Saturday, May 16, 2009

Milbank's Critique of Nietzsche

In his excellent book, (see previous posts), David Deane sheds new light on the interpretation of Nietzsche. We have examined his chapters on N's epistemology and N's anthropology. Now I want to discuss Deane's critique of John Milbank's treatment of N. in ch. 10 of the book that launched the radical orthodoxy movement: Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (1990). Deane's thesis is that Milbank's critique of N. is good so far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Despite Deane's modesty and deference to Milbank's reputation, it is quite clear that Deane's criticism is of great importance to the future of RO.

In the inside cover to the volume, Radical Orthodoxy, ed. by Milbank, Pickstock and Ward, we read that RO is characterized by four claims, the third of which is that "All thought which brackets out God is ultimately nihilistic." If we can agree with this proposition, the question I think that arises next is whether or not "God" here must be understood with the help of a philosophy of being, such as was developed by the Fathers in dialogue with Greek philosophy and which came to a climax in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. Or can we avoid nihilism with a "God without being"?

Here is how I think Deane's book is furthers this debate. It suggests that Milbank's way of dealing with the challenge posed by N. is insufficient - not wrong, just incomplete - and this, in my opinion, it shows the necessity of some sort of a philosophy of being in order to overcome N., who is the quintessential philosopher of modernity. Why is this so? N. brings together two streams of modernity that are often not thought together: the political/ethical emphasis on the will and the scientific emphasis on biological drives in the truely modern view of the self. N. combines liberal politics and technological reason and grounds both in the will-to-power.

In N's philosophy, man in the Christian sense of "person" dies and the human race splits in two to become the overman and the last men. In modern genetic engineering we see the scientific possibility of humans taking control of evolution and splitting the genetic ties that make the human race one. The result could be a series of social classes determined genetically as in Huxley's Brave New World or simply the evolution of a slave race and a master race. With the advent of genetic engineering, N's vision of the overman and the last men becomes feasible technologically. The question we need to be asking is "Do sufficient resources exist in the dominant liberalism of the West that could enable a firm "No" to such a course of action?" The difficulty in answering this question reveals the extent to which the West has become Nietzschean and its glaring lack of such resources. This situation (in my view) makes the discovery of a renewed philosophy of being not a luxury for Medieval hobbists or a pipe dream of pious traditionalists, but an absolute necessity for the survival of human persons.

Deane begins by rejecting the strategy of responding to N. by re-articulating "a modernist anthropology by seeking that which is universal in human experience to ground a notion of self, thought and text and that core concept of the modern 'humanity.'" (77) Such an anthropology cannot be grounded in evolution, which can only throw up a barbaric and amoral social Darwinism. "Maximizing our potential for genetic replication" is not a basis for ethics and love, but for a radical individualism as the basis for violence. Both the laudable and the cruel are interchangeable within the context of our biological constitution, which means that evolution cannot be the basis for liberal ethics.

Deane opts instead for Radical Orthodoxy of Milbank and David Bentley Hart as a better approach than liberal modernity. (78) They both construe the self in pre-modern terms and reject the fundamental presuppositions of modernity. They both advocate an ontology of peace, rather than an ontology of violence. However, Deane argues that it is necessary to defeat N. in a different manner than these two theologians try to do.

First, in what may seem to be a surprising opening move, Deane says that Milbank rejects the truth of N. too completely. He says that Milbank's approach "risks repeating the problems of pre-modern theology in failing to see the radical juxtaposition between humanity and the humaniuty offered to us through the one human whom God uniquely intended, Jesus Christ" and therefore "risks failing to take the reality of natural human sinfulness seriously enough." (79) It is on Christological grounds that he challenges Milbank and his concern leads him to distinguish between fallen man as described by N's Darwinian will-to-power and man in Christ as described in this book by Barth's Christological anthropology. (The last 3 chapters of the book, with which I am not as concerned, deal with a Barthian Christological anthropology as an answer to N.)

So what Deane is suggesting here is that N. must be taken seriously as describing what man outside of Christ, man under the conditions of the Fall, man in sin, really looks like from an empirical and philosophical perspective. The strength of N's philosophy is that it is rooted and grounded in the observations of modern science, especially in the Neo-Darwinism celebrated in the work of Richard Dawkins and co., who view DNA in strictly materialistic and amoral terms. Deane's point, which I take to be unassailable, is that this is what science done from an atheistic set of presuppositions ends up looking like. This means that N's philosophy, including the will-to-power, is rooted in empirical reality, rather than in philosophical assumptions, except at the point of the very first presuppositions regarding God and the nature of reality. Neither the Neo-Nietzscheans, (Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, Levinas), whom Milbank treats as a group along with N., nor the RO, like Milbank and Hart, reckon with the truth claims of N. when he claims that his philosophy is right, not because he has told a better story but because it is rooted in empirically verifiable reality.

Now, I do not believe it is actually rooted in empirically verifiable reality and I think this is the point at which N. must be challenged if he is not to triumph. But this is a question that Milbank and Hart do not take up and, (I can't believe I'm saying this) Deane and Barth do not really get to terms with either! Why? Milbank and Hart don't get to grips with N's truth claims because they opt for trying to tell a better, more convincing story than N., on the assumption that no one can prove that any story is true by means of science. Deane critiques their atttempt for being insufficiently Christological, which gets us half way there, but not all the way. What seems to me to be still missing is the claim that Christian theology describes reality better than the version of modern science that begins with atheism as its presupposition.

This is precisely the claim that Pope Benedict XVI made in his Regensburg Lecture. Modern science is comprised of a Platonic (Cartesian) element plus an experimental method. The Platonic element, the Pope points out, “is the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently.” (Par. #40) By applying mathematical description to reality and combining it with the experimental method, modern science advances by means of verification and falsification. Every new technological advance is further proof that the world is rationally ordered, not random chaos. So science bears within itself a question to which it has no answer: why is reality structured in such a way that it can be described mathematically and why are our minds able to grasp this structure? Atheistic science has no answer, but Christianity with its account of the Logos does. This is just a hasty sketch of Benedict's argument that science naturally arises out of Christianity and needs Christianity to be itself.

So I agree with Deane that the answer is Christology, but not merely the Christological description of man under sin and as reconciled, but the Christology of creation in which we understand the Logos as the source of order and structure in the universe. Only this doctrine can ultimately defeat N's will-to-power philosophy.

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