WHAT IF: Duns Scotus had not been a Theologian?

WHAT IF: Duns Scotus had not been a Theologian?

John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. 298 pages. £24.99/$34.99

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What if Duns Scotus had never written theology? According to John Milbank, Christendom would have been spared much of its own self-imposed fragmentation, and Europe would have avoided the worst of the ravages of industrial capitalism, objectifying scientism, and cultural nihilism. This is the narrative thread that weaves through Milbank's Beyond Secular Order, much in the way a similar claim formed the main thesis of his ground-breaking book, Theology and Social Theology (Blackwell, 1991). 

Milbank's 'Radical Orthodoxy' project intends to challenge the dominance of the intellectual traditions of Enlightenment modernity and secularism, in order to re-assert the primacy of what he calls 'orthodox Christianity'. The only way to free Christian theology from the shackles of secular reason, Milbank suggests, is to step outside the parameters imposed by modern thought, and re-discover the roots of an alternative conceptual structure that better conforms to the Christian narrative.

The genealogical approach that follows from this agenda shares much in common with the nouvelle théologie movement in mid-Twentieth Century Catholic theology (chiefly that of Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar). Their strategy of ressourcement was a call to return to the sources of Christian thought (primarily patristic theology) in order to repair a dualistic split between nature and grace, which they perceived in scholastic Thomism (but also in contemporary Protestant theology).

In Milbank's case, such an agenda entails a re-reading of the history of Western thought, with the aim of identifying how Christian theology followed a path that led to its own demise. In Theology and Social Theology, Milbank focused his critique on illuminating an implied "ontology of violence" undergirding modern social theory. In Beyond Secular Order, a similar exercise is undertaken through an analysis of the Western philosophical tradition.

Milbank identifies four pillars of modern philosophy which privilege: (i) univocity of being rather than analogy; (ii) knowledge by representation rather than identity; (iii) possibility over actuality; (iv) causality as concurrence rather than influence (p.3). Each of these shifts, Milbank suggests, proved fatal for Christian theology. For combined they resulted in a conception of the 'Good' independent of any spiritual or ontological depth, a slide from ontology to epistemology, the loss of any sense that encountered actuality is a gift from God, and an incapacity to imagine that form provides matter with its being. These developments, Milbank continues, left the modern age reduced to rational proceduralism, opportunistic pragmatism, and, ultimately, despairing nihilism.

What is noteworthy in this account is that the source of this decline is located in Christian theology itself. As Milbank has it, "it is the legacy of a certain type of medieval theology which has ensured the triumph of atheism" (p. 38). The main culprit of this 'original sin' of Christian thought is the 13th century theologian John Duns Scotus. According to Milbank, Scotus - along with other Franciscans who followed in his wake like Bonaventure, but also the Jesuit Francisco Suárez and William of Ockham - opened up a slippery slope of theological inquiry that led directly to the four problematic pillars of modern philosophy. 

Scotus' primary mistake, in Milbank's reading, was to develop a metaphysics in which God and human creatures are conceived of as sharing a similar status of "being," so that being became a category completely distinct from participation in God. This fatal error drew a sharp line between the divine Creator and creation but also enabled nature to be conceived as having an independent existence of its own. Freed from the constraints of its previous home in Thomistic theology, Christian thought opened up an autonomous conceptual space for human nature and created matter. According to Milbank, this heretical turn in theology set Western civilization on a course that resulted in the decline of Christendom and the emergence of modern secularist nihilism.

The antidote to the dilemmas of the present age, Milbank continues, is to recover "an antique medieval politically ontological vision" (p. 10). Christian theology must restore to philosophical thought the conceptual pillars of the early Middle Ages (analogy, identity, actuality, influence), in order to reverse the damage wrought by the "nominalist-voluntarist revolution" of Scotus and his followers (p.262). 

Such a recovery of Aristotelian-Thomistic thought (read through the lens of Milbank's interpretation of Augustine), will restore a corporate sense of community as a "mystical body," which participates in transcendent goodness (p.263) and opens up a third political option beyond the dualism of Left versus Right (p. 267-68). Milbank emphasises the challenge of achieving this retrieval of this antique medieval vision chiefly in pedagogical terms, requiring "the educative role of the virtuous few" (p.263).

Although such a claim can only be met with raised eyebrows, Beyond Secular Order is nevertheless an impressive volume in terms of its scope and ambition. Milbank walks his reader through a dizzying range of material, dexterously weaving through complex metaphysical issues as he unfolds his counter-narrative to that which the modern age tells about itself. Given his confidence in the story, it requires a persistent reader to keep up with his pace. Some aspects of the account will be familiar to readers of Nietzsche, Weber and Adorno: modernity is suffering from a lack of confidence in its own ground; rationality threatens to enclose human beings in a restrictive cage of their own making; technology and consumer culture are eroding both communal life and individual subjectivity. What distinguishes Milbank's discussion from such others is his assertion that it could easily have been otherwise. Since Christian theology was itself the cause of all that ails us, it can also be the cure our society desperately needs. 

While many readers of Milbank appreciate his work particularly for the way it restores their confidence in the importance of theology as an intellectual discipline, I am left with a rather different impression. Like his earlier work before it, Beyond Secular Order reminds me of "What If" comic books that I read as a child, which speculated how the world would be different if one individual historical event had turned out differently. It is all good fun, but difficult to take very seriously.

For one, Milbank's genealogy is far too selective and fast-paced to be convincing as an historical account. Indeed, providing detailed evidence and references for his historical claims is not Milbank's strength. Moreover, his retelling of the historical development of Christianity and Europe is remarkably unconcerned with social or economic events. All of the drama occurs at the level of abstract philosophical thought; there is no role (apparently) for cultural shocks such as the Black Death, civil war, church corruption, or the Lisbon Earthquake. One might agree with Milbank regarding the importance of abstract thought for shaping human action ("all our actions assume a mythical, metaphoric, or rational framework" - p.1) without concluding that this implies that metaphysical mutations are the motor of history.

The Adam-like function of Scotus in Milbank's narrative is also implausible on theological grounds. What does it say about Milbank's doctrine of God if all it takes for creation to become completely disordered is for one human mind to describe the nature of divine sovereignty incorrectly? In similar fashion, to describe our modern lot as being due to the sin of Scotus is to suggest that Jesus might save, but only if we understand the ontology of the divine Logos properly. At the very least, pinning the fate of both European culture and Christendom on the speculations of one late medieval mind leaves far too many substantial issues unaddressed (the challenge that colonial expansion and the discovery of the 'New World' presented to existing conceptual models, to name but one example).

Milbank has rebuked his critics in the past for accusing him of "nostalgia" for the Middle Ages (see his preface to the second edition of Theology and Social Theory), and one encounters a similar denial in Beyond Secular Order (see p. 40). Yet all of his positive proposals are in the mode of retrieval: a restoration of medieval corporate identity; re-establishing ontological order as opposed to critical questioning and theories of understanding; confident teleology rather than independent freedom, even (constitutional) monarchy over representative democracy.

Making sense of such proposals is often difficult, particularly due to the fact that they are not so much positions to be developed and supported with detailed argumentation. Instead, Milbank's alternative to modernity and secular reason is presented as an alternative "narrative" that one might tell about the history of Christendom. This tone was adopted explicitly in Theology and Social Theory, where Milbank states that all thought "depends upon contingent theoretically unjustifiable assumptions" (1991, 179). In his view, rhetoric, not argument, is the driver of all intellectual endeavour, so that "what triumphs is simply the persuasive power of a new narrative" (1991, 346).

Beyond Secular Order is delivered in similar fashion. Sweeping generalisations are on offer, which drive the discussion forward. Whether Milbank is asserting that, in older forms of government, a "ruling 'one' or advising  'few' was symbolically necessary to the very constitution of the people as the people" (p. 143), or evoking a revival of Christianity "among reflective European youth" (p. 257), one looks in vain for supporting footnotes. Either one trusts the rhetoric of Milbank's counter-narrative, or one does not, but he apparently thinks it naïve to imagine one might expect an author to try to convince a reader on the basis of compelling evidence.

This tone is particularly strong in the concluding sections of the book, where Milbank calls for a new "Global Christendom," based on the unification of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches (the Reformed and Pentecostal churches are apparently to be 'left behind'). The result, he suggests, would be human society as a "trans-organism" (p. 260), which delivers a truly "Christian Socialism." This is the most opaque discussion in the text. Milbank's proposed subsequent volume, On Divine Government, will no doubt elaborate and develop this vision in greater detail.

If the centrality of Scotus in Milbank's genealogy brings to mind the format of a "What If" comic, his vision for a new political ontology in the second half of Beyond Secular Order is reminiscent of the tone of Michel Houellebecq's recent novel Submission (Heinemann, 2015). In that narrative, Houellebecq's hero - a bored, alienated and self-pitying French intellectual - must come to terms with the rise of an Islamic government in France. Gradually, he learns to see it as an attractive alternative to the decadence of secular modernity. He begins to admire the structure and order offered by Islam, the comfort of multiple wives that someone else will choose for him, the unifying form of life that promises to restore a sense of common purpose to French society. The novel concludes with his admission, "I'd be given another chance; and it would be the chance at a second life, with very little connection to the old one. I would have nothing to mourn."

That Milbank's book resonates with such contemporary literature suggests that he has tapped into something significant about our present historical condition. However, the way in which his vision can be summarised by these words from the novel - as a longing for a second chance for Christendom, which has little to do with the previous version (and is thus free from the responsibility to mourn its past mistakes) - is also reason for caution. Resentful of the limitations of the present moment, the book is unable to mourn theology's predicament, and thus risks becoming nostalgic and escapist. Over-confident that the proposed cure liberates it from past failings, Milbank's project uncritically papers-over the tradition's lingering cracks and shadows.

This is a remarkable and stimulating book, which is well worth engaging with, if only for the provocation of its creative critique of the dominant intellectual climate in the West. Less satisfying, however, is Milbank's proposed solution to the challenges confronting theology and the churches. So - read and reflect - but don't get caught out by the rhetoric.

Christopher Craig Brittain
Chair in Social and Political Theology
University of Aberdeen