Discerning the spirit of the age
Oliver O’Donovan on the difficult but essential task of reading our times
In preparing to interview moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan about his most recent book, Entering into Rest, I have been re-reading the two earlier volumes with which the new book forms a trilogy. The series is called Ethics as Theology, and in these three books O’Donovan describes how Christian Ethics is “done” — how theologically informed thought becomes action.
In the first book, Self, World, and Time (which he designates as An Induction, paving the way for further explorations), O’Donovan examines the nature of moral agency (what it means to be an ethical self), the nature of the world in which we act morally, and the temporal trajectories (both past and future, involving memory and hope) in which ethical decisions made in our present moment are situated. In the book’s Preface, O’Donovan summarizes the challenges we face when we try (as we must) to understand the characteristics of our cultural moment. Given the editorial mission of MARS HILL AUDIO, this paragraph especially caught my attention:
“That ‘late modernity’ in which we are given to live and act can never be taken as self-evident; it is a philosophical task in itself to understand it. There is a style of dealing with modernity all too knowingly. Modern ‘social conditions’ are comprised, we are told, of individualism, egalitarianism, technology, and capitalist enterprise; these are the terms on which mankind today lives, and we must either acknowledge them sensibly or be doomed to be forever criticizing them nostalgically — end of discussion! Alas, it is the doom of modernity to be bound up in an ever over-simple knowingness about itself! Our own age is the hardest of all ages to understand. It is composed of a mass of popular ideas and perceptions, often difficult to document though they are as familiar as the air we breathe, which acknowledge no duty to be consistent with each other. They may be derived from the thoughts of great thinkers, but when they are, they have lost most of what subtlety and discrimination they once had. They ration and restrict our access to thought about life and action in ways we must look hard in order to recognize. (It is not easy to think in a disciplined way through any social question outside the constraints of a would-be economic calculus which scarcely deserves the serious philosophical name of ‘utilitarianism.’) Even more cramping, they determine the way we describe the material objects of our thought, so that there are decent and gullible souls, for example, who think it ‘unscientific’ to refer to the child in the womb as ‘a person.’ Sophistry treads hard, as it has always trodden, on the heels of Ethics, but never harder than in a world of intense and overheated communications. The tramp of its boot must be heard before we can step to one side and free ourselves, recognizing where we have come and what decisions we must take. Such coming to recognition of our place and time is the condition for doing, or indeed being, anything.”
— From Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology: An Induction (Eerdmans, 2013)
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