Monday 15 November 2010

An evening with Cardinal Milbank

Last Monday evening, John Milbank gave a lecture at Swansea University on “The New Atheism and the Return of Religion”. Here is the vote of thanks by Kim Fabricius.

I read the email Nigel sent me in August announcing this lecture while I was eating, aptly, a jalapeno salad. And I wondered: which hot-stuff Professor Milbank were we going to get? The student of Rowan Williams who burst on the scene twenty years ago as the bête noire of theological liberals and apologists of the secular – (joke: Professor Milbank is standing on a cliff with a liberal and a fundamentalist. Who does he push first? The liberal: business before pleasure) – the radical young theologian who said, now famously, “Once, there was no ‘secular’”, and who plotted a declension narrative in the history of ideas that made Duns Scotus the fall guy in the plot? [With a wink to Milbank] Mind, the medievalist Marilyn McCord Adams, when she was here last year, said she was less than impressed by this reading of Duns!

Or perhaps we would get the friend of the cussed American apostle of nonviolence Stanley Hauerwas (three weeks ago the two shared a stage in London), the Milbank who proclaimed “the ontological priority of peace over conflict” – though who, when he became a father, began to reconsider the value of coercion, and who just over a week ago criticised Hauerwas’ Mennonite-inspired pacifism, arguing for the crucial contribution of Gandalf’s military campaign, as well Frodo’s self-sacrifice, for the salvation of Middle-earth. [“Of course Lord of the Rings is fiction”, I was tempted to add, but given the genre of my speech, I felt that I was already being – and was going to be – cheeky enough.]

Or were we going to get the robust churchman who, with no false humility, takes ecclesiology rigorously seriously, though Christology, many say, not nearly seriously enough? Or perhaps the oxymoronic Red Tory (or, as he prefers, Blue Socialist), whose colleague Philip Blond has been called the court theologian of David Cameron? Or the formidable public intellectual who goes head to head with the irrepressible atheist cultural theorist and Marxist media star Slavoj Žižek? Or perhaps the endorser of the pope’s vision of a muscular new European Christianity, not to say Christendom, to counter an aggressive irrational Islam, tacking far too closely, cry his horrified critics, to the winds of Western colonialism?

But what did it matter? Whatever the persona, we were sure to get a force of nature, or, better, super-nature.

As it has turned out, we got something different – but not completely different, because Professor Milbank’s project is nothing if not synoptic and comprehensive. After the cultural, scientific, and theological counter-attacks on the militant New Atheists by Terry Eagleton, Alister McGrath, and John Lennox respectively, some might have thought that Professor Milbank would be beating a rather battered army.

But this army continues to cause mischief, so Professor Milbank has brought his own considerable range of weaponry to the fight, pounding positions often unnoticed in the conventional mappings of the intellectual terrain: the cultural logic of the New Atheism; its politics too, the way the New Atheism would insidiously inform public policy; the relation of the New Atheism to the nihilism of neo-liberalism, the mirror image of the older atheism’s relation to the nihilism of communism; and, finally, the return of the repressed – religion – to fill the vacuum left by the intellectual exhaustion of secular ideologies, and, he argues, the rich potential of a sacramental Christianity, which remarries faith and reason after their modernist divorce, for a constructive and hopeful social agenda that eschews the pathology of fundamentalisms and transcends the reduction of human relations to assertions of power.

Professor Milbank, it is said by fans as well as foes, writes “difficult” prose (as Geoffrey Hill, he approvingly observes, writes difficult poetry). But whether in shock or awe, I think we all understood his lucid lecture tonight. Rumour has it that the prolific professor has written over a thousand pages for the sequel to his seminal Theology and Social Theory. Which might mean he’s just getting started. But whenever he finishes, I think we’d all relish a return visit (by air, I’d suggest) of the Sheriff of Nottingham to this humble, hospitable and once socialist Christian colony of Swansea.


The lecture almost wasn’t. Milbank went to the wrong station in Nottingham, and the train he finally caught was doomed by delays. He finally disembarked at Port Talbot, where, taxi-less, he was driven the final few miles to Swansea by a kindly Welsh woman. Milbank deployed this special providence as a pointer to the existence of God in a nicely improvised overture to his noteless lecture, which began over an hour late. Most of the punters, well over a hundred, stayed (some retiring to the campus bars to kill time). After the announcement of the delay, I encouraged the audience to be patient with the following recycled joke:

On heading to Heathrow at the conclusion of his recent visit to the UK, the pope’s limousine hit a traffic jam, which turned to gridlock. It was imperative that the pope catch his plane, so he said to his driver, “My son, I cannot be late. Could you not drive on the hard shoulder to get me to the airport on time?”

“I’m sorry, your holiness,” said the driver, “but if I am stopped and get a ticket, my boss will sack me, and I have a large family to support. Forgive me, but we must be patient and wait for the traffic to ease.”

Undeterred, the pope said, “Let me drive then.”

The driver reluctantly agreed, and the two changed seats. The pope sped towards Heathrow on the hard shoulder – and sure enough, he was stopped by the police. The officer looked in the window. “Excuse me for a moment,” he said, and went back to his car to call his superior.

“I’ve got a problem,” he said. “I’ve just pulled over a limousine speeding along the hard shoulder, and, well, there is a very important person in the car.”

“How important?” replied the superior. “An MP?”

“More important than that, sir.”

“Front bench?”

“More important than that, sir.”

“Not the prime minister!”

“No, even more important than that, sir.”

“Please don’t tell me it’s one of the younger princes – or even Prince Charles.”

“No, sir, I’m afraid even more important than that.”

“Are you telling me it’s the Queen?”

“Sir, even more important than the Queen.”

“Good God, man, who is it?”

“I don’t know, sir. All I can tell you is that the pope is his driver.”

Some of the audience asked me to tell some more jokes, but I couldn’t think of any clean ones.


After the lecture, seven of us went for a meal at a posh restaurant where I was strategically seated next to Milbank. The table-talk ranged from Rowan Williams, particularly his recent political interventions, to J. Kameron Carter and David Bentley Hart (I didn’t want Milbank to throw up on me, so I didn’t mention Adam Kotsko); from (I suggested) his wildly sanguine hopes for the Tory-led government, to the Tea Party and (he suggested, persuasively) the US as a failed state; from Virgil (via a classics professor) to Virginia; from the earthly sports of cricket and rugby to the game of heaven. I would like to have drawn the famous metaphysical Platonist on the New Apocalyptics, and pressed him on his exiguous expository appeal to Jesus and the Bible, but in mixed company – hey, I’m not such a prat! Suffice to say that it was a terrifically enjoyable evening, and that Milbank was a congenial dining companion whose comments, even when quite opinionated, were as agreeably measured as the wine.

Following Milbank’s recent (I too thought, ridiculously impoverishedly Niebuhrian) ABC critique of Hauerwas’ pacifism, one blogger tetchily asked how Stanley could hang out with such an hombre. Perhaps it’s because Hauerwas is somewhat in awe of Milbank’s capacious and resourceful intellect. Perhaps it’s because he can better hone his own views against such a formidable and influential advocatus diaboli. However I suspect it’s simply because Milbank is a good friend.

In other Milbank-related news, see his latest ABC piece on Stephen Fry, sex, and homosexuality – and the lively dialogical response over at the new Women in Theology blog (see also their follow-up post). The recent King's College discussion between Hauerwas, Milbank, and Luke Bretherton is also now available in audio.


roger flyer said... scotch and cigars after the dinner?

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if there is any way to download the Hauerwas-Millbank discussion or can we only listen to it at the URL?

scott said...

(Anonymous -- you should anonymously right-click, and "Save as")

Thanks for the report, Kim.

CaboTennisDude said...

Was the Swansea lecture on the New Atheism recorded? (please oh please)

Pamela said...

My husband like to tell jokes about the Pope too.

Ben said...

A post in the blogosphere that actually captures something of the thought and personality of John Milbank as opposed to offering caricatures, this is a rare and beautiful thing.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff! I was particularly intriqued by the phrase "the nihilism of neo-liberalism".

In my reading of neo-liberalism some of the most ardent supporters of its project are right wing Catholics, especially those who congregate around First Things, and Standpoint Magazine in the UK.

David Bentley Hart is of course guilty by association. In effect a useful idiot or naive fellow traveler - to borrow some terminology from the Cold War years.

kim fabricius said...

Sorry, Cabo, no recording of the lecture (nor of the table-talk!).

Anonymous said...

"no recording of the lecture" - noooooo!

David said...

"David Bentley Hart is of course guilty by association. In effect a useful idiot or naive fellow traveler - to borrow some terminology from the Cold War years."

Is this merely because he writes for First Things? All sorts of people have written for them, including Hauerwas and Milbank.

Christian Theology said...

You have argued, speaking of neoliberalism, you have argued that ... of despair that I might call something like a quotidian nihilism.

Anonymous said...

"guilty by association": what a thoroughly unliberal position!!! tsk, tsk, tsk...

Anonymous said...

The comments re Milbank over at WIT which Halden recommends wholeheartedly would make Karl Barth turn in his grave. Halden seems to have come to the iron-clad conclusion that Milbank is some unregenerate prejudiced anti-homosexual conservative bloke. Shows how much he has swung to the extreme liberalism that Barth excoriated.

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