Christianity and the Politics of the Common Good

John Milbank

How can people of good will forge the common good?  What does a politics of the common good look like?
What role can Christianity play in its emergence?
These are among the questions explored in the interview below with Professor John Milbank, whose co-authored work with Dr Adrian PabstThe Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future, has been described as "a masterpiece which, with a single stroke, both rebukes the cowardice and effete impracticality of so many armchair political theologians, and shows up the resigned nihilism of those political theorists who believe that liberalism is the only game in town." (Scott Stephens, ABC Religion and Ethics).
An incisive diagnosis of our times, providing an ambitious and comprehensive outline of a ‘post-liberal’ politics of the common good as a way forward, the book was the starting point for Dunstan Rodrigues, an associate of Together for the Common Good and former intern with Christians in Politics. He interviewed Professor Milbank in November 2016: several enduring and important themes are discussed, such as the extent to which what is good in liberalism can be redeemed, the role of Christianity in post-Liberal Europe and signs of hope in these uncertain times.


What is liberalism?

DR: Your book starts with a searching diagnosis of our times through a critique of liberalism. Your argument is that liberalism is undergoing a ‘metacrisis’ and that people of good will must forge a ‘post-liberal’ alternative, which you spell out in the course of the book.

How do you characterise liberalism? Why do you take the view that liberalism is based on a pessimistic view of human life?

JM: I suppose we were trying to attack the immediate image of liberalism as something rather sunny and optimistic, looking forward to a brighter future: a feeling that things are generally improving. What we were trying to say, on the contrary, was that liberalism is essentially a pessimistic philosophy. We argue that it is pessimistic because we think that it begins with an isolated individual who is perhaps fearful of other people or at least primarily protective of his property and his self-ownership.

It is true - we say there is another version of liberalism, associated particularly with Rousseau, which thinks that the isolated individual is completely innocent, and is contaminated by society. But that gives you a reverse pessimism because you are pessimistic about human social organisation and human culture. So we argue that liberalism comes in two varieties of pessimism.

DR: You also argue that in the last fifty years liberalism has been taken up by both the right and the left. How has this been the case?

JM: It is important to realise that, in a sense, we are not as modern as we imagine, and in many ways we are still living off the capital of the Middle Ages just as we are still living off the capital of the Renaissance. Many things that derive from those periods continue.

Increasingly, though, yes - we have adopted liberalism. Arguably even after the Second World War, the settlement arrived at had many Christian features in Europe, America and in Britain. But with the decline of religion, liberalism has become more and more the dominant ideology. What we are saying here (along with several other people) is that two forms of liberalism have emerged.

On the right, there is economic liberalism, taking the form of neo-liberalism, the idea that everything should be controlled by the free market. And on the other hand, there is a left wing cultural liberalism (since the 1960s) which is a bit narcissistic, where the important thing is self-realisation, free choice, changing yourself, the idea that identity is completely fluid.

So economic and cultural liberalism are often seen as diametrically opposed. You get culture wars between them, with those on the left clinging to some form of statism, at least in terms of welfare, the delivery of rights and forming of equal opportunity.

But if one looks at this more deeply, these are two aspects of the same picture. If liberalism is basically about the priority of the isolated individual, and it is about a duality between a very objectifying one dimensional reason on the one hand, and pure freedom of choice arising from feeling and negative liberty on the other, then basically the left and right are in fundamental agreement.

Of course, in recent times we have seen it all unravelling. For instance on Newsnight there was a report about how young people in Germany are identifying this shared liberalism and rebelling against it in the name of a thick European identity - which, to my mind, can take good forms but also sinister ones.

DR: Is it possible to notice and redeem what is good in liberalism?

According to other writers, liberalism is associated with good things such as toleration, the generous balancing of the claims of individuals, respect for cautious procedures, and the rule of law.

You are careful to say that these things are good and they can be redeemed. You make an important distinction between liberalism and ‘liberality’ in your work - can you explain what this is?

JM: Yes, we do say very briefly in the book that not everything about liberalism or negative liberty is bad. It is true that we can’t agree about everything - sometimes things have to be governed by formal frameworks - and sometimes attempts to agree may break down. So, for example, one of the causes of the rise of liberalism was the disagreement in Europe about religion. Now I think that there was a tragic failure to realise that this was a relative disagreement. Nonetheless, because it became so absolute there was the idea that we can only agree about the rules of the game.

There are gains from that - because it can result in a gain of toleration where there is some difference. But the idea of post-liberalism is that you need some sort of substantive agreement - in fact you need a great deal of substantive agreement for society to work at all. Adherence to the rules is never enough.

However, I think it is also the case that some of the features that we think of as ‘liberal’, such as freedom of opinion, religious toleration, and political constitutionalism are much older than liberalism: to put it simply, liberals did not write Magna Carta. The sense for a need of generous, charitable behaviour is not original to liberalism or even securely inherent to within it. The idea that you shouldn’t be coerced into religion is present long before liberalism, to some degree in Islam and much more emphatically in the Christian and Jewish legacy. It is there in the Patristic period.

Unfortunately, during the Middle Ages, the more that Christianity was aligned with political power, the more this kind of view tended to vanish. Yet many of the arguments in the early modern period and continuing to the eighteenth century about freedom of religion are neo-patristic arguments. And I would also claim that the fact that Catholicism was not tolerated was a mode of saying, in a specifically liberal mode, ‘well we’re not tolerating too much expression of religion in the public political realm’.

I think that within liberalism itself there is too thin a version of toleration. This is why today the whole question of religious tolerance is an utterly fraught field – one that is frankly not resolvable within the usual language of rights. [1]

Post-Liberal Manifestations

DR: The political manifestations of post-liberal politics so far have been with Red Tory and Blue Labour, but might there be scope for a renewed movement within the Liberal Democrats - moving away from the ideology of liberalism but more strongly defending the legacy of liberality?

JM: It is a really great question because when we think about Victorian Liberalism and non-conformists and so on - were they liberals in the sense that I am talking about? I’m not so sure that they always were - not at all. In some ways liberalism for them meant something primarily like constitutionalism even if it also meant things like free trade and economic liberalism, with which I wouldn’t be so sympathetic.

On top of that, what is so fascinating is the way in which Jo Grimond - who actually as a teenager I greatly admired - in many ways reinvented the entire nature of the Liberal party. He was very influenced by Chesterton and Belloc’s distributism for example and in some ways Grimond anticipated some of the concerns of a post-liberal politics because he was - at least to begin with - critical of the capitalist market but he also didn’t think that state control was the answer to that. He was in favour of much more participation at every level - both economic and political. To the extent that there is that Grimondite legacy in the liberal party (partly adhered to by Paddy Ashdown) it is by no means impossible that the liberal party could embrace some form of post-liberalism.

However, the very illiberal treatment of Tim Farron was not a good sign; it is all too likely that the Lib-Dems will be increasingly dominated by a politically correct and middle class liberal feminist agenda, over-focused on ‘diversity’ and so forth. But that danger remains for the Labour Party also.

So this is very much a cross-party thing - it has been very significant the way in which Christians from all three political parties have been talking to one another and have been discovering that they tend to embrace a shared politics that is more about relationality, mutualism, personalism, vocation and virtue in a way that can’t be captured by the reigning secular ideologies.

Contributions from different Christian traditions

DR: You are within the Anglo-Catholic tradition but of course you draw on Catholic Social Teaching, Christian Socialism and other traditions. So, what role can the other Christian traditions such as Pentecostalism, Roman Catholicism, Evangelical Anglicanism and Methodism play in this post liberal future? Do you think they all have contribution?

JM: Yes I do. I was brought up a Methodist: that’s probably why I returned to John Wesley’s high Anglicanism in the end…

I saw a television programme on the Black Pentecostal Churches in London. It was staggeringly impressive in every way. I think in some ways what we need is an alliance of Catholicism with the energy and the practice that is coming from Charismatics and Evangelicals.

In some way the old divisions are breaking down: we shouldn’t assume that Charismatics, in particular, but even a lot of Evangelicals, are necessarily fixated on the Magisterial Reformation any longer. I don’t think they are - they are fixated on the Bible, quite rightly, a set of texts created by Israel and the early Church and authorised by those communities.

And so perhaps what Catholic voices need to say is that it is an illusion to think that there is a distinction between the Bible, reason and tradition - they are all one thing, as everyone knew before Henry of Ghent. We need a richer more integrated Christianity that goes beyond these divisions into Catholic and Protestant. In the end it is the liturgical, our true, active worshipping response to God in symbol and deed that is authoritative.

The whole question of Christian ecumenism is of enormous importance for the future of the world.

There are encouraging signs – for example the fact that Archbishop Justin Welby is so enthralled by Catholic Social Teaching and also by Catholic spirituality. It is completely our responsibility to work beyond relatively minor divisions.

Identity that transcends party politics

DR: How can this post-liberal politics attract all people of good will? Isn’t there a danger that it becomes another kind of identity politics which is opposed to the liberal left? How can it go beyond identity politics?

JM: Yes, this is entirely the right question. I would put it more sharply even than that. I think the tragedy is that already things like Blue Labour and Red Tory are being overtaken by much uglier manifestations of identity politics. I think Blue Labour and Red Tory have got it right, but need to be careful not to be sucked into dangerous sentimentalisms about class and nation as opposed to a genuine, dynamic respect for tradition.

We must try to work towards a form of identitarianism that allows for strong local and regional identities and that doesn’t directly link them to political sovereignty. We need subsidiarity within borders and across borders. We need somehow to link that sense of local identity (which can also have a strongly ecological dimension) to a mode of more substantive internationalism built round a specific cultural legacy and primarily that of the West – of Israel, Greece and Rome.

Otherwise, how do you stop internationalism just being liberal and empty and cold? It seems to me that it is at that point that religion has a role to play, and particularly the Catholic Church. Part of its genius is to be able to integrate strong local, ritual cultic forms with a universal cult - the cult of Jesus, of Christmas and Easter. And then everyone can come together in much more concrete terms.

Of course there are many different religions in the world. But Christianity is the one that most escapes particular ethnic or cultural groupings. And therefore I think it has an absolutely huge role to play in carving a new way between liberalism on the one hand and an ugly identitarian politics on the other.

DR: What does this mean for Christians interested in politics? Where is the energy of Christians of good will best placed?

JM: I don’t think I have any simple answer to that. I think you should operate with where you are according to what you discern your vocation to be.

The question about party politics or not is very significant. I think Christians should try to create a new common sense.

Just as Mrs Thatcher tried to establish a neo-liberal common sense, now we need the reverse of that. We need to get to a point where all the parties are operating in a post-liberal space - a new middle ground between dogmatic liberalism on the one hand and neo-fascistic tendencies on the other.

There is also a question as to whether we need to grow beyond ideologically dominated party politics. I would tend to be of the view that if we had something like the social order envisaged by Catholic Social Teaching, they would become redundant in the end. The disagreements would be so multifarious and nuanced that you wouldn’t need these dominant ideological factions any longer.

And I think in many ways the Church itself needs to become more of a political operator. It needs to move back into engagement with social services, education and medicine etc: it needs to re-ritualise and re-personalise these spheres.

It appears to be the case that we are moving into a new Dark Ages. This is what the Church did in the first Dark Ages and something similar may well already be occurring.

DR: What are the signs of hope?

JM: I think, slowly, there is a Christian intellectual revival that will make its way through to ever more people and communities.

Also there has been a lot of quiet growth of hybrid businesses - pursuing both profit and social purpose, promoted by both religious and thoughtful non-religious people. I do think that with the increased capitalist crisis people are trying to carry out alternative businesses that are socially and ecologically more responsible.

Also, I think seemingly off-beat things such as the popularity of festival and pilgrimage amongst young people betokens a huge and interesting culture shift: that people are wanting to rediscover the spirituality of place. They are sick of this abstract meaninglessness.

So, yes, there are signs of hope.


John Milbank is an English Anglican theologian and was the Research Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics at the University of Nottingham where he directed the Centre of Theology and Philosophy. Milbank previously taught at the University of Virginia and before that at the University of Cambridge and the University of Lancaster. He is also chairman of the trustees of the ResPublica think tank. Milbank is known as the founder of the movement known as radical orthodoxy.








Professor Milbank was interviewed by Dunstan Rodrigues for Together for the Common Good in association with Christians in Politics.   



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