January 22, 2004

What Milbank is up to

I think the topic of how Milbank might relate to Yoder (or Hauerwas) is a good one. Paul Baxter raised some helpful questions about that in comments below, particularly the difference in emphasis between Yoder's practicality over against Milbank's philosophical theology.

Milbank is always presupposing the practices of the church, it seems to me, but is asking about the conditions of possibility for those practices. How is forgiveness possible at all? And he is doing this, in part, over against postmodern philosophical discussions of "radical evil" and forgiveness (JankÚlÚvitch, Zizek, etc.), that have made the very Christian practices he presupposes to seem, in fact, impossible.

Part of asserting the possibility of Christian practices of forgiveness in the face of evil requires this kind of philosophical construction. Moreover, Milbank's argument is that forgiveness is only possible (or impossibly possible, perhaps) within the drama of the Christian God in human flesh.

This comes out most clearly, I think, in the series of five aporias of (secular) forgiveness that Milbank addresses:

[1] Who can forgive since the extent of whom our wrongdoing affects can never be traced, those who are most wronged are those who have died as the result of the wrongdoing, and private forgiveness can interrupt public justice while public forgiveness can neglect private reconciliation? (50-51)

[2] How can we forgive since time prevents us from ever changing what wrong we have done, while those whom we have wronged no longer remain in that place of victimization, and we ourselves as wrongdoers have changed in the meantime? (51-52)

[3] If forgiving is forgetting then it seems that wrong can only be forgiven if it is forgotten, but if it is forgotten, then why does it still stand in need of forgiveness, thus leaving forgiveness as a mere negation that is impossible to accomplish? (56)

[4] How can forgiveness remain pure since, if one forgives in order to be forgiven, it seems we fall into a prudential and calculative exchange while the opposite scenario, one of wholly disinterested benevolence, excludes the happiness to be found in reconciliation? (57-58)

[5] If forgiveness involves some kind of obliterative finality, then how can it strengthen human community since, in forgetting past fault, relationships cannot be tested or strengthened and always remain open to future rupture? (59-60)

Milbank's argument is that, actual forgiveness is unthinkable apart from the practices of the church as a disclosure of the privative nature of evil, the relationship between time and eternity, the positivity of reconciliation and true reciprocity, and all of this as a participation in God's action in Christ.

This is a sketchy summary and I've neglected Milbank's positive account, but if Milbank is correct in his reflections, then his account does stand as a reprimand to an unforgiving church where secularized ways of thinking have permeated our thought and life, as well as helping to explain why forgiving is often so difficult, even for those who profess faith in Christ.

Part of Milbank's suggestion seems to be that the events of sacred history (incarnation and atonement) unravel such secularism and that they do so particularly as they are encountered and enacted in liturgy, word, and sacrament, if only we have the eyes to see and believe: "...what we are offered once against through Christ's atonement is without measure and without price, and the only penance demanded of us in return for this forgiveness is the non-price of acceptance" (47).

Posted by joel garver at January 22, 2004 12:19 PM


thanks for dealing with this. Of course, since I only purused the one chapter, I'm confident I'm missing the overall scheme and thrust of the book. I didn't really understand (and I'm not sure I do now) the negative approach he was taking.

It does seem that the puzzles Mibank raises are inescapable parts of thinking about forgiveness, if we think about it carefully. Yoder's article is an exposition of Matt 18, which of course deals with the church. He (Yoder) doesn't take time to examine how forgiveness might work outside of the church, if it does at all. His argument is that the "binding" and "loosing" refer to the giving and witholding of fellowship w/in the church.

So I guess my question now is, does Milbank argue (or could he be taken as arguing) that forgiveness CANNOT be meaningful/possible outside the church?

Posted by: Paul Baxter at January 22, 2004 01:22 PM

Derridian/Caputoian language on forgivness?

Posted by: daniel silliman at January 22, 2004 03:46 PM

but aren't we inescapably caught within the play of the creation narrative and thus inescapably playing some perversion of liturgical space/time?

Caputo doesn't seem to like Milbank all that much, and Milbank strongly criticises Derrida. I'm not entirely sure that Derrida's supplement at the origin is a violent supplement (as Rousseau would have insisted had he had such a notion). Some things do bother me about Derrida on (absolute) forgiveness, though, while at other and the same times I think I can see how they might be compatible with a cosmopolitanism and forgiveness of a post/pre-modern sort that Milbank wants to have.

Posted by: berek at January 22, 2004 08:25 PM

Derrida isn't Milbank's direct target here on forgiveness and there are some important affinities between Milbank's views, I think, and what I understand to be Derrida's (though I suspect Milbank understands Derrida rather differently than I do on certain points).

As for the question of forgiveness outside the church, I guess Milbank suggests that outside the Christian story and practice, we cannot really make sense of forgiveness. But since Milbank is committed to the normativity of God's action in Christ as something that, in some respects, encompasses the whole creation, I think he would stop short of saying that forgiveness of any sort is impossible outside of the church.

An important caveat is that forgiveness has an eschatological component (in light of resurrection, final reconciliation, and the restoration of all things) and thus, even within the church, its full scope is only anticipated in the present.

Posted by: garver at January 23, 2004 06:59 AM