- You wrote that*, what, two, three years ago?
- Do you know how truly strange you are? You think all the time about what to do, but you don't give a damn about making something out of your life. You don't care about the world.
- And, as you asked, I've read your theologian Milbank. You don't care about the world, he cares too much. You want to change your life, he wants to change the world. He argues society is improved by religion. He says secular society such as ours is either nihilistic or pagan, either believes in nothing or believes only in desire. Both are the result of having no idea of good or god. Tell me: what is the connection between god not being present in the world, and having no purpose in life?
- Isn't it obvious?
- The only possible purpose of an activity is an end to activity.
- I don't see that. What about doing things for their own sake? The journey, not the end.
- Any kind of journey? Then we're back with nihilism and paganism. A good journey? How would we know what that is, if journeying is the only good thing we know of?
- I give up. The journey ends, one way or another, temporarily or permanently. What is a good end?
- To be with god.
- By being with god you mean experience involving in some way love, beauty, truth, goodness. We rest, for a while, in the sight of the people we love, their beauty, of the truth of what they say and good in what they do.
- Yes. The period of rest doesn't last and we find ourselves back in this world of things changing all the time for the better or worse.
- Milbank says that an epochal change in theology arose at the time, give or take a few centuries, of the advent of secular society. Secular society expelled ideas of good and god to private life, leaving to government the single job of protecting people in their livelihood of buying and selling things. In the old, Platonic, participatory theology of Thomas Aquinas, living with attention to this world's particularities you could get out to the other and sight of god. As this world was part of god's world, though a mere model or imitation of it, it gave us hints which way to go, what kinds of things to do to get to the real thing. The world of the new theology though no longer provides access to god's world. We have no direct access to god, only to the sight of his work visible in this our world.
- And you wonder if I am siding with the pre-secular world where the sight of god, of good, is the journey's end, and resting from movement place to place saves us from paganism or nihilism of the subsequent secular society.
- You do, don't you? Milbank says in fact our secular society has its religion, or rather, two religions. A pagan religion of violence, a fight for evolutionary survival of the fittest that justifies the competitive battle for profit fundamental to every economic transaction. And a nihilistic religion that accounts for the exclusion from consideration of all aspects of life other than economic, a doing for the sake of doing which we've just agreed can't get anywhere good. For a long time you and me have given the name 'ritual' to this going nowhere religion. Rituals do produce a kind of rest that is rest from the ritual itself, a rest in which there's no sight of god or good, only of a human constructed world of security in the predictable behavior of our fellow ritualists. Milbank argues that only Plato's idea of participation works, helps us live by teaching us to make the right moves in this world and get us to sight of god's world.
- We have to stop, and stop for good reason. Otherwise life is senseless movement from place to place.
- We could reserve meaning for our private lives, but secular society, unrestrained by any idea of good, works to break rules, invades and destroys private life. We have no choice but get rid of the destructive nihilism and paganism in our society and bring good back into its management.
- And how does my theologian say we should do it?
- On the model of the Catholic Church, relying particularly on its analogy of the trinity which he says uniquely of all possible analogies expresses the idea of participation.
- The son of god is part of god and model of god who in both this world and the other thereby guides us back to god.
- Your opinion?
- You first.
- This is from the penultimate paragraph of Milbank's Stanton Lectures of 2011:
Ordinarily, holding together and transformation occur through the mediated interaction of substance and relation, but we can now see that these things make no sense outside the divine presence to all things achieved through participation in the divine imaginative, creative act.
God, who knows everything, creates his son to know him. His son, as creator of new knowledge of his father, thus knows more than his father, which can't be because the father being everything knows everything, including knows now what his son knows about him, which the son then newly knows about him, and the father then knows he is by his son newly known... This continuous knowledge of knowledge, of god and his son is, it's admitted, inconceivable and impossible. Yet Milbank says it can be and must be conceived anyway! What does this mean?
- It means that for real meaning to be there in this continuous creation there has to be rest, and there is no stopping to rest.
- The rest where god the father sees the son he's created and the rest when the son knows the god who's created him.
- Yes. Rests that could have been taken but talk is not stopped for. Catholicism is not by any means the first religion of participation, but it may make the claim to being the first to be a continuous ritual of the principle of participation. In the intoxication, the passion of ritual we lose sight our selves, of those rests which temporarily give definition of self.
- Rushing in fear or intoxication we can go through the performance, and even a theologian can miss the obvious fact that what he is doing is not at all like participation in knowledge of two different worlds, one the model of the other, but rather is loss of self knowledge in creation of security in group practice.
- So it seems.
- We can't trust the secular to cure us of secularism and get good into our societies, and we can't trust theologian specialists in the philosophy of participation. Who can we trust? The ritual of participation that is supposed to be anti-nihilism and paganism turns out to be both nihilist in its impossibility and pagan in intoxicated performance.
- Why couldn't Milbank be satisfied with the actual looking for the truth like in Plato's dialogs?
- He could, but that would not place Catholicism at the beginning of all religions of participation and so give its analogy unique precedence over all others.
- Milbank wants to build the city of god, wants to get good into the world automatically and continuously like the market gets its gods of greed into the world and competition gets its evolutionary gods of aggression. Prior philosophy of participation saw that though society was improvable, capable of taking better and worse forms, it must not serve as an end in itself, must not claim to having its being in the other world where good persists.
- It's really a very interesting conclusion we've come to. We can't have a secular society of no good, because it turns out to have good and gods of nihilism and paganism. Religion in society also is no good, because it uses the tool of ritual to disguise the fact that it wants society of this world to have the quasi permanent ideal status of the other world, to be god's world in imitation. In religious societies there is no rest, therefore no good, no god, no religion, no purpose, no goal, and no end. If anyone gets out of a religious society to god it is no thanks to its rituals which make even its best students like Milbank blind to what they are doing and thinking.
- Yet public life neither secular nor religious is a real possibility. Society can be improved as a particular and temporary tool of the individual without becoming an intoxicated and impossible idea of god's world. There is no reason what we expect from society cannot be kept to the partial and temporary, aiding the individual's progress towards good.
On Bureaucrats & Violence
* Mystical Experience & Spiritual Experience