ‘like God,’ then it must also be true that the analogizing capacity itself is ‘like God.’ “ (305 in my very early edition).

    Anyway, what all this suggests is that you and I have different readings.

    But let’s be clear: at no time did I “assume your lack of theological acumen,” let alone on a “consistent” basis. Reread what I wrote and you’ll find this to be true.

    What I did call into question was your capacity to read a text without inferring too much of your own ideological claims upon it,a dn to think accurately given an encounter with a test. And that you now draw this conclusion over me – that I “consistently assumed your lack of theological acumen” provides further evidence for my claim.

  • At 9/14/2010 10:39 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    I think your point about Desmond's influence upon Milbank's understanding of culture is a good one.

    I also agree with your reading of the whole 'will to power' issue.
    The more I read Desmond, the more it becomes clear how his thought, because it is conscious of the problems surrounding the internal inconsistencies of postmodernism, offers a way beyond them.

    How, e.g., can the postmodernist ever be sure that the very phrase 'cultural triumphalist' is not yet another mechanism for the West's own will to power over other cultures? Do we really do justice to otherness by canonizing it?

    In any event, as I read your response it seems that the primary issues here are far less specifically theological and far more about how one ought to be read (whether Milbank, you, Tim, or me) and about what assumptions one's reading may introduce, and how accurate the outcome of such a reading is.

    In light of this, I am beginning to think that an emerging issue within the academic world, so obvious that it goes far too unnoticed, is something as simple as how we think - mindfulness.

    Now, one can say that all philosophy is about how we think. True. But there is a difference between treating human thought/knowledge as an object of consideration (epistemology, e.g.), and treating the event of encounter between mind and its other as a subject of mindfulness. Desmond quite clearly does the latter, and in this offers an indispensable tool for all thinking.

    Anyway, any thought you want to register here are most welcome.

  • At 9/14/2010 3:12 PM, Blogger skholiast said…

    I've been grateful to be able to read this exchange. I am especially in agreement about William Desmond, both his importance for reading Milbank (though I am unclear as to if this influence goes all the way back to the earliest work) and (more importantly) his own stature as a thinker. While an "uncharitable" reading might construe a word like "metaxological" as just an excuse to eat one's equivocation and have it too, I see this as an experiential pointer to how to resolve what I called some of M's "ambivalences". I am not convinced that M actually succeeds in evading the merely equivocal (nor indeed is "equivocal" just a dirty word), but I am more and more persuaded that a great deal of criticism of him comes from trying to reduce his equivocation into univocity ("He says 'premature collapse,' but what he means is, 'A pity the empire ever fell,' and let's make him come out and say it"), whereas I would venture to say that if there is a critique to be made, it is in the other direction: On the question of Islam at least, M. is not metaxological enough, in that he still seems to consider (in this case) Islam as mostly determined (univocal or at best equivocal).

    I hasten to add that I am no Desmond scholar and have read only Being & the Between and Perplexity & Ultimacy; and my recollection of Milbank's essay on Desmond is hazy. But I appreciated being reminded of this influence on JM as a way beyond the "reactionary"/"revolutionary" impasse.

  • At 9/14/2010 10:20 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Skholiast -

    You make a good point. In the piece in question, Milbank does appear culpable for reading Islam in a way that seems to reduce it to a univocally determined fait accompli, diffident as to its own openness to otherness.

    Although his willingness to speak of its 'mystical' side, which as he sees it is not yet a present attribute, does suggest that he at least recognizes Islam's porosity to its own transcendent otherness.

    But I think, as you also seem to suggest, this could be read as an equivocation: Islam as either political or mystical. In any case, it's an interesting point you make and I would agree that he is still not metaxological enough (few today are!).

    I always push Desmond's Philosophy and Its Others on anyone who mentions an interest in his work. After BB and PU, PIO would be quite enjoyable for you.

  • At 9/19/2010 1:44 PM, Blogger Timothy L. McGee said…

    Just wanted to thank you for your response. Perhaps one way to get at why I think (on point 5) his analogy operates in a kind of imperialist manner is this: why should we not consider "The End of Dialogue" as an elaboration or deployment of Milbank's doctrine of analogy? That there are similarities between the two is pretty obvious to me, but even if it's not obvious to others, the publication history alone--same year as TST--invites such a question (and renders the question mundane and not tendentious). It's at least something to think about.


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