Breaking the Law with John Milbank – Part 4

Continuing from the previous post (which itself was continuing from two previous posts here and here) I will be continuing my overview of Stephen Law’s second response to John Milbank and John Milbank’s second response to Stephen Law. About the question of Evil Stephen Laws response to John Milbank’s point that any possible distinction between Good and Evil is already granting a Divine is simply a misapplied empirical point he says:

It’s often claimed that unless we believe in God we’ll suppose ‘everything is permitted’ and so end up sliding to moral catastrophe. Yet, when we look across world’s developed democracies, we find that those that are most religious – including, of course, the United States (where 43% of citizens claim to attend church weekly) – have the highest rates of homicide, sexually transmitted disease (STD), teen pregnancy and abortion. The least religious countries, such as Canada, Japan and Sweden, have the lowest rates.

Then he makes a point about China being secular and yet have a kind of morality. Then later he says:

Our basic morality appears to be a pretty much universal feature of human societies, religious or not. Indeed, some recent research suggests that children from religious families actually tend to be less kind and more punitive than those from non-religious households. It’s possible that religion may actually end up making us, not more moral, but less.

This is simply empirically wrong, for much of human history the basis for western morality, i.e. the universal basic equality and infinite value of all human life, was not taken as true, or even considered. That the United States has more people going to Church whereas Europe has less says nothing about the history that shaped the two countries, I would argue that Europe was specifically shaped on Christian grounds, the United States was not, it’s a whole lot more complicated than simply counting the people in the pews.

Or take China, why is it that the advent of Capitalism hasn’t brought with it democracy, freedom, the welfare state and so on? Could it be that in China the underlying premises of those institutions are simply not there? Of course, the society functions, but that isn’t morality, yes, people behave in a way towards each other that allows society to run smoothly, but that isn’t the measure of a moral society. Also in no way (as John Milbank points out) can Confucianism be considered secular, it is a spiritual philosophy.

Both the United States and Europe, and Latin America, were built by cultures with certain religious assumptions, these assumptions shaped the cultures of these countries, counting how many people go to Church this year will tell you nothing about how much the respective cultures have been shaped by Christianity. This is especially true when it comes to European countries that have been Christian for a millennia.

As far as some recent research showing that children from religious families tend to show less kindness and so on. This is only meaningful once you grant Christian morality, without Christian morality, you’re just saying certain beliefs function differently the argument is circular. Kindness was not always a virtue, and there is no self-evident reason why it should be in the abstract, it is a virtue in Christianity, and so if Christian children are less kind, then they are less Christian, but get rid of Christianity and on what basis can any kind of morality be judged?

John Milbank responds to Stephens’s empirical point by saying:

This consideration is relevant to Stephen comparison of Canada with the USA. It is simply not clear to me that the latter country is more religious than the former. For the US is often dominated by an all-too modern mode of Christianity, often inclined to a kind of gnostic individual spirituality, perfectly compatible with a public and political realm that is arguably more secular, instrumentalised and de-ritualised than those of Western Europe. One can plausibly ascribe the greater peacableness, combination of cultural pluralism with overall integration, strong sense of the corporate,  the common good and the need for public welfare to Canada’s ultimate ‘Toryism’ or its founding loyalism, commitment to an anointed monarch and a shared political profession of Christian religious faith.

This is absolutely true, and just shows how ridiculous and shallow Stephen Law’s claim was. Again, counting people in Church tells one nothing about the religious influence on culture. I feel John Milbank in his response was slightly more gracious as I would have been, expecting Stephen Law to understand the difference between the gnostic individualistic spirituality of the United States with the Canadian or European context which has taken much more from public Christianity in civic life. But it’s an important point to be made, religion and its influence on society cannot be summed up by individual beliefs, but rather common practices, cultural assumptions and institutions.

Stephen Law then goes on to basically restate his argument from evil, that the existence of evil disproves a benevolent God just as the existence of good would disprove an malevolent God, and he does so seemingly without even addressing John Milbank’s rejections. John Milbank however attempts to engage Stephen Law on the issue, trying to shake him out of his naïve acceptance of the given, he says:

And finally it is also ‘good’ as the God of Genesis sees his creation, because anything we see as evil we immediately see as deficient or distorted, or as lacking in a fullness of existence that it ‘should’ have. Without question the default position is immediately to receive any existing thing not as neutrally grey, as if we were metaphysically colour-blind, but as positively good.

This is an important point, many atheists will see a rock as either something which man can shape to build a house (good) or something which will fall on someone’s head (evil) or just a rock (neutral), the problem as John Milbank points out is that the fact that there is a Rock to begin with is a good thing, being is good in and of itself. Simply accepting being as given, without acknowledging it as in some way a “gift,” something which is good in and of itself, will distort one’s view of good and evil, it then simply becomes a question of pleasure or pain, not the traditional Thomistic view of Being and non-Being. With that starting point Milbank then continues, he says:

Christianity speaks of a ‘fall’. This is meant pre- or meta-historically. The Fall is exactly like a malign transcendental – again not a thing, but a kind of meta-event that taints and stains the entire radiance of being.

Here, after all, is the simple empiricism of Christianity: the world is clearly primarily good if one understands anything whatsoever about ontological priority. (It is usually here important not to be a certain kind of analytic philosopher.) But equally clearly it is tragically riddled with inexplicable natural and cultural evil.

And then later:

If God is good and omnipotent, then indeed we have to have faith that evil will be eschatologically overcome and all creatures be restored and redeemed.

It’s a basic Christian view, Creation then the fall, then reconciliation then redemption, it’s basic Sunday school stuff. When John Milbank points out that one should not be an analytic philosopher in order to understand ontological priority, he makes a great point and something that I hope atheists take to heart. The Atheist will often see creation as neutral, and then find good and evil things within it, creation can only be neutral because it is just assumed, it’s just there, no questions need be asked. The Christian sees creation as a gift, as something good, being itself is something good, and God is at the source of it, then when privation of goodness and being comes in, through the fall, which is at its base caused by freedom within creation, the work of reconciliation and redemption comes in. However, for an Analytic philosopher, or a utilitarian, the evil in the world is not just a privation, but a real thing which aspects of the world can have, they can either be good or evil, otherwise they are neutral.

The Christian concept of good is, I believe, much more intuitive, so take for example a beautiful night sky, had no one ever seen it, it would still be beautiful, it is beautiful in and of itself, it is good in and of itself. It does not start out as neutral and then become beautiful and good when people admire it; rather people admire it because it is good and beautiful.

John Milbank continues to talk a little about Christology and the difference between secular and religious morality. However, I think what we have looked at so far is sufficient to make a simple point; very often Atheists reject religion because they simply cannot understand it, their assumed worldview and framework simply do not allow for the kinds of questions and answers that religion provides. Stephen Law and other Atheists have a kind of modernist mental block, they can only talk about beings, not being itself, they assume an instrumentality of the world and cannot see anything beyond that, and they take what they see as simply given, without acknowledging that it is in fact a gift.

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Breaking the Law with John Milbank – Part 4

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