02 October 2002

I began this post several days ago and just got around to finishing it. Life is busy.

Recently I finished reading The Strange New Word of the Gospel: Re-Evangelizing in the Postmodern World, edited by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (Eerdmans, 2002). It contains a collection of thought-provoking essays on the nature of Christian mission in the post-Christian west, often necessitating the evangelization of the already baptized. The authors attempt to develop ways and perspectives from which the church can effectively address people today, especially in the United States with its peculiar religious history.

I'll give some brief summaries and evaluations of the essays in this and following posts.

The first essay is "The Gospel of Affinity" by John Milbank. He begins by attempting to characterize the general features of "postmodernity" as a set of cultural circumstances involving the obliteration of boundaries (nature/culture; interior/exterior; public/private; information/production), as well as economic and political globalization. Thus human "nature" is open-ended and manipulable, stripped of teleology and hierarchies of time, gender, and so on. The private interior of the home is invaded by the persausive images and instructions of advertising and media, while material public spaces disappear, replaced by virtual simulations of collective proximity. And so on.

The basic presupposition here is one of immanence, Milbank argues, explaining things and value without any transcendent reference, viewing finite reality as self-explanatory and self-governing, and this present world as all there is. While in early modernity this "plane of immanence" was conceived spatially, the relationship between entities within a grid, in postmodernity this has been transformed into a temporal flux.

Milbank argues that due to this assumption of immanence, postmodernity is not really any more open to Christian faith than was modernity, and perhaps less so, choosing instead some kind of Spinozism that embraces immanence or a "new age" religiosity that attempts to retreat from it into a higher interior space.

In response the regime of postmodernity, Milbank argues that in some respects postmodernity represents a "distorted outcome of energies first unleashed by the Church itself" and thus we cannot simply refuse the postmodern, nor can we embrace it. Often theological liberals have made the mistake of adapting to modernity or postmodernity, while conservatives simply reiterate traditional formulas. Milbank suggests that neither option involves the kind of critical engagement that is necessary to re-express our traditional faith in a new way that allows for a true rediscovery of Christian orthodoxy.

With regard to postmodernity, Milbank argues that its obliteration of boundaries has a deep resonance within Christian faith since the church is a force that has trangressed boundaries and limitations: law/grace, Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female, household/city, sign/reality, already/not yet, and so on. In the incarnation, even the distinctions between Creator and creature, immanence and transcendence, God and human, are resituated and re-envisioned.

And yet, as Milbank notes, for all of this boundary bursting, Christian faith does not do away with every act of discernment or distinction, instead seeing, e.g., grace as preserving and elevating the principles embodied in the law. But such discernment requires wisdom. We cannot simply read right and wrong off of the pre-given divine design of human beings since we are creatures destined for an eschatological transformation that is already anticipated in the present. It is necessary to discern human teleology and thereby discriminate about what is good (e.g., with regard to surrogate motherhood or developments in genetics). It is this sense of teleological discrimination that was lost in the early modern era when scotistic assumptions took an univocal approach to "being," placing human creative powers along the same extension as divine.

This discrimination and discernment focuses particularly upon issues of affinity, Milbank argues. And affinity, if it is not to be merely accidental or coincidental, must build upon discerned characterizations of things within an analogical view of reality. This is rooted for Christians in the incarnation in which God became man, not by conversion of his divinity, but by the unity of the person of Christ--a unity in which the affinity of the man Jesus with the divine Logos constitutes an identity of person. Moreover, the community that Jesus began was one of affinity, not family/nature, not coercion/politics, but of Christ-likeness by faith expressing itself in love.

Milbank suggests that our own cultural crisis with regard to discernment of affinity is most apparent in the sexual confusion of our age. According to his analysis, contemporary sexual issues are not really a "moral" matter, of straightforward right and wrong (with all the modernist and Kantian overtones that carries). Liberals really desire the kinds of fidelity and security they otherwise attempt to throw off, while conservatives often are some of the greatest offenders against sexuality in their own moralism. Both liberals and conservatives buy the lie that erotic excitement finds its peak in the new and unfamiliar, conservatives finding this a dangerous temptation and liberals a reason for license. And we are left with postmodernism's competitive market of sexual conquest.

But, says Milbank, marriage is not a matter of morality; it is a necessary condition of it. As a matter of teleology, the fact is that sexuality can only be expressed "in the relaxed presence of the ever-different-familiar" where freedom, innovation, and passion grow within the context of custom. So sex outside of marriage isn't "wrong" but impossible, since whatever extra-marital intercourse is, it's not sex and not what anyone really wants.

Postmodernity in particular, Milbank thinks, promotes "a dark, death-obsessed, and narcissistic eroticism" that despises the mystery of masculine and feminine differentiation, thus undercutting the possibility of sexual affinity by denying its proper medium. So Milbank suggests that all sexual expressions outside of specific unity-in-difference, nuptial affinities of male-female relations are "transcendentally homosexual." Complicit with this normative "homosexual" subjectivity, capitalistic individualism posits a domain of interchangeable persons, all equally possible as sexual partners, leading to the increasing commodification of children by the state and market.

Thus the church's response to postmodernism must include a full embracing of heterosexual marriage as "paradigmatic of the sexual as such." Flowing from this "gospel of affinity" our other relationships need to be transformed by analogous logic in the face of postmodernity: seeing human relationships in terms of extended family, shunning the illusion of near equal proximity to all via technology, informing justice with processes of penance and reconciliation, grasping the reality of true corporeal pleasures as grounded in God, counterposing the church as an alternative global empire, and maintaining a focus upon the transcendent as the context of our eschatological pilgrimage.

There is much to be said for Milbank's analysis and proposals. Yet, there remain what seem to me strange inconsistencies, particularly in the area of sexuality. While it is clear that Milbank sees sex outside of marriage as deficient and while he rejects the notion of same-sex "marriage," his attitude towards homosexuality is confusing at the very least. He notes at one point, in the midst of his discussion of the paradigmatic nature of heterosexual marriage, that "there need be no problem whatsoever with the idea that homosexual practice is part of the richness of God's creation or that its non-heterosexual logic...can hint towards the life of angels." Yet, in the next breath he denies the equality of homosexuality with male-female relations and suggests that to grant it equal place within the human order is already to make it superior and implicitly to deny heterosexuality a place within the cosmic order.

Perhaps I am confused or Milbank is being too subtle for me, but I cannot see how he can speak of homosexual practice as he does in a way that is consistent with his larger argument. This seems especially so in light of his argument against certain reproductive technologies based upon "the co-belonging of sex and procreation" as something that "alone sustains human beings as more than commodities" since new human life is the "outcome of personal encounters at once both accidental and yet chosen, in a fashion that is irreplaceable, and essential to an ontological grammar that we should continue to elect." If sex and procreation "co-belong," then what room is there for "homosexual practice" within the logic of human relations, except perhaps within the sub-human animal kingdom or in same-sex friendship and comradeship that is not eroticized and thus more "angelic"?

I suspect that Milbank is influenced too much by a certain kind of Anglo-Catholicism that, while quite traditional on many issues (e.g., christology, liturgy, abortion, etc.), embraces an aetheticism that lends itself to homoeroticism. While Milbank explicitly criticizes "churches and especially the clergy" who "tend to degenerate into secret gay cults: the gnosis of campdom," his own remarks seem to undercut that criticism and acquiese to this kind of gay clerical tendency in certain ecclesiastical circles. Thus, I'm inclined to take his critique further than he does.

Milbank suggests a parity between heterosexual and homosexual practice already places the homosexual in a superior position, reducing the heterosexual to a mere example of one kind of human coupling. I would further suggest that admitting any degree of same-sex eroticism as congruent with human teleology already gives away far too much. For all his emphasis on discernment and discrimination, Milbank's own powers seem to be lacking in this area. Still, one should not allow this particular area of blindness to overshadow his otherwise helpful analyses.

In further posts I hope to discuss some other chapters from the book, picking up with Robert Jenson's fine article, "What Is a Post-Christian?"