John Milbank’s recent article on Christianity, Enlightenment, and Islam seems to me to have an overly optimistic view of the West, combined with an overly pessimistic view of Islam. In fact, he seems to believe that the basic solution to most problems in the Islamic world is either for Islam to become more like Christianity or for Muslims to just outright convert (albeit by their own “Islamic path to Christ”). Particularly troubling are the concluding paragraphs:
The proper response to our present, seemingly incommensurable tensions is not to gloss over or seek to rehabilitate the past in such a dishonest way, but to analyse why exactly Islam has largely taken such a dangerous, non-mystical and often political direction in recent times.
This surely has to do with the lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires (as a consequence of the European wars) and the subsequent failure of Third World national development projects, with the connivance of neo-colonial, purely economic exploitation of poorer countries.
Political Islam offers itself as a new international, but non-colonial, vehicle for Third World identity. Unfortunately, it [i.e., Islam — as opposed to, say, the present article] also perpetuates over-simplistic accounts of the imperial past and fosters a spirit of resentful rather than self-sustaining and creative response to the ravages of Western capitalism.
I would humbly suggest the following counterpoints:
- The problem with decolonization was not that it happened “too fast,” but that the only state structures that had been put in place in most colonies (above all in Africa) were geared solely toward population control and the extraction of natural resources. Not surprisingly, after these structures were handed over to the locals, we got “national security states” presiding over the extraction of natural resources. The same thing would’ve happened regardless of when decolonization took place, because the Western powers never had any interest in authentically governing and developing their colonies — “purely economic exploitation” was the agenda all along, as it continues to be today.
- The forms of Christianity that are having the most success in the Third World are not characterized by any close kinship to Enlightenment values — instead, they are largely shaped by a general Pentecostal ethos that fosters magical thinking. Even the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are often affected by such trends. It appears that the countries where such a Pentecostal awakening is not taking place are generally those where the national security state forbids new forms of social organization from arising.
- The idea that Christianity and Enlightenment are the answer to the ravages of capitalism is basically self-refuting. Perhaps handling raw meat is the cure for salmonella poisoning as well?
All in all, despite its nuances and concessions, this piece appears to be a remarkably naive example of Western triumphalism. I hope that there is some young, aspiring Radical Orthodox theologian for whom these types of articles have an impact similar to the impact the support of the German theological establishment for World War I had on a young Karl Barth — though I fear the only young people still signing on for the cause are the type who are already predisposed to the kind of cheap contrarianism that views shilling for the powerful as a brave, counter-cultural response.