Political theology after universalism: John Milton and the secular tradition

Jonathan Dyck

Two recent titles from Stanford UP’s excellent series Cultural Memory in the Present focus on seventeenth century English poetry in an effort to address contemporary debates over theology and secularism.

In Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism, Regina M. Schwartz credits the Protestant Reformation with providing a necessary critique of Church officials who sought to control the domain of mystery and instrumentalize the sacred. At the same time, she cautions, this upending of the sacramental tradition also enabled “a new instrumentality—not of the Eucharist by the Church, but of the sacred by the state” (29). Over the next hundred or so pages, Schwartz explores the effects of this theological-political shift through its expression in the poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, and John Milton. In such post-Reformation poetry, she writes, we see a lingering hunger for the divine, “a poetry that signifies more than it says . . . through image, sound, and time, in language that takes the hearer beyond each of those elements” (7). In other words, Schwartz treats seventeenth century religious verse as a form of compensation for the loss of sacred liturgy; and the effects of this loss, she argues, are still relevant for the way we understand the relationship between theology and secularism today.

Like the Reformers of early modern Europe, “we are [today] witnessing a shift in emphasis again, away from the figure of the modern Self and toward the figure of the Other, a shift that . . . is inflected both philosophically, as given-ness, and theologically, as gift” (139-140). Rather than falling into the twin temptations of identity politics and violent universalism, Schwartz urges her readers to imagine another possibility for identity: “a particular that honours other particulars, one that opens out toward a potential universal without coercion” (Ibid.). Like other postmodern theologians, she models her vision of harmonious difference on the Eucharist, the performance of which preserves the irreducible mystery of the divine through the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood. Seventeenth century poetry presents a way of reconceiving this paradigm without a strictly Catholic conception of the Lord’s Supper. In the prelapsarian Eden of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Schwartz locates a “transubstantiation” that infuses all matter (“All ingests All”), thus blurring the distinction between material and spiritual substance. The Garden’s continuous rehearsal of the Eucharist serves as a critique of theological and ecclesiastical representations of the sacraments.

If Schwartz resurrects Milton out of nostalgia for pre-modern transcendence and its fleeting attachment to Christian universalism, Feisal G. Mohamed’s Milton and the Post-Secular Present treats Milton’s writing and biography as a corrective to contemporary debates over politics, ethics, and, most importantly for him, religious violence. While Schwartz laments the rise of an increasingly violent secular state, Mohamed focuses his energy on this so-called “secular” shift, from a religious form of universalism to the distinctly Western tradition of liberal cosmopolitanism. For him, both forms of universalism mask a logic of cultural hegemony.

In his first chapter, Mohamed suggests a parallel between Milton’s plain style in Paradise Lost and Alain Badiou’s theory of “evental” truth procedures. For Badiou, the radical subject is born out of her commitment to a “truth event”–corresponding domains of ethics and aesthetics are then determined by the subject’s fidelity to this unequivocal moment. This is what the Resurrection of Christ means to Saint Paul; and “[w]ho more than Milton,” Mohamed gleefully asks, “resembles [Badiou’s] view of Paul, with its iconoclastic sweeping away of laws and institutions conflicting with a truth secured by the declaration of an enlightened subject?” (39-41). Against this rendering of a universal via the particular, Mohamed suggests that Milton’s implicit critique of the human subject (especially in Samson Agonistes)–the uncertainty of inner promptings, the reader’s inability to access the conscience of Milton’s protagonists–draws into question what Badiou sees as the founding of a universal subject. This attempt to graft Milton’s puritan fervour onto Badiou’s philosophical project makes some sense–I’ve suggested as much in my own academic writing–but, more than anything, Mohamed’s concerns over Badiou’s theory of the event reflects his own desire to retain some sense of the political status quo, or sublimate existing social inequalities to the domain of pre-existing ethical norms. In other words, this kind of critique points to a distinctly liberal political horizon, perhaps llustrating some of the shortcomings of Mohamed’s post-secular angle. Following Gayatri Spivak, who grounds the possibility of an ethics in the as yet unrecognized Other, Mohamed ends up endorsing a familiar form of humanist education where “Reading is not only an ethical activity, it is the ground of ethical activity in its initiation of the call by which positive political change can occur, because it is only through the kind of reading sometimes fostered in the humanities that we are invited to imagine alien subjectivities” (62). This sort of appeal to an ethics of openness grounded in the practice of reading too often takes the neutrality of this activity for granted. If Milton can’t be washed clean of religious violence, he also can’t be freed from an irreducibly theological and political understanding of reading.

Theology does make an appearance in Milton and the Post-Secular Moment but first it has to reckon with the ever-present threats of terrorism and religious fundamentalism. Mohamed opens his second last chapter with an epigraph from John Milbank (a theologian who has, more or less, sought to colonize whatever is meant by the term “post-secular”). Milbank’s quote rehearses a familiar move in Christian apologetics: the biblical narrative is shown to break with sacrificial violence (evident in other creation myths) in favour of an originary peace. In what follows, Mohamed uses Milton’s Samson Agonistes to demonstrate the limits of Milbank’s understanding of biblical narrative, a narrative of order and harmony that Western theologians characteristically impose on what they perceive as an arbitrary violence that is always traced back to the Other. For Mohamed, the value of a poem like Samson Agonistes is that lays bare the repression of ethnic violence. Unlike Milbank’s claims to Christianity’s original purity, Milton frustrates our attempts to narrate Christianity in such a harmonious manner; with Milton, he writes, echoing Walter Benjamin, we become aware of the barbarism that underlies all civilization.

Mohamed’s last chapter focuses on the silencing of Samson at the conclusion of Milton’s poem. Rather than following the account of Judges, where the captive Samson cries out for God’s assistance in his revenge on the Philistines, Milton obliquely describes Samson’s as bowing his head “as one who pray’d, / Or some great matter in his mind revolv’d” (1637-8). Some critics have suggested that this instance evacuates Samson of his divine status, thus leaving readers with an ambiguous hero, but Mohamed suggests the opposite. With this silencing of Samson, he writes, Samson is removed from the sphere of human motivation. In the same way, the Israelites insist that their hero’s death is not a suicide but an “accident,” which allows him the status of a martyr. For Mohamed, however, these distinctions, which tend to distance the religious violence of Milton’s time from that of our own, “are the distinctions typical of religious violence, which distances its martyrs from motives of personal vengeance and emphasizes their divine calling.” We thus witness “a consonance with the culture by which those attacks are immortalized” (121). If Milton can remain commendable for the way his poetry effects interpretive ambiguity, it’s because of the parallels it draws with modern terrorism. The performative violence of Samson Agonistes, which strains against the triumphalism of England’s Restored monarchy, unsettles the illusory peace of the nation even while it affirms the progress of individual liberty.

As Mohamed writes in his conclusion, Milton’s work can alert us to how “[t]he lack of sociality in the believer’s adherence to truth will pay no heed to worldly institutions, or to fellow citizens, perceived to oppose truth, finding its most extreme political expression in the endorsement of religious violence” (131). Perhaps. But I have a hard time seeing how Badiou et al. overlook “sociality” in their treatments of the event, especially because they focus on the counter-cultural ethic of early church (i.e., Saint Paul). Against literary critics who’ve downplayed Milton’s religious fervour, and against radical theorists who are presently attempting to think beyond the current order of liberal democratic capitalism, Mohamed presents a Milton for whom “messianism is the language of particularization, not a hearkening after internationalism” (36). Such claims illustrate the gap between a radical Milton and a post-secular one.

For the most part, Mohamed’s opposition to a secularized Milton does little more than encourage us to remember moments of explicitly religious violence within the English poet’s career. Milton’s life and work thus become examples of how the liberal subject’s attachment to individual truth claims can open a path of violence toward the Other. By reducing Samson’s inner promptings to a cultural logic of hegemony, Mohamed’s final affirmation of ethical ambiguity resembles a liberal tactic of evasion, a dismissal of the kind of radical politics that dreams of a messianic break with existing conditions. Such dreams can certainly be counter-productive for real political change; but, as Terry Eagleton has observed, the messianic tenor that runs through Badiou’s work “grasp[s] the vital point that faith articulates a loving commitment before it counts as a description of the way things are” (119).

In terms of their approach, Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism and Milton and the Post-Secular Present compliment one another. Both Schwartz and Mohamed have demonstrated how Milton’s poetry and prose can help reframe theological and political debate. Our contemporary suspicion of universalism makes all kinds of historical sense, but as philosophers like Badiou recognize, the risk of universalism may also be one worth taking.

Jonathan Dyck blogs at Church Going. He is a co-editor of the Catholic Commons.

Works Cited

Badiou, Alain. Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Trans. Ray Brassier. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003.

Eagleton, Terry. Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. New Hampton: Yale UP, 2009.

Mohamed, Feisal G. Milton and the Post-Secular Present: Ethics, Politics, Terrorism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2011.

Schwartz, Regina M. Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World. Chicago: Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010.


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