A helpful way to think about Theology and Social Theory is as two related projects, one critical and one constructive, one speaking with the “nihilistic” voice of contemporary social theory, and one with a Christian version of the “MacIntyrean voice,” rejecting the tradition of secular, liberal social theory in favor of a retrieval of conceptions from classical and medieval Christian thought, particularly the virtues and the common good.
The first, critical project, which takes up the bulk of this book, is an archaeology of secular social theory which traces its development as a set of deviations (in the direction of either heresy or neo-paganism) from orthodox Christian theology, deviations which were no more rationally grounded than the orthodox positions they replaced. The goal of this archaeology is two-fold. First, this archaeology seeks to establish that the tradition of secular social theory, often held to be objective, scientific, and rational, is in fact contingent, limited, and no more rationally defensible than the positions it attacked. The second goal is to establish that secular social theory, rather than providing a totally non-theological, non-metaphysical analysis of an autonomous field opened up by its removal of theology, is in fact theological through-and-through. “I hope to make it apparent that ‘scientific’ social theories are themselves theologies or anti-theologies in disguise” (3). This critical project, as Milbank notes, is not wholly original in contemporary social theory; his dependence upon a mode of analysis pioneered (or so the genealogy usually goes) by the famous troika of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, and refined especially by the left-Nietzschean tradition, of whom Michel Foucault is the foremost expositor, is quite clear. Even the second of the two goals of this archeology is hardly without precedent; one thinks of Carl Schmitt here (if perhaps with a shudder!), and Milbank cites MacIntyre, Gllian Rose, Rene Girard, Guy Lardreau and Christian Jambet as theorists, in one way or another, of “the idea of the critical non-avoidability of the theological and metaphysical” (2). This archaeology is carried out in three treatises: “Theology and Liberalism,” examining the liberal discourses of early liberal political theory/”scientific politics” and political economy; “Theology and Positivism,” examining positivism and sociology in general, and “Theology and Dialectics,” examining the Hegelian and Marxist traditions.
The constructive project, which is begun in the first three treatises but made explicit in the last, “Theology and Difference,” makes an argument for the superiority of Christianity over both secular social theory and the nihilistic critique of secular social theory which secular social theory produced, one which is ultimately related to their differing relationships to difference. For Milbank, secular social theory necessarily tends towards something like a Nietzschean critical position: an ontology of chaos and violence, where what fundamentally is is a struggle for power between, well, everything — a struggle that cannot be rationally adjudicated, for reason itself cannot be grounded upon anything other than the exercise of sheer power. This struggle, then, and the promotion of new forms of difference, takes on a sort of quasi-moral stature: the invention of new values out of thin air and their propagation by sheer force of will is, for Nietzsche, glorious! Foucault talks in a quite different register, but I think the same sort-of-moral vision is there; both oppose totalizing visions which seek to stamp out an original difference. For Christianity, according to Milbank, the fundamental ontology is also difference; like Nietzscheanism but unlike, say, Marx or Hegel, Christianity does not seek to impose a totalizing order by violence (either literal or metaphorical). But this difference is understood not as chaos but as peace — and in his final treatise, Milbank tries to sketch out a “historicist and pragmatist, yet theologically realist” Christian tradition which he believes can withstand the critique of contemporary social theory and provide the only discourse able to overcome the nihilism that the victorious left-Nietzschean critique of secular social theory has left us with.
Why this project? The goal of this book is essentially to liberate theology from its largely self-imposed secular captivity. In modernity, theology (especially in its liberal versions) has understood itself no longer as a ‘metadiscourse’ structuring all knowledge but rather as having expertise only in a particular field (or perhaps even a certain non-field, if you will — a realm of the numinous utterly beyond the reach of reason) and dependent upon autonomous, secular discourses for knowledge about anything outside of the particular area of theology’s expertise. Thus, say, if theology wants to say anything about the social world, including how the church as it exists in the social world, it must turn to sociology. I think this is a reasonably accurate depiction of much of theology’s current condition — and certainly that of liberal and liberationist theologies. Take Latin American liberation theology, for example: Gustavo Gutierrez often quite explicitly bases his analysis upon Marxism and writes about secularity as a human coming of age, of man taking the dominion which is his by right and casting off the shackles of superstitions both theological and political-economic which prevent the structuring of society according to human will.
For Milbank, there is an irony in this situation: while leading theologians continue to express both implicitly and explicitly the autonomy and universality of the secular and social science, developments in social theory have ruthlessly criticized such a view. In one sense, then, this book is written to force theologians to take into account developments in social theory over the last, say, forty years; social theory has moved a long way since A Theology of Liberation or The Secular City. In forcing theologians to do this taking of account, Milbank hopes to persuade them to reject the notions that “there is a significant sociological ‘reading’ of religion and Christianity, which theology must ‘take account of,’ and the idea that theology must borrow its diagnoses of social ills and recommendations of social solutions entirely from Marxist (or usually sub-Marxist) analysis, with some sociological admixture” (3). If secular social theory and the explanations it produces are not universal, rational, and autonomous, but rather contingent and dependent upon theological/metaphysical grounds which are ultimately opposed to orthodox Christianity, theology needs to totally rethink its relationship to these discourses and seek to re-situate itself as a master discourse. As we have seen above, this is necessary for Milbank because Christian theology alone can provide a discourse in which difference is understood, not as endless violence but instead as peace and harmony and thus, by liberating itself from its self-marginalization, liberate us from the nihilism which is the ultimate result of secular social thought.