Christian theologian John Milbank is half right in calling his position “radical orthodoxy.” After all, the half containing the word “orthodoxy” is fairly accurate.
But judging from his recent article, “Christianity, the Enlightenment and Islam,” a much more suitable qualifier for Milbank’s orthodoxy would be “reactionary” or, perhaps, even “atavistic.” For his article is a throwback towards the more obscene forms of Orientalism and colonial arrogance.
Milbank’s article begins with a long quote from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim and current employee of right-wing conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI). Having read two of Hirsi Ali’s books, I find her writing highly interesting and engaging, and agree with many of her statements about the benefits of Enlightenment ideals. But I also found myself wishing that she could be more enlightened about Western Enlightenment, examining both its pros and cons. In addition, Hirsi Ali has also accepted a highly individualized and idealized explanation for Western prosperity and Islamic violence, while generalizing her experience from North-Eastern Africa and Saudi Arabia to all of Islam. Her summary of Islam, as unable to adjust to modern dynamics, gives the impression that her rigid view of Islam’s inability to deal with modernity is the flip-side to the rigid and literalistic Wahhabi-influenced interpretations of Islam. Rather like many of the “new atheists” (and a recommendation from Richard Dawkins adorns her most recent book, Nomad), her work inadvertently reflects many of the “fundamentalist” or “literalistic” attitudes that she would oppose.
As a poster-girl for the fetishization of free-market individualism, Hirsi Ali is a fairly good fit for Milbank’s decidedly unradical orthodoxy. Milbank tries to resuscitate the old Christian apologetic argument that Enlightenment could only have arisen in a society which had first established Christian principles. Sidestepping the great weight of history during the last 2000 years, his argument is every bit as specious and false is it is impossibly speculative. He writes:
… Christianity and the Enlightenment are Western phenomena. As Ayaan rightly observes, it is clear that the latter has recently influenced the former. What she greatly underrates, however, is the degree to which the former [sic] is itself the child of the latter [sic].
Milbank has got his “formers” and “latters” muddled up here – assuming, that is, that he didn’t intend to espouse the (radical) thesis that the Enlightenment gave birth to Christianity! However, his mistake may be unintentionally revealing. When we examine Milbank’s inventive reconstruction of “historical Christianity,” it does indeed appear to be greatly influenced by his apologetic need to paint Christianity as something wholly concordant with Enlightenment principles. So perhaps, for Milbank, Christianity really is a child of the Enlightenment?
But onto more substantive concerns… Milbank argues that – despite all signs to the contrary – Christianity was always the great champion of feminism and universal love! When Milbank appeals to Paul as progenitor of Christianity’s purportedly great (yet mostly unrealized) vision of equality, he omits to mention one significant factor which completely undermines his point. Paul’s announcement that there was no difference between man and woman was constructed for the ethereal purpose of defending the wide-ranging efficacy of Christ’s salvation to all people. Back on earth, however, it was business as usual: women still couldn’t speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:33b-36; cf. 1 Timothy 2:11-15), and women even existed at a lower level on the ontological chain of creation from God to Man to Woman which deterimined what they could and couldn’t wear (1 Corinthians 11:3-5; cf. Genesis 1-2). Badiou is right to characterize Paul as a great thinker of universalism here, but only if it is underscored that Paul is merely a thinker of universalism. Unfortunately for Milbank’s apologetic purposes, the practical outcomes of Paul’s alleged desire for “equality” are sadly deficient. Yet if it is replied that these New Testament verses can be interpreted in many ways – in ways that will redeem the verses from their categorization as misogynist fantasies – then doesn’t that tactic start to sound a whole lot like the apologetics you also get from much Muslim apologetics? I’ve heard a number of talks from Muslim apologists, regrettably, in which a sura in the Qur’an which appears to treat women badly is (re)interpreted as giving women greater “respect.” Let’s leave aside the merits or otherwise of this line of (re)interpretation. My question is this: if some Muslims are also wanting to give the impression that Islam was the great champion of feminism all along, is it really true that Islam is so universally resistant to Enlightenment ideals, as Milbank purports? It appears not.
Milbank also argues that the modern valorization of “toleration” derives specifically from the Christian emphasis on individualism. It is an argument which is grossly misconceived and a wildly inaccurate misrepresentation of historical developments. As Eric Nelson shows in his recent book, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard, 2010), by far the greatest influence on the developing importance of toleration was not some phantom ideal of “individualism,” but the desire to unify church and state – i.e. the very political system Milbank decries when it comes to many Muslim countries. There are indeed historical religious roots to toleration, but the Old Testament conception of theocracy was a more important influence than so-called Christian “individualism.” Moreover, the importance Milbank accords to “individualism” may have more to do with his own adherence to modern free-market capitalism than more traditional forms of Christianity. Which recalls his unintentional mistake above …
However, the nadir of Milbank’s article is yet to come; it is found towards the conclusion of the article:
The proper response to our present, seemingly incommensurable tensions is not to gloss over or seek to rehabilitate the past in such a dishonest way, but to analyse why exactly Islam has largely taken such a dangerous, non-mystical and often political direction in recent times.
This surely has to do with the lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires (as a consequence of the European wars) and the subsequent failure of Third World national development projects, with the connivance of neo-colonial, purely economic exploitation of poorer countries.
Milbank is not alone among academics in attributing the more “extremist” varieties of Islam today to post-colonial causes. But he is a lone voice in the wilderness in completely reversing the explanation. For Milbank, it is the absence of the (benevolent) Western colonial empire that led to religious extremism! It is the “lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires” which commenced the decline. What is “lamentable” about this collapse for Milbank? Well, judging from his championing of Hirsi Ali and his flimsy thesis that Christianity is the father (or is that the child?) of the Enlightenment, it must be this: the colonial empires didn’t last long enough to inculcate good Christian family values into those ignorant Muslims! One would be hard-pushed to find a better example of the justification of economic exploitation of Oriental lands. And this, not some illusory Christian benevolence, was always the primary purpose of imperialism. Milbank’s argument closely mirrors the old Orientalist justifications of economic exploitation which touted the “benefit” of “civilization” and “civilizing values.” In Milbank’s free-market ideology, it is the “Third World national development projects” which instead represent the worst excesses of colonial “exploitation.” Colonialism itself is washed clean by the orthodox baptismal waters of Milbank’s historical revisionism.