Radical orthodoxy meets progressive conservatism

Meet theologian-social theorist John Milbank.

Militant atheism or “scientism” is expanding to fill the gap left by the “exhaustion” of secular ideologies such as capitalism, communism and humanism, he suggests. “What’s left to turn into an ideology except for natural science itself?”

That’s a false choice. It assumes that everyone wants an ideology and that the putative exhaustion of his list of putative secular ideologies leaves a ‘gap’ and that the ‘gap’ is something that people want to fill. Some people are attracted to ideologies, but not all people are, and even some people who are attracted to them can learn to outgrow the attraction. He is perhaps extrapolating from himself, perhaps for reasons of self-protection: he is dependent on an ideology, so he wants to think that everyone is, so that he will seem to himself less gullible and pathetic. That’s a very very common ploy of the religious, we know: the ‘huh huh you think you’re so smart but you’re just as religious as I am only more so because your religion is more dogmatic than mine and plus besides you don’t even know it’s a religion so ha.’

Milbank’s 1990 book Theology and Social Theory ‘argues that instead of asking how theology may fit into the conclusions of secular social science, theology should challenge social scientists’ assumptions.’

On reviewing the second edition of the book in 2006, Charles Taylor, emeritus professor of philosophy at McGill University, said: “When the first edition was published, the reaction was one of shock. Now, 15 years on, the shock has worn off; more and more people are questioning the universal competency of secular reason.”

And isn’t that just wonderful. More and more people are questioning the universal competency of secular reason, and turning to theology instead. And? What will that accomplish? In what way is theology a good or useful or humane substitute for secular reason? Oddly, Milbank never actually says, at least not in this piece, which one would think would be a golden opportunity to reach a broad audience.

In 1999, Milbank broadened his thesis into a general challenge to secular dominance in Radical Orthodoxy…”In a sense, we were going on the offensive against secularism,” Milbank says. Radical Orthodoxy argued for a return to Christianity’s medieval roots, when “faith and reason were inseparable”. It used creedal Christianity as a base from which to criticise modern society, culture, politics and philosophy.

Right – just as the pope does, just as the Southern Baptist Convention does, just as Fred Phelps does. Only they don’t so much get a respectful hearing in the Times Higher. Dress up fundamentalism in some academicky robes and hey presto, grown-up people pretend to think it’s sort of kind of vaguely sane.

Habit is a “mediating category” between the purely material (the brain) and the purely mental, Milbank theorises. “When you ask yourself where that habit comes from, you either have to see it as random or as something that has established itself in response to something. Then you can start talking about God.”

Sure, I can, but I don’t see why I should, and I don’t want to. I don’t think it’s interesting to start talking about God then. I think it’s orders of magnitude more interesting to go on talking about where habit comes from, but in a way that really wants to find out, as opposed to pretending to find out by talking about God. ‘God’ is not interesting because ‘God’ doesn’t tell us anything real or illuminating about where habit comes from.

There follows paragraph upon paragraph of banal political musing which is remarkable neither for acumen nor for persuasiveness. Then along comes an ally.

Among Milbank’s proteges is Philip Blond, head of Demos’ progressive conservatism project and a former theology lecturer at the University of Cumbria. The ideas within “Liberality versus Liberalism” informed Blond’s concept of “Red Toryism”…

Oh gawd – it would be – Philip Blond, the postmodern theologian. It’s good to see that he’s sustaining his project of Pervasive Oxymoronism. If there’s anything I love it’s a postmodern theologian who is a progressive conservative Red Tory.

Okay – that’s my six impossible things not long after breakfast taken care of; now for the rest of the day.

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