A Comparison

In the recent history of theology, the figure who most closely approximates Milbank is Reinhold Niebuhr — with the important exception that Niebuhr at least tried to elaborate a constructive theological position (viz., The Nature and Destiny of Man). For both, the main task is to deploy the “Christian” view as a solution to contemporary social ills.

The similarity may be obscured by the fact that Milbank is dealing with “cutting edge” European philosophers while Niebuhr is resolutely uncool to our contemporary eyes, but Niebuhr was dealing with Lenin and Freud, for example, and both have a kind of historical genealogy for when the truly “Christian” view was lost.

Perhaps Niebuhr’s “selling out” to American hegemony could be considered parallel to the supposed reunification of Christendom that Radical Orthodoxy is apparently managing to bring about, particularly when one places such rhetoric in the context of the so-called “War on Terror.”

8 thoughts on “A Comparison

  1. Beyond your basic connection in their view of their main task as “to deploy the “Christian” view as a solution to contemporary social ills,” I really don’t think there is much of Niebuhr at all to be recognized in Milbank. Niebuhr never saw Christianity as THE answer, but always as one resource among many. And at any rate, Niebuhr’s classically liberal view of Christianity aimed to totally divorce it from its particularity, to transplant it as a metaphor into the common rationale of modernity. If Milbank is good for anything, he’s good for emphasizing the particularity of the Christian narrative.

    And what are you referring to by the “reunification of Christendom?” I’m only cursorily familiar with RO.

  2. I’m referring to the speech Milbank gave at the Nottingham reception this year at the AAR.

    I know they aren’t embracing the same substantive positions — in fact, Milbank has a whole chapter in The Word Made Strange devoted to a critique of Niebuhr. I’m saying that they play a similar role.

    “If Milbank is good for anything, he’s good for emphasizing the particularity of the Christian narrative.” — I agree, if by “the Christian narrative” we mean “a slightly nuanced version of Neoplatonism.”

  3. I really honestly have no idea what the phrase “the particularity of the Christian narrative” means when Milbank and other post-liberals like him (e.g., Hauerwas) use it. Really. It seems to me that the only thing “particular” about the “Christian narrative” for Milbank is that it is the one narrative that is “perfectly universalizable,” as such.

  4. I can’t say anything about Milbank except second-hand. But for Hauerwas it means what it says – that Christianity is not a universally accessible set of “timeless truths” that any right-thinking person can arrive at by observing nature. Rather, Christianity is a way of being in the world that is participation in the community whose life and practice re-enacts the story of a particular individual who was a member of a particular near-eastern tribe, was dead, buried, descended into hell, and so forth. A basically Barthian polemic against what he understood to be natural theology.

  5. Adam S.:

    The case with respect to Hauerwas on this point is a much more difficult and much more nuanced one to make; and yet it is a case to be made. Part of the problem with making it, is that it demands addressing a host of theological definciences in Hauerwas’ thought in one fell swoop: particularly a set of interrelated definciences in his Christology, his doctrine of Creation, and his Eschatology. The point I want to make here, though, can be made rather straightaway by pointing out his appeal to MacIntyre (which he shares with Milbank): Hauerwas, following MacIntyre and the whole Aristotelian tradition that he is seeking to recover, takes it for granted that to take up the question of human life from within a particular lived tradition is nevertheless to take up the quest for a determinate “goal” or “telos.” For MacIntyre, as for Aristotle most plainly, “humanity” is no less universally conceived here; it is just so conceived in more plainly historicist terms. It is not that the universal is unavailable; it is only available through the particular and the historical, by way of a certain perceived and discoverable entelechy. Hauerwas does not finally follow through with the biblical narrative’s own (uniquely apocalyptic) overturning of “tradition” and of “teleology” here. The biblical narrative founders qua narrative precisely at the point of the cross, at which point there occurs a radically singular historicity (that of Jesus of Nazareth) irreducible to the play of “particularity” and “universality” upon which the very ideas of “narrative” and “tradition” depend. Haerwas betrays his abstraction from this absurd singularity when he goes on to speak of the Christian narrative as “true” in accordance with its “interpretive power” or ability to re-situate all of history with respect to itself, to “re-narrate” all of history in the telling of its story. Hauerwas thus insists upon a particular cultural-linguistic community as “necessary for us to locate the final causes shaping our history as God’s ongoing work of creation” (Christian Existence Today, 160). And the world is to be treated as subject to Christ’s Kingdom insofar as its realities can be “translated” or “re-narrated” so as to “fit” the cultural-linguistic trajectory of this particular tradition. Hauerwas insists upon the ecclesial narrative as an ontological necessity if the world is to have any “history” at all. This may not be the abstract, timeless “universality” of so-called “liberalism,” but it is a meta-narrativally, though historically and teleologically generated, universality nonetheless. And so Hauerwas’ remains a particularity no less immune to ideological manipulation precisely because of its de jure universalizability. It is still quite dependent upon an idealist metaphysical scaffolding, and Hauerwas should have recognized this had he paid better attention to what Troeltsch was up to, and had he been more interrogative of the philosophical underpinnings of Barth’s reaction to “liberalism.” At the end of the day, there really is more Aristotle than the Bible in Hauerwas, just as there is more Plato in Milbank.

  6. I want to keep feeling good about liking Hauerwas, so in spite of the fact that I’m no expert on him, I want to toss out a few objections.

    First, Hauerwasian teleology is way different that Aristotelian. As far as I can tell, Aristotle’s teleology is not eschatological, so that can find the ultimate goal of a being by looking into the present condition of the being. So, I look at my dog, see that he gets anxious when he sits inside too long, and he gets happier when he runs. I can infer then that Simon was born to run, and I’ve done right by him when I get him to the dog park enough.

    But Hauerwas’ sense of teleology isn’t taken straight from Aristotle. There is also the Yoder/Moltmann/Ladd influence that recognizes that we do not yet know what we will be – we must be told by the future itself. And so the inbreaking of the kingdom – the old “already/not yet” line – is to my thinking very important, and Hauerwas emphasizes it like crazy. I don’t see how you can charge him with abandoning apocalyptic.

    And as far as meta-narrative goes – I had always thought that what it meant was the denial of priveleged vantage points. Not so much an explanation for everything, but a universally accessible explanation for everything. As far as I know, Hauerwas never argues for that.

    That said, I share your criticism of any theology that would attempt to derive its legitimation by its “interpretive power.” Christianity does help cope with things sometimes, but that’s not the ground of it’s truth. If we want a faith that survives by its interpretive power, I think we should go with Joel Osteen and cut Job and Ecclessiastes out of the canon.

  7. Adam:

    Your objections are well taken. And I want you to go on reading Hauerwas and liking him. He needs and should be read carefully and critically.

    You are especially right to point to the centrality of apocalyptic in Hauerwas’ work; Hauerwas is a very important figure here, if for no other reason than that he points us to Yoder. But what I am tracking here is a fundamental displacement of the locus of apocalyptic in Hauerwas from the historicist singularity of Jesus of Nazareth (and his two advents) to the binary church-world. At this point, Hauerwas makes a whole host of christological-eschatological missteps which lead almost inevitably to an overly realized eschatology of the church-as-polis. While this may not map squarely onto Aristotle, it does fall into the trap of a too teleo-eschatological and not thoroughly enough apocalyptic-eschatological vision (and so it is an eschatology still more “Aristotelian” than “Biblical”). So Hauerwas is still left talking even in his most recent work as if the most important thing the church does is provide the world with a clear sense of the direction in which it is going — to provide it with a “history.” At the same time, the church anticipates this telos, and thus provides this “history,” according to its particular ability to ever-expand, to “accomodate” and to “incorporate” ever-new differences into its “more encompassing” narrative. I’m pretty sure Hauerwas is not aware of how closely he is actually tracking Troeltsch here, and I’m pretty sure of that because I’m almost certain that Hauerwas has never read Der Historismus und seine Probleme. Hauerwas is aware, however, that he is tracking close to Milbank here. And I’m sure of that because these tendencies tend to stand out all the more starkly in those recent essays where he has written approvingly of Milbank’s “meta-narrativalism.”

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