14 Sep

A society without purpose

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/14/15

Oliver O’Donovan on the eighteenth-century sources of radical secularism

“The paradox of the First Amendment is that a measure conceived as a liberation for authentic Christianity has become, in this [i.e., the 20th] century, a tool of anti-religious sentiment, weakening the participation of the church in society and depriving it of access to resources for its social role. . . .

“[T]here were features of the intellectual climate of the eighteenth century which weakened the Christian understanding of salvation-history, and replaced it with an open-ended concept of historical development, shaped by human action ventured, perhaps, in imitation of Christ but not in obedient faith directed back to his accomplished work. The shift from salvation-history to an unfolding providence undermined the intelligibility of Christian secular government, as it undermined the intelligibility of the doctrine of the Trinity itself. . . . A Deist religion of divine fatherhood seemed sufficient to support the authority which government needed. . . . By denying any church established status in principle, the framers of the First Amendment gave away more than they knew. They effectively declared that political authorities were incapable of evangelical obedience. And with this the damage was done. It did not need the anti-religious line of interpretation pursued by twentieth-century courts to make this formula, from a theological point of view, quite strictly heretical. The creed asserts: cuius regni non erit finis, and the apostle that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow’ (Phil. 2:10). The First Amendment presumes to add: ‘except . . .’.

“Excluding government from evangelical obedience has had repercussions for the way society itself is conceived. Since the political formation of society lies in its conscious self-ordering under God’s government, a society conceived in abstraction is unformed by moral self-awareness, driven by internal dynamics rather than led by moral purposes. To deny political authority obedience to Christ is implicitly to deny that obedience to society, too. Precisely such a conception arose from the sociology which emerged in the eighteenth and came to maturity in the nineteenth century. Society was an acephalous organism, driven by unconscious forces from within an object of study and, to the skilful, of manipulation, but in no sense a subject of responsible action. With this conception late-modernity, as we now experience it, stands on the threshold. This, after all, is society as it has been thought about in capitalist economic theory and in revolutionary socialism: it is liberal technological society, which functions like a computer constantly to extend the scope of its own operations in obedience to no rational purpose.”

—from Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1996)