Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People by John Milbank
(Wiley-Blackwell, 2014, 298 pages)
In 1990 John Milbank published Theology and Social Theory, a book which made the bold claim, “Once, there was not ‘secular’.” He argued that what has come to be thought of as the “secular realm,” as it has developed in the West, is not really a sphere free of religious commitments, but rather, a turning away from a Christian view of the universe toward “heretical” or “pagan” religious commitments. In Beyond Secular Order, the long-awaited follow-up, Milbank details this turn from a predominantly Christian ontology to a supposedly objective and scientific view of modernity.
He locates this turn within certain trends in late medieval theology. The book is divided into two “sequences.” The first, “Sequence on Modern Ontology,” charts this development, while the second “Sequence on Political Ontology,” articulates how this ontological turn has influenced modern democratic politics. Milbank’s arguments are impressive and wide-ranging. While his discussions of the nuances of medieval ontology can seem esoteric, the pay-off in his discussion of modern political theory is very much concerned with practical elements of political life. Milbank ends up advocating a form of Christian socialism which seeks to retain the best elements of modern progressive politics while recapturing a more medieval integration of religious and social life.
Milbanks claims are controversial (among secular and religious thinkers alike), but his knowledge of medieval and modern thought is daunting and his arguments undeniably brilliant. Much of this is still discussed at the level of theory, but the planned follow up, On Divine Government, should flesh out more specifics of his political vision. Milbank is an essential voice in contemporary discussions of the relationship of faith and politics.