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The Ubiquity of the Theological

One of the greatest insights of much recent theology is the insistence that there is no non-theological sphere.  All forms of discourse, in one way or another are theological.  This I take to be the central insight of John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory and the Radical Orthodoxy movement as a whole.  The question that this raises, though is what the ubiquity of the theological means for the shape of theological engagements with culture.  In other words, I wonder if recognizing the ubiquity of the theological inevitably casts theology into an agonistic mode.  Does recognizing the ubiquity of the theological mean that all our discussions with other communities and cultures must be conducting solely in the mode of undermining and exposing the theological foundations of all non-Christian thought? 

Put differently, does exposing the theological roots of all discourse require us to engaging in the sort of thermo-nuclear theological assault on everything outside of the Christian faith that is embodied in project’s like Milbank’s?  Does the ubiquity of the theological mean that the sole mode of Christian discourse with those outside is monological and deconstructive?


  1. Craig Carter wrote:

    In a word, Halden, – yes. This is, to my mind, the single greatest insight of “The City of God” and it should not be associated primarily with modern projects like RO, which may or may not be in faithful continuity with Augustinian Christianity (the jury is still out).

    Respectful dialogue between Christian theology and other religious systems (including world religions and modern ideologies like Marxism and Classical Liberalism) can occur for purposes of clarification so as to increase understanding and eliminate needless conflict in areas of agreement. But such dialogue is conducted within the overarching context of the command to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to “every creature.” This mission is given to the Church and the Church has no authority to change it or restrict its scope.

    In other words, Christians do not have to act like violent pompous jerks, but all correlationist and comparativist methods of doing theology are ruled out.

    Monday, April 14, 2008 at 12:40 pm | Permalink
  2. I would agree with Craig and you about the problems of RO and the need for a more open dialogue. I would probably go one step further and say that part of what it means to be obedient to the command to ‘preach’ the gospel includes bearing witness as listeners to the gospel, even as we can hear it proclaimed to us from what Barth calls the secular parables of truth. If, as Barth says, God can speak through communism or a dead dog, should we not engage in the ascetical practice of spiritual listening for God’s surprising word from the unlikeliest of sources? If we’re always boisterously scurrying about re-inforcing the ecclesial trenches, how will we hear the still small voice when it comes?
    I have noticed that the waters of my spirit tend to get stirred up and noisy when I read Milbank and some of RO, which tells me something of importance. On the other hand, when I read Rowan Williams, for the most part, something entirely different takes place, and here I wonder if the contemplative and pastoral depth of Williams is, to refer to your previous post, of some significance. Williams’ Silence and Honeycakes is a text one simply cannot imagine coming from the pen of a Milbankian.

    Monday, April 14, 2008 at 2:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Cobus wrote:

    There is a fine line to be drawn. It the statement “All forms of discourse, in one way or another are theological” imply that I now enforce this on others, that I can tell them that they are busy with theological discourse, even if they explicitly state that they are not, then it kind of sound like a couple of students who recently attempted to argue the popular case that “all Atheists are Christians who just don’t know it yet”. Out of respect for the other we need to recognize that sometimes something is not a theological discourse.

    On the other hand, public theology help us to open up the public sphere as a theological realm. Thus theological discourse ain’t limited to the ecclesiastical shpere, but any sphere can become the sphere of theological discourse.

    Tuesday, April 15, 2008 at 1:32 am | Permalink
  4. scott wrote:

    I agree with your initial insight – and in answer to the question, I’d say it casts theology into a critical but hopeful mode – not agaonistic. This is, I think, where the benefits of someone like Yoder, who emphasised the specificity of theological engagement, far outweighs the RO crew, because it does not assume that a definitive theological judgment can be made upon particular groups of people or sets of practices prior to (both conceptual and practical) engagement with them.

    Tuesday, April 15, 2008 at 3:28 am | Permalink
  5. IndieFaith wrote:

    Does the ubiquity of the theological mean that the sole mode of Christian discourse with those outside is monological and deconstructive?
    Isn’t that more a qualitative statement about theology as opposed to its possible ubiquity? Should it be assumed that if theology is the pervasive frame of understanding that it would be either monological or deconstructive? Or is that simply how you are reading RO?

    Tuesday, April 15, 2008 at 3:29 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    What I mean by that is that it often seems that if we accept the premise that everything is theological, then that which is non-Christian rests upon heretical theological foundations rather than inhabiting some non-theological sphere. One could conclude from that that therefore the Christian mode of engagement with other discourses would of necessity be purely deconstructive, exposing the false theological underpinnings of other perspectives and communitites.

    And indeed the question of the character of theology is precisely in question here. I do think that RO expects theology to do some things that maybe only God can do. But I do still have some affinity for their critiques.

    Tuesday, April 15, 2008 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  7. Mike Higton wrote:

    Two connected responses: one formal, one more substantive.

    Formally, I think it is all too easy to be captivated by a mistaken model here. It is possible to be captivated by the idea that analysis will allow the reduction of complex social phenomena to a simple set of principles at work in them. If that were the case, then theology’s job might be as simple as the picture: the exposure of the deep reasonings involved in those phenomena – and no doubt their exposure as heretical. But two things need to be borne in mind (both of which have to do with the fact that we reason as creatures, and therefore reason from in the midst of things): such analysis is always, in fact, a proposal for reading of some portion of the world so as to allow some future: it is as much social proposal as it is genealogical diagnosis. And such reading is always partial: the identification of a reading just good enough to allow us to go on for now. It is always possible to re-read, to read deeper, to read against, the readings we have now proposed. Not because we don’t take theological analysis seriously, but because we don’t take seriously our ability to finish reasoning, or to reason as anything other than creatures. So, faced with some portion of the world (a person, an institution, a movement, a trend, a culture), I don’t get to say: ‘I know the truth about you (and, in fact, it is a falsehood). Who’s next!’

    So what do I get to say?

    Well, more substantively, I think we can be serious about acting in the present as if the future economy of gift were already here. That is, I can approach those phenomena that I wish to analyse first of all in hope that they will prove to be a gift to me – a gift to me precisely as a Christian theologian, and an intellectual gift at that. (That’s one way of reading Rowan Williams’ article on Sharia, for instance: a theologically serious attempt to see enlightenment views of law as in part a gift to Christianity, a gift that makes sense in, and makes sense of, Christianity’s own terms.) The presence of such gift is possible precisely because all social phenomena are mixed, and that even if our analysis truly shows that some tendency or structure involves blatant rejection of the Son of Man, that is never the only thing to be said. Yes, there may be times when we have to say: this is sheerly and only evil; the only answer here is ‘No!’ But a little bit of fear and trembling in face of such a response might be in order.

    Secondly (I think the order is important), I can see my attempt to read those phenomena not as an act of a kind of violence that my ‘theologian’ pass somehow allows me to commit, but as an attempt to give a gift. All analysis is social proposal, I said; another way of putting that is to see all theological analysis as fundamentally having the character of invitation. But if that is true, it means taking some responsibility for offering our analyses as gifts or invitations. Yes, there are times when all we can say is ‘Woe to you who are rich!’ – but not, perhaps, without realising the temptation to self-dramatisation, and to defensive purity, involved in doing so. (And not without seeing that even such a claim can be a kind of invitation.) Sadly, some of our discourse as theologians begs non-Christian hearers to dismiss it, because the only face it shows them is one of self-assured condemnation, a face with no flicker of interest in their productive recognition of the picture we have painted, a face that offers no hope; some of our discourse begs to be allowed a citadel of isolated purity facing down the world’s battalions. That’s yet another addiction from which we need to be released.

    None of this, I think, need involve giving up on the ubiquity of the theological. But maybe I’m playing to one of my own temptations, and trying to justify a quiet life?

    Tuesday, April 15, 2008 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  8. Thank you, Mike, for a very powerful comment. Your work on Williams and Barth both have been a tremendous help to me (oh, and your engagement with Frei as well!) I am trying a 12 step program to deal with my addiction to my ‘citadel of isolated purity’. Thanks for the push!

    Tuesday, April 15, 2008 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  9. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Indeed, Mike, well put!

    Tuesday, April 15, 2008 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  10. Eric Lee wrote:

    I’d be curious as to your thoughts on some of the more nuanced observations regarding Milbank on this post.

    I really think Milbank is not as agonistic as you would like him to be, nor does a “ubiquity” of the theological necessarily entail such discourse at all. In fact, in practice I think it is really the opposite (again, see the post linked to above, written by somebody who doesn’t identify with RO).



    Tuesday, April 15, 2008 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  11. Ethan wrote:

    I think it is easy to over-simplify the ramifications of what Ro thinkers imply by claiming that there is nothing outside of the theological. It is easy to do so particularly because Milbank’s writing and personal style can be so aggressive, off putting, and dismissive of others. Yet, that is no excuse for evading the fact that he finds useful non-theological dicourse such as Marxism, various other forms of philosophy, anarchist social critique, neo-platonic thought forms whether pagan, Jewish, or Christian, etc. The irony is that many woud dismiss Milabnk as little more than a (Neo)-Platonist (i.e. not a theologian) and then turn around and say that he refuse to engage anything outside of the Christian tradition. Not only does he use these writings, but he has publicly said and written that Christianity has historically and rightly allowed for a certain autonomy to secular forms of knowing and art that he finds lacking in other montheistic traditions. It would be a mistake to project the type of all or nothing critique of sociology to Milbank’s engagement with other philosophers, scientists, cultural critics, etc. Indeed it would be a mistake not unlike his own when he mercilously and uncharitably hammers on others, but that is no justification for doing the same to his insightful and enraging thoughts. I am critical of Milbank and Ro but I find many are looking for an excuse to not deal with the profound, problematic, but important concepts that drive the movement, and do so in a way in which the obvious sophitication of their writings can be ignored.

    Wednesday, April 16, 2008 at 8:19 am | Permalink

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