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John Milbank: A Guide for the Perplexed

January 28th, 2019 | 24 min read

By Peter Leithart

I. Theology As Master Discourse.

I first met John Milbank, my doctoral supervisor, at a welcome event for new graduate students sponsored by the Divinity School of the University of Cambridge. During the meeting, each faculty member introduced him or herself and described an area of specialization. I don’t remember what anyone else said, but Milbank introduced himself as a theologian “interested in everything and in the God who is beyond everything.” That’s his specialty: Everything, and then some.

He wasn’t kidding. The scope of Milbank’s work is breathtaking, its depth intimidating, its difficulty notorious, his combativeness legendary. The density of his writing is partly an issue of syntax, which sometimes mimics that of postmodern theorists. More often, Milbank is tough sledding because his writing is a knotted fabric of reference. Milbank writes as if his readers will follow along as he tosses off sentences like:

“The relationship of sociology to de Bonald is not as frequently recognized as the relationship of Marxism to Hegel, in part because the work of Durkheim has occluded the work of Comte, and Durkheim did not refer back to the Catholic reactionaries in the way that Hegel was reinvoked by Lukacs.”[1]

He knows what he’s talking about, but we lesser mortals don’t move with such suppleness from one field or era to another.

Milbank is many things. A political theologian: His first book was a theological critique of social theory, his latest a manifesto for postliberalism (The Politics of Virtue, with Adrian Pabst). A philosophical theologian: He’s written on Aquinas (Truth in Aquinas, with Catherine Pickstock), many essays on ontology and ethics, and a metaphysics of the gift (Being Given). A postmodern theologian who has crossed intellectual swords with Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Marion, Slavoj Zizek (with whom he co-authored The Monstrosity of Christ). A Platonist, a “postmodern Augustinian,” an anti-Scotist Thomist of the de-Lubackian stripe (cf. The Suspended Middle, on Henri de Lubac and the nouvelle theologie), an archeologist of a submerged counter-modern modernity embodied in a tradition stretching from Nicholas of Cusa, through Vico (the subject of his doctoral dissertation) to J. G. Hamann and John Ruskin. A Christian socialist who sends a cheer or two in Marx’s direction; a non-Hegelian who shares the Hegelian aspiration to close the gap between reason and Christian reason; a radical who critiques liberal progressivism from the left; an enemy of abortion who defends empire, an opponent of gay marriage who supports gay rights; a Remainer lover of all things English who has a childlike delight in elves, pixies, and other little people; a Twitter pundit and curmudgeon; a poet (The Mercurial Wood; The Legend of Death).

The breadth and intensity of Milbank’s work inspired the formation of Radical Orthodoxy (R.O.), one of the most energetic theological movements of the late twentieth century. Led by Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, R.O. produced many books, several books series, uncounted responses, and a cottage industry of journal articles. Milbank has disciples, but his influence extends far beyond those who identify with R.O. Milbank has fostered an ethos among younger theologians, a confidence that unapologetically theological theology has a unique contribution to make to the intellectual and cultural maladies of late modernity.

In themselves, difficulty and influence do not signal greatness in a theologian. If a theologian is truly great, he is finally a disciple of Jesus, which means that at base he will be a child. Milbank is a great theologian, and behind his ambition and complexity, beyond the pyrotechnics, is a simple premise: In the current cultural and political context, Christian orthodoxy represents a “radical” position, and only such radicalism gets to the roots of the crises of late modernity.

Milbank set the agenda for R.O. and his own work on the thrilling first page of his first book, Theology and Social Theory. He wrote the book for both social theorists and theologians. His message to the first is to persuade them that the governing assumptions of modern theory are bound up with shifts within Christian theology and practice, which contests social theory’s self-image as a secular discourse. For theologians, his message was even more challenging: Milbank seeks “to restore in postmodern terms, the possibility of theology as a metadiscourse.” This possibility can be realized only if modern theology repents of its false humility:

The pathos of modern theology is its false humility. For theology, this must be a fatal disease, because once theology surrenders its claim to be a meta-discourse, it cannot any longer articulate the word of the creator God, but is bound to turn into the oracular voice of some finite idol, such as historical scholarship, humanist psychology, or transcendental philosophy. If theology no longer seeks to position, qualify or criticize other discourses, then it is inevitable that these discourses will position theology: for the necessity of an ultimate organizing logic . . . cannot be wished away. A theology ‘positioned’ by secular reason suffers two characteristic forms of confinement. Either it idolatrously connects knowledge of God with some particular immanent field of knowledge – ‘ultimate’ cosmological causes, or ‘ultimate’ psychological or subjective needs. Or else it is confined to intimations of a sublimity beyond representation, so functioning to confirm negatively the questionable idea of an autonomous secular realm, completely transparent to rational understanding.[2]

That programmatic declaration – nearly a declaration of war – sets the trajectory for Milbank’s critique of secular reason and the secular order that comes from and supports it, as well as his proposals for post-secular or post-liberal order. It’s behind his work on metaphysics and postmodernism. It explains his attraction to non-theologians like Vico, Hamann, and Ruskin. Everything Milbank has written is an application of this premise: Theology’s job is to “articulate the word of the creator God” as the “ultimate organizing logic” of all thought and cultural practice.

An attempt to summarize this extraordinary body of work carries the risk of superficiality on the one hand and inordinate complexity on the other. In an effort to elude these risks, I summarize a handful of key lines of Milbankian argument, which will enable the uninitiated reader not only to gauge Milbank’s conclusions but to gain a feel for the movement of his thought.

II. Critique of Social Theory

“Once,” Milbank begins, “there was no secular.” He continues:

And the appearance of the secular is not merely a matter of removing something superfluous, as sociology generally tells it in its theories of “desacralization,” the image of the stripping of a sacred covering so that some realm of pure humanity and nature is brought into the open.  That portrayal assumes that there is such a thing as a pure humanity, which is always there under the surface of the sacred and of religion, which has nothing to do with the sacred, and it assumes that humanism is the natural destiny of history, the inevitable telos toward which all human societies move.  Both of these assumptions must be contested.[3]

Like Charles Taylor, Milbank rejects “subtraction” theories of secularization.

Milbank’s account of the secular is partly deconstructive. For Milbank, there is no purely “natural” human ordering of life. Human life is always a nature-culture hybrid, ordered by beliefs, codes of conduct, symbols, rituals. What political philosophy (e.g., Locke, Rousseau) has treated as a “natural state” of equality is simply an alternate coding.  We cannot peel off the layers of cultural coding and belief and get back to a human nature in a pure and undefiled state.

Secular modernity is a particular coding/organization of human social life, no more natural than any other – just different. The secular wasn’t lurking behind the mask of sacrality, but had to be imagined, instituted and constructed. Secular order seems natural because political and economic theorists of the early modern period imagined the secular as a “natural” sphere of sheer power, where egotistical self-interest reigns, free of the “artificial” constraints of religion and morality. Secular theory fits modern social and political reality because secular theory had a hand in its construction. Modern social theory constructs the object of its own theorizing.

Milbank also recounts a genealogy of secular reason to show that it’s constructed from the misshapen materials of Christian theology and practice. “Secular” itself is a Christian concept. The patristic and medieval “secular” (saeculum) was a time, the period between the fall of Adam and the final advent of Christ. All of human life during this era is “secular,” the church as much as the state. Under the saeculum, perfect peace cannot be achieved, coercive measures and warfare are still necessary, people are born, live, decay, and die. Comprehensive as it is, the Christian secular is an intrusion into the good creation, and it will one day be folded into a new heavens and new earth.

Modern thinkers spatialize the secular, conceiving of it as a space permanently marked off from the “religious” or “sacred” sphere. Conversely, secular reason privatizes the sacred. By bounding off religion, theorists construct a public sphere in which religious or moral considerations have no place, a public sphere dominated by power and profit.

For moderns, this spatialized secular is believed to be natural, not in a scholastic sense (according to which nature participates in the eternal law of God) but in a Grotian sense: Even if God did not exist, the natural laws of the universe would exist and could be known. One key to this development is the early modern revival of the stoic concept of conatus, the universal drive to self-preservation. For modernity, conatus provides the hermeneutical key for recognizing the natural within social and economic life. Conatus supports a vision of secular space as a realm governed by calculations of self-interest. It’s an especially useful concept because it appears to be a-theological, drawn from rational analysis of human experience, rather than from revelation. It’s useful for explaining – that is, constructing and defending – a spatialized secular sphere.

Milbank makes similar deconstructive and genealogical moves in tracing the formation of modern sociology. He doesn’t treat sociology as a “discipline” but as a worldview, philosophical standpoint, or theological perspective. He calls it a theology and a church in disguise, which offers an account of society and history that is irreconcilable with Christianity’s. The link with theology is partly genetic: Nineteenth-century Catholic social theorists formulate the metaphysics that was later incorporated into the theories of Durkheim and Comte. Further, like secular political economy, sociology serves secular reason’s self-defense system: It doesn’t investigate a pre-existing entity called “secular society,” but constitutes and defends the secular in the process of theorizing. Sociology is a church because it evangelizes for private religion and disciplines the secular public by excommunicating religion.

Sociology arose from questions about the relation of individual and society left unanswered by early modern political economists. Social contract theory rests on an original conundrum: Men in the state of nature must communicate with one another in order to form a political society, but they can communicate only if there is already a shared language and a (perhaps rudimentary) shared culture. That is: Political society can be founded only if political society exists prior to its founding. This dilemma is a variation on the question, “Do individuals construct society? Or does society construct individuals?” For his part, Milbank thinks this is a fundamental aporia that we ought not attempt to solve: Societies consist of individuals who are themselves formed by societies.

Sociology hoped to untangle the aporia, and opted to take “society” rather than the “individual” as a basic fact, indeed as the basic fact, prior to politics or the setting of goals or aspirations for individuals, prior to culture and religion. From this perspective, society doesn’t stand in need of explanation; it is an explanation. The specifically sociological method traces political or economic or cultural or religious realities to more fundamental social “causes.”

Milbank offers the medieval town as an historical counter-example to the sociological framework. In the medieval town, guilds and corporations were inspired by and infused with Christianity. Political life was imbued with religious norms, symbols, and rituals. Through mechanisms like the just price, economics was molded toward charity. In this setting, “the social” isn’t a separable, or even a distinguishable, factor. Neither is religion: medieval religion is always already social, even as medieval society is always already religion. The more a social order exists “inside” religion, the less one is capable of isolating social factors in order to explain religion.

In the face of this evidence (and there is vastly more such evidence, in virtually every tribal society every studied), why do sociologists treat “society” as an independent, fundamental, explanatory variable? Why, in particular, are social factors considered more fundamental than religion? Here again, theology is a key to the formation of secular reason. Sociology has been committed to what Milbank calls the “liberal protestant metanarrative,” an account of universal history that traces stages in religious development – from myth and magic through the salvation religions to modern privatized religion of ethics and humanitarianism.[4] Rather than seeing the development of Western Christianity from patristic to medieval to modern as a series of contingent modifications within Christian ethos and doctrine, Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch elevated this history into a metanarrative, a gradual unveiling of what was latent in Christianity all along, even as the unveiling of the universal truth of religion itself.

Milbank objects to this largely because it universalizes a particular and contingent history. But he also demonstrates that the liberal Protestant metanarrative is complicit with the secular. “Progress” lies in the direction of the privatization of religion, individualism, anti-ritualism. Armed with this narrative, sociology guards the supposed neutrality of liberal order from every substantive overarching purpose and goal. Intrusions of public religion can be “scientifically” dismissed as dangerous expressions of outdated or primitive religious passions. Sociology defends the secular order it helps to constitute and claims to study.

There’s an obvious Occidental bias here: Advanced and progressive societies have religions like ours. Weber quite explicitly opposed efforts to “orientalize” the public sphere, every effort to “capture” the public sphere and direct it toward some substantive account of justice or good. What is ruled out, what is made theoretically and methodologically impossible, is precisely a Christian vision of social order. Secular sociology rules out Christian charity as a public realm, charity as the foundation of social order. It rules out Christian religion, which is the social reality of the church. Theology cannot accommodate to secular sociology without self-destructing.

Note that, in contrast to many religious critiques of sociology, Milbank’s complaint is not that sociology is reductive. He doesn’t argue that sociologists forget that, in addition to social factors, there are also religious factors and individual initiatives that need to be taken into account. Such a response is a concession to secular reason, in that it acknowledges that “religious” and “social” factors can be disentangled. Milbank’s far more radical contention is that there is nothing purely “social” that can be isolated from the complex of cultural, political and religious realities. Religion can, and perhaps must, enter into the very formation of the social structure. The problem is not that sociology is reductive; the problem is that there’s no “social” to which something else might be reduced.

None of this means that sociology offers no insight into human life. Milbank readily acknowledges that sociologists uncover genuine “correlations” between, say, social class and religious affiliations (Episcopalians tend to be upper class, Pentecostal lower). The problem comes in sociology’s explanations (“He’s Episcopalian because he is upper class”; “he’s prolife because he’s a privileged white male”).

For theologians, the problem is more fundamental. Adjusting theology to the scientific findings of sociology is a dereliction of duty, since theology, as the articulation of the divine word, must view itself as the “master discourse” that positions other discourses, including sociology. A theologian who adjusts to sociology implicitly denies that Christianity has its own embedded account of social and political life. He leaves the tradition of Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Barth and Balthasar, all of whom developed a vision of social and political life from within the Bible and the gospel. Theologians should certainly accept the services of the handmaid sociology, but they should do so with the conviction that theology is already social theory.

III. Creation, Poesis, Metaphysics.

One of the key claims of secular reason is that the realm of factum, the made, the humanly constructed, is a secular realm, a realm of instrumental and mechanical rationality. This account begins with the basic observation that most of our environment, is the product of human labor. My house, my computer, my clothes, even the yard outside exist within the realm of the “made.” None of it occurs naturally (even my yard is mowed, more or less regularly), and it’s all wholly contingent, not essential to the existence of the world. The order of the world we live in is not, moderns believe, ordained and established by God; it’s a product of human labor and experimentation. The realm of human manufacture is therefore a secular realm.

Further, for secular reason, human making has a purely instrumental purpose. We make things in order to achieve the ends of self-preservation. We build houses to keep out the elements, airplanes and automobiles for faster travel. The realm of the made is not a realm of a human striving after God, but an arena of instrumental reason and egotistical self-interest. Thus, again, the realm of the made is secular.

Milbank challenges this equation of the made and the secular, but he first concedes that the realm of the “made” is contingent and not natural. Our social order, our technological achievements, didn’t drop from heaven. They are products of human labor.

But in Christian theology, our creative efforts are a human “cooperation” with the creativity of God. Milbank acknowledges that humans do not create ex nihilo, and admits that history is the outworking of what is already in the mind of God. But he insists that human creativity is truly creative, not merely a re-organization of matter, but a real making of new things. Seeds do “create” new plants, humans produce new humans, humans build bridges, roads, etc.  Milbank combats a univocal, zero-sum understanding of creation, that would assume that if God is creative, we cannot be. Rather, he insists (very explicitly) on analogy: because God is creative, so are we.

Though often allied with Aquinas, Milbank here uses Thomas as a foil for his understanding of human creativity. According to Thomas, being is an effect of creation and cannot depend on any contribution from finite causality; creative agency requires not just “having being” but “being as such.” Thus only God creates. Finite causation doesn’t extend to particular subsistences but only to accidents or to the level of genus and species. Though finite causes give new shapes to things, they cannot bring things into being in any deeply creative sense.

Thomas is seeking, rightly, to protect the uniqueness of God’s existence in se, but Milbank claims that he wrongly confines “human transitive causation to the level of form/matter, rather than the level of esse/essentia” and thus fails to see “the uniqueness, and independent subsistence of each newly emergent thing represents not only a modification or pre-existent finite reality . . . , but also a continuous emergence ex nihilo.” For Aquinas, human making is “mere bricolage.[5]

Milbank insists that, though the original creation is unique, it implies that the essence of created existence is ongoing origination, a continual bringing-into-existence of new things and new states of affairs. A table is not “rearranged lumber”; it is an ontologically new thing, which did not exist before being built. Human invention brings into being entire new classes of things — light bulbs, books, and computer terminals.

In response to the claim that the made is merely “instrumental” and “secular,” Milbank insists that making should be understood instead as a striving toward self-transcendence, as “poesis.” The term has an Aristotelian provenance, but Milbank gives Aristotle a Christian twist. Aristotle distinguished between praxis, which refers to actions whose effects remain within the subject, and poesis, “transitive” actions that pass over into something external to the subject. Milbank blurs this distinction, arguing that no actions remain wholly within the agent, that human personality is realized in relations with others and with the creation outside, and that we make ourselves by what we make. As a result, human being is “fundamentally poetic being.”[6] As Milbank explains,

One can be so impressed by the Aristotelian recognition that we are our actions, rather than a contentless will hidden behind them, that one fails to see the questionability of the idea of ‘our’ actions, actions without exit, which we possess. . . . . one should begin with the realization that every action is ‘poetic,’ a loss as well as a gain, a self-exposure as well as a self-imposition. The distinction of ‘actions’ from ‘makings’ arises only according to social and linguistic convention, whereby certain makings are more strongly attributed to a person than others, and so are thought to ‘remain’ with her, and thereby to ‘characterize’ her.[7]

Though “all cultures will code a difference between doing and making,” this difference will always be itself a “poetic” construction, a culturally specific decision about “which external actions count, which do not.”

Provocatively, Milbank suggests that it is residual Platonism that leads us to believe that our “ideas” exist prior to and independent of our cultural products and formations. Milbank insists that we don’t make things merely to bring pre-existing ideas to public expression. Instead, the idea is formed as well as conveyed in making the thing made. Partly this is a point about language: We know and have ideas through the medium of language, which is a cultural product. We come to know what we think by throwing arguments out into public space, where they can be debated. He is also making the point that the things we make are not just expressions of what already existed perfectly formed in my mind. There is a surplus in the actual making of things beyond our prior conception of them. Our thoughts come to realization in the material world of human construction.

Behind this valorization of human creativity is a claim about theology proper. Nicholas of Cusa had speculated about the Second Person of the Trinity as the “Art” of God, so that, without denying the Nicene formula, he could speak of a kind of eternal “making” or artistry in the Father’s begetting of the Son, which rendered “God’s inner creativity definatory of the divine essence.” In this way, factum became one of the transcendentals. “Making” or creativity is among the leading attributes of the Trinity; a “creation” ad intra grounds the ab extra.[8] On Milbank’s reading, Cusa makes creation rather than esse the principal philosophical concept.[9]

Made in God’s image, man is homo creator and, just as the Father is never without His eternal “Art,” so human artifacts are not a secondary reality grafted onto a more basic “natural” existence but “fully equiprimordial” with humanity itself.[10] Since human making reflects the eternal trinitarian nature and the continually creative work of God, it is not “secular” or “neutral” but a reaching for transcendence, and an imitation of and participation in the ongoing creative action of God.

IV. Ontology of Violence, Ontology of Peace.

From the summary of Milbank’s critique of the secular and of sociology, it is evident that he makes use of the tools of postmodern theory, whether Derridean deconstruction or Foucaultian genealogy. At a fundamental level, though, Milbank is as resolutely opposed to postmodern theory as he is to modern secular reason. Despite its disclaimers, postmodernism rests on an implicit ontology, which correlates with a vicious political practice.

Milbank turns genealogy against the genealogists. Nietzsche and Foucault claim to be masters of suspicion; their skeptical method unmasks what is really going on in history. Nietzsche reduces history to an exercise of the will to power. Christianity is especially perverse precisely because it masks its will to power under an apparent renunciation of power.

Milbank is suspicious of the heroes of suspicion. He asks, How might genealogy justify its claim that violence is the basic reality of history? It’s hard to see how a genealogist could defend this claim genealogically. Nietzschean genealogy rests on a prior metaphysical commitment. Though Nietzsche announces the end of metaphysics, he in fact only offers a different metaphysics. Genealogists focus on power and violence is because they have assumed what Milbank describes as an “ontology of violence.”

Postmodern philosophy is essentially a form of Gnosticism that treats creation as inherently, metaphysically fallen, conflicted, violent. No redemption is possible. All difference is conflicted difference. For Derrida, for example, interpretation inevitably does violence to the original text; interpretation is always subversive. Why should that be the case? Because, for Derrida, there is no ontological basis for a harmony of difference. Violence and conflict are “ontologized,” projected as the ultimate reality. Derrida’s linguistic theory rests, in short, on Gnostic premises. Heretic theology again contributes to the formation of a secular discourse.

Like sociology, genealogy ends up with a paradoxically ahistorical account of history. For sociology, “society” is an unchanging something that produces the shifting religious, cultural, and political landscape. For genealogy, power is reified into an ahistorical bedrock underneath the shifting patterns of history. Milbank is here more “postmodern” and historicist than Nietzsche, in that he rejects the notion that there is any unchanging “bedrock” of history. There is in fact only the continually shifting pattern, mysteriously governed by the providence of God.

Genealogy also ends up being complicit with the violence it claims to expose and unmask. After all, if violence is the truth of things, then perhaps those societies that are transparent about their commitment to violence are “truer” than those that veil that commitment. Fascist regimes and heroic societies are more honest, therefore more moral, than Christian societies. Milbank suggests that Nietzsche read Augustine back to front: He agreed with Augustine that pagan virtue was merely self-assertion and violence, but revels in that discovery instead of condemning it, as Augustine does, in the light of an alternative configuration of human life.

For Milbank, Augustine’s City of God is uniquely relevant. Augustine “deconstructs” antique Roman virtue by showing that the virtues of the pagans were “splendid vices” that reduce to a competitive exercise of violence. For Romans, the virtuous man is one that suppresses and gains victory over his passions. Politically, this translates into empire: By controlling his passions, the Roman gains glory and pre-eminence. Virtue is conquest in a conflict, and the pax Romana is Roman virtue writ large; Roman peace is established by violence, a limiting of violence through the exercise or threat of violence.

For Milbank, ontology, politics and ethics are of a piece, for postmodernism, ancient thought, and Christianity. Ancient or postmodern, this political-ontology of violence is rooted in cosmologies that conceive of “creation” as a matter of the demiurge controlling chaos. As Milbank strikingly puts it, the ancients cannot image virtue without conflict and competition, and thus cannot imagine virtue in heaven, where conflict has ceased. For Augustine, by contrast, virtue is preeminently found in heaven, since virtue is harmony and love.

Thus, for all their differences, postmodernism and antique philosophy share a commitment to violence. For this reason, no revival of antique virtue can meet the challenge of postmodern nihilism. The battle between antique virtue and postmodern nihilism is an intramural skirmish. What’s needed is wholly different ontology, one that rejects the ultimacy of violence.

Augustinian Christianity provides an alternative that takes the form of a counter-history in response to genealogy, a counter-ethics in response to antique virtue, and a counter-ontology of peace as a replacement for the ontology of violence.

The counter-history is the history of Israel, Christ, and his church. This is the Christian “metanarrative” within which all other stories and events must find their meaning. The church “defines itself as both in continuity and discontinuity with the community of Israel; later on it defines itself as in still greater discontinuity with the ‘political’ societies of the antique world. This account of history and critique of human society is in no sense an appendage to Christianity — on the contrary, it belongs to its very ‘essence.’” This is “a gigantic claim to be able to read, criticize, say what is going on in other human societies,” which “is absolutely integral to the Christian Church.”[11]

In Milbank’s view, “for theology to surrender this claim, to allow that other discourses  – the ‘social sciences’ – carry out yet more fundamental readings, would therefore amount to a denial of theological truth. The logic of Christianity involves the claim that the ‘interruption’ of history by Christ and his bride, the Church, is the most fundamental of events, interpreting all other events. And it is most especially a social event, able to interpret other social formations, because it compares them with its own new social practice.”[12] Augustine was able, from the perspective of this history, to redescribe the history of paganism, and expose it as based on violence, self-interest, the lust for domination. Milbank attempts a similar deconstruction of secular reason.

The counter-ethics is an ecclesial ethics. Christianity does not wholly reject the ancient association of ethics and polis. For Christianity, ethics is still located and fulfilled in community, but the community was the new community of the church. Within this counter-society a new social practice takes form. The church is a society where priority is placed on forgiveness of sins and bearing of one another’s burdens replace rivalry and victimization. The new polis of the church offers a pastoral model of rule that, over time, bleeds out to transform political practice. There is still, Milbank argues, a place for coercion under certain circumstances but this is not to be domination for its own sake, but it is always, as Augustine argued, correction for the good of the one who is coerced. Even coercion is infused with and qualified by love.

As a result, the peace of the Christian city isn’t the mock-peace of Rome, a peace achieved by counter-violence. Rather, in the Spirit, the church strives toward the true peace that is absolute harmony and love, consensus in love. For Christianity, virtue is not a suppression of the passions, not a suppression of desire, but a redirection of desire to its proper object. Neither peace nor virtue rests on violence.

The counter-history and counter-ethics are undergirded by a counter-ontology of peace. Unlike antiquity and postmodernism, Christianity does not view difference as inherently conflicted but rather recognizes difference as the condition for the possibility of communion and harmony. The ultimate reality is the Triune God, who is not an undifferentiated monad. He is Three, and thus difference is not threatening. Yet Triune difference is not a difference of antagonism and violent conflict, but a difference in unity, a difference united in love, a harmony of difference.

In Milbank’s view, secular modernity is itself a regime of violence, which cannot be overcome by either the violence of antique virtue or of postmodernism. For Milbank, Christianity provides the only comprehensive alternative to secular order, whether modern and postmodern.

V. Conclusion.

This essay isn’t a full meal, or even a main course. It barely qualifies as an appetizer. It’s more a sampler, which, I hope, will be tantalizing enough to leave the reader hungry for more.

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  1. Theology and Social Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990) 61. That sentence is chosen more or less at random from hundreds of similar statements in Milbank’s writing.
  2. Theology and Social Theory, 1.
  3. Theology and Social Theory, 9.
  4. This narrative has profoundly shaped biblical studies. The JEDP documentary hypothesis concerning the origins of the Pentateuch assumes that ancient Israelites began as pious free-church Protestants (with the cuddly God of J) who degenerated into Catholicism (with the austere, distant God of P).
  5. The Religious Dimension in the Thought of Giambattista Vico, 1668-1744: Part 1: The Early Metaphysics (Studies in the History of Philosophy #23; Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1991) 23-26, 28.
  6. The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997) 124.
  7. Theology and Social Theory, 356-357.
  8. Theology and Social Theory, 27-30, 82-84, 126-132.
  9. Theology and Social Theory, 22.
  10. Theology and Social Theory, 31, 88, 101.
  11. Theology and Social Theory, 387-88.
  12. Theology and Social Theory, 388.