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The church as digestive tract?

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.


  1. Thomas wrote:

    I think you may Eucharistic theology quite backwards. I believe what Milbank is referring to is Aquinas’ inversion of Aristotle’s account of eating. For Aristotle, when one eats, the act of ingestion turns the (say) apple away from being oriented towards its own being, and towards the being of the one consuming it. Of course, this is only temporary, and the material that we ingest turns back to its own nature, and we die. Aquinas turns this around, saying spiritual food turns the being of the one consuming it towards what is consumed, the body of Christ. In the act of eating, we are ourselves ingested. And rather than this act of ingestion being incomplete, resulting in death, it is complete in that engenders the permanent union of eternal life. The body of Christ ingests its members, it is not ingested by them.

    In short, a familiarity with St. Thomas Aquinas’ Eucharistic theology (and it’s Aristotelian terminology) shows that any interpretation of Christ as passive has got it completely backwards.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  2. Chris Donato wrote:

    I think you’ve put your finger on it: Milbank’s words render the whole concept of discipline moot (e.g., “judges, calls, and recreates”—all of which are disciplinary, in one form or another).

    It’s this kind of ecclesiology that gives Protestants a bad name, and thus is rightly mocked by Catholics and Orthodox alike.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  3. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    Thomas, That is one of the least charitable comments I’ve read in a long time.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  4. Thomas wrote:

    The first sentence should read “Milbank’s Eucharistic theology”.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Aric Clark wrote:


    Milbank and Aquinas are both wandering down the wrong path if they’re defining the church in opposition to Aristotle instead of following Christ. It seems like they’re in exactly the wrong position to me. It was the jewish belief already that “you become what you eat.” Your purity or impurity, righteousness or not, was shaped and defined by what you ingested and how. Jesusflatly rejected this.

    Following on that.. it is not the eucharist itself that defines the church. It is neither the elements, nor the ritual, nor the act, nor the assembled group. It is none of these things. It is not what goes into the eucharist, but what comes out of it that defines the church. Out of the eucharist should flow charity, justice, peace, forgiveness, unity… and it is these things which define the church.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink
  6. Thomas wrote:

    Well, I don’t know Milbank’s work all that well, so I can’t comment on his project as a whole; I’m only defending him insofar as he’s consistent with Aquinas. But it’s certainly strange to say that Aquinas defined the Church in opposition to Aristotle, given that Aquinas was, in many ways, a strong Aristotelian. And how did you come to the conclusion that Aquinas defined the church in opposition to Christ?

    Your second paragraph asserts and elaborates on a conclusion. If you wish to offer arguments for it, I think it would be an interesting debate. Charity, justice, peace, forgiveness, unity, and so on don’t define the church, unless you wish to posit a definition that is so broad it could include, to give one example, Buddhists who reject the divinity of Christ. Charity (etc.) certainly is fruit that the Church produces, but to use it to define the Church is, in my opinion, insufficient and overbroad.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  7. Aric Clark wrote:

    I didn’t mean to say that Aquinas opposed Aristotle. I was merely following, clumsily, what you said about him inverting Aristotle’s account of eating. Regardless – why start with anywhere but Jesus Christ to define the Church?

    I didn’t say that Aquinas defined the Church in opposition to Christ. I said, again following you, that if Milbank is getting his definition of the Church Halden describes here, from Aquinas who was basing it on a reading of Aristotle – then they are all on the wrong track because they started somewhere other than Christ. Furthermore, the actual conclusion Milbank reaches does seem to be in direct opposition to Jesus’ own words about ingestion not being formative, which I included in the link.

    The conclusion I make is that, in so far as the eucharist is useful for defining the Church, it is not what goes into the eucharist, but what comes out of it that is important. It is not the actual ritual or any of its components, but the actions flowing from that ritual that matter. I think virtually the whole New Testament (and many of the prophets in the OT) argues my point.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  8. Rod wrote:

    Thank you for this post Halden.

    I have been reading all week during this Spring break, and everytime I have ran into an argument by members of the Radox movement, I find that their emphasis on church over Christ’s demands to be scary. I am also disturbed by their “Very Critical Introduction” series which introduces readers to philosohers they disagree by bashing them with talking points and polemics.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  9. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    There’s a clue to the source of the problem in Milbank’s own words. When Nathan Schneider asks him, “What do you hope to accomplish?” (that is, in dialogue with secularists such as Zizek), Milbank replies, “Victory.” (Shades of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. Milbank: “I love the smell of incense in the morning. It smells like — victory.”) Now, in one sense, of course that’s what Christians desire: Christ’s triumph over evil, sin, darkness. But for all his enormous erudition and invaluable provocation, Milbank and his epigones strike me as too often interested in the sort of “victory” that can wind up pyhrric. Better Yoder, who affirmed witness over triumph. Triumphs come and go, and when they come, they can be welcomed. Witness ensures endurance and tempers victory with mercy. I don’t get sense much in the way of humility or mercy in RO.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  10. That’s not quite fair Gene. In context he was asked two questions: Are you evangelizing? And what do you hope to accomplish?

    Milbank’s response: “Yes. Victory.”

    That shouldn’t be read as him wanting to conquer Zizek. Rather, he’s saying that he sees his work as sharing the good news, and he’s hoping that it is successful (for example, Zizek’s conversion).

    I appreciate that Halden brought up Rowan Williams. May as well bring up other voices from within RO that are not Anglican – William Cavanaugh, for example. He’s a Roman Catholic and expounds upon these themes in his wee book “Being Consumed”. Milbank’s project is primary in regards to ecclesiology, but in context RO would have no problem saying that being ‘ingested’ is to find ourselves in Christ and to participate in his work.

    Not a single RO proponent would say that the Eucharist as a discipline doesn’t radically reorient our lives around the purposes of God…Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.

    It’s like saying that a photographer is denying the importance of sculpture.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 8:44 pm | Permalink
  11. Jon wrote:

    You should read the Milbank-Kotsko ongoing dialogue…


    Friday, March 19, 2010 at 3:15 am | Permalink
  12. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Charismanglican: I would concede your point about being unfair to Milbank if I didn’t recall his history of equivocation about theocracy. When he’s asked about this, he always hems and haws, shuffles his feet, and says/writes something that comes right to the edge of endorsing theocracy but never quite crosses the border. I suspect that Milbank is genuinely confused about this issue, because he a) realizes that the inexorable trajectory of his ecclesiology is toward some sort of theocracy, but also b) knows that to openly advocate it would lose him traction not only among secularists but among Christians and those of other faiths. So while I take your point about evangelization, and agree that no RO adherent would deny that the Eucharist reorients our lives, I don’t think we can forget the theocratic implications of much of what Milbank has written and said. (I can add, on an anecdotal note, that I know or have spoken with several of RO’s luminaries, and many of them do indeed idealize some sort of benevolent theocracy, or perhaps some kind of Christian monarchy.)

    Friday, March 19, 2010 at 5:03 am | Permalink
  13. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Who are the RO adherents and luminaries? I know Cavanaugh would be uncomfortable with this categorization.

    Friday, March 19, 2010 at 6:45 am | Permalink
  14. Brad A. wrote:

    I think a number of original RO authors would be uncomfortable with this categorization. They thought they were signing onto a book series, while Milbank wanted a movement, or at least a school of thought. I wouldn’t attribute it to anyone who doesn’t explicitly claim it – Milbank, Pickstock, Ward, etc. Although critics like to lump them in, I’d shy away from including folks like Cavanaugh, Steve Long, or Dan Bell.

    Friday, March 19, 2010 at 7:46 am | Permalink
  15. Steve Martin wrote:

    … and Ward too, who’s grown tired of having his work criticized via criticisms of other RO people.
    I took part in a seminar with Cavanaugh a couple of years back, who at one point quipped: “People ask me if I’m part of radical orthodoxy. I tell ‘em they threw me out for writing coherently.”

    Friday, March 19, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink
  16. Steve Martin wrote:

    actually that should read, “writing clearly”.

    Friday, March 19, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  17. kim fabricius wrote:

    Epitaph for Cardinal Milbank: “Only one person has ever understood me – and even I haven’t”.

    Friday, March 19, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  18. Chris Donato wrote:

    Exactly the reason why I’ve never finished a book by Milbank. I just don’t have the patience, or maybe I’m just a dunderhead.

    Friday, March 19, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  19. myles wrote:

    Rod, the Very Critical series might be edited by two Radox folks, but the authors are all over the map with regards to their commitments.

    Friday, March 19, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  20. Rod wrote:

    Thanks for the clarification.

    Friday, March 19, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  21. CCW wrote:

    “careful with that axe eugene” . . . sorry, but ever since the last wonderful spell on Halden’s blog regarding the 3 part interview at the Other Side, I’ve wanted to use that.

    I would like to point out that Ward offers an interested 4-5 page “reconsideration” of theocracy at the end of his most recent work in political theology. It’s a rather interesting bit. I read it as a genuine plea to reconsider the history of Israel and the political theology therein, which requires a rethinking of what we mean by theocracy. At the same time, it comes as a kind of left-turn in terms of the direction of that text; almost out of nowhere. At the end of the day Ward says: “But according to a Christian biblical theology . . . , the kingdom of God is a theocracy and theocratic politics is what Christians are about” (296). Of course, exactly what this means is left undeveloped in terms of micro or macro-politics (another helpful distinction of Ward’s). On the whole, I found the book rather illuminating, but I’m not entirely sure what to the do with the ending. I was hoping for a theology of Israel as the basis for a political theology in the midst of hyper-modernity, and thus I was pleasantly surprised with what I initially found–but where it ended up was a bit shocking, shall we say.

    Saturday, March 20, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Permalink
  22. Tonio wrote:

    Milbank-bashing seems to have become a fad on this site…

    Monday, March 22, 2010 at 6:21 am | Permalink
  23. Halden wrote:

    Over-sensitive, much?

    Monday, March 22, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  24. Nate Kerr wrote:

    I’ve always understood this to be an equal-opportunity “bashing” blog. I think we’re even allowed to “bash” Halden himself if we’d like.

    Monday, March 22, 2010 at 8:49 pm | Permalink
  25. Tonio wrote:

    no, it’s no longer intelligent bashing but a self-indulgent one… sorry Halden, i think it is no longer worthwhile to drop by… used to be a great fan.

    Monday, March 22, 2010 at 11:45 pm | Permalink
  26. Halden wrote:

    I just don’t see where the bashing is here. At all. This post takes up a legit critique of Milbank’s ecclesiological language and raises some questions about it. How is that “bashing”?

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 5:25 am | Permalink
  27. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Oh Tonio…

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 8:27 am | Permalink
  28. kim fabricius wrote:

    You might say that the real problem with Milbank’s “the church as digestive track” is that it doesn’t follow its logic to a conclusion. i.e., it lacks a scatology.

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  29. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Indeed, Kim!

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

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