John Milbank Evangelizes Zizek

Anglican theologian John Milbank has been defying expectations for a long time. His ideas, which have driven a movement called Radical Orthodoxy, refuse to be either liberal or conservative, radical or reactionary. They’re always challenging. In a classic Killing the Buddha essay about him, Jeff Sharlet wrote, with sensible hyperbole, that Radical Orthodoxy “may be the biggest thing to hit Christianity since Martin Luther.”

Now, he’s writing books with the atheist philosopher Slavoj Zizek (see my discussion at the Guardian) and supporting the expression of Radical Orthodoxy’s ideas in British politics. Today at The Immanent Frame, I talk with Milbank about what he really makes of atheists doing theology and the prospects for a society framed in theological terms.

NS: You write of Slavoj Žižek, “In an important sense, he bears a theological witness.” How can a self-described atheist bear a theological witness?

JM: In Dostovevsky’s novel The Devils, one character, Kirillov, speaks of both the necessity to believe in God as the reality of infinite goodness and the impossibility of doing so. His resolution of this dilemma is deliberate, meaningless suicide on the grounds that, in an atheistic world, he himself is now God, as possessor of a sovereign will, and that suicide is the highest demonstration of this will. Žižek tries to escape this dilemma in another way—by pointing to the figure of Christ, whom tradition has taken to be the incarnation of God in a single human life. Although, for Žižek, God is only present in incarnate guise and otherwise does not exist at all, he still insists that outside this Christian legacy we would not have had the sense of an absolute demand, exceeding all human law and custom. Indeed, the notion of incarnation sustains for Žižek the idea that this absolute demand, which orients our humanity, is more than human, even though it comes, he says, from “nowhere.”


NS: Do you see your participation in this dialogue as evangelization? What do you hope to accomplish?

JM: Yes. Victory.

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Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.