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Milbank, Islam, and Mission

My long silence around here must now come to an end. As folks get back to school and other such pursuits, I will do my part to send some distractions peoples’ way via the blog.

For now, folks would do well to check out a recent post by Tim McGee about John Milbank’s inherently imperialistic theology and its detrimental relation to Christian mission and Christian approaches to Isalm (I would also suggest browsing through the old posts at Rwanda and Theology — there’s a lot of good stuff there). McGee rightly points out that, for all Milbank’s talk of an ontology of peaceable difference, for him “the form of harmonic difference is simply a nondifferential difference, an irrelevant difference, for they will basically become like us (and thus the binary still reigns supreme).”

McGee concludes, rightly, that for Milbank:

For the sake of a better Islam, Islam must be subjugated to Euro-Catholic cultural forms.  Since there are some small strands of this culture within Islam, Euro-Catholic Christians can and ought to form them in this way.  Since they are small and minor traditions, such a transformation can only be secured by Euro-Catholic rule.  Finally, since the differences between Islam and Christianity are irreducible, such Euro-Catholic rule must be perpetual:  Muslims must be continually coerced into striving to become what will forever escape them, that is, a proper (Western, Christian) human community.  That is missions-qua-Milbank, which is utterly incompatible with missions-qua-scripture (Acts).


  1. Brad A. wrote:

    Well stated, Tim. That Milbank article was troubling at a number of points.

    Monday, September 6, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink
  2. Glad you’re back and I found the Milbank piece horrible. It has made me wonder if there really is a coherent movement called “radical orthodoxy.” After all, what does Cavenaugh have in common with Milbank.

    Monday, September 6, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Permalink
  3. Dave Mesing wrote:

    I’ve recently thought the same thing, Michael.

    Ostensibly, the only way I can make “radical orthodoxy” have any kind of coherence is in relation to radical theology, which seems to be what it reacts against (historically). If radical theology is willing to experiment with many widely held Christian theological beliefs, then radical orthodoxy can be seen as a commitment to defend said theological beliefs. But, that’s not a very strong definition, and it’s obviously not the case that theologians are going to stand behind a large swatch of claims together. Yes, many theologians affirm positions in common, etc., but I’m not sure this can be used as an arbiter for some kind of coherent movement.

    McGee gets the part about difference spot on.

    Monday, September 6, 2010 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  4. aew wrote:

    The most telling phrase in the entire piece: “the lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires.” Milbank’s piece reeks with nostalgia for empire.

    Monday, September 6, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Halden: Good to see you’re still alive. For a month or so, I’d gone to this site and seen “The buried body.” I was beginning to think it referred to you.

    McGee’s essay provides one more reason for me (along with a lot of others) to do as much penance as possible for quaffing the RO Kool-Aid in the 1990s. Milbank’s theological imperialism (about whose political correlatives AEW is exactly right) is inseparable from his theocratic inclinations.

    He’s also been bloviating recently about “civil society” along with his factotum Philip Blond. What a foghorn.

    Monday, September 6, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  6. Studiosus Sorenus wrote:

    But is it not, precisely, this “lamentably premature collapse of Western colonial empires” that has led to the iconoclastic banishing of the crucifix from Herr Professor’s ivory domain, and the elevation of kitschy vagina art to iconic status therein? Say what you will about the tenets of Imperial Christianity, dude, but at least it ensures that the cross shall be locked up safely within ecclesiastical academe!

    Monday, September 6, 2010 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  7. WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:

    No one is going to be surprised when Christopher Hitchens says (as he did last week) that what needs to happen is for Islam to be domesticated to modern secular American legal precedents. That’s exactly what we expect him to say and since he’s an atheist he’s intellectually consisting in saying that what we can’t eliminate should be domesticated. For theological conservatives the tension can often end up revealing that the conflict for them can be described as a battle between two different forms of theocratic impulse–attempting to distinguish one theocratic impulse as inherently dangerous and the other as not has been an interesting thing to study. Earlier this year I was reading an Orthodox priest point out that while Dutch Reformed thinkers developed the idea of sphere sovereignty as a way to curtail the influence of Catholics on political organizations centuries later the solution for Protestants at that point established a legal and procedural precedent for Muslims to push for limited permission of application of sharia law. There’s some failure to recognize that yesterday’s political solutions helped contribute to today’s political/social problems. There’s not much recognition from, say, neo-Confederate Reformed types that what they are going for is functionally similar to what the Taliban are described as doing. Secularists seem to have an easier time spotting the similarities.

    Tuesday, September 7, 2010 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  8. Can you tell us the name of the article by the Orthodox priest, please? I’d be interested in reading that.

    Tuesday, September 7, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  9. WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:

    I think this is the link.

    Tuesday, September 7, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  10. Thanks kindly.

    Tuesday, September 7, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Permalink
  11. skholiast wrote:

    I understand some of the dismay at Milbank’s rhetoric, and I don’t assume that rhetoric is innocent. But I don’t see the point about ‘doing penance’ for having once bought into RO at all. I suppose if you just think of this as “shilling for those in power,” then you can feel confirmed in your indignation, and Milbank provides some grist for that mill. But for those who were originally sympathetic to RO, I am not sure there’s much here to be nonplussed at. And there’s more nuance there than is being granted. I see that McGee seems to think this ‘nuance’ is in bad faith; for myself , I’m not sure where it gets us (how Milbank proposes to try to ‘develop’ the ‘mystical’ kinds of Islam escapes me). But he’s certainly not calling for mass conversions or a re-institution of the Holy Roman Empire. I’ve put a longer response at my blog.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  12. Rod wrote:

    The Milbank article was horrific, in every sense of the word. How can anyone seriously have nostalgia about 17-19th century European empires when they are the cause of both “world” wars? Seriously?!?!?!

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  13. Rod wrote:

    Thanks for the article. Always good to see criticism of Kuyper and American Protestantism.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  14. Tim McGee wrote:

    I would not say that the nuance is in “bad faith” but that it is overridden by the binary (us. v. them), and hence functions perniciously. Milbank’s account of culture/religion is stuck within the same “productive” bind that secures earlier imperial theologies: the “others” (racial/cultural/religious) are teleologically/eschatologically ordered to becoming like “us” (white, European, Christian) and yet can never actualize this potential (for if they could, then “we” could no longer account for how “they” are different from “us” and in need of “our” continual governance). As F. Fanon put it: between the white man and me there is irremediably a relationship of transcendence. This permanent transcendence is what prevents the “nuances” from doing any positive work: Euro-Catholic culture is the horizon towards which all cultures tend but its discrete identity (as Euro-Catholic) presupposes that no other culture can actually reach it (otherwise, it wouldn’t be Euro-Catholic…). This “bind” is productive for it gives rise to the necessity of a perpetual Western (Euro-Catholic for Milbank) global order.

    Given that this account of culture is at the heart of TST and hence Milbank’s theology, and given that it operates identically to the way race functioned in earlier imperialist theologies (like S. T. Coleridge, an important source for Milbank’s RO), previous denizens of the RO project (and I include myself here) do have something to be concerned about.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  15. skholiast wrote:

    I guess I want to say that the problem w/ Milbank’s rhetoric seems to me to be that at bottom it is motivated by fear. I don’t dispute, by the way, that we can speak of ‘rational fears’, but I don’t see the acknowledgment of fear in JM’s piece, and if there is something to the ‘us vs them’ strain you seem to hear in what he’s saying, it stems from this. That the nuances fail to ‘do any work’ would then seem to be attributable to the fact that they don’t reach the fundamentally motivating fear. As a sometime RO enthusiast I have to ask how many of these ‘nuances’ are my own, and if they likewise fail to really having any bearing on my thinking because I’m invested in an outcome that protects me from being scared.

    Well, I am scared. Yes, radical Islamism frightens me. (“Realistically”? what do I know about the realism of such fears?) Does this mean I can’t speak, or can’t speak as a Christian? No; but it means I need to really stare my fear in the eye. The danger seems to me to arise from a stance that must either be alarmist (fear acknowledged, but on the offensive) or triumphalist–what you call imperialist (fear unacknowledged and covering for itself), or in denial (“there’s nothing to be afraid of!”). If we can find a different way, than these three poor choices, of theologizing about “the enemy” then perhaps our nuances will get better traction. I note that the N.T. does not say there are no enemies, but that we are to love them.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink
  16. Studiosus Sorenus wrote:

    And we should note also that the N.T. says “perfect love casteth out fear.”

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  17. skholiast wrote:

    well said. touché !

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  18. dbarber wrote:

    Lest we imagine this Orientalism is solely a Euro-”Catholic” phenomenon, and not also a Euro-”Protestant” phenomenon (and because I know many Barthians inhabit this area of the blogosphere)… From Toscano’s _Fanaticism_, p. 207: “Karl Barth declared that it was ‘impossible to understand National Socialism unless we see it in fact as a new Islam, its myth as a new Allah, and Hitler as this new Allah’s prophet.”

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Permalink
  19. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Could you direct me to the original source material for that Barth quote?


    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  20. Tim McGee wrote:

    For Milbank, the imperialist framework can be dated back to 1990 (“The End of Dialogue) and thus precedes his current fear of radical Islam. However, the imperialist framework does have something to do with a kind of paranoia but that would be something to engage at a different point. For now, I’ll just say that I think it is important not to make the fear of radical Islam the terminal point of the analysis but that fear must be set within the larger context of Orientalism (E. Said) and the Western production of itself through the creation/domination of its other.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  21. Tim McGee wrote:

    I have no intention of denying “protestant” involvement with the production of imperialist theologies; I only single out the Euro-Catholic aspect as it is part of Milbank’s project (it would be more accurate to put Anglo-Catholic as long as Anglo was interpreted as a religious, geographical, and ethnic term).

    For Barth: I would be interested in seeing an argument that such designations and perspectives are central to–or implied by–his theological project (both at that time and in his later dogmatics), as they are for Milbank. I’m curious because I have found Barth helpful in trying to think Christianity out of its imperialist performance.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Permalink
  22. dbarber wrote:

    Yes, meant to do that when i put it up. _The Church and the Political Problem of Our Day_, New York: Scribner, 1939, 43.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  23. dbarber wrote:

    Tim, yes, to be clear, i wasn’t seeking to imply a denial on your part of protestant involvement. Sorry if that seemed to be the case.

    As for whether this is essential or accidental to Barth’s thought… I think it’s essential (though that’s more of a proposal than something of which i’m absolutely convinced). And the short answer as to why has to do with his concept of religion, or his binary between revelation and religion. Crudely put, it is because he thinks Christianity (or the Word to which Christianity is a response) as revelation, and all its others as religions, that he ends up with the sort of eschatological-teleological normativity (become like us) that you mention in your comment a couple above. Granted, it’s more dialectic, and more critical, but it’s there.

    If you’re curious (and are willing to play loose with your distraction-to-enrichment ratio!), there was a really interesting comment discussion in response to a post that i made in response, actually, to the recently re-mentioned Kingdom-World-Church theses. (Which, by the way, only Ry made some effort to respond to.) I say the comment discussion was interesting insofar as it usefully articulated, i think, where the problems and presuppositional differences are.

    It’s here:

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

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