John Milbank on Our Participation in Mary’s Assent (and Much More)

David Artman’s recent podcast interview with John Milbank presented a staggering wealth of topics and summarized material from a remarkably large portion of John Milbank’s long and wide-ranging career. While tempted to transcribe more, I just ended up taking a few notes for my own future reflection. However, here are a few samples:

“In a sense, no, God absolutely doesn’t require us. But in another sense, He cannot do without us. This is why Jesus has these parables of searching for lost sheep, searching for lost coins. The implication (which is sometimes brought out in more gnostic readings but I don’t see why it should not be perfectly orthodox) is the sense, not just that He wants to gather in as coins, as many sheep, as possible but He needs to gather in every sheep, every coin, because these are aspects of His glory. He cannot do without them.” [This brought to mind a lot from David Bentley Hart’s recent novel Kenogaia (A Gnostic Tale).]

David Artman: “Along the way, there is a sense of real and (I think, as you are saying it) a necessary participation that we make. So this is not just a dream. It is really happening, and our participation really is important.”

John Milbank: “Yes! The most extreme mystery is: we are hoping for something that we can’t deliver, our desire exceeds what we deliver. And yet the further mystery is that somehow what we are doing is relevant to the final outcome. We are in some way building the kingdom even though the kingdom is ultimately something that we have to receive. That’s a total mystery, but we have to live it. …There is a sense in which we can do nothing and a sense in which every action is of ultimate importance—somehow joined to Mary’s assent in some mysterious way.”

“There is no alternative principle to God. Even our violence arises from resistance to God, from something that is in denial of ultimate reality rather than being co-original with that reality.”

“That sort of rather grim Christianity …tends to not understand the role of the convivial and festive in forming society. …It fails to see that the ethical itself is communion and love. …The more you have that kind of perspective, then the intimacy of Christianity, the way that it has to do with our whole lives, all our personal relationships, the way that it gets right down into the family level, that tends to get perverted. …The personal and the intimate itself gets institutionalized.”

Here are some of the other topics talked about by Milbank:

  • How the reality of empire is not just an evil in the world but also offers goodness. How Paul might have welcomed the conversion of the Roman Empire while the author of Revelation might not have welcomed that.
  • How Christianity involves an ontology of peace in contrast to paganism which is grounded on an ontology of violence (and a war against a monster of the deeps). Paganism presents ultimate or eternal alternatives to God (like chaos) that must be conquered while Christianity presents no alternative to God.
  • How secularism came about and along with a separation between faith and reason or natural versus special revelation.
  • How western culture is far more wide and diverse than we realize.
  • How God and creation relate to each other in a non-duality (at length with many other details involved).
  • We also get a compact summary of trinitarian theology as the heart of metaphysics.
  • Finally, there is a contemporary reference to Vladimir Putin near the end (as a false prophet threatening to bring about the final judgment).

I had to pause and replay many times, but I highly recommend the entire episode with John Milbank on David Artman’s Grace Saves All podcast: Ep. 77 “John Milbank on Radical Orthodoxy, Paradox, David Bentley Hart, Apocatastasis, Mystery, and Practicality.”

Annunciation of Ustyug by Novgorod, 1120-1140.

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