Radical, Orthodox

Article excerpt

EVERY ONCE in a while a person comes along who reconfigures a field of study. John Milbank of the University of Virginia, formerly of Cambridge University in England, has done just that in theology, spearheading a movement that has become known as "radical orthodoxy." At the heart of Milbank's work is the premise that modernity has ended and with it all systems of truth based on universal reason. Milbank does not lament this end, however, for he sees it as the opportunity for Christian theology to reclaim its own voice.

Milbank's intent is to overcome what he calls the "pathos" of modern theology, a pathos that lies in its humility. Modern theology, he argues, has surrendered its claim to be comprehensive. Theology has felt it must conform to secular standards of scientific "objectivity." But with the advent of the postmodern critique of reason--and the recognition that all thought is situated in specific cultural and linguistic systems--theology has an opportunity to reclaim its own premises. Indeed, Christianity's fundamental doctrine that God created the world out of nothing is consistent with postmodern philosophy: it presupposes that all reality is without substance and is in flux between nothing and infinity. Theology can therefore embrace its historically conditioned nature without negating its claim to speak of transcendent reality. Theology can ground its claims in the terms of its own language of belief.

In calling theology to reclaim its voice as a "master discourse," Milbank systematically uncovers how the concept of the "secular" emerged. Rather than show how theology makes sense in light of secular philosophy, he aims to show how secular philosophy is a countertheology or an inadequate offshoot of Christian theology. This effort is the burden of his most substantive work to date, Theology and Social Theory.

Milbank contends that the secular worldview emerged from two sources: one "heretical" (that is, fundamentally Christian but not in line with orthodox teaching) and one "pagan" (that is, not Christian at all). Both perspectives share a crucial assumption: that reality is constituted by a fundamental conflict or chaos. They differ chiefly in how they respond to this conflict.

The "heretical" version of the secular (evident in, for example, the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes) contends that law is needed to restrain the competition of individuals as they seek dominance over one another. The roots of this view lie in late scholastic nominalism (the doctrine that general terms or abstract concepts exist only as names and have no objective reference) and voluntarism (the doctrine that the will is the fundamental principle of individuals or the universe). The "pagan" version of the secular (exemplified by Machiavelli) takes the form of prudential political management by which a ruler indifferent to moral considerations can achieve and maintain power in the face of conflict. The roots of the "pagan secular" lie in early humanist appeals to ancient Greek or Roman pagan myths, myths which idealized not justice and mercy but strength, beauty and the capacity to outwit one's opponent.

This analysis of how the modern concept of the "secular" arose from "heretical" and "pagan" roots sets the stage for Milbank's critique of modern sociology and political and economic theory. Milbank is critical of the way the sociology of religion (in the work of Peter Berger, Robert Bellah and others) reduces theological phenomena to social functions. Milbank also notes that the concept of "society" as used in the sociology of religion has a content similar to that of the theological term "providence"--a point he makes in his "archaeology" of the work of Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons and Max Weber.

He offers a similar critique and archaeology of liberation and political theology (focusing on the work of Juan Luis Segundo, Clodovis Boff and Gustavo Gutierrez), pointing out that the precursors of the liberationists, Hegel and Marx, posit an "original violence" at the center of their "myths" of conflict and progress. …