Ritual and Liberalism

Ritual and Liberalism October 18, 2016

John Milbank and Adrian Pabst (The Politics of Virtue, 269) argue that secular critiques of liberalism cannot hit home because “they are incapable of making the key argument that various different faith traditions are able to make—that nature is neither external to humanity, nor should humans ever aspire simply to dominate their own or external nature.” Culture itself “is constituted by the nature/culture tension, then there is, for a meta-critique . . . no critical possibility of deciding that meanings or imaginings, spontaneities or purposes, are not just as natural as they are cultural. Inversely, one cannot necessarily conclude that cultural law is an exception to the habituations of nature.”

This is crucial. To deconstruct X as socially constructed, one has to be able to distinguish culture cleanly from nature. If that distinction is messy, then there’s no space for the easy deconstructive critique. One the other hand, against simplistic versions of natural law, there is no way to isolate nature in order to hold it up as a measure of culture. We are left with varieties of nature-cultures. We may compare the one to another, trace genealogies, but we cannot bring a global critique either on the basis cultural relativity or natural law.

For Milbank and Pabst, this inseparability comes to a focus in ritual. Ritual, they say, “initially composes culture” and serves as “a kind of experimental risk that can itself only be established through habit. As risk, it is also the gift of instruction from an initiator, which sacrificially breaks the deadlock of potential human isolation. And as habit, it is something that has ‘worked’ with the populace, often through modification, and so has been received.” Strikingly, they claim that ritual is “indissociably aristocratic and democratic,” similar in this way to “authentically open-ended and genuinely purposive scientific or social experiment.” Ritual is fully cultural, but tracks with human nature and becomes second nature.

In a scientistically-inclined society like ours, “a positive aristocracy . . . totally dominates the mass of people in the name of science, such that the real ‘secret’ of the attempted control of nature by this elite is the control of society itself.” In such a culture, “ritual has ceased to be a gift of wisdom, but has become either an imposed law or a contract enforced by a wealthier party. And its reception is either punctiliar or identically repeated without variation. It is no longer received as authentic habit, which imparts an artistic or craft skill.” Ritual “is increasingly about the identical repetition of a generic vacuity masquerading as an endless succession of diversity and difference.”

According to Milbank and Pabst, then, the only penetrating critique of modern liberal order comes from a ritualed community, one that not only affirms the inseparability of nature and culture but enacts that inseparability.

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