Saturday, April 26, 2014

Milbank's de Lubacian reading of Aquinas as interpretive dance

Christopher Blosser, in "Mulcahy on Milbank" (Against the Grain, April 1, 2014), writes: "I particularly appreciate Mulcahy's Aquinas's Notion of Pure Nature and the Christian Integralism of Henry de Lubac for its demonstration of how De Lubac's criticism of pure nature has, carried to its logical conclusions, culminated in the "integralist revolution" of John Milbank, leading proponent of Radical Orthodoxy."

After an extensive treatment of Radical Orthodoxy, its relation to de Lubac, and the aestheticism of Milbank ("Once the attractiveness of the divine beauty is experienced, no other arguments or evidence need be considered"), Christopher turns to Radical Orthodoxy's use of de Lubac's account of Thomism, writing: "The impression is clearly given that for Mulcahy -- and I would imagine for most anybody who adheres to prevailing norms of academic scholarship, rational discourse and validation -- the very act of reading Milbank is itself a recipe for exasperation." Consider, he says, the following:
The word "interpretation" must be emphasised and explained when it comes to Milbank’s treatment of Aquinas. As one who rejects "accepted secular standards of scientific truth or normative rationality" and denies that truth is a correspondence between the intellect and extra-mental reality, Milbank insists that "the point [of theology] is not to represent ... externality, but just to join in its occurrence; not to know, but to intervene, originate." Accordingly, his recourse to Aquinas is not a work of exegesis, but a project of creative expression: “exegesis is easy; it is interpretation that is difficult, and Aquinas, more than most thinkers, requires interpretation." This explains why Milbank holds that, even if the actual text of St Thomas "appear[s] incontrovertibly to refute my reading," that reading itself should not be subjected to conventional scholarly critique. ...

This ostensibly post-modern approach to sources has predictably occasioned intense criticism. Informed scholars have described Radical Orthodoxy’s interpretations as "gnostic idealism," "blithely imprecise, ideologically driven historical revisionism," "free-floating, self-perpetuating insularity", "opaque [sentences] drifting [in] conceptual murkiness", "sophistical legerdemain," "blatant misreading ... that ignores the ordinary canons of scholarly enquiry," and "[not] just wrong, [but] laughable, though not amusing." Milbank’s vague and sometimes even inaccurate footnotes do not help his cause.

In Milbank’s defence, one can say only that RO had disclaimed the canons of scholarly objectivity and verifiable accuracy right from the beginning. Radical Orthodoxy sets itself to challenge all settled theological opinion, and pretends no dialogical relationship with other views or types of rationality. When considering Milbank’s interpretation of St Thomas, the best approach, one might suggest, is to recognise it as something akin to an interpretive dance. It displays an inherently subjective approach, and, in effect, purports to be nothing else. Scholarship of an objective kind must be sought elsewhere.
[Hat tip to C.B.]


Ralph Roister-Doister said...

"ostensibly post-modern approach to sources"

Its all about academic self-interest. Milbank has spent most of his life in the groves of the academe. Those of us who go without the meat and curse the bread in life's ruder environs may envy the professional academic the bucolic setting in which he pursues truth and beauty as feverishly as the randy roue pursues Trixie and Trudy. But "publish or perish" is the iron rule of these groves. And whether one portrays himself a specialist in Aquinas, or in Herman Melville, one must find something "original" to say, and some publication, however obscure, whose editors (very possibly cronies of his from days gone by) are willing to print it.

Of course, sources are red meat for these specialists. Examine the course of academic writing as it centers around any notable literary figure. You will see that the earliest work -- legitimate scholarship -- often concerns "sources." Melville scholarship took off like a rocket when it was realized that the Great Man owned a copy of Pierre Bayle's Dictionary. Soon after that, articles began to fall like fleas from Snuffy Smith's mutt claiming everyone from Zoroaster and the Ophites to every Tom, Dick and Harry in the Hindu pantheon as, via Bayle, "key" sources for "Moby Dick."

But sooner or later the well runs dry. And at this point scholars in search of the Golden Chalice of tenure must either find a new "speciality," a new artist to proclaim "great" and worthy of exhaustive study, or must find ever more outlandish and questionable things to say about their present hero -- and ever more outlandish justifications for being allowed to do so. Enter "movements" (none dare call them idelogies): aestheticism, formalism, marxism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, post-modernism, and ever onward. Philosophy, art, psychology, even hard science, are mined for critical methods that can be twisted into rococo "approaches" to literary figures and academic meal tickets. That is the racket. Do not think for a second that theologians, even ones with clerical collars (which they only wear on dress-up occasions anyway), are immune to it.

Call me cynical, but I think that if you understand what I have said in the last couple paragraphs, you understand everything you need to understand about gents like John Milbank.

JM said...

Having come of age in the Mainline when leotard-clad girls would do pirouettes around and splits on the altar to the soundtrack of flute music, I think the Interpretive Dance reference classic. As for things DeLubac-ian, he strikes me as a Paul VI-like theologian. Impossible as well as unfair to too cynically question his ulterior motives, but also impossible *not* to question the elephant in the room that is his legacy.

For centuries the Church operated on a theological paradigm that presupposed God's holiness, man's estrangement, Heaven and Hell as ever present and real possible final destinies, and the vital imperative of choice. God was seen as good but not soft, man as noble but not by default good or 'deserving' of divine favor, and life was a bonafide struggle the extent that today's choices mattered forever.

In a matter of decades, the Nouvelle theologians effectively blurred these distinctions to the point of non-recognition. The motives claimed were pastoral, and Good Pope John excoriated those motivated by "fear." But from the vantage point of today, a deeper ulterior fear that seems to have inspired almost every Roman rumination since he first flung open that window looks animated by anxious assumptions that Modernity has struck a near-knock out punch to Church credibility. Hence the new fear is apparently one of pronouncing dogmatically on much of anything. Since everyone already "knows" Church teaching, it can be smothered, instead of defended, in pastoral reinterpretation. Those embarrassing no-win confrontations with smart Moderns can thus be all but bypassed. The atheists angrily asks, "So you think I am damned?" and the theologian can disarmingly retort, "No, not at all!" DeLubac was a key early player in this approach, by reacting to hyper-exacting Thomists with a spray of obfuscating footnotes of his own. Milibank is indeed DeLubac's rightful if unintended heir. And now we see the Nouvelle Exegetes who can dizzy you by explaining how the Bible never meant to condemn homosexual acts. Over 50 years later, we are still being told that simplistic theology is disastrous and it is time for pastoral approaches. Men like DeLubac and Milibank produce fat tomes that inspire more fat tomes, almost all of which mystify when they don't offend laymen. Finally someone will realize this a least a bit, and ratchet it down a notch with a "Primer for Unsettled Laymen" that smiths things over. But then resumes the decidedly non-simple and hyper-pastoralized theologizing and governance that show themselves disastrous at a glance. Much like Narnia was caught in a perpetual winter, we seems trapped in a perpetual New Springtime imposed by the academic regime of book-writing theologians determined to say something novelle.