Week of Milbank, post 3: René Girard needs more imagination

Posted by on September 28, 2005 at 11:00 am.

In my third series of posts on John Milbank (and second from his Theology & Social Theory), I wanted to touch on Milbank’s treatment of the French cultural critic René Girard. Girard himself offers a kind of Augustinian “two cities” way of interpreting history, so Milbank doesn’t want to pass up his contributions to a metanarrative of history.

If possible, I only want to touch briefly on Milbank’s initial assessment of Girard. He thinks Girard makes some good headway, but doesn’t go far enough. His main criticisms of Girard are two-fold:

1. Girard’s theory of religion “stands fully in the positivist tradition” which means that “religion can be ‘explained’ in social terms; social science replaces philosophy and is itself identical with true religion, in this case Christianity, slightly reinterpreted.” As we saw yesterday, Christianity’s metanarrative needs to come first before, say, ‘social science’, and not the other way around. Girard outs himself in his treatment of desire not fore the “objectively desirable, but only for what others deem to be desirable” (394).

2. Girard’s Christology finds itself lacking: while it notes Jesus’s refusal of violence, “he allows little place for the concret ‘form’ taken by Jesus’ non-violent practice.” Milbank therefore can’t help but observe,

it is difficult to see what [Girard’s interpretation of] ‘the kingdom’ could really amount to, other than the negative gesture of refusal of desire, along with all culctural difference. Girard does not, in fact, really present us with a theology of two cities, but instead with a story of one city, and its final rejection by a unique individual. This means that while his metanarrative does, indeed, have politically critical implications, these are too undiscriminating, because every culture is automatically sacrificial and ‘bad’. At the same time, criticism cannot really be used to promote and alternative practice taking a collective, political form.

Therefore, Girard “does not really seem to think in terms of a positive, alternative practice, but only a negative refusal” (395).

Milbank then attempts to set up the shape of this positive, alternative Christian practice:

After Jesus’s death our redemption becomes possible, for two reasons. First, we speculatively grasp that sin is negation, arbitrary violence, the refusal of pure love itself, and this speculation is an indispensable and yet indepdendent moment of faith. But secondly, the speculation is only occasioned by the horrifying and sublime compulsion of Jesus’s death, whose concrete circumstance makes us feel that here we really ‘see’ sin, and at the same time the essence of human goodness. Knowing the shape of sin, and the shape of its refusal, we can at last be radically changed. However, the Anselmian speculation, that only God incarnate could define and so endure sin, precisely ensures that we can be drawn back to the cross as the very consummation of the preaching of the kingdom. Finally the kingdom means (speculatively), and illustrates (practically) bearing the burdens of others, even our accusers. Thus it is Jesus’s end, as well as his life, that we are to imitate. Mutual forgiveness and bearing of each other’s burdens becomes the modus vivendi of the Church: an ‘atoning’ way of life. It is highly significant that from Paul, through Origen to Augustine, the early Christians seem to have thought in terms of a ‘continuing’ atonement. Paul talks of ‘filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ’, Origen of the logos ‘suffering to the end of time’, Augustine of the Church, the whole body of Christ, as the complete sacrifice to God which is yet identical with Christ’s own offering. Hence to the Anselmian speculation one needs to add: only God incarnate could first make an adequate return of God’s glory to God, but the point of the incarnation was more to communicate to human beings the idiom, the logos of an adequate return, so that this could be made universally. For until there is a universal return, then surely God must continue to suffer the ‘contradiction’ of a loss of his glory, an alienation of his participated being. …

It is this question of ‘idom’ which Girard really ignores. Do we not need to know the idom of peaceable behaviour if we are to be able to distinguish it from the coercive? For only a shallow notion of violence would imagine that it is always empirically evident. Violence must be deemed to occur whenever we are ‘forced’ to do something, even when we may appear to do it willingly, for very often we are ‘manipulated’. If, indeed, there are no objective standards of truth and goodness, as nihilism claims, then every act of persuasion is an fact an act of violence. Yet, on the other hand, Christianity does not claim that the God and the True are self-evident to objective reason, or dialectical argument. On the contrary, it from the first took the side of rhetoric against philosophy and contended that the Good and the True are those things of which we ‘have a persuasion’, pistis, or ‘faith’. We need the stories of Jesus for salvation, rather than just a speculative notion of the good, because only the attraction exercised by a particular set of words and images causes us to acknowledge the good and to have an idea of the ultimate telos. Testimony is here offered to the Good, in a witnessing that also participates in it. This commitment to a rhetorical, and not dialectical path to the Good opens out the following implication: only persuasion of the truth can be non-violent, but truth is only available through persuasion. Therefore truth, and non-violence, have to be recognized simulatneously in that by which we are persuaded. Withouth attachment to a particular persuasion — which we can never prove to be either truth, or non-violent — we would have no real means to discriminate peace and truth from their opposites.

An abstract attachment to non-violence is therefore not enough — we need to practice this as a skill, and to learn its idiom. The idiom is built up on the Bible, and reaches its consummation in Jesus and the emergence of the Church. By drawing our attention to sacrifice, Girard helps us to articulate part of this idom. However, it is given a more social form if one contrasts …a way of life based on the victimization of others and one where we choose voluntarily to bear each others burdens. For further elaboration of the idiom we must turn back from Girard to Augustine, who by placing the Church, and not Christ alone, at the centre of his metanarrative, pays far more attention to the concrete shape of a non-antagonistic social practice (p. 397-398).

The next section attempts to fill in this “shape” of practice, which I will skip over for the sake of space and because I think others (Hauerwas, Yoder) have argued for this shape more convincingly elsewhere.

Not only does Jesus’s death and redemption for us all mean a kind of kingdom “speculation,” but it also very necessarily entails a concrete practice. Milbank in no way is going to prescribe anything definitive here for every situation (for who could?), but he does want to positively illustrate that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus becomes that ‘idiom’ from which to guide our practice. The bearing of burdens and suffering with others is more than just a “that must suck” kind of false empathy, and so it must therefore go beyond speculation, and also beyind a mere negatively refusal of culture to embody a positive alternative.

Milbank’s words about coercion as a kind of ontological violence here made sense until I read a few pages later where he completely confused me. I understood what he meant, but it’s something I want to more fully explore later, not in the next post, but the post after that.