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Friday, October 22, 2010

John Milbank on the Church

It may seem I find nothing good in Radical Orthodoxy, but that's not so - for instance, I like RO's defense of pacifism, and I agree socialism is better than capitalism. Here's an excerpt from Radical Orthodoxy: A Critical Introduction by Steven Shakespeare that mentions what I see as mostly positives in John Milbank's idea of the Church (pp. 106-8) ....


[T]he nature of authority in the Church. Milbank rejects the slide towards 'invasive clerical control' that overtook the Church in the Middle Ages. The Catholic clergy became guardians of the controlled miracle of the Eucharist. Protestant pastors became the ones who told the faithful what the Bible said and what should be believed. On both sides, authority and truth were cut off from the body of the faithful.

Milbank sees a role for a hierarchy in the Church, but only one that is rooted in and serves the essential democracy of creation, the harmony and equality of the Trinity. Bishops have a role in preserving a tradition which can resist the anarchy and inequality of the market. But they are not mini-emperors.

Theology is accountable to the Church, but it is not to be dominated by clergy who want to preserve their vested interests: 'theology is a participation in the mind of God before it is obedience to any authority, whether scriptural of hierarchical' (BR, p. 133) ....

The Church, then, cannot turn in on itself ('solipsism'), nor can it act like an army or the crowds at the Nuremberg rallies. Its boundaries are blurred and messy. It is something we make. We have already seen how Milbank admits that the key doctrines of the incarnation and atonement cannot just be read off the page of the Bible. They are innovations, speculations - they are invented (7). The only justification for them is their attractiveness, the compelling way in which they tell the story of Jesus as God's word, and support the Christian practice of mutual love and forgiveness.

Despite some of the grand statements made by Radical Orthodoxy's writers, this implies that the Church is something improvised and partial. God is never simply captured by its stories, beliefs and liturgies. Theology always therefore has to be tentative about where the Church actually is, who is in it, and how it is defined. 'Christianity should not draw boundaries,' says Milbank. (8)

This inclusive tone is often missed by Radical Orthodoxy's readers, understandably, given the apparently exclusive and belligerent tone of some of its claims. It is interesting to note Milbank's comments in the new preface to the second edition of Theology and Social Theory, issued in 2006: 'while "positively" I recommend Catholic Christianity as the one final and universal truth, I quite clearly envisage Catholicism in "liberal" terms, if by "liberal" one connotes generous, open-ended and all-inclusive' (TST(2), p. xxiii) .....

It is worth quoting this complex passage at length:

In the Incarnation, God as God was perfectly able to fulfil the worship of God which is nevertheless, as worship, only possible for the creature. This descent is repeated and perpetuated in the Eucharist which gives rise to the ecclesia, that always 'other-governed' rather than autonomous human community, which is yet the beginning of universal community as such, since it is nothing other than the lived project of universal reconciliation. Not reducible to its institutional failures and yet not to be seen as a utopia either, since the reality of the reconciliation, of restored unity-in-diversity, must presuppose itself if it is to be realizable (always in some very small degree) in time and so must be always already begun. (TST (2), p. xxxi)

Milbank here summarizes many of the Radical Orthodox themes relevant to a discussion of the Church.

* It continues what began in the incarnation, particularly through the Eucharist.
* However, it is 'other-governed' - it must never mistake itself for God.
* It is a lived project of reconciliation, which is the beginning of universal reconciliation - it is directed towards the world.
* That reconciliation is already perfected in Christ, but not in history. So the Church is not just another flawed institution. But nor is it a utopia. It only exists through what Milbank goes on to call the 'mess' of institutional debate and conflict.

This helps to clarify why, just after the passage we quoted earlier, when Milbank seems to insist that the Church has to be perfect if it is to communicate Jesus' perfection, he admits that recognizing this truth will depend on 'a sifting from the many human "imperfections" in the ecclesial transmission process' (WMS, p. 162).

It is questionable whether Radical Orthodoxy has always maintained this balance ....

(7) See WMS, p. 162; TST, pp. 383-4; Milbank, 'Postmodern Critical Augustinianism', p.232.
(8) Milbank, 'Postmodern Critical Augustinianism', p. 229.



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