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Interview: John Milbank, theologian

19 February 2016

‘The hierarchy has become disastrously detached from contemporary thinking in theology’

Theology is astoundingly different from when I was an undergraduate. The ancient reasonings behind the doctrines of Creation, Trinity, and Christology are much better understood, and orthodoxy is widely accepted, especially among the young. A weakened liberalism means that the liberal/conservative argument is not so significant any more.


The new lines of division tend to be between more rationalistically and more romantically inclined theologians like myself, who stress literary, aesthetic, and paradoxical approaches.


In consequence, whole swathes of academic 20th-century theology are now just left on the shelves. Instead, theology has renewed its traditional engagement with the whole of philosophy, and there is a sense that the boundary between the two is permeable. Theology is becoming once more a vision of the way things fundamentally are.


So, today, students engage with the Fathers, and medieval or Reformation writers, as if they were still our contemporaries, in the spirit of 20th-century Catholic ressourcement. Theologians are more confident — but just for that reason are happy to read more widely, and engage with the cutting-edges of broader reflection in our time. I’m heartened by this development, and also by the new attempts to do biblical theology and church history in a theological way.


I’m less heartened by some theology which continues to let secularity set its terms of reference, and thereby further promotes economic and cultural liberalism. Obsession with diverse “identities” is dubious, as tending to make everyone paradoxically the same: putting people in fixed boxes rather than treating them as always unique persons in varying webs of relation. It fails to put justice before rights — that is, the question of how diverse needs, claims, and goals can all be fitted together in equity.


We need theological theology departments, where everyone is doing theology, although with different specialisations. The history of religions and study of other religions should sometimes be undertaken for Christian theological reasons, and sometimes in the development of other religious intellectual perspectives.


I’ve been influenced by most of the Church Fathers — especially Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine and Dionysius. Then Eriugena, Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, J. G. Hamann, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, Thomas Hancock, John Neville Figgis, V. C. Demant, Conrad Noel, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Romano Guardini, Pavel Florensky, Sergius Bulgakov, Joseph de Finance, Cornelio Fabro, O.-T. Venard OP, Philip Rosemann, William Desmond, David Bentley Hart, J.-Y. Lacoste, J.-L. Chretien, J.-L. Marion, and Rowan Williams.


It is very hard to say where theology begins and faith ends. Everything is liturgy, which is also poetry.


Theology integrates thought and practice. One cannot separate liturgical devotion from either the contemplation of nature or the reading of the scriptures. God speaks at once within us, in the cosmos, and in history.


All things in their very existence and nature share in God, and so symbolise him. I reject the modern tendency on the one hand to say that there are features of logic, existence, and morality just given — outside God’s will and causation; and on the other hand to see God’s field of activity (deciding to create being in a finite form and further revealing himself in history) as one of imposing his will in an arbitrary fashion.


This gives us a dead, meaningless world, that we can supposedly study at depth without reference to God. And it suggests that the way God happens to have willed nature to be is irrelevant to our salvation. It additionally renders revelation irrelevant to the way we think reality is composed. So, I also reject the modern boundary between a supposed natural and a revealed theology.


For me, there aren’t three separate sources of theology in reason, faith, and tradition. They’re all one unfolding of participation in the mind of God, which simply is God himself.


Without recovering an enchanted cosmos, which can also allow interfaith dialogue at depth, Christianity will surely die. The doctrine of creation teaches that everything, including matter, derives only from God by “participation”, to use the Platonic term, rendering it a more radical form of Platonism than that envisaged by Plato himself.


Academics now need to rebel and take back control of higher education. A particular use of information-technology is wrecking universities, because it encourages administrators to over-complicate the basically simple business of reading, writing, talking, encouraging, and assessing, by inventing a thousand unnecessary tasks and jobs, usually predicated on a lack of trust in moral probity and professional skill.


The Church needs to avoid becoming political in the wrong sense — that is, to dissolve into competing sets of factions on different sides of essentially secular debates. Already before the Reformation, a confinement, and consequent secularisation, of the Church had begun. Juridical, atomistic, and mechanically causal categories had started to dominate our thinking. We began to lose the vision of a sacramental, enchanted, participatory universe.


Given a dead world — nature, space, and time lacking in symbolic resonance — religious belief will seem always implausible. In terms of practice, this means that we need to combine an Evangelical genius for necessary fringe events — discussion and prayer meetings, festivals — with a true Catholic sense of liturgy, combining the formal and the spontaneous in a myriad of possible different forms and styles. Street processions, pilgrimages, sacramental blessing of sites and processes, and liturgical drama, are already newly popular.


The clerical hierarchy has often become disastrously detached from contemporary thinking in theology. A huge amount has changed over the past 50 years, increasing pace more recently. Theology is no longer driven mainly by a need to answer historical or philosophical sceptics. Increasingly, there’s a sense that modernity itself rests on unwarranted assumptions — many of them paradoxically theological. Confidence in the truth of the biblical witness has grown in academic theology.


This is supremely relevant to mission. We now have the tools with which to challenge that trickled-down intellectual scepticism which in part — along with lost cultural habit — keeps people away from Church.


We have to reclaim public space and time, not disguise failure by false piety about the evils of triumphalism. Mission is impossible without a strong cultural mediation and presence, and love, most of all, is involved in a power struggle, as St Paul indicates. The truth that power ought only to be exercised as love should not cause us to fail to try to make love prevail.


The key to Church expansion is not managerialism and the better packaging of a product. The Church will succeed again only if it challenges the dominance of such processes in the whole of our culture. Too often the Church follows yesterday’s fashion.


Congregations tend to flourish where also a lively folk culture is being revived, and new country-dwellers start to see the need to get back in touch with nature and community. The Church building remains everywhere the only place where people can foregather simply as human beings, beyond laws and prescribed daily rituals, in order to worship God and encourage each other’s well-being.


Radical Orthodoxy believes that orthodoxy is always more radical and transformative than any proposed liberal modification, and brings out the paradoxical implications of Christianity. God can only be known indirectly, so theology’s impact lies also in the difference it makes to other disciplines, especially metaphysics, history, and psychology. Radical Orthodoxy agrees with the postmodern diagnosis of inescapable uncertainty, but reads this as pointing to participation in eternity, not to nihilism.


Christianity isn’t just another set of strange beliefs and customs, on a level with those of other faiths. It’s a new thing: religion as the right-reading of all of reality and the right-binding to the one triune God. It is much more curious than people think.


People also assume Christianity is mainly moralism — an alternative to secular formal rules supposedly derived from universal facts. But Christian understanding is more humane than that. Any laws among humans should be an approximation of the eternal law of God’s nature. Hence Christianity lies a small but crucial step away from moral anarchy.


I worry that too much prayer and preaching is a footnote to the media, focused on global problems that most people can do little about, to the neglect of any searching concern with the existential dilemmas they face and the inner lives of their souls. Equally, the revelatory and eschatological dimensions of the faith are often sidestepped in favour of bland humanistic uplift.


I value in art Stanley Spencer’s Cookham sequence of gospel scenes, because it provides a mad, homely English vision of Christianity as pastoral joy; and Samuel Palmer’s painted realisation of the psalms as a vision of transfigured nature. In poetry: David Jones’s Anathemata because it incarnates Christianity in British myth, geography, and history; Christopher Smart’s poem Jubilate Agno for updating biblical poetry in a quirky, intimate way; all of metaphysical poetry for its emblematic expression of paradox; all of Gerald Manley Hopkins’s writings for his astonishing precision arising from love of the particular in creation and his new sense of verbal music. In the novel and drama Michel Bulgakov’s The Master and Margherita, for its playful integration of the Christian story with the Faust myth; The Idiot by Dostoevsky and The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc by Charles Péguy for brilliantly disturbing, orthodox, but non-pious meditations on the constitutive historical contingency of the Incarnation; Charles Williams’s The Place of the Lion, for its Christian-Platonic vision and uncanny sense of the reality of the paranormal; John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance, for its sense of a mystery that exceeds all religions; John Buchan’s Witch Wood, for its allying of Catholicism with faerie as the salve to the modern dualism of predestination and the demonic. In music: Monteverdi’s Vespers, because it dares to express liturgy as a lyrical meditation and dance; Bach’s Mass in B minor, because it finally adds the objectivity of the great Baroque Catholic composers to his own Lutheran sense of interiority; Handel’s Messiah, because it musically expresses the new discovery of the Bible as containing a sublime poetics.


The most underrated theologians? Albert the Great, Hadewijch of Antwerp, Richard Hooker, Pierre de Bérulle, Louis Chardon OP, Thomas Traherne, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, George Macdonald, Paull Claudel, Stanislas Breton, H. F. Massingham.


If I were locked in a church, I’d like to be with Joan of Arc.


John Milbank is Research Professor of Religion, Politics, and Ethics at the University of Nottingham and Director of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy. He was talking to Andrew Davison.

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