The Shadow of Empire: Radical Orthodoxy and the Limits of Any Possible Christian Socialism

The third tendency in contemporary political theology which we need to address —Radical Orthodoxy— seems at first to be very different in both its sources and its aims. Where the Dark Enlightenment melds hierarchical traditionalism with right accelerationist technological disruption and transhumanism, and what we have called Dark Liberation dresses an indirect apologetic for Capital in costumes from the barricades, Radical Orthodoxy, whatever else one thinks about it, seems to be at once genuinely conservative, in the sense of re-affirming the historic teachings of the Church and its role —and that of transhistorical community and enduring institutions generally— in the human civilizational project, and authentically committed to transcending capitalism. And at the level of its surface claims and arguments, this is certainly true. Milbank not only attempts to reground theologically an analogical metaphysics of participation (Milbank 2006a); he advances an analysis of capitalist development and of the current situation as just precisely an “enclosure of the sacred” and regards not only the current return of the religious, but the whole history of socialism as a movement of resistance to this enclosure (Milbank 2006b). And where other poststructuralist theology retain from its secularist past the anti-Catholicism (for what is “globolatinity” (Derrida 2001) but a code word for the Catholic?) which was always its real meaning, Milbank calls for a renewed Catholicity as the real meaning of Europe and of the West. But in its philosophical and theological sources and its political positions, Radical Orthodoxy ultimately bears the marks of infection by the Heideggerian virus as the political theologies we discussed in Dark Liberation. Milbank rejects the traditional way in which Mediterranean and European civilization has grounded the sacred —through an autonomous metaphysics of Esse— and attributes the turn towards a univocal metaphysics, which he sees as the root of the enclosure of the sacred, to the influence of Islam. He furthermore wrongly includes under the category of univocal metaphysics all non-Christian ontologies, missing the very different way in which the question of Being is posed as well as answered across humanity’s diverse ways. While capturing profoundly the deep roots of capitalism in the Protestantism and especially the English Reformation, he misses the specificity of alternative Franciscan and technocratic secular variants of univocity. He recognizes as only a few others have (Mansueto 1985, 1988, 2002a, 2010, 2016) that much historic socialism was a movement of resistance to capitalist modernization, but fails to analyze fully the relationship between these movements of resistance and technocratic, alterimperial, and humanistic variants of socialism.

We will begin by situating Radical Orthodoxy in the context of recent Catholic theology. We will then proceed to analyze the underlying logic which links its sociological, philosophical, theological, and political arguments. We will then turn to a critique and explain why, Milbank’s many powerful insights notwithstanding, the tendency ultimately succumbs to the Heideggerian virus and fails in ways which demonstrate the necessity of breaking not only with Heidegger but ultimately with Christianity itself.

Theological Lineages

In order to understand Radical Orthodoxy, we need to situate it in the contemporary political theological spectrum, and more specifically in the context of the range of broadly “Catholic” theologies which fed into and emerged from the Second Vatican Council, and more broadly to understand the political-theological significance of the Council itself.

The Second Vatican Council must be seen as part of the long process of adaptation the part of Catholicism generally and the papacy in particular to the formation of the sovereign nation state and to the liberal, democratic, and socialist revolutions. And this is part of the larger history of the relationship between Church and Empire. Historically, the Catholic Church had carved out for itself both sociologically and theologically a position superior to but distinct from the political sphere represented by the Roman Empire and its successor states. This settlement, expressed in and embraced by the Church in the political theology of Thomas Aquinas respected the autonomy of the political sphere and entrusted secular lords with the task of governing in accord with natural law and with specifically with guiding humanity towards the realization of its natural end—the full development of its natural capacities, intellectual and moral. The Church was responsible for leading humanity to full theosis, which we desire but cannot achieve except by grace, but also for holding the secular lords accountable for governing in accord with natural law. The Church had the right to dissolve the bonds between a people and their government, though not to usurp secular rule itself.

This position was never popular with the emerging absolutist states in Europe that developed with the Norman Conquests, the Crusades, the Reconquista, and the Conquests of Africa, the Americas, and Asia and these monarchies tended to support Augustinian theologies, such as that of Anonymous of York (Goerner 1965) which modeled royal authority on an absolute divine sovereignty which Thomas rejected and which elevated Jesus’ royal above his priestly office. Some of these theologies fed into Protestantism and others into Gallicanism and other nationalistic tendencies and, in spite of the a resurgence, based in large part on support from monarchies which rejected the Reformation primarily for geopolitical reasons, Thomism tended to lose influence over the period leading up to the middle or end of the nineteenth century. It was only with the defeat of the ancien regimes, with which it had been allied against the liberal, democratic, and socialist revolutions that the Church turned decisively back to Thomas and resumed its role as guarantor of natural law, mounting a critique of capitalist exploitation and advocating for the right of workers to organize, a living wage, and public support for education, health care, and social insurance. This led to the emergence of Christian Democratic parties which exercised a kind of joint rule in Europe with Social Democrats throughout the postwar period, but it did little to reinvigorate the Church’s influence on the spiritual life of Europe. Among other things, the Second and Third Thomisms which dominated Catholic theology, by making such a sharp distinction between nature and grace, were seen as denying any ultimate spiritual significance to this world and to human history. Appeals to mitigate capitalist exploitation might win votes from peasants and workers who still experienced this world as a “vale of tears” and remained embedded in traditional communities and oriented toward otherworldly beatitude towards their final good. But it was not going to draw support from the bourgeoisie and middle strata who, if they voted for the Christian Democrats, did so as a bulwark against socialism and who found the meaning off their lives in inner worldly activity, be it the accumulation of capital or the exercise of a liberal profession.

The nouvelle theologie which fed into the Council was an attempt to address this problem by softening the distinction between nature and grace and making more explicit the sense in which human history —including the changes shaping the modern world— is itself a participation in the life of God. It is worth citing the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church and the World, which affirms this new theology, at some length.

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.

Hence this Second Vatican Council, having probed more profoundly into the mystery of the Church, now addresses itself without hesitation, not only to the sons of the Church and to all who invoke the name of Christ, but to the whole of humanity. For the council yearns to explain to everyone how it conceives of the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today.

Therefore, the council focuses its attention on the world of men, the whole human family along with the sum of those realities in the midst of which it lives; that world which is the theater of man’s history, and the heir of his energies, his tragedies and his triumphs; that world which the Christian sees as created and sustained by its Maker’s love, fallen indeed into the bondage of sin, yet emancipated now by Christ, Who was crucified and rose again to break the strangle hold of personified evil, so that the world might be fashioned anew according to God’s design and reach its fulfillment.

God did not create man for life in isolation, but for the formation of social unity. So also it has pleased God to make men whole and save them not merely as individuals, without any mutual bonds, but by making them into a single people…

This communitarian character is developed and consummated in the work of Jesus Christ … In His preaching He clearly taught the sons of God to treat one another as brothers …

He founded after his death and resurrection a new brotherly community composed of all those who receive Him in faith and in love.

This solidarity must be constantly increased until that day on which it will be brought to perfection. Then, saved by grace, men will offer flawless glory to God as a family beloved of God and of Christ their Brother (Vatican II: Gaudium et Spes 32).

The vision here is one of a humanity which, created in the image of a triune God, is essentially social in nature, developing its capacity for solidarity throughout the course of one single history, a solidarity which is consummated in the work of Christ, and brought to perfection in the Kingdom of God. In the place of the old dualistic theology with its sharp distinction between the finite human, secular, lay, realm on the one hand, and the divine, sacred, clerical, sacramental realm on the other, we see a unified process of divine-human activity pointing towards a τελoσ which transcends history only in the sense of being beyond our finite human comprehension. Everything we do, however, which authentically builds up solidarity, is a real contribution to the building of the Kingdom, and not merely a finite, nonsalvific participation in building the true city of human laws.

At the same time, the conciliar documents are theologically and philosophically ambiguous and softening the distinction between nature and grace can lead in two very different directions. On the one hand, by stressing the sense in which “natural” humanity is already participating in the life of God and the sense in which “grace” is structured into the very nature of reality, the new theology can be read as endowing secular activity with ultimate spiritual significance, quite apart from the authority of the Church or participation in the sacraments. On the other hand, if everything good is already “grace” and if by grace we insist on understanding the free gift of a personal God mediated through the sacraments by the hierarchical priesthood and subject to the authority of the Church, then everything good is radically dependent on divine action in a way which, frankly, would make most Calvinists blush.

These two possibilities soon developed into two competing theological trends, associated with two different pastoral strategies. The first argued for what amounted to a strengthening of the Church’s support for the broadly progressive civilizational aspirations of the popular classes, and situating these aspirations in the broader spiritual context of the Catholic narrative. This group included both those who argued for an alliance alliance with the poor and the working classes–the so-called preferential option for the poor– even if this meant collaboration or alliance with the communist left and those who focused on the aspirations of the aspirations off the professional middle class or new petty bourgeoisie of the “North Atlantic.”

Participation in popular struggles tended to produce a “leftist” or “liberationist” interpretation of the conciliar theology. Partly this resulted from the application of historical materialist sociology in the social-analytic stage of the “see/judge/act” process. Increasingly, leaders and participants in the base communities alike began to understand that realization of the historic aims of Social Catholicism were impossible within the context of a market driven global economy. The political aims of Catholic organizers began to drift leftward until they were indistinguishable from those of secular socialists and the distinction between these secular aims and the ultimate spiritual ends of humanity tended to disappear.

God makes history. Why? Because by becoming one with the lot that every person has in history (Gaudium et Spes 22) he converts history, seemingly profane history … into the road by which the individual has access to transcendence and therefore salvation (Gaudium et Spes 22) … The historical work of all people will lead, by the grace of God to eschatological metahistory (Segundo 1985:69).

As liberation theology gradually gained influence in the Catholic Church during the 1960s and 1970s, a right opposition emerged which argued that communism remained the Church’s principal adversary, and that while building or rebuilding a base among the poor of the Third World generally, and Latin America in particular, was vitally important, this work must be carried out within the context of a geopolitical alliance with the bourgeois states of the West, and an intense ideological struggle against dialectical materialism, feminism, and other forms of secularism. This is the course preferred by Woytila, Ratzinger, and by the international theological movement organized around the journal Communio.

The theological key to Communio-theology can be found in Love Alone, a small book published more than fifty years ago by one of the trend’s most creative theologians, Hans Urs von Balthasar (von Balthasar 1968). Von Balthasar distinguishes between three approaches to theological reflection: the cosmological, the anthropological and the “aesthetic.” The cosmological approach is the method of traditional Catholic theology, which used the concepts of Greek philosophy, Platonic or Aristotelian, as a criterion for the interpretation of the scriptures and the teachings of the church. Thus, in cosmological theology, the doctrine of God or the Trinity is explained in terms of philosophical categories of being, essence, person, etc. The anthropological approach is the method of most modern theology, which takes its categories from modern philosophy, or, by extension, from the social sciences, and interprets the tradition in terms of these categories. According to this perspective God is the perfectly good will of the liberals, the “ground of authentic being” of the existentialists, –or the liberator of the oppressed.

The difficulty of both of these approaches, von Balthasar argues, is that they reduce God, and thus divine love, to a postulate of human reason, something understandable, and in a sense necessary in human terms –something other than the fully free and unmerited love through which God reveals himself to us in the scriptures.

Christianity is destroyed if it lets itself be reduced to a transcendental presupposition of man’s self-understanding, whether in thought or in life, in knowledge or in action (1968:43) … The moment I think that I have understood the love of another person for me –for instance on the basis of laws of human nature, or because of something in me– then this love is radically misused and inadequate, and there is no possibility of a response. True love is always incomprehensible, and only so is it gratuitous (von Balthasar 1968: 44).

This is a critical point. What von Balthasar is suggesting is that any attempt to understand revelation in terms of rational, human criteria, be they Platonic, Aristotelian, Thomist, Kantian, Existentialist, or Marxist, has the result of reducing the love which is revelation to merely a necessary, and in some sense merited, reflection of our own human nature, or of the structure of being in general. To put this in another way, the communio created by divine love becomes simply a community of mutual interdependence, in which cooperation is rationally comprehensible on the basis of definite natural or social laws, and the ultimate purpose of which is the satisfaction of individual desires –rather than a communion based on self-sacrificial love which is spontaneous, gratuitous, and incomprehensible in terms of anything which we know about human nature. Such a rational harmony does not really overcome the egoism of the individual, and thus is not genuinely or fully redeeming in character. It is this danger which makes von Balthasar and Ratzinger so cautious about any rationalistic hermeneutic. Dialectical and historical materialism is simply the most radical variant of the rationalism they seek to combat. Their strictures would apply as fully to Rahner as they do to Segundo or the Boffs, and, perhaps, more fully than they do to Guttierez.

Communio-theologians, furthermore, understand love first and foremost as self-sacrifice, modeled on the substitutionary work of Jesus on the cross.

The sign of Christ can only be deciphered if His human love and surrender ‘even unto death’ is read as the manifestation of absolute Love .. His task, in Love is to allow the sins of the world to enter into him who is dispossessed out of love of God –to become the `lamb of God who bears the guilt of the world (1 John 1:29) and my sins … This is the dogma –the dogma of vicarious suffering, of bearing the guilt of others’ which in the last analysis determines whether a theology is anthropological or christocentric … For it is precisely with this act that really unaccountable, inconceivable love begins and ends; a love moreover which qua love is self evidently divine (von Balthasar 1968: 1982).

It should be apparent at this point that von Balthasar has utterly and completely abandoned the Catholic tradition in favor of something like a sacramentalized and clericalized Lutheranism. It should thus come as no surprise that von Balthasar and his comrades in the Communio movement should adopt a typically Lutheran stand towards the market system, subjecting economic individualism to constant moral denunciations while opting for a de-facto geopolitical alliance with the bourgeois states of Europe and North America. Indeed, through the efforts of Karol Woytila, Communio played a critical role in providing organizational and ideological support to the anticommunist opposition in Central and Eastern Europe–particularly in Poland. In this way they helped to demolish over seventy years of socialist construction, which had built up the planet’s premiere technological, artistic, scientific, and philosophical apparatus. This anticommunist campaign has been accompanied by a frontal assault on the women’s movement, which Communio seems to regard as fully as dangerous as communism.

Radical Orthodoxy should be seen as an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of both liberation theology and the Communio trend. On the one hand, Radical Orthodoxy is first and foremost a critique of secularism which it sees as intimately bound up with the capitalist project and argues that by embracing as much secular social theory as it did, liberation theology effectively abandons Christianity and becomes precisely the humanistic secularism which Ratzinger charges that it is. At the same time, Radical Orthodoxy wants to take seriously the sense in which everything participates in the life of God in proportion to its nature, which it regards as the foundation of Catholic sacramentality, and thus to affirm the struggle for social justice and indeed for socialism as a constitutive dimension, if not the fullness, of human salvation. It does this, we will see, by making a distinctive political-theological move, making the Church and not the State the architectonic human society.

Radical Orthodoxy

In his early work, Milbank largely accepts the Heideggerian critique of ontotheology and argues, in effect, that the whole dialectical tradition is ultimately grounded in an ontology of violence in which will is pitted against will. This is illustrated for him not only in modern social theory, but also in the older dialectical ethics of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Even Plato’s ideal state, he claims, is an “armed camp,” and Aristotle’s whole concept of virtue is really just transformation of a fundamentally military ethic of heroism. Indeed, he points out Aristotle counsels his students to be haughty to those beneath them in station and to make sure that others depend on them (Milbank 1990).

Against this ontology of violence, Milbank proposes an ontology of peace, the carrier of which is the Christian Church which, following Augustine, he calls the “Other City,” founded on different loves. Milbank argues that when we recognize Being as difference, we learn a nonpossessive love which at once cancels and preserves the distance between persons. This is the creative love of God, who brings into Being creatures different from Himself and authentically free, and who calls us to love each other in the same way. There is, Milbank argues, no way to ground this ontology dialectically; indeed to try to do so is to yield to the very ontology of violence which seeks truth through struggle and contradiction.

Gradually, Milbank has clarified his position, and granted greater space for metaphysics. Even in Theology and Social Theory we find the seeds of an alternative critique of ontotheology, one which locates its point of origin not in Plato and Aristotle, or even in the Latin middle ages generally, but rather in John Duns Scotus, whose doctrine of the univocity of Being laid the groundwork for both the Reformation and secular modernity. What this doctrine does (and here I am clarifying and extending Milbank a bit) is to make the difference between God and human beings quantitative rather than qualitative. On the one hand this approach grounds divine authority in power rather than love; on the other hand it opens up the possibility, which defines humanity—that human beings, by building power (through, for example, scientific and technological progress) might be able to transcend finitude and achieve divinity.

In a more recent paper (Milbank 2006a) Milbank further develops this thesis, dating the “ontotheological lapse” clearly to around 1300 and, following Benedict XVI, attributes this ontotheological lapse to the growing influence of Islam which, together with Judaism, because of the primacy which they both give to the law over the image as disclosing the divine, he deems resistant to an analogical metaphysics of participation. Only Thomas, along with Nicholas Cusanus and a few others, escaped this lapse and conserved an analogical metaphysics of participation.

The change in historical analysis has not, however, altered the basic character of Milbank’s position. He argues, in effect, for a reflection on being and on society in the light of faith –in effect an organic neo-Augustinianism. Methodologically, this means the primacy of theology; substantively it means an ontology of difference and an ethic of nonpossessive love which is grounded, ultimately, only in revelation and specifically in Christ. Indeed, Milbank rejects any effort on the part of theology to draw on secular social theory. More specifically, he argues that this theory is not simply “agnostic” with respect to theological questions but that it represents a secularization of historically Christian positions, a secularization which follows necessarily from the univocal metaphysics which defines all modern thought.

This sounds, in many respects, like Caputo’s weak theology (Caputo 2006.) Where it differs is in Milbank’s distinctive understanding of Christianity. The doctrine of the incarnation for Milbank uniquely grounds a metaphysics of participation in the divine. This, in turn gives his ethic of nonpossessive love a distinctly Catholic flavor. Where the weak theologians have found in Christianity an iconoclastic critique of all structures of domination, Milbank finds the image of a divine economy which includes and transforms social structures, creating a new ecclesial order based on the gift relationship. But I anticipate …

In order to understand the real significance of Milbank’s position, we need to examine his social and historical analysis. In an unpublished paper (Milbank 2006b) Milbank begins by arguing for a mode of analysis which takes from Marxism its broader concern with systemic and structural analysis, but which avoids economic determinism, situating the economic within a broader field which not only includes by which is ultimately defined by the religious. Following (but rather substantially revising) Bataille, he calls this perspective a “general economy”.

The advantage of Marxism, as opposed to ‘postmodern’ analyses, would seem to be the way it offers a grasp of the overall logic of societies and a single diagnosis of oppression which thereby allows a concerted resistance to this in the name of greater justice. But the disadvantage would appear to be the surrender to an economic determinism which only fits the facts through an obvious forcing … Yet suppose that there is a third option here … following Bataille (yet without his death cult), we try to fuse Marx with Mauss in order to diagnose for the various historical phases the operation of a ‘general economy’ – or in other words the entire logic of both production and exchange in every sphere – economic, political, religious, reproductive, erotic, imaginary, and so forth (although the distinction of spheres is itself a historical upshot and will only sometimes apply).

Milbank suggests that the precapitalist economy

was not an economy in the restricted sense, but a mode of general economy which held the material and the symbolic together. It is rather capitalism which invents a distinct ‘economic’ realm, indifferent to the political standards of the just wage and the just price, to the content of what is produced and to the mode of government which secures the freedom of the market.

Indeed, capitalism, for Milbank, is founded on the enclosure of the sacred.

as Karl Polanyi long ago acknowledged in The Great Transformation, what capitalism initially accumulates or ‘encloses’ is not simply that which serves people’s ‘real’ needs. Beyond the most basic level of subsistence the latter is indefinable. What capitalism really encloses, … is ‘the sacred’, taken in the very broadest sense. That is to say, it seizes both land and people who previously have been considered to occupy positions, arrangements and roles of social, political, cosmic and religious as well as merely ‘economic’ significance.

This enclosure does not, however, create purely secular social order. On the contrary, it is the product of what Milbank calls a “Christian heresy.” This heresy is nothing other than Protestantism itself, which is founded on the same univocal metaphysics which lies behind the modern project generally and which, by its very nature, divests the material of its participation in the divine, and thus of its symbolic significance. The intimate link between Capitalism and Protestantism is apparent in the English Reformation which, for Milbank (extending the insights of Weber and Moore), becomes the unique constitutive act of capitalism itself.

Nevertheless, the emergence of fully-fledged capitalism first in an England and then a Scotland permeated by Calvinist influence, now appears newly significant. In England the aristocracy and gentry and even their tenant farmers connected their new capitalist agrarian power with the memory of the secularization of sacred land in the seizure of the monasteries (so setting in train the ‘gothic haunting of the whigs’ in their houses built of ecclesiastical rubble) …

And the role of the English Reformation in capitalist development was not only economic.

… It is not simply the case that Protestantism ideologically supported the de-sacramentalisation of terrain, it is also true that the emergent capitalist economy was itself part and parcel of a new less sacramental mode of religious practice. Thus in the old ‘religious economy’, a material surplus was generally converted into sacred buildings and liturgy combined with a store of public charitable resources all managed by lay fraternities whose practice approximated to that of the celibate clergy. But in the new ‘religious economy’ the surplus was re-cycled for the expansion of material production and the growth of profit, and the poor were now subject to a disciplinary management in a re-definition of the very nature of ‘charity’. The entire realm of material production and exchange, instead of being seen as a participation in the divine-human commercium itself, was now rather seen as the realm of proof of divine arbitrary benefit for the body alone, a field of testing for the reality of inward faith and finally as one of oblique and unreliable proof of election.

The capitalist economy in the narrower sense, and the modern sovereign nation state function within the context of this heretical theology, as expressions of humanity’s unrestricted, vice-regental dominion over a desacralized earth. The current situation is, for Milbank, first and foremost simply a radical extension of this process of enclosure, to the point that there is, in fact, almost nothing left to enclose. For contemporary capitalism, in other words, nothing is sacred.

Because of this, any resistance to capitalism in the present period will inevitably be a religious resistance, and will, in fact, take a very specific form:

Refusal now is likewise is liable to take on a more absolute and global political form: as David Harvey notes, contemporary struggles are less over relative wage and working conditions as over attempts to resist further enclosures of whole ways of life. Hence they tend to occur in areas still ‘on the margins’ of the globalizing process (South America and India: resistance to crop-patenting, ending of Coca production, dam projects etc) but can nonetheless enlist to some degree the solidarity of concerned consumers in the richer parts of the world – thus globalization also permits the possibility of world-networks linking worker with consumer co-operatives …

… today the only persisting struggles against capital are in some measure struggles to protect sacrality and often include specifically religious dimensions.

Indeed, Milbank argues that

.. successful socialism has always been ‘conservative’ in that it has necessarily only been able to build upon inherited ‘sacred’ values, since these alone symbolically fuse matter and the ideal, thereby posing the only possible alternative to mere exchange value, whose other phase (as Baudrillard divulged) was pure use-value seen as production for its own sake. This means that the ‘route to socialism’ lies not only not necessarily through capitalism, but rather not at all through capitalism. Instead it lies through the bending of inherited sacral orders in more egalitarian directions, augmenting certain more democratic, participatory elements which are usually already there to some degree.

This said, Milbank does not believe that just any religion provides an adequate basis for resistance to global Capital. Indeed, he argues, nonmonotheistic cultures, such as “Japan, China, and most of India … lack the counter-globalizing force and reach such as is most certainly provided by Judaism, Islam, and Christianity (Milbank 2006b) In another essay Milbank lumps together all non-Christian metaphysical systems under the heading of “impersonal religions which celebrate fate or the void” and identifies them with the nihilism of modernity (Milbank 1999).

But most monotheisms also fail to live up to Milbank’s standards. Judaism, he argues, has largely allied itself with an evangelical Christianity for which the establishment of the state of Israel is a sign of the end times, while reducing its own religious content to a “wooden legalism” which identifies spirituality with ethics and ethics with the American constitutional order (Milbank 2006b). Protestantism, on the other hand, cannot catalyze resistance to capitalism because it is itself the very root of capitalism, and survives as a “religious supplement” only to explain the brutality of the market, to contain the damage which capitalism does to the social fabric, and because it can itself function as a type of capitalist enterprise (Milbank 2006b).

Milbank, interestingly enough, has little to say about Islam in his “Geopolitical Theology.” On the one hand, he acknowledges that some manifestations of contemporary Islam, such as the Iranian revolution, represent real resistance to the enclosure of the sacred and thus to global Capital, though he seems to attribute this largely to the influence of European Marxism and conservative romanticism, and only partly to the greater influence of mystical traditions and philosophy. On the other hand, he argues that the sharia lacks the specificity to ground any real resistance to capitalism, and seems to suggest that Sunni Islam in particular tends to a rational legal ethical universalism which is ultimately compatible with the capitalist world order. Indeed, as we noted above, Milbank attributes the modern turn towards a univocal metaphysics to the influence of Islam itself (Milbank 2006a).

It is, ultimately, only Catholic Christianity which offers for Milbank the resources necessary to mount an effective resistance to global Capital. This is because, in the Incarnation, Christianity posits the participation of the human in the divine and thus the reversal of the capitalist enclosure of the sacred.

Christianity is also Christendom precisely because it is the religion of the Incarnation. Were its universalizing tendency only a spiritualizing one, as is ultimately more the case for Judaism and Islam, then it would conceive of salvation more simply as our raising ourselves above the local and specific in response to the call of God … It would generously be able to imagine modes of this raising being able to be conveyed in other images and other words: it would be able to be ‘multi-cultural’. But because it is founded on the scandalous and dangerous idea that the infinite was in some sense born from a finite womb, in fulfillment of a particular local tradition, it is committed to the idea that the only way to the spiritually universal is through the gradual conjoining of all times and all spaces in an open-ended continuum of meaning. The project of individual salvation is then inseparable from the project of the pacification of the earth announced by the angels to the shepherds in Luke, which Paul tried to set in motion by establishing a kind of new polity, the ecclesia, that was also an international gift-exchange network (Milbank 2006b).

The Incarnation, in other words, implies a radical transformation of the economy and of the state.

Within the ‘general economy’ of antiquity, the ‘economic’ in the narrower, special sense was confined to the area of household management or its more large-scale equivalent, such as the provisioning of troops. The ‘economic’ existed ultimately to sustain the possibility of a more elevated ‘political life’ of negotiated friendship in debated agreement amongst adult males. But as Mondzain points out, Christian theology now spoke of a ‘divine economy’ that was at the very heart of ‘divine government’ and no subordinate aspect. This ‘economy’ was at once a proportionate distribution of being to the finite creation in various modes and degrees, and at the same time an ‘exceptional’ extra-legal kenotic and dispensatory adaptation of the ‘theological’ inner-divine Trinitarian life to the creation and especially the human creation, through processes of ‘provision’ that included the ‘economy of salvation’ (Milbank 2006b).

The Incarnation also has political implications:

if the Father only exercises his omnipotence through a sharing of himself in the image, that monarchic authority is here re-defined … The Trinity is a ‘monarchy’ Gregory averred, but only in the sense of a supreme unified arche whose principle of order already exists as a set of reciprocal relations or scheses. The divinely economic ‘rule by image’ is therefore not a deceiving bedazzlement by a reserved and manipulating paternal will, but rather the always-already begun emergence of paternity only in filial expression, which is then open to interpretative and loving reception by the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity (Milbank 2006b).

This points, ultimately towards

the primacy of an ecclesial rule which surpasses the mere imposition of law and the upholding of regulation, but rather reaches economically to people’s detailed needs and the endeavour to reconcile all creatures to all other ones, while permitting the people themselves to participate in this economizing transmission. This is not, as Mondzain implies, an ideological sanctification of a rule which the iconoclasts were trying to secularize, but just the opposite: an attempt, equivalent to that of Augustine in the west, relatively to secularize the imperial power and to insist on the primacy of trans-political social purposes (Milbank 2006b).

This “primacy of ecclesial rule” lies, ultimately, at the heart of Milbank’s project.

A truly orthodox Catholic position would demand radical resistance to the American empire, capitalism and conservative evangelicalism …

… the only hope for the future substantive peace of global inter-related harmonious consensus lies in re-inventing in some fashion a Catholic mode of terrestrial occupation, both sacramental and political … Secular authorities should remain independently occupied with the things of time, but the ultimate measure of justice here is the degree to which this occupation opens already the way to human deification under grace. To sustain this measure, the Church should now encourage the social growth of a far more egalitarian mode of economic gift-exchange, beyond anything so far known in Christendom, yet in consistency with its even as yet still unenclosed sacral commonalities (Milbank 2006b).

Practically, Radical Orthodoxy has been associated with Blue Labor and, to a lesser extent, with the Red Tories. Blue Labor attempts to reground the socialist project in an ethics of virtue and to reframe Labour policy in a way which emphasizes localism and subsidiarity, as well as social institutions which cultivate virtue. It has tended towards soft Euroskepticism and some hesitation with regard to open immigration. The Red Tories on the other hand tend to blend a more organic traditionalism at the theological level with a commitment to paternalistic policies which protect but do not empower the working classes.


There is much to commend in Milbank’s work. Milbank’s analysis of the univocal metaphysics which at once expresses and legitimates the secular project is profoundly insightful and has deepened and enriched my own work. And his use of Bataille’s theory of “general economy” allows him to analyze the Reformation and Primitive Accumulation as part of a single, global process, so that there is not merely an “affinity” between the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, as Weber argued, nor is Calvinism merely the “ideological superstructure” of a process of primitive accumulation which was, at the “real” level, entirely economic; the Reformation –along with some similar developments in Baroque and Enlightenment Catholicism– and Primitive Accumulation constitute, on the contrary, a single, inseparable whole. Milbank is correct that capitalism is, at root, an enclosure of the sacred and that resistance to Capital requires resistance to further enclosures and the rebuilding of community beyond the state. There are, however, some critical errors, both in his sociohistorical analysis and his underlying theoretical choices, which point him in some very dangerous directions.
The heart of the problem concerns his claim that only Christianity can ground a resistance to Capital —and especially his profoundly negative attitude towards Judaism and Islam in particular. There is an extensive literature documenting the role of essentially all religious traditions in resistance to capitalist development, and especially in the resistance to the penetration of capitalist relations of production into the countryside (Alper 1987, Sarkisyanz 1965, Wolf 1969, Lancaster 1988).

But Milbank’s mistake here is not merely historical; it is philosophical and theological. Milbank seems to believe that Judaism and Islam and indeed all religious traditions apart from Catholic Christianity are incompatible with a metaphysics of participation (Milbank 2008a). This is a result of a his classification of ontologies as either univocal or analogical, and insistence that only an anaological ontology makes a metaphysics of participation possible. First, Milbank passes over too quickly the fact that the debate about univocity, analogy, and equivocity was originally about not metaphysics but rather about language, and more specifically about the way in which we predicate things about God. This means, in turn, that while we certainly can apply the taxonomy to any and all traditions, the meaning of each term is going to differ depending on whether or not the tradition in question uses the term “God” and what they mean by it. And if we apply the taxonomy to an atheistic or nontheistic tradition we need to be clear about what other terms to which we are applying it. Thus understanding God as the Infinite, as Duns Scotus does in his proof of the existence of God (Scotus 1301/1965), tends towards a univocal use of the term Being as the difference between God and creature is quantitative rather than qualitative. But this can lead to some very different conclusions at the level of ethics and spirituality. A univocal metaphysics tends to treat the universe as a zero sum game and thus the classic Aristotelian ethics of virtue or excellence, and the whole aspiration to theosis tends to be read as an affront to divine sovereignty and an attempt to take for oneself what ought to be shared with others. Thus the whole development of a complex analysis of the case diaboli in Scotus and the articulation of an ethics of non-possessive love and respect for difference among Franciscan and other Augustinian theologians —an ethics very much like that advocated by the early Milbank (Ingham 1993). And this is no doubt very much what Duns Scotus and his Franscican party intended. But there are other possibilities. In the Reformed tradition we get an spirituality of radical submission to the divine sovereign and the attempt to bring the entire world of finite beings under His dominion, which it has somehow, inexplicably escaped, simply by existing and having their own needs and purposes. The ” disinterested benevolence” advocated by the very highest Reformed Theologies, such as that of Samuel Hopkins, encodes the demand of Capital that we quite literally “give all” to meet its absolute, unlimited, and inscrutable demands. Even as many Reformed theologians, such as Hopkins and his teacher Jonathan Edwards, criticized aspects of Primitive Accumulation, such as the slave trade and the genocide of indigenous communities, their theology formed the sort of people that Capital requires. But this formation does not really require that God even exist, because Capital is, in essence, an emergent intelligence which is trying to become the Calvinist God by transcending finitude by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress.

If, on the other hand, following Thomas Aquinas, we understand God as Necessary Being, we will incline towards either an analogical or equivocal use of the term Being. This is because there is a qualitative gulf between the way in which God and creatures are said to exist. God has, indeed is— the power of Being as such. Creatures share in God’s Being.

This is the univocity and analogy which Milbank helps us understand.

Something like the a division between univocal, analogical, and equivocal use of language about God remains —at least partially— meaningful in a Jewish or Islamic context. But what we find is actually very considerable diversity and almost certainly some shift in meaning. Thus the Asharite and especially the Wahabi focus on absolute divine sovereignty and the option for an occasionalism in which God creates each moment separately can certainly be read as reflecting radically univocal metaphysics in which anything but radical submission is an unforgivable affront to God. But occasionalism itself implies a rejection of a univocal use of the concept of causality (Lee 2020) which might lead scholars in or of this tradition to regard the resulting metaphysics as something other than univocal. And the rich and complex emmanationist cosmologies of ibn Sina and the Persian illuminationists make sense only in the context of an analogical metaphysics of participation. And yet ibn Sina is generally read as an advocate of the univocity of Being, though with some “nuances.” (Lizzini 2020).

Similarly, Spinoza is ordinarily read as arguing for the univocity of Being, with the distinction between God and creature being simply that between part and whole. But alternative readings are possible if we look carefully at Spinoza’s arguments for the existence of God, which imply the distinction between contingent and necessary being which lies behind the Thomistic analogy of Being. This said, the distinctively Jewish position on the “voice” of Being would seem to be that of Moshe ben Maimon, who argues that our use of the term Being is equivocal, i.e. radically different when applied to God and creatures. But again this does not exclude participation. Thus when we act justly, we “know” God. Thus the concept of da’ath elohim articulated among other places in Hosea. But in the Aristotelian context in which Moshe ben Maimon worked implied that we become God, not in essence to be sure, but accidentally and thus share in God’s Being, a dynamics which also defines Thomistic mystical theology (Aquinas. Summa Theologiae II.45.a2). And the Kabbalistic concept of Tikkun Olam is based on the concept that since there can only be one God, and thus one necessary Being, creation will always be fractured. Human beings do what God cannot: mending the inevitably torn fabric of the universe. We thus participate in the work of God precisely because we exist in an any utterly different way from God.

Where a specifically analogical approach to Being becomes critical, in fact, is in grounding sacramentality. If Being is univocal then everything —and nothing— is sacred. Spirituality is about what we do and the extent of our contribution to realizing the will of God or to actually building or becoming God. If Being is equivocal, then sacramentality in the strict sense (though not necessarily ritual) is impossible. No created thing can mediate the divine. It is the hierarchy of degrees of Being which makes the sacraments possible, as material objects are engaged in ways which communicate one or another aspect of the divine. Thus Milbank’s concern for an analogical metaphysics is fundamentally a defense of the broadly Catholic sacramental system and thus of the specifically sanctifying dimension of hierarchical authority. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, we need to be clear that about what interests are actually being defended. The logic of Milbank’s position defends not so much the displaced peasants and marginalized workers whose commons Capital has enclosed, but rather the clerics and monastics whose lands were also taken and whose authority was undercut by the Reformation and the secular project.

How does all of this shake out when we move outside what I have called the way of justice and liberation (Mansueto 2016) —the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions? The question of the “voice” of language about God and Being appears —at least to the extent that I can determine as a nonspecialist working through English language translations and scholarship— not to have been engaged directly in the Indian tradition. What we have instead is the question about the relationship between Brahman and Atman in the Vedanta tradition and question about svabhava, sunyata, and pratitya-samutpada, or intrinsic self-existence, emptiness, and interdependent origination in the Buddhist tradition. The term Brahman comes from roots which mean the power (-men) to make strong (brah-). The term Atman refers to the self. And here we have three main positions, along with a few attempts to nuance them. The Advaita Vedanta argue that Brahman and Atman are identical, and any distinction between them a product of illusion or Maya to be overcome by meditation. The Vishishtadvaita argue that Brahman is the only reality but is present in and through distinct modes: Parabrahman or Ishvara, the Lord (Vishnu), chit-brahman or sentient beings and achit-brahman or insentient beings. Individual souls or atman are real and permanent. The Dvaita Vedanta argue that Brahman, in the form of Vishnu, is an independent personal God who created separate sentient and insentient beings (Chatterje and Datta 1954).
The profound similarities between the metaphysics of Brahman and that of Esse notwithstanding, it is very difficult to see how to apply the concepts of univocity, analogy, and equivocity here. Does Advaita Vedanta teach univocity because there is only one sort of being and that is Brahman? If so, then this univocity is connected with a very high doctrine of human participation in the life of God. One might expect to find something like an analogy of being among the Vishishtadvaita , but both they and the Dvaita practice a form of Bhakti or devotion to Vishnu which looks rather like Protestantism in the end (Chatterje and Datta 1954). Buddhism makes it even more difficult to apply the taxonomy of various “voices” of the word “being.” This is because Buddhism is nontheistic, so the question of how the term “being” can be predicated of God is moot. Indeed, nothing can be predicated of a God that does not exist. Instead, we have a debate around the extent to which and sense in which the term “being” can be predicated of anything at all. Thus, at the most general level, we have the debate between the Theravada, who argue that it is only atman or the self which lacks svabhava self-existence, so that the impermanence of the phenomenal world is the result of a constant flux of the underlying dharmas or foundational elements of the universe and the Mahayana, who are generally regarded as arguing that all dharmas are empty of inherent existence. —the defining ontological claim of the Mahayana. The Theravada, furthermore, or at least the broader stream of schools which led into what is how called the Theravada, are divided between the Sarvastivadins, who argue that dharmas are real and exist in the past, present, and future, but that phenomenal reality consists of impermanent aggregates and the Sautrantikas and most contemporary Theravadins, who argue that only present dharmas exist. The Mahayana, similarly, is divided between the Madhyamika, who argue that nothing has inherent existence, and the Yogacara, who believe that only mind is real. Some of the higher Mahayana schools such as the Huayen, give a more positive sense to the idea of emptiness, suggesting that the deepest level of reality is that of interdependent origination, the “jewel-net of Indra” which encompasses an infinity of Buddha-worlds, which is just covered over by our illusion of self-existence. Many of these schools also posit the idea of the tathagatagarbha or Buddha-nature, share by all beings, which is at once an underlying, universal capacity for enlightenment and the deepest level of reality. This, in turn, led to sharp debates within the Vajrayana tradition between the Rangtong, for whom sunyata or emptiness is itself the ultimate reality, and the Shengtong, who argue that the teachings regarding emptiness are simply a preparation which clears away conceptual constructs for meditation on a higher Paramarthasatya, or absolute reality (Williams 1989).

Whatever one thinks of the various Buddhist doctrines, the only possible conclusion of even a cursory study of Buddhist metaphysics is that there exists a tremendous diversity in the way the concept of “being” is used, and that there is a movement from a sort of atomistic doctrine stressing the impermanence of all aggregates to a belief in very different levels of reality —or rather degrees of understanding of the one reality. This is not a doctrine off equivocity in the sense the term is used by, say, Moshe Ben Maimon, but it is also clearly not a doctrine of univocity in the sense used by Duns Scotus …

Among the various Chinese traditions, it is possible to argue that the concepts of Tian and Tai Chi (heaven and the great ultimate) operate in something like the way the concept of Being does in traditions influenced by Hellenic philosophy, but this is itself an analogy. Taoism tends to give priority to Wuji or the “non-ultimate,” sometimes read as “non-Being” over Being, and this was one of the loci of debate between Taoists and Confucians in the early centuries of the Common Era, when the Confucians responded with arguments for the priority of being over non-being. But most of the really definitive debates in the Chinese tradition center around whether or not there is a Tao or way which governs the universe (pitting the Legalists against everyone else), whether or not it can be known and expressed in language and concepts (pitting the Taoists against the Confucians), and whether or not we can derive from it rules and practices which promote the growth and development of humanity (also pitting the Taoists against the Confucians). With the exception the Legalist tradition, which rejects all these ideas in favor of an attempt to maintain order and build civilization by means of regulation and punishment, and perhaps some forms of Mohism, which affirms a personal, cosmic sovereign, “participation” in the sense of Milbank understands it, is taken for granted (Fang 1981).

Finally, we should note that any typology of ontologies excludes entirely what we will call the first ways of hunter gather, horticultural, and early agrarian societies, which engaged questions of meaning and value by means of image and story rather than concept and argument. It might be argued that some of the mythic cycles of these societies encoded an implicit ontology which is univocal, analogical, or equivocal. But at least some of the representatives of these traditions would no doubt reply that this misunderstands what their traditions are trying to do.

What this all suggests is that our alternative is not simply between capitalism and a broadly Catholic socialism, but rather between many different ways of being human, each of which understands and acts on our existence in radically different ways, and each of which opens the door to many different possible civilizational projects. In the coming chapters we will survey these possibilities briefly and suggest where they might point in the present period.

Let me be clear that I do not want to diminish the significance of Milbank’s insights regarding the role of a (very specific kind of) univocal metaphysics in the genesis of “modernity”or, more precisely, secularism and capitalism. Secularism is, in its deepest meaning, the conviction that things exist in only one way and that there is, in fact, therefore, only one world, this one, in which everything happens. This is a view shared by mechanistic readings of “modern science” and by Christian fundamentalists, who believe that if anything is true it must be literally true and that, for example, things like the resurrection and the Second Coming, if they happen, happen in a way which could be empirically verified by those present for them. It is the univocity of Being in this sense, and the secularism which it at once articulates and legitimates, which leads to frantic attempts to accumulate Capital in order to bring the creation back under the dominion of God or else to build God technologically and thus transcend finitude. It is a view profoundly worthy of criticism.

This said, precisely because the distinction between the univocal, analogical, and equivocal use of the word “being” constitutes an abstract, formal taxonomy it is of limited use as a way of analyzing traditions outside Europe. Even in the context of Judaism and Islam meanings begin to change, and in India and China and the rest of the world applying this taxonomy amounts to answering questions which haven’t even been posed. And it is deeply troubling, especially in the light of Milbank’s sympathy for Heidegger’s critique ontotheology and and Schmitt’s construction of sovereignty that he applies the taxonomy in a way which has an objectively antisemitic and Islamophobic valence.

Indeed, in the end we must ask why Milbank is so anxious not simply to articulate a Catholic critique of capitalism, distinct from dialectical and historical materalism and to show how it answers certain questions and solves certain problems which historic secular socialism has not, but also to argue (like most secular scientific socialism) that it is the only way. In order to make sense of this, however, we will have to look deeper into the social basis and political valence of Christianity itself, which we will argue is constitutively imperial even if it originated in a Jewish anti-imperial sect. What we will find, from the letters of Paul onward, is a theological core centered not on participation in the life of God, but rather on absolute divine sovereignty, radical depravity, and a demand for absolute submission which, we will show, is at once a reflex of and means of legitimating Empire and, with certain developments, Capital. The insistence, furthermore, that submission take the form of faith in and incorporation into the crucified and resurrected Christ, who was tortured to death by his Father for our sins and then ressurected, marks Christianity as constitutively antisemitic and thus ultimately racist, and constitutively patriarchal. It is antisemitic and racist because it argues that the Jewish —and by implications all other— ways are inadequate and lead only to damnation. And it is patriarchal because it is a religion specifically of submission to a Father who requires unconditional obedience to inscrutable demands, with the only alternative being torture, death, and damnation. And all this plays out within a divine trinity in which the feminine is not only subordinated to the masculine, but actually excluded.

Catholicism, we will argue, softens this, but it does not overcome it.

In order to make this case, we need next to situate Christianity in the context of the larger transhistorical debate regarding what it means to be human, a task to which we now turn.


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  1. This latter paper has long since been removed from the online archive where I first found it, so while I will press forward with my critique, it should not be assumed that Milbank still holds all of the positions he took in this paper, at least in their original form.

2. Milbank’s actual roots are in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, but his theology is intentionally Catholic and seems to address the entire Catholic tradition sufficiently to be treated in this context.

3. By alterimperial we mean the tendency of communist led antimperialist struggles to lead to imperial restoration projects in countries such as Russia and China.

4. See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (New York: Scribners, 1958) and Barrington Moore, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, (Boston: Beacon, 1966)

5. This, at least, is the way in which the debate is presented both in Buddhist doxologies and by contemporary scholars of Buddhism, though in fact there are many variants of both positions, and recent research (Walser 2018) suggests that historically both the theoretical lines of demarcation between traditions and their practical, political and spiritual implications, were less clear.

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