Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Beyond Morality: The Five Notes of the Gospel

Milbank identifies "Gift, End of Sacrifice, Resurrection, Plenitude, and Confidence" as the five "notes" of the Gospel. Contrary to the marks of morality, he is intentionally drawing on the Augustinian notion of a harmonious and musical Trinitarian ontology. In the following comment, I will briefly examine each of these notes and then begin to connect them to the Matthew reading for this week.
  • Gift
    Milbank states, "In the beginning there was only gift: no demon or chaos to be defeated, but a divine creative act..." (228). Thus, Christianity is not reactive to some prior chaos or evil. Christianity does not require an enemy or a battle to elicit virtue. Instead, Christian faith participates in the Triune economy of superabundant love marked by doxological exchange between the Father and Son in the Spirit. To exist is to receive, to share, to give. This is deification, the doxological return of creation to God, the healing of the ruptured relationship, and the renewal of creation's participation in the Triune love. Milbank states,
    "I exist in receiving; because I receive I joyfully give, and one can add to Luther a more Catholic stress that one can only receive God who is charity, by sharing in the giving of this charity- faith is (against Luther) from the outset a habitus and from the outset the work of charity, our work only insofar as it is God's" (228).
    In postmodern circles, as well as in much modern theology, the question of the motives of the giver are often brought into question. Hence, Derrida's question, "Can a gift be given?" Indeed, Victorian theology asked a similar question and attempted to connect God's love with the Cross, that God's love originated on the Cross. Against this view, Milbank declares that Victorian efforts to see "God's love as taking its origin from the sacrifice on the cross, or else as only guaranteed by the cross" (228) are misguided. Milbank argues,
    "Under the dispensation of death indeed, we only see gift via sacrifice, but the genuine sacrifice, supremely that of the cross, is only recognized as such insofar as it is the sustaining of joyful, non-reactive giving, by a hastening of death as the only way of continuing to give despite the cancellation of gift by death" (228).
    Christ, who knows the love of the Father in the Spirit, does not cease to love when faced by death, but will instead continue to "go on loving by fearlessly embracing death" and is thus able to do good (229). It is in the participation in the Triune economy that death is revealed as "an absolute harm, a mere nihil, a nonsense" (229). Jesus embraces death fearlessly and ferociously not in order to sacrifice himself for the greater good, but because he has received the gift of the Father's love and now trusts the Father to give the gift (His own life). In short, Jesus trusts the Father to be a God of plentitude and not of scarcity.

  • Plenitude
    Milbank's conception of plenitude emanates from his belief in creation ex nihilo. God is a God of abundant love not scarcity. This is evident with regards to how Christianity views death. Milbank declares,
    "It is, of course, quite simply impossible to be a Christian and to suppose that death and suffering belong to God's original plan, or that the struggle of natural selection ... is how creation as creation rather than thwarted creation genuinely comes about... To believe in plenitude is to believe in the already commenced and yet-to-come restoration of Creation as Creation" (229).
    Creation has a telos, the return to life in the Creator and full restoration as creation. This journey is made possible by God's love which is both plenitudinous and inexhaustible. In this economy of superabundant grace, Christ trusts the Father to be a God of the living and not of the dead, simply because he understands the Father's true nature. Moral action, then, is not the heroic overcoming of some adversary at the risk of one's life, but is instead life lived in doxological exchange and the reorienting of one's life towards participation in the life of the Triune God.

  • Resurrection
    God's plenitude is revealed most fully in Christ's resurrection. In swallowing up death by the death of the Son, the resurrection reveals that death, sin, and evil lack any being. They are nothing. The love of God flows so excessively that even death is overcome. The ramifications extend not just to the Christ but to his entire body, the Church. Thus Milbank states,
    "As resurrection cancels death, and appears to render murder non-serious, it restores no moral order but absolutely ruins the possibility of any moral order whatsoever. That is to say, any reactive moral order, which presupposes the the absoluteness of death. For the Christian, murder is wrong... because it repeats the Satanic founding act of instituting death, or the very possibility of irreplaceability, and absolute loss. But in the resurrected order there need be no law even against such Satanism, because it is so manifestly senseless, because the possibility occurs to no one, because here the only law is that of nature, that of life, but specifically human life which consciously partakes of the creativity of God" (229).
    On the cross, the wisdom of humanity is judged and found lacking. In the resurrection, God justifies Jesus as the Christ, and as his body, the church is to begin to be a resurrected order, whereby "the occasion for the exercise of death-presupposing virtue ... drops away, and only charity- gift and counter-gift - remain" (229).

  • End of Sacrifice
    Resurrection transforms sacrifice from the conception of the mark of sacrifice present in morality. For Milbank, morality requires the willingness of one to sacrifice herself as a mark of virtue. Again, this sacrifice to death makes moralistic accounts of virtue complicit with death. In the resurrected order, it becomes fully "moral" to "give ourselves sacrificially" because we
    "now have confidence that this does not cancel out our own existence. Christ goes to his death blindly, but yet in absolute trust of the father; we can give ourselves non-suicidally unto death, since we know that in this dying we also live" (229-230).
    Resurrection, according to Milbank, is not simply the negation of death but instead "reinstates a fully human and natural death, namely the offering of ourselves back to God" (230). Under the sacrificial systems of morality, the "parts are given up for the whole, passions for the intellect, and heroes for the city" (230). In the ending of sacrifice in the cross, Christian sacrifice is marked by "the person and the city together- [being]... absurdly given up, not for any higher gain, but for or as the receiving back of themselves as a gift from God which is same-yet-different" (230). Sacrifice is ended and transformed into the participation of both the self and city in the love of God. This leads to a completely different conception of Christian life that exceeds accounts of morality.

  • Confidence
    I will close with the last two paragraphs of the essay, as I think they summarize things beautifully and paint a very different conception of our Christian life together:

  • "The confident man, believing in plenitude, does not steal, and does not need to tell lies to protect himself. The confident man, trusting in God, is like the good husband who never needs to impress his wifewith an exceptional work nor needs a manual of instruction for marriage, but out of his confidence improvises exactly good and always non-identical good works all the time... The Christian good man is simply for Luther an artist in being, trusting the perfect maker of all things. Essentially his message is that of Augustine: without the virtue of worship there can be no other virtue, for worship gives everything back up to God, hangs onto nothing and so disallows any finite accumulation which will always engender conflict. Confident worship also knows that in offering it receives back, so the temporal world is not denied, but its temporality is restored as gift and thereby rendered eternal. Only the vision and hope of heaven makes us socially and politically just on earth- and how is it, one wonders, that we have ever come to think otherwise?

    So no, the Christian man is not a moral man, not a man of good conscience, who acts with what he knows of death, scarcity and duty to totalities. He has a bad conscience, but a good confidence: for he acts with what he does not know but has faith in. In absolute trust he gives up trying to be good, to sustain a right order of government in himself... Instead to be good as first receiving from the all-sufficiency of God, and acting excessively out of this excess" (231).

More to come later on the connections between this and the Gospel reading...


Anonymous bill said...

From which work is this taken?

November 01, 2005 6:06 PM  

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