TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Milbank on Theology, Authority, and Democracy

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, Kyle Nicholas looks at John Milbank’s “The Last of the Last: Theology, Authority, and Democracy” from Telos 123 (Spring 2002).

In his article “The Last of the Last: Theology, Authority, and Democracy,” from Telos 123 (Spring 2002), John Milbank argues that theology’s proper role is within the Church extended through time and space, rather than as “‘a public discourse’ answerable to the critical norms and liberal values.” Yet his claim does not come without qualification. Many aspects of theological inquiry that were once held together have splintered since 1300 CE: faith and reason, scripture and tradition, and theology under ecclesial authority, in particular. Here the Church is actually more to blame, both Protestantism and Post-Tridentine Catholicism, than some (fictional) increasingly enlightened and liberated society.

In the reintegration of these splintered categories that were held together before 1300, Milbank believes we glimpse a way that the Christian tradition had paradoxically held aristocracy and democracy together without sacrificing either; and that a reinvigoration of this vision is the theologian’s task today for the good of both Church and society.

While it is common to invoke the threefold “sources of intellection” in theology today as scripture, reason, and tradition, Milbank contends that before 1300 these would have all been one and the same task of the theologian. In fact, when they are separated into a threefold distinction, either one source comes to displace the other two, or a compromise is struck between the three that questions the integrity of each individually. In turn, Milbank explains the origins of these separations and the ways that we are still living with the consequences today.

First, the separation of faith and reason, which Milbank finds even in John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio to a certain degree, comes about not due to an increasingly liberated objective reason, but rather the theological error of “pure nature.” Whereas Aquinas maintained that there is no contradiction between the main object of the intellect being sensory experience, and yet that “every act of understanding is oriented toward the supernatural,” certain early modern thinkers began to emphasize the “sheer ‘there-ness'” of creation and being (ens) as univocal across all existent objects without hierarchy or analogy. Aquinas’s belief that we are always more than we already are (since, as effects, we only are in virtue of our cause) is slowly overcome in this epistemological shift to the “sheer there-ness” of individual objects. This place of pure nature, then, becomes the playground of philosophy as a newly autonomous discipline that seeks only natural ends of human existence and comes to increasingly censor theology.

This state of pure nature to the present day marks those who are labeled “conservative” or “liberal” in today’s culture wars. Conservatives, as seen so poignantly in the United States, hold to a purely fideistic notion of pure nature, stating everything is nothing but the arbitrary will of God that could have been wholly otherwise. Liberals, on the other hand, claim reason and science in their fighting off of these fideistic fundamentalists. Yet both require this notion of pure nature.

Secondly, following Certeau, Milbank maintains that the modern distinction between scripture and tradition emerged with a breakdown in the threefold body of Christ articulated by Henri de Lubac in Corpus Mysticum. The threefold distinction of the body of Christ consisted of the sacramental body (Eucharist), the ecclesiastical body (Church, or congregation), and the historical body of Christ. The ecclesiastical body would consume (and be consumed by) the sacramental body under the presiding bishop, and so the Church would re-perform the historical body of Christ for the contemporary world, pushing it forward in its work, teaching, and interpretation of scripture. This triadic structure, according to Certeau commenting on de Lubac, came to be disconnected with the downplaying of ecclesiastical involvement, and an alternating dyad between sacramental body and historical body was formed. Following Certeau the whole time, Milbank contends this constitutes the modern distinction between Protestantism and post-Tridentine Catholicism. The ecclesial body of Protestantism seeks the historical body for its authority (thereby developing historicism), while Catholicism emphasizes the sacramental body and increased clerical control for its authority. Milbank states that

the crucial shift was certainly not the Reformation; rather, Protestantism and Tridentine Catholicism represented two alternative versions of “reformation,” which should be defined as the switch from the triadic to the dyadic account of the relation of the various bodies of Christ. This is the sort of realization that could be the ground for a more honest and self-critical ecumenism. (Protestants need to see that the Reformation was mostly a perpetuation of error, while Catholics need to see that much of what they have taken to be Catholic is not authentic.) (21)

Thirdly, then, it is in the increased clerical control under the “dyadic account” of the bodies of Christ that has defined ecclesial authority over theology in modernity. Milbank argues that both reformations of Protestantism and post-Tridentine Catholicism significantly decreased the participation of laity in ecclesial affairs.

Milbank shows that the type of authoritarian clerical practices known since early modernity is an erroneous notion of ecclesial leadership. The Church should rather be the supreme example of the paradoxical relation between aristocracy and democracy, and with its failings both have been deeply damaged in the modern world. In modernity, any “values” that might be upheld by the “aristocrats” are merely debauched races for wealth, surveillance, and bureaucratic control; while pure modern democracy would consist in nothing other than the anarchic rule of the majority toward attaining these new values.

Following Nicholas of Cusa, Milbank elaborates on the paradoxical notion of hierarchy: while things are ordered toward the ultimate Good, God, as transcendent Good, is equally near to one level of the hierarchy as to any other. How this works out in the Church is by recognizing the bishop’s full authority (particularly the bishop of Rome) over ecclesial affairs, and yet also recognizing the entire Church’s authority (all people in all times and places) over the bishop. Thus, the bishops gather in a specific time and at specific places in order to preserve aristocratically, from anarchic temporary democratic sway, the unanimously democratic concordatia of right belief extended through all space and at all times.

Against critics, however, this is not a sectarian plea to return to some pre-1300 world. Rather, the pre-1300 integration of faith and reason, of scripture and tradition, and of aristocracy and democracy “is an unknown future that mankind has missed and must seek to rejoin” (15). Perhaps today, as much as when this article was written, certain attempts at this reintegration may be a worthwhile pursuit, having seen the much futility in these categories being pit against one another.

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