Interview with John Milbank on Bauman and Religion

John Milbank

Edmund Frettingham interviews John Milbank on reason, religion, foundationalist secularity, and his critique of Bauman’s position on the role of the intellectual

Edmund Frettingham: Your article discusses the role of intellectuals in social change, taking Zygmunt Bauman’s ambivalent attitude towards intellectual elites as its starting point. In Legislators and Interpreters, Bauman argues that intellectuals in post-modernity have eschewed an elitist ‘legislative’ role in favour of the more populist task of interpreting and translating between different communities of meaning. He proposes that this has left them ill-equipped to challenge the central problem of our time – namely, the market becoming the principal mechanism for integration in a society characterised by multiple and competing institutional sites of authority for validating discourses of truth, judgement and taste. The only way to challenge this state of affairs, in Bauman’s view, is for intellectuals to once again assume a legislative role, taking the lead in discerning what possibilities exist for the creation of real freedom and genuine autonomy. Could you begin by saying a little about the tensions you see in Bauman’s diagnosis and prescription?

John Milbank: Yes, I think the major tension I discern is whether or not he’s really in favour of the role of the intellectual, in the sense that one of the arguments in the book seems to be that the division between the intellectual and ordinary people is the first class division. He has an anthropological chapter where he talks about the first class division being the division between the shamans and everybody else, and he seems to regard that with quite a lot of suspicion as a kind of ruse of power. And similarly when he is talking about the Enlightenment intellectuals, it’s as if they are the heirs of the shamans and so we ought to be suspicious of them, since they form a new class in alliance with centralising, rationalising forces, and so their removing of superstition and so on is tantamount to a suspicion of popular participation and folk custom. But then when it comes to considering the postmodern era when you have the death of that role, he seems very nostalgic for that kind of enlightenment and so I’m not quite sure of how that adds up, or what his rationale for the role of the intellectual actually is.

I think he’s quite right to indicate that once upon a time the growth of surveillance was a major instrument of repression, but that now the major instrument of repression is precisely cultural fragmentation, the lack of any common discourse for making judgements or any way we can discern norms that would allow us to distribute everything more fairly. He seems to be talking about the lack of a public realm and I would agree that this has now become a problem, but then it becomes hard to see quite how he wants to reinstate a public realm through the role of the intellectual without that once again becoming essentially oppressive. In a sense the problem now is that you don’t need the intellectuals – the bureaucracy and the market function really well without them – and so on what basis are intellectuals going to make their critique in any way that could register in the public domain?

But I think the really crucial thing here is that Bauman thinks that the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and autonomy have got debased. Against this I would argue that these ideals still bore the freight of earlier religious tradition, but that they have started to dispense with that and that when you remove all trace of religious foundation you are left with something banal. So the freedom to shop is not really a betrayal of the modern idea of freedom – it’s actually its logical outworking. Bauman still has this Frankfurt School idea that there is somehow a ‘higher ideal’ of freedom and autonomy and pursuing authenticity and so forth. But I think that everybody today thinks that’s what they are doing, and that they are actually right – because the entirely trivial choice is most of all pure negative freedom, or even pure expressive self-assertion, if that idea is seen as entirely subjective. (Some romantics questioned that of course, but this questioning has to be seen as a counter-modern moment.) If people don’t think there is some kind of objective good that they can recognise, that they are trying to discern, then the quest for authenticity is likely to manifest itself as a quest for power and pure promotion of self for the sheer sake of self – you know, the world of iconic pop and rock stars making videos and non-music and the way this is then discussed with comically-absurd solemnity in The Guardian as if this were really culturally important. There’s a symptomatic coming-together here of a high culture discourse and the totally spurious content of most market-engineered low culture – you can definitely see that this is a new development. That is because – contra Bauman — you can use this high modern theory to talk about really trivial things – indeed decadently trivial things. The two have converged in a way that is valid for enlightenment logic, even though it did not at first foresee this upshot.

EF: How do you see the way out of this situation?

JM: I think that instead of simply denigrating the role of intellectuals as mystifiers, or adulating their role as reformers, we need much more of a notion of organic intellectuals, in the sense of intellectuals who are precisely trying to articulate, keep an eye on and criticise the wisdom of their culture, so that they are not in such great antithesis to folk culture. So far, the major vehicle for that tends to be religious traditions – it is precisely religious traditions that seem to be able to combine the high and the low, very popular expressions and stories and symbols but also very high levels of reflection. So I’m not really in sympathy with Bauman’s portrayal of the shaman, for example. This is still shadowed by the illusion that there might be a kind of natural, purely human culture that didn’t have religion and myths. I think this is untrue: human societies are formed by imagining reality and imagining norms and goals and so forth – this is essential. In a way, you can’t abolish the role of the initiator, the leader or the teacher (or something like that), but also there is a kind of dialectic in that this is modified by the assent and the reaction that such people receive in return for their efforts at bildung. So I don’t think that Bauman has a criterion for distinguishing a good intellectual hierarchy from a bad one, and that is really what’s needed.

EF: You refer to organic intellectuals as being closer to the folk culture of the people, but how far has such folk wisdom survived the age of the legislators and the rise of consumerism? In Bauman’s account, for example, the experiments of the Enlightenment legislators completely swept away the popular culture of those they sought to improve. Would you say that enough of that culture has survived to be developed or must it be reconstructed somehow?

JM: I think a little bit of both. I think it does survive: it has become rather vestigial but it is astonishingly persistent. But we need a new alliance between popular religiosity and intellectual reflection in the sense that we need to stop popular religiosity degenerating into fundamentalism. I think one of the problems of our day is that traditional, local wisdoms that once upon a time saw themselves as universal tend to turn hysterical and violent when they are confronted by modern rational universality. I think that is part of what is going on in Africa. These discourses need tempering by intellectual influence. Above all, we need a middle between the rule of complete abstract rationality (Bauman is one of the most effective at telling us just how tyrannical this can be) and a sort of local, terrifying because vacuous, insistence on identity. The world religions can be contrasted with these options because they are more universalising and do combine the symbolic with the reflective – also they don’t despise the local but they render it hospitable by considering its wider significance. One might say that places only really matter because their meaning can be somewhat displaced. It is very dangerous to be opposed to intellectual religious traditions because it is precisely when those traditions are no longer there that religions can become most terroristic and atavistically territorial.

EF: You point out in your article that there aren’t supposed to be people who ‘know better’ about values as opposed to facts. How far can this suspicion be attributed to a narrowed understanding of reason and its capabilities?

JM: Very much so. It’s on the basis of a division between reason and will that we think of reason as registering objective facts and we think of values as just being arbitrarily constructed. I think this is extremely dangerous – usually the facts aren’t as certain as all that but require interpretation, while unless value discourse is a discernment of something that is really there, then values simply don’t exist. That is most people’s ordinary implicit assumption and it’s a very important one. So the kind of intellectual leadership we need is an attempt to discern the substantively good and not mainly to talk about ‘human rights’, for which, outside, a sense of just distribution, we have no way of either ascertaining, nor of comparing and assessing in terms of relative importance. This doesn’t mean that we can know all at once what the good is in its entirety, but we do need a continuing process of trying to discern that in order to have some sense of what people should be aiming for. Otherwise we have just given up on the Western legacy of just and not arbitrary ruling.

I think also that if we want to have an egalitarian society we need good moral and aesthetic goals, good goals of flourishing and a belief that everybody can realise these goals at some level and to some degree. If it is just about freedom and choice then you get a very inegalitarian society, because some people are incredibly successful at being free and getting more and more of what they want. Most people are not very successful and they don’t have any status in our society because we only admire people who are successful. We have increasing disdain for people who haven’t managed to assert themselves. The same issue arises if you focus too much on the desirability of social mobility, as you’re then left with the problem of what happens to people on the bottom of the pile? If some people go up, other people go down, but we don’t have enough thought about how to make everybody’s life and everybody’s work dignified and fulfilled. There’s a sense in which religious cultures are far more democratic because they are saying you can fulfil the essential human goals in all kinds of modes of life. That can of course be an excuse for materially oppressing people, but just as often it’s an occasion for treating them reasonably and according to them dignity.

EF: You are sometimes (here, for example) interpreted as arguing that there can be no true understanding of politics, the economy and human society outside of Christianity, and that there is an unbridgeable gulf between Christian and non-Christian approaches to these realms. In the discernment of the common good, what scope is there for cooperation and discussion between intellectuals developing the Christian tradition and those working from within other traditions, whether secular or religious?

JM: To that I would say that it is not so much a space of relative secularity that I have resisted, but rather a foundationalist mode of secularity that is saying ‘this is the essential and the fundamental and you can get to that without having any religious outlook’. But I don’t think it’s true that people are in any tidy boxes when it comes to traditions of thought, or particular cultures, particular religions. For example, there are a whole variety of outlooks that might be dubbed ‘secular’. There are some people who, without believing in God, say that there is an objective good, while there are other secular people who say there are no such things as good and evil. Obviously there are also overlaps for historical or accidental reasons between Christianity and other religions, so of course there is always something in common between different traditions. Even if there is nothing theoretically in common, there is going to be some point of contact. A religious person might say to a non-religious person ‘well, if you value such and such a thing, what are the implications of that? What is that compatible with in terms of beliefs about reality?’ Arguments will sometimes go in that direction, but it’s also very important to say that human beings aren’t simply or primarily rational creatures, and that all kinds of agreements in practice are possible when you appear to have completely insurmountable theoretical disagreements.

I think that Christianity is both very specific and very fluid. It’s very specific because it says God became incarnate in one human being who inspired one particular social mode and that this somehow discloses universal humanity and universal values. But what is significant, in a sense, is that it’s not saying that this is a very specific set of laws or a complex set of customs or rituals, but rather that this is the human as such (the life of one man) and the social as such (the new international ecclesia as more primary than the political and the economic) that discloses the divine. So it’s very specific and yet opens out into something very universal, and it’s compatible with many different cultural traditions and can even find a place for existing religious practices, as has often been shown to be the case. One might say that Christianity is meta-religious.

My claim therefore would be more that Christianity itself is the truest universalism, that it first and best articulates a universal human grammar, a universal horizon. Badiou and Zizek and Negri seem to agree – at least up to a point. Hegel said that as well, though I’m saying it in a slightly different way, that stresses more the aesthetic and the ineffable heart of community.

This doesn’t at all mean that Christianity is a particular sect that doesn’t communicate with any other sect. The New Testament itself, for example, only comes together from a confluence of all kinds of different cultural currents and Christianity has proved very capable of engaging with all kinds of different thought influences.

But to see Christianity (actual, orthodox, believed Christianity) as the most genuinely universal thing, is clearly controversial not just as a claim, but as assuming the claim that one has the right to make this claim in the public arena. That’s where I differ from Habermas, who would say that you’ve got to speak publicly in a universalist discourse that doesn’t in any way depend upon Christianity, even if, as a matter of fact, as he acknowledges, it has its roots in Christian belief and practice. To me, that is more than problematic. But to speak in specific terms of Christian universalism in public doesn’t mean that one can’t engage in a public debate and practice with other traditions, and other universal claims, it’s just that the negotiations are going to be much more ad hoc and pragmatic in character. There is absolutely no need, as Habermas contends, for an a priori agreement about the aims of discourse on the mythical basis of supposed shared universal foundations. Instead you discuss where you can be together and share things (for example with respect to a shared critique of usury) and where you need your separate areas, both theoretically and practically.

But in the end Europeans cannot make any concessions to other traditions which conflict with Christian values and those enlightenment values which derive from Christianity, because otherwise we cease to be Europeans in any other than a tepid geographical sense. Life then stops being heroic, which is to say purposive, and therefore ceases to be a human life at all.

EF: What role would universities have in the kind of intellectual culture that you are advocating?

JM: I tend to increasingly think that, certainly when it comes to the humanities, universities often work better when they do have a particular ethos; that education shouldn’t just be about knowledge or debate but it should be about the formation of character as well. Ancient academies and medieval universities understood this. It should be linked to life and training for citizenship, otherwise knowledge is very dangerous – you can be training very clever criminals. Oxbridge has often done just that – as a writer like John Le Carré so well reveals. I also think that education can be quite damaging to people if they just learn a lot of random different things, and they can’t associate those different things, and they can’t shape their personality in a coherent way in relation to knowledge. In some ways it’s more useful to be taught by someone who is offering you an integrated vision – which you might accept or might not accept – but it might help you towards your own integrated vision. In a way this is saying that education should be philosophical, it should be related to big questions – what is reality and what are we supposed to be doing within reality? Enquiry should be somehow oriented towards that cognitive goal, otherwise there is something disturbing about the whole process. I think very often students are saying to themselves ‘okay, if such and such a thing has happened in nature or has happened in history, then how does that relate to how I think about human existence and my own existence?’ Privately I think that they’re having those thoughts, which they may scarcely express, even to each other. And I think that needs to be much more brought out into the open and actually that all education has to be the study of philosophy in some aspect or other. This was exactly Socrates’ point I think, against the sophistic city of pure democracy.

There are different ways of supplying that ethos, but it may be important to have at least some universities that have a religious ethos. Travelling around I notice that Catholic universities seem to be much more successfully sustaining a humanities culture than other universities, where increasingly humanities are just about tolerated because of the increasingly technocratic mentality. To some extent we need a different kind of diversity – at the moment we’ve got a very individualist diversity, but it may be important to have different centres or departments that have more of a sense of a common ethos, a common vision. It’s not good if people totally agree, but if people totally disagree it can be extraordinarily inhibiting and unhelpful, just as building up a merely ‘pluralist’ department in modern British Universities is to my mind a literally soul-destroying task. By contrast, debate within a certain shared horizon is often the most productive – as was true of philosophical academies and schools in the ancient and medieval worlds. This is why I and Conor Cunningham set up the Centre of Theology and Philosophy within the general (and quite wide) ethos of Radical Orthodoxy, even though we sustain debates with other forces. It is also why we are forging a link with Respublica, which has a non-partisan commitment to political thinking based upon the primacy of civil society and the influence of Christian social teaching.

John Milbank is Research Professor of Religion, Ethics and Politics and Director of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham [email:]

Edmund Frettingham teaches international politics at Aberystwyth University, where he received his PhD. His current research focuses on how concerns about order, peace and security have shaped responses to the return of religion

To read John Milbank’s TCS article on Bauman, ‘Culture and Justice’ (TCS 27.6), go here

To read the rest of the Special Section on Zygmunt Bauman, and Special Section on Megacities & Violence in the same issue, go here

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