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Friday, June 17, 2005

More Milbank

Jim Faulconer's "experiment in blog discussion" regarding John Milbank's essay may not be everyone's cup of tea--it has prompted many heavy, lengthy responses, not the least of which have been my own contributions. Anyone interested criticisms of Milbank's ruminations on Christianity, sin, socialism, and politics will find plenty over there. But, just to amend my previous post, I wanted to add a couple of comments relevant to the discussion about Milbank and "theological politics" in general, both over there and elsewhere.

1) One theme that has regularly emerged from that discussion is what Milbank, and any other advocate of a system of gift-giving, one grounded in a "constantly renegotiated and agreed upon standards concerning the human common good," as a replacement for the liberal marketplace, has to say about "pluralism." According to some readings, Milbank cannot help but be demanding a shrinking of human liberty and diversity; it is the marketplace and the neutral public sphere alone--in short, the social order advocated by John Stuart Mill--which have the ability to manage the full modern diversity of exchanges and desires without a stunting of human growth. Anything more teleological than that--and Milbank's careful "vox populi, vox Dei" justification of democracy certainly qualifies!--involves a sacrifice of plurality. This is a complicated issue, not one easily resolved outside of an ontological consideration of the presumptions involved. To hearken back to my hermeneutics post, what seems to be central to this matter is how we account for the individual, and the argument over whether modern plurality has fundamentally collapsed, or merely complicated, the ability of the individual self to discern a truthful, believable moment in their history and community. Isaiah Berlin famously argued that such belief--the ability to assume unifying descriptions and political policies such as a "human common good"--requires the prior assumption that society is like an organism, growing in such a way that can be discerned and worked with (by those "gardeners" in the know, presumably). Milbank, with his talk about aristocratic and monarchial elements necessarily balancing out the democratic, certainly seems subject to this accusation. Yet for my part, it seems foolish to believe that the Christian faith is merely "speculative," something with only private and individual application since it cannot (or should not be allowed to) amount to a fully public, progressive claim. Thank God such people as Martin Luther King didn't believe that! (Regarding whom, see this provocative review of a wonderful recent book by Charles Marsh, as well as this discussion over at Cliopatria, to get some insight about how civil rights movement was, but also wasn't, example of radically Milbankian "theological politics.")

Of course it may be that the liberal order itself, even the neutral marketplace of goods and ideas, is itself a religious achievement, and so criticizing it for failing to put the pluralism it allows for in the context of an always-sought-for, always-improved-upon, always-revised "architectonic" truth, would be to only undermine the necessary truth that is already there. I think this is a rather "sectarian" interpretation of religious providence, one that assumes a complete disjunction between the revelatory background of human (and particularly Christian) speech and experience, and human history itself. (For Mormons and other restorationist Christians, it's obvious how debates over the "apostasy" come into play here.) That being said, Milbank's utter contempt for modernity is too great, and I shouldn't allow my enthusiasm for much of what he says to blind me to that. The open field of individual action provided by liberalism is by no means wholly occupied by socio-economic and political forces inimical to Christian truth. People like Milbank (and myself, when I get my radical dander up) need to by reminded that while the ontology of other careful Christian critics of liberal modernity like Charles Taylor and Oliver O'Donovan is particularly chastened, their politics are. Of course, there is a fine line to walk here, between treating a polity's necessarily prudent struggle to articulate (and reform itself socially, culturally and economically so it can better attend to) higher truths as a meaningful enterprise in itself, or treating such as ultimately just a strategy to keep citizens virtuous or in line (depending on whether you prefer Tocqueville or Foucault). Challenges like Milbank's help keep, I think, Christians on the right side of that line.

2) Clark Goble, a superb thinker and blogger, makes some criticisms of Milbank's project that land very close to home as well, just as much as the matter of pluralism: that of epistemology. He writes:

Milbank misses the very reason why the Enlightenment happened. It is fine and good to say that there is a "transcendent" truth that ought to guide us. But in practice none of us know it....If we replace exchange of goods by gifts, have we really accomplished anything? How are we to maintain the other-looking focus of a gift in opposition to the self-looking focus of purchase and exchange? Isn't the gift doomed to be supplanted by the counterfeit of the exchange? We can hold a hope that it won't, but once again, how epistemologically do we judge the presentation of the other? Is it a gift or a purchase price?...In effect all of Milbank's desires depend upon a consensus that is absent from the history of mankind. It is this recognition that ushered in the Enlightenment and provided its success. Now if the Enlightenment errs by providing too much power to the individual instead of the community bound by transcendence, it does so only because there is no other choice. As the saying go, no one says it is a great system, only that it is the best system. The problem with transcendence of the sort Milbank desires, is that there is no way to reach agreement upon what it means in a fashion that doesn't presuppose agreement. No way to discern the charitable gift from the commercial exchange, no way to distinguish the attempt to lift up the worker from the attempt to profit from them. Without the solving of this epistemological problem, it seems the solution Milbank offers never can be what he wishes it to be.

This is a powerful defense of the practical "secularization" effect of the Enlightenment. Even assuming that one does not go all the way with Descartes and Mill and turn truth into something with only individual provenance, even if one does allow for some historical and public continuity between Christian revelation and political life, there remains the problem of how it is to be taught. How does anyone ever learn what it is, when everyone has their own agendas and perspectives, with differing resources and levels of access and everyday experiences? How could it ever be communicated, much less legislated, in a political context of competition and compromise? Breaking humanity up into the sort of small communities capable of realizing Rousseau's general will seems one possibility, except that--besides all the other quite legitimate accusations which can be brought against Rousseau--the social contract he envisioned had nothing whatsoever to do with history; on the contrary, he thought the normative force of history lost to modern human beings, particularly Christian history.

To be sure, Milbank doesn't provide much by way of a positive program here at all. Still, one might look closely at the attachment Milbank has to the church, and specifically the rituals of the church, as possessing a tutelary function. Ritual education is not the same as propositional education, though there are some obvious overlaps. Through various rites, we become "educated" to a context of believing and behaving, not necessarily a specific content as to the elements of that belief and behavior. This is a point made Alasdair MacIntyre, as well as one assumed by Confucianism: the binding force and normative guidance provided by a tradition of practices and rituals has less to do with any set of agree-upon claims about the nature and worth of those practices then with affective shaping and mutual recognition participation in them provides. The propositional truth of being a good teacher is something that we teachers, as a polity, could never agree upon, even if we agree such a proposition truth existed; but we could all recognize the power of, and consequently expect adherence to, a united context of "teacherly" behavior--lecturing, conversing, counseling, reading, writing, and so forth; habits expressed in innumerable ritualistic ways. For Milbank, the rites of the church, in making a context of giving and receiving central (through the taking of communion, the singing of hymns, the participation in church work, and so forth) to our lives, teaches and unifies us around principles of the gift which can guide our political determinations. And so the epistemological problem of modernity, while not wholly elided (there will still need to be, in our diversified and technologically changed world, a Ricoeurian "second naivete"), is nonetheless transformed by thinking about (self-)reflection as incapsulated through the immanent power of rites. Still, that leaves unanswered the question of exactly how rites are to woven into a constitutional order, and it is here that one can find a good use for Rousseau, and many of the Romantic thinkers who followed in his wake: without giving proper due to the cultural and religious origin and memory of one's community, then any given set of civic rituals will likely seem merely grafted on, more arbitrary than popular. Which is one reason, unfortunately, so much communitarianism seems oppressive: too many theorists propose collective responsibilities and rituals simply for sociological reasons, without connecting them to the necessary idiosyncrasies of life. There's no reason to believe this will be a simple project; it seems much easier for education to be confined to teaching individuals their rights and letting it go at that. And certainly, given the speed of modern society, in which the socio-economic space for people to develop real vocations that they can learn from and build upon, the time necessary for such ritualistic, reflective education that would support a theological politics is less and less available all the time. But that, of course, is exactly why Milbank, in launching this broadside against modernity, insists on beginning with a radical socialist claim about the need to build upon the "gifted" aspect of the human economy in the first place.


Anonymous said...

For Milbank, the rites of the church, in making a context of giving and receiving central (through the taking of communion, the singing of hymns, the participation in church work, and so forth) to our lives, teaches and unifies us around principles of the gift which can guide our political determinations.  

Russell, Jim responded with a fairly similar answer. I know your read the comments over at T&S. My problem is that Milbank (and many others) seem to think that ritual learning somehow has a better chance of success than "propositional success." I just don't see any evidence for this.

I don't deny in the least the power of ritual. Indeed I think to privilege propositional teaching above ritual (or vice versa as Milbank does) is doomed to failure. In each case something essential is left out.

What I deny is Milbank's basic return to Iamblicus' view of religious ritual in the early days of neoPlatonism. There just is no evidence that there is this essential and consistent relationship between ritual, meaning, and most importantly agreement.


Posted by Clark

Clark Goble said...

Whoops. That second paragraph was supposed to read: "I know your read the comments over at T&S. So I don't want to bore you repeating my comments there."

I accidentally left that sentence off somehow and it came across as accusatory. (Unintentionally so)