Is Milbank’s Harmony Dissonant?

My first substantial encounter with John Milbank took place just about a year ago. Like many (or at least so I imagine) I was overawed by the sheer force of his intellect. I found him both overwhelmingly persuasive and quite useful. At around the same time Romand Coles delivered the annual winter lectures at CMU. I found what he said interesting enough that I added some of his stuff to my planned summer reading. The ensuing encounter with Coles this summer is perhaps best described as a losing battle; he and I were locked in a fight (with him pushing particularly at the most “Milbankian” aspects of my thought) and he was (no matter how many notes I put in the margins) winning. The following essay (revised slightly to make it more “blog-friendly”) is thus perhaps best read as an acknowledgement of defeat on my part.

“Christianity is peculiar, because while it is open to difference…it also strives to make of all these differential additions a harmony.”[1] With these words, John Milbank stakes his claim on the unique ability of the Christian meta-narrative to absorb all difference, making it harmonious. But what is his definition of harmony? When is it that difference becomes violent? Of course these questions are entirely unfair if by asking them we expect Milbank to neatly define the Good. That would be to overlook some of his most compelling discourse on truth as a contingent gift, which we can never posses. However, it does seem fair, and I believe it would be revealing, to at least further examine Milbank’s understanding of difference. I will attempt to do so by putting Milbank into dialogue with political theorist Romand Coles, who advances an argument in favour of dissonance. After summarizing both of their positions on difference, I will argue that Milbank’s account of harmony is not wholly compatible with Coles’ dissonance and also that Coles provides a richer theological account of difference than does Milbank.

One of Milbank’s insights is his claim that, in contrast to a secular worldview, Christianity does not see difference as a threat to be overcome. Instead, he argues that Christianity, recognizing its potential harmonic beauty, pursues a “universalism which tries to subsume rather than abolish difference.”[2] To illustrate this point, Milbank points to the eschatological banquet, which rejoices in diversity, for diversity adds to the richness of its exchange. The Christian community, as Milbank describes it, strives towards this image of banqueting, or rich harmony, as it looks for “a series of infinitely new additions, insights, progressions towards God.”[3] In other words, the church has the ability to embrace difference, while also achieving united consensus.

From the stand-point of a Trinitarian ontology of perfected reciprocity, Milbank argues that charity – harmonious gift-exchange that creates and sustains bonds of festive friendship – is the supreme eschatological reality. For Milbank this follows from a Christian account of creation, where God unnecessarily and non-violently speaks the cosmos into being, leaving no room for a reality outside of the excessive Trinitarian Community. In contrast to this “ontology of peace,” Milbank inscribes secular reason into a nihilistic ontology of perpetual violence, in which diversity is necessarily in competition. He argues that because nihilism holds flux to be normative, the best it may hope for is a coercive mitigation of conflict. Hence, he claims that it is only through participation in the harmony of the Trinity, by way of charity performed in hope of eternal reconciliation, that we might enter into ecstatic communion with others. Milbank argues that it is finally this Christian possibility of harmonic difference that can alone redeem reason itself. For, by stating that all reality is war, nihilism utilizes rationality to proclaim the “the truth of untruth,” and the “ultimate reality of unreason.” [4]

In his essay “The Pregnant Reticence of Rowan Williams,” Romand Coles offers a compelling vision of “generous tension,” as beauty.[5] With Milbank ostensibly hovering in the background (Coles explicitly critiques his thought elsewhere), he pushes against an understanding of difference ‘celebrated’ within the perfect harmony of a Christian meta-narrative. He worries that such a neat fit will not truly allow Christians to develop a posture of creative receptivity towards the irreducible and rich differences of others. Coles reads Williams’ voice as a powerful call to cultivate traditions able to dwell vulnerably within the life-giving tensions and boundaries in our lives. He describes this receptive engagement with conflict and difficult difference as a “tensional and generative source for learning how to live better together.”[6] Coles acknowledges that this dissonance can perhaps be embraced as only a temporary if also necessary prelude to pure harmony. However, he wonders if this would reflect an idolatrous “projection by competitors for space in this world who yearn for freedom from tension.”[7] Coles sees Williams’ presentation of Jesus and the church opening up the possibility that God’s final peace may not only include simple harmonies, but also “dissonances and tensions beyond…rivalries.”[8] Claiming that there is no reason not to entertain this possibility, he argues that we should at least hold an eschatological vision of generous tension “open as a magnetic possibility;” this might then enable us to cultivate the posture of “peacemaking-as-tension that is at the heart of the body of Christ.”[9]

This portrayal of the potential beauty of dissonance raises a number of interesting questions. For example: Is ecumenical and interreligious dialogue good only for the consensus it hopes to reach, or also for the vulnerable work of naming, upholding, and dwelling within what may be irreconcilable difference? Is friendship, a central emphasis in Milbank’s work, good only for the perfected reciprocity it aims at, or also for the difficult, ongoing, work and genuine vulnerability it often entails? Alongside Coles, I think we should be hesitant to too quickly answer these questions.

Where Coles presents Williams suggesting that some of this tensional work may beautiful, it is so as wholly created by God. In Coles’ words, “[i]t is our sense of order, not God’s, that Williams [renders] problematic.”[10] Here, this dissonant beauty begins to sound like it could easily be reconciled with Milbank’s ontology of peace. After all, if certain kinds of dissonance are beautiful, do they not fit into the category of broadly understood harmony? Milbank’s discourse on harmonic difference does indeed often point to a vast and indefinable range of “relational differences and ceaseless alterations.”[11] He argues that Christianity is a nomadic way of life that “should not draw boundaries,” and exclude “no difference whatsoever.”[12] He further argues that we receive our true individuality in the “constant rupturing and externalization” that comes with entering into relation with others.[13] In short, Milbank consistently speaks against fixed consensus, formulas, and closed patterns, and in favour of multiple differences, creativity, and a difficult and subtle practice of love.

However, we should already notice that Milbank’s understanding of difference, at times, seems to lack a certain potency present in Coles; there is a significant difference between living without borders and dwelling within them, between including difference and engaging in it. This difference comes through more explicitly in places where Milbank names any inhibition, and thereby, it seems to me, also any sort of struggle, as privation.[14] Rather, he argues that the “true community” will not be vulnerable, but “peaceful, united, [and] secure…[in its] absolute consensus;”[15] likewise, his ontology of peace allows us to “entirely…overcome violence,” and ward off too great an emphasis on the cross.[16] These claims (though more nuanced than this brief presentation allows me to account for) do not, I think, leave room for Coles’ dissonance to be ‘ontologically real.’

One relatively straightforward area of demarcation between Coles and Milbank that should help to make their differences more concrete  is interreligious relationships. Coles is clear that interreligious relationships are a part of the generative dissonance he describes, and I suspect Milbank would be dubious of such work as Coles presents it. Statements, necessarily a priori, that “Christianity (and not even Judaism, which postpones universality to the eschaton, a final chord) uniquely has this [correct] idea of community,” are not uncommon in Milbank’s work.[17] Despite his profoundly instructive tendency to resist dichotomies, he consistently insists that unless Christ is the only way, we are into agnosticism.

Before proceeding to an account of Coles’ interfaith cooperation it is worth noting that Christian Scripture often seems to support Milbank’s position. From the Old Testament prophets to the New Testament epistles, God’s eschatological promise appears to be one where difference remains but is perfectly united. Indeed, when Coles asks, “Since when and how did anyone come to know so much about God as to preclude dissonance-beyond-rivalry as part of God’s deepest peace,”[18] it is tempting to flippantly respond with “since Isaiah 11 and Philippians 2.” Thus, it seems as though Milbank’s claim that all difference can only be fully realized in perfect harmony coincides with another one of his great insights: that our stumbling formulations and tentative answers must be theological all the way down.

But Coles simply does not go away, consistently presenting his ecumenical call in deeply theological terms (and perhaps thereby also pushing at whether, just to the extent that we see no dissonance-beyond-rivalry in them, we have domesticated the evocative prophetic visions). Coles develops his account of vulnerable receptivity by suggesting we follow Williams’ Jesus, who decisively lived in the edges, refusing to compete for territorial space. He stresses that this Jesus is a vulnerable way of tension-filled love, not an object of secured hope; thus he argues that even Jesus’ eschatological victory, the resurrection, is not free of dissonances. Furthermore, in language similar to Milbank’s, he argues that this posture of discipleship participates in the “receptivity and generosity that is the very substance and movement of the triune God.”[19] Elsewhere, in what I take to be the climax of his persuasive essay on Jean Vanier,[20] Coles strikingly asks: “If Jesus is the stranger,[in Matthew 25] and if the stranger is among other things a person of another faith, then what exactly does it mean when Jesus calls people to follow Him?[21] Working with Vanier’s account of Jesus’ footwashing scene, one answer he suggests is that “interfaith dialogue and understanding is not a departure from Jesus but a deepening with him.”[22] It is from this thoroughly theological standpoint, that Coles calls Christians to enter into the unmasked tensions of interreligious ecumenism, listening vulnerably and relinquishing what is ours.

John Milbank rightly insists on a theology without foundations. He nicely illustrates that a foundational theology implies an ontology apart from God. This both disenables God to be the excessive God of creation and incarnation and, by lifting our capacity to reason above God, implies a self-caused deliverance. Thus, for Milbank, we decisively can never articulate God’s perfection; to do so turns God into an idol. As we have seen, however, Coles’ dissonance is no mere moral projection, but is richly theological. I want to go a step further and offer the possibility that Milbank’s neat ontology of peace, despite his intentions, might be too easily grasped, tamed, and made into an idol. I believe that Coles presents a God that more powerfully resists our domestication. The Jesus he finds in Williams and Vanier reveals both a God who eludes our grasp and a way of living into transformed, and perhaps also beautifully dissonant, relationships.

I have used Romand Coles’ account of generous tension to extend an admittedly tentative critique of Milbank’s harmonic difference. Because both vulnerability and receptivity are deeply woven into this generous tension, it feels appropriate to conclude by pointing to some of the implications my argument might have for witness to the Christian faith. Recalling my earlier reference to Philippians 2, we might ask, alongside Coles, what it might mean to confess that Jesus is Lord if Jesus comes to us as an unexpected stranger. I want to propose two answers. John Milbank concludes his essay “The Invocation of Clio” (in which he spends a significant amount of time articulating and defending the Christian account of creation and the Medieval understanding of charity, but virtually no time on Christ’s crucifixion) with a section subtitled “The Logic of Persuasion.”[23] There he argues that it is finally the lure of the peaceful harmonic Christian reality that provokes Christian existence. I submit that a more authentic art of Christian witness, one that takes “generous tension” more seriously, is to take up and proclaim the cross. Perhaps the apostle Paul put it best when he wrote to the Corinthians that “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23a). Secondly, I want to suggest that if Christ truly comes to us as an unexpected stranger, it just might be the case that non-Christians can, unintentionally, proclaim Christ’s lordship. This claim has its own kind of arrogance that Coles may be wary of. Nevertheless, I hope it is a posture that might allow us to fully witness to Christ, while also allowing us to be witnessed to by others.


[1] John Milbank. The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2009), 340.

[2] Future of Love, 340.

[3] Future of Love, 341.

[4] John Milbank. “The Programme of Radical Orthodoxy” in Radical Orthodoxy? A Catholic Enquiry, ed. Lawrence Paul Hemming (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 42 and Future of Love, 219.

[5] Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles. Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations Between a Radical Democrat and a Christian (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2008), 174-194.

[6] Radical Ordinary, 187.

[7] Radical Ordinary, 188.

[8] Radical Ordinary, 187.

[9]  Radical Ordinary, 188-189.

[10] Radical Ordinary, 184.

[11] Future of Love, 339.

[12] Future of Love, 342.

[13] Future of Love, 350.

[14] See, for example, Future of Love, 342, 349, and Radical Orthodoxy, 41.

[15] Future of Love, 341. Emphasis in the original.

[16] Radical Orthodoxy, 40. My emphasis.

[17] Future of Love, 341.

[18] Radical Ordinary, 187.

[19] Radical Ordinary, 184.

[20] Radical Ordinary, 208-228.

[21] Radical Ordinary, 222. Emphasis in the original.

[22] Radical Ordinary, 224. Emphasis in the original.

[23] Future of Love, 219-220.

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8 comments on “Is Milbank’s Harmony Dissonant?

  1. Theophilus says:

    Coles’ argument, as I understand it, reflects the “three” in the Trinity’s “three-in-one,” but not the “one.” Milbank’s does both, by acknowledging both difference and unity. Coles seems to be pushing for a hegemony of difference over unity, which I find very troublesome. As you mentioned, this seems to be at odds with significant elements within the Scriptural witness, and also appears to me to have the potential to act as a solvent upon any kind of shared community life.

    As an example, if you attend Friday’s performance of Atli Sveinssen’s Symphony No. 2 at Winnipeg’s New Music Festival, you may notice that much of the first movement is awash in dissonance, without much perceptible consonance. That dissonance will eventually become a part of the background, and will cease to be jarring, until the choral entry late in the movement. The chorus begins on a consonance, moves through several dissonant chords, and eventually returns to a consonant chord. The choral dissonances are perceived as far more significant, because exist in temporal relation to consonances. Similarly, the choir’s final consonance, held for several minutes, is overlaid with orchestral dissonances. The orchestral dissonances seem more significant than the same ones earlier in the work because they exist in superimposed relation with the choral consonance.

    Coles may write in beautiful theological language, just as musical dissonances may be exquisitely structured within the parameters of music theory. But just as dissonance isn’t meaningful on its own, so beautiful language does not suffice to justify its propositions.

    • geraldens says:

      You may be right that Coles under-appreciates or under-defines the nature of Christian unity. However, I do want to try to clarify a few of his moves to try to appreciate the full weight of his argument.

      I do not read Coles as suggesting that unity is unimportant; instead, I see him at pushing at our ideas of what unity it, particularly where we are tempted to equate unity with homogeneity; he, in effect, pushes at whether Milbank’s “difference” is in fact homogenous. This does not mean simply that anything goes or that difference is good simply in and of itself, but it does mean constantly re-evaluating how we are or are not receptive to difference. I think this is what his language of “dissonance-beyond-rivalry” attempts to convey. Coles does not prompt me to reconsider the integral unity in Isaiah 2, but he does remind me how evocative and beyond-definition is the image of lion and lamb lying down together.

      You question whether Coles’s understanding of difference is at all sustainable for genuine community life. This is something I have also wondered, asking whether or not faithfulness is possible within this model. Coles seems to answer this question in two ways. First, he shows (through his reading of Vanier and the footwashing scene) that part of following Jesus means not just serving others who are different (thereby assuming a position of mastery and dominance), but also allowing oneself to be served by others (thereby assuming a posture of receptivity). Second, Coles re-inscribes the importance of boundaries, while at once attempting to redefine them. This comes across more clearly in Coles’s work on Yoder and his other, more political work. There he speaks about the need for resistance (to destructive forms of power) and speaks to the role jealousy (or fidelity) plays in this resistance. What he attempts to do is show how certain forms of receptivity are in fact integral to fidelity (at least when we’re talking about fidelity to a crucified God). In his essay on Williams he presents this in the image of walls that are “extremely” thick and at the same time vulnerable.

      Now, perhaps this is merely wordplay disguised as a sort of liberal tolerance (though I don’t think it is). But, Coles has convinced me that at least attempting to thus engage with difference is central to taking an ethic of the cross seriously.

      • Kampen says:

        I think this is well put. I do not think that Coles by any means endorses liberal tolerance – that he is called a radical democrat is not accidental and suggests that he is distinct from other mainstream democrats in important ways – many of which you have already pointed to.

      • Theophilus says:

        What you’re saying about Coles sounds like a sensible response to Milbank, who seems to perpetually have trouble fleshing out what diversity-in-unity really looks like. But Coles’ thinking fits the concept of harmony better than it does dissonance, which has no inherent notion of unity in it, and makes me think that he would have done better to reframe Milbank’s harmony metaphor rather than replace it.

        • geraldens says:

          Coles’s preference for the terminology of dissonance or generous-tension revolves around his ethical concerns. His concern is that the vision of a final consonant chord “threatens to erode the very peacemaking-as-tension that is at the heart of the body of Christ” (189). To return to your example, perhaps what Coles is trying to reclaim is the beauty of the entirety of Atli Sveinssen’s Symphony No. 2; that is to say that all of it, not merely the concluding consonance, belongs in the eschaton. Perhaps this would be better achieved through a reclaiming of harmony, but only so long as jarring and clashing chords were seen as a constitutive part of such harmony, and not only as a necessary prelude.

  2. Tony Hunt says:

    Thanks for this fun essay. I’ve not read Coles so I can’t quite comment on it but I think you classily didn’t reduce Milbank’s thought to a few offensive soundbites as some tend to do. Cole’s and your own questions seem to be in line with some of the authors of the anabaptist response to RO called “The Gift of Difference,” at least as David Driedger so admirably described it.

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