Anti-Theology in Disguise

In Theology & Social Theory,[1] John Milbank argues that modern social science is mistakenly equated with objective truth because the fundamentally subjective and historical character of the theories it produces is effectively concealed. For Milbank, it is not the case that theology ought to be substituted with secular reason on the basis that the latter is more “objective.” Secular reason does not necessarily constitute a more reliable path to the “truth.” For Milbank, theology and social science are both historically contingent. Both are aligned to particular historical worldviews and neither produces knowledge in the purest sense. For Milbank, “secular social theory only applies to secular society, which it helps to sustain” (Milbank, 3). Secular society therefore is founded on the intellectual ascent of social theory as a means of explaining how things “really are,” and the continuous production of social theories serves to reinforce the secular basis of the entire framework. Milbank reminds us however that secular reason is very much defined in relation to religion, even as that relationship is one of opposition. For Milbank, secular reason “is actually constituted in its secularity by ‘heresy’ in relation to orthodox Christianity” (Milbank, 3). If we were forced to describe secular reason in the smallest number of words, we would call it “non-religious.” Hence, secular reason in some sense depends on religion for its own self-understanding; opposition to religion is, in a way, secular reason’s reason for being. For Milbank, theology and social theory are two kinds of knowledge, but given the historicism inherent to each of them, neither of these two forms of knowledge can claim to be absolute. In Theology & Social Theory, Milbank attempts to problematize social theory by demonstrating that it has much more in common with theology than it would care to admit. Milbank’s aim is “to make it apparent that ‘scientific’ social theories are themselves theologies or anti-theologies in disguise” (Milbank, 3). As Milbank further explains, “theology encounters in sociology only a theology, and indeed a church in disguise, but a theology and a church dedicated to promoting a certain secular consensus” (Milbank, 4). By problematizing social theory and showing how it depends on an intellectual assent of the same kind that theology also depends on, Milbank intends to return some explanatory force to theology within a society that has apparently been completely swept away by secular reason. In Milbank’s estimate, given the archaeology of knowledge common to both theology and social theory, the elevation of social theory at the expense of theology is unjustified. Hence, Milbank attempts (ambitiously, one might think) to reposition theology to what he deems to be its rightful place as a legitimate and reasonable analytic enterprise. Milbank therefore discerns two groups of individuals, the religious and the secular, each subscribing to its own explanatory principle, one called theology and the other called social theory. Milbank reveals that both explanatory principles are intended to promote a certain social consensus, one being religious and the other secular. The crucial point Milbank is trying to make however is that it is presumptuous on the part of secular society to assume that secular reason somehow produces a greater or more reliable truth than theology. In fact, theology and social theory produce consensus rather than absolute truth, and it is the function of consensus in either case, the intellectual alignment of a group of individuals to a certain explanatory principle, which reinforces the strength of each principle and lends them the quality of objective truth. What is true, then, for orthodox Christians may be different from what is true for secular society, but the nature of truth founded on consensus is such that it is not reasonable for secular society to dismiss theology as an explanatory principle, since to do so would be for secular society to deny the fact that social theory is just another type of historical consensus. Believers and non-believers, it would seem, may each subscribe to their own versions of the truth while each acknowledging that both are fallible and neither is absolute. Both groups may rest comfortably for now within the intellectual consensus that unites them and defines them as a group, perhaps while hoping that some form of divine gesture or indication will eventually raise that consensus to the next level.

For Milbank, unless the sociological enterprise takes into account the supernatural dimension of the Church, it fails to acknowledge a fundamental characteristic of human beings. As Milbank explains, “Just as Blondel believed that philosophy must speak of the supernatural, so Sturzo believed that ‘an integral sociology’ must speak of the human community – ultimately and especially the Church – as supernatural.  Unless, according to Sturzo, sociology proceeds in this fashion beyond secular reason, it fails to speak of human beings in the concrete, and fails to deal with their most fundamental aspect, which is precisely their relation to a transcendent, final cause” (Milbank, 226). According to Milbank then, secular reason without theology is ill-equipped to address the most profound aspect of human existence, that is to say, the transcendent. It would seem, according to Milbank, that secular reason with its exclusion of the supernatural cannot underpin a sociological analysis which is able to do full justice to the human condition. Yet it seems that in adopting this stance Milbank assumes a certain ontological view of the transcendent itself. Belief in final causes can easily be understood to be a profound and significant sociological characteristic of religiously-oriented human beings, but it is less obvious that sociology should therefore necessarily deal with the transcendent in any special way or as an object of study that is separate and independent from the human beings who harbour those religious sentiments. While Milbank is correct to point out that a sociology which, informed by secular reason, automatically and unquestionably denies the supernatural is an “anti-theology in disguise,” it does not follow that sociology has necessarily been wrong all along regarding the status of the supernatural and that it must now overcome this wrongful bias by acknowledging the supernatural as an undisputed fact. It seems, for Milbank, that the shear intensity of belief displayed by religious people somehow lends ontological weight to the objects of those beliefs. For Milbank, if sociology is going to do justice to its purported object of study, it ought to adopt a more theological approach towards religious feelings of transcendence observable within the human communities it examines. Yet while religious beliefs and practices do constitute some of the fundamental building blocks in the process of human identity formation, this does not in and of itself suggest that these beliefs and practices are more appropriately considered through the lens of theology than by way of secular reason. Even if we admit that social theory is an anti-theology in disguise, until such time as the objects of religious belief become manifest, there would still appear to be no real reason to prefer theology over social theory as a means to dissect the transcendent. To view the matter otherwise, I think, is to drown the spirit of analysis with excessive creativity. Furthermore, despite its anti-theological stance, there is no reason to assume that social theory would continue to deny a theological proposition once the object of religious transcendence alluded to theologically became manifest, that is to say, once it became plainly visible to the secular observer.

Then again, it seems that, for Milbank, theology and sociology wind up mutually invalidating themselves. As Milbank explains, “theology and sociology each have their own precisely defined subject matter. They can be seen fruitfully entering into ‘dialogue’, but what is not seen is that they secretly and invalidly uphold each other’s autonomy from within the internal structures of their own delusory epistemologies” (Milbank, 235). Theologies and social theories are each the product of separate and distinct epistemological traditions and, as Milbank might argue, we cannot subscribe to one tradition without at the same time exercising undue prejudice against the other. More fundamentally though, sociology and theology are not found to be truly autonomous disciplines. The methodological distinction between theology and sociology is invalid, as Milbank points out, since sociology is defined anti-theologically and in this sense can still be understood to have some kind of relationship to theology. As we can see by tracing the respective archaeologies of theology and sociology, the “delusory epistemologies” of both disciplines have to do with the fact that sociology grew as a critical response to theology, which then prompted theology to similarly evolve in response to the advent of sociology. For Milbank, the sociological response to theology is made possible by the modern narrative which establishes a false incompatibility between scientific explanation and divine causes. As Milbank explains, “what happened was that the old medieval hierarchy of primary (divine) and secondary (imminent) causes collapsed, and explanation was parcelled out between ‘natural’ causes operating in a manner ‘testable’ by human beings, because they could be experimentally manipulated, and ‘transcendent’ causes where a direct divine intervention, without intermediaries, was postulated – as in the case of Leibniz’s pre-established harmony, Malebranche’s occasional causality, Newton’s ‘active principles’, Smith’s ‘hidden hand’ and even … Kant’s transcendental objects and supersensible free subjectivity” (Milbank, 245). Modern science discreetly reverts back to divine intervention in the face of phenomena left unexplained by instrumental reason. In this sense, theology and science must still work together in order to produce a complete description of reality. Sociology and theology are not two autonomous disciplines competing for the truth, but rather two self-reinforcing instances of human consensus heavily intertwined with each other and each relying on the other for their own self-understanding. The truth for Milbank, it would seem, must be located somewhere beyond the reach of either.


[1] Milbank, John. 2006. Theology and social theory : beyond secular reason. Oxford, UK ; Malden, MA : Blackwell Pub.