Orthodox paradox: An interview with John Milbank

posted by Nathan Schneider

Milbank is an Anglican theologian whose ideas, distinguished by a profound skepticism of secular reason, have given shape to Radical Orthodox theology and provided the underpinnings of the Red Tory and Blue Labour movements in British politics. His most recent book, The Monstrosity of Christ, is a collaboration with the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, edited by Creston Davis and published in 2009 by MIT Press. He is also a contributor to Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, a series of critical engagements with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, recently published by Harvard University Press.

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NS: You write of Slavoj Žižek, “In an important sense, he bears a theological witness.” How can a self-described atheist bear a theological witness?

JM: In Dostoevsky’s novel The Devils, one character, Kirillov, speaks of both the necessity to believe in God as the reality of infinite goodness and the impossibility of doing so. His resolution of this dilemma is deliberate, meaningless suicide on the grounds that, in an atheistic world, he himself is now God, as possessor of a sovereign will, and that suicide is the highest demonstration of this will. Žižek tries to escape this dilemma in another way—by pointing to the figure of Christ, whom tradition has taken to be the incarnation of God in a single human life. Although, for Žižek, God is only present in incarnate guise and otherwise does not exist at all, he still insists that outside this Christian legacy we would not have had the sense of an absolute demand, exceeding all human law and custom. Indeed, the notion of incarnation sustains for Žižek the idea that this absolute demand, which orients our humanity, is more than human, even though it comes, he says, from “nowhere.”

NS: Against Žižek, you insist on the necessity of theism. What do you think are the prospects for a philosophical encounter with theology that doesn’t assent to a transcendent deity?

JM: I think that, in the end, the prospects are non-existent. Dostoevsky saw further then Žižek, because he dramatized the alternative existential stances in the face of nihilism, even a Christological nihilism. Kirillov tries self-assertion, but logically concludes that the only irrefutable act of “divine” self-assertion is self-slaughter. Stavorogin, in the same novel, adopts instead a malicious indifference, which he deploys seductively to derange the lives of others. But in the end, this leads to a suicide of mere despair. Žižek’s Christ is merely a clown, the excreted everyman, the dross of the world. “The Good” is here reduced to the instance of that which exceeds reality, which finds no home. This places love beneath being, even if in a sense it is beyond being for Žižek, as the impossibility of realized desire. But at the end of The Devils, Dostoevsky suggests through the mouth of the dying Verkhovensky that love exceeds being in the sense that the real is orientated by the Good. Here, loving faith alone closes the circle of the ontological argument. The highest, which would include existence, must indeed exist. Without this idea of a perfect happiness for all of reality, which the most extreme misery cannot perturb, Dostoevsky contends that human beings lose their defining orientation. The final episodes of the novel try to depict scenes of disclosing recognition and forgiveness between people, which show how we can authentically participate in this infinite perfection and thereby transfigure the world.

Atheistic philosophy still finds itself caught in a theoretical version of the nihilistic aporia depicted by the 19th-century Russian novelist. Either, like Kirillov, it can assert human reason or freedom against the power of the void—but then this seems like self-vaunting wishful thinking; or else, like Stavrogin, it can deny the final reality of any human suppositions against the background of an indifferent nature. But in that case, the reality of reason itself is threatened. The atheistic logos will always lack either being or reason, without which there is no philosophy, no exercise of the love of wisdom.

NS: Now you have a forthcoming book, again with Creston Davis and Žižek, on Saint Paul, who has been a popular subject for Continental philosophy in recent years. Do you think it is legitimate for secular theorists to take Paul as a model for political action?

JM: Certainly, in the sense that Paul provoked the first Western enlightenment, the first ideas for a universal humanity, not just for an elite. He also suggested that the norms of human life lie in excess of any customary law-code. It is to their credit that secular thinkers are seeing that Paul erected the paradigm for all later revolutionary gestures. At the same time, they sometimes underplay his paradoxicality and the way in which he was also a conservative figure, who did not mean to overturn the truth of Jewish election by God, nor of Jewish law, but rather to appeal to its deeper foundation. There is some danger of a Marcionite reading of Paul, denying the God of the Old Testament, as in the renderings of Ernst Bloch and Alain Badiou, for example. Paul, by contrast, appeals at once to tradition and yet to the hidden basis of tradition, which allows one respectfully to exceed it. To be fair, both Žižek and Agamben allow for this far more. But then, they are also gnostic in their suggestions that Paul is caught between the aspiration to escape the somewhat sinister domain of law, on the one hand, and the impossibility of doing so, on the other. Yet because of his belief in the possibility of mediation, Paul did not just make radical gestures; nor did he, like Marx, propose the necessity of the present order’s destruction. Instead, he systematically established a new sort of international community within and alongside—and yet beyond—the state. This community was at once democratic and hierarchical, at once radically new and cosmopolitan, and yet archaic, because it returned to the pre-legal basis of a gift-exchanging order.

NS: Why do you think this renewed interest in Paul is happening now?

JM: It coincides with a new sense of tragic futility. If I were an atheist, I think I might ultimately condemn this interest as betokening despair. Yet Paul himself was eminently practical. It is, ironically, his mode of praxis that the atheists cannot grasp or embrace, because it is based on the possibility of imagining faith and trust in infinite goodness on earth. Paul does not ascribe to a dialectic of law and desire, nor to one of death and life. Rather, he believes, by insisting on the resurrection, that life is infinite and deathless. His politics of resurrection are the only possible politics of unrestricted hope in the coming of harmonious coexistence through the incarnation of love and justice.

NS: Do you see your participation in this dialogue as evangelization? What do you hope to accomplish?

JM: Yes. Victory.

NS: Adam Kotsko, in Žižek and Theology, argues that Christians have something to learn from the likes of Žižek. Do you think that the conversation could go both ways?

JM: Of course there are things to learn from Žižek—he reminds us that the logic of the God-Man is more universally human than the logic of God alone. In this way, he, as an atheist, refuses the lazy relativism of so much contemporary Christian theology, which betrays the Incarnation by seeing the God-Man as just a kind of optional add-on to the idea of God. This add-on might, for them, equally well be the Torah or the Koran. But to think this is also to betray the specificity of the Western legacy. Žižek is a crucial corrective here. However, the posturing of someone like Kotsko can only produce a wry smile in someone of my generation. This is exactly the sort of pusillanimous theology of some in the 1960s that we have long sought to escape from. Why? Because it is bad faith. If you are going to be an atheist and nihilist, then be one. Only second-raters repeat secular nostrums in a pious guise. Such theology can never possibly make any difference, by definition. It’s a kind of sad, grey, seasonal echo of last year’s genuine black. All real Christian theology, by contrast, emerges from the Church, which alone mediates the presence of the God-Man, who is the presupposition of all Christian thinking. Kotsko fears that the Church is an institution, but of course it isn’t—or isn’t primarily—as Graham Ward has well pointed out. It’s rather the continued event of the ingestion of the body of Christ. This fact provides a critical self-correction, well in excess of any outsider criticism of all the Church’s shortcomings and abuses, which I would hope to be among the first to recognize and denounce.

NS: You’ve noted theology’s shift toward secularization, through its adoption of the methods of the secular social sciences. How does one undertake genuine theology in a secular age?

JM: I’m critical of theology deploying social science when this means taking over theological or atheist positions uncritically and in disguise. Theology in a secular age has to give an account of the secular and of why secularization has occurred. This should include recognizing how Christianity secularizes (in a good sense) by desacralizing politics, law, and nature to some degree—but without total disenchantment. At the same time, I think we need an account of why secularity (in a bad sense) has left the West with realms autonomously indifferent to the sacred. Persons, land, and money without reference to God become, as Karl Polanyi pointed out, either idols or else mere instruments to be exploited—or both at once. Charles Taylor, I think, has part of the answer for why this happened; the West became over-disciplinary and the ethical displaced the religious. Another part of the answer is the way in which bad theology paradoxically invented a “pure nature,” so that a rather simplistic notion of God as something supernatural and intervening could all the better stand out. Defending mediation, by contrast, is once again crucial here.

NS: Do you think an atheist has any business in a theology department?

JM: I recommend departments of mixed theology and religious studies in secular universities, and the appointment of able people of all religious creeds and none. But, of course, if one respects knowledges linked to traditions, then adherence to those traditions can sometimes be relevant to making appointments. It’s a matter of tact, not of scandal.

NS: Increasingly, people are coming to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Do you think, however, that there is value—perhaps even potential for political movements—in the growing detachment of people’s religious lives from traditional authorities, and in this newfound autonomy?

JM: It is good that people can no longer so easily be coerced into faith; faith itself has to welcome that, for faith-based reasons. In a way, we have returned to the situation of the first few Christian centuries. At the same time, though, autonomy and freedom from tradition can never be real. One has to come to terms with one’s own legacy, and children have to be taught something. The idea that they might be offered only “choice” is of course crazy. Before we choose, we are inducted into an habitual way of life.

NS: Another aspect of modern liberalism—and liberal religion—that you’ve been critical of is so-called sexual liberation. Why do you call this, which many people consider an advance of liberty, fascism?

JM: In one sense, the freeing of sex from the law has always been implied by Christianity; the 1960s’ “liberation” remains an event within Christian history. At the same time, what one saw here was a kind of democratization and commercialization of “bohemian” morals, which had themselves earlier been newly legitimated and normalized for an elite, as Phillip Blond has pointed out. The problem here is that self-pleasure can become either explicitly or tacitly a goal in itself. When the romantics earlier spoke of the importance of marriage being “free,” that seems to me nearer the mark, as a goal. Human fulfillment lies more in the direction of faithful love and inserting oneself in the continuity of generations. Marriage and the family, for all their corruption and misuse, are at base democratic institutions. Fascism for me comes into the picture because I think (following Adorno, amongst others) that the gradual separation of sex from procreation is regarded naively if we do not realize that this is what the state wants. Covertly, it wants to secure “Malthusian” control over reproduction and to deal with the individual directly, rather than through the mediation of couples. Much of liberal feminism is actually, in practice, on the side of economic and political neoliberalism. It is too rarely noticed that sexual permissiveness has today become a kind of opiate that covertly reconciles people to the loss of other freedoms—both in relation to the state and to the workplace.

NS: Does this mean that the progress of feminism, as well as of sexual minorities, should be rolled back?

JM: What we need is not a return to former legal coercion and social ostracism in the sexual field, but a change in ethos, which will promote both relational fidelity and the encouragement of human creativity and participation in the workplace and in civil life. As part of this, I think it is important both to support gay civil partnerships and yet to oppose the idea of “gay marriage.” Many more gay people in Europe approve of this combination than do in the US.

NS: And finally: capital. What does the current economic crisis mean to you, theologically? How far do you think an atheist thinker like Žižek can go toward a meaningful analysis of it?

JM: Not very far, because he tends to combine refusism with Stalinist nostalgia. The current crisis is not final, but reminds us of what happens when one wrenches the meaning of things apart from things themselves, which is a consequence both of over-abstraction and of individualism running riot. I think we need a new sense of the sacredness of land, people, and even money as real goods, though not things to be worshiped in themselves. We also need to realize that humans are gift-exchangers seeking mutual recognition before they are self-seekers. Not only are more ethical market procedures viable, but they would also permit a freer market, run more by trust and tacit understanding. It is actually the neoliberal market that needs the titanic, interventionist state.

NS: What do you think the prospects are for a theologically-informed political movement in today’s secular world?

JM: Red Toryism is an old current in Canadian politics, which has now been transplanted and revived in Britain by my former pupil Phillip Blond. Through him and others, including the Blue Labourites headed by Maurice Glasman, a “politics of paradox” is emerging and is making some headway in the UK. (In the UK, as in Europe, “red” denotes left-wing and “blue” denotes conservative. Hence ‘red Tory’ indicates the paradox of a Toryism blended with a non-statist associationism and distributism—with ‘socialism’ in a certain sense—and  “blue Labour” indicates the paradox of a non-statist Socialism with a Tory tinge.) Basically, what we have here is an attempt to work out in practice a Communitarian politics, but one which fully includes the economic dimension. A Communitarian versus Libertarian polarity is starting to disturn the dominance of the Left-versus-Right polarity at the heart of British politics.  The new thinking concentrates around Phillip’s think-tank ResPublica, and—make no mistake about it—this is something big. Already, both major parties have adopted aspects of Phillip’s ideas for an “ownership state,” which would involve more decentralized professional control of the public realm—but with non-profit, social purposes in view. To complement this new mode of state, the new “paradoxical” position also advocates a “moral market,” in which contract must itself have a social purpose, and businesses will often be partnerships of owners, workers, and consumers. This is influenced by Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zamagni, who helped draft Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI’s recent social encyclical. One can link this also to a blending of elements in Polanyi and Marx. The argument is that an even freer market (more so than the neoliberals want) is also a moral market (as they don’t even pretend to conceive). Yet many arguments about the exact role of government in all this are yet to be played out. In any case, it has turned out that the only thing that can break with both Thatcherism and Blairism is a new fusion, and yet recreation, of both Old Labour and Old Toryism.

NS: Of what exactly, in terms of politics, does this “paradox” consist?

JM: It is threefold. First: in the UK today, as in the US, we see that a “liberated” market has in fact augmented the role of the state—in saving and upholding big banks, in remedial welfare, in policing individualist anarchy. Moral trust is required by the market, but neoliberalism never theorized the firm as involving such trust and has failed to avoid substituting for it mere incentives and surveillance. Second: it’s a cliche that the right has won economically and the left culturally. But this is actually the victory of one force—liberalism. To this we oppose an associationist communitarianism, which combines left egalitarianism with conservatism about cultural and ethical values. It is pro-high culture and pro-excellence in education, but wants these things to be democratically available. Ethically, it is pro-family but by no means wishes to reverse the gains of female equality and the tolerance of homosexuality—the point is rather that stable marriage is the best way for most people. It is also critical of the technologization of medicine and the increasingly calculative approach to the lives of the old; it takes for granted that all decent people are opposed to voluntary euthanasia. The third paradox is that an egalitarian democracy actually requires a hierarchy both of values and of persons of excellence. Otherwise, money and sophistry co-conspire to destroy it, as they have in recent years. Democracy can only be sustained when there is a parallel, non-democratic concern with paideia—the formation of good character—which links talent to virtue and both to positions of appropriate social influence. Without the extra-democratic inculcation of character, democracy cannot enter into the debate about the good, which is the only legitimate and non-corrupt debate that can be held.

NS: What are the sources of this character? Are they necessarily Christian ones?

JM: Red Tories and Blue Labourites reject both the deontology of the right and the utilitarianism of the left in favor of the view that state, society, and economy must all see their role as the building up of individual and relational flourishing—of honor and virtue. The mediating role of religious bodies in all this clearly must be crucial. We hope that many Muslims and Jews, as well as Christians, will embrace a return to the politics of the Good, rooted both in the Bible and in classical antiquity. It is this legacy, re-thought and democratized (in keeping with biblical impulses), which alone can now save Europe, America, and the world.

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