An Experiment in Blog Discussion

One thing usually missing from discussion on this blog and, from what I have seen, all others, is extended, thoughtful discussion. We often see thoughtful posts and responses, though frankly not usually in response to anything controversial. Controversial topics most often tempt us to start yelling at each other without thinking at all, repeating the same dogmatic things over and over again. We seldom see discussions that take on their topics in real depth, especially not controversial ones. I’m sure that a lot of that has to do with the medium itself: blogs are set up to encourage brief comments, not long ones, and brief comments usually have to skim lightly over the surface of things rather than to delve into them deeply.

With this post, I would like to try something different, so I am going to refer to an essay on political philosophy that is available on-line, ask several people to post longer-than-usual replies to get us started, and then oversee the discussion that follows.

The essay that I suggest discussing is actually not a finished essay. It is a draft of an essay posted by its British author, John Milbank. The essay is “Liberality vs. liberalism”. In it, Milbank makes an argument that probably fits roughly within the “communitarian” strand of political thinking. (Think, for example, of Albert Borgmann or Alisdair Macintyre.)

Milbank is an important contemporary theologian, with Catherine Pickstock, a founder of a movement called “Radical Orthodoxy.” Those in the Radical Orthodoxy movement oppose the modern attempt (with roots in medieval philosophy) to understand the natural, human, and social orders independent of the divine order. They deny that faith and reason are even separate realms, much less that they are opposed to one another: “Every discipline must be framed by a theological perspective; otherwise these disciplines will define a zone apart from God, grounded literally in nothing” (Radical Orthodoxy 18). But this does not mean an anti-intellectual rejection of science. They see “Creationism” as a mistake in that it accepts the scientific assumptions and then tries, unsuccessfully, to use them against themselves. Their argument “against” science is more subtle and less irrational. Science does not, as is often at least implicitly assumed, give us an ontology of nature. Instead, it reveals “the technical transformability of the world, thereby allowing it to be potentially subservient to charity” (ibid.).

Theologians of this stripe see themselves as orthodox Christians, but they are radical in the sense that they seek to go to the roots of Christian religion and experience, behind the accretions that have come to it with the advent of modernism (and its precursors in thinkers like Duns Scotus). For them, the thinkers to which we should pay more attention are Augustine and the Church Fathers–and they are especially committed to the doctrine of the Trinity. With the results of that return to Christian roots, the Radical Orthodoxy movement wishes to criticize contemporary society, culture, philosophy, etc., arguing that such criticism will allow for a Christian society in the best–and true–sense (rather than in the sense of the fundamentalists).

As R. R. Reno points out in First Things, according to Radical Orthodoxy:

Christian theology counters the Nietzschean nihilism of foundational violence (in the language Radical Orthodoxy borrows from postmodernism) by advancing a participatory framework, an analogical poetics, a semiosis of peace, a metanarrative that does not require the postulate of original violence. Put more simply, Radical Orthodoxy hopes to recover Neoplatonic metaphysics as an explanation for the glue that holds the world together. Something can be what it is–a unit of semantic identity or meaning, a person, a social practice–and at the same time depend upon and reach toward something else. Or more strongly, something is real only in and through this constitutive dependence and fecundity.

In other words, using a Platonic focus on participation, those who count themselves in Radical Orthodoxy wish to use Christianity to criticize contemporary society. However, they do not try to do so naively. They recognize that the Christian tradition itself must be rethought: “the fact that such a collapse [of late medieval Christian thought] was possible can sometimes point to even earlier weaknesses” (Radical Orthodoxy 2).

In the introduction to Radical Orthodoxy, Milbank, Pickstock, and Graham Ward describe the essays in that volume in a way that reasonably describes the project of the movement as a whole: “The present collection of essays attempts to reclaim the world by situating its concerns and activities within a theological framework. Not simply returning in nostalgia to the premodern, it visits sites in which secularism has invested heavily– aesthetics, politics, sex, the body, personhood, visibility, space — and resituates them from a Christian standpoint [. . .]. What emerges is a contemporary theological project made possible by the self-conscious superficiality of today’s secularism” (1).

Mormons will not be able to fit themselves into the framework of Radical Orthodoxy effortlessly, if at all, for their understanding of the roots of Christianity differs from our own. Nevertheless, there are points of contact between us and them that are worth thinking about. For example, our doctrine of the soul–that the spirit and the body together constitute the soul and that we are not whole without both (D&C 88:15)–is at least similar to their rejection of dualism.

Further, those in the Radical Orthodoxy movement argue that Christian order is fundamentally liturgical–a matter of rites and ordinances–rather than metaphysical. Though Mormons will wish to add the notion of covenant to the notion of liturgy, we almost certainly can learn from thinkers who have emphasized the importance of ordinance.

And what could warm the cockles of a Mormon heart more than someone who recognizes that the Christian tradition must be rethought, even if we disagree with them as to the needed degree of that thinking.?

In this particular essay, as part of his attempt to use Christianity to criticize and rethink modern politics, Milbank thinks about what a Christian alternative to classical liberal political philosophy, on the one hand, and Marxism, on the other, should look like. Here are some quotations and notes that I hope will tempt you to read the essay:

“Democracy, which is ‘the rule of the many’ can only function without manipulation of opinion if it is balanced by an ‘aristocratic’ element of the pursuit of truth and virtue for their own sake on the part of some people whose role is legitimate even if they remain only ‘the few’ although they should ideally be themselves the many.”

Milbank argues that capitalism and communism both share the assumption that the community is an aggregate of individuals, in other words, that the individuals are primary and come together in contract. In contrast, he says, in Christian thought the individuals are never outside of relationship; they are fundamentally related. Thus: “As created, things exceed both temporal process and fixed form; out of these they constantly weave the exchange of relation, and relation persists all the way down, because the created thing is at bottom outside itself as relation to another, namely God who gives it to be.”

The “normal” person of liberalism is “the freely choosing and contracting autonomous 31-year-old. But no human person is forever like this; it is rather only a moment in a coming to be and passing away.”

“Producers of well-designed things do not just contract with consumers. The latter give them effectively counter-gifts of sustenance in return for the gifts of intrinsically good things, even though this is mediated by money.”

“Christianity renders all objects sacred: everything is a sign of God and of his love. Moreover in Christ this is shown again, and he provides the idiom for rendering all sacred. Hence there need be no more neutral commodities just as there are no more strangers — not because we are citizens, even of cosmopolis, but because we are sons, daughters, and brothers in Adam and now in the new Adam who is Christ.”

“There is simply no truth in the Marxist assumption that, once freed from the shackles of oppression, people will ‘by reason’ choose equality and justice: to the contrary, in the light of a mere reason that is not also vision, eros and faith, people may well choose to prefer the petty triumphs and superiorities of a brutally hierarchic agon of power or the sheer excitement of a social spectacle in which they may potentially be exhibited in triumph.”

Rules for this discussion

Anyone may respond. No one has to agree, neither with the author of the piece nor with others. But if a response is off-topic, inflammatory, or otherwise irrelevant, I will delete it in order to keep the conversation going as well as possible. (However, because I have work to do, I’ll probably only delete once or twice a day.)

Things not to forget as you read and respond:

1. When Milbank uses the term “liberal,” he uses it in its classical philosophical sense. He does not mean what Americans usually mean by that word. For him, the word is closer, though certainly not identical to, something like what Americans mean by the word “conservative” or, better, “libertarian.”

2. By “Catholic,” even with the capital “c,” Milbank does not mean “Roman Catholic.” As he uses the term, “Catholic” refers to Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches. Indeed, the Radical Orthodoxy movement sees itself as an ecumenical movement, not by reducing Christianity to its least common denominator, but by returning to its origins. (Here, as with other points he makes, Mormons will find much to be sympathetic to as well as at least some things to disagree with.)

3. It is clear that Milbank does not like President Bush. It is also clear that he has strong ideas about the failings of American democracy. But those are generally irrelevant to his argument as a whole. They apply equally well to other contemporary democracies, and you could probably substitute the names of most other Western leaders for President Bush’s and get Milbank’s agreement. So don’t allow these things, things likely to irritate you, to obscure the argument itself. I am interested in your responses to the argument, not in your defense of the U.S. or GWB II. Comments like “Anyone who says that about the U.S. is wrong about everything else” are irrelevant to the discussion. On the other hand, it is relevant to show (rather than merely to claim) that his attitudes toward the United States and his argument are of a piece. Of course doing that then requires also answering the $64 Question, “So what?” In any case, neither the policies of the U.S. nor President Bush are the question for discussion here. Rather, the question is whether or to what degree Milbank’s understanding of government makes sense.

Milbank is arguing for what Catherine Pickstock (one of his colleagues) sums up thus (as quoted by Denis Sereau):

«Le culte liturgique n’a pas pour but premier d’améliorer la qualité de notre vie collective, il est le couronnement même de cette vie collective. Nous travaillons, que nous le voulions ou non, à l’édification d’une société fondée sur la justice quand du surplus de notre production nous faisons collectivement une oeuvre de beauté, visible au regard de Dieu».

My translation: The purpose of the liturgical cult [NOTE: “cult” is not a pejorative term in this context] is not to ameliorate the quality of our collective life; it is the very crown of that collective life. Whether we want to or not, we work to build a society founded on justice when, from the surplus of our production, we collectively create a work of beauty, visible to the gaze of God.

Sereau’s site gives a good introduction to Radical Orthodoxy for those who read French. For those who do not, a Google search for “radical orthodoxy” will get you a number of good book reviews. I’ve not read James K. A. Smith’s book, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, but it looks good and may well be a place to start. Christianity Today‘s review is particularly good in that it gives an excellent overview of Radical Orthodoxy.

The collection of essays that I’ve referred to in this post, Radical Orthodoxy, edited by Milbank, Pickstock, and Ward, is good. I also recommend Pickstock’s After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, but only to those with some background in contemporary European philosophy. Pickstock is anything but a contemporary French philosopher, but she assumes that her readers are familiar with their work and their style.

Here are some thoughtful responses to Milbank’s work. They model the kinds of responses that are appropriate. I’ve requested a couple more, and as they come in, I will add them to the list.

Ralph Hancock

Ben Huff

Clark Goble

Russell Arben Fox

Jeremiah John

60 comments for “An Experiment in Blog Discussion

  1. Ben H
    June 14, 2005 at 1:19 am

    Catherine Pickstock’s French, retry:
    «Le culte liturgique n’a pas pour but premier d’améliorer la qualité de notre vie collective, il est le couronnement même de cette vie collective. Nous travaillons, que nous le voulions ou non, à l’édification d’une société fondée sur la justice quand du surplus de notre production nous faisons collectivement une oeuvre de beauté, visible au regard de Dieu»

  2. Daylan Darby
    June 14, 2005 at 11:44 am

    From the article: “Hence pure contractual democracy is spatial and yet in fact it nihilistically evacuates material space in favour of an abstract time always to come and so always perpetually postponed”.

    I tried to read the article, but the author, to me, is to cryptic to understand. I got to the above and had to laugh – am I stupid, or is this a load of horse -pooey?

  3. Jed
    June 14, 2005 at 1:54 pm

    For some reason I am unable to read the paper on a MAC. I can pull up the website from the URL but don’t get the paper when I click on the hypertext “Liberality vs. Liberalism.”

  4. Ben H
    June 14, 2005 at 3:08 pm

    Daylan, I think the essay is somewhere between a brainstorm and a precis of a book. Meaning among other things, there are some things that are not explained very thoroughly. It certainly helped me that I am familiar with some of the ideas already, from having hung out with people who pay attention to Milbank, and, from say, having read things by Alasdair MacIntyre. Don’t fret too much over parts that aren’t clear to you. If you don’t see his point, usually that is because he is writing as part of a conversation that has been going on for a while.

    Jed, when I click the link in Safari, it downloads the file (a Word file, “JohnMilbank.2.doc”) to the Desktop. Look there, and open it in Word, or in TextEdit (it’s loaded on your Mac if you have OSX). Similar routine for the responses, but they’re PDF.

  5. June 14, 2005 at 3:30 pm

    they seek to go to the roots of Christian religion and experience, behind the accretions that have come to it with the advent of modernism (and its precursors in thinkers like Duns Scotus). For them, the thinkers to which we should pay more attention are Augustine and the Church Fathers–and they are especially committed to the doctrine of the Trinity.

    How do they choose where to draw the line between “roots” and “accretions”? Presumably we would call Augustine et al. “accretions.”

  6. June 14, 2005 at 8:12 pm

    Just a thought re: lack of “extended, thoughtful discussion” common to blogs/the internet in general — perhaps it simply has to do with the short-attention-span, scan-oriented (i.e., reading bullet points down the center-right of the page) nature of webpage structure and internet society in general . . . I know I start reading, but a few sentences later, I start scrolling ;-).

  7. john fowles
    June 14, 2005 at 8:35 pm

    Jim, I have a question regarding the RO framework and assumptions implicit in the choice of that framework in the first place.

    In the First Things selection that you quoted, Reno explains

    Put more simply, Radical Orthodoxy hopes to recover Neoplatonic metaphysics as an explanation for the glue that holds the world together. Something can be what it is–a unit of semantic identity or meaning, a person, a social practice–and at the same time depend upon and reach toward something else. Or more strongly, something is real only in and through this constitutive dependence and fecundity.

    This is somewhat troublesome to me and makes me question the idea that RO wants to rethink the Christian tradition or offer any real alternative to what came into existence as that tradition in the first place. One doesn’t have to look far to find Neoplatonic metaphysical glue holding the Christian tradition together already. How will a resort to Neoplatonic principles of participation result in something radically different than the Neoplatonic status quo? What role will revelation and authority play in this experiment. In other words, will it be purely intellectual (albeit informed by fundamental theological premises), or will it defer to something outside the intellect in ultimate matters. If RO is looking for some kind of return to the Urkirche shouldn’t it brush aside the Neoplatonic lense and take a fresh look theologically as part of this reinvention?

  8. john fowles
    June 14, 2005 at 8:36 pm

    By that I mean theologically and not just philosophically.

  9. June 14, 2005 at 10:26 pm

    Jed, the paper is in MS Word format. You can right click on it and open it in either Word or in Text Edit if you have Tiger. Alternatively you can have Word documents appear in Safari (or Firefox) by using the Schubert plugin for Word..

    Daylan, some familiarity with the philosophical background is probably in order. Otherwise it will sound like “horse pooey.” I can assure you that I can quote some paragraphs from my physics texts that is far worse. Part of charitable interpretation is giving the author the benefit of doubt that they are saying something intelligible (even if you disagree). Simply assuming because it sounds odd that it is meaningless is poor reading.

    I’ll have a few comments later. They’ll probably be long, like Ben and Ralph’s so I’ll just link to my blog. (Although I’m no political philosopher, so I doubt I’ll have much worthwhile to say – but I always enjoy reacting to and engaging texts)

  10. Jim F.
    June 14, 2005 at 11:40 pm

    John, excellent question, but because, for the next little while, I’m a one-handed typist, it is one for which I can’t give any extended answer, though that is what it needs. Short, sketchy answer: “Neo-Platonic metaphysics” is another way of referring to thinkers like Plotinus and Augustine rather than Aristotle and Aquinas. The latter have been the dominant thinkers for philosophical theology for a very long time, so I don’t think it is accurate to describe neo-Platonism as the status quo. The philosophical glue that holds the Christian tradition together today (and has for a long time), though not merely reducible to Thomism, is much more Thomistic than neo-Platonic. RO thinkers aren’t the only one to see an alternative in the return to Augustinian thinking. But they also see the Augustinian tradition as something reqiring rethinking.

    One of the reasons I find RO interesting is that it insists on something outside the intellect in ultimate matters, and it locates that something in the practice of religion rather than in the intellect, specifically (but not excusively) in rite.

  11. June 14, 2005 at 11:47 pm

    Aquinas, while heavily influenced by Aristotle isn’t as distanced from the neoPlatonic tradition as is often portrayed. Certainly there is a lot of Augustine in Aquinas. Further even the neoPlatonists were themselves heavily influenced by Aristotle – if only by his criticisms of Plato. Thus all the confusion with Arab texts mixing neoPlatonism and Aristotle which started to influence the west during medieval times and definitely by the rise of the Renaissance. I’m of course not denying your points. Just cautioning the “boogey-man” of neoPlatonism. (It seems to me that the great errors of the theology of the Fathers is unrelated to neoPlatonism)

    I should add, if only because it is so interesting, that neoPlatonic conceptions of ritual are much more rewarding than those in most other traditions.

  12. Jim F.
    June 15, 2005 at 12:01 am

    Clark: neoPlatonic conceptions of ritual are much more rewarding than those in most other traditions,

    Exactly. Which is why the ROs are so interested in looking at neo-Platonism.

    As for Aqinas and neo-Platonism–I agree, but without going into a lot more detail, I think that the rough distinction that I made is useful as a response to John’s question. Accurate enough for a short answer, but not for more than that.

  13. June 15, 2005 at 1:37 am

    My comments (a tad hastily written – there is some redundancy that could be shorted). It seems to me that the basic problem is an epistemological one. How do we distinguish counterfeits that appear the same? Milbank avoids this whole issue which seems to undermine his approach.

  14. Jim F.
    June 15, 2005 at 12:54 pm

    Thanks, Clark.

  15. Jim F.
    June 15, 2005 at 1:08 pm

    Christian Y. Cardall (#5): How do they choose where to draw the line between “roots” and “accretions”? Presumably we would call Augustine et al. “accretions.”.

    You keep asking difficult questions! The distinction between roots and accretions is mine, an attempt to use terminology that may work for LDS readers. ROs wouldn’t use that terminology. They see themselves as trying to clear away the results of a certain kind of rationality and pointing us to the centrality of liturgy rather than philosophy. Neo-Platonism helps them do that, though they also don’t take it to be fundamental. Rather than trying to substitute neo-Platonism for Thomism, they are trying to use the latter against the former (with Clark’s caveat about that reduction) so that We can return to liturgy and practice.

  16. June 15, 2005 at 2:28 pm

    I don’t know much about the movement Christian, but from the paper in question, it appears that they feel there is a transcendence that is real and works on us as we open ourselves up to it. This seems to be what is underlying their brushing aside the very problematic epistemological issues that I think were why the Enlightenment and Renaissance were so popular. It ends up being the same problem of personal revelation in LDS circles. How do we know what is or isn’t real revelation? Yet that is the only way to discern roots from accretions.

    I think that they are moving back towards Iamblicus and his approach to neoPlatonism. (Just a guess, mind you) There the religious rites allow us to open ourselves up to the intentiaonal forms of existence. So rites and practices take the place of rational learning and knowing. Intelligence is manifest in these acts and “thinking” and the “thought” are one.

    Underlying all this is the idea that confusion, error and evil are all really just privation that can be eliminated by proper practice. (I think you see something similar in Confucius’ emphasis on the rites above intellectualism or more Taoistic mysticism) Ritual comes to replace, in a certain way, revelation.

    In an other way it is just an other manifestation of the cry of the “old time religion.” Just return to the way things used to be and problems will disappear. It’s a popular cry, found in counter-reformists for a long time. (In a certain way strains of modern conservativism follow in this – although in an other way so does liberalism which once reigned supreme as the recent battles over judges witnesses)

    I just don’t buy for a second that ritual and practice will bring these effects about. Further I don’t think they make the epistemological issues irrelevant. Its worst example is ironically the role of the believer in the medieval period where the rites were done in Latin had were so divorced from the life of the believer so as to become a way of repressing the very transcendence they were designed to evoke. I’m sure this movement has answers to this. But it isn’t clear to me at all that the problem won’t always crop up. As we as Mormons well know, just participating in ritual guarantees nothing.

  17. Jim F.
    June 15, 2005 at 5:01 pm

    I have added an excellent piece by Russell Arben Fox to the list of short papers in the original post.

  18. Jim F.
    June 15, 2005 at 5:49 pm

    Clark, being unable to type with more than one finger for a little while, I can’t respond to you in anything like the depth needed, so I will only make a hasty and therefore, seemingly arrogant response. I apologize in advance. I think your inferrences are, generally, way off. RO is, fairly clearly, not just a desire for the way things were; I think you accept too easily the Protestant view of the Middle Ages and the relation of believer to the Catholic Church; and I don’t think that anyone is advocating “just participating in ritual.” That is a straw man.

  19. Jeremiah J.
    June 15, 2005 at 6:14 pm

    I have a long post about this essay that I have tried to put up twice, to no avail.

  20. Jim F.
    June 15, 2005 at 9:06 pm

    I’ve linked to Jeremiah J’s piece in the original post.

  21. Jeremiah J.
    June 15, 2005 at 10:09 pm

    Thanks, Jim.

  22. June 16, 2005 at 1:20 am

    Jim I think you confuse my comments. I recognize that they don’t want the way things were. They want an ideal connection with transcendence through the rituals. I just don’t think they can do this. So I recognize my comments are “way off” in terms of their claims. I just think that the epistemological problem undermines their aims. I actually think the parallel to Confucianism is quite strong. That’s not to say I’m not still misreading them. I have little context for the paper.

  23. June 16, 2005 at 1:36 am

    Just to clarify, I think this line of Russell’s highlights what I see to be the problem:

    “His aim in this phrase is to pry egalitarian and socialist concepts away from, as he puts it, “materialism and the State,” and instead argue that it is not implausible to imagine a socio-economic arrangement, a polity, wherein interactions between persons were governed by principles of grace and “the gift,” rather than interest and advantage.”

    The problem is the lack of a clear epistemological way to discern between the two, nor a clear way to ensure that the polity are led by the same. (As I think our own history demonstrates rather clearly)

  24. June 16, 2005 at 10:53 am


    Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find myself profoundly disagreeing with your assessment of Milbank in regards to larger philosophical matters, less so in regards to various particular claims. He definitely is, as I write in my own response, at least partially captive to the tired, America-bashing, post-Marcusian left. For example, his complete dismissal of the nation as a source of both affection and action probably does boil down to nothing more than a simple-minded contempt for the “vulgar” language of (especially American) patriotism. So I’d go along with you that, at least insofar as some elements of his political project are concerned, he really isn’t “radical” enough to liberate himself from the well-worn pathways of the New Left iteration of progressivism.

    But to address higher matters, let me comment on a few points from your response:

    1) You rely heavily of Tocqueville as an example of a truly radical political thinker, in that he was willing to, as I read your account of him, recognize that “the social and religious conditions that once made non-democratic worldviews viable are gone for good,” and thus, with some difficulty, “control his aristocratic distaste in order to befriend democracy.” It certainly is true that Tocqueville gives us a good example of a thinker striving to (re)construct from within a political world an argument for virtues that have been, presumably, eclipsed by that very world’s conditions–the end of hierarchy, the embrace of equality, etc. But is it really “radical”? There is, to be sure, the heroic reading of Tocqueville as a man seeking to enoble liberal democracy by telling the story he thinks it incapable of telling itself; but there is also the more dubious story of Tocqueville as a man who constructed a partial, ambiguous Platonic myth of liberal democracy in order to prevent the new order from reaping the nihilistic whirlwind. His depiction of religion as a private aid to individuals in coming to a “proper” understanding of self-interest and citizenship brackets the issue of truth entirely. Jesus said that the truth would set us free, and that positive Christian sentiment has in the history of philosophy found alignment with the traditional of republican communitarian polities: teaching the people to seek the common (religious) good would empower them, enable them to exercise greater political liberty and hence more democracy. But for Tocqueville, the skeptical aristocrat, religion and the “habits of the heart” serve only a disciplinary function: they don’t empower the people, they only teach them when to exercise democracy, and when not to. Of course, in bothering to address the importance of such habits and associations at all, Tocqueville gave their discourse with liberal democracy fresh life, and so Tocqueville’s (ironic?) contribution to communitarian thought is enormously valuable regardless. But it’s not radical. Tocqueville could never have said, as Milbank does, “vox populi, vox Dei,” and not just because he was conflicted over the worth of the voice of the people; he also, apparently, and more importantly, didn’t think the voice of God could be heard politically at all anyway–perhaps (and this I leave to real Tocqueville scholars like yourself) because he doubted there was any God who could speak politically in the first place.

    2) Also, regarding your observation that “the social and religious conditions that once made non-democratic worldviews viable are gone for good”–I strongly disagree that Milbank is actually calling for a cessation of democratic politics (see below). But allowing for the possibility that your comment here addresses not just Milbank’s political reflections but also his whole socio-economic diagnosis of modernity, I have to ask: when was it, exactly, that those “social and religious conditions” disappeared? Since you’re talking about Tocqueville, I assume that means that you’d at least say they were gone by 1830? Well, if that’s so, what does that do for our assessment of Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s numerous experiments with non-capitalist, illiberal communalistic and “theo-democratic” arrangements? Were they unwise? Doomed to failure? A waste of time? If all possible resources for constructing Zion were absent from the American scene in the early 19th century, then that certainly implies a need to reconsider of the mysterious ways of God, given that He commanded 19th-century Saints to get busy building it on numerous occasions.

    3) You write that “[Milbank] seems to believe that the essentially political character of human existence can be overcome (this side of paradise), that the necessity of some people ruling over others is something we can fix.” I don’t see this at all. Again and again, he talks about a Christian polity as one characterized by social, cultural, religious and political participation. If anything, his argument against secular liberalism is that it depresses political activity, by declaring matters of truth to be “private” issues not appropriate for debate and instantiation through civic life, and thus removing one of the primary obstacles to the development of a society and an economy that respects those affective concerns bound up in gift-giving, as opposed to the market place which eshews such appreciations of value in favor of calculable profit. I suspect that your “anti-political” accusation against Milbank arises from his comments about monarchy and aristocracy, which you associate with the same old progressivism elitism of (some of) the Marxist left. I think, in this case, your (legitimate) revulsion to some of Milbank’s rhetorical excesses is blindly you to his real point: he doesn’t want to install a bunch of Platonic guardians as a “new priesthood of universal truth”; he wants to rethink what role elites (which, as you note, John Adams and other constitutional thinkers always assumed would be present and necessary in any democratic polity) should play. Right now, our elites are primarily about money and the connections and influence that money can buy. But as Jefferson knew, in more intimate polities other sources of elite authority are possible, linked to age, honor, education, devotion, gender roles, and so much more. These various and shifting hierarchies (which I called “asymmetrical” in my response) do not so much entrench an aristocracy as preserve a non-meritocratic aristocratic mentality–a mentality not dissimilar to that embodied by Puritan divines in the (highly participatory and democratic!) New England communities…which Tocqueville himself praised so highly, though perhaps without really understanding the theological presumptions which made them operative. If you believe that not just liberal democracy but “politics” itself is incompatible with such traditional and theological arrangements, wherein ones position in society and relation to the whole turns not just on democratic equality but also a diversity of existing roles, mores, and responsibilities, then you’re far more liberal than I thought. (Of course you may take that as praise.)

    Thanks for writing such a sharp and thoughtful response; it was very helpful to me in working out my own thoughts on Milbank.

  25. June 16, 2005 at 11:38 am


    An excellent response; allow me the honor of picking at a couple of your claims:

    1) I agree with you completely that Milbank’s rather grand claims on behalf of a gift-giving economy expose a real lack of thought. He does not take seriously the possibility that, as you put it, “the Christian values he embraces are absent from the history of liberal theory and practice.” In my response, I talked about how national bodies are not necessarily that straightforward products of liberal modernity he assumes them to be, and how they may well be seen as occupying exactly the kind of “pre-given” category which he insists must empowered to serve as a site for the practices which link the polis with the oikos. So there’s a not which he leaves unexamined. However, I strongly disagree that his claims for gift-giving are themselves parasitic upon notions of equality which were only realized in conjunction with the rise of the modern liberal order. Yes, of course “primitive gift-giving practices” helped reinforce social and paternal hierarchies that presumed “different kinds of inequality and poverty.” That’s why he quite explicitly makes it clear that he doesn’t want a return to “primitive” social arrangements in conjucntion with his theologico-political argument; in talking about the way in which the Catholic Church made its peace with modernity, he reflects that Vatican II’s, in his view, “over-acceptance of modern liberal democracy and market economics” was probably necessary in light of Christianity’s past “endorsement of reactionary and sometimes absolutist monarch[ies], and static and hierarchical economic systems linked to unequal landholding.” At the same time, you wrongly judge the sort of equality that Milbank desires in accordance with liberal, individualistic standards. Milbank’s whole project is centered around the notion that a Christian polity is not one which places participation in the background, as something which is at best occupies a supplemental or perhaps only technical place in regards to the central expression of individual interest, but rather sees participation as key to the loving work of a fully Christian life. Hence, the standard which Milbank’s theological politics has in mind is empowerment; equality is necessary to that, but not sufficient. (Hence also his insistence that socialism move away from a purely Marxist perspective which locks it into notions of “progress.”) Paternal and aristocratic relations are not “equal” in the sense of giving each participant in those relations identical powers and responsibilities, but they are equal in the sense that each are fully valued for what they produce, what they share, what they offer and what they receive. (Fathers and children are not “equal” in an economic sense, but neither is without the other; recognizing that fact empowers both.) So no, Milbank is by no means advocating a return to the medieval township–but he does think the quality of relationships which existed in the medieval township are more instructive as to what a Christian polity should look like than a liberal society in which all–rich and poor, strong and weak, male and female, father and child–are somehow expected to ignore all the arguably mutually sustaining (and necessary!) aspects of their differences and simply, via their “rights,” contest against one another within a supposed (but in no way actually) “free and equal” legal and economic playing field.

    2) This leads to your point about adulthood. You suggest (perhaps paralleling Ralph’s claim that the possibility of viewing political life primarily as a matter of submitting to and participating in the creation in a loving and truthful community has been lost forever) that liberal democracy “is emphatically a politics of adulthood,” one which, I presume, sees citizenship as involving growing up, getting serious, setting aside childish things, etc., etc. You make a challenging point when you suggest that there is a connection between Milbank’s overheated rhetoric and a “postmodern ethos which priviliges play over labor,” and further suggest that this is a perversion rather than an outgrowth of liberal democracy, one which liberalism itself has always made room for a antidote to. Perhaps–though I think your reading of John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae as somehow representative of just such a liberal correction is simply unsustainable. In any case, the crucial matter here is, as Milbank makes clear, that of time. Liberal democracy is all about space: the ever-expanding, borderless world of choice; as he sees it, liberalism does not take temporality seriously. I assume you would allow that it takes time to grow up, to learn to be an adult. Well, here’s the rub then: if Milbank is right about liberalism, then it cannot, in fact, according to your own definitions, correct itself, because it will not actually allow its own participants the “time” to become what you say liberal democracy necessitates its own citizens to become. How do you respond? You can put me down as one who believes that liberal theory makes very little time for belief, and has provided even less with every accommodation it makes with the temporal logic of a technologically hyped-up, instant-polling, media-driven, constant-contact, 24-hour survelliance, popular plebiscite-addicted, going-out-of-business-buy-now! cyber-utopia. I mean, really Jeremiah: the face of liberal democracy in 21st-century America is Arnold Schwarzenegger–and actually, he’s not that bad compared to some of the rest of his fellow media creations! Is Milbank just “playing around”? I don’t think so; I think he’s being utterly serious about the apparently inability of liberal politics to prevent turbo-capitalism from robbing individuals of the time needed for them to actually learn something from, and push for truth within, their communal spaces. Going back to Ralph’s interest in Tocqueville, I’ll allow that liberalism seemed relatively competent in addressing its own excesses in the early 19th-century, even if (from my point of view) the wrong seeds had already been sown; perhaps then the socialist cries of the populists and agrarians (and Mormons!) were more prophetic than accurate. But in 2005? A different matter entirely, my friend.

  26. June 16, 2005 at 11:45 am

    Clark and Ben–sorry, I can only comment so much in any given morning. I’ll try to post my comments on both of your excellent responses later today.

  27. June 16, 2005 at 1:04 pm


    Glad you dropped in.

    1) “[H]ow I can I understand Milbank as a theorist whose thought I should care about if reading him requires the conscious bracketing of much of what he says?”

    A difficult and important question, the best responses to which are likely to be found all tied up in the debate between people who have asked the exact same question about Foucault, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Marx, Jefferson, etc.

    2) “Russell points out, quite accurately, that the atomistic individualism that Milbank and other critics of liberalism ascribe to it has never actually been endorsed or argued for by any liberal thinker. I do not understand, however, why Russell regards this as an irrelevent point. To the extent that Milbank is systematically arguing against a straw man, doesn?t this constitute a valid criticism of his argument?”

    Because he’s not arguing against a philosophical straw man–indeed, he’s not arguing against any particular philosophers at all. (Look through the essay; I don’t think he cites a single liberal theorist so much as once.) Rather he’s arguing against a set of practices which liberal philosophy has justified. The fact that Locke, et al, conceived of a radical individual liberty in contexts which set, in various (and not always, I think, coherent) ways, moral bounds to and invested collective meaning in that liberty does not get around the fact that they set “liberty” ahead of other values, making them supplemental or derivative rather than primary practices. The consequences inevitably follow, and it is those consequences which Milbank criticizes. That’s not to say that one can’t point out how much of liberal thought he’s ignoring and reducing to a caricature (of course one can, and Jeremiah and Ralph both do so); it’s only to say that accusing someone who condemns some feature of modern life by saying “Yes, well, but that’s not what Adam Smith said!” misunderstands the kind of critique Milbank is engaged in.

    (And of course, this cuts both ways. I can go on and on, waxing lyrical about the theological and moral imperative of socialism, and you could quite legitimately respond (as you kind of do in your fourth point), “Yeah, whatever, but in practice it kills people.” The targets of such critiques are related, but not identical.)

    3) “I am not a Christian, however. I am a Mormon.”

    I’m sorry you feel that way. (Me, I’m both.) But, to look on the bright side, that means you’re perfectly situated to build upon the random paragraphs I threw out in my response about how certain understandings of Mormonism (like the irreducible individuality of all persons, something you’ve defended before) diverge from Milbank’s ontological argument for socialism. Go for it!

    4) “Does a limited vision of the world have the productive capacity to feed and cloth itself?”

    If “itself” means “the whole world,” thus translating your question into “Does a limited vision of the world economy have the productive capacity to feed and clothe the whole world?”, the answer would have to be “of course not.” If you take on the whole planet as a single economic project, then limiting the productive capacities of the planet as a whole would by definition undermine its ability to serve that single planetary project. But I don’t have a “limited vision of the world,” because I’m not a globalist. The whole point is that there ought not be a global economic simultenaity; rather, there ought to be more diversified, equalized, distinct arenas of production and trade.

    Incidentally Nate, perhaps I’m wrong, but you seem to assume that wealth creation is 1) something no socialist of any stripe could ever want; and 2) is something can’t happen within communities, but only across them. The first point is simply wrong; wanting to align the means of production with the popular needs of the people actually engaged in the work of production hardly seems like an attack on producing goods, period. (And in any case, it’s certainly not a position advocated by Milbank, who denies any interest in asceticism.) As for the second point, I’m sure you could easily ply me with a great deal of economic theory to explain why you believe that (if in fact you do believe that), to which all I can respond is that there seem to be plenty of social scientists who think differently.

  28. Nate Oman
    June 16, 2005 at 12:58 pm

    I haven’t had time to particpate closely in this debate, but I would like to raise four issues:

    First, I was initially inclined to treat Milbank’s overheated rhetoric with regard to the United States as the sort of standard arias through which one must suffer as a cost of having (potentially interesting) conversations with leftists in general and European leftists in particular. However, I wonder at what point the rhetoric becomes so disconnected with on going political reality that one can question the theoretical usefulness of what is being said. In other words, how I can I understand Milbank as a theorist whose thought I should care about if reading him requires the conscious bracketing of much of what he says.

    Second, Russell points out, quite accurately, that the atomistic individualism that Milbank and other critics of liberalism ascribe to it has never actually been endorsed or argued for by any liberal thinker. I do not understand, however, why Russell regards this as an irrelevent point. To the extent that Milbank is systematically arguing against a straw man, doesn’t this constitute a valid criticism of his argument? Liberalism need not be premised on a Manichean view of individual and collective (a nice turn of phrase, BTW), but can be thought of as a response to a basic insight that the violence of the state is a uniquely dangerous thing whose use requires special and stringent justification. Liberalism needn’t be based on a horror of the collective or the communal, or even by a need to protect the sovereignty of the individual at all costs. It can also simply be based ona suspicion about the use of violence, and a refusal to pretend that the violence of the state can be transformed into something other than violence through the use of words.

    Third, it seems to me that Milbank has the luxury of imagining a Christian vision of the world because he views himself as a Christian in a Christian society. I am not a Christian, however. I am a Mormon. Put in Weberian terms, it seems to me that Milbank’s project is fundamentally one for a church, but I think that Mormonism commits us to the perspective of a sect. It seems to me that this suggests that we are theologically committed to the brute fact of pluralism in a way that the religion of a church is not. As such, the liberal recognition of pluralism as a brute fact that must be negotiated may be more theologically salient for us than for them. (It is all about us v. them.)

    A final point for Milbank, Russell, and the other converts of the limited economy. Fair traders and others must grapple are the brute facts of population and starvation. Does a limited vision of the world have the productive capacity to feed and cloth itself? For North Americans and Europeans this may seem like a strawman problem because they live in a world of stable popultions, high GDP, and readily available food. Most of the world does not live like this. Most of the world inhabits countries with young, exploding populations, and relatively small GDPs. They are faced with two choices: economic growth or death. To my knowledge, no country has ever experienced a slow in population growth that was not tied to either increased wealth or increased levels of infant mortality. (Evangelizing codoms to the Third World seems to me to be largely a chimera. If you want to contain population growth, increase per capita GDP or increase child mortality. Period.) Hence, it seems to me that Milbank and others who (rightly in my view) are troubled by glabal poverty need to be thinking about ways of raising the absolute material level of propersity for the global poor. It is not at all clear to me, however, that Milbank even regards this as a concern, that the vision of the world that he propounds would address it, or that the kind of discourse in which he is engaged (theological and philosophical) even has the resources to answer the question.

  29. June 16, 2005 at 1:05 pm

    Nate, don’t know about you, but I’m both a Mormon and a Christian. I’m not an Orthodox Christian nor am I a Protestant Christian. (Yeah, yeah, I knew what you meant. But after having to defend myself against the “are Mormons Christians” charge too many times I guess I’m touchy.)

  30. June 16, 2005 at 1:13 pm

    Russell, exactly what do you mean when you say we must bracket Heidegger? While some of his writings clearly aren’t up to others, and heaven knows he’s made errors, it seems that he doesn’t have the kind of heated hyperbole that one sees with Nietzsche or the current European left.

    In any case even with Nietzsche I don’t think we need bracket him in terms of strawmen quite the same way that I think Nate is asserting about Milbank. I think most of Nietzsche’s criticisms of Christianity, onto-theology and much else were deep and penetrating. Most of his hyperbole more poetic (especially in explicitly poetic works like Thus Spake Zarathustra). With Milbank I think Nate is correct that the view of liberalism he portrays seems eerily not the liberalism anyone believes in.

    I should add this isn’t really my criticism. Further in certain ways I’m actually sympathetic to his criticism of liberalism. I just think he avoids the central issue behind the Enlightenment. I’d also say that if he thinks Christianity went wrong only in the 13th century that he’s about 13 centuries off…

  31. June 16, 2005 at 1:22 pm

    One last point. Russell wrote:

    Well, if that’s so, what does that do for our assessment of Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s numerous experiments with non-capitalist, illiberal communalistic and “theo-democratic” arrangements?

    I think this a very important issue in how we view Milbank actually. Doesn’t the dismal failure of most of these inform how we view Milbank’s assertions?

  32. Jim F.
    June 16, 2005 at 2:00 pm

    Though, like Russell and Clark, I understand what Nate was saying, I think it dangerously close to heresy to say “I am not a Christian, however. I am a Mormon.” It is also very impolitic given the rhetoriv of anti0Mormonism.

    Clark, I’m trying to write up something about rite and reflection. The basic thesis of the response (assuming I can get it typed up) will be that reflection is not something added on to rite.

  33. Nate Oman
    June 16, 2005 at 2:01 pm

    Russell and Clark: You are missing my point with regard to Christianity. My point is sociological and ecclesiological, rather than Christological or soteriological. The point is that Mormonism is NOT part of the universal or invisible church. We are NOT part of the Christian polis that Milbank envisions, nor can we be. A theological committment to apostacy, restoration, priesthood authority, and living prophets means that we are inevitably sectarian in a way that precludes, I think, a denial of the liberal insight regarding the brute fact of pluralism. I don’t think that our sectarianism is something that can be elided over by with sympathetic reading of Catholic or Protestant thinkers. This is NOT meant as an argument against such sympathetic readings. Indeed, I think that Mormons ought to do far MORE of this sort of thing, but I don’t think that it changes our basic existential condition vis-a-vis the world.

    Russell suggests that the route toward a Mormon liberalism lies in our ontology of the individual and God. This is not a bad argument, and I have made it myself on occasion. (Who knows, I might have even influenced Russell on this, providing a concrete example of the horror that he hopes we — collectively, of course — avoid.) However, I think that it is worth pointing out that our sectarianism may provide a basis for a thinner, more political (in loosely Rawlsian terms) liberalism.

    I am entirely sympathetic to those who argue that liberalism, particularlly in its radically libertarian and perfectionist strands, is a desicated moral theory with real spiritual and political dangers. However, I do not see that this danger must be identified with the liberal project per se.

    There is more that I would like to say, particularlly with regard to Milbank’s — very interesting, I think — claims about the relationship between liberalism and legal institutions, but, unfortunately, I must return to the soul destroying exercise of defending the tyrannical structure of global capitalism in the courts.

  34. June 16, 2005 at 2:35 pm

    Nate, I thought we were the only universal and invisible church. The Protestants think they are. But clearly they are wrong (bg). I understand what you were getting at though. Clearly there are groups excluded from what Milbank envisions. This actually touches upon LDS history (which is where I think the rubber hits the road for evaluating Milbank’s claims pragmatically). Even with the spirit, the keys, and the truth, how did we handle those who wouldn’t live what we perceived as responsible Mormonism? We excommunicated them or at least excluded/repressed them. What was the result? What was the result when people felt the community wasn’t going right? (Say with regard to banking in Kirtland) These are all very real practical problems that Milbank is repressing from his views.

    Jim, I’m actually very open to uniting rite and reflection. Indeed in certain ways I’m extremely sympathetic to Iamblicus on these matters. (Which is the ultimate origin, I suspect for that “thought” working its way through Milbank’s comments) However I don’t see how that possibly avoids the issues I brought up. It ends up being akin to those who make a broad gesture towards education solving all our problems. When clearly it doesn’t precisely because we don’t agree. There is a fundamental ambiguity in existence that Iamblicus and I suspect Milbank deny. Without that univocality in the rites I don’t see how they can ground the political order Milbank desires.

  35. Jim F.
    June 16, 2005 at 2:46 pm

    Clark (#34): Without that univocality in the rites I don’t see how they can ground the political order Milbank desires.

    Is the alternative any more univocal? I doubt it. If univocity is required for politics, then it is impossible.

  36. June 16, 2005 at 2:52 pm

    I think the point is that the epistemological problems due to the lack of univocally is why the Enlightenment made the moves towards the anarchy of the masses and the individualism that Milbank decries. That’s my point. It’s not that it is a good system. Just that it is better than the alternatives for a diverse population.

  37. Ben H
    June 16, 2005 at 4:31 pm

    I sort of sympathize with Nate on a natural alignment between liberal thought and Mormonism. This is partly a matter of our history, partly a matter of our present minority status, and partly a matter of how many of those we consider Christian do not consider us Christian. And the more Catholic they are, the more recalcitrant on this they may prove to be.

    But most importantly, I see a recognition of pluralism as a crucial feature of our theology. Not pluralism with regard to truth, but pluralism as a pragmatic feature of the human world on this side of the veil. Even the universal church (which I do claim we are) can only be so universal. There is always more truth for us to learn directly from God, mostly one-on-one in private spaces, than will be publicly available. There will always be more to a fulness of worship than appears in a universal institution, until the Earth is celestialized. Much of the fulness is inevitably private (Kierkegaard explains some key reasons why this must be so. Otherwise one would be a Christian merely by being born into (and brought up as a normal child in) Christendom, which is absurd). This theology of pragmatic pluralism is implicit in our temple worship, and it shows up in, for example, Alma 12:9 — “It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men . . .” in public.

    Theology or no, perhaps the most outlandish feature of Milbank’s piece is its reliance on the possibility of universal assent to one hierarchy of goods. It ain’t going to happen. Nor is it desirable. If everyone is to agree on one conception of the good, that means people never get past the age of thirty-one! That would mean one reaches nominal adulthood in the community, and then one’s conception of the good ceases to develop in its fundamentals, and at most receives a little tweaking here and there. But this is a rejection of God, I say. God calls us to grow more than that. It would be an embracing of unity with our fellow-man by leaving God out, and stunting ourselves in the process. The Mormon commitment to a very high ceiling, or no ceiling (eternal progression) to human development commits us to pluralism, for the duration of mortality. Hence the inevitability of politics, of deep differences and the need for institutions to manage conflict, which is the basic strategy of liberalism.

    But Mormonism is a great example of how one can accept liberalism as an unavoidable, and key to preserving our ethical life, without seeing freedom as the paramount value. Russell, as much as liberalism, particularly in its popularized forms, seems to emphasize freedom above all else, I think you are oversimplifying it. Mormon liberalism is like the liberalism of the Anabaptists: one must be free to worship according to one’s conscience, in order to realize the higher good of worshipping truly the true God. Individual freedom (at least in certain substantial respects) as an indispensible means to a higher good. And, of course, today and for the foreseeable future, as simply a political fact of life.

    So I share Milbank’s yearning for the time when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and the suckling child play on the cockatrice’s den. But that is a long way off, and to try to do without pluralism too soon is to damn ourselves, cutting ourselves off from our highest potential of union with God.

  38. Ben H
    June 16, 2005 at 4:47 pm

    So, I really like how MacIntyre critiques the market, not by trying to toss it out, but by showing its limitations, and showing how it requires something else to compensate for what it lacks: “Market relationships can only be sustained by being embedded in certain types of local nonmarket relationship, relationships of uncalculated giving and receiving, if they are to contribute to overall flourishing, rather than, as they so often in fact do, undermine and corrupt communal ties” (p117 of “Social relationships, practical reasoning, common goods, and individual goods,” chapter 9 of Dependent Rational Animals). Rather than mistaking freedom for the highest good (like Rorty does–Milbank isn’t quite attacking a straw man!), we need to recognize a key role for freedom in the rational pursuit of our highest good.

    Man, this makes me feel old! This piece by Milbank is way too much for me, but I still think of myself as sympathetic to Radical Orthodoxy in important, “left” ways.

  39. Nate Oman
    June 16, 2005 at 4:54 pm

    Ben: Jules Coleman makes a related point with regard to markets. He points out that markets are most useful for coordinating social interaction among atomized people with competing conceptions of the good because contractual transactions allow social cooperation to proceed on the basis of very limited and a meaningfully thin agreements. (This is my terminology not Coleman’s). He goes on to point out, however, that markets are not natural events that simply happen, but they rely on a social and institutional background of trust to make them run. Hence the irony that markets of most difficult to make were they are needed least, and vice versa.

  40. Nate Oman
    June 16, 2005 at 4:59 pm

    I just realized that I have my copy of Risks and Wrongs in my briefcase. Here the passage in question (pg 5):

    Markets are most attractive where individuals have broadly divergent conceptions of the good, where the relationships among individuals tend to be one-dimensional, discrete, nonrepeating, and where the benefits and burdents of cooperation are spread over persons, time, and geography. They are least necessary wehre intereaction is repeated, where relationships are multidimensional and direct, and where there are shared conceptions of the good. Markets are most attractive where they are most difficult to establish and sustain; and they are least attractive or necessary where they are easiest to create and sustain. Markets contribute to social stability under a set of conditions that coincide with increased uncertainty. The problem of uncertaint that makes markets attractive to the liberal also makes them difficult to implement and sustain.

  41. Jeremiah J.
    June 16, 2005 at 5:12 pm

    Russell: Thanks much for your very helpful comments (and welcome correctives). I don’t feel right now the need to respond to them, but rather to let them sink in a bit–except for one thing.

    On the Gospel of Life: I don’t want to make JP II into a straight-up liberal, or even a “Christian-liberal”. Rather my intent was to try to head off Milbank’s use of his teaching in the service of what to me seemed like an “educational” and (for lack of a better term) *juvenile* politics. Perhaps when I fully come to terms with the implications of that encyclical I’ll be more symapthetic to Milbank’s reading of it and less afraid of its youthful implications.

  42. Ben H
    June 16, 2005 at 5:28 pm

    Wow, Nate, thanks. I’m glad to hear people are working over those issues. That is one of the things that blows my mind about markets. Here in the US we have people killing each other sometimes over issues like abortion, and yet if I’m on a trip and lose my camera, I can walk into a store on the other side of the country where I was never seen before and will never be seen again, swipe a piece of plastic, and walk away with hundreds of dollars’ worth of new camera, and no one thinks twice about it. Heck, I can swipe a piece of plastic and drive away in a car, drive that car half-way across the country, drive it into Canada, bring it back to the rental place when I want to, and no one thinks twice about it. There’s more to trust than just that, but hey, it’s an amazing kind of trust we enjoy, and of real, spiritual value even if spiritually there is also a lot left to be desired.

  43. June 16, 2005 at 5:34 pm


    “The point is that Mormonism is NOT part of the universal or invisible church. We are NOT part of the Christian polis that Milbank envisions, nor can we be. A theological committment to apostasy, restoration, priesthood authority, and living prophets means that we are inevitably sectarian…”

    Unless we aren’t. There is an argument about the meaning and nature of Mormon claims about the apostacy which is being assumed here, not made.

    “Russell suggests that the route toward a Mormon liberalism lies in our ontology of the individual and God. This is not a bad argument, and I have made it myself on occasion. (Who knows, I might have even influenced Russell on this, providing a concrete example of the horror that he hopes we–collectively, of course–avoid.)”

    Note that I said “certain understandings of Mormonism…diverge from Milbank’s ontological argument for socialism.” I’m not saying (because I don’t believe) those understandings are, in fact, a fully accurate account of the theologico-political implications of Mormonism’s ontology; however, I can’t deny that a lot of very smart people, like yourself, believe they are. This is an argument (like the argument over the apostasy) that in some ways has to come prior to an engagement with Milbank’s theological politics proper: where do we stand on matters of the individual, of authority, of sin? That’s not to say that we can’t critique Milbank–or argee with him, or any other such thinker for that matter; it does, however, mean that the Mormon engagement with radical orthodoxy, or indeed any version of political theology, has to do a lot of work just to get off the ground. In my response, I suggested that there might be particularly Mormon reasons to dissent from Milbank’s description of the imperative of the gift as a basis for a Christian polity, but I put them out there because recognized them, not because I was making them.

  44. June 16, 2005 at 5:34 pm

    Ben and Nate,

    Please show me where in Milbank’s essay, or in any of Milbank’s writings, he advocates “the possibility of universal assent to one hierarchy of goods.” I mean really: where? You both (and Ralph Hancock too) seem to be operating with the assumption that if one depicts a polity in light of a teleology–in Milbank’s case, to believe that participatory democracy finds its justification through that grace, manifest in exchange and gifts, which God has bestowed upon us in the first place, then somehow you’ve crushed “pluralism.” Does the admission of a transcendent to the public realm automatically result in a single controlling hierarchy? I don’t see why. You haven’t made that transcendent socially restrictive in terms of how be people express themselves in relation to it. (Does the Catholic church, with all its saints and dioceses and cultural forms of worship, somehow lack “pluralism”?) Is Milbank opposed to the idea that politics is, by definition, a chastened and fearful enterprise, one that turns away from arguments for unity simply because we lack the ability to fully discern and control (economically, bureaucratically, etc.) all the implications of that unity? Yes, he is most definitely opposed to that; he contends that to restrict the definition of politics in that way doesn’t make for a broader and more robust politics; on the contrary, it just leaves that much more authority in the hands of impersonal forces like the market that cannot be made to acknowledge higher truths.

  45. June 16, 2005 at 5:35 pm


    “There is always more truth for us to learn directly from God, mostly one-on-one in private spaces, than will be publicly available. There will always be more to a fulness of worship than appears in a universal institution, until the Earth is celestialized.”

    1) True–but the ability we have to experience those “one-on-one” moments is not something contingent upon nothing more than individual desire: it is a product of a collective environement (parents, teachers, ecclesiastical bodies, peer groups, etc.) which make available the resources and the instruction to enable one to be open to such moments. So while the fruits of private religious insight may not be public, the public (or at least some element of the public) is a participant in such private devotion nonetheless. (Who built the church you meditate in? Who bought you the Bible you read as a child, and who translated it into your language? Who fought for the country that passes laws which allow you the freedom to seek such private devotion during school time? Etc., etc.) And so to simply say that God is bigger and more variable presence in our lives than any socio-economic or political arrangement can reflect, while accurate, is hardly an argument against conceiving the polity as a means grounding and extending, through everyday actions, the constant possibility of such presencing.

    2) Where does Milbank argue for a “universal institution”? He seems to want a variety of local institutions, which are the themselves participants in a cosmopolitan field of charitable exchange. That doesn’t sound exactly like the U.N. to me.

    “Mormon liberalism is like the liberalism of the Anabaptists: one must be free to worship according to one’s conscience, in order to realize the higher good of worshipping truly the true God. Individual freedom (at least in certain substantial respects) as an indispensible means to a higher good.”

    Again, I am not at all clear why you think that Milbank’s attack on the liberal order is somehow an attack of the space of freedom and diversity itself. It seems to me that what he wants to do is make sure that our spaces remain meaningful, and that means insisting that they be temporally oriented to something higher as well as something public, rather than trusting that merely private teleological convictions will be able to do the job of constructing a Christian polity. The fact that you bring up the example of the Anabaptists is telling: have you spent much time in Amish communities? How about Mennonite? I have a fair amount of experience with that latter, and they are not liberal places–yet they are places of significant energy, diversity, freedom, and love.

  46. Nate Oman
    June 16, 2005 at 5:41 pm

    Ben H.: You have hit on one the things that makes contract law and commercial law so exciting and miraculous to me. It is also one of the reasons that I believe that private law is dramatically under-valued and public law is dramatically over-valued. It is also one of the reasons that I am often unsympathetic to anti-commercial and anti-market jeremiads. I view the complex modern market as in many ways a miraculous human achievement, one whose complexity and importance is often unappreciated by critics who are sometimes frankly ignorant of how it works. I freely admit that this creates a temptation to dismiss critics as uninformed and ignorant, which would be a huge mistake as it would lose the value of those critiques, but the set of social institutions that brings us fruit out of season or allows us to use thousands of dollars of resources on the basis of trust between strangers is a powerful force for good, I believe, that simply cannot be explained by the tired Marxist stories of exploitation, alienation, and tyranny.

  47. Nate Oman
    June 16, 2005 at 5:49 pm

    “There is an argument about the meaning and nature of Mormon claims about the apostacy which is being assumed here, not made.”

    Russell: The same could be said of your desire to reinterpret the apostacy so as to move Mormonism within the fold of some universalized Christianity. We are both talking on the basis of assumptions about the nature of Mormonism’s relationship to other religions. I take it that statements such as those found in D&C 1 identifying the LDS Church as the only true and living church, claims about the necessity of priesthood authority coupled with its exclusive existence within the Church, and robust claims about the authority of prophets to propound revelations binding on others are inconsistent with the vision of Mormonism as a “church” rather than a “sect.”

  48. Ben H
    June 16, 2005 at 6:29 pm

    Russell, about 3/4 of the way through the essay, he says, “. . . [a] human exchange of talents and of material benefits . . . can only be a just exchange where there are constantly re-negotiated and agreed upon standards concerning the human common good: of what should be produced and with what standards; of whom should be rewarded and to what degree for the sake of further beneficial (to herself and the community) action by individuals” (p16 as it displays for me). He soon reiterates, “only where there is an agreed hierarchy of values . . . can there actually be an equal sharing (according to a continuous social judgement as to who will most benefit from such and such a gift etc) of what is agreed to be valuable . . .”(pp16-17), and reiterates, “where there is no public recognition of the primacy of absolute good as grounded in something super-human, then democracy becomes impossible” (p17).

    The Roman Catholic church certainly has some pluralism within it, but not enough to accommodate me or mine, and not enough, I think, to accommodate God. One way to think about what fundamentally went wrong in traditional Christianity, theologically, is to say that they insisted on unity in the wrong things, particularly in theology in the form of the creeds. In so doing they silenced the scriptures, which point beyond any theology that can be publicly, universally embraced, other than a reliance on basic truths like faith, repentance, baptism, Christ crucified and risen–basic truths in an un-theologized form, which as a result are open to being re-understood as one progresses spiritually. Theology is certainly not the only important thing that went wrong in the apostasy! Possibly this problem came only after others (sin, persecution) had already crippled the leadership. But this ossification in theology I think parallels other ossifications in which the scriptures and the Spirit were silenced. They established a human stability of authority etc. at the cost of an openness to growth and revelation from and a closer approach to God. Here Milbank calls for what I think amounts to an ethical ossification, which is worse than a theological ossification!

    Yow! I feel dizzy finding myself expounding a Mormon version of JS Mill! (for example, from the latter part of On Liberty Chapter II, where he talks about how “Popular opinions, on subjects not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth” — hence the need for freedom if we are not to be bound by force into one somewhat arbitrary set of partial truths) I think we need to get beyond Mill–I think Mill’s ideas in On Liberty are only partial and reactionary or corrective truths–but not by simply rejecting him, rather by embedding what he got right in something larger and more complete.

  49. Ben H
    June 16, 2005 at 6:37 pm

    Of course, Milbank’s “Catholic” church is not identical with the Roman church . . . I meant to say something about the difference but got distracted before getting to that part. What I said actually applies just as well to his borader version of the “Catholic” church.

    Nate, I would be interested to hear whether and how you disagree with my conception of the CJCLDS as the “universal church”. Universality doesn’t preclude exclusive claims to authority; Milbank’s “Catholic” church excludes us, for example, as well as Muslims, Buddhists, atheists . . .

  50. June 16, 2005 at 10:16 pm


    Nice. Even an unlearned man like myself knows the word is “ecclesiastical.” Has no one read B.H. Roberts book Outlines of Ecclesiastical History. Maybe Russell can learn something about the apostasy.

  51. Ben H
    June 16, 2005 at 10:21 pm

    Hold your horses, Aaron; there are two words, ecclesiological (about understanding the church) and ecclesiastical (just plain about the church). Like the difference between society and sociology, it is rather an important difference.

  52. Ben H
    June 16, 2005 at 11:05 pm

    Russell: have you spent much time in Amish communities? How about Mennonite? I have a fair amount of experience with that latter, and they are not liberal places

    What do you mean, Russell? Why do you think they fled to the New World? To escape the oppression of the Catholic hegemony (including Lutherans and Calvinists, all of whom were willing to align their religion with state power). The Amish and Mennonites are proof that American liberalism is compatible with, even desirable for enabling deep religious devotion and tightly-knit communities. They encourage their young people to go explore the alternatives, and make their decision as to whether to be part of the community that raised them. So what is not liberal about them? Sure, they aren’t aspiring to be ironic Rortyan atomic individuals. But there is more to liberalism than Rorty.

    Russell: to simply say that God is bigger and more variable presence in our lives than any socio-economic or political arrangement can reflect, while accurate, is hardly an argument against conceiving the polity as a means grounding and extending, through everyday actions, the constant possibility of such presencing.

    Sure. But that was my point — the polity grounds the possibility of private communion with God, but does not fully incorporate that communion. It plays a supporting and enabling role. Look, I think it partly incorporates our spiritual lives. So does Sunday church. I’m a Mormon talking here! We allow anyone into our Sunday meetings. A certain large part of our spiritual life goes on in a more or less public space, and I think that includes society and the polity in their way (somewhat analogous to Sunday church as contrasted with the temple). But there are very important parts that cannot be part of the common life of the polity, and so the political order has to be modest enough to leave room for those experiences, and for the transforming influence they exert on the rest of life, for those who have them. That means leaving room for pluralism.

    Liberalism as such is not somehow committed to the idea that there is no absolute truth, or that people shouldn’t aspire to agreement and communion in political, ethical, religious matters (though this or that liberal might be). To use Mill as an example again: “As mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase; and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested”, but on political and religious questions we must expect consensus to elude us “until mankind shall have entered a stage of intellectual advancement which at present seems at an incalculable distance” (about 2/3 of the way through Chap. II of On Liberty; pp42, 43 of my Hackett edition).

    Okay, Mill wouldn’t really like the Amish. But he would tolerate them, and point to them as an example of what is right about liberalism, as he advocated tolerance of Mormons and their polygamy, and pointed to their persecution as an example of what was wrong with America (end of On Liberty, Chap. IV). The Amish reveal something deep about liberalism. The Amish also couldn’t run a fully functioning country, any more than the Anti-Nephi-Lehites could (another way in which the Book of Mormon strikingly addresses distinctively American questions). But I think the Amish have a few things right when it comes to thinking Zion.

  53. Nate Oman
    June 17, 2005 at 12:08 pm

    “Sure, they aren’t aspiring to be ironic Rortyan atomic individuals. But there is more to liberalism than Rorty.”

    Reading some critics of liberalism one might wonder.

  54. June 17, 2005 at 1:39 pm


    Thanks for pointing out those lines from Milbank’s essay–I’d read them, but plainly I don’t see them as saying what you see them as saying.


    Thanks for pushing the epistemological issue hard; that really is, I think, a crucial one to assessing Milbank’s project. I’ve put together some responses to your challenge, as well as some of the comments made by Nate and Ben, in another post on my own blog, here. If Jim eventually weighs in with his comments on ritual and reflection, I may have to jump back in, but for the moment, I’m not sure there’s not much more I can add than what I say there. (Famous last words…)

    Thanks to everyone for an extremely stimulating week!

  55. Ralph Hancock
    June 17, 2005 at 2:32 pm


    Thanks for serious and thoughtful comments on Milbank and on my post. There?s a lot going on here, and to some considerable degree we?re talking past each other, I think. This is partly due to the limitations of the format, but partly also Milbank?s fault, since his little article is, to say the least, pretty loose and preliminary. This is forgivable in what appears to be a draft or prospectus, but I still find the tone somewhat that of a manifesto, and therefore somewhat irresponsible and politically jejune.

    And I should say that, for me, the presence in a thinker’s work of ill-considered, unchastened political passions is not likely to be a mere blemish that can be isolated from larger insights. (This applies to questions raised in other posts concerning Heidegger, Foucault, etc.) My Socratic conviction (to put it in a ridiculously abbreviated form) is that an apprehension of reality cannot spare itself the difficult task of a reflection on the soul, which in turn requires a broadly political reflection. Milbank seems to me not to have undertaken such a Socratic reflection, and so he seems to me not to be fully in command of what he wants to say, or how certain religious longings of his soul relate to his political dreams or ambitions. (For example, as you notice, he dismisses the nation-state at the outset, which no serious political thinker can do — and thus, which no serious thinker can do.)

    Re. Tocqueville: I think you miss my point in referring to his “radicalism.” Indeed he is not a “radical political thinker” in the sense you seem to have in mind; but this is precisely, I would say, because he is thinks radically-politically in another sense. In his radicalism he transcends the dichotomy of skeptical Aristocrat / believing-communitarian-democrat in which you try to place him.

    Forgive me for quoting myself, but here’s a paragraph from a little essay in which I try to explain what I mean by Tocqueville’s “radicalism”:

    By reflecting on the meaning of the collapse of “the laws of moral analogy” we thus become aware of the depth of Tocqueville’s encounter with modern democracy, an encounter by no means separate from his own search for moral and spiritual grounding. Tocqueville sees no way to reconcile finally humanity’s spiritual orientation towards some elusive good or meaning beyond or other-than conventional hierarchies, the fundamental orientation of human being that underlies and drives the restless march of democracy, with man’s need for an ethico-political home, for a concrete and definite structure of meaning. Himself suspended between the two poles of “moral analogy,” Tocqueville can offer no simple and stable linkage. The breakdown of moral analogy is thus much more than a factor in the evolution of democracy; it is a revelation of the mystery of the human condition.

    This mystery calls for a certain politically responsible thinking, attuned to the concrete goods ?secreted? (as I sometimes say) in practical human existence, and not for some attempt to realize the voice of the people as the voice of God ? an enthusiasm you seem to share with Milbank. My political hopes are more modest; and I don?t regard Joseph Smith?s or Brigham Young?s social enterprises as simply political. I put revealed prophetic authority in a special category.

    Your political judgment seems to me insufficiently insulated from your religious hopes (I don?t say that should or can ever be simply separate). And I think it is for this reason that your view of liberalism seems somewhat a caricature. I?m in no simple way a liberal, as I trust you noticed. But, like Tocqueville, I find it necessary to begin where we are, and to ask what are the concrete goods in are broadly liberal regime that can be preserved and strengthened, and what are the inherent dangers and temptations that must be averted. We need elites who can do this kind of responsible thinking, and ?radical? philosophers who can help thus to justify such moderation.

    Thanks again for your comments. I hope this helps reduce the distance by which we are talking past each other.


  56. June 17, 2005 at 3:40 pm


    Thanks for that very generous and thoughtful response. Your “Socratic” assessment of Milbank’s lack of self-reflection is one that really strikes me as true, and consequently as one that I need to apply to myself as well.

    Where does your quote about Tocqueville come from? That looks like an essay I should read in full.

  57. Ben H
    June 17, 2005 at 6:17 pm

    Russell, you seem (from what you say, e.g. about Rousseau, on your blog) to be reading the agreement on a hierarchy of values as a merely local thing. Fair enough, and there is an outside chance one might be able to achieve it, through some amazingly effective (and currently little-known) culture of education. But then it seems it will only be of local help. If we could somehow split the world into hermetically sealed counties, that might be enough, but as long as the world is as big as it is, there will be people in different localities who still come into contact with one another, and if a shared conception of the good is only local, then they will come into conflict with each other. So we’re off to the races with a politics of pluralism, aren’t we?

    Yesterday’s Salon article (requires viewing ad, or paid reg) on massive misuse of mercury in vaccines raises an interesting puzzle: Can we place this problem, philosophically? Do we blame liberalism or monarchialism? Or are we looking at a new kind of problem? a classic Nader problem?

  58. Jim F.
    June 17, 2005 at 8:07 pm

    Russell, what you say about ritual in the post on your blog (see #54 for the link) is at least as articulate as what I would say, so I’m going to let that stand (for now) rather than saying something myself.

  59. Ben H
    June 17, 2005 at 8:26 pm

    Jim, I feel like I’m missing out! I have a hunch that there are things you like about the Milbank piece (probably some of the reasons you wanted to discuss it) that have not received enough attention in the discussion so far. What are the parts you think are most promising?

  60. Jim F.
    June 29, 2005 at 10:03 pm

    Doing some reading tonight, I realized much more clearly how this discussion and that of transcendence are connected when I read this in James K. A. Smith’s Introducing Radical Orthodoxy (99-100): “Behind the politics of modernity (liberal, secular) is an epistemology (autonomous reason), which is in turn undergirded by an ontology (univocity and the denial of participation).”

    Like Ralph Hancock (#20), I think that fecundity gives us an alternative to participation (and, therefore, also to creation ex nihilo and traditional Trinitarianism). Nevertheless–and in spite of the shortcomings in the piece that generated this discussion–I think that thinkers like Milbank and others in the Radical Orthodoxy movement can help us think about what it would mean genuinely to have an alternative to contemporary politics.

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