Deconstructing the Secular

a Summary of John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory

S. Joel Garver


The following is intended as a brief introduction to the major arguments and themes of John Milbank's magisterial and difficult Theology and Social Theory: Against Secular Reason (Blackwell, 1993), in order to assist those beginning to read it.

Milbank begins with the observation that "once there was no secular" and from there goes on to provide a sweeping account of the modernist construction of the secular and the ways in which modern theology has surrendered itself to the secular, conforming to secular standards of scientific "objectivity" and giving up any pretense to speak comprehensively.

Milbank's account of the emergence of the secular positions modernist secularism in relation to Christian theology as a kind counter-theology or as a heretical offshoot of Christian theology. The secular worldview, he suggests, emerged from two sources: one "heretical" and one "pagan." Both of these perspectives share an underlying commitment to the idea that reality is constituted by ontological conflict or chaos. The difference between these perspectives is how they react to the inevitability of conflict.

The "heretical" version of the secular (e.g., Thomas Hobbes) supposed that law is needed to set limits upon the competition of individuals as they seek to dominate each another ("war of all against all"). This is the view that lies latent particularly within in late scholastic nominalism and voluntarism as I have outlined that before on my blog and has been argued by thinkers such as de Certeau.

The "pagan" version of the secular (e.g., Machiavelli) involves political management by a ruler who is indifferent to moral considerations in gaining and maintaining power in the face of conflict. This "pagan secular" draws upon ancient Greek or Roman myths that centered upon heroic strength, physical beauty, and the ability to out-maneuver one's opponents. One could suggest here, as well, that it was the shifts in late medieval nominalism and so on that allowed such a pagan secularism to even become once again plausible.

This analysis leads to Milbank's further critique of modern sociology and political and economic theory, ranging from Malebranche and Durkheim to Kant and Weber. He notes how the explanatory notion of "society" as used in the sociology of religion does really do the work that it claims to do, except on the presupposition of secular space. Indeed, "society" comes to function almost as a mysterious divine providence. Thus various theological realities end up being reduced to mere social functions (e.g., conversion of a group of people is seen as fully explained by their social and economic status and what the Gospel offers to that).

Milbank goes on to mixed reviews to both Hegel and Marx who both, despite their helpful analyses, still suppose a kind of "original violence" as they create their modernist myths of progress and conflict. For Hegel, the violence becomes a necessary moment in the unfolding of the absolute Spirit toward freedom while for Marx, couched within a scientific positivism, alienation and class conflict become necessary means of reaching the eschatological socialist end.

Milbank goes on from here to criticize various kinds Catholic political theologies, particularly Karl Rahner and various liberation theologies that are built upon him and upon folks like Marx. In particular, I think that Milbank's analysis of Rahner is quite helpful and important. He suggests that contemporary Catholic theology offers two different versions of "integralism"—attempts to re-integrate nature and grace, which had be dichotomized since the days of nominalism.

Rahner’s integralism tries to "naturalize the supernatural" with its starting point in human anthropology and the "supernatural existential" in which every act of human understanding contains within it an orientation toward infinite Being as the a priori condition of that understanding.

The integralism of Blondel, de Lubac, and von Balthasar, on the other hand, tends to "supernaturalize the natural" suggesting that there is a fundamental continuity between human action and supernatural grace so that the natural desire for the beatific vision is a sign of grace that is always-already present and acting in us within particular historical circumstances, not just a bare possibility of grace being given or some generalized structure of human consciousness. Thus the character of grace must be conceived by way of paradox: that human nature, by nature, has a supernatural end and yet this end cannot be seen as in any way owed to human beings as a debitum, but rather must always be received as pure gift.

Against the backdrop of this second sort of integralism, Rahner’s version—with its strong influence upon liberation theology—can be seen to have the effect of reducing theology to politics, naturalizing the supernatural.

After a very helpful chapter on science and power, Milbank turns toward postmodernism. Postmodernism with its post-secular critique of modernism, tends to see the world in terms of differential flux. As such, it can be seen as embodying a fundamental ontological violence in its presupposition of agonistic difference since, for a philosopher like Derrida, language has no goal beyond its own creativity, an incipient nihilism. Yet, suggests Milbank, the postmodernists do have some important insights into the insubstantiality of the created world and the ways in which supposedly objective reason can fall into the service of power.

Against a thinker like Alasdair MacIntyre, Milbank suggests that there is no universal reason that can give us metaphysically secured values or can ground classical virtues. This move, however, does give theology an opportunity to reassert itself. Christian theology can "master" social theory only by a "non-mastery"—the enactment of a peaceful, reconciled social order that lies beyond any purportedly absolute, objective or universal understanding of reason or law.

In this light, postmodernism's focus upon flux has an analogue in the Christian doctrine of creation, whereby created reality is radically contingent. Theology can, therefore, not only accept itself and the church as a historically and culturally situated reality, but also do so without surrendering the possibility of speaking of the transcendent. Indeed, only on the presupposition of the transcendent can any talk of the immanent make sense without slipping into a kind of nihilism.

Milbank's Christian alternative, therefore, narrates a reality at the heart of which is not chaos, violence, or nihilism, but a "sociality of harmonious difference" in light of God's creation and the doctrine of the Trinity. Yet, this virtue of nonviolent Christian practice is not a practice that can be grounded in anything external to its own activity and its own narration of it. Milbank is building here upon Augustine's argument that despite the existence of difference within the created order, all creatures are related to God and so to one another and that this difference in relation is ultimately rooted within the inner life of the Trinity—life together in God. In view of this kind of theological "social theory," violence (that is, any form of chaos or conflict) must always be secondary, and "peace" (that is, living in "harmony" with one another) must always be primary.