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A “Themed Identity” Theologian Responds to John Milbank

When a white scholar embraces a liberationist perspective it is considered pioneering. When I do it I am being “political” not scholarly, then I get labeled a troublemaker. This is the reality Milbank’s tweet is trying to erase, and the reason I spoke out.

TRIGGER WARNING: The following comments are likely to offend many of my colleagues in academia. So be it.

According to noted theologian John Milbank, the “themed identity theology” I study and practice (Latinx liberation theology) is “tiresome careerist and naturally elitist bollocks. But no one serious takes it seriously. Or if they do that is utterly tragic.” These statements were made on Twitter on July 12, 2020 by john milbank@johnmilbank3. They were part of a longer thread, the details of which are irrelevant, since it was this one tweet that was screen grabbed and widely distributed on multiple social media platforms, creating a bit of controversy in my own little corner of the world: the world of academic theology.

Screen grab of the controversial tweet.

I was quite angry after first reading the tweet. If, by choosing to study and specialize in liberation theologies I was making a calculated—perhaps Machiavellian—move to ingratiate myself with the left-leaning elite that supposedly controls higher education, why has my career path been such a struggle? So angry, I posted a response to John Milbank on social media (not that he is ever likely to see it), and was pleasantly surprised by the number of colleagues who agreed with my comments. Not surprisingly, I was also struck by the passion with which Milbank’s defenders reacted to my post.

If Milbank is right, why is it I went up for tenure with both five peer-reviewed articles and a monograph with a major university press while many of my (white) colleagues were tenured with either five peer-reviewed articles or a monograph? If these so-called identity theologies are “careerist” and “elitist,” why is it I went up for promotion to full professor with three monographs under my belt, including one with Cambridge University Press, when many of my peers have been promoted to full professor with one, or at most two monographs?

One thing Milbank says in his tweet rings true. Within academia, “no one takes it [liberation theology] seriously.” 

Otherwise, how do you explain the battles I have fought over the past sixteen years to make my courses part of the undergraduate major or the core curriculum? How else to explain the struggles when trying to add diverse voices to the academic canon in the form of graduate reading lists?

If Milbank’s overall assessment is true I should have been promoted to an administrative position years ago. If liberation theologies are both elitist and careerist, why have I been passed over twice for a named chair despite my strong record of research and publication?

THE BOTTOM LINE: I am, and always have been, an advocate. An advocate for social justice, including fighting for racial equity within academia, which has often brought me into confrontation with my colleagues, my department chair, the Dean, the Provost, and even the university President. Because of this I have been labeled a troublemaker and accused of not being collegial, despite the fact that most of my struggles with university administrators have focused on making the workplace better and more equitable for ALL faculty members.

So when I first read Milbank’s hateful and elitist comments I was angry. For someone who is supposedly brilliant, he—as one of the elite “superstars” within academic theology who has taught at Cambridge University, the University of Virginia, and is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham—is unable to see the irony of claiming that someone like me, a Latinx liberation theologian, is careerist and elitist. 

Mostly I feel pity for John Milbank, whose ideological blinders have so narrowly limited his world he is only able to see his own solipsistic perspective. He is the poorer for it.

To be fair, not all my liberationist colleagues agreed with my post. Some felt I was too soft on Milbank. Others questioned why I bother engaging Milbank’s work in the first place. To which I respond that I still teach Kant despite knowing he was a white supremacist (re: his essentialist comments about black Africans), and will continue teaching Kant as part of my efforts to dismantle Eurocentrism and white supremacy. I make no apologies for reading (and critiquing) such figures as John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Rahner, John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas, etc., even as many of my Latinx colleagues take me to task for it. I do it for the same reason I eventually overcame my anger at Milbank’s words: because I am unapologetically committed to the diversity of perspectives in theological study.

Milbank’s defenders, however, chastised me for what they took to be an ad hominem attack, warning me that the demonization of John Milbank for his impolitic verbal gaffe is perhaps a cover up for something else—an attempt to quash the heterodox view that within academia being a “leftist” helps one’s career and improves one’s chances of being hired in the first place. They then argued that a scholar’s career cannot be judged on a single tweet, as if to imply that a Facebook post by a relatively unknown Latinx theologian living in the Midwest United States could in some way cause irreparable harm to Milbank’s reputation and standing.

John Milbank is an internationally renowned theologian more than capable of defending himself. But the implication that my critique of Milbank was unfair, a personal attack, and based on one isolated quote, insults me as a scholar, a theologian, and a Christian. 

First of all, I dedicated an entire section in my most recent monograph, Dogmatics After Babel: Beyond the Theologies of Word and Culture  (Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), to analyzing and evaluating John Milbank’s theology. In other words, my critique of John Milbank is not based on an isolated quote, but is a careful assessment of his published corpus:

History matters—whether interpreted from a secular modernist perspective or from a distinctly Christian theopoetics—and a critical reading of Christian history cannot give Christianity a pass simply by concluding that “horror and intolerance follow [only] when the Church ceases to be the Church.” This is a convenient act of hermeneutical prestidigitation. Milbank’s theological edifice, while awe-inspiring in scope and aspiration, will benefit from a more thorough engagement of critical voices—especially those liberative perspectives dismissed by Milbank after only a cursory and shallow analysis. Like Radical Orthodoxy, liberation theology (LT) also seeks to liberate Christianity from its captivity to power and empire. Like RO, LT also seeks to ground theology in a distinctly Christian metanarrative. However, unlike RO, LT does not shy from concrete articulations of ecclesial practice, opting to name as “church” those practices that maximize human liberation while also recognizing that these workings of the Spirit might be located extra muros ecclesiae (“beyond the walls of the church”). 

Dogmatics After Babel, pgs. 94-5.

Second, I had every right to be angry at Milbank’s words because they were culturally insensitive, intentionally inflammatory, and most importantly, patently false. Scholarly reputation notwithstanding, his comments were downright stupid, and revelatory of some deep-seated resentment. 

What I tried to say with my Facebook post was something about the way minoritized academics, those like me who explicitly embrace their identity as “other” because that is how we have always been perceived, are received and treated in academia. When a white scholar embraces a liberationist perspective it is considered pioneering. When I do it I am being “political” not scholarly, then I get labeled a troublemaker. This is the reality Milbank’s tweet is trying to erase, and the reason I spoke out.

CLOSING THOUGHTS: My mentor at Princeton Theological Seminary, Mark Taylor, told us on the first day of class in his Sources and Methods seminar: “If you wait until tenure to become an advocate, you will never become an advocate.” Working for justice and equity involves personal risk. Within academia, advocates accept this risk not for their own personal gain, but in the hope that the next generation of scholars will find a more welcoming workplace.

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963)

5 thoughts on “A “Themed Identity” Theologian Responds to John Milbank

  1. Ruben, Thank you for your reflection. Sometimes, arguments and declarations are like boomerangs. They go as far as their inertia takes them, and then they return to haunt us. The fact that you are an academician puts you in the predicament that, if you want to be in that environment, you have to stick to the game’s parameters and rules. Your argument, while valid, criticizes the very thing that you want to be a part of. Maybe the best approach is to radically transform that environment and make it more humanizing, empowering, and transformational. Then it would not be academia; it would be an alternative. The choice is yours to build something new from the inside or to step out and challenge the systems and start building an option.

    1. I do not see it as so strictly an either/or, and my own life of activism within and without academia has been marked by progress but also compromise. Ultimately, it is a question of power: who has it, who wields it, and how. Not to mention, how do those without power get power. Outside of a revolution that tears down the old system and builds something new (and history has shown us revolution yields, at best, mixed results), I would rather continue the slow, multi-generational project of transforming and critiquing from the inside. Why? Because in the end, despite all its flaws, the core of higher learning is still a profoundly humanist and emancipatory endeavor.

  2. Rubén, these remarks are very insightful, and truthful. Milbank, as so many other “white” scholars, is blind to his own “white privilege” and Eurocentric assumption that “white” and “Eurocentric” are the unquestionable norm and standard. Self-idolatry is apparently alive among those who can’t question the pretended norm, and who can’t deal with their norm’s and standard’s long and demonstrated history of violence, prejudice and blatant injustice.

    1. I had a long and cordial e-mail exchange with Milbank over his tweet (and my response). I invited him to publish a response but he declined (not surprisingly). I am just amazed at how persistent the notion of a universal theology with a capital “T” continues to be, and how blind its practitioners are to the fact that they are imposing their own subjectivity onto the rest of Christianity. All theologies are local and contextual, as you know, but only the descendants of conquerors and empire-builders refuse to acknowledge it…even as their empires crumble.

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