As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Lewis West looks at John Milbank’s “The Politics of Time: Community, Gift, and Liturgy,” from Telos 113 (Fall 1998).
When Karl Marx described the commodity, he invoked the language of faith. For him, the commodity remained “a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” Marx, a dedicated secular economist, hesitated to pinpoint the exact power of the commodity. He could not fully understand it without recourse to a mythology he abhorred, one that far predated his radical recasting of accepted historical narratives. Here religion colors economics: the logic of exchange resembles a curious mysticism.
Others have also noted the shadowy presence of religion in economic thought. Max Weber reasoned that theology in fact played the pivotal role in the emergence of modern capitalism. Protestant thought supported a drive to accumulate, to possess, and to discipline. To Weber, thinkers like Luther and Calvin taught doctrines not only of belief but also of finance and investment. Clearly, any attempt to erect an impermeable barrier between religion and economics will yield only frustration. The two remain historically interwoven.
Yet the narratives presented by Marx, Weber, and others still share a single similarity that in turn limits their analyses. In each case, the authors concern themselves primarily with the influence of religion on society; they seek to locate the religious origin of modern phenomena. This approach promises much, but it also neglects another story: the role of capitalism and economics in shaping modern religion. If we take seriously the interpenetration of theological and economic reasoning, then we need to read this exchange as a dialogue, one that involves both styles of thought. Only then can we approach an understanding of the past and the present that enables us to think with an ethical nuance.
The theologian John Milbank, in “The Politics of Time: Community, Gift, and Liturgy,” takes on this exact task. Today the logic of capitalism has undermined even the most dissident forms of community. Libertarians fail to create genuine bonds, as such togetherness constitutes only “a matter of input and output, and . . . a trade in mutual support” (43). Likewise, communitarians, in rejecting capitalist logics of exchange, partake in a vision of community that relies on a “state-of-nature [that] somehow combines capitalist market exchanges with a compensatory social organicism, to which it [communitarianism] hopes the economy can be subordinated” (44). Communitarians acknowledge economic logic via rejection, only to achieve a community that eliminates all exchange, thereby isolating itself from anything “outside of itself” and from the “infinite unknown” (44). According to Milbank, capitalist reason infiltrates the motivations and structures that create community. It totally precludes any sincere bond. At its heart, the free market does not represent an open, neutral framework on which to build modern society. It is rather “an expression of an Enlightenment commitment to universality,” a totalizing ideology at once coercive and sterile (42).
If we accept this, we must confront an urgent ethical challenge: how does one create deep and affirming communities outside of economic logic, communities that reject the power of the market for a more fulfilling life? Milbank’s answer is simultaneously radical and traditional, utopian and real. He proposes a society not based on profit or fear, but on the gift, on grace, on the ineffable (45).
This community entails a different form of exchange. It begins with the gift, given in such a way as to bind strangers, neighbors, and friends:
Such a gift must be ineffable, somewhat sacral as to its content, for otherwise it would have no value, would confer no benefit, and therefore be de-natured as gift. But if it is a gift that can be passed on to the unknown realm of strangers or be received from that realm, then this content cannot be circumscribed after the fashion of primitive, local societies. . . . The sacred ineffability of the gift is more sustained where a horizon of unknown variation is allowed, but this horizon can be envisaged only under the sun of transcendence. Only if reality itself is regarded as “given” from some beyond does it become possible to trust what is communicated and circulated may assume new meanings able to blend seamlessly with the old. (51)
The gift anchors the community: it ensures meaning, trust, and hope. Yet though it is “given,” one cannot presume to know it. It remains in “unknown variation”; it “surprises and unites.” It is an “encounter, [a] meeting with the other and the different,” that is necessarily grounded in the transcendent (48). But this is not a Niebuhrian acknowledgement of human finitude, as Milbank elsewhere makes clear. Rather it represents a new opening, a process through which “the universal is disclosed in particulars regarded as retrieved as well as lost through death” (52). We live in a reality derived from the gift and its inaccessible origin.
Milbank infers several political lessons from his understanding of the gift. He imagines a liturgical society, one ritualized and sacralized. He speaks of festival, education, and profession as the essential liturgical modes that frame this new “politics of time.” Yet while he lays the foundation for a reimagining of politics, he preserves an uncertainty characteristic of any encounter with the transcendent.
It this openness that makes Milbank’s work more than a theological exercise. Though Milbank proposes the creation of a “universal totem,” he also celebrates “local variation,” “complex consensus,” and a self-critique that nonetheless refuses to condemn “those tinged with imperfection” (56, 57, 60). A liturgical society promises a deepening of meaning, but also a crossing of boundaries. It welcomes and unifies a diverse and fractious world. It supports both inclusion and difference, and thereby works toward a renewed approach to the other.
If we recognize Milbank’s piece as carrying within it this revitalized and sincere engagement with the problem of multiplicity—one that Milbank sees as resolved through the sacral gift—it is tempting to call his writing a creative, theological response to the challenge of modern, diverse societies. Yet this forgets that diversity, far from being a modern phenomenon, has characterized every human society. Colonial America, medieval Europe—each society contained internal divisions often marked by violence and pain. Moreover, such a characterization also forgets the very point of Milbank’s work. Milbank turns not to modern—economic—logic to confront the problem of fragmentation, but to liturgical tradition. And it is by turning to the logic of the gift and of faith that his approach offers us hope: it offers us a rooted, hallowed solution to a problem with a history just as long. If we wish to confront this problem and succeed, we must do so in a way that resembles Milbank’s work: we need a philosophy at once evolving and incomplete, but also grounded in a lived, historical reality.
1. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1936), 81.
2. John Milbank, “The Poverty of Niehbuhrianism,” in The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 233–54.
3. See, for example, David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).