Breaking the Law With John Milbank – Part 2

Continuing from the previous post, I would like to address the aftermath of the debate between John Milbank, Stephen Law and Madawi Al-Rasheed, namely the articles written by Stephen Law and John Milbank against each other. The first article was by Stephen law. It was nice to see that he has a humility that is rare in many modern Atheists, he says:

Scientists should show some humility, and acknowledge there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in their naturalist philosophies. They should certainly cease claiming, as Richard Dawkins does, that science constitutes a significant threat to reasonable belief in God.

This is important to acknowledge, very often the Atheist narrative is science vrs religion, it’s a false narrative, and getting past it would be a great thing for the ongoing dialogue between the religious and the atheist. Stephen law then goes on to talk about claims people make when it comes to the supernatural and say that certain claims can be empirically verified or refuted. This is certainly true. Then he repeats his argument from evil, which in he delivers my comparing the evidence for an “evil God” with that for a “Good God” and saying the amount of good and evil in the world would refute both. Then he parodies a theologian’s response saying:

In response, some theologians say, “Oh how unsophisticated of you. That’s not what sophisticated believers like myself believe.” They go Wittgensteinian on us, insisting that “God exists” is not used to make a claim at all, let alone one an atheist might contradict or refute. Or they insist atheists fail to grasp that sophisticated theologians use “God” in an “apophatic” way: believers can talk about God, but only by saying what he is not, (e.g. he is not a “thing” that exists in addition to all the other existent things), not what he is.

In my view, these sorts of move are usually little more than pompous self-deception accompanied by flights of rhetoric and obscurantism. But let’s all at least agree that we can say what God is not: he is not all-powerful and all-evil. And he is not all-powerful and all-good.

First of all, that isn’t what most theologians would probably start with, at least that isn’t what John Milbank began with, he started with attempting to give an account of Evil within the Abrahamic tradition. Second of all, this isn’t just a pompous elitism of the Theologians, you ask your average Church, Synagogue or Mosque goer what God is, and press a little bit, you’ll generally get similar, if perhaps less sophisticated, description of what God is, i.e. very often it will be apophatic, or metaphorical.

But I’m sorry, dismissing what theologians say as “pompous self-deception” and “flights of rhetoric and obscurantism,” is simply to ignore the issue. If we are going to talk about God, and give arguments against God’s existence, we have to be careful. We cannot refuse to listen to what it is that religious people believe in, what religious teach, and then claim to be refuting those things. Theology is not always straightforward and simple, and it’s unfortunate that many modern Atheists don’t respect theology enough to know anything about it, or learn anything about it before criticizing it.

The response John Milbank gave in the debate (which I wrote about in the previous post) is one answer, i.e. one cannot even talk about Good or evil from an Atheist standpoint, it’s complete nonsense. Another, which is very similar, is what he gives in his follow up article, he says:

It is then all very simple. For the religious person, even the smallest scintilla of good ‘proves’ God because it is of God, even is God, if he is love.

And earlier:

But prior to modernity there was no problem of evil even though people were as tortured by wickedness and suffering as they are today. The reason for this was that the realm of evil and that of the irreducibly problematic were held to coincide. Again, evil was not first observed and then causally considered, rather it was immediately perceived as a failure of causality, a failure of emanative transmission, a deficiency of reason,  a weakening of the good and so of being itself, since existence and its various modes were regarded as inherently benign and wonderful.


In neither case was this seen as evidence against God who is wholly the provider of good (albeit in sometimes mysterious and torturous ways) but rather of cosmic, spiritual and human enmity against God.

This is more or less a Thomas Aquinas like approach to Good and Evil, Goodness is being, it is God, who is essentially being, and Evil is a lack of being, it’s going away from being. Now whether or not you agree with that definition of what Evil is, one would still have to deal with it if one was going to argue that the problem from Evil disproves the Christian God. But I think the last sentence quoted is something atheists need to keep in mind when running the problem from Evil, it’s always been part of Christian theology that Gods creation is in enmity toward God, it is rebellion against God. Of course, if one were to include that in the equation one would also need to include eschatology in the equation.

This is why the Atheist/Theist ongoing dialogue cannot get anywhere as long as Atheists refuse to attempt to understand theology, and understand the various theological frameworks on which faith is built. Just as a creationist critic of evolution is a waste of time if he doesn’t understand what evolution actually is, an Atheist critic of religion is a complete waste of time if he has no concept of how theology works.

There’s another very important thing John Milbank includes in his article, dealing with the whole non-starter of Atheists claiming that God is a hypothesis, he says:

Yet even today, most ordinary religious belief has not been debased. People pray not in order to ‘get things’ or to ‘test God’, but rather in order to attune themselves to his goodness and will. If they expect indeed that good can result from this attunement then they do not suppose that such results could possibly be predictable or provable. To deny this is not an evasive protection of a belief that would be otherwise readily falsifiable, but rather is part and parcel of belief in a transcendent God, rather than some sort of created, idolatrous substitute.

This is why these so-called prayer experiments are completely ridiculous, prayer is not a good-getting mechanism, which can be tested or empirically verified, it’s a reflection of a desire to bring oneself into a kind of communion with God. This is not something that is confined to the theological Academy, this is common every day, on the ground Christian practice, of course you have some TV-Evangelist hucksters who will attempt to convince people otherwise, but the common, traditional, Christian understanding of prayer is not anything that could be “testable” in any mechanistic way.

The back and forth between Stephen Law and John Milbank is emblematic of the problem between religious and atheist dialogue today, they are simply speaking two languages. The Atheist tend to look at everything through scientific lenses, all the while ignoring the fact that he put those lenses on and the lenses are themselves constructed, he tends to ignore any question to which there cannot be a scientific or empirical answer, and like Stephen law call talk of anything beyond that “rhetoric and obscurantism.” The Atheist tends to start with a kind of crude materialism, there is only matter out there, we observe it, but we don’t in anyway construct it, it’s just “there”, and in fact we are just “there.” As much as Atheists like to say they are not beholden to any theory such as “materialism” or “scientism” or whatever, they tend to simply assume those things, and tend to write off things that don’t fit in that mold. The Theist will tend to look at things through his religious tradition, and understand the world through the lenses of the narrative of his faith, at least a Christian Theist. Nevertheless, in the end I think John Milbank is right when he says:

Law is inexplicably stuck, like so many ‘philosophers of religion’ who are simply behind the curve, in a long-ago exploded (by Sellars, Quine, Davidson, Rorty, McDowell, Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault etc) philosophical world view for which truth can be neatly divided between truths of fact and truth of logic, between the lab and the armchair. Equally between both and claims of value, which therefore must be airily subjective and surely the masks of power as Nietzsche taught. One is here so disappointed with the lily-livered character of recent Anglo-Saxon atheists, who will not boldly and bracingly embrace, like the Alpine philosopher, the collapse of all ethics that must follow in the wake of the death of God. For nihilism is worthy of respect but not humanism – the ultimate result of Protestant middle-class and middle-brow culture, despicable to all peasants and nobility alike!


But Law needs to leave behind the vapour of value, get out of his armchair and stop hovering outside labs. Instead he needs, like any real philosopher, to read much history, look at nature more, walk about a bit in the city and connect to some action.

Basically Law, and many other modern Atheists need to think deeper, to stop assuming what western society has started to take for granted (if a philosopher can’t do that then what’s the point of philosophy), and to look at history and examine life as it’s really experienced, not just read biology and physics journals. God is more likely to be found in 2 lovers having morning coffee together than in any hydron collider.

Breaking the Law With John Milbank – Part 2

2 thoughts on “Breaking the Law With John Milbank – Part 2

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