Intellectual traditions are dynamic entities. They grow and change over time. In fact, if Alasdair MacIntyre is correct that a tradition is “an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition,” then this dynamism is perhaps the distinctive characteristic of tradition-as-such.[1] Thus, precisely because traditions are arguments, the way in which the members of a tradition learn to narrate those constitutive arguments makes all the difference in shaping the future trajectory of that tradition. In this paper, I will demonstrate this claim through an examination of Eric Gregory’s recent attempt to narrate the history of debates about liberalism within the tradition of Augustinian political thought.

According to Gregory’s influential 2008 book Politics and the Order of Love, for the better part of the twentieth century Augustinian political thought has been too accommodating to liberalism due to a preoccupation with sin.[2] In the past few decades, this overly accommodating Augustinianism has been rightfully criticized by a new generation of antiliberal Augustinians, led in part by John Milbank.[3] However, on Gregory’s reading, despite the best intentions, Milbank’s perfectionist politics of love overcompensates for the errors of this first generation and “swing[s] too far in the opposite direction,” thus effecting “a postliberal withdrawal from political life altogether.”[4] Fearing that the Augustinian tradition might come to be prematurely entrenched in a stultifying opposition between a negative liberalism and an arrogant perfectionism, Gregory offers his own constructive account of Augustinian civic liberalism as a happy medium that holds love and sin together. In this way Gregory offers a “better liberalism,” which utilizes Augustine’s account of love to shore up the traditional weaknesses of Augustinian liberalism.[5]

The simplicity of Gregory’s narrative lends it a great deal of explanatory power. It is a Goldilocks and the Three Bears narrative: “This Augustinianism is too accommodating. This Augustinianism is too combative. My Augustinianism is just right.”[6] From this perspective, each of these Augustinian positions appears to address itself to the same audience, utilize similar modes of argumentation, and seek to answer identical questions. They are all the same basic type of argument, the same porridge; they differ only in their temperature, or in their particular conclusions about the relationship between political Augustinianism and liberalism. It is this narration of the tradition of Augustinian political thought that I aim to call into question. In this paper, I will attempt to display a distinction between the types of constructive political work being done by Milbank and Gregory, a distinction that complicates Gregory’s narration of the recent developments within the tradition of Augustinian political thought. I will argue that while Gregory offers his account of Augustinian civic liberalism as a kind of low-level political ethics, Milbank outlines a dual vision containing a high-level interrogation of the character of liberalism and a low-level political ethics of Christian socialism. Gregory’s failure to properly differentiate between the two levels of Milbank’s analysis leads to misplaced criticisms of Milbank. Whereas Milbank’s antiliberalism derives from a high-level critique of the ontology of liberalism, Gregory begs this high-level question. Without an alternative high-level account of liberalism, it is not clear that Gregory has sufficiently answered the antiliberal criticisms of Milbank in a way that would justify representing his position as a comprehensive alternative to antiliberal Augustinianism.

I. Eric Gregory’s Augustinian Civic Liberalism

Gregory’s constructive Augustinian vision attempts to avoid the omission of love that has previously characterized dominant strains of Augustinian liberalism—such as those articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr and Robert Markus[7]—while also being responsive to feminist concerns about liberal political theory’s privatization of love[8] without thereby destroying a more limited politics of respect and legitimizing political violence, particularly through the subordination of the love of neighbor to the love of God.[9] Before outlining Gregory’s civic liberalism in more detail, it is important to note three formal characteristics of his proposal. First, Gregory explicitly states his assumption that liberalism is the dominant mode of contemporary political life. It is not particularly good or particularly bad, it just is. Gregory is here making an appeal to a formal Augustinian principle of ambiguity: all political realities are a “mixed bag,” including modern ones.[10]

Second, Gregory’s project is decidedly modest. He does not wish to bring final resolution to hundreds of years of philosophical and theological debate. Instead, in Politics and the Order of Love, Gregory chooses a carefully focused research question to drive his agenda: “Which variations on which themes from the Augustinian tradition . . . give the most adequate normative account of the responsibilities and virtues of citizens, leaders, and institutions in a liberal democracy?” This is a question of the “best available version of Augustinian liberalism” rather than a question of the merits or demerits of liberalism itself.[11]

Third, when Gregory uses the term liberalism he predominately has political liberalism rather than economic liberalism in mind. It is telling that capitalism arises in the course of Gregory’s investigation almost exclusively during his explication of the thought of John Milbank. In Politics and the Order of Love, economic liberalism, at most, seems to be an accidental feature of the contemporary political scene rather than one of its constitutive features. These three formal considerations will prove crucial for the task of mapping the relationship between Gregory and Milbank.

As for the particulars of his proposal, Gregory suggests that a christologically normed doctrine of love, drawn from the work of St. Augustine, serves as a palliative for the more sinister and self-defeating aspects of liberalism. He offers a “turn to Augustinianism as a resource for a more charitable liberalism.” This stands in contrast to the work of fellow Christian thinkers, like Paul Ramsey, who have cast Augustine as an enemy to Christian civic liberalism.[12] From their perspective, Augustine’s doctrine of love is a dangerous, Platonic abstraction of “monistic love for the highest good.” According to this reading of Augustine, the uti/frui distinction becomes a way to justify oppression and violence in the name of love for God against all that is not God: if human beings ought to enjoy God alone, then they can use their neighbor or creation in any way that might promote a higher enjoyment of God, who is conceived as an abstract summum bonum.[13]

Gregory delivers a reading of Augustine on love that refutes these criticisms and displays Augustine’s continuity with the tradition of civic liberalism that Gregory supports.[14] He accomplishes this christologically. According to this reading of Augustine, Christ models love for God and love for neighbor as distinguishable correlatives, and this allows love to be public without being vicious: “Rather than either being morally paralyzed by the infinite claims of the neighbor or spiritually distracted by the infinite claims of God, the Augustinian self loves the neighbor in God who lovingly identifies with the neighbor as God’s own.”[15] This construal of the double love command avoids the dangers inherent in the uti/frui distinction as well. A proper Augustinian reading of this distinction understands them “not in terms of Platonic metaphysics but as eschatologically shaped ways of disciplining and ordering love that take their cue from the radical determination of the good God.” The distinction “justifies the space for the vulnerable encounters with others that is characteristic of liberal politics.”[16]

Gregory’s deployment of love as a palliative measure for liberalism necessarily brings him into conflict with Milbank, who uses a similar account of political love to condemn liberalism—like Milbank, Gregory attempts “to recast political theology in terms of the perfections of Christian virtue.”[17] However, Gregory alleges that Milbank’s antiliberal account fails on two counts: it collapses Christology into ecclesiology and it relies upon inconsistent, bombastic rhetoric. From Gregory’s perspective, Milbank problematically identifies the church with Christ and the world with sin.[18] Against this assertion, Gregory writes, “The kingdom of God is much bigger than the church, and the church experiences the same sinful divisions and broken ruptures that characterize the world. God belongs to neither the church nor the world.”[19] When it comes to assessing liberalism, the totalizing identification of Christ with the church enables an equally totalizing dismissal of liberalism as a sinful and anti-Christian mode of life. This is problematic for Gregory because it departs from an Augustinian perspective on the saeculum.[20] Gregory contends that Milbank deploys inconsistent rhetoric to cover over this error.

To prove the impossibility of consistently defending the position he attributes to Milbank, Gregory describes various places where Milbank “recommends that the bounds between Church and state be extremely hazy” and confirms a belief that “the sacred is everywhere.” When Milbank adopts this more conciliatory tone, a new set of terms for talking about the church and the world emerges: “Distance. Shadows. Complex spaces. Fuzzy boundaries. Nomadic exodus. Secrecy.”[21] Gregory finds this perspective infinitely more preferable than the bombastic rejection of liberalism as a theological heresy with which Milbank’s work has become synonymous. For Gregory, these two Milbankian modes of speech are mutually exclusive. Thus, Milbank’s moments of ambivalence toward liberalism serve as a warrant for rejecting Milbank’s moments of hostility toward liberalism.

II. John Milbank, the Ontology of Violence, and Christian Socialism

Unlike Gregory, who offers only an “admittedly more low-flying project,” one that seeks to articulate faithful modes of Christian activity within the world as he finds it,[22] Milbank’s extensive discussions of theology, politics, and liberalism operate on two distinct levels: he offers both a “high-flying” critique of the ontology of liberalism and a “low-flying” account of Christian political ethics in his vision of a postliberal participatory democracy rooted in practices of Christian socialism. Outlining the distinction and connection between the two levels in Milbank’s work complicates Gregory’s narration of Augustinian political thought.

The higher level of Milbank’s analysis attempts to respond to the theoretical and intellectual questions about the structure of the modern world generated by Friedrich Nietzsche. According to Milbank, Nietzsche saw through the supposed neutrality and objectivity of modern social science and revealed the quasi-theological nature of modern scientific disciplines.[23] From Nietzsche’s perspective, there could be no rational and objective mediation between differing accounts of truth, only violent competition between parties whose wills-to-power battle for supremacy.[24] In the shadow of this all-too-perceptive analysis, postmodern humanity has begun the search for an alternative to Nietzsche.[25] Yet, for Milbank, Nietzsche has convincingly cut off any mode of retreat that would look backward toward the liberalism of modernity, or even the Aristotelianism of the medieval world, for a political universal.[26] Instead, the only hope for an alternative to the Nietzschean genealogy and its ontology of violence would be a countergenealogy that leads to an ontology of peace.

Milbank attempts to articulate this ontology of peace with the help of Augustine. For Milbank, the church provides a space where the story of violence can be replaced by a story of peace. Imagining a state of total peace “indicates that there is a way to act in a violent world which assumes the ontological priority of non-violence.” Augustine’s understanding of evil as privation “does not allow violence any real ontological purchase, but relates it instead to a free subject who asserts a will . . . to the inhibition and distortion of reality.”[27] This Christian refusal to give violence ontological standing is the only road that does not lead back to Nietzsche.

Milbank makes it clear that this is not the only possible mode of analysis: “In a sense, indeed, I am not concerned to provide an ‘ethics’ . . . but rather to describe a supra-ethical religious affirmation which recasts the ethical field in terms of a religious hope.”[28] The high-level analysis undertaken in Theology and Social Theory is not a field manual of political ethics. As Milbank unequivocally affirms, “The ecclesiastical task of judgment . . . cannot be academically pre-empted.”[29] Milbank’s high-level analysis, abstract and formal though it may be, is important because if humanity loses hope in the future of human existence itself, then the rationale for an ethics of citizenship disappears. This does not mean, however, that low-level visions for ameliorating current political institutions and practices are unnecessary. Milbank offers a contribution at this level of political thought as well.

Milbank identifies his low-level, constructive political vision as a “non-statist Christian socialism.” For Milbank, in contrast to Gregory, capitalism is the force that most determinatively shapes the practical realities of our current political life. Liberalism has increasingly become economic liberalism. This has delivered “mass poverty, inequality, erosion of freely associating bodies beneath the level of the state and ecological dereliction of the earth.” Indeed, neoliberalism now “faces its own crisis of excessive capital build-up, unable to realize itself in investment and real assets and so transferred to the funding of debts that have now become unpayable.” Liberalism threatens to give way to a “new market-state totalitarianism,”[30] and Milbank sees Christian socialism as an alternative to this runaway neoliberal train.[31]

Practically, Milbank’s vision plays itself out as an amalgamation of guild socialism and Catholic social teaching. He advocates a complex social space made up of many interlocking and overlapping jurisdictional bodies that can forge new relationships based upon gift exchange, an economic mode which subverts traditional contract models of human political community. Economic practices centered on “local production of locally suitable thinking linked to local skills” are central to this vision of political life.[32] Yet this nonstatist socialism is not an antistatist socialism. Although state activism is not “the prime means to bring about a socialist condition,” Milbank recognizes that his socialist vision “is only possible within a wider institutional framework . . . culminating in the state, which should appropriately have oversight in some areas.”[33]

This constructive, low-level vision is a far cry from Gregory’s picture of Milbank’s “church versus world” dualism. Gregory alleges that Milbank adopts mutually exclusive positions in his work, oscillating between the language of strict church/world boundaries and porous church/world borders. But these voices are complementary, not contradictory; Milbank both wants to expound the intellectual incoherencies of a liberalism that threatens to decompose into nihilism and to advocate practical changes that require small movements and modest proposals. To use an analogy, if the modern world were a body of water and Milbank were a water inspector, he would have to ascertain whether the water were poisonous, use the strongest possible language to alert other human beings to the presence of any poison in the water, and then advocate for the purification of that water. However, achieving those aims would require a long period of time and many different practices of maintenance and usage. Thus, it would not be inconsistent for this water quality inspector to speak on the level of severe diagnosis and on the level of moderate treatment. Likewise, Milbank’s severe warning about the ontology of violence that undergirds modernity is not inconsistent with a call to buy local and to develop a complex civil society of overlapping social bodies.[34]

Ultimately, it is unhelpful to portray Milbank as a direct alternative to Gregory, particularly when the Milbank that is set in opposition to Gregory is the high-level Milbank of Theology and Social Theory, who is interpreted as offering a low-level perfectionist ethics of ecclesiological withdrawal. If Gregory wants to oppose Milbank’s high-level discourse, then he needs to offer an alternative account at that level. This would require, at the very least, fleshing out his formal appeal to an Augustinian ambivalence about the moral qualities of every age.

That said, Gregory’s decision to bracket those high-level questions does not make his low-level account necessarily problematic. Anyone who lives in a liberal democracy ought to be grateful for Gregory’s proposal on how to do so in a more faithful way. Still, that does not sidestep the question of liberalism’s deep grammar; Milbank and Gregory are not just offering competing answers to the same question. Thus, if Gregory desires for his Augustinian liberalism to displace Milbank’s antiliberalism, then at the very least he must deliver an argument that provides an alternative to both levels of Milbank’s analysis. Otherwise, his ethics of democratic citizenship cannot masquerade as the perfect synthesis of the Augustinian realist thesis and the Augustinian antiliberal antithesis. One need not demand that Politics and the Order of Love offer this argument, but one can demand that it do so if it wishes to represent itself as a full-fledged, competitive alternative to Milbank.

III. Conclusion

The simplest stories are often the most powerful. In their simplicity, they become memorable; in their memorability, they become normative.Human beings need simple, imaginative categories through which to remember and locate more complex positions and conversations. Thus, if my critique of Gregory’s narration of the Augustinian tradition of political thought seems like a mere quibbling over details, I would suggest that even small changes in how we understand the central arguments that constitute a theological tradition can have huge consequences for the future of that tradition of thought.

In the end, my motivation in writing this paper is, I think, the same as Gregory’s motivation for writing Politics and the Order of Love. We share a common concern that—to quote Gregory—“an overly familiar characterization of political Augustinianism threaten[s] the tradition . . . with premature rest.”[35] However, whereas Gregory worries about that premature rest taking the form of a hardening of the conflict between a negative, realist liberalism and an arrogant perfectionism, I worry that the tradition’s premature rest might occur through a hasty smoothing over of this conflict in a manner that too quickly bypasses the important contributions of antiliberal Augustinians like John Milbank.


[1] MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 222.

[2] Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 10–18.

[3] I would be remiss not to note that Gregory names Stanley Hauerwas as an equally prominent antiliberal voice alongside Milbank. However, Gregory focuses his investigation on the work of Milbank and, thus, I will do likewise—though I would suggest that a conversation about the differences between Milbank and Hauerwas might also prove quite fruitful in complicating Gregory’s narration of the Augustinian tradition.

[4] Ibid., 18, 28, and 20: “We can now, at least in preliminary fashion, identify two flawed possibilities for the political implications of an Augustinianism: one primarily oriented to love, the other primarily oriented to sin. The challenge for Augustinian liberalism is to work out a version of this relationship that avoids both arrogant forms of perfectionism and essentially negative forms of liberalism.”

[5] Ibid., 147.

[6] One sees the popular appeal of this explanation in a Christian Century article on Eric Gregory and Charles Mathewes’s work: “The choices seem either to be a bare-knuckled version of Christian realism . . .  or a Democrats-for Jesus approach . . . or a retreat from the messiness of public life into the clean hands and unworried conscience of neomonasticism or the academy, with Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank leading the way. Surely there are more options, aren’t there? These two books . . . point a new way forward” (Jason Byassee, “Public Love,” Christian Century 125, no. 22 (2008): 34–36.

[7] Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, 95. Gregory argues that, for both Niebuhr and Markus, “Hope constrains a truly tragic account of sin, but . . . love seems forever deferred to the eschatological community.”

[8] Ibid., 149–56, 158–63, and 172–75.

[9] While this critique of religious love can be found as a grounding warrant for much liberal political theory, Gregory is particularly interested in Hannah Arendt’s account of love as a political vice, owing to its particular connection to Augustine in Arendt’s doctoral dissertation Love and Saint Augustine, trans. Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[10] Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, 384.

[11] Ibid., 2.

[12] Ibid., 118. Ramsey and Gregory would share the same concerns about a Niebuhrian/realist Augustinianism that omits love from its account of liberalism. However, although both want to offer an account of love as the basis of liberal politics, Ramsey and Gregory disagree about whether Augustine would be an ally or an enemy of such a project. While Ramsey and his followers, such as Timothy Jackson, see Augustine as an obstacle to the reintegration of love and liberalism, Politics and the Order of Love attempts to demonstrate that, properly interpreted, Augustine provides an account of love which can serve to encourage that positive vision of civic liberalism.

[13] Ibid., 118. Arendt takes this criticism even further, arguing that it emerges not only from a vision of God drawn from a Platonic abstraction, but also from Augustine’s understanding of the Trinity and the incarnation, where the frui/uti distinction metastasizes into the love of God/love of neighbor distinction (see Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, 239).

[14] Gregory echoes Oliver O’Donovan’s stated desire to offer a reading of Augustinian theology in support of “a normative political culture broadly in continuity with the Western liberal tradition” (emphasis in the original). See Oliver O’Donovan, Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 230.

[15] Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, 240. For an Augustinian account of the relationship between love of God and love of neighbor that Gregory cites approvingly, see Thomas Breidenthal, “Jesus is My Neighbor: Arendt, Augustine, and the Politics of Incarnation,” Modern Theology 14, no. 4 (1998): 489–504. This account of Augustine’s understanding of the double love command is the foundation for Gregory’s claim that political love can be “other-regarding without domination” (318).

[16] Ibid., 362 and 362.

[17] Ibid., 19. Like Gregory, Milbank “places love at the center of his political Augustinianism” (Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, 125).

[18] Milbank, “The Name of Jesus,” in The Word Made Strange (Cambridge, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 148. Milbank makes “Christological and atonement doctrines . . . theoretically secondary to definitions of the character of the new universal community or Church.”

[19] Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, 129.

[20] Ibid., 134. For Augustine, the saeculum refers to the time in between Christ’s first and second comings, the time in which God has not yet separated the city of God from the earthly city. Because that final separation is not visible in the present, it is inappropriate to identify particular human institutions as exclusively good or exclusively evil. Rather, from Augustine’s perspective, the two cities find themselves ambiguously intermixed and overlapping with one another until the final judgment.

[21] Ibid., 136–7 and 137.

[22] Ibid., 58.

[23] Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), XX–XXI, 2, and 3.

[24] Nietzsche convincingly narrated the postmodern world into a metanarratival fight to the death. From the battle of the Somme to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the early twentieth century did its best to confirm Nietzsche’s prediction that, in the near future, “The concept of politics will have merged entirely with a war of spirits . . . there will be wars the like of which have never yet been seen on earth.” Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, in On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989), 327.

[25] Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, XXII: “There is a new recognition of a need for a universal discourse if we are to sustain any political hope.”

[26] Ibid., 328: “Against MacIntyre, I simply do not believe that there are any arguments against nihilism of this general kind. . . . There is for me no method, no mode of argument that charts us smoothly past the Scylla of foundationalism and the Charybdis of difference” (emphasis in the original).

[27] Ibid., 416 and 440.

[28] Milbank, “Enclaves, or Where is the Church?,” in The Future of Love (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 135: “The ‘formal’ descriptions (which I do not claim could ever be exhaustive—even within the confines of formalism)—in terms of peace, forgiveness, harmony, etc.—describe structural relations, and do not isolate essences . . . nor prescribe ‘what is to be done.’ . . . We may think of the good as infinitely realizable harmony if we believe that reality can finally receive such an imprint” (italics in the original).

[29] Milbank, “Enclaves,” 135.

[30] Milbank, The Future of Love, xvi–xvii and xi; Milbank, “Liberality versus Liberalism,” in The Future of Love, 250, 251, and 251.

[31] Against those who might point to its Marxist strain to argue that socialism is an exhausted tradition, Milbank argues that Marxist socialism failed because, in its rejection of religion as mere ideology, it deprived itself of the one and only resource of critique that could gain any critical leverage against capitalism’s logic of infinite commodification (see Milbank, “The Body by Love Possessed,” in The Future of Love, 104–7). Moreover, by viewing capitalism as a necessary moment in the dialectical progression of history, Marxism had too high of an opinion of capitalism and could not diagnose it as a pure apostasy from the Christian faith (see Milbank, “On Baseless Suspicion,” in The Future of Love, 113). Christian socialism provides a better alternative to capitalism because it can appeal to the sacred, which cannot be commodified by capitalist logics, and it can use theological resources to name capitalism as the heresy that it is. See Milbank, Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London, UK: Routledge, 2003), 173–6.

[32] Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 413; “On Complex Space,” in The Word Made Strange, 276; and Milbank, “Liberality versus Liberalism,” 251.

[33] Milbank, “The Invocation of Clio,” Journal of Religious Ethics 33, no. 1 (2005): 38. Milbank’s state contains a mixture of democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical elements, although the aristocratic and monarchical elements receive their authorization from the people and serve only to “secure the space of the possibility of democracy” (Milbank, “Liberality versus Liberalism,” 260). If this comprehensive vision pushes the boundaries of believability, Milbank reminds his readers that the current state of the world is already terrifyingly unbelievable: “Does all this sound fantastic? No, the fantastic is what we have: an economy that destroys life, babies, childhood, adventure, locality, beauty, the exotic, the erotic, people, and the planet itself” (263).

[34] This conclusion stands in stark contrast to Gregory’s assertion that “Milbank writes as if two ontologies (peace or violence) float above history, waiting to be instantiated in practice. . . . Ontology here assumes priority over practice” (Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, 135). Consequently, Gregory overstates his second criticism—that Milbank collapses Christology into ecclesiology—because of an inappropriate comparison of Gregory’s low-level project with the high-level aspect of Milbank’s project. Church is a multivalent term for Milbank. At the high-level of discourse, church is the site of the ontology of peace. Conversely, Milbank identifies the world not with particular states but with “the vestigial remains of an entire pagan mode of practice, stretching back to Babylon” (Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 410). This is precisely the opposite of Gregory’s identification of “Milbank’s America” as the “latest subtle expression of the old Babylon” (Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, 140).  At the low-level of discourse, church means the particular Christian communities whose members find themselves in relationships that blur boundaries between various groups, including the state (see Milbank’s discussion of the Christian ruler in Theology and Social Theory, 411–2).  This is not to say that there is nothing problematic about the identification of Christ and church in Milbank’s high-level discourse. However, when Gregory reads Milbank as collapsing all concrete political activity into ecclesiology, he confuses Milbank’s “supra-ethical religious affirmation” with an ethics of “what is to be done” (Milbank, “Enclaves, or Where is the Church?,” 135).

[35] Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, 28.