The tragic importance of theology

Writing the last two posts has made me think about the introduction to John Milbank’s The Word Made Strange (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).

John MilbankToday, theology is tragically too important. For all current talk of a theology that would reflect on practice, the truth is that we remain uncertain as to where today to locate true Christian practice. This would be, as it has always been, a repetition differently but authentically, of what has always been done. In his or her uncertainty as to where to find this, the theologian feels almost that the entire ecclesial task falls on his own head: in the meagre mode of reflective words, he must seek to imagine what a true practical repetition would be like. Or at least he must hope that his merely theoretical continuation of the tradition will open up a space for wider transformation.

Look closely: those words ‘tragically’, ‘uncertain’, ‘almost’, ‘meagre’ and ‘merely’ are important; far from marooning him on the shores of astonishing arrogance, they actually leave Milbank within sight of space I have been describing as the theologian’s: the place of the dim-witted sophisticate. (Okay, you really need to read the previous post, ‘On being dim-witted‘ if that sounds like a rather arbitrary insult.)

I can’t quite make Milbank’s words my own, however. Of course, there are days when the fragility, the cliff-edge precariousness, the mottled patchiness of ‘true Christian practice’ is all that I can see. And there are even more days when it is hard to see what on earth is supporting the true Christian practice that I have found (or that has found me): it is flourishing despite everything: it is flourishing despite the brackish cultural, conceptual, and ecclesiastical water that it is forced to drink.

But I take it that one of my tasks as a theologian – one, I may say, that I perform astonishingly badly – is, in the face of that deep uncertainty as to where true Christian practice is to be found, to look. And that is, perhaps, the note I miss in some of Milbank’s work: looking, in expectation of a gift.

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