T&ST: Chapter 1 – Political Theology and the New Science of Politics

In order for a secular social theory to emerge, secular space and secular time had to be created. Early modern social thought (Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and Machiavelli) created a secular space and time identified with the sphere of the artificial (that is, of human creation) and with the exercise of arbitrary will. These linkages, in particular that between human construction and pure will, were not the necessary trajectory of a secularizing Judeo-Christianity, as the received sociological tradition has it, but rather particular mutations of the Christian tradition in the direction of heterodoxy (Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke) and neo-paganism (Machiavelli).

To make sense of this argument, it helps first to dig in a little bit to the tradition of “received sociology” which Milbank is criticizing. He’s taking aim at a strong version of the secularization thesis, particularly one which (1) understands secularization as a process of uncovering an autonomous human sphere which was always actually there (or at least there as a potentiality to be actualized) but mystified by theology or other forms of ideology and (2) describes Christianity as a necessarily an agent of secularization. Judaism and Christianity, in many versions of this account, decisively transcendentalized the divine (against animistic or shamanistic associations of the divine with nature, say — think of the prohibition of images of God in the 10 Commandments, here) and problematized an easy association between divine and human authority (against, say, the Romans or Egyptians, for whom their political leaders were at least potentially gods, God becomes human in the person of a peasant, Jesus of Nazareth), disenchanting the natural and political worlds and rendering them open to self-conscious human intervention. For a strong version of this argument, see Gaudet’s The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion.

This is the tradition that Milbank thinks is “preposterous” (10). It’s not, to be clear, that theological developments had nothing to do with secularization — one of the most important goals of this book is  to argue that secularity is necessarily bound up in theology. Rather, the problem of this tradition of analysis is that it confuses necessity and contingency and reads modern developments in Christianity into its origins, and thus argues that, because something called “the secular” was established and that its establishment was related to particular late medieval/early modern developments in Christian theology, there was always a latent secularity in human existence and Christian theology was always and necessarily a disenchanting, uncovering force. Far from a latent secularity to be uncovered, Milbank argues that the secular had to be positively constructed, its meaning decisively shifted from its old medieval usage as the interval of time between the fall of man and the Second Coming to an autonomous sphere (both a space and a time) of human activity governed by pure human will.

The particular linkage that Milbank is most interested in unpacking is the link between the factum (the made) or artificial (i.e., the sphere of human activity in the world) and the secular (the sphere of exclusively human activity in the world, from which theology – and even God! – are removed). It is this link which creates the space of the secular. While this linkage may seem obvious to us, Milbank suggests that it is not in fact necessary. He points to the Mannerists as a (frankly quite confusing) counter-example. The way that this linkage happened, says Milbank, is that Adam’s dominium (lordship) over creation was defined in terms of “power, property, active right, and absolute sovereignty” and that Adam’s personhood came to be defined in terms of this dominium (13). This is a redefinition, Milbank wants to make clear — one which erases much of the classical and medieval usage of the term in favor of a return and indeed amplification of a “more brutal and origainal dominium, the unrestricted lordship over what lies within one’s power…in Roman private law.” (13). In this redefinition, says Milbank, we can see the affinity between modern absolutism and modern liberalism: the same conception of dominium as absolute power over self connects Hobbes’ notions that the sovereign cannot bind himself and that subjects are free only regarding that about which the law does not speak (see 14).

How did this new understanding of dominium emerge? Theology! Dominium-as-sheer-power could be identified with the essence of humanity because dominium-as-sheer-power was seen as defining the essence of divinity by the nominalist-voluntarist tradition in Christian theology! In Milbank’s telling, a rich tradition of theologizing about the will of God in Trinitarian language is replaced by an effective unitarianism which understands God’s will as unitary and at some level arbitrary. This sentence seems key, although I’m not necessarily well-versed enough in the theology of the period to parse it well: “No longer is the world participatorily enfolded within the divine expressive Logos, but instead a bare divine unity starkly confronts the other distinct unities which he has ordained” (15).

Why did this theological transformation cause this new understanding of human dominium and the new ‘science of politics’ that emerged from it? For two reasons, Milbank says (see 16). (1) It made men with unimpeded property rights and especially men exercising the rights of sovereignty the closest humans to the imago Dei. (2) By dismissing a theology of human participation in the life of the Trinity in favor of understanding human-divine relationships along the pattern of a contractual covenantal bond, it promoted a similar contractual understanding of human-human relationships. Theology, for Milbank, was not just an ideological justification of processes ‘really’ happening but rather played a necessary role in constructing the new realities which defined the sphere of free human action which came to be known as the secular.

This wasn’t just a change at the level of theory, says Milbank, church practices also changed (and indeed, the church was quicker to embrace the “assumed traits of modern secularity — legal formalization, rational instrumentalization, sovereign rule, economic contractualism” than the regnum (18)).

So let’s recap: to create a secular space, the sphere of human activity (the made, the historical, the artificial) had to be identified with the expression of pure human will. This required a new anthropology, which necessitated a redefinition of humanity’s dominium over the self and over the world which recouped and radicalized an old Roman legal definition which had been tamed by much of classical and medieval thought. Dominium came to be understood as a realm of sheer power which described the essence of a person. What it is to be human is to exercise unimpeded power. The reason new anthropology could come into begin had to do with voluntarist/nominalist shifts in the doctrine of God which identified God’s essence with the same sort of unitive, arbitrary willing. So much for the creation of secular space. Let’s turn to the creation of secular time.

The problem here, according to Milbank, is that the ecclesial time of the churches, as emblematized in particular by the traditional four-fold sense of scripture which brings together past, present, and future under the reflection  of leaders authorized by the church and invests that reflection with a quasi-divine authority which binds the obedience of good Christians, competes with the power of the new ‘secular’ state. I’m going to be honest: this part makes a lot less sense to me than the first part of the chapter. But here’s the argument, as best as I can sketch it:

To tame the political threat which the church posed, first one had to remove formal political power, and above all the power to coerce, from the church. The church becomes purely persuasive yet depends on state violence for the maintenance of its power (think the Reformation churches, especially the Lutheran church, here). Next, one had to “exclude all ‘private’ inspiration from politics, by declaring the temporal ‘interval’ to be for the present ‘the all'” (19). What exactly does this mean? I’m not sure — but perhaps it refers to the elimination of any political arguments that cannot accord with universal reason, particularly those arguments made using the old biblical hermeneutic. Next, you need to “capture” the text of the Bible from orthodox Christianity, because the “authoritative text of the Scriptures” is “required” by the “new space of sovereign power” because it was “the source of a positive divine reconfirmation of the covenantal principle, and for the truth that God stood behind the positive authority of nature” (19). To make this capture, the old use of the Bible, which “accorded interpretative authority to a tradition of reading, to readers whose power proceeded not from arms, property or contract, but rather from their socially made available time for reading” had to be eliminated (19). Now why was this old hermeneutic such a problem?

There is a lot here that is very hard to follow, and requires a mastery of Spinoza’s Tractatus that I do not have, but I think the real take-away is as follows:

The problem with the old Catholic biblical hermeneutic is that it refused to confine revelation to either wholly private and essentially incommunicable actions or public miracles that were long past. Rather, for the old four-fold, heavily allegorical Biblical hermeneutic, divine communication was mediated through the acts of a tradition of human interpreters whose power came from the church, not from the sovereign. Although the allegorical interpretations of scripture were in some sense of human creation, and contestable as such, interpreters were nonetheless guided by the Spirit in their interpretive work (or so the theory went, I think — I am not an expert on medieval biblical hermeneutics!). If, then, “God is still speaking” (to crib the UCC motto of the moment), there can be statements that are neither justifiable in terms of a universal rationality or a plain reading of the scripture nor dismissable by the sovereign as mere private opinion and thus unacceptable as a grounds for action.

Instead of this tradition, then, the new sovereign power laid claim to be the only power with the right to interpret Scripture in all ways that were publically or communally significant — and this is why Spinoza’s Tractatus or Hobbes’ Leviathan include lengthy discourses on proper interpretation of the Bible! This was necessary because the Bible was still necessary to ground the claims of the sovereign, especially the “convenantal principle,” as we have seen. In order to claim this power, a new, positivistic concept of revelation had to be promulgated. No longer was it possible or “any charisma to attach to transmission“, as in the old reading model (21). Now, revelation was either private and thus incommunicable or public but confined to an age of miracles that was now long past.

The final section of this chapter (one which also refers to ecclesial time) takes us out of the voluntarist political theology of Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and their ilk and to the “historicist perspective” of Machiavelli (23). What makes Machiavelli a break from the tradition which preceded him was not, Milbank wants to say, Machiavelli’s awareness of the need to adapt politics to historical particulars — this notion would not have been surprising or threatening to many of his forbears – but rather his retrieval of a specifically pagan “political and philosophical time” which competes with and indeed rejects Christianity (23). If in Hobbes we see a sort of perversion of Christian theology, in Machiavelli we find at least a partial rejection of it and an attempt to construct politics and morality upon a different source entirely, namely, that of antique, pagan virtu. With it comes a circular view of time dominated by conflict, the ebb and flow of fortune, and the actions of valiant, heroic men to capitalize upon it.

Milbank concludes by noting the import of both the voluntarist/contractualist/natural rights/liberal social theory and the thought of Machiavelli for future developments in social theory: these are two of the most vital sources, he says, from which it sprung. Yet from both a specifically Christian perspective and a sort of Foucauldian critical one, these traditions, far from being universal or necessary or rational, are dependent upon either a specific Christian heterodoxy or an attempt to return to paganism. Moreover, he suggests — although this was not, I think, adequately demonstrated in the text itself, that “the ‘science of conflict’ is not merely one branch of social science but rather that the ‘scientific’ approach seeks ‘to know’ power and conflict as ontologically fundamental” (25). Willed power as ontologically fundamental, sure — but conflict? Not necessarily. At any rate, the point, as far as Milbank is concerned, is that if Christianity seeks to make room for or accomodate secular reason, such a move involves a rapproachment with either a perversion of proper theology or a straight-up rejection of it — either “deviancy or falsehood,” as he puts it (25).


T&ST: Chapter 1 – Political Theology and the New Science of Politics

T&ST: Introduction

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.

T&ST: Introduction

Blogging through John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory: An Introduction

I’ve begun working my way through John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. It’s been on my to-read list for a long time now, but it’s difficult enough that I have stayed away. However, I think it will prove helpful for a paper I have been working on, so have decided that it is time to forge ahead and try to make some sense of this book! I’m going to be blogging through it, mostly because I find that the work of actually laying out an argument is very helpful in understanding it, especially for difficult texts (this is more-or-less how a college professor of mine had us read through Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit). But, if anyone out in the ether is struggling with this text as much as I am, perhaps these reflections will prove helpful! My intention at this point is to go chapter-by-chapter, laying out the argument and responding to it as best as I am able. Let’s see how this goes!

Blogging through John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory: An Introduction