John Milbank. Wikimedia Commons

Reflections of an Anglican

One of the most open and acute minds in British philosophy was a guest of the Cultural Center in Milan this past February 27th. From the Anglican world, an example of the broadening of reason, in harmony with the Pope’s invitation.
Alberto Savorana

John Milbank studied in Cambridge under the guidance of the present Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Primate Rowan Williams. He teaches at Nottingham, where he is Professor of Religion, Politics, and Ethics and Director of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy. During the nineties, together with a number of colleagues, he created Radical Orthodoxy, an Anglican movement that seeks to venture beyond all forms of socio-political and secularist reductionism of the Church seen as a “department” of the State.

“The criticism they make,” said Fr. Pino (Stefano Alberto), who introduced the speaker at the encounter organized by the Cultural Center of Milan last February 27th, “is of a twofold reductionism, of faith to fideism and of reason to rationalism. The movement draws largely on tradition, in particular Latin patristics, from St. Augustine to St. Thomas.”

The modern drama, or rather tragedy, as Professor Milbank sees it, “lies precisely in the separation between reason and faith, so that we reject a priori a unified vision of the truth and, instead, maintain an irreducible dualism. The upshot of this is that the secular aspects of existence, especially of life in society and politics, becomes dominated by the power of the strongest, while faith is banished to the private sphere, and becomes totally incapable of affecting our everyday lives.”

The way Milbank suggests we overcome this dualism, which tends to become relativism and eventually nihilism, lies in the quest for a new Christian humanism as proposed by Benedict XVI. In this, we discover that “faith does not lie outside reason, but is its most intense fulfillment.” The members of Radical Orthodoxy do not see reality as separated into sacred and profane. Everything is sacred because the truth is in itself one and involves all aspects of existence.

The theme of Professor Milbank’s lecture was the newness that Christianity represents in our lives. He started from a reflection on Benedict XVI’s most recent pronouncements, particularly his address at Regensburg. Here are some notes of his lecture in the Aula Magna of Milan’s Catholic University.

Laicism and Religion
“Though there is in many ways a decline in religion, we can also observe that today people are talking about religion much more than in the past. While not many people actually go to church, there’s a lot of talk about the so-called return of religion to public life. This is happening all over the world, in Europe as elsewhere. On the one hand, we are becoming more secularized, more laicized, and, on the other, we are becoming more religious. How can this be happening simultaneously? Well, the sudden collapse of lay ideologies of secularization has created a void. And so, even though prospects of unlimited material progress stretch away before us, we feel a loss of enthusiasm for public life or politics. In this situation, it is often only the “religious” who still have a strong idea, who believe they have sufficient motivation to participate in the life of society. This is precisely what I think the Pope means when he speaks of the emerging role of ‘creative minorities.’ On the other hand, it is equally important to say that laicism or secularization is no longer a sort of neutral position, but has become an ideology.”

The Abolition of Humanity
“What does all this mean?” asked the philosopher of Radical Orthodoxy. “It means that the foundations of laicism are no longer genealogically religious; at times, they are even anti-religious. These foundations, therefore, of laicism itself, of secularization, take it for granted that nature is always immanent, that it is a closed, independent, sphere, and that our conscious human life is itself purely natural, the result of merely material processes in our brains. And all the rest is seen as mere superstition. This means, for example, that public policies have to be dictated by procedures very similar to those in the natural sciences. And what is the result of all this? Dehumanization: we may decide that we can be reduced to material processes, but, if this reducibility were possible, we would abolish all our humanity. It would actually mean that reason is a daydream, an illusion. It is for this very reason, in my opinion, that Benedict XVI is right when he says that today perhaps only faith can save reason. Today, we have neither simply secularization nor simply religious revival; instead, laicism and secularization has itself become but one more militant ideological strand. As I see it, this is truly a new situation; no one ever foresaw this.”

Reason and Faith
“What should Christians do?” Milbank answered:
“At this moment, it is important to reflect on Christian history. Christianity created laicism, in the positive sense of the term, in two ways. First of all, Christianity, as the Pope says, inherited from the ancient world the universal values of reason, and in this respect we can even say that it exalts reason more than other religions. But to the Greeks, reason was already open to the transcendent; it searched for a god and a universal truth. Christianity declares that the universal quest of reason is essential and open to all, and it is precisely in this sense that we can say that Christianity fostered and favored a free and open inquiry. If this, in brief, is the meaning of the term secular, then we can say that Christianity helped liberate such a laicism or secularization. However, this free and open inquiry by all only becomes possible because, beyond all human laws and philosophical systems, reason or truth itself has appeared in time and may only be recognized by a free assent. Now, this also helps us to underscore the reality that true reason is always located, is always found in a particular moment and in a particular place. Reason is not mainly the discourse of philosophers because everyone can, in different ways, live a life which is the embodiment of reason. This means that reason is available to all of us, even to children, and that all who can approach Jesus today can go and touch the divine Logos.

Hence, the idea of the universal, of Enlightenment in the true and fullest sense of the word, is an idea that is was first invented and promoted by Christianity. Benedict XVI insists on this point. He suggests to us that it is now Christianity that is most able to defend the tradition of universal reason. This is because we can pursue and fulfill this life of reason only on one condition: faith. Only trust suggests to us that our seemingly partial insights partake remotely of a fullness of truth. And if, indeed, in Jesus Christ we see the fullness paradoxically present in finite limits, then again only the eyes of faith, only a correct desire enables us to see Jesus as God. Yet, at the same time, since the fall, as Aquinas argues, our faith has lost its certainty of a goal for its journeying and this can only be restored to us by God showing to us this end in time, in Christ. So, for the eyes of faith, it is indeed in Christ that we see the greatest rational certainty. Thus, lay reason can only be sustained through a Christological focus, which is mediated sacramentally by the Chruch, the body of Christ.

Creative Minorities
On the state of public life, Professor Milbank observed: “Today, we are seeing a yet further erosion of the ‘intermediate bodies’ between the State, on the one hand, and the individual, on the other. To some degree it is only religion and especially Christianity that is fostering a resistance to this by fomenting the emergence of free associations at many levels, from global to local, which exist for mutual aid or reciprocal support. These echo the role of the monasteries and guilds and confraternities of medieval times, or the trade unions and cooperative societies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, we are faced with a complete void: reason has collapsed and also a true sense of nature is collapsing. As Christians, we have to work as a creative minority and we have to do this if we are to save both reason and nature. Only, however, if we are capable of rediscovering that we are ‘ecclesia,’ meaning, a legitimate ‘governing body of a city’ that can govern the world cosmopolis (naturally, this government has to be lovingly exercised), can we truly become the sole hope of saving not just Europe but the whole of humanity and our planet.”

Radical Orthodoxy
In response to a final question about the core ideas of Radical Orthodoxy, Milbank said: “Our first desire is to unite faith and reason. A second objective is to engage with postmodern philosophy, a mode of thinking that has deconstructed humanism and pure rationalism. Postmodern philosophers have shown, both positively and negatively, that secular humanism leads to nihilism. But they have also shown indirectly, despite themselves, that the only alternative to nihilism is theology. Nihilism says that everything is uncertain, insecure, and indeterminate. In a certain sense, theology agrees, but theology says that this is because we are partial, finite creatures who can only enjoy glimmers of the truth as participating in an infinite reason. This obscure showing of the infinite in the finite is clearly to do with beauty and this is the very point which leads me to consider beauty. We attain our only real certainty through the experience of beauty. When I see something splendid that seems to exceed the capacities of our world and yet succeeds in reaching it, in touching it, then only at that moment do I understand that there the world self-exceeds itself toward its source, which is God. This is beauty as radiance. But beauty is also ineffable form and proportion. Here the concept of beauty is closely bound up with the idea of analogy, that there is a sort of exchange that exists between pure identity and pure difference. Scientific reason tends to think that something must be either identical or different; beauty does not conform to this exhaustive alternative, because it is a dynamic oscillation between the same and the other. This challenges the exclusive postmodern and extreme nominalist focus upon difference. It is by means of beauty that we can begin to see and understand that things only exist as preceeding from and returning to God. In this way, we can understand that God, their source, is in Himself perfect beauty: a perfect exchange between difference and identity. This prompts me to talk about the third point which we stress: the idea of participation in the being of God and in the knowledge and love of God. Now, not only reason, but also faith and the whole historical process, artistic activities, and our social interactions–all these things participate in the divine act of creation and the divine Son or Logos and the divine spirit or donum within the Trinity. These are the three fundamental emphases at the core of Radical Orthodoxy.”

The Anglican Church and Benedict XVI
In concluding, Fr. Pino stressed how significant it was that “Benedict XVI’s historic invitation was being taken seriously by a movement within the Anglican Church and that it is bearing fruit. It is becoming clear that integrating faith and reason remains the only possible way for the European tradition to remain such, anchored to its Christian roots, at the cost of vanishing in Europe before the terrible possibility of nihilistic irrationality. The idea that the Church is the soul of the world is not a question of numbers, of hegemony. This shows that without it, the world is unable to live any longer. The discovery and recognition of this belonging generates new modes of life, a new understanding of culture, of education, even of the economy and politics, and recreates those intermediate organizations that the state, ever more dominant today, tends to obliterate.”