It does not take long, when listening to John Milbank, to discover the fatal flaw.
Milbank says “The only choice in our time is between religion and nihilism”.
Into a plural, multiple, diverse 21st century, RO comes marching in with a old-school binary! From sentence one, as a listener, you start thinking “yeah, that thing you said might be true … IF there is only an either-or option. But if there are layers, any nuance, multiple factors, complexity or any number of other variations … then your argument breaks down pretty quickly. Your proposal only stands up IF your initial simplistic framing of the issue is adopted. ” [like when Milbank calls all of post-modernism a footnote to Nietzsche]
When Milbank says that a purely secular society is untenable… it’s a no-brainer! Of course that would be true. Duh. Only … that’s not exactly the reality we are dealing with.
Of course, the sentence takes on wholly new meaning inside RO’s binary.
I could say the same sentence – but would mean that secular society it is integrated, infused, marbled, or mixed with religion and expired religious forms so thoroughly that it forms a multiplicity of bricolage pluralities … or something like that.
I knew at the top that defenders of RO will say this is too easy a dismissal. One sentence in and I’m already shaking my head in disagreement. I would counter however that – whether you use a foundational analogy or DNA one – when something is predicated on bad material, you don’t have to explore too long to see that it is corrupted or warped – and functionally unusable.
The First Problem Leads to a Second
Once the initial binary is adopted, a consequential effect is offered as a solution. RO thinks that the answer is to go back. Back to Aquinas – to the middle ages when theology was ‘queen of the sciences’. It doesn’t stop there! Going back to Aquinas necessarily means going back Aristotle when greek society was organized into communities called polis.
Many within RO want to see the church re-claim that polis identity. One of RO’s favorite thinkers is Alasdair MacIntyre (famous for his book After Virtue). MacIntyre chooses to reclaim a notion of Aristotle’s approach to the formation of virtuous character within the context of community (polis). Within these communities character is formed by the “enacted narratives” that allows the self to be formed and ones identity to emerge within the continuity (or discontinuity) of the self that is provided by a greater environment. This happens within an embedded or situated environment in which a narrative may be lived out.
I love MacIntyre. I have used his notion of character formation within community and I am rocked by his assessment of our contemporary moral morass. MacIntyre’s concern is justified and his analysis is right on.
In fact, there is only one thing I don’t agree with MacIntyre on – his solution.
MacIntyre closes his book with the character of St. Benedict. who is earlier paired with the likes of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Theresa along with Engels, Marx and Trotsky as “exemplars of certain of the virtues as I understand them”. In the final sentence of the book MacIntyre says that we are waiting for another – albeit different kind – of St. Benedict.
The author looks to the time when virtues were able to survive the dark ages and laments that in our time, however,
“the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”
It is here that my hope in the project fades. Benedict and his Orders existed within framework of Christendom that spanned time periods both before and after his influence. We stand at a precipice of a different kind of boundary that does not share the continuity that Benedict’s did. Thus, even if a new “very different” Benedict figure were to emerge it would be unimaginable that such a figure’s work would be formulated or transmitted in any way that would be recognizable for the very comparison.
Whereas Benedict was embedded within a tradition and reformulated the practices of a tradition, the new pluralistic Benedict would necessarily be inter-traditional at best or non-traditional at worst and would thus be no sort of Benedict due simply to the radical disparity of the environment from which she emerged and the absence of an institutional mechanism that Benedict employed.
A new Benedict within any tradition would therefore not being comparable to the original for the need and the application would be so radically disparate. If a new thinker/leader/organizer were to emerge from our modern context the program would be, one would have to imagine, outside of a historical tradition/expression and would necessarily manifest as a new school of religion altogether.
If one was to employ a comparable rule to the Benedictine in our pluralistic age, it would exist either within an established institutional framework and thus not provide the same role as the original or would be appropriately pluralistic and thus not similar at all in function to the original within its (and subsequent) era. At that point, it would be providing a very different service to the formation of virtuous beings that existed outside of established institutional silos of belief.
I say it all the time: Christianity’s future is not to be found in Europe’s past.
Now I will go further and say that it only appears that going back is a solution – or even a possibility – if one accepts the simple binary initially. RO’s proposal is fatally flawed from the outset.
Post-Script: I chose to not provide references for the quotes in order to avoid the easy ‘anecdotal’ dismissal from RO defenders.
* In fairness, MacIntyre somewhat addressed this concern in 2007 with the 25th anniversary of After Virtue in a new prologue for the 3rd edition. He explains:
Benedict’s greatness lay in making possible a quite new kind of institution, that of the monastery of prayer, learning, and labor, in which and around which communities could not only survive, but flourish, in a period of social and cultural darkness.
“The appeal of such a character would indeed be spectacular and, for the reasons stated, their work would be somewhat unprecedented. Outside of the existing continuity experienced by the original Benedict, this new set of rules would bridge gaps unimaginable to the original.”