Oliver O’Donovan and his mentor, George B. Caird, offer lessons from the book of Revelation for thinking about politics
In the Introduction to his 2005 book The Ways of Judgment, Oliver O’Donovan described a crisis in Western politics. “Western civilization finds itself the heir of political institutions and traditions which it values without any clear idea why, or to what extent, it values them. Faced with decisions about their future development it has no way of telling what counts as improvement and what as subversion. It cannot tell where ‘straight ahead’ lies, let alone whether it ought to keep on going there.”
I think Dr. O’Donovan would agree that this civilizational crisis has only deepened in the intervening fifteen years, and that it shows no signs of subsiding. As various confrontations in recent years have made clear, the very idea of political authority has become increasingly unintelligible in the modern West, largely due to fateful false steps taken in the development of modern ideas about society, community, personhood, freedom, historical change. For decades, O’Donovan’s work has borne witness to the claim he made in the opening pages of The Ways of Judgment: that Christian political thought – when pursued faithfully and in light of the testimony of revelation and of the thought of the premodern Church — “has an apologetic force when addressed to a world where the intelligibility of political institutions and traditions is seriously threatened.” Christian political theology has the capacity to defend “the coherence of political conceptions as such.” In fact, O’Donovan asserts, “this coherence depends in important and surprising ways upon the faith expressed in the creeds.”
In an age in which most Christians — scholars, politicians, and laypeople — strive to reduce the framework of their political reflections to terms that could be endorsed by civic-minded Deists or even atheists, O’Donovan has insisted that facts of the redemptive work of God in history — centered on the Incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, session, and coming return of Christ — must be perspective points for thinking well about politics. Consider, for example, his insistence that any adequate evaluation of claims about social or political “progress” needs to take into consideration the Biblical account of how the Christocentric ends of history are certain to be counterfeited, especially as modern Western societies strive to set aside their Christian heritage:
“The possibilities open to society with history and memory of the Gospel proclamation do not include naïve malevolence, but only a formation that is demonic to the extent that it is not redeemed and redemptive. . . . The redemptive reality within history becomes the occasion for disclosure of the historical possibilities of evil, an evil shaped in imitation and replication of the redemptive good. Personalised interpretations of the Antichrist theme, which lie buried like fossils in the palaeontological deposit of religious thought, have tended to conceal the importance of the Antichrist conception precisely as an interpretation of the dynamic possibilities of society. For society has become a historical reality within the saving purposes of God. Social evil is not always regression, barbarism, turning back to the primitive esse from the bene esse. It must, under historical conditions, become precisely misdirected progress, corrupt sophistication, the idolisation of historical evolution. Though political experience continues to be troubled by regressive movements, the worst, and the most characteristically twentieth-century, evils of political experience have been progressive.”
Readers may be forgiven their surprise at encountering referenced to the Antichrist in the work of a long-time Oxford professor. But one hopes their surprise gives way to humble receptivity. In a 1986 article titled “The Political Thought of the Book of Revelation,” O’Donovan acknowledged a debt of gratitude to New Testament scholar George B. Caird, “whose commentary (The Revelation of St. John the Divine [London: A. & C. Black, 1966]) taught me how to read the Apocalypse.”
In this tempestuous election year, I’ve been studying Caird’s commentary in the hopes of securing deeper understanding of our own political moment. Here are two extracts from the book, the first from the opening of his discussion of chapter 6, with its seven seals and four horsemen:
“For all the haunting quality of John’s poetry, the hymns sung by the heavenly choir in honour of the Lamb have not revealed any new truth. It was the common belief of the whole early church that the exalted Christ had taken his seat on the heavenly throne at God’s right hand, there to reign as Messiah and Lord; and this belief was based on a psalm which declared that the Messiah was destined so to reign until God had put all his enemies under his feet (Ps. cx. 1; cf. Mark xii. 35–37; Acts ii. 33 ff.; v. 31; vii. 55 ff.; Romans viii. 34; I Cor xv. 25; Eph. i. 20; Col. iii. 1; Heb. i. 3, 13; x. 12 f.; I Pet. iii. 22). If John has something new to communicate about the reign of Christ, it is because he insists on taking the traditional belief with the utmost seriousness. It is not enough to assert that Christ’s reign is already established in heaven and will ultimately be established on earth also at his Parousia; for heavenly events must have here and now their earthly counterparts. It is not enough for him to hold that the regnant Christ reigns over the hearts of those who love him, that he reigns only insofar as men by obedience and loyalty allow him to reign. He believes that Christ is already the ‘ruler of earthly kings’ (1. 5). Unless Christ can be said to reign over the world of hard facts in which Christians must live their lives, he can hardly be said to reign at all.
“During the last thirty-five years of his life John has lived through a series of grim events which might well seem a challenge to the Christian belief in the kingship of Christ: the earthquakes of A.D. 60 (Tac. Ann. xiv. 27); the humiliating defeat of the Roman army on the eastern frontier by the Parthian Vologeses in A.D. 62 (Tac. Ann. xv. 13–17; the persecution of the Christians which followed the fire of Rome in A.D. 64 (Tac. Ann. xv. 44); the four-year horror of the Jewish war which ended in A.D. 70 with Jerusalem in ruins; the suicide of Nero in A.D. 68 and the political chaos which ensued as four claimants battled for the imperial throne, and for a whole year the Roman world echoed to the tramp of marching armies; the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 which had obliterated the luxury resorts of the Bay of Naples and created a pall of darkness so widespread that men feared the imminent dissolution of the physical order (Pliney, Ep. vi. 16); and the serious grain famine of A.D. 92 (Suet. Dom. 7). John’s vision of the four horsemen is intended to assert Christ’s sovereignty over such a world as that.”
In the summarizing final chapter of his commentary, “The Theology of the Book of Revelation,” Caird sounds some similar notes:
“John’s faith in God is all the more remarkable because he was at all points a realist. He was a realist in his appraisal of the churches with their little strength and their variegated weakness, so realistic that we can still recognize in them the churches to which we ourselves belong; yet he never doubted God’s ability to clothe the church in the robe of purity and perfection which would make her a fit bride for the Lamb. He was a realist in his grasp of the power and splendour of imperial Rome and of her ability to crush the church, in his analysis of the real nature of the forces that were devastating the earth, so realistic indeed that his world, once we understand it, is very little different from our world; yet he never doubted that in the battle between the monster and the Lamb the ultimate victory would go to the Lamb. He himself had stood in a Roman court of justice, fortunate to escape with his life, and he believed that countless other Christians must stand where he had stood; yet he remained confident that every verdict of such a court must be either upheld or reversed before the superior court of the great white throne.”
Eighty years ago, C. S. Lewis warned against surrogate contrition
In March 1940, C. S. Lewis wrote a column in The Guardian titled “The Dangers of National Repentance.” England had only recently entered the Second World War, and a number of young Anglican intellectuals were urging their fellow citizens to recognize penitently the extent to which England and other enemies of Germany in the war of 1914–1918 had created the conditions that gave rise to this new conflict. Lewis — who had been wounded in the Great War and whose brother Warnie was at the time of the column’s composition stationed in France — perceived a perilous temptation presented by activists eager to repent on behalf of their elders.
“The first and fatal charm of national repentance is . . . the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing — but, first, of denouncing — the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not ‘they’ but ‘we’. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called ‘we’ is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’ . . .
“Is it not, then, the duty of the Church to preach national repentance? I think it is. But the office — like many others — can be profitably discharged only by those who discharge it with reluctance. We know that a man may have to ‘hate’ his mother for the Lord’s sake. The sight of a Christian rebuking his mother, though tragic, may be edifying; but only if we are quite sure that he has been a good son and that, in his rebuke, spiritual zeal is triumphing, not without agony, over strong natural affection. The moment there is reason to suspect that he enjoys rebuking her — that he believes himself to be rising above the natural level while he is still, in reality, groveling before it in the unnatural — the spectacle becomes merely disgusting.”
— from “The Dangers of National Repentance” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1970)
Note: A reading of this essay by C. S. Lewis is available here.
Thaddeus J. Kozinski on reading modernity’s symptoms wisely (and wonder-fully)
“In a remarkable passage, Alasdair MacIntyre zeroes in on the essence of modernity’s peculiar disease:
“‘We have within our social order few if any social milieus within which reflective and critical inquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained. . . . This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning.’
“What MacIntyre is saying, I think, is that the culture of modernity is a culture without wonder, and since without wonder there is no awe, as Plato taught us, modern culture tends to preclude the experience of that which is most awesome, God. What is the antidote to this? MacIntyre once said that we need a new Benedict, but I wonder if we couldn’t add Socrates to the list. Dietrich von Hildebrand describes the Socratic, questioning, wondering spirit as
“‘the inner willingness which is not closed against even the most unpleasant truth, which is really free from bias, ready to make friends with things, open to the proof of all objective existence, not looking at things through a colored lens that allows only such things to pass into the understanding as do not offend our pride and self complacency.’
“The existence of even one person with a genuine spirit of erotic, Socratic questioning, a soul with true metaphysical courage, is, I think, the most effective antidote to the suffocating, anti-questioning, partial-truth culture we live in, in both its traditionalist and modernist varieties. Those who believe themselves to have obtained answers without having first endured the existential agony of questioning the darkness, whether because they have judged that there are no answers, or because they believe themselves to be already quite securely possessed of dogmatic certitude, need to recognize in such an attitude neither a humble disposition of ignorance nor pious submission to God's word, but a type of idolatry, the idolatry of partial thinking.”
— from Thaddeus J. Kozinski, Modernity as Apocalypse: Sacred Nihilism and the Counterfeits of Logos (Angelico Press, 2019)
Aquinas, Augustine, and Aristotle on good government
“In the second book of the Politica we study the constitutions of the various Greek states. Thomas accepts Aristotle’s inductive bases, and will employ them in his work De regimine principum. In the nature of man he finds the origin and the necessity of a social authority, represented in varying degree by the father in the family, by the leader in the community, by the sovereign in the kingdom.
“He distinguishes, further, good government from bad. Good government has three forms: monarchical, where one alone rules, aristocratic, where several rule, democratic, where the rule is by representatives elected by the multitude. But each of these forms may degenerate: monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, democracy into mob-rule The best form of government he finds in monarchy, but, to exclude tyranny, he commends a mixed constitution, which provides, at the monarch’s side, aristocratic and democratic elements in the administration of public affairs. Yet, he adds, if monarchy in fact degenerates into tyranny, the tyranny, to avoid greater evils, should be patiently tolerated. If, however, tyranny becomes unbearable, the people may intervene, particularly in an elective monarchy. It is wrong to kill the tyrant. He must be left to the judgment of God, who, with infinite wisdom, rewards or punishes all rulers of men.
“On the evils of election by a degenerate people, where demagogues obtain the suffrages, he remarks, citing St. Augustine, that the elective power should, if it be possible, be taken from the multitude and restored to those who are good. St. Augustine’s words run thus: ‘If a people gradually becomes depraved, if it sells its votes, if it hands over the government to wicked and criminal men, then that power of conferring honors is rightly taken from such a people and restored to those few who are good.’”
— from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P., Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought (Herder, 1950)
St. John Henry Newman on the manner of speech fitting for Christian faithfulness
“Let us guard against discontent in any shape; and as we cannot help hearing what goes on in the world, let us guard, on hearing it, against all intemperate, uncharitable feelings towards those who differ from us, or oppose us. Let us pray for our enemies; let us try to make out men to be as good as they can fairly and safely be considered; let us rejoice at any symptoms of repentance, or any marks of good principle in those who are on the side of error. Let us be forgiving. Let us try to be very humble, to understand our ignorance, and to rely constantly on the enlightening grace of our Great Teacher. Let us be ‘slow to speak, slow to wrath;’—not abandoning our principles, or shrinking from the avowal of them when seasonable, or going over to the cause of error, or fearing consequences, but acting ever from a sense of duty, not from passion, pride, jealousy, or an unbelieving dread of the future; feeling gently, even when we have reason to act severely.”
— from John Henry Newman, “Contracted Views in Religion,” a sermon on the story of the Prodigal Son, in Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 3 (published 1834–42).