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Quick Takes

Sed Contra: How to Deal with Theologians Tweeting Badly

To forego a hermeneutic of charity risks abandoning a central part of the gospel, just as a lack of concern about standing in solidarity with the voiceless, the poor, and the marginalized would do.

When asked to contribute a reflection defending John Milbank’s egregious tweet, one feels a bit like a public defender whose client has been caught on tape. The crime lies in plain sight, and one is in the position of asking people to un-see what has been seen. I am uninterested in that kind of defense, and more inclined to look at from a much wider context. 

Still, I am pleased at the generous invitation of my colleague, Dr. Rubén Rosario Rodríguez, to say something about this event, of which I first learned by reading his Facebook post, summarized on this site. Milbank’s tweet was harmful, expressive of a narrowness and ignorance hardly worthy of a scholar of his stature. Beyond that, as both Dr. Rosario and Stephen Butler Murray note, it was also incoherent.

The discussion about this and other transgressions falls under the category of the ethical. Christianity encourages its followers to stand in solidarity with victims while at the same time seeking reconciliation, sometimes aggressively, with those whom we find ourselves in conflict, whether they be rivals, enemies, friends, or oppressors. On occasion this ethical balancing act feels like a zero-sum game, in which seeking reconciliation facilitates an overly hasty sidestepping of solidarity, and thus, unwittingly or not, perpetuates patterns of abuse and oppression. How can we be in solidarity with the marginalized if we show sympathies to their oppressors? What kind of reconciliation can one have with those bent on oppressing a group of people, or individuals, with whom one wants to be in solidarity? What I want to suggest is the need to keep the tension between two moral goods, however unsatisfying.

Before returning to Milbank’s comment, let me be clear: systemic racism is real and an affront to basic justice. Christians have a moral duty to combat it by the various means available—in the ways we vote, the choice of neighborhood we live in, the stores we shop at, the texts we assign, and the conversations we tolerate. Racism is not simply accounted for by an accumulation of personal beliefs: it is embedded in laws, customs, institutions, cultures, and even language. Many of us, in light of recent events, have undergone various levels of what Jesuit spirituality calls an examination of conscience, by recalling not only sinful acts, but also attending to the patterns of thought and ingrained habits that perpetuate racism, and seeking to understand the ways that God is speaking to us in moments. To say I’m not a racist is to follow the lead of those decried by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, who say, if we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophet (Matt 23:30). This applies to all of us.

It will be helpful to revisit the events in question. In response to posts belittling the legacy of his mentor, Nicholas Lash, whose death Milbank had announced at the beginning of the thread, Milbank said what he said (he has now deleted it). He then clarified that discussions of race, class, gender etc… have their place in theological discourse. Two days later, he critiqued Jordan Peterson for denying the existence of white privilege. These statements hardly seem consistent with white supremacy. It is notable that neither Dr. Rosario (who engages in an informed and measured discussion of Milbank in Dogmatics after Babel, and, on my reading of his book at least, helpfully suggests how liberation theology can make upon Milbank’s ecclesiology) nor the commentators on his Facebook post felt the need to follow the Twitter thread. Instead, Milbank was called “an ass,” “imperialist,” “colonialist,” “obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant,” “white supremacist,” “a guttersnipe,” the leader of a cult, a Nazi, and a fundamentalist. The tweet “proves all my suspicions,” about “an asshole” incapable of “cogent prose or thought.” Only one defender of Milbank chimed in, pleading that one’s life’s work should not be canceled on account of a Tweet. When Dr. Rosario writes, “Not surprisingly, I was also struck by the passion with which Milbank’s defenders reacted to my post,” I confess to having a much different impression of the Facebook reactions. [Editor’s Note: the most virulent comments, on both sides of the issue, were made privately on Dr. Rosario’s Messenger account.]

Rather than stay with the matter at hand, I would like to focus on a larger trend of which the discussion was a part. In these type of threads, commenters seem eager to identify the guilty party with a broader legacy: white theology, which bleeds into a normative white supremacy and thus is all pernicious. These claims and terms, often employed equivocally, have become increasingly doctrinaire. I worry that younger scholars will conclude that there is no reason to engage with the theological accounts that Dr. Rosario transmits, with the caveats he mentions, in his seminars, if these accounts are rotten to the core.

If one begins a narrative of the history of European institutional theology with the Holy Roman Empire started by Charlemagne around 800 CE, one can describe it as a series of conversations based on common sets of texts and authorities, propelled by a deeply contested legacy about what counts and who gets heard. This high-stakes conversation took place in institutions deeply immersed in power struggles and compromising arrangements with secular power. The institutional theology that resulted was at times inspired by and at other times blind and deaf to a gospel message that was radical and liberating, both supportive of institutional power and subversive of that power. The conversations it kept alive began in a Mediterranean world encompassing southern Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East, before it migrated north of the Alps. In the battle over its canon, race seemed but a peripheral concern: its God was a Palestinian Jew, and its authoritative figures came from both Egypt and England, from North Africa and northern Europe, from employees of empires (eg., Eusebius, Eriugena), and as subjects brutalized by the same Empire (eg., Boethius, Maximus). Here I do not mean to disagree with the interesting work of J. Kameron Carter, which highlights the importance of remembering Jesus’s Jewishness among figures like Irenaeus, and the danger in forgetting it. I mean only to highlight how racial thinking, like sexuality, cannot be applied univocally in history.

The reforming movements that led to a split in the Western church hardened differences based on emerging national and confessional identities. These differences led to the legacy of discrimination and violence based on these identities and other identities. Huguenots were brutalized in France, as were Catholics in Ireland. In the Anglo-Saxon context, Protestantism dominated most regions, making Catholic theology heretical and marginal (almost every elite faculty of theology in the United States sprung out of a Protestant divinity school). It is not only unfortunate, but tragic that these events did not lead to a greater sense of solidarity with the newly and violently colonized people outside of Europe. The work of scholars like Willie Jennings is a helpful place to mediate on what he calls the “diseased social imaginations” that made this failure possible. It would be similarly unfortunate if those working in the sub-fields dismissed by Milbank saw nothing of their own struggles in the battles over what counted as legitimate theology in previous centuries. 

With the onset of modernity, theology was employed to extend that oppression in order to conquer foreign lands and oppress and enslave non-European peoples, and the modern discourses of race and religion were often intertwined in ways overlooked by many theological practitioners. This modern, Enlightenment discourse departed, often fundamentally, from its Christian heritage, especially the Catholic variant. Modernity often baked racialized thinking into its presuppositions, as it did with sexism, anti-Judaism, and anti-Catholicism. Here Dr. Rosario and I agree. During this time, theologians did what they had done previously—make arguments that relied on certain authorities and undermined others, both in pursuit of the truth and in order to secure theirs as the normative discourse. In it, theology was rapacious in its use of methods and its mode of retrieval. On a smaller but no less ferocious scale, this happened within confessions, religious communities, and orders of priests.

As Christianity spread to different parts of the world, theological institutions spread with it. Admired figures of liberation theology like Gustavo Gutiérrez, Delores Williams, Jon Sobrino, and James Cone were trained in these institutions. They rebelled against what was considered normative by demonstrating the distance between this theology and the liberating message of gospel. Three points are worth recalling: (1) they rebelled in continuity with figures from eras past who bristled theological norms, and were leery of institutions and forms of discourse that shielded rather than revealed the gospel; (2) this happened in conversation with such figures; (3) by doing so, they began a movement to realign the canon, a movement that has been an undeniable, even if delayed, success. This realignment is formally continuous with the institutional history of theology. Likewise, the way in which leading scholars, not only Milbank, have blithely dismissed theology from the margins bespeaks a major problem with the guild. His and others’ dismissive attitude is fundamentally analogous to, say, the disregard for Hans Urs von Balthasar or Milbank himself among many professors when I was a student.

My own area of expertise, which covers the Catholic theologians of Tübingen, is instructive. These theologians were forcibly relocated by the Protestant government to Tübingen, where they constituted less than 1% of the town’s population, and were treated as second-class intellectuals with questionable allegiances to the state. In my review of Ferdinand Baur’s church history, I recount how Baur, their Protestant counterpart in Tübingen, dismissed any possibility for Catholic intellectual life: his way of praising the work of a Catholic was to claim “it could have been written by a Protestant,” asserts the incompatibility of belonging to the Catholic Church and being a “thinking Christian,” and dismisses outright the possibility of there being any real theology done by Catholics. Although I came to this area unfamiliar with this social context, knowing it makes it easier for me to see their struggle for legitimacy refracted in the theological trends maligned by Milbank. I would hope the same intuition might flow the other way, but this will not happen if European theology is cast aside as essentially white supremacist.

After these detours one is still left with the question, what then shall we do? (Luke 3:10). One path is hermeneutical suspicion, which appears congruent with the solidarity mentioned above. Another path involves a hermeneutic of charity, wonderfully summarized by Saint Ignatius: “Every good Christian ought to be more willing to give a good interpretation to the statement of another than to condemn it as false. If he cannot give a good interpretation to this statement, he should ask the other how he understands it, and if he is in error, he should correct him with charity.” To forego a hermeneutic of charity risks abandoning a central part of the gospel, just as a lack of concern about standing in solidarity with the voiceless, the poor, and the marginalized would do. 

The shame in l’affaire Milbank would be to learn nothing from it. I would suggest moving beyond disgust, or a desire that Milbank remained perched on some real or imagined seat of shame.  One way to maintain the ethical tension mentioned above is to reflect on the ways in which we are like Milbank. We do this by dismissing certain modes of theological discourse, or by being too impulsive and oblivious to the kind of harm our social media posting or our water cooler talk might produce. To fail to see, upon further contemplation, ourselves in it—reflected hazily in our own dismissals and doctrinaire assertions—is to miss an opportunity for the growth in self-awareness central to the moral and intellectual life.

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