Wednesday 9 May 2012

Theology Wins

Theology and Social Theory is probably one of the most important theological texts of the last 50 years or so. It established John Milbank as one of the big names in theology, and it's basically the founding text of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, which for a while looked like the great hope of Western theology. The lustre has worn off a little in recent years, as people have become increasingly critical of its founding ideas, as the movement itself has become more conservative, as Milbank's protégé Philip Blond founded the increasingly scandal-ridden think-tank Res Publica (fathering Red Toryism and the not-particularly-beloved notion of the Big Society), and as Milbank himself became embroiled in various fights on the internet.

So, both Milbank himself and Theology and Social Theory are controversial but game-changing; and I recently decided, after reading various other bits and bobs by Milbank, that it was time to take on the big 'un. I'll be reading through the whole book with some friends and colleagues at Durham, and my plan is to try and blog it as we go. You'll get two posts this week, lucky things, as I've been slow to get my ass in gear and need to have chapter one done by Friday; hopefully from now on I'll be blogging roughly once a week till it's done, and if you're really lucky, the regularity will prompt me to blog other things too. We'll see!

First up, then, is the introduction, which sets out the overarching argument of the book. Theology and Social Theory, Milbank says, has a dual purpose. First, he is setting out to prove to social theorists that only theology can save them; second, he wants to tell theologians that they should stop being so impressed by social theorists and realise that theology really is the Queen of the Sciences, the basic framework within which all other disciplines belong (These claims are, for obvious reasons, quite appealing to theologians, but perhaps less so to social theorists). Sure, theologians are constrained by their historical and social context, but theology is still More Right than any other discipline. Even social theorists are, Milbank argues, increasingly aware of this fact. There are two ways in which social theory screws up: either it reverts to a sort of neo-paganism, or it degenerates into heretical theology. Either way, only theology can save the day! Theology and Social Theory explains why four different types of social theory are wrong. Firstly, liberalism tends to assume that human culture is fundamentally about power and violence; theology can explain why, actually, culture should point us towards the transcendence of God. Second, positivism is basically a fake theology and a fake church: there's some good stuff there, but it's all been stolen from Christian orthodoxy and made a bit less good. Third, dialectics has some good ideas, but goes wrong when (can you guess?) it deviates from Christian orthodoxy. Finally, secular social theory suggests a vision of the world aa world in which difference always means conflict and violence; only Christianity is able to imagine an infinitely varied world as peaceful and harmonious, where we can't ever fully understand the world (except for the fact that THEOLOGY WINS) but that's OK.

Theology is better than social theory; in fact, it is social theory, only better; and as such it must prove that it's better than social theory by living out the truths it proclaims, by showing (not just telling) that the Church makes the world better. Sure, Christians and Christianity aren't perfect, but they're still our only hope.
'This is why it is so important to reassert theology as a master-discourse; theology, alone, remains the discourse of non-mastery.'
Coming soon: chapter 1.


Gabrielle said...

Help me, Obi-One-Theology, you're my only hope!

The Dark Horizon said...

you may want to reread the introduction as, judging from your synopsis, you seem to have missed a great deal....

Marika said...

Any chance you could elaborate on that a little? What sort of things have I missed?

Stu said...

Dark Horizon remains silent, it seems, and so I have a reflection.

It occurs to me that my basic problem with Milbank's project is expressed perfectly in that sentence that you quote: how can one 'assert' a discourse of non-mastery without thereby betraying that discourse? When you get to part four, in his discussion of Derrida, you find Milbank arguing that in Derrida there is this presupposition that all repetition is betrayal - so that differing that one always finds in the move from signified to signifier is construed as a kind of betrayal, rather than a faithful repetition with difference. But I find something a little bit similar to be going on here: the only way for 'non-mastery' to really appear in its peaceableness is being assertion as the REAL master narrative.

I guess one could always invoke paradox here, but I am suspicious of that. I think that a discourse of non-mastery has to pay the price for being what it is, and be mastered - or appear to be mastered, or else rendered mute - by master discourses.

Of course, I realise that Milbank has in a great many ways argued that metaphysics is a) unavoidable; and b)in harmony with the Christian ethic of peace, etc. And I haven't worked out exactly yet why I don't buy this. But it seems to me that there is something wrong in that sentence, and it's something that goes quite deep into his thought.

Marika said...

I agree. At this point it just sounds nonsensical to me; I'm interested to see how Milbank fleshes it out. But it does seem to me to be related to one of the things that most troubles me about Milbank's work: not just that he thinks there is a good metaphysics, a discourse of non-mastery that can master all other discourses, but that he thinks that he has access to that discourse. I mean, surely if you spend a whole book talking about how theology has screwed things up, you should at least be prepared to consider the possibility that you, too, are screwing things up rather than solving all the problems?