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Reveling in Milbank and Hart

I got two new books in the mail yesterday (the first time I’ve ordered new books in a depressingly long time), and rarely has so much genius graced my mailbox with its presence. I could barely restrain my excitement as I opened them—John Milbank’s The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology and David Bentley Hart’s In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments. Being both collections of occasional essays, rather than sustained monographs, they will be perfect for the kind of morsel-sized reading I will have time for in the next month of travel across our vast and scattered nation. Since I was too impatient to read both to abandon one to devote attention to the other, I read first the Preface of Milbank’s and then the Preface of Hart’s. And I was already captivating. From page 1, Milbank is at his usual business of hitting ideological nails on the head with a hammer of remarkable weight, and Hart is at his usual business of deftly plucking them from the wall with the other end of the hammer, swinging them around his head, and lobbing them across the room.

Consider the following from Milbank, which puts very neatly what I have been clumsily trying to say for the last few months:

Today, of course, what we really have is two versions of a ‘left’ celebration of the ‘Many’ either as individuals or as a democratically voting mass. For reasons still not yet sufficiently accounted for by historians and social theorists, we have a ‘liberal right’ stressing economic negative liberty and a ‘liberal left,’ stressing cultural and sexual negative liberty. In reality, of course, the two liberalisms are triumphing both at once and in secretly collusive harmony. So perhaps what still sustains party conflict is alternating anxieties amongst the populace about the inevitable insecurities generated by now economic and now cultural ‘freedom’ in different temporal phases.

In just ten pages of Preface, Milbank makes the most intellectually powerful case I have yet seen for sweeping aside the false options of both right and left and adhering instead to a “Christian socialism” that is ecclesiocentric, anti-statist, and simultaneously democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical. No doubt this book will make many appearances on this blog over the coming couple months.

Meanwhile, Hart’s sparkling prose had me chortling with glee. He grudgingly offers some apology for his fiercely satirical criticisms, and then says,
My only defense—apart from confessing my sense that imperturbably mild manners often make for boring copy—is that I have never intentionally used language I thought disproportionately fierce in regard to any proposition or thinker, and that in reviewing these essays I cannot honestly find an instance of invective I particularly regret. Perhaps the most savage personal remarks I have ever committed to print are those I made regarding the bioethicist Joseph Fletcher in an article entitled ‘The Anti-Theology of the Body,’ and they astonished even me by their vehemence when I read them again in preparing this volume; I did not, however, alter them, or even soften them to the degree that the editors of The New Atlantis did when the article originally appeared, for the simple reason that they still do not seem unwarranted to me given the altogether loathsome nature of Fletcher’s ideas, and the scandal that so many of our tenured intellectuals do not recoil from those ideas with the horror and revulsion they merit. I do not know if I believe that any quantity of abuse heaped upon persons like Fletcher is truly excessive, except in tactical terms: if one wants to convince others of the justness of one’s views of anything, perhaps one ought to proceed in as moderate and cautious a manner as one can. But, then again, perhaps one occasionally should not; some ideas are simply evil, and the persons who conceive them somewhat depraved, and there may be something rather disgraceful in an unwillingness to say so.

Then he goes on to discuss his vicious critique of Daniel Dennett,
who, whatever his faults, could never be indicted of the sort of moral idiocy that permeated Fletcher’s work. In matters historical, religious, and even philosophical, Dennett is clearly something of an ignoramus; and he has always been a bad philosopher, however much he may be adored by journalists and book reviewers and his ideological comrades; and, since his work now belongs to that parasitic subcategory of analytic philosophy that serves simply as a sort of adjunct to the hard sciences, he no longer writes philosophy anyway. All of that would be quite pardonable, though, were it not for the self-importance, condescension, and imperiousness of his writings on the relation between scientific reason and religious belief. Ignorance and defective logic become truly offensive only when combined with invincible and self-deluding arrogance….[His book Breaking the Spell] is no worse, admittedly, than the books of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens (though Hitchens, even if he cannot think his way to the end of a simple syllogism, can write fairly well, as Dennett most emphatically cannot); but the arguments of a philosopher—even a bad philosopher—must be held to a higher standard. Of course, the truth is that the entire tribe of the ‘New Atheists’ is a disappointment. A reflective and brilliant atheist is a man much to be admired, if he truly demonstrates an understanding of what it is he is rejecting; and an atheist genuinely willing to accept the full implications of his convictions (Nietzsche being a nonpareil example) should not be reviled for those convictions. But it seems obvious that among the innumerable evidences of late modern culture’s lack of spiritual depths one must include its manifest impotence to produce profound atheists. Instead, the best it seems we can hope for today are dreary purveyors of historical illiteracy, theatrical indignation, subfusc moralizing, and the sort of logical confusions that Richard Dawkins has brought to a level of almost transcendent perfection.


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