Beyond the Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of People

Written by John Milbank Reviewed By Eric Hall

Beyond the Secular Order is a continuation of John Milbank’s long-term project to extricate theology from the enervating grip of modernity and to restore theology to its role as the political authority in the West. Consistent with that project, Beyond the Secular Order makes two essential moves. The first move is to historicize the grounding ontological and epistemological presumptions of the “secular.” Milbank argues that secularism arose from one particular medieval vision of theology, propagated by Duns Scotus, rather than an animus against theology, thus depriving the modern attack on religion of its intellectual oxygen. The second move is to recover an authentic union of theology and philosophy, under the supervision of authorities such as Aquinas, so that human beings can renew a vital, mysterious, and fructifying theological relation to both God and the world. In some cases this second move appears as the attempt to renew the church’s theological sense for divine mystery. In other cases it can be read as an attempt to do justice to the hidden power of Thomistic theology as it was abandoned in the late Middle Ages. At any rate, Milbank makes no bones about the political agenda of his book. He wants to revert the decline of Christianity in public life by restoring the intellectual legitimacy of Christian theology over secularism. By Christianity, Milbank means a political authority in likeness to medieval Roman Catholicism. The political mires of contemporary American evangelicalism are simply a symptom of the “thinned-out version of the Catholic faith” characteristic of modern global Christianity founded in the theology of Scotus which then flowered into secularism (p. 116). In Milbank’s view, if there is to be any ground for renewal, it must be found in Rome.

The argument is carried out in two sequences. In the first sequence, “Modern Ontology,” Milbank sets forth a critique of modern philosophy on four fronts: univocity, representation, possibilism, and concurrence. He identifies each of these modern epistemological commitments as stemming from the theological innovations of Duns Scotus, which resulted in a fundamental shift in thinking. The rival position of Aquinas holds to equivocacity, an ontology of identity, and actualism, and has been obscured of the centuries as secularism has “triumphed” over religion on every sphere, ignorant of its theological upbringing. Although we see the fruit of this inherently theological shift to univocity in modern figures like Descartes and Kant, even Heidegger, their genealogical roots are so distinctly bound to Scotus and his univocal theology that Milbank is confident in explaining the whole of modern thought on the basis of one medieval scholar. If Milbank’s history is indeed correct, then the deleterious, eviscerating consequences of a supposedly autonomous secularism for the vitality of theological enterprise are sourced in the debate between Scotus and Aquinas. Contemporary theology, gradually removed from public life over the past 400 years, is suffering from a self-inflicted wound.

In the second sequence, “Political Ontology,” Milbank switches the focus from the secular-theological redefinition of human knowledge to the human communities that are produced within the secular order. The first section is political also, but by foregrounding the anthropological consequences of secularism’s hidden theological commitments, he puts the stakes for human community and practice front and center. Practice is as important to Milbank as theory, but will our sense for mystery and wonder in God be renewed by simply reading different books and adopting a new historiography of Western thought? Milbank seems to think this will be a sufficient force of change, just as the work of one scholar, Duns Scotus, was single-handedly able to sponsor the most tragic intellectual and practical regime change in the history of the West. If this is the case, and if a call for renewed theological vitality can issue forth from a work as tedious as Beyond the Secular Order, then there is much cause to be sympathetic to Milbank’s attempt.

However, Beyond the Secular Order offers several potential barriers for readers. Milbank’s habit of name-dropping, use of Latin technicalities, as well as his commitment to philosophical jargon begins to read like pretentious idle talk, mere cleverness rather than judicious analysis. Perhaps readers will excuse this as a consequence of specializing in medieval scholasticism. His approach to the history of philosophy is to drive a tank through the philosopher’s garden in order to show his audience how impoverished and disheveled the modern philosophical abode really is. Perhaps this is satisfying to those acquainted with modern philosophy, but his method does little to accommodate the horde of secular detractors that will rise up in protest.

A final concern with Beyond the Secular Order is the question of legitimacy. The issue of authority is crucial for Milbank. It is the one issue on which an otherwise meticulous argument falters. He wants theology to be the source of authority once again, but his grounding for this restoration is Aquinas, and a particular reading and appropriation of Aquinas. But why Aquinas? Thomism is not subject to the presumptions of modernity. But why is Aquinas, on Milbank’s reading, indeed correct in his theology? This is not something Milbank answers directly. Yes, Aquinas will fit the bill for Milbank’s agenda, but it seems that the only way for a figure such as Aquinas to obtain the necessary authority to fulfill the role of guardian is for us to not question him. Milbank’s endorsement consistently cedes authority to Thomistic Catholicism without question. Even for those who are not the allies of secularism, scientific rationalism, or modern or postmodern philosophy, it may be very difficult to agree with Milbank’s political projections unless they first accept Aquinas as an authoritative doctor of the church. Yet if this is the case, then we must conclude that to get beyond the secular order requires more than genealogical historical analysis. It requires theological eugenics.

Eric Hall

Eric Hall
Clemson University
Clemson, South Carolina, USA

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