Friday, February 5, 2010

Peter Liethart on Milbank's Critique of Modernity

Peter Leithart has an excellent summary of the first part of John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason here. Here is how it begins:
"Once, Milbank begins, there was no secular.

And the appearance of the secular is not merely a matter of removing something superfluous, as sociology generally tells it in its theories of “desacralization,” the image of the stripping of a sacred covering so that some realm of pure humanity and nature is brought into the open. That portrayal assumes that there is such a thing as a pure humanity, which is always there under the surface of the sacred and of religion, which has nothing to do with the sacred, and it assumes that humanism is the natural destiny of history, the inevitable telos toward which all human societies move. Both of these assumptions must be contested.

This is an important theme throughout Milbank’s book: there is no “natural” human ordering of life."

and this is how it ends:

"Voluntarism grounds political absolutism because, it is argued, the sovereign cannot bind himself. At the same time, voluntarism grounds liberalism (not as opposed to “conservatism,” but as the post-Enlightenment order): The freedom of individuals depends on their being left alone by the law to do what they will, and individuals have more or less absolute power to do what they will with what lies within their dominion. The two political implications of voluntarism come together when we ask how there is to be peace and some semblance of social unity in a liberal society. We need some sort of unity to preserve freedom. What brings unity to a collection of people who are left alone to pursue whatever they will? The modern answer is, either consensus (but this may not come) or a sovereign direction by the state (which is more secure). Thus liberal freedom requires absolutism and tends to fall into it.

With the public realm defined as a realm of absolute will and sheer power, theologians had to conclude that the church played no public role. On this definition of power, the church could not be associated with power, and therefore, it cannot be associated with public life.

The other contributor to this secular space was a renewed paganism, which Milbank particularly associates with Machiavelli. Machiavelli revives a pagan view of virtue as heroic manliness particularly exercised in war, and promotes a manipulative political practice, which sees a social good coming out of the fostering of social conflict. External conflict is also socially useful, since it preserves an independent spirit. Machiavelli explicitly sees the public sphere as a sphere of sheer power, manipulation, self-seeking calculation. The Machiavellian fosters conflict among rivals in order to promote himself; and this “science of conflict” becomes the scientific approach to politics. The public sphere is a secular sphere, as a sphere of sheer power and self-promoting manipulation.

Thus, the modern secular was imagined and constructed by cooperation between heretical theology and paganism. As a result, Milbank says, Christianity cannot find a place for the “secular.” It has to simply reject it."

Read it all here. This is the most concise and incisive summary of Milbank's critique of modernity I have seen. I would quibble with Milbank about his use of the term "secular" and wonder if what he means by "secular" might not be better conveyed by the term "secularism," which would allow the term "secular" in its Augustinian sense to be retained. But his critique of voluntarism leading to political absolutism and his understanding of modernity as being rooted in a heretical, non-Trinitarian doctrine of God is absolutely right, in my opinion.


Susan said...

I would like to converse with you about your question of Yoder's relationship to modernity and Augustine, etc. do you have an email address or some way to reach you that's not a blog comment ? and... in light of your interest in modernity I wonder if you've ever read this issue of the Conrad Grebel Review (Fall 2003) The Problems of Modernity

Craig Carter said...

YOu can always contact me at