Universal v. Universal

Universal v. Universal March 3, 2017

“Western history is not, John Milbank argues, an evolutionary progress away from religion and toward human freedom and control.” It should instead be seen as “the history of a tremendous revolt against either particularism or the cult of universalizable power, in the name of the transcendent Good.”

This revolt comes to expression in the “axial” religions (prophetic Judaism, Greek philosophy, Buddhism, Confucianism) and their modern heirs—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. If these are, as Milbank argues, “expressions of this revolt,” then “it is absurd to regard them as local cultic preferences in contrast to universalizing reason. Rather, they represent a mode of universalizing other than the Enlightenment’s, and one that, since it is more respectful of the particular and the ineffable, holds more promise of a distributive justice enacted through consent rather than through terror and forced purchase.”

To be sure, this universalism was also particular, involving a “universal religious attachment” to “some collective totem: “Western religions have focussed on symbols, practices and authorities utterly specific, yet also moveable and transferable from culture to culture, and variable from place to place.”

Milbank cites Catherine Pickstock’s work on the Catholic Mass. The Eucharist “operates in a fashion that is at once entirely tangible, yet equally non-fetishistic and non-socially divisive.” According to Milbank, “the pre-condition for collective solidarity and just redistribution beyond liberal formalities of respect for person and property must be a kind of collective and supra-rational devotion.”

This isn’t a Utopian dream, but was, he argues, the reality of Christendom: “the first source of European collective identity was simply the sense of being literally part of the body of Christ – an extension of divine humanity. This has left a unique legacy, a conviction of the possibility of limitless human exaltation, absolutely qualified by an equal conviction that such an exaltation is an attentive reception of something utterly different from the human.”

(Milbank, “Politics of Time: Community, Gift, and Liturgy,” Telos 113 [1998]: 41–67.)

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