On Milbank’s Imperialist Refusal of Difference

From the AUFS blog I saw that John Milbank has recently attributed the problems of “political Islam” to “the lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires (as a consequence of the European wars);”  This should surprise no one, as Milbank expressed those thoughts in the essay “The End of Dialogue,” published the same year as his famous Theology and Social Theory (to cite one place).  Given Milbank’s comfortability with Orientalist categories of thought (East, the West, Islam, the Third World, etc) and his overt endorsement of (or at least sympathy for) the imperialist and colonialist framework within which those categories function, the difficulty for those of us disturbed by Milbank’s theological imperialism is to find a way to respond.  The framework of thought is invincible as any objection to it will simply be dismissed as evincing a “culpable” or “criminal” naivety, or worse, the taint of Eastern-Protestant-Islamic-Modernist-Antiquated-Secular influence.

It’s an odd conglomeration but it is, at bottom, the singular force Milbank ultimately deems responsible for the chaos in the world, the chaos Milbank has an intellectual and Christian vocation to subdue.  The singularity of this diverse group reveals that Milbank’s thought operates according to a strict binary between “us” and “them”:  all obduracy to Euro-Catholic control can be lumped together in a singular group (“in much of the wahhabi tradition…one finds something like a parallel to Protestantism”).  The defining characteristic of this odd and always shifting group is its divergence from and resistance to”the” Euro-Catholic rule.  Thus, the label “modern” is seen as part of this oppositional group when it is contrasted with the “traditional orthodox faith,” whereas in the previous sentence ‘modern’ is a term of approbation linked to the “female emancipation” that stems from the “sustained source of feminism,” Christianity.  To be modern in the good sense is to be rooted in this Euro-Catholic vision of global order; to be modern in the pejorative sense is to depart from it.  Thus, there is an “interestingly, radically modern approach to the reading of the Qur’an” exhibited by a minority of Muslims.  “Interestingly,” because modern in the positive sense and yet still Muslim–a surprising point where the binary (us/them) might break down.

Milbank contends that the Islamic tradition is not monolithically bad, and that there are actually some reasons to hope that Islam could “evolve” into a more positive religious force.  However, this evolution will be Islam’s evolution toward “an ecclesial or more ‘church-like’ mode of organization;” that is, into a closer analogy of Euro-Catholicism.  As Islam becomes more mystical, indirectly political, priestly, liturgical, sacramental, focused on the journey and not the destination of the pilgrimage, neoplatonic, and concerned with esoteric and not literal meanings of Scripture, it will cease to be part of “them” and will be aligned with “us.”  Thus, the form of harmonic difference is simply a nondifferential difference, an irrelevant difference, for they will basically become like us (and thus the binary still reigns supreme).

Given that an “evolved” Islam is at heart an Islam that endorses and adheres to Milbank’s vision of Christianity, it’s hard to see what difference will be left that makes it “Islamic.”  Perhaps the absence of a confession of Christ’s lordship would be the difference, which would then demonstrate that Christ also has very little to do with Milbank’s theology (the cultural form at the heart of Milbank’s theology can be instantiated without Christ).  And it is difficult to see what an “Islamic path to Christ” would look like, if the path to Christ entails a more or less thorough identification with Euro-Catholicism (as articulated by Milbank).

A more or less thorough identification:  it’s an attenuated phrase, like much of what Milbank says.  “Islam, on the whole, is more equivocal…in many Muslim countries…perhaps the majority of Muslims…there is some evidence that…there are significant minorities…among some interpreters of Qutb (such as in Iran) one tends to find…a certain amount of openness…Jews are often more alert to the dangers…Islam has largely taken…”  All these qualifications throughout, and yet, nearing the end, we read “Islam possesses no ‘church’…Islam does not provide a trans-political vision of universal human society…the Islamic genocide of…the dangers manifest by current Islam.”  The qualifications produce a rhetorical sense of moderation (Milbank appreciates the differences…) which allows Milbank’s radical reduction of difference to be subtly yet more violently reinstated at the end.  For the sake of a better Islam, Islam must be subjugated to Euro-Catholic cultural forms.  Since there are some small strands of this culture within Islam, Euro-Catholic Christians can and ought to form them in this way.  Since they are small and minor traditions, such a transformation can only be secured by Euro-Catholic rule.  Finally, since the differences between Islam and Christianity are irreducible, such Euro-Catholic rule must be perpetual:  Muslims must be continually coerced into striving to become what will forever escape them, that is, a proper (Western, Christian) human community.  That is missions-qua-Milbank, which is utterly incompatible with missions-qua-scripture (Acts).

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7 Responses to On Milbank’s Imperialist Refusal of Difference

  1. J says:

    Anything Kotzko or his fellow criminal pseudo-philosophasters say should be considered worthless, except as evidence. So Milbank's not a communist, or "ecumenical" in the modern sense. Oh well. There's no obligation (certainly from a xtian perspective) to approve of everything a Zizek barks (except to opportunistic little phonies such as Kotzko, Smith, "Alex", etc.)

  2. J–Not sure what you're aiming at here, as my post wasn't an engagement with what they said, nor am I interested in figuring out the various partisans within the theological blogging world. My post has nothing to do with Zizek, communism, or ecumenism but with Milbank's imperialistic theology. I welcome your comments but just ask that they would be relevant to the post.

  3. Rod says:

    Thank you for this piece, Tim. I found it reading Halden's blog. Milbank is proving once more how imperialist his project is.

  4. J says:

    the differences between Islam and Christianity are irreducibleYou are suggesting that Milbank says this? Either way, that's the talking point as they say. They may well be irreducible. The sort of leftist seminarian who insists they aren't irreducible (as most of the Kotzko gang insist) tends to be naive, utopian or just muddleheaded–for that matter, even in philosophical terms, a somewhat Hegelian approach to the issue might imply a certain opposition to multiculturalism (including…the ecumenical sort).Also I think it's mistaken to equate economic and political imperialism with Milbank's arguments that christians should convert muslims, or with missionary efforts of whatever type (not that I exactly approve of such efforts though I admire the missionaries' courage…as long as they're not mormons). There may be some relation, yet episcopalians headed for a mission in Africa are not exactly setting up Walmarts or McDonalds (or working for the CIA).

  5. J–On the first point: I would ask that you read the sentence quoted in the context. The point is not to challenge or criticize the idea as an abstract thought (are Christianity and Islam different) but to show how the "irreducible difference" functions within the overall context of Milbank's thought.On the second point: please read the last sentence of my post. I obviously don't equate imperialism with "missionary efforts of whatever type." There are a number of older posts on here dealing with missions.

  6. J–I hope the brevity doesn't come off as curt: my basic point on the irreducible difference is that Milbank posits both a similarity and an absolute incommensurability, and this double-bind produces a situation in which, for Milbank, "the West" should perpetually oversee/govern/organize "the rest," in this case, the Muslim/Arab. Thanks for your questions.

  7. Sonja says:

    This post blew my mind. If I had known about it back in November, I would have just linked to yours instead of writing mine. This is really fantastic.

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