After spending some time with Maurice Reckitt’s, Maurice to Temple: A Century of the Social Movement in the Church of England, the critique of F.D. Maurice by John Milbank is beginning to make a little more sense.

Writing about Maurice, Reckitt states,

He would not endure that men should ask, ‘ought not human life to be founded on the principle of mutual help’. The question was, ‘is it not so founded?’ Maurice is here contending for a basic and too often forgotten Christian truth, that God has acted before man is called upon to act, and that therefore His word is given to man first not in the imperative but in the indicative mood. The Kingdom of God, declared Maurice, is not to be thought of as an ultimate consequence of sanctified temporal effort; it has been planted by the great acts of God, alike of Creation and of Redemption, in the very nature of things as constituted by the Father, and reconstituted by the Son, and maintained by the Holy Spirit… The Kingdom of Heaven is to me the great existing reality which is to renew the earth and make it a habitation for blessed spirits instead of for demons” (84-85).

According to Milbank, Maurice’s push for “the great existing reality” is indicative of a Christian socialism that fails to distinguish itself from enlightenment socialism. The problem is that it ignores cultural-linguistic mediation and the fundamental poetic nature of humanity. For Maurice then, it is “all about ‘digging,’ all about pointing to mystic foundations already laid” (The Future of Love, 71). In the end,

Maurice’s theology… was thoroughly anti-historical. The human work of making history is entirely alienated to the divine side, and the widening sphere of human relations culminating in the Church is seen in terms of the providential establishment of spiritual resources for the better fulfillment of the original filial and national duties. The social, the bodily, the ideally material is for Maurice the patriarchal-political; the latter is laid down by God essentially without human mediation; developments within this order are also direct supernatural impositions, and are confirmations, not dialectical transformations of what was originally given” (FL, 79).

Cast in this light, it becomes somewhat difficult to pull Maurice out from under allegations of foundationalism or religious positivism.

Despite Milbank’s criticisms, I wonder if we can still find something of value in Maurice. As Reckitt argues, however profound the Oxford Movement was and however much they rightly railed against liberalism, figures like Newman and Pusey could not quite bring themselves to address the social ills plaguing England. “They would have been glad enough to see the mighty pulled down from their seats, if they could have perceived any way in which the humble and meek could be exalted without falling into the same corruption as were depraving the prosperous” (54). It was Maurice, by contrast, who brought the social question to the forefront on explicit theological grounds.

Let us not try to sever, for they are inseparable, those principles which affect the problems of earth from those which affect the Kingdom of Heaven. All unrighteous government whatever, all that sets itself against the order and freedom of man, is hostile to Christ’s government, is rebellion against Him, in whatsoever name and by whatsoever instruments it is administered (20).

To this Reckitt adds, “Nothing does more to emphasize the ‘oneness’ of Maurice’s teaching than the fact that every exhortation of his that our social life should be seen as a part of the Kingdom of Christ is matched by a warning that our religion ceases to be authentic directly its interests are conceived as – or subconsciously assumed to be – something withdrawn from the total interests of mankind – a ‘vested interest’ of the spirit, or (still worse) of the ecclesiastical organization” (21).

Perhaps there is a lesson for us today. We should push for a new Oxford Movement, but it will need an edge, the very type that Maurice once brought to the movement of his day: to engage “the unsocial Christians and unchristian Socialists.”

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