Interview with theologian Dr A.J. Milbank, Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics at the University of Nottingham
In this interview with Fr Antoniy Borisov, Professor Milbank, Director of the Centre for Theology and Politics at Nottingham University, discusses religion in modern and ancient everyday life, the place of romanticism in theology, and "Radical Orthodoxy".

Dear Professor Milbank, I am glad to see you in this video studio in Moscow Theological Academy.

It’s a pleasure.


For the beginning of our interview I would like to ask this question: why did you come to Russia?

Well, I came to Russia at the invitation of your institute, of Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox University, and I came to give two papers.

I also accepted the invitation because I was very excited to visit Russia for the first time – I’ve never been here before.


And what is your opinion about Russia, about its cultural and religious traditions?

Well, I couldn’t pretend to be an expert. I've always read quite a lot of Russian literature in translation, and it’s completely unique.

And I think, what I notice about it most of all is the way religion is integrated into talking about modern life, describing modern life. A religious thread runs through the ordinary. If you read Boris Pasternak, for example, or never mind Dostoevsky, it’s still there, or if you read The Master and Margarita, for example, it’s still there.

And this is not always so true, I think, of Western literature. What excites me about that is the sense of integration between the sacred and the ordinary, and I think that sometimes in the West we’ve separated off faith and reason too much.

I think the same thing appeals to me in traditions of Russian thought, that your great philosophers are also great theologians.

I particularly like Solovyev, Florensky and Bulgakov – it’s this sense of integration, I think.


The next question is for you as a member of the Anglican Church, the Anglican Communion. A century ago the dialogue between the Anglican Church and the Russian Orthodox Church was very active. Now it isn’t as active. What’s the reason for this?

Well, first of all, I think that’s very sad. The dialogue was inaugurated at the end of the 17th century.

Ever since Richard Hooker there was, if you like, a kind of Anglican Сounter-Reformation in which Anglicans established their identity as loyalty to the patristic period.

There was already a great rediscovery of the Greek Fathers and therefore many people saw that there were certain things in common with the Orthodox Legacy.

And as you said, that went on till recent times. I’m not sure that I completely know the reasons for the recent break in the dialogue.

But maybe on the Anglican side we’ve been caught up with a lot of internal problems.

I think there’s been a lot of growth of a rather extreme Evangelicalism in the Anglican Church, which in some ways disturbs older, more conservative Evangelicals.

And this is a rather problematic current. And also the people in the Anglican Church – the more high church and Anglo-Catholic people, who are more sympathetiс to Orthodoxy – have been sadly divided over many issues like women priests.

And maybe that’s true, although I think more recently with my movement, Radical Orthodoxy, and other movements as well, the Anglican High Church is starting to recover its confidence, especially in the intellectual realm,

and all of us remain very very interested in Orthodox theology. Maybe on the Orthodox side as well there have been so many internal problems that you haven’t been able to look outwards.

Orthodox are very conservative, and they sometimes do not try to improve the situation in dialogue with other confessions, but to completely break this dialogue.

Well, I would hope that those factors no longer apply. Communism is over, and in some ways Russia now faces the same problems as everywhere else, the problems of commercialism and secularisation.

And it’s wholly less easy for it to live inside a total bubble of tradition.

And at the same time I think that over the last 30 years, Anglican theology has gone once more in a more conservative direction – I mean, can we say, creatively conservative – but not stuck in a rut, not at all. I think that the liberalism of the 1960s has vanished.

And people are now much more credally Orthodox in their thinking, and this has been a recent period of creativity in the Anglican Church, whether one thinks of Rowan Williams or Oliver O’Donovan, coming from different wings of the Church. They are powerfully orthodox thinkers and yet innovative thinkers as well. Therefore I think this would be a good background for recommencing the dialogue.


Can you tell us about your movement? We know its name, Radical Orthodoxy. Can you tell us about it and about whether there is a prospect inside this movement of reviving the dialogue between Anglicans and Orthodox?

We held a conference and published a book, which is called “An Encounter Between Radical Orthodoxy and Eastern Orthodoxy”. I hasten to say that I find this title rather presumptive, because Radical Orthodoxy is just a small tendency and Eastern Orthodoxy is a huge historical reality.

But nevertheless we did it; we did hold the conference; in fact, Rowan Williams came to it, the proceedings are published, and I think that it’s a very very interesting volume.

From the outset Radical Orthodoxy saw itself as a new phenomenon, namely a completely ecumenical theology. Which doesn’t mean that its people are not rooted in their different churches – they are.

And the perspective is broadly speaking both Catholic and Orthodox, in other words, it’s a collection of people who believe in credal Orthodoxy, the importance of the sacraments, episcopacy, traditional church order.

So roughly speaking, Anglicans, Orthodox, Roman Catholics; but also some Higher Church Lutherans, and even Protestants who are uneasy about the narrow confines of a purely Protestant Legacy, a phenomenon often called ‘post-Protestantism’ in the United States; an increasing feeling that we have to relate to the whole of the Christian Legacy.

And therefore, I think, given that context, the relationship with Orthodoxy is very important to us.

More specifically we tend to be interested in the Sophiological legacy, because, particularly, I think, Florensky can be seen almost as the first work of Postmodern Theology, that in Florensky already we see a sense that he thinks the foundationalism of modern thought is in crisis.

Already he sees that the choice is between nihilism on the one hand – a total sceptical nihilism – and on the other hand a kind of revived Platonic prospective, where you understand that the uncertainties of this world, the lack of foundations, are because we participate in an eternal reality; that time is a moving image of eternity, as Plato put it.

And this is very very close to the fundamental intuition of Radical Orthodoxy, that we were born against the background of reflecting on the scepticism of postmodern philosophy, and we were suggesting that the deconstruction of foundationalism, the deconstruction of secular humanism, is a moment of opportunity for theology.

So whereas most of the people who taught us were saying, “It’s appalling, let’s rescue secular humanism as a beginning point for theology; let’s rescue foundationalism so that we have some ground on which we can create our proofs for the existence of God”, we were saying: “No – this has destroyed something that should never have existed in the first place from a theological point of view, namely, this idea of secular autonomy.”

So this means that we were in strong agreement with the so-called ‘nouvelle théologie’ in France, the legacy of Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou and the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, strongly in agreement with those people.

And I think that we are also in agreement with many currents of Eastern thought, Russian thought;

So that gives you some idea of what Radical Orthodoxy has been about. It’s called Radical Orthodoxy simply because it’s a sense of returning to the roots, also the idea that the Incarnation is the most revolutionary act in the whole of human history, that it transforms absolutely everything.

And that’s the point, that Christianity is the most revolutionary thing, and later revolutionary ideals are but poor copies of that.


Now I see that Radical Orthodoxy is maybe a romantic trend. Sometimes romanticism in theology has been very criticised by classical theologians.

Can you comment on this? Is there a place for romanticism in theology?

Yes, I think there is.

Where I think the romantic thing comes into the picture is that in some ways theology went wrong when you got a sharp separation between reason and will, that people forgot that the higher eros – true desiring – fuses those things together.

Retrospectively we can see, perhaps, how although it’s true that there was never a narrow rationalism, that perhaps people didn’t stress enough the role of feeling, the imagination, creativity, and the aesthetic. A good example of this is that in the middle ages nobody develops treatises of aesthetics.

But we can see how beauty is important to the thinking of Anselm or more of Aquinas, so it’s only when you have a theology that has no aesthetic dimension that you see how important the aesthetic dimension was.

So it’s not incorrect for Balthasar to stress the aesthetic in a way that the Fathers and the early scholastics didn’t do specifically, because we now see – you could say that this is the work of providence in a way – that you go away from something that was never sufficiently foregrounded and then you have to foreground it more.

So I think we now have an awareness of how important the sense of beauty is. And I think in that sense Russian theology is very imbued – or aspects of it are – with a kind of romanticism, the rediscovery of the sense of beauty.

But that has to be in a properly orthodox way. I mean that when man talks about the romantic movement itself reacting against the Enlightenment, sometimes it was too pantheistic, sometimes it was too immanentist, sometimes too human-orientated, or else it took a dark, sinister form in which you celebrate unreason, and that leads to currents like Nietzsche. So this needs tempering, it needs Christianising. But some of the most profound currents leading to Romanticism, people like Hamann, Jakobi, Coleridge in England and people in Italy as well – from the outset these people were quite orthodox Christians. One thing that we’ve seen in modernity is the way that time and time again it’s literary people, artists, musicians, who first of all recover a vision of the fullness of Christian Life.

And so I think that today theologians are more aware, or they should be more aware, that theology is done in several different media and modes, compared to the past, that literature or architects are doing theology. It’s a little bit like the way say in the 19th century, people like Victor Hugo or John Ruskin suddenly realised that medieval craftsmen were in a way theologians, or retrospectively they realised the importance of craft in the middle ages and the way this was almost a form of democracy. The middle ages wasn’t really aware of that themselves, but we become aware of that retrospectively, so that in a sense we then become more aware that theology is a democratic activity, that people are doing it in lots of different ways, and that the more abstract way of doing theology is not the only way to be doing theology.

And if you like, yes, you could call all that romanticism. As I say, I think that maybe one way to sum that up would be to say that in the premodern era one had an account of participation in being, that creation participates in divine being. Nowadays, I think that we need a stronger sense that creation participates in divine creativity, that we can think of that process as happening internally in the Trinity; that the Father utters the Son in almost the supreme act of imagination, if you like, and he utters the Son in the breathing out of the Spirit, which is the gift of life.

And I think the whole of created reality is a dynamic, living process, a process of habit forming, if you like.

Everything that is created in some sense exists, feels, even thinks. We have to boldly embrace a genuinely Christian form of vitalism and panpsychism, almost. But one that foregrounds the transcendent, not the immanent, which I think gives you a more consistent kind of vitalism, and then in the case of humanity there is a conscious seizing of that process of creativity – here somebody like Bulgakov sees this very well;

Berdyaev also, but in a more dodgy kind of way, more dubious. But certainly Bulgakov has this powerful sense of human creativity, in which he is trying to say, “Well, what is happening in the West is this huge transformation of nature, and it’s distorted, it’s promethean. But nonetheless we don’t simply reject that, because this is an authentic part of human deification that we have this transformative capacity.

But our very making, our very transformation of things must be a seeking for the goal, the right goal. It’s like the artist is seeking to make what comes to him, what is truly borne in upon him. And we need to suffuse all our cultural, all our technological processes with that side of sense. We need to make technology no longer atheist.”


So, if you speak about goals; when we speak about romanticism, our imagination shows us noble knights that lived in the middle ages. If we speak about Radical Orthodoxy as a romantic trend, we should think about theologians, the members of Radical Orthodoxy, as about knights from the middle ages. What are the noble aims, the goals, of these modern knights?

I should say as a postscript to what I’ve just said, that the kind of thing I am saying is, to me, powerfully conveyed in Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev, where at the end Andrei Rublev is reinspired by this young boy who is making a bell – by the worker.

And suddenly it bursts into these icons at the end. It’s that sense of work, and art, and teleology being lined up.

But to answer your question, I like that very much indeed. One of the things that John Ruskin, who’s one of my heroes, said, is that “all work should be making of the valuable by the valiant”. He wanted to suggest that in the modern era we need a code of honour for all modes of work, that everybody becomes a knight, in a certain sense.

And I do think that we need above all today the restoration of honour, the sense that no task is ethically neutral, that an ethics is not a kind of weird add-on to other processes of valuation, that everything we do is a pursuit of a goal, and therefore a pursuit of a good, and therefore has its own specific set of virtues that we have to ceaselessly encourage, discover, cultivate and so on.

So far, the alternatives tend to be in terms of economy; we either have a completely free market economy or we have a system of state control, but really these are not opposites, because they are both impersonal processes and they both tend to think in totally materialist ways about reality. They are thinking merely in terms of increasing our material control over things, or of a completely abstract, meaningless notion of wealth that’s just a sum of money – it doesn’t mean anything.

I think that the churches have a huge role to play in encouraging their laity to enter into these more Christian social and economic practices. We are seeing this happen to a considerable extent in Italy, especially Northern Italy.

And this can be an example.

I am a total outsider, but I suspect that Russia needs a stronger civil society. It needs something that is an alternative to either top-heavy bureaucracy or a complete sort of gangster capitalism.

And this is why I think that in terms of dialogue, the West needs the integralism of the Russian vision, the Russian sense of hanging onto a beautiful Liturgy, and at the same time I think Russia can perhaps learn from the West something about the importance of social activism for the churches.

In a fully Christian life liturgy has to run out into all aspects of our lives. Without that Christian activism we’ve descended into a horrendous depersonalization of human relationships in which, in a bureaucratic or a market context, we are no longer treating the other person as a neighbour with whom we are connected.


In conclusion I would like to ask you to wish for our students, for the students of Moscow Theological Academy – you know that in a few years many of them will become priests and theologians – what do you wish for them?

Their task is very difficult, so largely I pray for them and wish them very well.

I would hope that they would be able to encourage their laity in this sort of direction. I’ve been encouraged that some of the people I’ve met in Moscow from the Academy and also from St Tikhon’s are thinking in the kinds of directions I’m talking about.

I’m already struck actually by the way they don’t seem to be so very different from the young people I meet in Italy, Portugal, France or Britain.

And I do think there is a new generation of young Christians who want creatively to rework the tradition and not just be stuck in a ghetto, but really transform the world in a different direction.


Dear Dr Milbank, thank you for this very interesting conversation. I wish for you to visit Moscow Theological Academy and Russia many times in the future–

Thank you, this is very kind.


–to know better Russian culture and Russian theology –

Yes, I very much want to.


–and the Russian style of thinking; for many foreign people it is a very difficult thing, to understand us. Thank you.

Thank you so much.

Комментарии ():
Написать комментарий:

Другие публикации на портале:

Еще 9