Thursday, 10 May 2012

Once, there was no secular

Say what you like about Milbank, that's a killer opening line (and possibly an allusion to John 1, so make of that what you will). Chapter 1 of Theology and Social Theory argues that the idea of a 'secular' political space, where everyone lays aside their religious affiliations to meet on some sort of neutral territory is a recent invention, the sad consequence of bad theology (by which Milbank means either any theology that came after Aquinas and/or Protestant theology. One of the enduring puzzles of Milbank's work, for me, is that he keeps saying how awesome Catholicism is and how much Protestantism sucks BUT HE ISN'T A EVEN A CATHOLIC HE'S A PROTESTANT). Theology made 'the secular' possible by going wrong in three ways: in the way it thought about God, in its reading of the Bible, and in its understanding of time.

Bad God
First, then, theology screwed up by forgetting to think about God in trinitarian terms. If you remember that God is a trinity, you think of God in terms of relationships, mutuality, giving and receiving, of action as essentially love ordered to the good of others. And that translates into a particular way of thinking about people and about property: people are complicated, trying to get a handle on the different aspects of their personhood so that they can direct their whole selves towards God; and people own property, but the whole point of owning property is so that they can use it for the good of others: if you don't look after your stuff in a way that acknowledges it's really meant as a way of helping you and others towards God, you don't have the right to keep owning it any more. But if you start to forget about God as three and only think about God as one, then personhood becomes about being completely self-contained, about having complete control over one's own self and also over one's property. Not only does this mean that there's no ethical obligation on me to direct myself and my possessions towards God and the good of the community I belong to, there's also no way of thinking what it means to think and act as a community: society is just a collection of disconnected individuals, who relate to each other only insofar as they can exercise power over one another, and can only agree to act together if they are forced to by contracts they have signed with one another. What's gone wrong, says Milbank, is that we've lost sight of God as Trinity in favour of God as self-contained One. Instead of the world as a complicated networks of interconnected, mutual relationships of give and take, the secular is a world of isolated points, all fighting with each other for power and control.

Bad Bible
All of this required a new way of reading the Bible. Again, before It All Went Wrong, the Bible was seen in the context of a complicated set of relationships: to read the Bible, you needed to belong in the community of the Church, to draw on the traditions of reading that had been passed down, to assume it was still related to the world in all sorts of ways, and to listen to the monks: a special category of people whose whole lives were dedicated to living in a community which got its authority not from money or power, but from being the place where people spent time reading. What could possibly do away with such a delightful arrangement of things? Hello, Protestantism. Luther's sola scriptura (only the Bible is authoritative, so you don't need to read theology or even talk to other Christians to understand what it's saying) meant that the Bible lost its place in community and became a thing read by individuals on their own. Revelation came to be understood as something which was private; and getting rid of allegorical readings of the Bible meant that all that Old Testament stuff, which had traditionally been read as spiritually significant (God wants us to fight spiritual enemies rather than killing actual people) became straightforwardly political: God is on the side of the nation state – go national sovereignty!

Bad Times
In a trinitarian account of the world, time itself is complexly related to God. God is at work in and through time, for all that sin means that bad things happen. Time is ordered towards God and so towards good. Theology loses this sense of time in two ways: first, when it reverts to the pagan idea that reality is basically a chaos out of which we briefly emerge, struggle, and then return to in death: this is Machiavellianism, which values heroes, Real Men, and war (Victorian Christianity?) Second, theological time goes off the rails when when it descends into a fatalistic or stoical hopelessness about the possibility of really transforming the world: we can't make things better, so we just need to cling on tight and wait for the Rapture/Second Coming etc. God isn't present in time, except in moments of dramatic and slightly random intervention (hello, Calvinism). This, for reasons I don't quite understand, is the 'natural rights legacy of liberalism'. Both are bad, because both envision time as existing pretty much independently of God, and as involving not gradual transformation towards goodness, but power, conflict, and violence.

All of this means that Christianity should not acknowledge the existence of any sort of 'secular' space. Secularism has little or nothing to teach Christianity because it's either a reversion to pre-Christian paganism or a degeneration into Christian heresy.

At this point, there are two things that seem particularly obviously problematic. First is this idea that society has degenerated, that secularisation is terrible from a Christian perspective, that it all went wrong with Aquinas. You don't need to believe in uncomplicated historical progress or a cheerleader for capitalism to see lots of reasons to be glad about modernity, the Enlightenment, etc., especially as compared to what went before. And second, surely (surely!) if Milbank's right, and God interpenetrates the whole of human history, and the kingdom of God is growing, then how does it make sense to adopt a narrative of progressive degeneration from Aquinas onwards? Shouldn't things be getting, well, better? Shouldn't God be at work even (the horror!) in Protestantism?


Al said...

I am not sure that we need to adopt either a straightforward narrative of decline, or one of progress. It seems to me that a Christian valorization of history primarily involves a recognition of 'maturation', which is a deeper category than either decline or progress. The world grows up, becomes richer and more complicated, and we must grow up with it.

As our lives are framed by new horizons, ideas, and problematics, new forms of life must constantly emerge and old ones, no matter how good they were in their time, must perish. In my reading of Milbank, I have not infrequently been frustrated by what can appear to be a failure truly and fully to embrace the challenge of a maturing world, nostalgically pursuing a repristination of some archaic order instead.

This need not entail saying that Protestantism is 'better', just that God has raised this unsettling movement in history and that the only way beyond it necessarily involves creatively imagining ourselves through it into an unprecedented and previously unenvisioned future. Taking such historical challenges that God presents us with, we can proceed in faith that no good order is torn down without God desiring us to be his coworkers in creating something more glorious.

A said...

"if you don't look after your stuff in a way that acknowledges it's really meant as a way of helping you and others towards God, you don't have the right to keep owning it any more"

Could you provide some more background to this? I'd be interested to know what theological writings support this concept.

Marika said...

Al: well, quite.

A: I think Milbank means to describe a general tendency, but he does specifically refer Aquinas' discussion on property rights, which you can read here:

Stu said...

FWIW, I think Milbank's engagement with the discourse on 'the gift' is important in understanding where Milbank is coming from on the question of property - unfortunately his articles on gift and reciprocity aren't particularly easy to get if you're not linked to an academic library, but they are: 'Can a gift be given?', and 'The soul of reciprocity pts 1 and 2', all of which were published in Modern theology.

I will following your discussion of TAST (a much better acronym than 'TST', I believe) avidly. Avidly-ish, anyway.

Marika said...

Funnily enough I've been reading up on the gift recently; I hadn't tracked down all of those articles though, so thank you!