Breaking the Law with John Milbank – Part 3

Here I will be commenting on Stephen Law’s second written responseThankfully, and I mean thankfully (I love these kinds of debates), John Milbank and Stephen Law continued their back and forth. In a previous post I commented on their on stage debate and in another I commented on their written back and forth. Here I will be commenting on Stephen Law’s second written response, and John Milbank’s second written response. The battleground begins with a discussion of the relationship between religion and magic. Stephen law doesn’t think the distinction matters much he says:

God’s being scientifically investigable does not require we be able to affect him; it requires only that he be able to affect us. We can’t causally affect the past. But, because it affects us, we can scientifically investigate it. If dinosaurs roamed the earth, there are things we should expect to observe now. If we don’t observe those things, that’s evidence against dinosaurs. Similarly, if there’s a God, there are certain things we should expect to observe (e.g. no gratuitous evils). If we don’t observe those things, that can similarly be good evidence against God.

John Milbank then replies:

No, because God is not a dinosaur or a remote star, to cite Stephen’s examples. Dinosaurs and astral bodies are still things, even if they are big and ominous. God is not a thing, and just for this reason he may be equally thought of as small and intimate (this is partly why he showed us that he is also a baby) as he is incomprehensibly vast and sublime. And if God is not a thing, then he does not affect us selectively and occasionally, or even persistently but aspectually (like the Sun), but rather all the time and in every possible respect.

This is a point that Stephen Law simple cannot wrap his mind around, and I don’t blame him, for us moderns who grow up in a scientific materialistic era, where everything must be categorized, measured and so on, it can be very difficult to think in more holistic categories. Historical inquiry depends on making distinctions, we have such and such artefact, such and such text, thus we can distinguish that for other things we find (such a rocks, or modern texts), and then narrow down what things are useful in reconstructing a history and what things are not. Then we examine the useful materials in order to reconstruct a plausible history of whatever event we are trying to examine. This is only possible because we can distinguish cause and effect in specific instances (such and such artefact is found, because it was made, and was made for this purpose, probably by such and such people and so on) and understand the contingency of such instances on certain causal events (in other words one can imagine it possible the events didn’t’ happen). The same goes for Dinosaurs, we find the evidence and induce back using various distinctions and causal assumptions.

As John Milbank points out, one cannot do this with God, because God is not a thing, he is not a specific object which has specific effects in certain areas and not others, he is not even a cause which one can distinguish what it would have been had that cause not been there. If you want to talk about God, in the Christian tradition, you can’t talk about him as if he were just some object out there which is beyond our senses or reach, God is not some object out there, as John Milbank says, he is being itself, the ground of all being, at once imminent and transcendent.

Stephen Law acknowledges that God is not a thing, but doesn’t seem to be able to actually think of God in those terms, he can’t seem to get away from talking about God as just a way out there super being.

John Milbank tries to explain to Stephen Law the traditional view of God, but it doesn’t get to him and I think it has to do with their respective starting points. Stephen Law is approaching the question of God in the regular secularist way. In his view, the world is a given, the universe is a given, sense data is a given, the reliability of sense data is a given, being is a given, the stability of causality is a given, the distinction between being and non-being is a given and so on and so forth. Then comes to question of God, in his view he is being asked whether or not to add on to his already given world an extra appendage, some super architect. John Milbank takes all these things as given, but he then wants to examine the giver. It’s not that John Milbank has his world and then wants to add God; it’s that he only can have his world because of God. As long as Stephen Law wants to argue about adding God to his already given world as opposed to speaking about who or what has given him his given world the discussion won’t advance. John Milbank puts it well when it says:

There is a mystery of being and of reality. Reading them as the action of a personal or tri-personal God is one serious attempt at solving the riddle of our existence, though not, of course, the only one and not the only religious one. Nonetheless it is clear that if one does adopt this interpretation, then one is not offering a hypothesis about something within the world, subject to evidence and testing, but a thesis about the world as such, about its universal and transcendental dimensions. How can a proposal that seeks to account for the ‘everythingness of everything’ be subject to proposed counter-instances? It cannot.

Stephen law will not accept such language, he says:

Now, an example of one of John’s ‘deeper’ comments is:

God is paradoxically at once ‘all’ and yet beyond the ‘all’ considered as a mere sum.

That does sound deep, doesn’t it? Yet notice it too is a contradiction: God is all, and yet is not all.

I don’t claim such seemingly contradictory remarks can never communicate a deep insight: no doubt sometimes they do. It may be that John has such insights to offer. I’m merely pointing how easy it is to fool other people, and even yourself, into thinking you have some deep insight by playing around with contradiction in this way.

Stephen Law’s instinct is to be suspicious of flowery language that at the end doesn’t say anything, ok, I share that instinct, and that is one legitimate objection that analytic philosophy has against much of continental philosophy (and sometimes theology). However what John is saying here is not contradictory at all, all Stephen Law would have to do is to grant John Milbank the Charity of attempting to understand what he’s saying. Just looking at that statement at a first glance I understand what John Milbank is trying to say, and it’s something which we can say of all sorts of things, in one sense God is “all” he is “everything” but he is also “beyond” all, he is more than the sum of everything. Let’s take another example, human beings are the sum of all their body parts, I am by body, yet at the same time I am more than my body, I am my experiences, I am by opinions, I am my emotional states and so on. Or let’s take another example, a beautiful painting is the combination of canvass and paint in a frame, yet it is also more than that, it is beyond that, since one can talk about it as also depicting a scene, evoking emotions, having a message and so on. The statement by John Milbank is not some pseudo-spiritualist deep statement, it’s a clear, coherent and traditional statement about how we are to think of God, it’s not trying to be “deep,” just accurate, the same way one could say that man is both the sum of his body parts, but also his emotions and experiences and opinions is accurate. The fact that Stephen Law doesn’t want to try and actually understand what John Milbank is saying doesn’t change that.

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Breaking the Law with John Milbank – Part 3

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