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What Gives with Milbank?

Ok, Milbank obviously rejoices in being esoteric. Like all the time. But, there seems to be a serious about-face that has taken place in his thought regarding sexuality. Consider this recent article on Milbank’s current theological-political work:

He urged the movement’s followers to “grasp the hands of labour unions, feminists, gay and lesbian activists”, and warned that “if they remain content, as I fear some of them do, to carp and posture before gatherings of the anointed, then the movement will become at best a beloved clique and at worst another academic vaudeville show”.

The groups mentioned may not want to shake Milbank’s hand: he opposes gay marriage (“I don’t want to get into the situation where we deny there is something special about being attracted to the opposite sex”).

He says he is concerned about working-class women being left to raise children alone, “in part – alongside economic factors – because of the collapse of the male ethos of supporting the woman”, and has written most stridently in opposition to in vitro fertilisation treatment for single women.

Or again, the somewhat older piece from The Other Journal:

So by supporting the total disjuncture of sex and procreation, the left is really supporting a new mode of fascism. ‘Women’ are lined up with science and choice in order to produce a new kind of ideal human subjectivity—male and autonomous and yet pliant in ‘female’ manner. The newly envisaged female body is the final site of the coming together of scientific objectivity and absolute freedom of choice. Perhaps one could even speak here of a new racism of the human race as such—it’s to be made the object of an endless ‘objective’ improvement and expression of a will to freedom/will to power. Of course this also means that the specific phenomenology of the female body is destroyed. It’s denied that this body is inherently linked both to the male body (as also vice-versa) and to another body that is itself and yet becomes not itself—the baby. Having denied the link of babies to men and also to women save as objects of their (‘male’) choice, babies thereby become pure consumer objects and all human personhood is abandoned.

Now, this is a pretty conservative framing of Christian sexual ethics coming from Milbank. Žižek, in a brief conversation mentioned to me that he believes that the reason for Milbank’s current trend against gay marriage and toward a broadly Roman Catholic theology of the family stems from recently falling under the influence of Pope Benedict. Perhaps so.

However, no matter what the reason, the anti-liberal Red Tory Milbank is a far cry from the Milbank of Being Reconciled with its talk of the “trancendental homosexuality” of angels. Its not every day you see high-profile theologians getting more conservative on sexual issues these days. Any idea why Milbank is swinging that way?

30 Comments

  1. Evan wrote:

    Milbank speculates that the Vatican hierarchy may be wondering “whether we will provide them with a way of loosening up without selling out”.

    I’m not privy to the curial reading list, so perhaps he’s right… but I can’t help but be a bit taken aback by the presumption of this speculation!

    Thanks for the links, I hadn’t been aware of these shifts.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    I’ve always felt like Milbank was more socially conservative than he typically let on. This may have had something to do with the fact that he spent a lot of time interacting with the radical left (or some manifestation of it), and it simply would not have been tolerated to come out toeing the traditional catholic moral teaching line.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  3. I saw that article. I was also interested where Milbank described his political views as leaning towards an anarcho-agrarian monarchist system as seen in Lord of the Rings. Or something to that affect.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Yeah. I kinda think that’s just crazy talk. I don’t think that Milbank would have the slightest idea what to do in any sort of agrarian context.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  5. Skip Newby wrote:

    Huh?

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink
  6. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    You can’t see Milbank as a farmer? By the way, since when have you been having conversations with Slavoj Zizek?!

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    It was just a couple minutes of talking when he was at Powells last year.

    I feel like a shameless name-dropper for even mentioning it.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    People give Milbank a lot of crap for the anarcho-monarchical agrarianism, especially when he references LotR as an example of envisaging such a system, but it actually makes sense to me. Not that it is anywhere near realization, but I actually do think he’s talking about something coherent. I do have the benefit of having heard him ramble about stuff like this in an informal context for two semesters, however, and this one time, I was in the same room as Zizek.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  9. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    But did you sleep with Zizek, Hill? Sorry…

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Did I tell you about the time Žižek offered me a handjob?

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 5:26 pm | Permalink
  11. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    You know, I’m not sure you’ve ever mentioned that before, but it can’t be nearly as entertaining as the one time Milbank took me aside and…OK, enough’s enough.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  12. Colin wrote:

    Halden, was it for coke? Ahhhh sorry couldn’t resist.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 5:44 pm | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:

    Milbank was also in the same room.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 5:46 pm | Permalink
  14. N. Dan Smith wrote:

    I think this is appropriate: http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/2008/09/caption-contest-milbank-and-hauerwas.html

    :-)

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 9:20 pm | Permalink
  15. Patrik wrote:

    I’m not sure there is a shift in his thinking. Actually, he opposes gay marriage in Being Reconciled. But his suggestion is to create a new “fully sacramental” concept about same-sex unions that proclaim what that kind of love tells us about God, in order not to confuse that with what marriages say about God. He basically wants an eigth Sacrament. That is to me a very different way of opposing gay marriages from what this article suggests (but it is the author of the text that suggests that, not Milbank).

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 4:12 am | Permalink
  16. Chris Donato wrote:

    “Any idea why Milbank is swinging that way?”

    Geez, not to be a smart ass, but maybe he’s hedging his bets with God and the authority of his Word? That is, maybe he thinks God’s opinion on this stuff is basically what the church has been teaching all these years? Maybe the esotericism it requires to speak of the “trascendental homosexuality” of angels feels suddenly disingenuous when contemplating a holy God who doesn’t take lightly his opinions being relegated to the shelf? (assuming in all this, of course, that there is a clear divine “opinion” about these matters)

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 5:08 am | Permalink
  17. I for one would happily hedge my bets with the gays, because if God is the God of the religious right and the people who say things like “the authority of his Word” then I’d rather go to Hell.

    I hope the author of the article just spun it that way, but regardless I do think there has been a conservative shift in Milbank’s thought. I have an article coming out in Political Theology (The Judgment of God and the Immeasurable: Political Theology and Organizations of Power) that deals with this alongside Caputo, Deleuze & Guattari, and Laruelle. You may find it of interest.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  18. Dom wrote:

    I would hope that it is because he is growing and progressively realizing the bankruptcy of of liberalism. I read the post you linked to today (24th) at “Rain and the Rhinocerous”, and have to say I find it pretty arrogant and annoying. Similarly, I was annoyed when a friend of mine discussed his disappointment in how J.I.Packer had become “softer” in his old age. People continue to grow in wisdom and understanding if they are good theologians. For a young, undeveloped blogger to decry people like Milbank or Packer (who have had a heck of a lot more time to reflect and grow) as if they know better is a pretty pathetic display of arrogance. That came out pretty harsh, but such pride frusterates me.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  19. It is ridiculous to suggest that all people grow in wisdom and understanding and that we can not evaluate their work because of our relative youth. Just patently ridiculous.

    Saturday, April 25, 2009 at 5:52 am | Permalink
  20. Andrew Tatum wrote:

    Unless I’m mistaken, Milbank “came out” re: homosexuality (pun intended) in Being Reconciled in which he mentions the ontological impossibility of the sexual act outside of marriage. He relates this to homosexuality (I think in the same place where he mentions the “transcendental sexuality of angels”). He has, it seems, always had a bit of a strange line of reasoning with regard to homosexuality. And I think I agree with others that his affinity with the writings of Pope Benedict XVI might be the culprit here.

    And although I am just as young, if not younger than, the folks in this discussion, I do not find Dom’s critique of “youngness” to be entirely without basis. While I would agree that it is ridiculous to think that evaluation is impossible, I think the passage of time (in a very Hauerwasian-patience oriented sense) coupled with the realities of family (i.e. marriage and children) and the possibility of theological nuance would make it possible that a proper evaluation of Milbank might require a few more gray hairs. But, hey, what do I know – I’m just a youngster.

    A.T.

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 3:37 am | Permalink
  21. Andrew Tatum wrote:

    “I for one would happily hedge my bets with the gays, because if God is the God of the religious right and the people who say things like “the authority of his Word” then I’d rather go to Hell.”

    It is, in fact, possible to want to preserve “traditional” marriage and sexuality without at the same time being a card-carrying member of the “religious right” and, although I realize that this is likely an intentionally provocative statement, I find it to be “patently ridiculous” and intellectually irresponsible.

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 3:42 am | Permalink
  22. roger flyer wrote:

    Did I tell you about me and Beyonce? Ooops, wrong blog audience.

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  23. roger flyer wrote:

    Now you are seriously name dropping! and libelous…!?

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  24. roger flyer wrote:

    I’ve got grey hairs (and the age to prove it) and I’m just as perplexed and clueless as the rest of you; including Milbank and the Pope.

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  25. I’m not really concerned with what card you carry, but you’re still a part of the Religious Right if you want to deny other human beings recognition and social access to a human experience that they already experience.

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  26. Nick wrote:

    I don’t know, what really bothers me about Milbank’s “turn” is not his basic positions, but his deep support of Catholic theology of the body. I’ve always been unable to see that stuff as anything other than a modern innovation — not that no notions of gender complementarity are to be found in Scripture, but it’s a far cry from “For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” to Milbank’s seeming prioritization of heterosexual marriage over both homosexuality and celibacy in “The Future of Love,” his essay on Benedict’s Deus Caritas Est.

    In fact, if anything, it seems like a highly Protestant move. I’d rather see a theology of the body and sex rooted in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the early ascetics, than a modern elaboration of Greco-Roman ideas about gender. Indeed, Milbank’s quote about the modern female “man” –

    “Of course this also means that the specific phenomenology of the female body is destroyed. It’s denied that this body is inherently linked both to the male body (as also vice-versa) and to another body that is itself and yet becomes not itself—the baby. Having denied the link of babies to men and also to women save as objects of their (‘male’) choice, babies thereby become pure consumer objects and all human personhood is abandoned.”

    – actually seems like a good description of early Christian female ascetics, who were often envisaged as becoming “male” in their celibacy. And certainly in those cases the Roman authorities thought it was horrendous and unnatural to reject traditional family structures in favor of serving God alone — see, for example, the Passio Perpetuae. Perpetua had a child, but broke her family ties for Christ and even had visions of becoming male to wrestle with the Devil. How is Milbank’s statement here anything other than a late modern restatement of pagan Roman concerns about a loss of gender complementarity?

    As Virginia Burrus has shown, the early ascetics were “sexual” (as long as “sexual” doesn’t just narrowly refer to genital relations) while still set apart from any concern for procreation. How does Milbank’s new theology of the body account for that? He seems like even more of a “family values” guy now than the Pope, who obviously continues to value and prioritize Christian celibacy.

    Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  27. dan wrote:

    Actually, just a year or two ago Packer stated that, over his whole teaching career, he has never once changed his Systematic Theology course. He stated that, “if you get things right the first time, there’s no need to change things”.

    I’m not sure how this fits into the idea that Packer has grown in wisdom in his old age… perhaps one should say that he has actually just become more entrenched in his position over the years??

    Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  28. Andrew Tatum wrote:

    The question we’ve got to ask – and it seems you’ve answered it, at least for yourself, is whether marriage is a human or divine experience. Of course, it is both. However, the sacramental nature of marriage makes all of this quite sticky (if one believes in such a thing). Aquinas noted that a sacrament was not diminished or made ineffectual by the sinfulness of the priest – but does this go both ways?

    In other words, can a sacrament (i.e. marriage) be made worthless or ineffectual by the sinfulness of the one experiencing it? If marriage is a sacrament (which I believe it is) and if (and this is a big *if*) homosexuality is sinful then can homosexual “marriage” truly be “marriage” in the sacramental sense?

    In the end I think it’s not a matter of denying “recognition” or “social access” – it’s a matter of the denial of an experience of the divine which has an altogether different character from mere “experience.”

    Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 10:31 pm | Permalink
  29. Andrew Tatum wrote:

    In other words, does sexual experience, emotive love, devotion or even monogamous fidelity = marriage? If marriage is a divine encounter (which I believe it is) then can any one (or even all of these) be said to be divine – or are such things even possible?

    Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  30. jamie wrote:

    Milbank made his thoughts on homosexuality clear several years ago: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week707/commentary.html

    Also, someone (I can’t remember who) pointed out a long time ago that G. Laughlin’s essay on the erotic in _Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology_ is the only one which is substantially “censored”/reinterpreted in the editors’ introduction.

    Not sure what difference this makes at all, but in the preface to _The Future of Love_ Milbank disavows Blond’s Red Toryism in favor of “blue socialism” which he defines as “socialism with a Burkean tinge.” A footnote affirms that by “blue” he means to identify with the Right. Similar comments are available here: http://www.telospress.com/main/index.php?main_page=news_article&article_id=302

    I would have thought any doubts about Milbank’s (non) “radicalness” would have been clarified in _Being Reconciled_, pg. 104, where he takes Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama and other conquistadores as his models of Christian adventure. That’s pretty disgusting. If you give a shit about Native Americans at all, these comments are pretty revolting.

    Thursday, April 30, 2009 at 7:34 am | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. Milbank’s Rightward Shift : Theopolitical on Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    [...] Halden points out Milbank’s interesting — and unusual — shift toward cultural conservatism on matters concerning the family. No matter what the reason, the anti-liberal Red Tory Milbank is a far cry from the Milbank of Being Reconciled with its talk of the “trancendental homosexuality” of angels. It’s not every day you see high-profile theologians getting more conservative on sexual issues these days.  [...]

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