Monday, June 8, 2009

Milbank and Yoder on the Church and Society

In his Theology and Social Theory, John Milbank notes Max Weber's point that "salvation-religions . . . are generally most promoted by lower-middle class strata in towns and cities." (88) For Weber, this means that the strong ethical emphasis of salvation-religions must be connected with an "individualistic, enterprising and socially aspiring way of life, to which rational predictability, the matching of promise to conduct, and strong eschatological expectation make a great appeal." Milbank grants that, as a near tautology, it is obviously true that Christianity, (for it is clear that Weber only has Christianity in view, despite his use of the abstraction "salvation religion"), "has an affinity with certain modes of social action and not with others." (88) Milbank's point here seems solid. As he says, it did not require sociology to teach us that it is easier for an artisan to be a Christian than say a wealthy merchant or a warrior noble.

The more important point of Milbank's analysis, however, is his challenge to Weber's contention that what he has showed by his analysis is that the form of religion preferred by certain people is a function of their prior economic and social status, as if religion were an epiphenomenon of sociology or economics. Weber's recognition, described by Milbank as, "the medieval town, dominated by guilds of self-regulating producers, an economics of frugality, and relatively free from aristocratic and kinship dominations, was uniquely able to instil a Christian ethos" is true because of the nature of Christianity. As Milbank points out, there is little point in making the "social" prior to or fundamental to religion since "there is nothing identifiably 'social' that can be separated from political, economic or religious arrangements." (88) Practices engendered by Christian faith lead to the social organization of the medieval town and to try to "explain" religion in terms of social and economic structures is to confuse effect for cause.

Milbank says that military-aristocrats are not attracted to salvation-religions because they practice a way of life which is "itself sustained by a particular ideological code, itself a kind of religion." (90) Here he is deconstructing modern sociological explanations of religion that rest on the assumption of the secular as the given and religion as the odd thing that requires explanation. Behind such assumptions are a whole set of narratives and presuppositions that themselves are never brought to the surface or debated in modern social science. The modern understanding of "the secular," (as opposed to the Augustinian understanding) thus functions religiously as a starting point accepted by faith and used as the basis for understanding everything else. The hypocrisy comes when those who do this criticize Christians for staring with the particularity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and using that as the basis for understanding everything else. Hence, we see the meaning of Milbank's claim that theology must abandon its false humility and take its place as the master narrative it must be if it is true to the Gospel.

The question I find fascinating in all of this is the issue of what forms of social practice encouraged by the Church on the basis of theological presuppositions ought to inform the way the Church lives in the contemporary world? And are such practices even possible in modernity, with its massively-constituted, bureaucratic, managerial state with its commitment to social engineering in the name of perpetual progress? Does social space exist for the Church to be the Church without attracting persecution? The ethos of Medieval towns still exists to a certain extent in the sense that much rural life continues to resist modernity to this day in some ways. But to the extent that the Church lives out radically Christian practices within the limits of modernity, is it not the case that either the practices tend to be trivialized by virtue of being limited to the sphere of the "private" or they attract persecution and get denounced as "oppressive" to the exact extent that they infringe on what some interest group perceives as the "public?"

There is an interesting parallel between Yoder and Milbank on the question of how the social practices of the Church are to impact society in general. In both cases, the Church simply goes about its business and the resulting way of life seeps out in the wider society a little bit at a time. In Body Politics, for example, Yoder speculates about the possible relationship between the "rule of Paul," New England town hall meetings, and Anglo-Saxon democracy. In describing his own position, Milbank says that there is no need for a Christian social theory. Instead, he says: "the social knowledge advocated is but the continuation of ecclesial practice, the imagination in action of a peaceful, reconciled social order, beyond even the violence of legality." (6)

There is no doubt that there are serious differences between Yoder and Milbank on how the Church should influence society, but the puzzling thing is how these differences arise from two starting point that are so similar. Both Yoder and Milbank see Christianity as resting on a mythos of peace, in distinction from both pagan antiquity and modernity. Both are theological realists who nevertheless accept a great deal of modern historicism and therefore see the task of Christianity as being to try to "outnarrate" our opponents. Yet Yoder is a pacifist and Milbank is not. Does this indicate some deep contradiction in their basic beliefs? Or does it mean that both pacifist and just war forms of Christianity can express the social ethical task of the Church adequately?

To raise the stakes a bit higher, can Yoder's goals of social ethics be attained without adopting Milbank's frank endorsement of "Christendom?" Is a Christendom without violent coercion, i.e. based on evangelism, social consensus and a shared commitment to Christ, possible? Is Yoder's vision all that different from Milbank's in the end? If coercion is all that separates them, does that not mean that in certain historical situations (i.e. ones in which a Christian consensus prevails at least temporarily) their ecclesiologies and understandings of mission might be virtually indistingushable from each other?


Andrew Fulford said...

Reminds me of someone else I read recently... name starts with "O" I think ;)

Mennonite_Pacifist said...

I don't think Yoder understands the church as 'resting on a mythos of peace' or any other mythos. Milbank's ontology of peace is something else that Yoder's insistence on the obedience to Christ's Lordship and his non-violent way. There's a good read of the major difference between Yoder and Milbank in Chris K. Huebner's book called: a precarious peace.