“Red Toryism”: Milbank’s hope for a new politics

John Milbank’s “Letter to the Editor” in the Guardian—in response to this article—has made its way around the theo-blogosphere, and for good reasons. He calls for a “red Toryism” or a “traditionalist socialism”—something that remains progressive, but on the basis of core values and virtues. Here is his letter in full:

Jackie Ashley (This fight really matters, May 19) reveals the bizarre bankruptcy of the current British left. By every traditional radical criterion New Labour has failed: it has presided over a large increase in economic inequality and an entrenchment of poverty, while it has actively promoted the destruction of civil rights, authoritarian interference in education and medicine, and an excessively punitive approach to crime. But never mind all that, says Jackie Ashley and her ilk: on what crucially matters - the extending of supposed biosexual freedom and the licensing of Faustian excesses of science - it is on the side of "progress".

Yet it is arguably just this construal of left versus right which is most novel and questionable. Is it really so obvious that permitting children to be born without fathers is progressive, or even liberal and feminist? Behind the media facade, more subtle debates over these sorts of issue do not necessarily follow obvious political or religious versus secular divides. The reality is that, after the sell-out to extreme capitalism, the left seeks ideological alibis in the shape of hostility to religion, to the family, to high culture and to the role of principled elites.

An older left had more sense of the qualified goods of these things and the way they can work to allow a greater economic equality and the democratisation of excellence. Now many of us are beginning to realise that old socialists should talk with traditionalist Tories. In the face of the secret alliance of cultural with economic liberalism, we need now to invent a new sort of politics which links egalitarianism to the pursuit of objective values and virtues: a "traditionalist socialism" or a "red Toryism". After all, what counts as radical is not the new, but the good.
We see the call for something very similar in contemporary American evangelicalism, it seems to me. Events like the Envision ’08 conference and the rise of voices like Jim Wallis testify to our interest in a kind of politics analogous to Milbank’s “red Toryism.” This is why Barack Obama is so interesting to evangelicals, because he is able to speak about Christian values and virtues more fluently than the Republicans. His liberalism is hardly the turn-off that it once was, primarily because of its union with Christian values.

Milbank’s final line is excellent: “what counts as radical is not the new, but the good.” That’s a political message I can get behind. But there’s an implicit criticism in this statement of any political party’s claim to solve our world’s problems. A “new” president is not necessarily going to bring radical change. Such change will only take place in correspondence to the Good, that is, to Jesus Christ. We might translate Milbank’s statement in this way: what counts as radical is not the new president, but the gospel—i.e., Jesus himself.

Comments

R.O. Flyer said…
Maybe its just me, but I can't stand appeals to red Toryism. I cringe at the words "traditionalist socialism." In fact, this is what bugs me about Milbank. In the end, he envisions a sort of neo-Christendom; a harkening back to "the good old Middle Ages." This, I think, is where he could use a little Yoder.
D.W. Congdon said…
You're probably right about Milbank. I generally detest what comes out of R.O. I really only lifted up Milbank's statement for the way it parallels changes in American politics. Personally, I'm all for Yoder myself.
Anonymous said…
I like Yoder too, but he doesn't tell me much about how to justly distribute wealth and goods in the US. I used to say similar things as you regarding Yoder and modern politics, but then G.W. Bush happened. His presidency has convinced me that policy matters--period. YES I KNOW, it's not the be all end all, but it matters.

Sure Christendom had its problems, but given the current state of affairs, are you really ready to affirm that the modern nation state and economic liberalism are really better than Christendom? If your position does not entail a "yes" to this question, I'd like to hear why you think not. However, if you reject both, which I anticipate you will following Yoder, it results in a default "yes" to the current state of political affairs on a practical level.


Tim F.
nate kerr said…
Tim, et. al.:

I think that I'm with d.w. here, not simply because I think Yoder is right vis-a-vis Milbank (though I think I do), but because I'm convinced that the Gospel does not exist to inspire political programs. What is truly radical is not the good, but indeed the new creation. Milbank can't think the "new" as truly radical because he can't really think a new heavens and a new earth -- a new Jerusalem. It is telling that what Milbank is calling for appears to appeal to something very much like the same "core values" that Jim Wallis et. al. are now appealing to here in the States. For what is being called for is essentially a kind of renewed Niebuhrian political realism, wherein what guides our political questioning is that of how we might deploy our given moral resources in bringing about a future "better" world. But the Gospel is not good news because it teaches us that we can make our world to be a little bit "better" tomorrow than it is today. The Gospel is good news because it is indeed about a new creation, the death and resurrection of "world" itself. To think and to act any differently is a failure not merely of belief, but of praise. (Incidentally, from a Catholic perspective, I find Herbert McCabe's little essay called "Christ and Politics" to be quite helpful here.)
Tim said…
Nate,

If you're right that Milbank and Wallis are doing the same thing, then I will gladly concede. However, that is a rather unsubstantiated claim thus far. I take Milbank to be much much much smarter than Wallis (who by the way I have serious problems with). For example, you will never hear Milbank talk about translating faith claims into a universal language; he's knows that is based on bad philosophy. However, you will hear Milbank talk about reason, which Christians cannot abandon because it is a gift of God.

Furthermore, Milbank certaily knows if his party would come into power that when the eschaton occurs God's kingdom will look different from his. He's fine with that and doesn't think he can bring about God's kingdom on his own. He simply wants a more just and moral society: no abortion, no pornography, more just distribution of wealth, good and fair health care, etc. Of course, that looks Christian; I like that. Afterall, in the end theocracy does carry the day. So, what's wrong with trying to bring that about? Do you not think salvation is about such things as taking care of the poor and marginalized and shedding light on injustice? This sounds like Matthew 25 to me, which by the way is addressed to nations, not individuals. Milbank and I are committed to the claim that these are Christian issues, not just political ones, as if there's separarte sphere called "politics" that Jesus has nothing to do with, which is, of course, nothing other than the modern invention of the separation of church and state.

Again, I know the kingdom is identical with any political party, but that doesn't mean the gospel has nothing to say to contemporary politics. As a Yoder person, you know how political Jesus' death was. Milbank is simply running with that in our contemporary world. Perhaps he runs too far, but do you really want to say you don't want to live in his world?

If not, that's fine, but I would like to hear why.

Many Blessings,

Tim F.
halden said…
Nate, I very much agree with you about Wallis, Milbank, and the whole issue of "values". The McCabe essay you point to is also quite an excellent commentary n the issue at hand.

The problem with Milbank's (and Wallis's, and well, Obama's, if you will) is that their political platforms are all very much intelligible without reference to Jesus or the gospel of his death and resurrection. What Milbank offers in his "Red Toryism" doesn't really need Jesus in order for it to make sense. As such I don't see how it ever could derive from the radically interruptive singularity of Christ's apocalyptic presence in the world through death and resurrection.

Ultimately, if program proposed fits into the fabric of political society and discourse as it stands, and if the polis in view is not ultimately the church as the foretaste of the new creation, I don't see how such programs could be called Christian. They may ultimately make for a relatively more just society in certain limited ways, and that may be a good thing, but they are not the fruit of the gospel of God's apocalyptic intrusion into the world in Christ. That is an altogether more radical and bewildering matter to live in light of.
halden said…
Nate, I very much agree with you about Wallis, Milbank, and the whole issue of "values". The McCabe essay you point to is also quite an excellent commentary n the issue at hand.

The problem with Milbank's (and Wallis's, and well, Obama's, if you will) is that their political platforms are all very much intelligible without reference to Jesus or the gospel of his death and resurrection. What Milbank offers in his "Red Toryism" doesn't really need Jesus in order for it to make sense. As such I don't see how it ever could derive from the radically interruptive singularity of Christ's apocalyptic presence in the world through death and resurrection.

Ultimately, if program proposed fits into the fabric of political society and discourse as it stands, and if the polis in view is not ultimately the church as the foretaste of the new creation, I don't see how such programs could be called Christian. They may ultimately make for a relatively more just society in certain limited ways, and that may be a good thing, but they are not the fruit of the gospel of God's apocalyptic intrusion into the world in Christ. That is an altogether more radical and bewildering matter to live in light of.
Tim said…
What do you mean by "intelligible apart from Jesus?"

Milbank's own ontology would never allow anything to be set apart from the logos, who is Jesus. All of his metaphysics are based on a thoroughly logos christology, which permeates all creation constituting it as creation. This is what he says de Lubac is doing.

Also, "fits into the fabric" is an interesting turn of phrase. Of course it does, but not completely. How else would we be able to understand anything about Jesus and God if it didn't fit in some fashion? Is there any continuity between creation and redemption on your view?
R.O. Flyer said…
Tim, I think you're certainly correct about Milbank and Wallis being in separate camps. However, I think this is more because Milbank's characteristic arrogance probably wouldn't allow him to stoop so low. Surely his theology and political ontology is more refined than Wallis (or Obama) and there are real differences.

What is so strange about Milbank is that he doesn't follow his arguments through. How could the same guy who wrote Theology and Social Theory also support something call red Toryism? He doesn't want to accept his own conclusions. I think Nate is right to suggest that Milbank in spite of all his efforts appears rather Niebuhrian here. Milbank has a lot to offer political theology, but he could learn something from Yoder. Chris Huebner does a good job fleshing this out in his A Precarious Peace.
Lee said…
Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Yoder talk quite a bit about targeting specific social injustices for amelioration, for engaging with non-Christians on the basis of shared "middle axioms," and generally taking a rather pragmatic approach to making society better? This is all, of course, in addition to his vision of the church as a kind of new society in itself, which also serves as an example and leaven for the larger society. But I still get the impression that Yoder himself was much more pragmatic than some "Yoderians" when it comes to politics. I mean, it's not like withdrawing from Iraq, securing health care for the uninsured and forestalling catastrophic climate change are niggly little trifles.
nate kerr said…
Tim:

To be clear, I am not at all saying that Milbank and Wallis are "doing the same thing." I am simply suggesting that the operative logic at work in the support which they throw behind their respective political programs is structurally analogous -- they both deploy a kind of Christian social or political realism. No doubt Milbank's is a more theologically complex and systematically sophisticated form of this. But that doesn't necessarily make it better. It might, however, make it more humorous.

As for the question of Milbank's Logos Christology. All of this depends on what you mean by "Logos Christology." The danger in the kind of Logos Christology you are talking about is that it runs the very real risk of making the singular human being Jesus a mere "cipher" for some more universal metaphysical reality. Milbank was on the way to making this move in "The Name of Jesus," and he has nearly completed it in his more recent adoption of a kind of Christian unversalism within which Jesus is read representatively (in Hegelian fashion) as the "concrete universal." This may represent a kehre in Milbank's thought from Theology and Social Theory (as someone like Jamie Smith would suggest), or it may be the result of a theological "false start" from the outset. (And I do think it is worth noting that the Christology of Chalcedon is not, historically or theologically, strictly identifiable with what is technically called "Logos Christology" -- of the Alexandrians, for example.)

Finally, Lee's last comment about Yoder is an interesting one that deserves sustained attention. I can't say as much here, for lack of space. But I think there is a tension in Yoder's thought here, and it has to do with whether and how one treats of the "doxological" in Yoder's later work. I deal with this in my forthcoming book, and what I try to argue is that doxology gives way to a kind of action that calls into question the very terms according to which this whole debate about "the political" is undertaken nowadays. And this because it is a kind of engaged and embodied action that is rooted in a work that is all the more penetrative of this world.

I'll leave things there for now, if I may.
Tim said…
Nate,

Thanks for your reply. Sorry to confuse your previous thoughts. However, we may still disagree on the political nature of the gospel and what we mean by "political" here. But, you're comments at the end of your last post reveal we may agree more than I previously thought. I do think Yoder had room for serious political engagement with the world as the church and its politics.

On logos Christology, I meant to name in general the traditional christological claims of the ecumenical councils. As you can probably tell, I very much favor an Alexandrian christology, but in such a way that the unity of the person of Jesus is primary, which, of course, was Cyril's major point that won the day. I like Jenson's read of Chalcedon and what followed in this regard.

I agree that Milbank could better attend to Scripture and the Jesus it reveals. That said, we all run the risk of making Jesus a cipher for what we want him to be; we're all idolators. Of course, this is no excuse, but that's a serious theological misstep to attribute to someone as brilliant as Milbank. Admittedly, his polemical posture sure makes it easy at times.

My question for you is: Are you objecting to Milbank's use of philosophy in general to understand Jesus or his specific Hegelian version of it?

If the former, then we have a fundamental disagreement about the relationship between faith and reason or nature and grace. I do not think, however, that we have to get our philosophy right before we can participate in salvation. I do think we must, as theologians, give some kind of philosophical account of Jesus, because he certainly rules out some philosophies.

If the later, then that would be a much longer and detailed discussion we probably can't have via this medium. Personally, I'm quite fond of Hegel in a Jensonian sort of way. I'm currently reading William Desmond, who James K. Smith calls the philosopher for Radical Orthodoxy, who likes much of Hegel as well, and I find Desmond quite wonderful.

Blessings,

Tim F.
nate kerr said…
Tim:

You are right that there are probably some disagreements as to how we understand the political nature of the gospel as well as what is meant by "the political." But these disagreements need not be fatal, and I hope that we will have an opportunity to hash them out over the days ahead. Likewise, regarding the relationship of philosophy to theology.

However, I do want to respond briefly to the idea that I am attributing theological missteps to Milbank that are either unsubstantiated and/or unsubstantiable. My point about Milbank's "Jesus" is one that has been written on with some force (and I have commented on it myself). But even without that, I don't think it is right to suggest that I am just bandying about accusations of heresy here. My statement that Milbank's "Jesus" stands as a cipher for some more universal metaphysical reality is rather a straightforward reading of Milbank's essay "The Name of Jesus." It is in that essay that Milbank himself claims that "Jesus" is "identifiable" precisely by way of "his universal significance for which his particularity stand, almost, as a mere cipher" (WMS, 149). Milbank's Christology may in fact be a product of "brilliance"; but such brilliance does not make it any less problematic. I think you yourself do well to follow Cyril closely in reading Chalcedon here.

Thanks for the conversation. No doubt there is much here to work through.
Tim said…
Nate,

Thanks for your response. My apologies if I upset you in regard to my previous post and suggestions that you're accusing Milbank of heresy. I have probably projected arguments I often have with people who just want to dismiss him without taking him seriously. You have made it clear that's not what you're about. Hence, I am sorry.

I need to review that essay before I respond more substatively regarding your comments on Milbank. But, from my feeble memory and the quotes you offered, it seems Milbank's point is simultaneously epistemological and ontological here. In other words, unless there is some ontological analogy or "common ground" (here I would follow an analogia entis) between Jesus and humanity and then we, as humans, cannot make sense of a God who communicates with us. Generally speaking, this seems the right move both philosophically and theologically to me, insofar as a theological metaphysics precedes an epistemology while staying connected to it. Of course, how this "common ground," or analogia entis, gets worked out and understood is where we will likely have the most fun and perhaps where you disagree most vehemently with Milbank and maybe even myself. I've probably already said too much, and I better not say any more until I take a look back at that essay.

I also look forward to further discussion.

Blessings,

Tim
nate kerr said…
Tim:

No apologies needed. That is the nature of these discussions in comment boxes like this.

We indeed have much to talk about (especially the analogia entis) and no doubt will carry these conversations into the future.

Nate