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Paideia and Virtue in the Academy: A Conversation with John Milbank

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Few living theologians can lay claim to founding a theological movement, and John Milbank is one of them. In the 1990s, his work Theology and Social Theory (Basil Blackwell) launched what is today known as radical orthodoxy. How do we reject the errors of modernity and help Christian theology speak in a better way to our world today?

At the time, Oliver O’Donovan remarked that Milbank’s book is “in a class of its own”—and the same could be said about Milbank himself. His career has spanned teaching posts on both sides of the Atlantic, starting with a teaching fellowship at Lancaster before shifting to a readership at Cambridge, then a named chair at the University of Virginia. He returned to the United Kingdom to serve as Research Professor of Religion, Politics, and Ethics at the University of Nottingham, where he is now emeritus. He has published numerous books and articles, including The Word Made Strange (Blackwell, 1997) and Being Reconciled (Routledge, 2003).

What happens when radical orthodoxy meets theological education? In a word, virtue. And this is one of the many topics that arose during Milbank’s recent conversation with Didaktikos editor Douglas Estes.

Estes: Let’s start with theological education. What does it mean to teach well?

Milbank: Well, I’ve had, I suppose, about thirty years to think about that, and probably, my teaching style has changed a lot. Like many people, I began by being quite formal. And over the years, I’ve become far less formal and much more interactive. I think it’s important to engage people orally. But I suppose I think that teaching is probably trying to do maybe three different things. I think, first of all, one is trying to communicate the tradition of whatever discipline one is trying to put across. One is trying to introduce people, if you like, to a legacy. Secondly, I think one is trying to get people to start thinking for themselves. So it’s important to lay everything out as thoroughly as possible to some degree. People have to make up their own mind. But I think thirdly, it’s important to be honest, to let people know where you’re coming from. It’s crucial to explain to them what your own point of view is. Otherwise, you’re in danger of putting across an unconscious bias. I think you should be open about your perspective.

And so one is trained to persuade people toward that perspective. In other words, in the end, my approach would not be a liberal approach. Education has to be about persuasion, and I think the point is that students are exposed to lots of different points of view. And you have to be honest. You have to try to put across your worldview, and people are, in the end, free to accept it or not. I think one puts forward a proposal. And what is important is that people can come out of being a student with something like a more coherent view of the world—their own more coherent view of the world, hopefully—and that they can link it to how they live their lives. So that I don’t mean it’s just a theoretical matter; I think it’s also a matter of practice and formation.

And if I was being critical of current education, I think its assumptions are too liberal, and they do damage to people by not encouraging them to form a coherent worldview. Theoretical ideas and facts are too disengaged from ethical formation. And that’s probably one reason why the arts and the humanities are suffering, but ultimately they belong to an educational tradition that was about formation. If you lose that connection, you just become prey to the more detached assumptions of the scientific disciplines.

Estes: So we could say that persuasion in education is a return to the past—and something that is a positive, as far as where we need to go in higher education. Is that correct?

Milbank: Absolutely. I think that universities as random collections of people with a vague interest in all sorts of knowledge are really falling apart, and that the future lies with institutions that have more commitments—and groups of individuals that have more commitments. And students can select, then, where they want to go to. I think I’ve found over recent years that being part of a theological department where people have no real common, shared perspectives just doesn’t work very well. It becomes boring. It confuses the student.

There are no completely neutral points of view. Every intellectual position involves things that can’t entirely be rationally justified. You justify them in terms of their coherence, their outworking, the way they seem to allow everything to fit in with that perspective, and so on. But in the end, it is a perspective. I think the whole point of education is trying to make sense of reality. It’s trying to approach it, trying to get to the truth—and the truth is lived out, it’s not just known. Education is inseparable from a quest for the good life.

So I think education needs to be much more of a committed enterprise. We’re discovering that sheerly secular education does not work. It’s become prey to money. It’s become prey to managerialism, technocracy. Our universities are far too complicated. They involve completely unnecessary procedures, incredible amounts of time-wasting on checking up on everybody, filling in bits of paper, unnecessary reporting on your activity. So I’m in favor of a massive simplification of the higher education process, at least when it comes to the humanities. Basically you should just try to appoint good people, and you let them get on with it. And checking up should be absolutely minimal. It should be done once in a while, and basically it should be more like the Middle Ages. If students don’t like a particular teacher—a particular guru, if you like—they move on to another one or they expose themselves to several different ones.

In some ways, the pattern of American higher education is more like this—or has been traditionally been more like this—than the British one. The British one has become ever more managerialist and bureaucratic. But I think these things are affecting American higher education as well. It may be that the only way to save the day now is to have more committed institutions, often religious institutions—institutions that share, at least minimally, some sort of ethos. And when it comes to ­theology, you need departments where people are actually committed to Christianity and to orthodoxy, and there is at least a minimal kind of shared horizon, if you like. On the whole, the history of religions needs to be undertaken as part of that shared horizon, albeit a necessary one. I think religious studies just haven’t really worked very well. In the end, it’s too incoherent, people don’t have enough in common, and basically, after a while, everybody says, “Well, this can all be done by other disciplines, anyway.”

So we need to get back, I think, to theology plus the history of religions with theology taking the lead—primarily Christian theology, but giving hospitality to other faiths and their own developments of their own outlooks. And there should also be Jewish institutions, Islamic institutions. There are already, interestingly, Islamic liberal arts colleges and so on. But I think we need more culturally defined institutions that can then have friendly relations with each other.

Estes: In the US, as you know, there are lots of decidedly Christian schools—seminaries—and a lot of our readers teach at these seminaries. But then, some of our readers are teaching religion in the standard four-year college and university, whose practices in the US may be very much along the lines you described. What advice would you give a new professor who wanted to use persuasion yet worked within the confines of a university that expects “non-bias”?

Milbank: Goodness [laughter], it’s very difficult. The advantage of the United Kingdom so far is that we have had theology departments within universities, and they are ecumenical theology departments. And they gradually added a religious studies dimension. That has seemed all very desirable, but now even here it’s becoming very threatened. The religious studies dimension more and more dominates, and a kind of politically correct pluralism often threatens to take over.

I think maybe the divorce between theology and seminarian religious studies in official universities is not a very good thing. I was fortunate when I taught at the University of Virginia that the religion department there was much nearer to being a kind of theology and religion department along British lines than at most schools in the States. I think it worked exceptionally well. It manifested a kind of genuine plural liberalism, where people are allowed to do their thing and put across their own points of view and calmly argue with each other.

I think you either need that very genuine liberalism or you need to move to more “shared ethos”-type institutions, and what we’re seeing nowadays is a kind of alternative liberalism—a much more brutal variant that is saying, “Even having an argument offends other people’s points of view.” And it just becomes an endless extension of and defense of free choice that can only be conducted by an endless new invention of possible choices. This, of course, is to subserve capitalism’s game. And in a way, it’s logical that a liberal ideology leads to that: alt-liberalism is ultra-liberalism. In the end, as Saul Alinsky said, liberalism cannot stand arguments.

In the face of that, as I keep saying, we do need to move toward more confessionally based institutions—religious or ideologically based ones.  I don’t see any other way to counteract this tendency. But if you are teaching in a secular, liberal institution, then I think you need to challenge it in terms of real liberalism. If they’re really liberal, will they allow you to do your own thing? Will they allow you to say to students, “Well, look, this is what I think and why I think. I would like to persuade you that I’m right, but it’s up to you. I may not be successful.” This is the “making a proposal” kind of approach.

And I think it’s the responsibility of every teacher, including a scientist, to explain how their views about the particular area they’re teaching fit into a bigger world picture. I’m very much an admirer of the book by Father Luigi Giussani that’s called The Risk of Education,1 where he argues that a lot of modern education does psychological damage because students are unable to fit together what they’re learning in one class with what they’re learning in another class. They just can’t see the big picture. It’s important in this context to always keep shifting from the micro to the macro. The dominance by narrow specializations—“Well, I don’t do that. I don’t think about that. That’s not my area.”—I mean, this is the most awful cop-out.

Academics still lead staggeringly privileged lives with tons of free time, yet many of them do not even seem to think they ought to be reading widely. We should expect scholars also to be intellectual. And they have a certain responsibility, I think, that they’re not taking seriously. For far too many of them, it’s just a cushy life that allows you to be rather cowardly. And I think that’s one reason why university teachers as a profession are rather craven. They don’t even defend their own status and their own pay very well [laughter]. And I think we need to move away from that. I think that university teachers—most of them—also should be expected to be public intellectuals in some sense. They’re guardians of the culture and so forth. It shouldn’t be a cushy life, but on the other hand, the leisure and freedom is totally crucial to the reflective and critical life. This is now under threat, and academics do not defend it very well—first because they tend to non-activism, and second maybe out of a bad conscience. Instead, they must defend the conditions necessary to develop as intellectuals of a critical and well-informed kind. But then they should really be those sorts of intellectuals. That probably also means far fewer universities.

Estes: I know we’ve kind of been dancing around it, but for our readers, can you drill down specifically into what paideia is.

Milbank: Well, I’ve already been talking about, if you like, that ancient view of education—that it’s about forming a whole person. Yes, it’s about self-becoming. It’s about building oneself in relation to your vision of reality. And again, I think it’s an abdication if we say, “Well, that’s how reality is. I can’t take responsibility for the practical consequences of what I say—how you’re supposed to live in the face of my bleak view of reality,” and so on. I think, again, there’s a responsibility to say, “Well, given that that is truth, that is reality, then those are the implications for how I am to live my life and make the best of things.” And the other side of that is the question of how we discern the good, which is an emotional matter and not just an intellectual one. How we feel things—isn’t that also a clue to reality? Why do we think that just looking at things objectively tells us exactly how reality is? That’s just a philosophical assumption. And theologians in particular should be challenging that assumption, for their very discipline demands that we look at everything more holistically. We need to suggest that that’s a normal point of view, whereas the way many disciplines are thinking is strange, abnormal, inhuman. In the end, we have to be able to put everything together.

The other point I would make in relation to paideia is that I think our educational process is being instrumentally subordinated to political and economic ends. It’s being conducted in the interests of nations and corporations, of power and money, whereas the ancient and the medieval idea of politics was that it is actually subordinate to education or to paideia—that politics itself exists in order to encourage paideia and to take the educative process forward, that the government itself should be existing to try to encourage people toward virtue and toward fulfillment. So if we understand education in this broader sense, we have to insist that the ­educational process is central—that politics and economics are subordinate to education, not the other way around.

We’ve now got to the point in history where we realize that the consequences of our modern assumptions are very, very extreme. Not only are they destroying the planet, but they’re also changing our very understanding of what it is to be a human being. And so I think in the face of that extreme situation, we need extreme modes of resistance, including alternative kinds of educational institutions, and I think you can use the technology—the Internet, the computer, the phone—in a subversive way. I think that universities on the whole are using it to enslave academics. But just a very few academics working together and armed with that—with the means of modern technology—can do something alternative.

Technology means that most literature is within easy access. It means you can keep touch with students at a great distance, and bring them together for occasional festive meetings. It allows you, in a way, to return to simplicity. And in the end, the university is only about people—talking, reading, encouraging, and, in a positive sense, assessing. For science there is also experimenting. These procedures (apart from expensive experiments—and many important ones are not) are incredibly simple. But we’re dominated by people now who think that, to be serious, the college has to look like a business, or a factory, or something like that. Everything has to be streamlined, docketed, assessed, defined, labeled, etc. So we have to go almost drastically in the opposite direction of having very little bureaucracy, very few meetings at all. It’s just got to be about talking, and reading, and writing. Fun versus tedium. That would be my view.

Estes: Something you said was very interesting about the fact that, under certain circumstances, faculty can live cowardly or craven lives because it’s kind of a cushy position. And in the US—or in popular culture, I guess—we have flare-ups, it seems, on a regular occasion. Every year, there’s some professor who’s living really cushy and does something untoward, and people say, “Well, what’s the point of this person?” And that sort of thing. And so I’m just wondering, what are some of the antidotes for cravenness or cowardliness? Suppose a professor were to say, “I don’t want to go down that road. What are the virtues that I need to have in my life as a Christian faculty member?” How would you respond?

Milbank: Yes, well—of course there’s a sense in which a popular feeling that the academic life is a cushy life, and so on, has to be resisted, because, as I’ve said, there is a sense in which the degree of leisure, a degree even of comfort, of relaxation, is absolutely essential to the thinking process. You have to stand back and be critical. So to some degree, I want to defend all those traditional things, the long holidays and so on, the chances to ­travel—all those things are important. But you have to be answerable. And so to some degree I think that it’s right to expect academics to be writing. Nonetheless, I think that far too much gets written, and writing can take different forms. If academics are not writing, or if they don’t want to write, then they have to be expected to do more teaching, and maybe more administration. I think we should see the focus on teaching as totally valid—and actually, you have this more in the States in liberal arts colleges. Part of the problem with academic life at the moment is everybody being expected to do everything: research, teach, administer, and so on, and I think people have different skills and should be allowed different concentrations.

But I do think that if you are claiming to do research and to be doing lots of thinking and so on, then it has to result in something. You have to be making what you’re doing public, and sometimes you have to be giving public lectures, and I think you have to be explaining what the import is of your particular research for bigger and more universal questions. Obviously, that can take an enormous number of different forms, but there has to be some sort of onlook toward some bigger question. It’s of course valid that some people are doing very ­detailed scholarship on relatively small areas, but it has to be good scholarship. It has to be original. It has to be really doing something new. And above all, I think, any tendency to despise the people who are trying to do bigger syntheses on the basis of that work is completely deplorable because, in the end, there is no point of this smaller-scale work unless some people are trying to do the synthesizing exercise.

And to some extent, I think there is—because, in part, of a decline of university culture—a rise in people trying to do bolder books with a bigger outlook, and trying to reach a bigger readership. It is probably a good tendency, though there is also a risk of dumbing-down and losing complex, critical edge. Nonetheless, in order to survive academics are being more forced, maybe, to go public, and this seems to be fair enough. If you have such a privileged life, it’s justifiable if you really are doing the thinking and coming up with some kind of public contribution. And probably the number of people who can really do that is quite limited, so perhaps rather more people should be mainly focused on teaching—just as I think there are far too many people in universities. Academic work is not suitable for everybody. A lot of people need to be doing something much more vocational. A much-reduced academic undergraduate population could be inducted into research from the outset. Thus academic life also could be treated more vocationally; even though many of them will not become academics or schoolteachers, the acquirement of an academic habit will still enrich public life.

Estes: So then would you encourage younger faculty to publish?

Milbank: There may well be pressures on them to do so, and to some extent these pressures are completely excessive. There are huge numbers of books published, huge numbers of journals that are probably a waste of space. We don’t really need them. The output is just far too big. But people in order to get jobs and so on, are expected to do this sort of thing. I think it’s important to ask yourself what you really want to do, what you’re really interested in. Do you really want to research and write books? If mainly you want to teach, well that’s fine; go into that kind of institution. …

I think you should only write if you’ve got something to say or something you want to find out about. And it seems perfectly reasonable if maybe you only write something every so often, or you only write the one book that you really needed to write. So I think we need institutions that are much more flexible in relation to the business of research and writing, and people may want to do it in different phases of their lives, and so on. But obviously, if they’re not doing research and writing, it’s legitimate to expect them to be doing more of something else.

Estes: As you said, one of the challenges it seems to me is that you have a disconnect between paideia and publishing. My field is biblical studies, so we have articles and books published on a unique or unusual reading of the text, but those unique or unusual readings won’t necessarily be related to anything. And it’s oftentimes hard to see how these apply or really matter, you know?

Milbank:  Yes, I agree, and I think it’s either the individual himself, or the editor, or the context it appears in [that encourages this]. Often with journals, it’s better to have special issues that are around one topic, with an introduction and giving the context, and that sort of thing. There is a kind of disease with overspecialization and too much being written by too many people about very small areas. And a lot of it, obviously, really isn’t adding anything new at all. And I think this even affects the hard sciences. Too many experiments are done, and they’re not properly retested because people have to do something new to get grant money, and they have to publish something to get a job. This is part of the way in which the educational process is dominated by money and by procedure, instead of giving people security and then allowing them to do what they really want to do. But that may mean that some people get a lot more research time, other people focus on teaching, and other people focus on community and organization according to their talents. And again, as I’ve said, that might mean people shift at different points in their career.

We need much more flexibility. We need to relax the rules — a much more interpersonal approach. I think we’re way over-worried about accountability and checking up on everybody, whereas the best and only guarantees are traditions of intellectual and ethical virtue, with good people trying to appoint other good people. Of course, that’s open to corruption, but that’s just human life; liberals typically imagine that we can will that away with the right regulations. And the alternative is always worse, I think. In fact, trying to guarantee quality by ticking the boxes, according to a series of criteria and rules, doesn’t work. The direct all-round judgments of people upon other people actually work better. But this means our real trust should be placed in virtue, not in endless checking up. Of course people will scream and shout and say, “Oh, well, but this is a sort of a self-appointment.” Of course it is. But again, that’s what history and successful human processes are really like.

Estes: So let me ask a question, then. In class a couple months ago, a student said something that made me just cringe about how unwise it was—on the level that any reasonable person would consider it unwise. So I spoke to my dean and said, “This is the way I would like to handle it: I’d like to set up a meeting, and I’d like to talk to the student and try to shepherd the student through this unwise—”

Milbank: That seems very wise to me.

Estes: But my university doesn’t want me to do it because they’re worried about being sued. They want to just handle it through institutional measures. But in the meantime, the student is continuing to do unwise practices.

Milbank: Well, I think your approach is the correct one and theirs is the false one. If you deal with it by procedures like that, it’s much more frightening, and it might go on an official record. Surely, the obvious thing to do—again, this is what I’m talking about, the interpersonal approach—is you say to the student, “Look, let’s have coffee sometime.” And you talk it through with them first. You try to deal with it at that level. Obviously, if a student is doing something wrong and the university’s involved, then they have to take disciplinary procedures in the end. But you should try to stop things before they get to that stage. But we’ve just become ever more litigious, ­haven’t we?

Estes: Yes.

Milbank: And people are frightened of saying anything that can then be accused of causing some offense or violating people’s privacy or identity or something like that. It’s become quite difficult, what you can now say in class. But surely the bias in a university has to be toward openness. It should only be a safe space in the sense that everything is open for discussion. And I think the situation we’re in now, where people claim they’re offended by some topic or position, is not acceptable. Again, it’s what I call “alternative liberalism”—rather than a more genuine liberality, where we’re open to considering any and every view. Even within an institution that has some sort of overall commitment, it has to also entertain the doubts, the criticisms. And on either side, students and staff, there shouldn’t be a culture of fear.

Estes: Right, and I would say that virtue, developing virtue in students is an interpersonal exercise, not a committee exercise.

Milbank: Yes, yes, completely. That’s exactly right. The more you have people developing virtues of inner strength, patience, forbearance and so on, the less you require procedures, I think.

Estes: Because to some degree, rules and procedures, though you have to have them, it seems like to me—

Milbank: You do.

Estes: Yeah—if you don’t have the other side, though, rules won’t produce virtue, in and of themselves.

Milbank: No. Rules are a guideline, a signpost, and so on. They indicate certain boundaries, but I think they should be kept to a minimum—because actually trying to exercise the virtues is much more stringent and difficult. Here you have to learn to make the fine judgments and so forth. And people don’t take the rules of their educational institution out with them into the wider world. They do take their character that has been formed within that institution out into the wider world. And universities, to some degree, should be about training cultural leaders, I think—people certainly capable of doing things in the round. They should be people-informers, people capable of guiding public opinion, of helping people to think and to act. They should be the alternative to the manipulators by which we’re now dominated.

Estes: Right, and as people in the Christian tradition, we’re totally echoing biblical theology here—law and grace, it seems to me.

Milbank: I think so, yes—because law is serving grace, and in the end it’s not just about being a good person as we now understand being a good person. It’s about being open to being a better person. It’s about being open to grace, in the sense of being able to receive something new breaking in—allowing oneself to be attuned rightly. It is not just a matter of stoic self-control; Simone Weil was right about this.

And I think our liberty is related to grace, strongly. We’re going forward by grace, and the law is for the sake of grace and not the other way around. Here is the New Testament breakthrough. But the trouble is that, in many ways, the world we now are in is an ever more legalistic and moralistic one. Everything is judged by whether you’re using the correct form of words or whether or not you’re violating some norm of right. So the assumption of everybody is that they already know what the right and the wrong are, and they’re not open to anything new.

Estes:  Right—which is why virtue doesn’t flourish in a legalistic environment, correct?

Milbank: Absolutely it doesn’t, because virtue is open-ended. It’s about increasing, discovering more how to be a just person, a merciful person, or it’s like learning an artistic practice. And it’s being open to new inspiration, open to grace. It is ultimately a participation in the divine act of creation—which is also re-creation, which is the same as grace. To be in the image of God is to be a re-imager. It is rather science and technocracy and liberalism that imagine there is nothing new under the sun—for they just shift the pieces around and assume the future will be as the past, only more streamlined and manipulable. The paradox is that to try to know, live, and teach eternal truth is also to try to realize and communicate the eternal dynamism—the infinite eternal new of the Triune divine life.

Estes: Well, is there anything else you would like to add? Didaktikos is sent to every professor of religion in the United States and Canada. Is there anything you would like to say to all those folks?

Milbank: I can only say, “just stay in there” [laughter]. It’s becoming an ever-harsher environment, and the world is becoming ever harder to understand. But in that situation, I think theology and philosophy become ever more important, so take courage.  

1 Luigi Giussani, The Risk of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny (New York: Crossroad, 2001). 

This article was first published in Didaktikos: Journal of Theological Education. To subscribe to the print edition, click here.

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Didaktikos is a vocational journal for professors who teach in biblical studies, theology, and related disciplines—particularly at the graduate level and in service to the church. Didaktikos is published four times a year.

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