Not Summa the Sharpest Thoughts: A Commentary on Milbank’s Postmodern Musings

From ‘Postmodern Critical Augustinianism’

1. The end of modernity, which is not accomplished, yet continues to arrive, means the end of a single system of truth based on universal reason, which tells us what reality is really like.

What is a single system of truth? Is it a language? If so, then there’s been no single system of truth for as long as there have been multiple languages, and there were multiple languages during and before modernity. Perhaps the claim is about ideal, rather than actual, languages: maybe no possible language could express every truth. But how should we count truths? I assume that you’ve simply suppressed the phrase ‘the illusion of’, which would precede ‘a single system’ – or maybe the end of modernity somehow makes it the case that no ideal language can convey all truths, although this was not the case in the past? And what is universal reason? Epistemic norms that bind all rational agents as such? That bind all human beings? A single ratiocinative faculty common to the whole species, the innate functioning of which is but superficially conditioned by environment and culture? Finally, of course, we come to the key question: why should we believe any claim that this sentence could be taken to express? Ted Sider seems to think that some extension of predicate logic, with predicate letters for every perfectly structural property, would be a language capable of expressing all truths. Is he wrong, or at least, on the wrong side of history? Why?

2. With this ending, there ends also the modern predicament of theology. It no longer has to measure up to the accepted secular standards of scientific truth or normative rationality. Nor, concomitantly, to a fixed notion of the knowing subject, which was usually the modern, as opposed to the premodern, way of securing universal reason. This caused problems for theology, because an approach grounded in subjective aspiration can only precariously affirm objective value and divine transcendence.

With this ending, there ends also the modern predicament of astrology. It no longer has to measure up to the accepted astronomical standards of scientific truth or normative rationality. But isn’t it a predicament for theology if it is no better off than astrology? Let’s return to earth. Closing your eyes and counting to 17 before you cross the street no longer has to measure up to the standards of scientific truth or normative rationality accepted by those who look both ways before they cross the street. See the predicament now?

3. In postmodernity there are infinitely many possible versions of truth, inseparable from particular narratives. Objects and subjects are, as they are narrated in a story. Outside a plot, which has its own unique, unfounded reasons, one cannot conceive how objects and subjects would be at all. If subjects and objects only are, through the complex relations of a narrative, then neither objects are privileged, as in premodernity, nor subjects, as in modernity. Indeed, what matters are structural relations, which constantly shift; the word ‘subject’ now indicates a point of potent “intensity” which can rearrange given structural patterns.

In propositional logic there are infinitely many possible versions of truth: there’s ‘P’, ‘P∨P’, ‘P∧P’, and so on. It’s not clear that these logical equivalences bear any interesting relation to narrative, though. And are the reasons of plot really unique and unfounded? Hamlet dies, in part, because he’s the protagonist of a tragedy; here reasons of plot seem to be founded in considerations of genre. Your obscure comments on structural relations, moreover, seem to anticipate arguments made by James Ladyman and Don Ross, who (as it so happens) explicitly profess a commitment to scientism. You and they are both faced with the same basic problem: how could relations possibly be prior to their relata?

8. But is this really all that can be said? That Christianity is just ‘on a level’ with other practices, other discourses? Not quite. First, it can be argued that Christianity can become ‘internally’ postmodern in a way that may not be possible for every religion and ideology. I mean by this that it is possible to construe Christianity as suspicious of notions of fixed essences in its approach to human beings, to nature, to community, and to God, even if it has never fully escaped the grasp of a ‘totalising’ metaphysics. Through its belief in creation from nothing it admits temporality, the priority of becoming and unexpected emergence. A reality suspended between nothing and infinity is a reality of flux, a reality without substance, composed only of relational differences and ceaseless alterations. (Augustine, De Musica) Like nihilism, Christianity can, should, embrace the differential flux.

But what is so important about embracing the flux? Perhaps it is that the flux is what reality is really like. But we can hardly assess such a claim without addressing those difficult issues of norms and truth that you dodged so inelegantly above. Perhaps it is because we cannot but believe in flux at the end of modernity anyway. But this, surely, would just be to say that it is important for Christianity to be conformed to the thinking of this world. Has not Christ overcome the world? Is not every thought to be taken captive in obedience to him? Besides which, it is quite patently not the case that we must believe in flux. Most analytic metaphysicians would not accept this very hazily sketched ontology, and they have thought such matters through more clearly and persistently than anyone.

39 (excerpt). The correspondence of Christ to God, or the identity of the entire ‘pattern’ of his life (which is what persona really implies, not any substantive ‘element’) with the Logos, only makes sense within the the broader context of the ecclesial ‘way’ to God. For the ‘pattern’ of Jesus’s life is only provisionally and canonically complete; as the ‘context’ for the new society it cannot ‘belong’ to an ‘individual’, and this is why one should hold on to, but re-interpret, the Chalcedonian insight that Jesus possessed no human hypostasis. For the ‘patterns’ or ‘coherencies’ of our lives, never belong to us, are not completed at our deaths, and can be repeated, or even more fully realised, by others.

Is that really what persona implies? Have you any evidence for this claim, or do you no longer have to measure up to the accepted standards of historical truth? And why should we deny that Jesus had a human hypostasis? For clearly Jesus had a human pattern of life: he was born, passed from infancy to maturity, and he died. If it is only a matter of Jesus’s pattern of life flowing out of himself and into the Christian community, then, as you note, everybody’s pattern of life flows outwards to others: is there not a human hypostasis in all the earth? And what are we to say of the natures?


6 thoughts on “Not Summa the Sharpest Thoughts: A Commentary on Milbank’s Postmodern Musings

  1. Good ranting.

    Only point I’d pick up on is this: ‘how could relations possibly be prior to their relata?’ My impression is that a proper approach to that question wouldn’t look for priority: that objects/subjects in relation is as basic as we can get in our accounts of reality, so we have to take relata and relations in at exactly the same time. (Admittedly, you are not tying yourself to a view which places relays as prior to relations, in the way Milbank does, so I might well not actually be disagreeing with you here. Worth writing anyway, just to be safe.)


  2. I can’t believe John Milbank is the representative of postmodern theology in Britain… With friends like these etc.


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