John Milbank seems to me to be wrong

John Milbank’s recent article on Christianity, Enlightenment, and Islam seems to me to have an overly optimistic view of the West, combined with an overly pessimistic view of Islam. In fact, he seems to believe that the basic solution to most problems in the Islamic world is either for Islam to become more like Christianity or for Muslims to just outright convert (albeit by their own “Islamic path to Christ”). Particularly troubling are the concluding paragraphs:

The proper response to our present, seemingly incommensurable tensions is not to gloss over or seek to rehabilitate the past in such a dishonest way, but to analyse why exactly Islam has largely taken such a dangerous, non-mystical and often political direction in recent times.

This surely has to do with the lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires (as a consequence of the European wars) and the subsequent failure of Third World national development projects, with the connivance of neo-colonial, purely economic exploitation of poorer countries.

Political Islam offers itself as a new international, but non-colonial, vehicle for Third World identity. Unfortunately, it [i.e., Islam — as opposed to, say, the present article] also perpetuates over-simplistic accounts of the imperial past and fosters a spirit of resentful rather than self-sustaining and creative response to the ravages of Western capitalism.

Emphasis mine.

I would humbly suggest the following counterpoints:

  • The problem with decolonization was not that it happened “too fast,” but that the only state structures that had been put in place in most colonies (above all in Africa) were geared solely toward population control and the extraction of natural resources. Not surprisingly, after these structures were handed over to the locals, we got “national security states” presiding over the extraction of natural resources. The same thing would’ve happened regardless of when decolonization took place, because the Western powers never had any interest in authentically governing and developing their colonies — “purely economic exploitation” was the agenda all along, as it continues to be today.
  • The forms of Christianity that are having the most success in the Third World are not characterized by any close kinship to Enlightenment values — instead, they are largely shaped by a general Pentecostal ethos that fosters magical thinking. Even the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are often affected by such trends. It appears that the countries where such a Pentecostal awakening is not taking place are generally those where the national security state forbids new forms of social organization from arising.
  • The idea that Christianity and Enlightenment are the answer to the ravages of capitalism is basically self-refuting. Perhaps handling raw meat is the cure for salmonella poisoning as well?

All in all, despite its nuances and concessions, this piece appears to be a remarkably naive example of Western triumphalism. I hope that there is some young, aspiring Radical Orthodox theologian for whom these types of articles have an impact similar to the impact the support of the German theological establishment for World War I had on a young Karl Barth — though I fear the only young people still signing on for the cause are the type who are already predisposed to the kind of cheap contrarianism that views shilling for the powerful as a brave, counter-cultural response.

42 thoughts on “John Milbank seems to me to be wrong

  1. I find myself all over the place in what I think about RO. It’s an ongoing discussion and I appreciate your counterpoints to the article above. Especially confronting was, “…though I fear the only young people still signing on for the cause are the type who are already predisposed to the kind of cheap contrarianism that views shilling for the powerful as a brave, counter-cultural response.” Though I also wonder what kind of task that must pose for you as a teacher.

  2. …and as for those atheists – the Christian and especially the Muslim apostates (like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who Milbank appeals too) …. but I resolved a few days ago to ignore them from now on.

  3. You’re right on target. Milbank seems to long for a return to Christendom and displays his Eurocentric biases. He seems to miss the sun never setting on the British empire.

    As for his agreement with the current pope’s bigotry about Christianity and reason, both seem to have forgotten the savagery and anti-reason nature of Catholicism in Europe prior to the Medieval Islamic presence–which reintroduced Aristotle (thus making Aquinas possible!), introduced the concept of zero and then higher maths, introduced astronomy and advances in archictecture, etc. Without the benign influence of Islam into Medieval Europe would we have the High Middle Ages (and Christian Humanism which was spawned by Jewish and Islamic humanisms) or the Renaissance–to say nothing of the Enlightenment? Islam’s retreat into anti-intellectual, anti-modern forms just about the time of the European conquest of the rest of the world has deformed it in irrational and violent ways–but this doesn’t argue for the lack of violence either the Enlightenment or Eurocentric Christendom.

    As for the pope’s claim (which Milbank echoes) that Christianity is more rational than Islam and doesn’t ever claim that God commands the irrational, neither have apparently ever seen an Appalachian snake-handling service. Then there’s the bombings of abortion clinics by Catholic and Protestant Christians in the U.S. throughout the ’80s–which is beginning to make a comeback.

    I could go on, but instead I’ll simply cheer you on for standing up to Milbank, Ali, and Pope “Benedict” Ratzinger–who can’t seem to give up his former role as Grand Inquisitor.

  4. But wait, doesn’t the Enlightenment project in some sense owe its possibility to early Islamic scholarship that kept alive the Greek philosophical traditions (e.g. Averroes’s Aristotle)?
    On the claim that ‘radical Islam’ is infiltrating the West, how does such an assertion handle in light of arguments from figures like Olivier Roy (in Globalised Islam) in which the ‘turn to radical Islam’ from Western Muslims is because of Western resistance to immigrant populations trying to assimilate into the West.

  5. Hold on, weren’t we just talking about Milbank and imperialism? Didn’t people say there was little or no evidence of this and that a perverse reading was required to botom this result out?

  6. Dude, take that boy to task. I am very much an amateur theologian, but I have been very positively affected by RO. But I have no idea where these longings for late Christendom come from.

    In regards to other voices from within RO, I wonder if it must be some young student or if there already exists contrary perspectives within the movement. I have a hard time believing that William Cavanaugh would be on board with this type of thinking.

    Maybe Milbank could benefit from rubbing elbows with some radical reformers and liberation theologians.

  7. With regard to the importance of Islam in keeping the Greek flame alive, Milbank claims that the scholarship was never lost and Islam simply did not do this. Following French medievalist Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne medieval Christendom retained the Greek classics, preserved in, among other places, the titular Mont Saint-Michel, where the text of Aristotle were supposedly stored. The French wikipedia has all the details and the controversy, and there is a good overview of the book. Additionally, where voluntarism and the Scotist God came in, it was the result of Islamic influence.

  8. Nice understated post title.

    It seems quite right to highlight the final two paragraphs of that essay. I was esp. struck by the phrase “lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires” (a notion that is sneaking its way into the “common sense” explanation, and should be resisted with all double- and triple-barrels at our disposal), and the notion that the very people most directly affected by the colonial & post-colonial aftermath are most guilty of “over-simplistic accounts of the imperial past” (&, worse still, resentment for this past!!). Shocking, though all the same predictable, that the abuser is the one most empowered to explain his abuses.

  9. One of Zizek’s most interesting aphoristic claims – I can’t recall the precise book(s)/article(s) where the argument was made – was his contention that true defeat can discerned when a losing party is forced to resort to the vocabulary of the victorious ‘enemy’ to justify its assertions. Milbank’s chest-thumping about the ‘Christian roots of the enlightenment’ in an effort lend greater legitimacy (or cover?) to his crypto-medievalist political stance is pathetic/comic in the sense that, in doing so, he implicitly acknowledges the hopeless and fantastic character of his revivalist project. However, I presume that he’s far too intelligent to actually take some of his more outlandish reactionary statements seriously in themselves, as anything more than strong rhetorical positions that help alter the coordinates of the debate (i.e. “cheap contrarianism”).
    Nevertheless, in reading Milbank on Islam, I’ve increasingly noticed a surreal homology with the discourse of the Hindu majoritarian right in India. Granted, Milbank didn’t orchestrate the genocide of 2000+ Muslims to overcome anti-incumbency and win successive provincial elections. But much of what
    the professor has to say will not be out of place in the paternalist communalism of the most dangerous religious organisation in the world, the innocuously named ‘National Federation of Volunteers’ [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] or its political wing, the BJP. It’s just that back home in India, its not only Islam, but also Christianity that has to face the brunt of majoritarian religious reactionaries. There too, the revivalists make themselves out to be the ‘good guys’, who have long practiced religious tolerance and espoused a rich theological and philosophical pluralism. Only in the good old Hindu subcontinent, the argument goes, was the militant materialism of the Charvakas, the emergence of Buddhism, the didactic secularism of Tamil antiquity, the non-dualist idealism of Shankara, blah blah possible. The Abrahamic Monotheisms are said to imprison the free spirit of the country with their ‘totalitarian’ logic, which the ‘integral humanists’ must fight to prevent India from becoming a moribund simulacrum of the west. The history here, of course, is as fanciful and ideologically one-sided as Milbank’s olympian version of Christendom. But people like Milbank need to realise that simple mirror-images of their semi-imagined narratives he advocates in the Britain can be used precisely intensify the oppression Christian communities elsewhere.
    But the most fascinating similarity by far is the coterminous conclusions of both the revivalist camps in question. The RSS shares Milbank’s generosity of spirit that prevents him from forcing all Muslims to convert under duress of unleashing his Catholic death star of teleological reason upon their primitive minds. Just as Milbank will permit Muslims to take their “Islamic path to Christ”, Arun Shourie, the BJP’s former Union minister for Disinvestment [yes, India actually had an entire central ministry solely dedicated to dismantling the public sector], promised that Muslims and Christians in India would be fully entitled to practice their religions in the coming utopia, as long as they ‘realised’ that they were, in reality, ‘Hindu’ Muslims and ‘Hindu’ Christians’.
    Amazing indeed, the similitudes of fascism-lite around the globe…………..

  10. Is there any one movement to be called “Radical Orthodoxy?” Milbank and Cavenaugh have always seemed lightyears apart to me.

  11. Wow… has Milbank finally lost it?! I mean, there’s definitely a ‘narrative of decline’ that can be written about his work since TST. The fetishism for pre-modern Christendom came out in part in that book, but this article seems to be part of a trend in Milbank toward conservatism and aggressive defence of (enlightenment) ‘western civilisation’ which he deftly undermined in the early chapters of TST. By trying to correlate Christianity with the west/enlightenment, he’s traded-in his already weak eschatology for a seat at the high table.

    Maybe I’ll go read Nate Kerr’s book now.

  12. Despite his presence in the RO book, and similarities in their projects, I don’t think Cavanaugh sees himself as being RO – indeed, in comparison to Milbank here, Cavanaugh’s recent book on religious violence claims that discourse on this is the result of a) colonialism (in its creation of ‘all religion is violent’) and b) neo-colonialism (invasion of Muslim lands).

  13. Over a few lunch conversations, Bill has pointed out that he doesn’t view himself as Radically Orthodox. I think he certainly respects Milbank, and they do dialogue, etc., but there are definite differences.

    I am quite grateful that I wasn’t the only person who read this article by Milbank and thought, “my how things have changed.” I would agree with a few of the comments thus far that this has been a long time coming.

    BTW, have Milbank or Benedict not read Genesis 22?? The episode of Abraham and Isaac fundamentally undermine the claim that God does not ask one to do something against reason–at least reason as understood according to the Enlightenment.

    Is this what happens when an academic gains access to political power without the requisite accountability that comes through public elections?

  14. Myles, Church and Pomo published a conference paper of his where he distanced himself from Radox. I think we’ve posted the link in comments a couple times, but I can’t find it (the search box here doesn’t do comments, and it’s hard to search for it on the Church and Pomo blog since the name “Graham Ward” is on literally every page).

  15. Adam,

    As I recall Ward doesn’t ‘distances’ himself from RO. That has been I believe a misreading of yours since that essay was posted. In the beginning Ward is discussing his impression that the previous essays that discussed his book seems to have a pre-determined understanding of “RO” postions from which they uncritically situated “The Politics of Discipleship.” He says he has “no investment in RO as such” since by “RO” most only mean Milbank, and Ward seeks to avoid fetischism.

    Wards point was that it is normal to come to another’s work with our own predispositions but he aimed to explain his book without necessarily making an “RO” book out of it, nor an “RO” project out of his work.

    The link is here –

    To be sure though, Ward seems to consider RO most fruitful as a theological sensibility than the type of project Milbank envisions.

  16. I find the following paragraph from the Milbank particularly distressing:

    What the West needs to do, I maintain, is to encourage the growth of more mystical forms of Islam, which are also the forms that stress a religious mode of organisation that is not directly a political one, or even necessarily a legal one. What is needed, in other words, is for Islam to evolve toward an ecclesial or “church-like” mode of organisation.

    One of the most (if not the most) persistent claims against Judaism to arise in the enlightened West is that Judaism is not really a religion at all, but a form of politics. It gets expressed in Spinoza, then is picked up in Kant, who says that Christianity actually has no relation whatsoever to Judaism except as a negation of its political identity. Hegel carries it forward in his early theological wiritings. Milbank is working in a noble tradition of Christian thinkers accusing another Abrahamic faith of having sunk to the level of mere politics. (I have to admit that one of the great Jewish philosophers of the 20th cent. fell victim to the same thing: Rosenzweig’s disparagement of Islam is a perfect example of the same thing.)

    And if you want a true (ie, really enlightened) Enlightenment approach to the nature of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, it’s in Lessing’s Nathan the Wise and the Parable of the Three Rings (, scroll down the page). Of course, Lessing’s play was instantly attacked by both defenders of the good-old Eurocentric Enlightenment (as going too far) and defenders of Christian dogma (as going too far). Milbank’s argument that Enlightenment and Christianity are natural cousins just replays this collusion of forces against Lessing. It is very, very distressing to see Milbank, someone with such erudition, falling into the very same patterns of thought as the offended intellectuals of 1779 who drummed Lessing out of their midst with charges of his “Spinozism” (i.e., Jewish-inflected atheism, what Milbank identifies as the doctrine of the univocity of Being). (For a really wonderful defense of Lessing, read Kierkegaard’s long discussion of him in Concluding Unscientific Postscript.)

  17. It seems to be a pretty consistent pattern that when Christians are not “allowed” to attack Judaism for whatever reason, they shift the exact same attacks toward Islam — even Tillich does this.

  18. Regarding the paragraph Bruce cited above: This is not a new thing with regard to Christian/Secular accounts of Islam. And this rather old response is quite racially-coded, given that “mystical forms” of Islam are taken to mean Sufism, which is taken to mean Persian. Notably, then, Persian language-populations were understood as being Aryan rather than Semitic, which the Arabs were. In other words, the argument Milbank is miming is as follows: “mystical Islam” is good/European, whereas “political Islam” is bad/Semitic.

  19. Hmmm, doesn’t Milbank’s turn of phrase above speak against the thesis he maintained in Theology and Social Theory? Inasmuch as political forms exists, they are cryptically religious, once there was no secular and so forth. So the Wahabi and other forms of Islam are as theological as they are political. Indeed, his argued elsewhere that the ekkelisia is polis par excellence – as others have argued the state is only a parody of it and so on. Therefore to ask Islam to become more religious is odd to say the least.

  20. Lessing, like so many radical enlightenment figures of the period (our own Ben Franklin for example), was an active member of the Freemasons. I suspect that there would be quite an uproar if a Freemasonic Lodge were planned in the neighborhood of Ground Zero. How un-American! A political kabal to destroy Christendom!

  21. One final point of practicality: Sunni Islam is 90% of Muslim believers. Attempting to change them all into Shia or Sufis, when in the latter clase they are regarded as at least potentially heterodox seems a big ask even for one article on the ABC.

  22. What’s unclear to me about the call for a more ‘mystical’ Islam is the corresponding Christian counterpart which is, I assume, supposed to be both mystical and political (Christendom redivivus). But this is, of course, Chrisendom once again, inamsuch as Christianity gets to be both mystical and political, while the 0ther only get to be mystical.

    It’s a striking inversion (counter-account might be Milbank’s term) of secularism, which makes sense if you think secularism is an inversion of Christianity.

  23. Adam,
    One can read remarkably similar comments of Milbank in his essay, “The End of Dialogue,” first published the same year as Theology and Social Theory (and republished recently in __The Future of Love__). In other words, this “horseshit” goes all the way back and all the way down (and TST is an abstruse statement of it: reread the discussion in TST on the analogy of being with these comments in mind to get to the heart of it).

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