John Milbank’s Atavistic Orthodoxy

Alasdair MaclaganChristian theologian John Milbank is half right in calling his position “radical orthodoxy.” After all, the half containing the word “orthodoxy” is fairly accurate.

But judging from his recent article, “Christianity, the Enlightenment and Islam,” a much more suitable qualifier for Milbank’s orthodoxy would be “reactionary” or, perhaps, even “atavistic.” For his article is a throwback towards the more obscene forms of Orientalism and colonial arrogance.

Milbank’s article begins with a long quote from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim and current employee of right-wing conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI). Having read two of Hirsi Ali’s books, I find her writing highly interesting and engaging, and agree with many of her statements about the benefits of Enlightenment ideals. But I also found myself wishing that she could be more enlightened about Western Enlightenment, examining both its pros and cons. In addition, Hirsi Ali has also accepted a highly individualized and idealized explanation for Western prosperity and Islamic violence, while generalizing her experience from North-Eastern Africa and Saudi Arabia to all of Islam. Her summary of Islam, as unable to adjust to modern dynamics, gives the impression that her rigid view of Islam’s inability to deal with modernity is the flip-side to the rigid and literalistic Wahhabi-influenced interpretations of Islam. Rather like many of the “new atheists” (and a recommendation from Richard Dawkins adorns her most recent book, Nomad), her work inadvertently reflects many of the “fundamentalist” or “literalistic” attitudes that she would oppose.

As a poster-girl for the fetishization of free-market individualism, Hirsi Ali is a fairly good fit for Milbank’s decidedly unradical orthodoxy. Milbank tries to resuscitate the old Christian apologetic argument that Enlightenment could only have arisen in a society which had first established Christian principles. Sidestepping the great weight of history during the last 2000 years, his argument is every bit as specious and false is it is impossibly speculative. He writes:

… Christianity and the Enlightenment are Western phenomena. As Ayaan rightly observes, it is clear that the latter has recently influenced the former. What she greatly underrates, however, is the degree to which the former [sic] is itself the child of the latter [sic].

Milbank has got his “formers” and “latters” muddled up here – assuming, that is, that he didn’t intend to espouse the (radical) thesis that the Enlightenment gave birth to Christianity! However, his mistake may be unintentionally revealing. When we examine Milbank’s inventive reconstruction of “historical Christianity,” it does indeed appear to be greatly influenced by his apologetic need to paint Christianity as something wholly concordant with Enlightenment principles. So perhaps, for Milbank, Christianity really is a child of the Enlightenment?

But onto more substantive concerns… Milbank argues that – despite all signs to the contrary – Christianity was always the great champion of feminism and universal love! When Milbank appeals to Paul as progenitor of Christianity’s purportedly great (yet mostly unrealized) vision of equality, he omits to mention one significant factor which completely undermines his point. Paul’s announcement that there was no difference between man and woman was constructed for the ethereal purpose of defending the wide-ranging efficacy of Christ’s salvation to all people. Back on earth, however, it was business as usual: women still couldn’t speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:33b-36; cf. 1 Timothy 2:11-15), and women even existed at a lower level on the ontological chain of creation from God to Man to Woman which deterimined what they could and couldn’t wear (1 Corinthians 11:3-5; cf. Genesis 1-2). Badiou is right to characterize Paul as a great thinker of universalism here, but only if it is underscored that Paul is merely a thinker of universalism. Unfortunately for Milbank’s apologetic purposes, the practical outcomes of Paul’s alleged desire for “equality” are sadly deficient. Yet if it is replied that these New Testament verses can be interpreted in many ways – in ways that will redeem the verses from their categorization as misogynist fantasies – then doesn’t that tactic start to sound a whole lot like the apologetics you also get from much Muslim apologetics? I’ve heard a number of talks from Muslim apologists, regrettably, in which a sura in the Qur’an which appears to treat women badly is (re)interpreted as giving women greater “respect.” Let’s leave aside the merits or otherwise of this line of (re)interpretation. My question is this: if some Muslims are also wanting to give the impression that Islam was the great champion of feminism all along, is it really true that Islam is so universally resistant to Enlightenment ideals, as Milbank purports? It appears not.

Milbank also argues that the modern valorization of “toleration” derives specifically from the Christian emphasis on individualism. It is an argument which is grossly misconceived and a wildly inaccurate misrepresentation of historical developments. As Eric Nelson shows in his recent book, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard, 2010), by far the greatest influence on the developing importance of toleration was not some phantom ideal of “individualism,” but the desire to unify church and state – i.e. the very political system Milbank decries when it comes to many Muslim countries. There are indeed historical religious  roots to toleration, but the Old Testament conception of theocracy was a more important influence than so-called Christian “individualism.” Moreover, the importance Milbank accords to “individualism” may have more to do with his own adherence to modern free-market capitalism than more traditional forms of Christianity. Which recalls his unintentional mistake above …

However, the nadir of Milbank’s article is yet to come; it is found towards the conclusion of the article:

The proper response to our present, seemingly incommensurable tensions is not to gloss over or seek to rehabilitate the past in such a dishonest way, but to analyse why exactly Islam has largely taken such a dangerous, non-mystical and often political direction in recent times.

This surely has to do with the lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires (as a consequence of the European wars) and the subsequent failure of Third World national development projects, with the connivance of neo-colonial, purely economic exploitation of poorer countries.

Milbank is not alone among academics in attributing the more “extremist” varieties of Islam today to post-colonial causes. But he is a lone voice in the wilderness in completely reversing the explanation. For Milbank, it is the absence of the (benevolent) Western colonial empire that led to religious extremism! It is the “lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires” which commenced the decline. What is “lamentable” about this collapse for Milbank? Well, judging from his championing of Hirsi Ali and his flimsy thesis that Christianity is the father (or is that the child?) of the Enlightenment, it must be this: the colonial empires didn’t last long enough to inculcate good Christian family values into those ignorant Muslims! One would be hard-pushed to find a better example of the justification of economic exploitation of Oriental lands. And this, not some illusory Christian benevolence, was always the primary purpose of imperialism. Milbank’s argument closely mirrors the old Orientalist justifications of economic exploitation which touted the “benefit” of “civilization” and “civilizing values.” In Milbank’s free-market ideology, it is the “Third World national development projects” which instead represent the worst excesses of colonial “exploitation.” Colonialism itself is washed clean by the orthodox baptismal waters of Milbank’s historical revisionism.

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25 Responses to John Milbank’s Atavistic Orthodoxy

  1. steph says:

    superb, coherent, incisive – wonderful article.

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  3. VM says:

    It really is an absurd article, wallowing in the most blatent European chauvinism that borders on old fashioned white supremacy.

    He denounces the spread of Islam through imperial expansion while celebrating European imperial expansion. Let’s not overlook the fact that this article was published in Australia, a British settler colony founded on attempted genocide of which the churches were usually more than willing participants until as late as the 1970s.

    He also denies the agency of non-European people in claiming “the European wars” were the cause of the end of the European empires, ignoring the fact that Europeans were driven out at gunpoint from many parts of Asia and Africa, from Indonesia to Kenya.

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  5. Remy says:

    I don’t even know where to start with milbank’s article, so your breakdown was great, Deane. I have many areas of disagreement with milbank, but I did like aspects of his genealogy in TST. Yet his latest treat is so disgustingly trite, I feel like one of those people who liked white rapper Vanilla Ice but is now too ashamed to admit that they ever did.

    I think I re-read Talal Asad on Monday night just to disinfect my mind.

    Btw, welcome back.

  6. steph says:

    bloody hell – absolutely no competition – if this doesn’t win it’s a clear reflection of the lack of intellectual sophistication and general wit of most voters

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  8. Steve ball says:


  9. Joel says:

    Deane, could you email me?

  10. steph says:

    he must have won huh Joel? He should have!!! I hope so or I’ll be eternally disillusioned with the whole blogging world (except this one and Joe’s) !

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  13. James Berger says:

    I often find myself critical of Milbank, but your critique does injustice to what Milbank is actually arguing. This isn’t to say that his argument is particularly sound, particularly when it comes to the history of European imperialism, but that Milbank isn’t quite as blatantly backwards as you suggest.

    Milbank writes, “Far from being especially mysogynistic, Christianity is itself the sustained source of feminism, and it is evident that even St Paul played a positive role in this respect (so long as one does not absurdly imagine that he could have arrived at modern views concerning female emancipation in the first century AD).”

    And then you quote Genesis (how is Paul implicated here), Timothy (which is widely recognized as not having been written by Paul), and Corinthians. Corinthians, of course, not only argues that women must have long hair and covered heads, but that men must have uncovered heads and short hair. Either would be a disgrace. This is, in modern terms, as misogynistic as it is misandristic, and certainly falls under the qualification that Milbank makes in the parenthetical note of the above-quoted passage. Milbank is not arguing, and never has argued, that Christianity has always been the champion of feminism, but that has functioned as a source for feminism in the West. This is particularly evident in the case of First Wave Feminism.

    You ask, “Is it really true that Islam is so universally resistant to Enlightenment ideals, as Milbank purports?”

    Milbank wrote, “I would also say that there is much more possibility of Muslims acknowledging the importance of reason, tolerance and debate in Islamic terms than Ayaan allows. ”


    “it is also important to say that Ayaan’s characterisation of Islam is far too monolithic and negative.”


    “I do not believe that Benedict would himself agree that all Islamic theologies ascribe to the view that God has an entirely arbitrary will.”

    Milbank is arguing against literalism, both Islamic and Protestant, but emphasizes-in his own theology as well in this discussion of Islam–the virtue of allegorical modes of interpretation. Thus his positive emphasis upon the Sufi and Shi’ite traditions, as well as Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra.

    You write, “Milbank also argues that the modern valorization of “toleration” derives specifically from the Christian emphasis on individualism.”

    But all Milbank wrote was that “The advocacy of tolerance is also grounded in the Christian insistence on the integrity of individual conversion and the initial emergence of this faith is a world of highly pluralistic debate.”

    Rather than arguing for a singleminded determinism–such that Christianity is the sole source of modern individuality–Milbank really seems to saying that the Enlightenment and Christianity have a lot in common. For “both see the role of reason as central and both favour tolerance and open debate.”

    You mention Milbank’s “adherence to modern free-market capitalism”–which suggests that you may not be very familiar with his work. You also seem to skim over Milbank’s references to:

    “the ravages of Western capitalism”
    “the connivance of neo-colonial, purely economic exploitation of poorer countries”

    You write that, “For Milbank, it is the absence of the (benevolent) Western colonial empire that led to religious extremism!”

    While his account in the last section of his essay is highly problematic, he certainly does not emphasize the absence of colonialism, but the collapse. An apt parallel may be modern Iraq. If, in ten years time, Iraq is a hotbed of fundamentalism, would this be due to the fact that America was absent, or because the American occupation collapsed? There is a major distinction here. Presence implies that a given region requires a sort of patronizing assistance from the West in order to function; collapse implies that the West created a highly unstable situation, and then abandoned it before, so to speak, cleaning up the mess that it made.

  14. Deane Galbraith says:

    Just a couple of quick comments in reply:

    Please note the “cf” before my references to Gen 1-2 and 1 Tim, which follow my main references (1 Corinthians 11, 14). “Cf”, of course, means “compare with”. Although the biblical interpreters have a field-day with 1 Cor 11, and a wide range of possible interpretations has been canvassed (including your own), in 1 Cor 11:7-9 I take Paul here as probably interpreting Gen 1 as referring only to the creation of males in God’s image, thereby prioritizing Gen 2 over Gen 1. The resulting hierarchy in 1 Cor 11:3-4 (Christ-man-then woman) is consistent with this. The resulting comparisons of men and women are on anything but equal footing. And again, the “cf” (“compare with”) to 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is due to what is often pointed out as that text’s close relationship with 1 Cor 14:33b-36 – and certainly does not imply common authorship. It does, however, show how one of Paul’s followers understood his so-called “radical feminism”.

    As for Milbank’s politics, I am quite aware of his theoretical stance of tempering capitalism with some “good” old-fashioned medieval British hierarchies, where all the villagers can look up to their betters, thus reversing the steady downhill decline since Merry England was replaced with evil Enlightenment. But rather like the Lib-Dem/Tory alliance, in practice it seems that Milbank’s economic-political positions always tend towards unrestrained liberal economics: it’s basically neo-liberalism with some pink packaging to help with the hard-sell. But perhaps I read Milbank slightly more suspiciously than you do.

  15. John Milbank says:

    My entire work on politics is primarily driven by an absolute loathing of liberal economics. I continue to be in quest of a non Capitalist market, a market where things and money do not dominate over people. This is why I opposed Thatcher, then Blair and now Osborne. Not to see this is utterly to misread me. My politics have never shifted — they remain Christian Socialist, but with a tinge of High Toryism, in the wake of John Ruskin. That should have been clear in Theology and Social Theory. The paradox of this position is crucial and I continue to try to elaborate its coherence. If you want to get down to brass tacks, I have only ever voted for the Labour Party, but did not do so at the last election because of the Iraq war, because of its support for high finance and because of its eroding of civil liberties. However, I have never been a State socialist and am close to mutualism, distributism and Cahtolic social teaching. My view is that trying to have a just mode of exchange — a civil economy rooted in civil society — is incredibly more radical than social democratic attempts at slightly taming the beast of Capitalism. The left of the past would haverightly held the left of today in scorn and derision for just this reason. The irony is that Phillip Blond, Maurice Glasman (who is a Labour adviser) and myself could just have started seriously to disturb the free market ideological hegemony in its ultimate UK heartland. By invoking the communitarian versus liberalism issue, rather than simply the left versus right polarity, we may have started, along with many other groups and thinkers, to change things. John Milbank

    • Rob says:

      But isn’t this precisely what Deane is saying: while you may well be a Christian socialist attempting to create some form of non-capitalist market economy (and I fairly am sure your intent is sincere), the actual effect, particularly of Phillip Blond’s interventions and your own ABC articles, is to defend actually existing Conservative party policy (for example, on welfare reform, on the Big Society, on the privatisation of the university sector, on the scale of the cuts being exaggerated and so on) which as many commentators have noted is a vicious continuation of neoliberalism. When Blond is called onto TV to defend Tory policies he is propping up those policies, not some subtle theological economy. Therefore while you think you are doing one thing – the material effect is to provide the ideological cover for another. This is why you mention Osbourne, not Cameron, in your long line of liberal economists, as if there is some huge gulf between the two. David Cameron was a man who joined the Conservative party because he so enjoyed Thatcherite policies, whose family is one of stock brokers and sees UK events as Thatcherism take two with the Labour party having a big deficit and so on. Driving a wedge between them might probably stave your conscience, but it doesn’t sustain any serious analysis. And even if it did – Blond’s support of the Tories was for the whole package uncritically until they seized actual power where he throws in an occasional bit opposed to him: he called for Osbourne as much as Cameron materially and this is the only place where it actually matters.

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