Provincializing Christendom: Reviewing John Milbank's Beyond Secular Order
I recently participated in a review symposium for John Milbank's latest book, Beyond Secular Order.
Here's an excerpt:
Once, there was no Christendom. And Christendom was not latent in the Greek and later Hellenistic philosophical schools that preceded it, awaiting catalysis and ferment by the dew of heaven, the word made flesh. Rather, there emerged a ragtag group of social, cultural, and economic nobodies who invoked strange tales of messianic fulfillment. They gathered in houses to celebrate and enact these stories, outside the watchful eye of Rome and its regulation of superstitio. Very soon, wealthy patrons were involved, hosting these assemblies in their homes and providing food for their celebratory “love feasts.” As the community grew, the story goes, so did persecution and clashes with the regime. Defenses and appeals were made. Eventually, some high-profile governmental officials joined the movement. Finally, an emperor.
What began as a marginal and particularist sect (its arguably universalist claims notwithstanding) would have its vision (or, better, one of its many internally competing visions) projected across an empire. The voices and views of a small community, initially pursued by power, came to be extended from the seat of power itself, an inversion that has long-ranging consequences. Christendom had to be instituted and imagined. And disciplined. And enforced. This institution is not meaningfully grasped in the language of inevitability or with the hindsight of what would come to be called, agonistically, orthodoxy.
John Milbank knows these roots and must celebrate them in the name of incarnational materialism and truth as historically developed. For the origins of the church according to apostolic and patristic witness depend upon “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1). Ecclesial historical actualization required “seeing our teacher, and hearing his voice with our own ears” (Irenaeus Haer. 5.1.1). In short, the ragtag team-turned-fathers-of-the-church emphasized the necessity of a material encounter with an initially nondescript human in a backwater province of the Roman Empire. This encounter was specific and its universalization denotes a transition.
Read the rest of the review, John Milbank's response, and my rejoinder at the Syndicate Theology site!