One of the most common criticisms hurled toward Milbank’s politics is that he harbors a fetish for “Merrie England.”  Some aspire toward dreams of political utopias and egalitarian societies; Milbank on the other hand proffers the Shire.  At best this represents a penchant for Neverland, at worst he’s attempting to draw the entire world toward Anglo-Catholicism, Constantinian imperial baggage and all.

So what does Milbank really intend when speaks of “pre-modernity” or, more accurately, an “alternative modernity?”  And why should this be seen as a radical notion rather than some right wing strategy?

Turning to Roberto S. Goizueta’s Christ our Companion: Toward a Theological Aesthetics of Liberation provides an answer, along with a third world perspective, on why the pre-modern represents a liberating political force.  In short, I think Goizueta and Milbank pick up on something that critics of “Merrie England” fail to grasp.

One of Goizueta’s arguments is that the church’s failure to side with the poor stems from a refusal to address the theological discourse of popular religious piety, or what Goizeuta refers to as “the Big story” vs. “the little story.”  His point of reference is the conflict that arises between popular Latino/a devotion, such as Hispanic reverence for Our Lady of Guadalupe, and North American Catholics inability to take such religious devotions seriously or as somehow connected to the establish liturgy.  Like the recent edition of the South Atlantic Quarterly, “Global Christianity, Global Critique,” Goizueta sees a Western prejudice against popular expression of piety and failure to grasp the embryonic political force that popular religion holds.  Too easily Western cultural critics and anthropologist dismiss Pentecostal and charismatic Catholics as primitives, failing to note that “the proletariat speaks in tongues” (Smith, “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets,” SAQ, 684).

Goizueta is quite specific when it comes to getting at the heart of this Western prejudice.  Nearly any references to medieval ways of thinking are immediately discounted.  “Mediaeval” is synonymous with “backward” and it’s easy to detect an anti-Catholic and hyper-Protestant bias (62-3).  Quoting Gary Macy, Goizueta writes,

“The United States in the nineteenth century was Protestant and revolutionary, and Roman Catholic immigrants became the enemy… [Matteo] Sanfilippo points out, for instance, that it became extremely important in the nineteenth century to prove that the medieval Vikings, not Columbus, discovered America, since Columbus was ‘Italian, Catholic and in the service of Spain,’ while the Vikings were the ancestors of the Nordic democratic and Protestant world.  It is from this though-world that [Protestant and Catholic] medievalists draw when they unwittingly and uncritically paint ‘the medieval Church’ as ‘Roman Catholic’ monolith” (63).

For Goizueta, this all adds up to the sense of “if the Church in the Middle Ages was tyrannical, corrupt, and immoral, and the Church in the Middle Ages was (and is) Roman Catholic, then Roman Catholics are immoral, corrupt, and tyrannical.  Hispanics, as mostly Roman Catholics, can therefore be expected to be devious, immoral, lazy, technologically underdeveloped, and ignorant” (Quoting Macy, 63).

Against this Goizueta goes on to argue that pre-modern forms of religious piety, devotion, liturgy and so on, are the very liberating forces that the church desperately needs to recover – so that the church can find solidarity with the poor (46).  Like Milbank, Goizueta notes that our inability to side with the Latino/a poor stems from the nominalist turn that undid the “medieval synthesis” (!).  Writes Goizueta: “at the heart of popular Catholicism is an understanding of symbol fundamentally at odds with modern Western notions of symbol.  Indeed, the liberating character of popular Catholicism is rooted precisely in its premodern (or at least nonmodern) notion of the symbol.  The liberating character of that premodern notion of the symbol stems from the holistic, organic worldview that such a notion of symbol presupposes” (48).

Statements like this square with Milbank.  The political fall out of nominalism, the post 1300 rise of an overly juridical church and the modern separation between nature and the supernatural are themes common enough within Milbank’s corpus.  Recently Milbank has called for a reinvigoration of the parish church, which he sees as organically connected to the medieval synthesis; the very type of theo-political arrangement that Goizueta is after (cf. Christ our Companion, 68).  Also, Milbank explicitly calls for a return to a mediation of the divine through “sacred grove, spring, image, altar, and icon” (“Alternative Protestantism,” 40).

Overall, I see Goizueta’ work as fleshing out Milbank’s “alternative Protestantism.”  It might even be more accurate to say that Milbank’s argument might be better served with Goizueta’s keen insight in mind: “can we truly be in solidarity with the poor while simultaneously depreciating or even rejecting their most basic assumptions about their own lives” (46)?  If “Merrie  England” represents a connection to the poor and taking seriously the discourse that orders their lives, then shouldn’t Milbank’s critics take notice?

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