Anglican theologian skeptical of secular reason

The Immanent Frame has an interview today with John Milbank. IM describes Milbank as “an Anglican theologian whose ideas, distinguished by a profound skepticism of secular reason, have given shape to Radical Orthodox theology (in opposition, Wikipedia says, to Radical Theology à la Spong) and provided the underpinnings of the Red Tory and Blue Labour movements in British politics.”

Here’s the pull quote IM uses from that interview:

If you are going to be an atheist and nihilist, then be one. Only second-raters repeat secular nostrums in a pious guise. Such theology can never possibly make any difference, by definition. It’s a kind of sad, grey, seasonal echo of last year’s genuine black. All real Christian theology, by contrast, emerges from the Church, which alone mediates the presence of the God-Man, who is the presupposition of all Christian thinking.


Increasingly, people are coming to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Do you think, however, that there is value—perhaps even potential for political movements—in the growing detachment of people’s religious lives from traditional authorities, and in this newfound autonomy?

JM: It is good that people can no longer so easily be coerced into faith; faith itself has to welcome that, for faith-based reasons. In a way, we have returned to the situation of the first few Christian centuries. At the same time, though, autonomy and freedom from tradition can never be real. One has to come to terms with one’s own legacy, and children have to be taught something. The idea that they might be offered only “choice” is of course crazy. Before we choose, we are inducted into an habitual way of life.

True? And, if so, is the Episcopal Church losing young people because it encourages choice without sufficient induction?

Read all the interview here. There’s plenty to chew on or agree/disagree with.

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  1. Rod Gillis

    I tunnel through John Milbank’s erudition I come to a space where I can ask ask some questions. JM notes, correctly, that “red toryism” (conservatives with a heart) developed within the context of Canadian politics. However, the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada merged recently with the Reform Party of Canada. The newly minted Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has orphaned “red tories”. What we have at present is a Conservative Party in which a core of the religious right are not far under the radar. They fly close to the ground to avoid offending Canadian tidy bowl sensibilities. Notwithstanding, they are there. Why does JM think red toryism has a future elsewhere when it has been gobbled up by the right in its place of origin? JM also asserts that sexual liberation risks fascism because it opens the state to direct dealing with the individual, rather than with something more communal like couples, and family. Yet, isn’t it the right wing of modern societies that openly embraces religio-fascist fundamentalism? Finally, how can one develop an honest anthropology for faith without coming to grips with the scientific understating of phenomena?

  2. I’ve followed Radical Orthodoxy for quite some time and found it provocative and useful in helping think about how to adapt traditional language and categories to the contemporary setting. At the same time, I have often found Milbank and his students incomprehensible. But then there are sentences like this one: “Marriage and the family, for all their corruption and misuse, are at base democratic institutions.” Clear in its meaning and dead-wrong.

    Jonathan Greiser

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