“No ethics outside the Church?” or “How Milbank has influenced my theology”

In June 2009 I was interviewed by a journalist from the Canadian Mennonite at the Annual Delegates Assembly of Mennonite Church Canada.  I was quoted saying “There is no such thing as individual Christianity.” Part of what that statement was designed to do was to challenge the pop-Christian motto “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual” as well as private religion.  While I don’t disagree with the statement as it is, what followed it was “Christianity is everywhere and always mediated by the church.” This is the part I have come to disagree with.

It is by reading John Milbank that I have realized some of the rather violent implications of this kind of commitment to mediation.  This is perhaps surprising, since he is precisely one who makes these kinds of statements so strongly – and thereby has brought me face to face with some of the theological and ethical implications of my own ignorant proclamation.  The following two quotes from Milbank were perhaps the most influential in changing my thinking:

“Recent thought has it that ours is a world in which death, the passing away of life beyond being into nothingness, is an ultimate horizon. It is suggested that only within this horizon does ethics acquire and ultimate seriousness. For if we are all terminally fragile, then our temporary lives assume an ultimate value, since we can offer our own lives for the sake of others. […] So is it true that death undergirds ethics? I want to argue against this, instead proposing the opposite position that only with faith in the resurrection is an ethical life possible.”[1]

“Death, the experience of loss, contaminates our wills: this leads in turn to more barriers, more wars, more loss. Loss is ineradicable, and so we tend to assume that ethics is a sort of maximum possible minimization of loss. Yet I have shown that so long as there is loss, there cannot be any ethical, not even in any degree. Hence hope, hope that it may be given to me in the next moment to act well, is inseparable from hope that there may be universal acting-well, and at last a non-futile mourning; to be ethical therefore is to believe in the Resurrection, and somehow to participate in it. And outside this belief there is, quite simply, no ‘ethical’ whatsoever.”[2]

Now, it may seem like I’m “proof-texting” here but I think these two quotes really capture what undergirds Milbank’s ethics. Can it really be that Milbank believes there is no ethics outside the Church? Isn’t the upshot of his claim that those outside the Church, those who do not believe in the Resurrection, are excluded from true ethical action? How can Milbank proclaim this and simultaneously assert and ontology of peace? Hasn’t he just excluded Jews, Muslims, Athiests, Buddhists, Hindus—in short, every single person who is not a professing Christian (by his own definition and criteria) as outside the possibility of practicing the kind of charity he describes throughout his work? Isn’t that violent? If Milbank maintains that the Church is the single mediating body of God’s grace, faith, hope, and charity, then this marks a significant moment of departure between his and my own understanding of Christianity. I hereby confess and recant my statement that Christianity is everywhere and always mediated by the Church.


[1] John Milbank, “The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice,” First Things 91 (March, 1999) http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/02/004-the-ethics-of-self-sacrifice-20, para. 7-8. Emphasis mine.

[2] John Milbank, Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003), 148. Emphasis mine.

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14 comments on ““No ethics outside the Church?” or “How Milbank has influenced my theology”

  1. Tony Hunt says:

    “Shakespeare also suggests that RO trades upon the assumption that the church
    needs no external criticism – indeed, that for some RO theologians at least, the
    church is simply infallible. Yet here, too, I am not sure he does justice to RO’s
    grammar. Suppose we examine two criticisms of the church, the first saying that the church is in the wrong because it underwrites the oppression of women, the second saying that the church is in the wrong because it contributes so little to the GDP of its host nations. Christians might well respond, without being insular in some corrosive sense, that unlike the latter question, the former is one they have to take seriously because it is capable of being understood as an internal criticism, one that can make sense in terms of the Christian story – and that the second criticism is irrelevant or pernicious precisely to the extent that it can’t become an internal criticism. Such external criticisms, that is, are telling for Christianity to the extent that they become means by which Christians are called to look more deeply at the implications of their own deepest commitments. Such external criticisms become internal can, in Milbank’s words, become ways in which Christians ‘constantly receive Christ again’ from outside the church (p. 114). It is in this way that Milbank can say that the church is ‘the taking-up and intermingling of many human traditions’ (p. 106), while insisting absolutely on the primacy of the Christian story. The logic of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ here is not arranged quite as Shakespeare’s critique suggests.”

    That was a quote from a review by Mike Higton of Stephen Shakespeare’s intro to RO. Now I realize that this quote isn’t exactly overlapping with your whole point of mediation exactly, but inasmuch as a “criticism” of Christianity is something – even ethical – mediated to the Church “from outside” as it were, I still wonder if we haven’t fully examined Milbank’s ecclesiology.

    No doubt he believes in the total exclusive truth of revealed Christianity, as does most of the tradition including Barth and most modern Protestans, but if the Church “constantly receives Christ again” from “outside the Church,” then I’m not sure that we’ve read him completely aright if we can’t incorporate this.

    It seems more like a very strict post-liberalism, Vanhoozer calls his work “hard cultural-linguistic theology” and that seems right. For him, linguistic “games” are absolute, and so for “Christianity” to be mediated it needs to be named as Christian, and only the Christian grammar can do this.

    But I don’t think that Milbank would say that grace isn’t mediated “outside the Church.” Then again, it’s hard to know whether he thinks of the whole world as the Church or simply that group of people bound by it’s grammar; I don’t think he’s very precise on this. Jamie Smith sees is as too “open” in his RO intro.

    • Kampen says:

      Tony, I don’t know about the rest of RO, I’ve only read Milbank, and so my concern here really rests solely with him. I know you’ve read some Ward and you seem to be more pleased with him especially in addressing some areas in RO that Milbank really misses, like christology (we’ve had this discussion elsewhere). Regarding Milbank’s ecclesiology you are right to point out that it is ambiguous whether he means a particular religious group, or the whole world by “the church”. This might affect how he understands logic of internal and external critique vis a vis the church and it’s not entirely unrelated to my question, but I don’t think it ultimately makes a difference in terms of his ethics. For Milbank, Christianity and its ethic is determined by a certain ontology and epistemology. His epistemology asserts that Christianity’s knowledge (and therefore also knowledge about right and wrong) is received as gift, as revelation, from God. Christian knowledge is everywhere and always for him revealed by God, which is necessarily apart from or beyond the so-called secular realm. He of course accedes that “once there was no secular” and that this is essentially part of the Christian story (a Christianized world) such that a Cristian ethic seeks first and foremost a return to the kind of world in which there is no secular (he calls this a musical ontology or an ontology of peace such that the secular is inherently and ontologically violent/evil). The secular for Milbank names a God-less world, the heathen non-Christians (or maybe even all the non-RO) among us. Because Christianity is such an exclusive body for him, whose knowledge is only available to those who “believe in the Resurrection”, anyone who wants to act ethically must first go through the church in order to do so. I would disagree, ethics is not determined by the body of Christ. Of course, at the same time, as a Christian myself, I will say that my ethics are primarily informed by the Gospel but I will add that this does by no means somehow make my ethical action more ethical than that of someone else (or even somehow a priori ethical which seems to be the upshot of Milbank’s suggestions).
      I appreciate your engagement with this. I am committed to close reading, discussion, and the possibility that I am wrong (which is why this blog exists). However, the more I read the less I am convinced by Milbank’s arguments. Milbank no doubt writes in a very persuasive and captivating manner, such that readers are easily swept away with some of the images he draws on or he just impresses them with his vocabulary. This is definitely where I found myself when I first read him. Either way, his writing is very ornamented and I find that this often works for him by drawing readers away from some of the implications of what he’s actually saying.

      • Tony Hunt says:

        Hey Kampen,

        I don’t have the necessary Milbank reading under my belt to really make a full engagement when it comes to his ethics. I’ve definitely read more Ward, who at the end of the day, I think, is a more careful theologian.

        I’m not sure you’re reading his account of the secular right, though. The ‘new secular’ that developed into the ‘modern secular’ was itself a theological move that spatialized the secular, which was to that point a temporal term. This new space was the paradoxically natural and created space of ‘pure power.’

        Granted that this ‘new’ space eventuated in a space of natura pura, made void of the God who creates ex nihilio, it’s still very central for TST that this secular is a ‘heresy,’ it’s a (bad) variation on Christian speculation, and for that reason can’t be considered merely as ‘God-less.’

        Ultimately, as I already said, it’s not clear to me that Milbank is not just inconsistent or confused with his own categories, but I’d still venture to say that there is a vein, earlier than later, in his thought that isn’t protective of a Christian ‘space,’ even if he maintains that ‘catholic christianity’ is ultimately the ‘most persuasive story.’

      • Did Ward’s advocacy of theocracy not bother you?

  2. Anthony Paul Smith says:

    Tony, I think you just want desperately for him to be right. No? And at the same time you dont want to be an asshole. If John’s life is a witness to this possibility then it can’t be both.

  3. Tony Hunt says:

    I find myself rather opaque to myself, so I’m not at all sure what my inner motivations are, ie-“desperately wanting for him to be right,” for wanting to engage in discussions about his work other than the more simple explanation that I’ve found his work engaging and enjoyable. And I don’t even know what it means to want for someone who’s written so much “to be right;” right about what? Everything?

    I was just hoping to have a conversation about Kampens post.

    • I find you rather clear! I suppose we often are opaque to ourselves. And I don’t mean right about “everything” but right about the “big picture”. You want a conservative, euro-centric Christian vision of the world to basically be what it is right. Does that seem wrong to you?

      • Tony Hunt says:

        Well if you already know who I am, what I believe, what I desire and what I hope for, then it would seem you’re already right.

      • You always go on about what “all Christians believe”, so I can safely assume you believe all that. All the rest is tied up there, so, yes, I do already know you. Again, does that seem wrong?

      • Tony Hunt says:

        I’m more than tired of the rhetorical violence of your attempting to give me my identity, putting me in the de facto position of reaction and defense. Are you really under the impression that you know who I am? Because you read my blog with prejudice? Because we’ve exchanged some heated emails? I’m sure you would not stand it if I were to say to a gay man, “I find you rather clear! I suppose you are opaque to yourself, but I am aware of the big picture that you desire: You want a permissive, liberal, anti-family vision of the world to basically be what is right. Does that seem wrong to you?” (I would never say that)

        And you’d be right to be angry. But maybe because I’m a Christian, and you know some bad Christians, you feel it’s ok to engage in such oppressive identity politics, but I won’t stand for it, and I won’t assume a defensive or reactionary posture to your ‘special gnosis’ of who I really am.

        I really do appreciate the light you’ve shed on recent developments with Milbank, but this relationship has become too toxic for me to put the effort in.

      • Being a gay man doesn’t come with a creed. You must know that! So, the analogy doesn’t really work. But I realize you were just trying to make a point and though I don’t quite see why you’re so offended that I consider you an orthodox Christian in the Anglican tradition, I can tell you’re offended. First, is that not how you self-identify? If you were to guess from what I’ve said about myself online I wouldn’t think that was oppressive identity politics (that’s not really the idea at work when homosexuals or racial minorities talk about their identity being used against them, but ok). We don’t engage with people in a vacuum. So, I am not putting you in the position of reaction and defense, but I have noticed that whenever Milbank or RO comes up you start in with the defenses. That suggests to me that there is something you want to be taken as true by other Christians, like Kampen. I’m simply asking why and if you think I’m wrong about that characterization I’d be well open to correction. Or if you think it is too toxic, that’s fine too.

  4. Zac Klassen says:

    I haven’t read enough of Milbank recently to adequately comment on this post in full. I am however, very interested in how you started this post. Your comment to the journalist that “Christianity is everywhere and always mediated by the church” I think is basically still right, not necessarily in terms of the “ethical” question discussed in this thread, but in terms of simply what it might mean to talk about “Christians” and “the Church” at all. I watched an interview recently with Hauerwas who said (and I paraphrase) that one of his biggest problems with evangelicals is that they tend to think they can come to faith un-mediated by the church. For Hauerwas, it is precisely the fact that a distinct body has existed throughout 2000 years (and of course longer counting Jewish history) that makes the modern “christian” possible in any meaningful sense of the term. One can simply not be a Christian apart from the church as then taking on the form of “Christ-likeness” would be an arbitrary task, unmediated by a particular people whose legacy it was to pass on the embodied life of Christ.

    Now, I find myself compelled to agree with Hauerwas (who in many instances is sympathetic to Milbank, and other moments critical). And I think insofar as this issue of mediation is restricted to an “internal” analysis of Christian identity then I think it holds (although perhaps this is an improper bifurcation of “identity” and “ethics”).

    However, once the question turns to the ethical perhaps this is where things get complicated and this is where I see your point that mediation by the church alone seems to imply that (and I think this was mentioned above) a deed or action is sanctified (made ethical) only when it is articulated by way of the unique grammar of the Christian tradition. Does that mean that, for Hauerwas, being ethical is impossible apart from the church in an absolute sense? My gut is that he wouldn’t commit to that but would perhaps say that, AS A Christian, to speak about ethics in a language other than in the terms of the Christian grammar would be a self-deception as Hauerwas seems to have a notion of identity as that which is radically given (see his recent memoir).

    • Kampen says:

      As far as Christianity goes, I agree that there is no Christianity that is not mediated by (that is, cannot be apart from) the cloud of witnesses. I still maintain that there is no individual Christianity. In terms of ethics, however, I think that non-Christians can and do bear witness to the life, teachings, and Resurrection of Christ, so that the ethical is not somehow categorically determined by Christianity over against any other faith/form of life. I’m also not as committed to “the Christian grammar” as someone like Hauerwas seems to be. I understand the logic but I think that it has some violent implications that need to be explored further. The quotes I point to in Milbank are an instance of where such an internal grammar can lead to as a template for external engagement and ethics and relation to the other and secular.

  5. Theophilus says:

    My trouble with the Milbank quotes in the OP is that they exclude the possibility that the Tanakh was ethical prior to the revelation that came through Jesus Christ. Given Jesus’ heavy reliance on the ethical frames of the Tanakh, the only way Milbank’s comments make any kind of sense is to view the ethical as the already-perfected. But in that case, barring Jesus and the adoption of a doctrine of perfectibility, the ethical is also unattainable and thereby irrelevent.

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