Mulcahy on Milbank

I particularly appreciate Mulcahy’s Aquinas’s Notion of Pure Nature and the Christian Integralism of Henri de Lubac for its demonstration of how De Lubac’s criticism of pure nature has, carried to its logical conclusions, culminated in the “integralist revolution” of John Milbank, leading proponent of Radical Orthodoxy.

Mulcahy begins with an examination of the political origins of Radical Orthodoxy in Marxist theory and anti-Thatcherism (its hostility refocusing on the “neoimperialist” and “relatively genocidal” United States of America post-9/11). Originally Marxist in tone, Mulcahy observes how Milbank’s vision of society has become exclusively theological — endorsing socialism as not only the creed of “all sane, rational human beings” but as the vehicle by which the peace of the Church [is going to be] mediated to and established in the entire human community.”

Maculhy also demonstrates Milbank’s increasing receptivity to theocracy — or rather “democraticed, anarchic theocracy”: small, self-sustaining communities “Eucharistic in form, with a liturgical rhythm and a spiritual motivation pervading its system of peaceful sharing.” Granted, Milbank does not pretend to know how it would be established.

Maculhy then addresses Milbank’s interpretation of De Lubac as the basis for the “integralist revolution” (the notion that Vatican II enacted a “new theology of grace”, recognizing that “in concrete, historical humanity there is no such thing as a state of ‘pure nature’. … with the consequence that one cannot analytically separate ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ contributions to this integral unity.”)

If “everything is grace”, nothing is truly secular. To regard philosophy, politics, science and culture as non-theological or possessing “autonomous and immanent secular realms” is tantamount to heresy, against which RO marshals itself in resistance via engagement in radical Christian politics. (Indeed, Milbank indicts De Lubac and Balthasar for being deficient in their “aversion to the secular order” [photographic evidence!]):

RO views any self-limiting theology—all liberal theology—as colluding in its own marginalisation. Radical Orthodoxy intends to reverse this marginalisation by proclaiming theology’s true scope, and by insisting on theology’s relevance in determining the validity of all modes of human discourse. The establishment of the commanding position of theology over all other modes of knowledge, and in regard to all other scholarly and scientific discourse, will thus be a step toward the building of a new Christian modernity. The hope of RO is that this new modernity will be one in which divine wisdom and peace reign over all.

But how, exactly, is the marginalization of theology to be countered? — for while Pope Benedict might lament the “de-Hellenization” of academia (the attempt by scholars to separate Christianity from Greek philosophical thought), RO abandons reason and objective truth altogether, relinquishing itself to the postmodern depiction of Christianity as a “communal narrative“, one among many, howbeit claiming to trump all others as “the narrative of The Word Incarnate”:

Given such an exalted Christian claim, namely, that Christian discourse alone enacts and represents the divine Word, how are this discourse’s truth claims to be recognized as true in the Christian community of faith? The idea of objective verification or falsification has, in RO’s judgement, been discredited. The answer is that Christianity “out-narrates” any rival discourse. This is to imply that the Christian story, enacted in the community of faith, has a beauty and luminosity which other discourses lack. As a result, it exerts an aesthetic appeal on those touched by it. Once the attractiveness of the divine beauty is experienced, no other arguments or evidence need be considered. Rather, the very suggestion that such other forms of evidence could be considered is a relic of epistemological naïveté. The Christian story “claims no foundation for the truth of Christianity beyond the compelling vision of the story and of the vision it sustains.”

There is no question of apologetics, of natural law, of rational persuasion, of any marriage of reason and faith — all that’s left is the aesthetic appeal of Christianity.

There is no denying that “the heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of” (Pascal); that converts have been won over by the beauty of Christianity, moved by the witness of its martyrs and the lives of its saints. And I can certainly get behind people like Gregory Wolfe, and his belief that “beauty will save the world” — that art, literature and the fruits of imagination can become the wellsprings to cultural renewal, providing enrichment to public discourse and cultivating a receptiveness towards the truth where ideology and politics cannot. But Radical Orthodoxy doesn’t appear to be proclaiming just that — rather, it gives up on truth and reason altogether. Mulcahy again:

RO vigourously sets itself to reclaim a comprehensive, Christ-centred vision. But such a vision may also invite self deception. Its ostensible discrediting of correspondence theories of truth is, I would suggest, no more than apparent. Our personal vision may be tested against publicly known realities, against the truth not only of Scripture, ecclesial authority, and tradition, but also of wisdom and learning wherever these are to be found. Such an openness to truth cannot consist in collapsing everything into the doctrine of the incarnation, or into Christ’s Eucharistic presence. If it is to serve the world, and even if it is to save the world, doctrine must live with the distinctions between grace and nature, even if it refines them in new ways. If “everything is grace,” as RO would understand it, then Christianity departs for an enclave which must become ever more remote. If, on the other hand, “not everything is grace,” if there is room for the notion of pure nature, then there are vast possibilities for communication between Church and world, and between faith and all human disciplines—to the benefit of all concerned. Methodological arrogance is hardly a necessary quality of a genuinely incarnational theology.

* * *

Returning finally to the topic of Aquinas, Radical Orthodoxy purportedly adopts and expounds upon De Lubac’s account of Thomism. However, if recent studies have indicated that De Lubac’s understanding of Aquinas was found to be wanting, this defect is apparently by no means an impediment to Radical Orthodoxy. While Maculhy finds that “Milbank has not yet written in any detailed way on the history of Thomism, nor has he been engaged in a close reading of Thomistic texts”, this has not deterred Milbank from co-authoring a book with Catherine Pitstock on Truth and Aquinas in which they expound on Aquinas’ “theory of knowledge.”

The impression is clearly given that for Mulcahy — and I would imagine for most anybody who adheres to prevailing norms of academic scholarship, rational discourse and validation — the very act of reading Milbank is itself a recipe for exasperation. Consider the following:

The word “interpretation” must be emphasised and explained when it comes to Milbank’s treatment of Aquinas. As one who rejects “accepted secular standards of scientific truth or normative rationality” and denies that truth is a correspondence between the intellect and extra-mental reality, Milbank insists that “the point [of theology] is not to represent … externality, but just to join in its occurrence; not to know, but to intervene, originate.” Accordingly, his recourse to Aquinas is not a work of exegesis, but a project of creative expression: “exegesis is easy; it is interpretation that is difficult, and Aquinas, more than most thinkers, requires interpretation.” This explains why Milbank holds that, even if the actual text of St Thomas “appear[s] incontrovertibly to refute my reading,” that reading itself should not be subjected to conventional scholarly critique.

This ostensibly post-modern approach to sources has predictably occasioned intense criticism. Informed scholars have described Radical Orthodoxy’s interpretations as “gnostic idealism,” “blithely imprecise, ideologically driven historical revisionism,” “free-floating, self-perpetuating insularity”, “opaque [sentences] drifting [in] conceptual murkiness”, “sophistical legerdemain,” “blatant misreading … that ignores the ordinary canons of scholarly enquiry,” and “[not] just wrong, [but] laughable, though not amusing.” Milbank’s vague and sometimes even inaccurate footnotes do not help his cause.

In Milbank’s defence, one can say only that RO had disclaimed the canons of scholarly objectivity and verifiable accuracy right from the beginning. Radical Orthodoxy sets itself to challenge all settled theological opinion, and pretends no dialogical relationship with other views or types of rationality. When considering Milbank’s interpretation of St Thomas, the best approach, one might suggest, is to recognise it as something akin to an interpretive dance. It displays an inherently subjective approach, and, in effect, purports to be nothing else. Scholarship of an objective kind must be sought elsewhere.

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