The Future of Love: Essays in political theology
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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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