Milbank’s Seal of Approval

Adam will surely have more to say about this in a post, but I just came across the following quote from Milbank which I could not help but cite here:

[T]he posturing of someone like Kotsko can only produce a wry smile in someone of my generation. This is exactly the sort of pusillanimous theology of some in the 1960s that we have long sought to escape from. Why? Because it is bad faith. If you are going to be an atheist and nihilist, then be one. Only second-raters repeat secular nostrums in a pious guise. Such theology can never possibly make any difference, by definition. It’s a kind of sad, grey, seasonal echo of last year’s genuine black. All real Christian theology, by contrast, emerges from the Church, which alone mediates the presence of the God-Man, who is the presupposition of all Christian thinking. Kotsko fears that the Church is an institution, but of course it isn’t—or isn’t primarily—as Graham Ward has well pointed out. It’s rather the continued event of the ingestion of the body of Christ. This fact provides a critical self-correction, well in excess of any outsider criticism of all the Church’s shortcomings and abuses, which I would hope to be among the first to recognize and denounce.  (Via a blogger named Thomas, who apparently believes people like our dear Adam to be confused.)

[UPDATE: If you’re interested in the full context of Milbank’s comments, the interview in its entirety can be found here.]

Note the delightful argument from authority — the “but of course it isn’t — as Graham Ward has well pointed out.” That, truly, is my favorite part of the quote. Followed very closely by “Only second-raters repeat secular nostrums in a pious guise.”  Come now, second-rate?  I will be friends only with people third-rate and under!  As to the criticisms: it’s funny, because it seems that, considering he is hardly a credible theologian in the conventional sense, most of Milbank’s work is ultimately committed to pious nostroms in a secular guise (note, not a “disguise,” as the role-play is all quite intentionally obvious). But when the authority to which one appeals is not to be questioned, that’s quite alright, it seems. I suppose we should expect nothing less from a person who thinks that the most radical thing one can do is submit.

(Of course, I realize that in daring to disagree with Milbank, as has been the case in basically every instance of any such disagreement with Milbank, I simply do not understand his work. Again … we should expect nothing less.)

28 thoughts on “Milbank’s Seal of Approval

  1. Yeah. I told him at the time the Chronicle published that piece that he was unwittingly going to be championed by evangelicals. The first-fruits of that were some of the comments there; then some of the comments here; and now, glory be, Christianity Today. Pretty soon, he’ll be quoted by Christian Home School Weekly. We can at that point all agree that “we knew him when he was nothing!”

  2. I might also add, as I reflect on a conversations I’ve had (both here & via email), with Adam, Anthony & Clayton about the usefulness of maintaining the term “theology” in describing what folks like us do, if keeping the term means people like Milbank & Thomas continue to get upset about our doing so, then I’m all for it. In fact, this might very well be the strongest argument for using no other term.

  3. I have a limited amount of surprise and scorn, Kampen. I prefer to hurl it in more productive directions than Milbank & co. So, while you’re probably right, for practical purposes, I maintain “nothing less.”

  4. I think I misunderstood you. But, what I meant by “expecting more” was not at all to hurl surprise and even less scorn, at the RO crowd. The times I have wrestled with Milbank in an attempt to understand him I have found that the source of my conundrum (or his conundrum) is that he doesn’t follow through with his theological claims. (See my post here: His work on gift and charity for example are very important. (And largely inaccessible for Christians trying to live faithful lives) A friend and I, seriously wondering how Milbank sees his work in and for the church (and perhaps the world), sent him an e-mail. He replied with: “Us Europeans, as you no doubt know, are a bit less pragmatist than Americans — we tend to just focus on trying to say how things are, which often seems highly complex and so we express ourselves in tortured language. But I’m really glad that you see some relevance to the life of the Churches in what I have written. I really hope there is.”
    This answer is problematic for many reasons which I’m sure you realize, but the question is: “how do we talk with Milbank & Co.?” Because it’s necessary, and the intellectual pushing and shoving currently going on certainly is not the least bit fruitful.

  5. Kampen, I was being rhetorically ironic in my usage of “nothing less.” One should certainly expect more from people, agreed, but at a certain point they are completely locked into their positions, such as they are, and actual engagement is more or less impossible. Which is to say, I do not think it is possible, in the practical sense of “give-and-take” that most non-sociopaths engage, with Milbank & co. At one point I thought it perhaps not only possible, but maybe even helpful. But, over time, I’ve observed that conferring even that degree of comity with & respect for them, whilst disagreeing fundamentally, is treated by them as the equivalent of blood in the water. At this point, I feel as though one (or at least I) am benefited considerably more by focusing my energies and degrees of respect (again, such as they are) in other directions.

    There is no shame, I find, in ultimately opting to ignore Milbank & co., as to do not do so, and to disagree, is to them nothing but an affront & provocation against their assumed authority.

  6. “[T]he posturing of someone like Kotsko can only produce a wry smile in someone of my generation. This is exactly the sort of pusillanimous theology of some in the 1960s that we have long sought to escape from.” – Milbank

    I love this line! It’s like the theological equivalent of “oh I was once a radical too, but now I have a mortgage, care only about interest rate rises and am too busy having to drive the kids to soccer training”.

    I prefer Beckett theology: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

  7. However ironic it may be, being championed by evangelicals and written off by Milbank in the same month certainly beats the alternative of “not being talked about,” as Wilde would say.

  8. We’re all proud of you Adam. And Brad’s right, this is a great argument for continuing to use the term theology–so that we might be a stumbling block for the believers.

  9. Funny thing is that the death of God stuff in Zizek and Theology was describing Zizek’s position rather than advancing Adam’s own position, something Zizek agrees with considering his panel with Altizer at the AAR. So he isn’t critiquing Adam, but what Adam takes to be the position of Milbank’s chum Zizek – it is Zizek who is horribly out of date! Also, John shows he isn’t aware (clearly) of what Adam’s larger project is – the reading of key Christian doctrines (including those of figures John loves like Augustine) through the lens of a socially-relational ontology that John would probably see as having (erased of hierarchy, in Adam’s case) some similarity to his own thoughts on such matters!

  10. Kind of the same thing happened with Ben Myers’ review of Z&T — he took a position of Zizek’s I was explaining and blamed it on me rather than admit it was Zizek. But I suspect Milbank is also responding to my essay in Political Theology where I essentially make fun of Radox.

  11. You’re literally wrong about everything… or so the man has said, to me, knowing full well we’re very close and that it’s an incredibly hyperbolic thing to say. Sort of like making fun of someone for using concepts from quantum physics when you’ve spent five years writing a book on evolution when you’re not a scientists either.

  12. Yeah, I think the reference to the 60s as well as the fact they are discussing Z and T makes it clear that he is doing precisely what Myers did, though the vitrol of tone is doubtless related to your article.

  13. Just thinking about what it would be like to be literally wrong about everything and what that would look like philosophically. It would be kind of like that episode of The Simpsons where history has to be changed every time Bart makes a mistake on a test, but kind of reversed. So when you say that RO in your essay is quite pro-hierarchy (considering Adrian Pabst is putting a book out called Metaphysics: The Invention of Hierarchy, and in that interview John claims hierarchy is what we need politically), then because you are literally wrong about everything RO have revise their entire corpus – the power that this gives you when describing them us near limitless.

  14. I hate to get personal when Milbank has so rigorously avoided that (this is sarcasm, for those whose detectors aren’t so strong) — but isn’t it a little pathetic for him to get so worked up about me? Compared to him, I’m an insect on an institutional level, clinging desperately to a contract job at a small liberal arts college while he has the ear of the entire world.

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