There’s an interview/article on John Milbank at the Times Higher Education website.

He’s speaking about atheism/secularism and the returning influence of theology in the public sphere. He also touches on issues in science and politics.

Interestingly , the article states he opposes gay marriage and quotes him as saying “I don’t want to get into the situation where we deny there is something special about being attracted to the opposite sex”. Milbank has previously advocated gay marriage so I wonder whether this is a definite shift in his thinking to a more orthodox position or whether he’s simply been misinterpreted. That he’s moving towards a position more in line with that of Catholic teaching is perhaps confirmed by his statement that “By supporting the total disjuncture of sex and procreation, the Left is really supporting a new mode of fascism.”

He’s probably somewhat overselling the influence of Radical Orthodoxy, however,  when he speculates on whether the RC hierarchy is wondering whether RO can “will provide them with a way of loosening up without selling out”! Though I can’t claim any special privilege into the reading habits of those in the upper echelons of the Vatican, I’m not entirely sure they’re all reading RO.


Murphy’s work also touches on the grace/nature, reason/faith debate. The way she construes it, Gilson’s notion of ‘Christian philosophy’ lies in a “third domain”, as von Balthasar terms it. This “third domain” lies somewhere between philosophy and theology, it is neither ‘purely natural’ nor entirely theological. Thus the arguments for God’s existence are not pure philosophical arguments as has often been argued and which many contemporary theologians such as John Milbank take objection to. But neither are they merely ‘probabilistic’ arguments designed primarily for believers to give them a reasonable account of their belief in God, nor do they depend on an original intuition that God exists as Milbank would have it. As Murphy puts it: “A Christian philosopher is neither solely a Christian (‘graced’) nor solely a natural philosopher: she is standing on the ground which she knows to be grace and her interlocutor may not.” Thus the fact that nature is always and everywhere ‘graced’ (as de Lubac argues) does not preclude the possibility of engaging nonbelievers in debate and arguing for God’s existence in terms that do not immediately appeal to the supernatural.

The Spanish philosopher Xavier Zubiri is also brought in here to buttress this point. He claims that human beings are always ‘religated’, which signifies “a religious placement, provoking an awareness of the awkwardness of the human position within the cosmos.” (202). Zubiri made the case for a religious priority over secularity and the ‘religated’ sense of humanity’s existence as the catalyst for the growth of the sciences, including mathematics, grammar, anatomy and so on. It is because of humanity’s religious dimension, that these sciences have de facto arisen in history. Analogously, the proofs for God’s existence arise because of humanity’s ‘religation’ but they do not depend on a supernatural starting point for their validity. Non-believers may not know they stand on ‘graced ground’, but this does not mean we need to insist to them that this is the case; to do so would be manifestly self-defeating. There is no reason why Milbank should insist on the proofs not being demonstrative on the grounds of our graced nature. They can still be offered to nonbelievers who do not know that they stand on ground which is ‘already graced’. As Murphy puts it “Milbank seems to divest the natural desire for heaven of its great humanistic potency when he wields it against discursive argument for God’s existence.” (204) Hence de Lubac’s assertion of a ‘natural desire’ for the supernatural ought to retain it’s full paradoxical nature and not be construed as ruling out ‘natural’, discursive arguments for God’s existence. They may only arise because man is graced and tends towards the supernatural, but this does not thereby render them ‘unnatural’ and unfit for use as arguments with which to engage those who remain oblivious to the ubiquity of grace in our world.

Apparently, Milbank has responded to Boris Johnson’s new series ‘After Rome: Holy War and Conquest’.


Milbank has never struck me as the type who’d make comments on websites, so not even sure if it’s really him, but there you go.

Found these and thought I’d share.

They’re taken from here.

The First:

William Russell, S.J. also became a permanent friend. He and I came to the Jesuit School of Theology in 1973, I as a member of the faculty, Bill as rector of the community. Through Bill I made the acquaintance of Henri de Lubac during my year in Cambridge. Bill had done his theology in France, where he and de Lubac struck up a friendship. Whenever de Lubac came to lecture in the United States, Bill would accompany him as a translator, since de Lubac spoke no English. During my Cambridge year, de Lubac had scheduled a series of lectures in different American cities, among them Chicago. Proclaiming de Lubac’s theology suspect, Cardinal Cody canceled his lecture at the diocesan seminary in Chicago.

The auxiliary bishops of Chicago felt so outraged at the Cardinal’s action, that they gave a special dinner in de Lubac’s honor. Since de Lubac had to give another lecture later in the evening the bishops shortened the cocktail hour before dinner and told the waiters to serve doubles. De Lubac never drank alcohol; but he told Bill that, since the bishops were going out of their way to honor him, he would on this occasion drink whatever they gave him. The bishop next to de Lubac ordered a double martini; and de Lubac, not realizing what he was doing, ordered the same. When the waiter put the drink in front of him, de Lubac saw pure poison and decided to get an unpleasant experience over with as quickly as possible. He drained his glass in one gulp. The bishop, somewhat bemused, motioned to the server, who brought de Lubac a second double martini which he again chug-a-lugged. Fortunately, Bill saw what was happening and explained to the bishop that de Lubac never drank and was, by way of exception, doing so this evening out of courtesy. During the meal the bishops had provided three wines. After dinner all drank a liqueur. Then de Lubac gave his lecture. Bill deemed his performance inspired, by far the best lecture of the entire tour.

The Second:

After that one encounter, I never saw de Lubac again; but one of my colleagues in Berkeley, David Stagaman, S.J., had lived with him in Paris, where David was completing his doctorate at L’Institut Catholique. David and de Lubac normally did not move in the same social circles. Then, suddenly the latter started acting chummily. David soon found out that de Lubac wanted his assistance. De Lubac asked David whether he thought that he could arrange for him to lecture at Loyola University. De Lubac apparently did not realize that the Jesuits in the United States run more than one Loyola University. David belongs to the Chicago province. He responded that he had several friends in the theology department at Loyola in Chicago and that he felt sure they would feel delighted to extend an invitation to him to lecture. David, however, urged de Lubac to take lots of warm clothes, if he went to Chicago in the winter.
“I do not want to go to Chicago,” de Lubac responded.
“I want to go to Los Angeles.”
“Well,” David said, “we do have a Loyola University in Los Angeles; but why do you have to lecture there?”
“Because,” de Lubac told him, “ I just got a letter from Karl Rahner who lectured there, and Rahner tells me that I must not die without seeing Disneyland.” Great theologians have their human side.

According to Murphy: McCabe, Turner and other ‘grammatical Thomists’ essentially reduce the five ways to one overarching question which was in fact first defined as the ultimate question not by Aquinas, but by Leibniz: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. Turner thus argues that the five ways are intended to prove the methodologically sound nature of asking the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ He therefore divests each of the ways of content and establishes them as “argument strategies instead”.

Murphy contends that this question will only have force for an already religious believer as there is nothing inherently absurd about pointing out that the universe is ‘just there’ (as it manifestly is) and this ties in with many accounts of Aquinas’ five ways as merely strategies for pointing out how to speak about God, not discursive proofs that could lead a nonbeliever to God. The question could quite reasonably be answered with the riposte Bertrand Russell gave Fr. Frederick Copleston in their BBC debate on the existence of God: “the universe is just there, and that’s all”. Before one has actually demonstrated the existence of God, one cannot demonstrate that there is anything inherently odd about the universe ‘being there’.(101) Their argument rests substantially on the real distinction in things between existence and essence (i.e. what they are and that they are: a chair’s being a chair and the sheer fact of its existence).

Those who use the ‘why?’ question want to bypass the concrete ways Aquinas uses to demonstrate God’s existence. But in doing this they appear to take for granted the ‘ontological distinction’ between ‘being and essence’ and their identity in the absolute simplicity of God. But this is offered to us through Revelation (the so called ‘metaphysics of Exodus’): “I am that I am” and one cannot depend on it as a proof of God’s existence without involving oneself in circularity.

Here, Murphy appears to draws heavily from Gilson’s claims that (contra to what he once previously believed) there is no ‘sixth way’ in Aquinas’ work De Ente et Essentia. The proponents of a ‘sixth way’ would have it that the real distinction in things between existence and essence (i.e. what they are and that they are: a chair’s being a chair and the sheer fact of its existence) leads us to that Being in which existence and essence coincide. The important point here is that it is by faith the Christian knows this. Thus the ‘ways’ which deal with things in the world can’t simply be bypassed to get ‘straight to the point’. Gilson himself changed his mind on this very point. He had once held that the text De Ente et Essentia provided a ‘sixth way’ to prove the existence of God. He however changed his mind on this point, denying that it offers any such proof.

As Murphy puts it: What distinguishes the Christian theologian from, say, Aristotle, is that he knows, by faith, that it is only God to whom one can ascribe an identity of existence and essence, and thus that in ‘creatures’ a real distinction pertains between existence and nature. He thus gives arguments for the existence of God which both can lead non-believers to this insight and which enables believers to corroborate their faith with evidence.(108 – 109)

It is nevertheless perhaps salutary to note the disagreement with Gilson on this point by John F.X. Knasas, something of a ‘disciple’ of Gilson himself. In his book Being and Some Twentieth Century Thomists, he argues that Gilson’s later position is not entirely consistent. Gilson argues for the act of judgement as being the mind’s access to the notion of ‘actus essendi’. (227) Unless one wishes to make the claim that Gilson has theologized the entirety of Thomas’ metaphysics, then it would be better to say that the ‘metaphysics of Exodus’ is the psychological starting point for Thomas’ investigation which he then elaborates in philosophical terms. (228). If this is the case, then it is not illegitimate to start from the fact of the real distinction in creatures and thus work one’s way to God whose essence is “to be”.

This is not to say that Murphy’s emphasis on using all the five ways is not a good one, but I have always personally found that the argument from contingency speaks most strongly to me and it is the principle I turn to when attempting to engage those who do not believe.

Hopefully you’ve been redirected here from my old address.

I seem to have messed up the part where the direct addresses of particular posts are meant to redirect to the equivalent page here, if you need to find it you can just use the search function above or click on the relevant category in the list to the right.


By ‘Grammatical Thomists,’ Murphy means those Thomists who to some extent have adopted the ‘linguistic turn’ in modern philosophy, primarily through their engagement with Wittgenstein. Thus her primary interlocutors are Thomists such as Herbert McCabe and Denys Turner. What I find especially interesting about this work, is that one of Murphy’s main concerns is to re-present the ‘five ways’ of Thomas Aquinas as full-blooded proofs. Of course, nowadays, arguments for the existence of God are not particularly in vogue, mainly because of theology’s attempts to avoid any suspicion of ‘foundationalism’ and also because (post)modern theology has for the most part, bought into Heidegger’s narrative of Western philosophy as one giant exercise in onto-theology.

It may appear that her project here shares much in common with that of Denys Turner who in ‘Faith, Reason and the Existence of God’ presents a defence of Vatican I’s promulgation that the existence of God can be known with certainty by the natural power of reason. Murphy shares this belief, but she argues that Turner, by limiting himself to merely arguing for the possibility of a rational proof of the existence of God, rather than delving into any particular proof whatsoever, is himself guilty of a form of foundationalism. For, as Murphy notes, there is nothing intrinsically ’foundationalist’ about reasoning to God’s existence. Rather, foundationalism comes into play when “one reasons upon reason” (33) As she says, not even Descartes though it necessary to first prove the rationality of proving the existence of God before he went on to offer a proof! (87) One recalls here John Paul II’s lamentation in Fides et Ratio that philosophy has been reduced to epistemology – it no longer seeks to know reality but instead limits itself to asking how one can know anything at all.

On this point, I think she is a little unfair on Turner. Yes, it would be preferable to simply get on with the business of proving God’s existence, but in a climate which believes this undertaking to be an impossibility, such attempts are not going to be given a hearing in the first place. Turner recognises his goal is limited and may seem ‘pedantic’ to many, but I think a critique of those Kant-inspired arguments against the possibility of a proof and theological apprehensiveness about ‘proofs’ in relation to God’s existence is a worthy cause in itself.


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