Christian Humanist Profiles 24: John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order

When we try to make sense of the world, narrative is everything.  And when we tell the story of theology in late modernity, we underestimate at our peril how important the stories are that surround the practice.  Is Theologia the beleaguered and aging protagonist, striving valiantly but perhaps in futility to keep up with Science and Social Theory, her younger and more fit successors and rivals?  Is Theology the old dog who reluctantly learns new tricks, only to find that who she was in days past was inferior to what she could have been?  Or is Theology the mother that the younger sciences disown, only to discover that they find their own true future selves only by returning home to learn the wisdom of days gone by?  John Milbank’s 2013 book Beyond Secular Order sets out to tell the story of philosophy medieval and modern, and Christian Humanist Profiles is thrilled to have him on the show today.

2 thoughts on “Christian Humanist Profiles 24: John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order

  1. Thank you for this interview on CH Profiles.  This was my first substantial introduction to John Milbank, and I loved it.  My favorite part was the discussion on causality and grace versus free will  (32:00 to 36:00).  Quotes that really grabbed my attention include:
    “Often it seems to me these debates arise because people won’t accept that God’s causality and other causalities are on completely different levels.  So to affirm God’s causality is not to deny secondary causality . . ”
    “God is qualifying our freedom even when he is fully determining things.”
    “They [God’s causality and human causality] are not in competition and they are not collaborating.”
    “God completely determines our freedom, and yet it remains free.  This is a mystery. We cannot understand it.”

    I love how he let’s scripture say what it has to say and simply tells us to live with the tensions that exists in our own minds.  Predestination and election are pervasive throughout the scriptures, and so are commands to repent and believe and obey.  Why try to make election subject to some human contingency (e.g., God looked into the future and saw that we would choose him so then he elected us)?  And why try to make “all men” mean only the invisible elect in 1 Timothy 2:4?  It really resonates with me how Dr. Milbank simply embraces both God’s causality and human causality and lives with the mystery.

    I also found it funny to hear Nathan’s surprised pause when Dr. Milbank said “Erasmus is a little bit semi-Pelagian.”  (35:05)   Maybe Nathan is better described as an Arminian and not a semi-Pelagian.

    Thanks, Nathan, for this interview.  CH Profiles is really, really good stuff.

  2. ChenBuLei Thank you for your response.  I’m glad you’re enjoying the show, and I can say with some confidence that there will be more to enjoy in the weeks to come.

    The chapter on divine and human causation in Beyond Secular Order was indeed a good one, and I get the sense that Milbank is harking back to something like Boethius’s notion of an act as both known eternally and contingent on the created agent in the moment.  I agree that living with the contradiction is ultimately more satisfying, intellectually, than attempting to balance the equation by diminishing either reality. 

    And this is where I think C.S. Lewis commits one of his great crimes: by dismissing the contradiction with his strange illustration of the boat floating down the river, he short-circuits one of the grand paradoxes, God’s knowledge and humanity’s responsibility, that makes medieval theology so powerful as an intellectual tradition.  With that contradiction in place, we can move to the appreciation of the mystery to which you point.  Without it, there’s no mystery in the first place.

    With regards to the surprised pause, I don’t remember that, but by the end of that interview, as I’m sure you heard, I was trying so hard to get in some follow-up questions that I had largely forgotten much of what came early in the recording.

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