Friday, 6 December 2013

Milbank, Christianity and the ethical

If ethics were conceived as not possessing something - not even one's good deed - but receiving the gift of the other "as something that diverts one's life," and offering one's life "in such a way that you do not know in advance what it is you will give but reclaim it retrospectively," then ethics becomes "a total exposure to fortune, or rather to grace." (116)

If it were simply a total exposure to fortune, then one heads to nihilism. All aporias of the ethical sketched by Milbank would still stand [would they?], "but one would simply embrace the impossibility of the ethical and yet the necessity of temporary ethical conventions." [An ethnocentric ethics, borrowing from Rorty?] With Derrida and perhaps Levinas, one might qualify this "with a mysticism of infinitely postponed hope for the arrival of the good." (116)

"However, the Christian construal of the total sway of moral luck is to understand fortune, as always, however disguisedly, the personal gift of grace: to believe therefore that only utter exposure constitutes the ethical." (116) [This is the complete opposite of ethics as autonomy and self-governance.]

No secularization of Christian ethics along the lines proposed by Patocka is therefore possible. The mere attitudes of patience, humility, etc. as things we ourselves can perform can turn out to the not ethical at all. They only assume an ethical complexion as a waiting on God: as a "meta-ethical trust that it will (beyond perpetual postponement) be given to us to be ethical, given to us again to receive and again to give in such a way that a certain 'asymmetrical reciprocity' or genuine community, will ceaselessly arrive (for now in part and eschatologically without interruption)." (116)

[The arguments seem seamless, but I am finding it difficult to accept the basic thesis here: no true ethical without Christianity, or at least the hope of resurrection.]

Original sin and death together prevent the ethical from coming to pass. We are all either wounded [original sin] or complacent or both, "capable only of valuing what is lost, obliged therefore to take measures to prevent future loss, congratulating ourselves on these measures (law) and so secretly celebrating loss as the occasion for our greatness, and instead of festively enjoying present loved ones, subject to boredom with them tending always to suspicion." (117) [Leontes King of Sicily is wounded, is faced with loss, and begins to love only in the face of this loss. Others may be complacent, and so incapable of truly enjoying loved ones.]

Loss is ineradicable. Milbank says he has shown that so long as there is loss, there cannot be any ethical, not even in any degree. (117) [Recapitulate this argument. I have forgotten what it was.] And concludes: "Hence hope, hope that it may be given to me in the next moment to act well, is inseparable from hope that there may be universal acting well, and at last a non-futile mourning: to be ethical is therefore to believe in the resurrection, and somehow to participate in it. And outside this belief and participation there is, quite simply, no 'ethical' whatsoever." (117) [The belief, if Milbank is right, is constitutive of the notion of the ethical: without it, no ethical. But is belief a necessary precondition to practice, to acting well? Is it, in other words, not sufficient "to somehow participate in it"?]

Thus there are three aspects to ethics:

1. The mundane, everyday hope that community is possible. Community: that people and objects "can analogically blend beyond identity and difference." [This is good! This is Trinitarian, and non-dual.] Both the living out and the search for community is neither simply eudaemonistic nor 'other-regarding', but 'ecstatic' (Spaemann). Such ecstasy is neither self-sacrificial nor sado-machochistic (both these are courses unto death), but rather passes through death, in hope of our return along with the return of others. "Thus to look for our collective participation in divine fullness of being is to transcend in an 'objective' and self-less manner either egotistic or self-sacrificial concerns." This ecstasy is epitomized by the feast, where we eat only because and when others eat, and yet we do not renounce ourselves, for we eat also. Thus the everyday ethical hope naturally leads to hope for resurrection.

2. The fall as suspicion rather than misdeed, as refusal of the field of action defined as giving with joyful uncertainty in faith. Christianity recognizes the fall - the universal tragic condition - but refuses to ontologize it, making the extraordinary move "of seeing the universal itself as but a contingent narrative upshot." Original sin is not necessarily deed, or misdeed. In Leontes' case, it is first suspicion of misdeed on the part of the other (his wife Hermione). "Here the fall is not an act, but rather a first mistrusting of the joyfully confident 'risk' and uncertainty constitutive of the field of action." Original sin is "refusal of the field of action itself, defined as giving with joyful uncertainty in faith, a refusal which commences in the suspicion that one does not, after all, receive a good gift from the other." (118) Original blessedness here is understood, not as deliberately 'doing good,' but as a state of good moral luck or reception of grace. (119)

3. The hope of resurrection.

Mercantile reality does reveal the raw truth of life in fallen time, but, unlike Derrida, Milbank refuses to ontologize this truth. He insists instead on the possibility "of imagining the counter-reality of resurrection, and the possibility that this world already mysteriously participates in that reality." (121) "Embracing this possibility leads us to hope, even now, after the fall and before the end, for the gracious arrival of something better and to act within this hope." (121)

Should our polity be restored by grace, the anxiety about our necessary preference for some not others, and our apparent sacrifice of some for others, would be eased "in the knowledge that we are to love our neighbors, because we know that others are loving theirs". (121) This means that even agape can only be fulfilled within a polis [community] where each of us has a particular role. Further, "if we lived in an economy of gift we would not be indifferent to the consequences of our acts... but we would 'go' with our gifts, and others in receiving them creatively would continue to care for us in this employment. Joyfully estranged from ourselves, we should sometimes find in this loss our gain, and always know that it would finally be so." (121)

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