In his recent interview, John Milbank at one point comments that the church, contrary to appearances is not “an institution” (or at least it “isn’t primarily”). Rather, according to Milbank the church is “the continued event of the ingestion of the body of Christ” which “alone mediates the presence of the God-Man.” Now, I’m all for real presence and a strong ecclesiology (whatever that really means). But the way Milbank expresses himself here encapsulates a few of my difficulties with the Radox way of approaching ecclesiology and Christology.
I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that the church has its being in receiving Christ’s presence in the Eucharist (though it obviously isn’t constituted merely by Eucharistic celebration). But Milbank seems to think that nothing much else needs to be said beyond this. The church is simply the event of people continuing to “ingest Christ” by taking the Eucharist. Isn’t there much more needs to be talked about when we say what the church “is”? What of baptism? Proclamation? Discipleship? Service? These are the things I don’t see Milbank spend any time on — not just in this interview, but in general.
Moreover to take the language of “ingestion” as a meta category to interpret Christ’s relationship to the church is deeply problematic. It suggests a seamless organic coinherence between Christ and the church that doesn’t do justice to the dynamic and dialogical nature of how the church continually receives the self-gift of Christ in its ongoing life. Rowan Williams seems to me to to put the matter far better in describing the church as Christ’s body dialogically. “The church is not the assembly of the disciples as a ‘continuation’ of Jesus, but as the continuing group of those engaged in dialogue with Jesus, those compelled to renew again and again their confrontation with a person who judges and calls and recreates” (Resurrection, 76).
But the image of Jesus as one who judges, calls, and recreates is precisely what Milbank doesn’t seem to care for. By contrast his comments display a regular tendency to deny Christ any sort of independent agency vis a vis the church (if you don’t believe me, check out his stuff in “The Name of Jesus” in The Word Made Strange). Saying that the church is merely the event of Christ’s ingestion casts Christ in an altogether passive role in which he is simply the object of our (presumably Spirit-enabled) digestion. Christ does not act on us, rather we act on him, assimilating him into ourselves (after all, isn’t that what happens when we digest food?). The only sort of conflict Christ might have with us in this scheme is one involving indigestion. But a stomach ache hardly seems like an adequate image for the relationship between Christ and the church as described in the New Testament (take Revelation 2-3 for example, just for starters). Clearly Christ is the church’s judge in an infinitely more significant sense than the language of gastronomy allows for. At the very least it this language needs to be strongly qualified with other more biblical and helpful language. We don’t merely ingest Christ, we are called by him, judged by him, created anew by him. We follow him, listen to him, seek him, pray to him, wait for him…
And yet this language, the language of actual discipleship, mission, and prayer is precisely what I don’t find in Milbank. Makes me wonder how “strong” this sort of ecclesiology really is.