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Post-Secular Enchantments: The Non-reductive Materialisms of John Milbank and William Connolly

The following paper was presented at the Seventh Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–17, 2013, in New York City.

The philosopher John Caputo starts off his review of Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank’s debate book, The Monstrosity of Christ, by claiming that “Materialism just isn’t what it used to be. Nowadays everyone wants to be a materialist, even the theologians, while the materialists want to look like they lead a spiritual life.”[1] Caputo goes on to claim that today’s battle is “no longer between materialism and idealism, or hard-nosed Newtonians and far out spirit-seers, but between ‘materialist materialism’ and ‘theological materialism’,” and he continues and qualifies, “between crude soulless materialism and materialism with spirit.”[2]

I think Caputo might be right in terms of the centrality of debates about materialisms. But I believe that he runs the risk of misrepresenting the battle slightly by describing “materialist materialism” as necessarily crude and soulless. It is my impression that a more fruitful debate about materialism is to be had between theistic adherents of “theological materialism,” on the one hand, and non-theistic adherents of what might be called “emergent materialism” or “immanent transcendence,” on the other. By this latter group, I am referring to thinkers like biologist Stuart Kaufmann, political theorists like Jane Bennett and William E. Connolly, and philosopher Thomas Nagel, whose recent book Mind and Cosmos is a full frontal assault on materialistic reductionism.[3] One finds here a double critique, both seeking to confound the dualistic framework through which spirit and matter, mind and body, are conceived dichotomously, and at the same time an emphasis on the inherent problems with regard to reductive accounts of matter. Problems that can be described as an inability to account for central mind-related features of our world, like consciousness, intentionality, meaning, value, etc.

The reason I find it interesting to put this group of non-theistic anti-reductionists in conversation with theistic proponents of “theological materialism” has to do with how certain terms that are central to the non-theists, such as “becoming,” “emergence,” and “agency,” tend to implicate accounts of what philosopher Patrice Haynes refers to as “immanent transcendence”; that is, attempts to materialize transcendence by attempting to “relocate transcendence to the plane of immanence.”[4] What interests me more specifically is how the notion of “immanent transcendence” relates to notions of “transcendent transcendence,” and the possibility of building an overlapping consensus with regards to transcendence and non-reductive materialism with the aim of challenging the hegemony of post-metaphysical secularism.

In the following I will focus on the American political theorist William E. Connolly as a representative of non-theistic anti-reductionism, and the British theologian John Milbank as a representative of theistic “theological materialism.” Milbank and Connolly both agree that how we perceive matter is not an issue that can be left to physical sciences, but that it has implications that invade every aspect of human existence. However, despite their shared critique of secularism, Milbank and Connolly might be perceived as a strange couple to connect given their differing metaphysical accounts of reality. Connolly is after all a non-theistic philosopher in the tradition of becoming that does not recognize any transcendent teleological purpose. Instead, his spirituality manifests itself in existential gratitude over the multiple force fields of the cosmos. Milbank, on the other hand, holds out for the Christian story of a transcendent God as the only thing that is able to rescue virtue from deconstruction into violent, agonistic difference.[5] Nevertheless, despite their differences, they share the pursuit of non-reductive accounts of matter. But perhaps their differences in terms of the relation between transcendence and immanence shouldn’t be overstated. Contrary to Milbank, Connolly’s immanence entails an affirmation of the self-sufficiency of nature or nature-in-process. This, however, does not mean a total rejection of transcendence given that Connolly ascribes a certain “mundane transcendence” to the depth of nature that evades our controlling knowledge. Connolly’s immanent naturalism in this way makes room for “little spaces of enchantment.”[6] Milbank’s emphasize on transcendence, on the other hand, should not be perceived as a one-sided emphasize on transcendence over immanence. Instead, Milbank stresses the importance of the inseparability of immanence and transcendence through his incarnational approach, in which the natural participates in the supernatural. Milbank has described his project as an integralist project that seeks to “supernaturalize the natural.”[7] By way of analogy, Connolly’s integralism works the other way around in what perhaps could be described as seeking to “naturalize the supernatural,” or in Connolly’s own words “to translate the Kantian transcendental field into a layered, immanent field.”[8]

Milbank and Connolly both evade the extremes of a deistic supernaturalism, on the one hand, and a reductionistic materialism, on the other. Given that they further reject nature-culture dualism and emphasize the layered embeddedness of human existence, they could both be understood as portraying a participatory ontology in the sense of an enchanted account of the material universe. However, their accounts of participation differ with regards to what we are assumed to be participating in. In Milbank’s case we are participating in the transcendent fullness of Being, or differently put, in God’s grace. According to Connolly, we are “participating in a world of continuously becoming whose powers of creativity also exceed us.”[9] It would not, however, be fair to posit Connolly as a philosopher of becoming against Milbank as a philosopher of Being. Particularly so given Milbank’s emphasize on how “a renewed metaphysics should not seek to suppress the primacy of becoming and the event either in nature or culture.”[10] In fact, by claiming that a metaphysic “should not recognize divine order in the world despite the flux but through and because of it,” Milbank can be understood as coming close to Connolly’s emphasis of becoming.[11] Milbank and Connolly further both emphasize the importance of openness to the possibilities that might spring out of the cosmos. On Connolly’s account this is argued in terms of the fecundity of an emergent world “of diverse energies and strange vitalities that whirls around and through [us].”[12] On Milbank’s account something similar is argued by stressing the diversity that is the result of what he perceives as the gratuitous activity of a superabundant creative God. Accordingly Milbank sees creation as being, “not a finished product in space, but is continuously generated ex nihilo in time.”[13]

Perhaps the most important difference between Milbank and Connolly concerns the existence of a personal force behind nature. However, this doesn’t seem, according to them both, to be an unbridgeable divide. Milbank sees a possibility for mediation between religious and naturalistic visions granted that a reductive naturalism is critically avoided.[14] In a similar way Connolly is reaching out for “cross-fertilization” between “devotees of divine transcendence” and “devotees of a world immanent to itself.”[15]

Milbank’s and Connolly’s metaphysical accounts of becoming and difference are inseparable from their political philosophies. Hence, they share a profound critique of the liberal secularist version of pluralism as being too shallow to encompass differing metaphysical visions, although their constructive alternatives differ. By elaborating the entanglement of transcendence and immanence beyond the dualistic and post-metaphysical accounts of secularism, Milbank and Connolly move the debate about the post-secular, past simplistic notions of “religion” vs. the secular, towards a more complex understanding. An understanding where immanence doesn’t implicate “closed” and where the notion of transcendence doesn’t implicates Cartesian dualism.[16] Furthermore, their shared critique of liberal secularism contains both an epistemological point about how every claim, scientific or political, is imbued with faith, as well as the historical observation that, despite it’s claim to the contrary, secularism is a product of Christianity.

They accordingly refuse the dualism between faith and reason that, according to them, has resulted in an authoritative secularist matrix for public life in which “religion” is pitted against secular and rational science. I am suggesting that the overlapping consensus between Milbank and Connolly on these issues might serve as a frail but possible post-secular platform for a non-reductive approach to matter. The platform, as I perceive it, consists of a shared conviction that politics and science could not be separated from metaphysics, and that reductive materialism is insufficient both in terms of answering basic questions about human existence, as well as for formulating radical politics. This platform could perhaps serve the purpose of opening up new ways forward for a post-secular dialogue about the inclusion of different metaphysical perspectives, beyond a reductive compartmentalization of “religion” and politics.


1. John Caputo, “The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? A Review,” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, accessed April 17, 2012.

2. Ibid.

3. Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012).

4. Patrice Haynes, Immanent Transcendence: Reconfiguring Materialism in Continental Philosophy (Continuum, 2012), 7.

5. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), 380.

6. William E. Connolly, Why I Am Not a Secularist (U of Minnesota Press, 1999), 15.

7. Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 230.

8. William E. Connolly, Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 84.

9. William E. Connolly, A World of Becoming (Duke University Press, 2011), 64.

10. John Milbank, The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology (Hymns Ancient & Modern Ltd, 2009), 330.

11. Ibid.

12. William E. Connolly “Voices from the Whirlwind,” in Jane Bennett, In the Nature of Things: Language, Politics, and the Environment (U of Minnesota Press, 1993), 205.

13. Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 431.

14. John Milbank, “Hume Versus Kant: Faith, Reason and Feeling,” Modern Theology 27, no. 2 (2011): 288.

15. Connolly, A World of Becoming, 21.

16. Both Connolly and Milbank have been described as revealing panentheist tendencies. See Amene Mir, “A Panentheist Reading of John Milbank,” Modern Theology 28, no. 3 (2012): 526–60; Catherine. Keller, “Connolly’s Mysterious Trinity Machine: A Panentheistic Reading,” Political Theology 12, no. 2 (2010): 202–9.

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