Beyond Secular Order

Henri de Lubac strongly cautioned theologians who imprudently politicized theology by justifying overreaching ecclesial power. In Beyond Secular Order, John Milbank takes Henri de Lubac to task in a striking footnote:

“For while indeed [de Lubac] had a strong new sense of the Church itself as the true human community, this thematic often exists in tension with a sense that spiritual concerns are fundamentally ‘inward’; that God acts mainly on the individual, and that ecclesial ‘spiritual’ influence should be exercised in a mainly one-to-one, interpersonal way. For this reason his reading of Augustine’s Civitas Dei… is clearly inadequate. The gap between the City of God and the Church is exaggerated, while both are seen too much as purely ‘spiritual’ communities and not as embodied, ‘political’ entities, as the term civitas implies. Thus de Lubac arguably underestimates the suasive and exemplary role of the Church in a more collective guise…” (204 n. 191).

The note goes on at some length. Beyond Secular Order is a tidy book, but this particular footnote is vintage Milbank. It’s sour grapes for those who have eroded the temporal power of the church. We find, for instance, a much more acidic take on de Lubac than one finds in Milbank’s The Suspended Middle (2005). There, we only find the seed of the critique: De Lubac equivocates about whether the imago Dei “participates” in God; Augustine allegedly does not (37). In Beyond Secular Order, Milbank considers contemporary takes on Augustine — including de Lubac’s — much more stridently. A vague allusion to an ‘Arabic influence’ tainting ‘political Augustinianism’ is downright vinegar.

“[O]ne must indeed set [Augustine and Aquinas] against the proponents of a misnamed ‘political Augustinianism’, that in reality was a break with Augustine, partially under Arabic influence, and which proceeded in a far more voluntarist and possibilist direction.”

Milbank’s version of political Augustinianism has been very influential. After disparaging his rivals, Milbank wraps up his footnote with qualified praise for Carl Schmitt, with whom he promises to engage in the sequel. That should be interesting.

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2 responses to “Beyond Secular Order

  1. Great insights here, Rob.

    In TST Milbank also brings up this fact in the section on Liberation Theology, briefly noting that the Nouvelle Theologians couldn’t quite stomach the full political implications of their thought. But in BSO Milbank’s critique is way more pronounced, as you point out.

    I think the really interesting point is that despite de Lubac’s reticence to make a connection between theology and politics, the Liberation Theologians moved forward regardless with the ground work established by Blondel, de Lubac, vonB, Teilhard, Montcheuil, etc. Be sure to check out David Grummet’s “‘Blondel, the Philosophy of Action and Liberation Theology” if you haven’t already.

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