Because I am lukewarm…

As you may have heard, because I am lukewarm, Milbank spits me out of his mouth. My “posturing,” my “pusillanimous theology” — all this is “bad faith.” As we know from that great church theologian Jean-Paul Sartre, bad faith is a serious problem, an obstacle to authentic human existence in the world. And so I should choose between the only two genuine options, being a complete hack for the (non-institutional) church or else going whole hog and being “an atheist and nihilist.” Fundamentally, my “posturing” seems to amount to my apparent belief that I can have it both ways, that I can get away with “repeat[ing] secular nostrums in a pious guise,” behavior that reveals me to be a “second-rater.”

All this is presumably motivated by my claim that theology might have something to learn from Zizek! A claim that he endorses, though of course filling it in with his own content. At this point, the exchange likely becomes incomprehensible to someone who has read only my (modest, expositional) book on Zizek, given that my description of Radox there is studiously neutral and I indeed recruit Milbank to support my claim that Zizek is engaged in a “Hegelian death of God theology” — something that the combination of The Monstrosity of Christ and Zizek’s panel with Altizer both reveal as unequivocally factual.

As has happened before, I am being blamed for describing Zizek’s views, scapegoated for pointing out what Zizek undeniably says himself. But of course there is also more to it than that: surely there is at work here a certain resentment of my conference paper that became an article in Political Theology “‘That They Might Have Ontology’: Radical Orthodoxy and the ‘New Debate’,” an article that includes jokes and whose conference version was accordingly panned as utterly non-substantive by the local representatives of Radox. (Undoubtedly the title of the current post condemns it to a similar fate.)

In a classic line, I aver that the Radox might paraphrase Christ as saying, “I have come that they might have ontology, and have it more robustly” — a line that was well-received by many who were doubtless unconsciously hungry to see Radox, not critiqued, but skewered. For as we all know, critiquing Radox is actually impossible. For instance, how exactly can I respond to Milbank’s fervent yet vague criticism? Do I point out that there’s no coherent sense in which I am a 1960s-style “death of God” theologian, that indeed I don’t know what that would even mean? Do I point out that even if the “invisible church” is not an institution, the “visible church” undoubtedly is? Do I point out the utter insanity of his definition of the church as the ingestion of Christ? How does one “critique” a theology that long ago degenerated into a set of stereotyped gestures, a theology that doesn’t even know how to respond to anyone outside? Am I repeating “secular nostrums” here when I imply that being able to talk to each other is good?

No response from Milbank is even remotely conceivable — he only knows how to point out figures he likes (often advancing an idiosyncratic reading with no actual textual support or argument) or point out things he likes in figures he finally doesn’t or can’t like. From all this engagement with Zizek, for instance, apparently the only usable material is that he reaffirms that Christianity and the Western tradition are good — a valuable reminder, to be sure, but something that Milbank obviously knew already.

For me, there can be nothing but dismissal, because I am nothing but bad, a belief that, it seems likely to me, results not from assessing my positions but from being really fucking pissed that I mocked his movement. For making jokes, my fate, as a young peon barely scraping by in academia, is to be publicly derided by a world-famous theologian — the behavior of someone who can only be described as a first-rate bully. Anyone who can’t laugh along when such a person is mocked is surely guilty of missing the joke of Christianity.

25 thoughts on “Because I am lukewarm…

  1. Fortunately for you, Milbank & co. are so cloistered, in terms of disciplinary influence, that his bullying is to no real effect. Unless, that is, you’re stuck w/ him at Nottingham, like some sorry souls. As it is, esp. in Britain, standing opposed to him & his cohort actually goes a long way into winning you approval. While in the US, a vast majority of the theology depts. will probably instead just yawn if you brought up the subject.

  2. Unfortunately, this call-out will make you ineligible for a research assistant position at ResPublica. How, oh how, will those poor estate kidz ever become upstanding, cultured citizens?

  3. When I read it yesterday, I was fairly bored with the interview until you suddenly appeared. The length and passion evident in his remarks about you were ridiculous — except insofar as they demonstrate an underhanded respect, or at least recognition of the persuasiveness of your position, because otherwise why would you have merited to be so traduced? I’ve been eagerly waiting for your response ever since. Here it is; very satisfying.

    Having just finished Bruce Gordon’s bio of John Calvin, I offer the following positive spin on the episode: Calvin didn’t consider himself to have arrived, until one of the chief anti-Protestant polemicists of his day found him bothersome enough to call “the chief of heretics,” — at which point Calvin knew he was accomplishing something. Here we have similar confirmation =)

  4. I should be clear that even though Milbank’s behavior is objectively bullying and worthy of condemnation, he really is doing me a favor as Brad and Robert say — e-mailing colleagues, I’ve gotten nothing but congratulations. And as an added bonus, the blog is getting way more traffic, because apparently all theology bloggers are obsessed with the guy.

  5. Poor wee pompous pommy ‘world famous’ git – why was he pissed? Was he misquoted, was he not telling the truth at the time, or did he realise on reflection that what he thinks makes he appear like a pompous git who has lost the plot?

  6. “How does one “critique” a theology that long ago degenerated into a set of stereotyped gestures, a theology that doesn’t even know how to respond to anyone outside?”


  7. There really is no way to respond to this criticism. Milbank is asked a question regarding Zizek and Theology and he responds with vague assertions that aren’t backed up by anything that Adam Kotsko actually wrote or said.

    It’s basically like reading a Milbank journal article on some recent continental philosophy.

  8. Sadly, I fear that Brad’s comments at the top are themselves blinded in a different direction. Milbank, RO etc. still have substantial influence in British academia. I’m at Edinburgh and can say, at least with the political theology and ethics crowds, those guys are a big deal. It’s not ‘cool’ to like them all that much, but the general feeling is they offer something valid. I have friends at Durham who say the same kind of thing. Similarly at Cambridge. Numerous students and professors here actually appreciate their ferocity (which has indeed, in this instance, deteriorated into petty bullying).

    While I think Milbank’s behaviour here is childish, I think this kind of thread is an unhelpful response, as it itself looks petty and childish. The best thing Adam can do, given that Milbank is clearly scared by him (or he wouldn’t be getting so upset), is to continue on doing battle. Satire is probably the best medium, yes, but it must have some theoretical weight, and there must be a weighty alternative. A lot of people, I think, have been influenced by the view that the only choice is between either a thick and ‘robust’ orthodoxy or atheist nihilism, and that anything in between these two is some kind of limp-wristed liberal delusion. I hope Adam and others can show something more than this.

  9. Whenever you feel unfairly picked-on, just remember what it’s like for Duns Scotus. Not for him the joyful centre of the cloud of witnesses cheering on the saints below; no, he sits off to the side, lonely, marginalised, rocking back and forth with his face in his hands, repeating to himself in a mumble “it’s all my fault, it’s all my fault”.

  10. Johnny, We’ll have to see how things play out once my dissertation is published, since it substantially fleshes out a lot of the basic points made in the angry-making article mentioned in the post. In the meantime, Rob L’s comment is hilarious.

  11. Johnny,

    I’d probably agree with you that RO is better known than Brad says, considering the fact many if my pure philosopher friends are aware of it, but unaware of any other theological movement of the 20th century and you could ditto my friends involved in politics writing about Red Toryism (I recently attended a conference where it was brought up).

    Though perhaps the comments below the post could be considered childish, though are probably more humourous, Adam has been misread in this instance and it bears repeating, that views that he ascribes to Zizek viz Zizek’s own death of God theology and critique of the institutional church have been taken as his own. He therefore should reply when something has been said that in no way represents him.

  12. I might also say that even if this particular post doesn’t display great theoretical or theological rigor, the current state of the blog does — including an ongoing event modeling a responsible and sympathetic reading of a major contemporary continental thinker, a series of posts by a “death of God” theologian trying to build his church ministry on those ideas, an ongoing discussion of a major work of literature, etc.

  13. Yeah, it’s kind of like marginalizing an idea or argument and then arguing against it because it is marginalized. This is the kind of bait-and-switch we are so used to in American politics now, and the only way to really respond is to, as Mary Daly would say, Be-Laugh and continue to do the serious work. That is what excites me about reading and being part of this blog.

  14. I don’t think I ever said that Radox was unknown; or even that it didn’t have its share of sympathizers (i.e. people — mostly white men — who love how rhetorically feisty they are, all the while, I might add, ignoring the political agenda that would otherwise send them (they sympathizers) fleeing from quickly and at great distance). My point is that this sympathy, in my experience, does not extend to overwhelming influence, in terms of damaging a young academic’s reputation or career. Even amongst their sympathizers, Milbank & co. have a very well-earned reputation for being chippy and churlish, and such a personal critique will (I would imagine) be taken, even by the Edinburgh crowd, though perhaps less so by the weirdos at St. Andrews (kidding, just in case you’re wondering — well, partly), with a heart-clogging amount of salt.

  15. I know it’s probably a banal point, but there’s no such thing as bad publicity, even if kids around campuses will point fingers at you and whisper “Isn’t that the guy cussed out by John Milbank?” Men will want to be you, women will want etc etc.

  16. As a fellow public recipient of Milbank’s world-famous bullying [at a seminar at Princeton’s Center for Theological Research] I can only say: koodoos!

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