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Where reason’s power falls short

19 May 2009

It is only love that can lead us to the truth about Christianity, argues Richard Harries

Fond embrace: this 16th-century paint­ing, The Venetian Lovers, by Paris Bor­don, is one of the illustrations in a handsome volume, Art and Love in Renais­sance Italy (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale, £40 (£36); 978-0-300-12411-8), a survey of artworks arising from Renaissance rituals of love and ma

Fond embrace: this 16th-century paint­ing, The Venetian Lovers, by Paris Bor­don, is one of the illustrations in a handsome volume, Art and Love in Re...


The Future of Love: Essays in political theology
John Milbank
SCM £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50



JOHN MILBANK is the seminal figure behind Radical Orthodoxy, a theological movement that has sought to shake up all forms of liberalism since John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory was first published in 1990. The Future of Love contains Milbank’s responses to critics of that book, and a range of essays written over the past 25 years, brought up to date where necessary.


It is easy to see why Milbank’s ap­proach appeals to many, includ­ing Rowan Williams. First, it is strongly orthodox in a Catholic sense, with a Trinitarian under­stand­ing of God as foundational, and a crucial position given to both the Church and the eucharist.


Second, for all his discussion of reason, it is the persuasive power of love that is at the heart of his theo­logy. “Since truth is also the good and good is also peace and harmony, it is the latter which persuades. Whom would they not persuade?” Once one is persuaded by love, then reason has indeed a place: “The his­torical lure of love is also the per­ma­nent witness of the understand­ing.”


Third, this theology is integrally, not just contingently, expressed in a Christian, ethically based socialism, which he defends against both Marx­ists and those who hold that it is not really socialism.


Fourth, Milbank is at home intel­lectually in a post-modernist world — indeed, he has some interesting arguments as to why only Christian­ity can properly understand this intellectual world, in which all is language in flux, always on the move to a meaning that is clear only at some future stage.


Milbank is formidably learned and, apparently, is the cleverest man whom Dr Williams has taught. He also writes as one utterly confi­dent in all his judgements. All the more reason, therefore, for the reader not to be cowed into sub­mission.


For Milbank, reason by itself leads only to nihilism. There are no rational criteria for the truth, he says, and no way in which reason can take us into Christianity. But the charmed circle (into which one is charmed by love) embraces every­thing — politics, economics, an­thro­pology — and proves the only basis for understanding these realms.


Between that under­stand­ing and all secular approaches to them, however, there is an abyss over which no bridge can be built. You are in­side the circle or outside it. Outside it, you have no true understanding of the world at all. This means, for example, according to Milbank, that there can be no interreligious dia­logue.


Milbank, like many of us, owes much to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre with his emphasis on tradition-based reasoning; but MacIntyre himself points out that genuine discussion can take place between people of different world-views, and this assumes they are talking about something that, in some way, they have in common.


For Milbank, the great enemy is not only the liberal enlightenment, with its emphasis on universal rational criteria (an intellectual wrong turning that, in fact, he locates many centuries earlier, in nominalism), but also its unholy partner, capitalism.


But both liberalism and the market economy have a Christian justification that cannot just be wished away. For liberalism is rooted in a respect for the other, and in the choices others choose to make. As Dostoevsky showed, this is what Christ stood for, and what the Church has too often opposed. Whatever the sins of capitalism —and they are many and manifest — the market is one of the places in which these choices take effect.


F. D. Maurice said that people are more usually right in what they affirm than in what they deny. This seems particularly true of Milbank. Formidably difficult as he is, he has important, attractive, and challenging things to say. But his desire to drive a wedge between Christianity and every other world-view in such a magisterial manner is hardly in the spirit of Paul before the Council of the Areopagus.


The Rt Revd Lord Harries is Gresham Professor of Divinity, and an Honorary Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

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