Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

The Secular and the Sacred in the Thinking of John Milbank: A Critical Evaluation

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

The Secular and the Sacred in the Thinking of John Milbank: A Critical Evaluation

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article examines John Milbank's deconstruction of secular social theory, and the counter master narrative that he proposes. Milbank depicts secular social theory as based on an ontology of 'violence'. Instead, he proposes a participatory Christian master narrative based on an ontology of peace. Two questions are posed in this article. First, is Milbank's description of secular thought as undergirded by an ontology of violence valid? Second, does the Christian counter narrative that he proposes provide an adequate and viable social theory? After explicating Milbank's analysis of secular social theory and his alternative of an ontology of peace, the article comes to the conclusion that Milbank's analysis of secular theory is seriously flawed because of the very comprehensive and universal content that he gives to the term 'violence'. His alternative social theory is also not viable because of the ecclesiocentric nature of his model. It is argued that Milbank's alternative narrative displays contradictions and does not escape theocratic, relativist and 'violent' elements.

Key Words: John Milbank, Ontology, Social theory, Secular, Narrative, Violence, Peace, Participation, Gift, Church.

Introduction

"Once there was no secular" is the provocative opening sentence of the first chapter in John Milbank's classical book Theology and Social theory. This statement encapsulates in a nutshell Milbank's theological project. He regards the idea of an autonomous secular sphere as a 'fiction' that has colonized philosophy and theology all too long.1 According to Milbank the secular is not a neutral domain as it proclaims itself to be, but is a 'disguised heterodoxy of various stripes, a revived paganism and a religious nihilism'.2 Underlying secular thought is an ontology of 'violence', that is, a reading of the world that assumes the priority of force and which tells how this force is best managed and confined by counterforce. 3 This inherent violent ontology perpetuates difference, which ultimately leads to nihilism. In order to escape nihilism, Milbank contends that theology must be reclaimed as the master discourse for the whole of life, because theology alone remains the discourse of non-mastery.4 Contrary to secular discourse, the authentic Christian meta-narrative, as developed in the Augustinian, semi-Aristotelian and Thomistic tradition, is undergirded by an ontology of peace that recognizes no original violence. It construes the infinite not as chaos, but as a harmonic peace that is beyond the circumscribing power of any totalizing reason.5 From the outset it pursues a universalism that tries to subsume rather than abolish difference.6

This article critically examines Milbank's deconstruction of secular thought and the alternative Christian counter-narrative that he proposes. Two main questions are addressed: First, is Milbank's description of secular thought as undergirded by an ontology of violence valid? Second, does the Christian counter-narrative that he proposes provide an adequate and viable social theory? The first section of this article will explicate and analyze Milbank's deconstruction of secular thought as based on an ontology of 'violence', while the second section will discuss Milbank's alternative Christian master discourse. The third section will return to the two questions posed. It will argue that Milbank's definition of 'violence' is fundamentally flawed, which means that his deconstruction of secular thought in turn displays serious shortcomings. Secondly, his participational Christian model is neither adequate nor viable in a modern society, because it overextends theological claims and does not escape fideistic, theocratic, relativist, nor 'violent' tendencies.

Secular Social Theory's Ontology Of Violence

Milbank's fundamental premise is that all scientific social theories are themselves theologies in disguise based on an ontology of 'violence'. He regards the date of 1300 as the turning point in modern human thought. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.