Oliver O’Donovan reflects on how the reality of the Kingship of Christ must be affirmed as a present reality
On May 29, 2020, we released an interview with Oliver O’Donovan about living with COVID-19 and its consequences. The interview was one of a series featured on our app with a number of theologians, ethicists, philosophers, doctors, historians, and others who were asked — early in the world’s experience of this pandemic — to reflect on various practical and theoretical questions raised by the various rearrangements of our lives.
Oliver O’Donovan is one of the world’s leading political theologians, a thinker whose biblical, historical, theological, and philosophical knowledge provides a framework for understanding political order in a thoroughly Christian (that is, Christ-centered) way.
As the interview was conducted a few days before the celebration of the Feast of the Ascension, late in the interview I asked O’Donovan to comment on the consequences of the fact of Christ’s Ascension for how we think about politics.
The affirmation of the Ascension is the authorizing of human life, ultimately, over against death, by God through the life and death and resurrection of his Son. And the implications of that for our attempts to rule our lives as societies and as individuals has to be this confident belief that this is what God has decreed and established and accomplished.
We’ve become very impatient with politics, and for very good reasons. But we also have to look at the deeper story in which it is part of God’s story and God’s bearing witness to what he has done, part of his maintenance of this human thing for the glory to which he has appointed it — and effectively appointed it. So I think it just might begin to make us a little more hopeful of politics, not in itself or in its powers or in the resources of the people who populate the political parties, all of which are very, very depressing on the whole to look at in the Western world. But in the knowledge that they are merely the servants of an authority that is greater than they. And we must expect that higher authority to take effect in all kinds of ways. That’s the way in, I think, we need to take, I think. We need to grasp what it means that God has exercised his rule, and that he has exercised it in this way, and given it to the human representative who is his Son. If we can focus around that we can perhaps take a little courage that even the horrible mistakes that are made are not out of his control. It’s a start.
So to see politics not as a necessary evil but ultimately as part of eschatological fulfillment?
I would put it this way: that it’s a promise of eschatological fulfillment. What we are shown in the eschatological visions is, as it were, the kings of the earth are casting their crowns before the throne of God and the Lamb. And it’s that to which we look forward. Here they are subordinate to that ultimate purpose, that ultimate rule. So let us take from them the promise that they have to give us. It’s an elusive promise and an indirect promise. It’s often difficult to discern, but it’s there. They represent, as it were, within the structure of society — they represent the command of God which is going in that direction, whether they know it or not. They may well not be conscious of the direction they’re going or the function they’re fulfilling — that is common enough — but for those who have eyes to see God’s purposes, they represent this.
In The Ways of Judgment, you talk about the refusal to acknowledge God as the sovereign authority of any human society — that’s a form of idolatry. And it would seem that late modern liberalism seems intent on not acknowledging God as a sovereign authority of any human society. That may be an over-reading, but it seems that that’s the presupposition that underwrites the endorsement of liberalism for many contemporary people.
I think that’s right. And I think it is because of that that political authority and the way it works remains so ineffably mysterious to us. We, as it were, can’t accept what it’s telling us, what it’s pointing us to, in the way this world works. It’s got a message that we are deafening ourselves to, and hence we are constantly taken aback — disturbed, confused, dismayed — by the way our structures work, because we have never seen the logic.
One question to close. What has the experience of the last several months revealed about the necessary virtues for both political leaders and for citizenship?
Well, for both I want to say that I think that we can learn and need to learn what it is to be a community living under law. I don’t know the mechanics by which the various authorities in the United States have introduced their regulations and their restrictions and their shutdowns. But here it has been done with force of law — a series of emergency regulations passed through Parliament and copycat versions passed through the devolved Parliaments. And the significance of this, it seems to me, is that the terms on which we are to live as necessarily and inevitably decided for us by authority are in all of our possession, and we can know them, and we can live into them and learn how to live with them and accommodate ourselves to them. That is, I think, one might say, the first virtue of citizenship — that it takes the law seriously. And it takes it as its own in an important way. Once the law is made, the authority has located itself. It has located itself in these requirements.
Now, this is actually no longer intuitively natural to a generation that is fed on television interviews, press conferences, soundbites, tweets, and so on. And what we’ve seen here is that the position laid out by these emergency regulations passed into law has constantly been thrown into doubt by what one might call “free improvisation” from all sources. From the sources of the proper government ministers down through the constables and chief constables, individual police, and so on — every one of which is convinced that it’s up to him or her to make the law up. And what began as, one might say, a perfectly clear and, in a sense, liberating relationship of authority to the people — liberating not in the sense that we are free to do what we like, but liberating in the sense that we are free to know where we stand in these difficult conditions in relation to the law — is immediately taken away by everybody’s need to improvise freely on it. And invent new regulations out of the back of their heads, often paraded as “advice” — the difference between advice and law becomes highly uncertain.
In other words, there is a certain lack of a will to live within the constraints of a law-governed society. That lack of a will to live is clearly seen in those who hold authority. Now that then throws back on the populace the need to discern the authority of law and the need to see clearly when a demand or a request is clearly in keeping with the line of authority that law has laid down, and when it is, as it were, simply unauthorized. So, it actually has to make us far more alert — respectful of authority and alert to its pseudo-pretenders. I don’t know whether that has any correspondence to the American experience. But it’s been quite a lesson, I think, for us here in Britain to discover what a law means.
I think [another factor is] the communications media and how our experience of time has been changed, so that there can be instant responses from a variety of voices whose alleged authority is tied to how popular they are in terms of how many people have watched their YouTube video or whatever.
Yes. That’s very interesting. And, of course, when you have a complex structure of government . . . you actually introduce this very difficult element of rivalry and competition, of which we have some obvious evidence here, too, since the government of Britain is by no means as centralized as it once was. In which, as it were, it becomes a sort of matter of pique for those who hold office in one form or another to make sure that their demands are heard over the top of the noise of all the other demands.
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Oliver O’Donovan is Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh. He is the featured guest on two MARS HILL AUDIO Conversations, about which you may read more here and here.
C. S. Lewis on why the “right to sexual happiness” makes totalitarian demands
The last thing that C. S. Lewis wrote for publication was a brief article for the Saturday Evening Post. The essay was called “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness’,” which — at least to American readers — may have suggested that he was addressing rights claims made in a political setting. But Lewis made it clear that he was not discussing an alleged legal right, but a claim to a moral right. And the happiness in question was not general or generic, but sexual happiness, a state achieved by allowing sexual desires to overrule all other moral considerations.
Lewis wrote that, from an early age, he noticed that “progressive people” were effectively lobbying to treat sex “as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilized people.” Claims made on behalf of sexual impulses put them “in a position of presposterous privilege. The sexual motive is taken to condone all sorts of behavior which, if it had any other end in view, would be condemned as merciless, treacherous, and unjust.”
While Lewis felt there was no good reason to accept the allegedly progressive claims made for the sovereignty of sex, he admitted that there was “a strong cause” which made such claims seem plausible:
“It is part of the nature of a strong erotic passion — as distinct from a transient fit of appetite — that it makes more towering promises than any other emotion. No doubt all our desires make promises, but not so impressively. To be in love involves the almost irresistible conviction that one will go on being in love until one dies, and that possession of the beloved will confer, not merely frequent ecstasies, but settled, fruitful, deep-rooted, lifelong happiness. Hence all seems to be at stake. If we miss this chance we shall have lived in vain. At the very thought of such a doom we sink into fathomless depths of self-pity.
“Unfortunately these promises are found often to be quite untrue. Every experienced adult knows this to be so as regards all erotic passions (except the one he himself is feeling at the moment). We discount the world-without-end pretensions of our friends’ amours easily enough. We know that such things sometimes last — and sometimes don’t. And when they do last, this is not because they promised at the outset to do so. When two people achieve lasting happiness, this is not solely because they are great lovers but because they are also — I must put it crudely — good people; controlled, loyal, fair-minded, mutually adaptable people.
“If we establish a ‘right to (sexual) happiness’ which supersedes all the ordinary rules of behavior, we do so not because of what our passion shows itself to be in experience but because of what it professes to be while we are in the grip of it. Hence, while the bad behavior is real and works miseries and degradations, the happiness which was the object of the behavior turns out again and again to be illusory.”
Lewis offered no philosophical or theological explanations for the hope for happiness experienced in sexual desire. But consider this possibility. The unity uniquely known in marriage is given to us as an analogue of the relationship between Christ and the Church, the unity in which the ultimate human fulfilment is secured. Sexual love within the order of marriage is a bodily anticipation of that summum bonum.
Rather than imagining human beings as sexual creatures, who are given the institution of marriage as a way of restricting sexual activity, it may be more accurate to say that we are marriageable creatures — beings whose nature bears witness to God’s purposes — who are given sexuality as a way of deepening and enhancing marriage. Imitations of or substitutes for faithful marriage (e.g., adulterous relationships, which were the focus of Lewis’s remarks) carry with them a compelling counterfeit of that teleological promise. And even a forged token of ultimate good can plausibly (if profoudly mistakenly) be taken as overruling all lesser goods.
The issue of the Saturday Evening Post that contained “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness’” was published on November 22, 1963, the day Lewis died.
Lesslie Newbigin on God’s use of material means to convey redemptive transformation
One doesn’t have to dig very deeply to realize that many social and cultural confusions and disorders are symptoms of the various dualisms that afflict modern life. It is commonly assumed that a wall of separation exists between “sacred” and “secular,” between mind and body, between faith and reason, between personal and communal, etc. These dualisms often reflect the theological assumption of a deep rift between Creation and Redemption. Many of the interviews featured on MARS HILL AUDIO products confront this deep fracture.
Theologian Lesslie Newbigin (whose work was discussed on Volume 83) recognized the effects of an assumed physical/spiritual dualism on thinking about the nature of the Church, and of the Church’s place in the unfolding in history of God’s redemptive work. He objected to the claim that the Church could be understood as a purely spriritual entity, an understanding which eliminates the ability of the Church to infuence the culture around it by being a culture in and of itself, by having an observable life.
Some of his thoughts on this subject are present in his 1953 book The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church. That book collected Newbigin’s Kerr Lectures given at Trinity College, Glasgow, in November 1952. Here are some of the relevant paragraphs:
“It is of course true, and profoundly important, that the Old Testament records a developing understanding of the ultimate and unshareable responsibility of the individual before God, and that in the teaching of Jesus we find unsurpassable expressions of the unique preciousness of every single individual to God. Yet — because of the basic biblical teaching about the creation of all things by God — this never passes over into a denial of the solidarities in which the individual is set. On the basis of the faith that God is creator of all things, of things visible no less than of things invisible, and that He has made man a body-soul unity, and that He has made him male and female that the twain should be one flesh, it is impossible to retreat into a view which leaves man ultimately alone with God and relegates to some sort of lower level of significance all the natural, psychological, economic, and biological solidarities in which his life is lived. . . . [I]t is surely clear that, on the basis of the biblical teaching, while we are precluded from treating the individual merely as a product of the various solidarities in which he is set, we are likewise precluded from treating these solidarities merely as the products of a multitude of individual decisions. . . .
“In the Bible salvation is concerned with the whole created order. The whole visible world is ascribed to God, and it is, in its essential nature, good. Though the fall of man has mysteriously corrupted nature also, yet nature itself is not evil. Nor is it merely the neutral setting of man’s spiritual life. It has its own part to play in glorifying God. And its renewal is part of the consummation for which at present the whole creation groans and travails in longing. In particular man’s physical frame is not treated as the merely temporary envelope of an immortal spirit. Man is treated as a living whole, and his eternal future is conceived of in terms of the resurrection of the body rather than of the immortality of the soul. The final consummation of all things is conceived to include the renewal of the whole created universe, and of man’s body, and the restoration of its lost harmony in the joy of God’s service.
“These elements in the biblical teaching are familiar and I allude to them only to point out that what is true of the doctrines of creation and of the last things will also govern the doctrine of the Church and of the means of grace. The Church, as the sphere wherein the first-fruits of the age to come are experienced within this present age, will not be a merely spiritual reality whose outward forms and signs will be a sort of dead husk enclosing the living seed. On the contrary, it is in accordance with the whole biblical standpoint that the sphere of salvation should be a visible fellowship marked by visible signs wherein God uses material means to convey His saving power, and wherein, therefore, there is an earnest and foretaste of the restoration of creation to its true harmony in and for God’s glory, and of man to his true relation to the created world.”
— from Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (Wipf and Stock, 1953), pp. 63ff.
Revisiting a 1974 text that examined the mutual animosities of the 1960s
The word “demonstration” derives from an ancient root that means “to think.” Other English derivatives include “mind,” “mental,” “mentor,” “memento,” “comment,” and “Minerva,” the Greek goddess of wisdom. “Admonish” is a bit more obviously related to “demonstrate,” reminding us that admonishment involves the presentation of reasons and not simply an angry scolding.
In my American Heritage Dictionary, “demonstration” is defined as 1) the act of showing or making evident; 2) conclusive evidence or proof; and 3) an illustration or explanation. In these first three uses, the word retains it ties to rationality. In such usage, “demonstration” suggests the end (in both senses) of an argument. Q.E.D., Quod erat demonstrandum, announces that the thing we set out to prove — and not simply assert arbitrarily — has been revealed to be so.
But my dictionary’s 4th and 5th definitions take an odd turn. The idea of making something evident is retained, but what is now made manifest is not truth or reality reasonably understood but a purely subjective state: “4) A manifestation, as of one’s feelings.” And then the final use of the word: “5) A public display of group opinion, as by a rally or march.”
Of course words can be wayward, prone to wander. But the fact that, in the early twenty-first century, the word “demonstration” is much more likely to suggest a passionate display of feelings or opinions than the reasonable path toward common understanding is a sign of a fundamental disorientation in contemporary society. It is a sign (among other things) of our denial of the correlativity of truth and goodness. “Truth” is at best typically regarded as a description of factuality. “Goodness” is sentimentalized or subjectivized, not a matter for public, rational discussion.
In The Desire of the Nations, moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan described the fate of political communities that have marginalized the Good and trivialized Truth:
“Because the normal content of political communication . . . has come to be the conflict of competing wills, speech has lost its orientation to deliberation on the common good and has come to serve the assertion of competing interests. . . . ’Demonstrations’ aimed at communicating anger or menace, rather than argument or reason, are viewed with complacency as proof of a liberal and open society.”
The demonstrations of recent months have obviously not promoted argument or reason about how we might improve our shared life together. The slogans that appear on placards, T-shirts, banners, and ball caps are asserted with an air of arrogant invulnerability. “Agree with me (and my thousands of co-belligerents) or else.” Some pundits have wrung their hands at the destructive spirit of these demonstrations, and seen them as a failure of civility. We cannot repair the torn fabric of our nation, they warn, until we address one another with kindness and respect. Others lament the irrational mood of these increasingly heated displays of conviction and call for a return to the values of the Enlightenment, which established political life on rational foundations. But there are good reasons to interpret the angry irrationality of these demonstrations — and the millions of similarly spirited op-ed pieces, blog posts, faculty memos, tweets, and sidewalk trash-talking — as the culmination of the Enlightenment’s fatally flawed conception of reason.
During the past year, some commentators have compared the recent demonstrations to the raucous events of the 1960s and 70s. Sometimes these comparisons are made to assure is that there really is nothing to worry about in our political life, because these sorts of things happen all the time. But the fact that symptoms are chronic is no warrant for the assumption that there is nothing seriously disordered. If our epidemic of violent demonstrations is like that of fifty years ago, maybe we can understand the ailment better with the help of thoughtful diagnosticians who observed that outbreak.
Literary critic Wayne C. Booth (1920-2005) was on the faculty of the University of Chicago during the demonstrations of the late 1960s. He witnessed first hand the stand-off between students — who understood themselves as the defenders of values — and faculty and administrators — who saw their institution as a bastion of reason. Each side in this battle was suspicious of the other, because both sides accepted the long-standing dogma of Enlightenment culture that separated “facts” (the raw material of reason) and “values.”
In 1971, while many cities and campuses were still roiling from violent confrontations, Booth gave the Ward-Phillips Lectures in English Language and Literature at the University of Notre Dame. The content of those lectures was expanded and published in 1974 as Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (University of Chicago Press). Booth believed that the uneasy tension that was increasingly evident across the American social and political landscape — and in the West more generally — was a symptom of the fact that “we have lost our faith in the very possibility of finding a rational path through any thicket that includes what we call value judgments.” Anticipating Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue, which diagnosed in philosophical terms the common assumption that all value judgments were simply expressions of irrational preference, Booth used the tools of rhetoric to critique “the belief that you cannot and indeed should not allow your values to intrude upon your cognitive life — that thought and knowledge and fact are on one side and affirmations of value on the other.”
In the book’s Introduction, Booth affirms “the belief that the primary mental act of man is to assent to truth rather than to detect error, ‘to take in’ and even ‘to be taken in’ rather than ‘to resist being taken in.’” The mental world we have inherited from the Enlightenment has made us very adept at being suspicious of claims made by others, but bereft of the skills of changing our minds when we ought to. He summarizes the project of his lectures and book as the promotion of “a view of rhetoric as the whole art of discovering and sharing warrantable assertion.”
Here are some other introductory explanations from Booth’s book:
“Instead of pursuing ways of testing values in public discourse, defenders of value have often enough simply accepted the fact-value distinction and then leapt blindly for the value side. Convinced that reason’s domain is a tiny little cold corner of man’s life — whatever can be proved or disproved by scientific method — these counter-dogmatists feel free to assert any value that ‘feels’ right. Since acceptance of the dichotomy — whether by men of reason or men of faith — is often taken as the key test of modernity, I shall call the whole collection of dogmas that spring from it modernism, even though the term has often meant other things.
“The characteristic debate of modernists is a kind of meaningless logomachy between the adherents of reason or knowledge or science and the adherents of values or faith or feeling or wisdom or ‘true knowledge.’ Each of these two main sects — which I shall for shorthand call the scientismists and the irrationalists — can easily show the absurdities of the other, but the polemical displays of either side are so far from engaging the real issues that they often seem to confirm, in their demonstration that meaningful argument about such matters is impossible, the very distinction on which the war is based. . . .
“[I]t is probably accurate to say that from the seventeenth century until quite recently, it grew increasingly unfashionable to see the universe or world or nature or ‘the facts’ as implicating values.. . .
“It is really only in the last seventy-five years or so that the fact-value split became a truism and that the split began to entail the helplessness of reason in dealing with any values but the calculation of means to ends. I cannot trace here the story of the rise and fall of the disjunction, and of various conclusions thought to follow from it. Suffice it to say that by now it has been attacked everywhere, yet it survives everywhere, survives as strongly in the thought of many who defend values as in the thought of those who cling to positivist notions of scientific value.”
Antonio López on the logic of liberalism’s totalitarian tendencies
On Volume 130 of the Journal, I interviewed Fr. Antonio López about an essay in a book he co-edited. The anthology was called Retrieving Origins and the Claim of Multiculturalism. Fr. López wrote the introductory essay in the book, which describes how liberal societies redefine religion and God to fit within the liberal understanding of freedom.
“[B]oth the American and European versions of liberal society perceive human beings as individuals who are defined primordially by their own freedom, and both conceive of freedom not as the capacity to embrace the truth but as the unrestricted exercise of choice — this, of course, takes a concrete historical form in America that is foreign in Europe. This liberal anthropology believes that everything comes after a human choice and is determined by it: work, leisure, family relations, gender, even our own bodies. The perception of freedom as the capacity to determine itself through choice represents therefore the architectonic criterion of liberal culture. This criterion makes it very easy, on the one hand, to perceive other cultures as the fruit of human choices and, on the other hand, to remain unaware of the overarching liberal framework that interiorly shapes every human expression in its own image. Since culture is the ordering of social life in light of a potentially all-encompassing worldview or criterion, the way a liberal society organizes itself is both the outcome and the promoter of this culture whose ordering criterion is free choice. This is one of the main reasons why in liberal societies the task of the state is to create a neutral space in which different groups have access to numerous possibilities for self-realization. The state, whose scope and extension is limited by society itself, is responsible for securing the peaceful and prosperous coexistence of its members, who organize themselves freely according to their own traditions, upbringings, and sensitivities. Within Western democracies, especially in North America, any human being can find a space to live, associate, deepen and foster his or her own culture, and embrace freely his or her preferred religious identity. At the same time, this political framework prides itself on pursuing, preserving, and promoting individual freedom (mainly of conscience and of religion), equal dignity, and self-evident rights. Liberal society therefore governs itself through a juridical state, and its specific legal, judicial, economic, and institutional parameters tend to be seen as self-given, that is, democratically determined by the collective will of individuals whose equal dignity is defended and gradually redefined by the state.
“Liberal anthropology and its cultural expression reach into the theological, for, being finite, the human being cannot account for his human and social existence without explicit or implicit reference to the absolute. What man thinks of himself and of society reflects what he thinks of the absolute, God. If the human person is understood on the basis of undetermined freedom of choice, it is because God is considered to be an apersonal and monadic being. The God of liberalism determines itself freely and sees relation with the other as strictly secondary to itself. This God dwells alone in the sheer exercise of its absolute freedom. Obviously, much needs to be said to adequately ground this claim, and the reader will find many rich insights in the following essays to help him ponder the extent of this claim. It suffices to indicate here that liberalism is both theologically and anthropologically anarchic. Liberalism holds that both God and the human being have no beginning, no principle (an-archic) except their own (absolute or finite) freedom. Paradoxically, anarchy — understood as the capacity to fulfill oneself out of one’s own resources — becomes the governing and ordering principle of liberal society that hides itself behind innumerable expressions of human creativity and choice.
“It is possible to perceive without much trouble three different and related implications of the liberal perception of freedom. First, every concrete exercise of determination — whether the expression of an individual or of a whole culture — remains private, that is, enclosed within the self. Human actions and opinions can never reach the status of the universal and hence remain within the parameters of liberalism itself. Opinions and actions image the liberal framework by presenting themselves as apparently original and confined to their immediate range of influence. Second, since every difference (gender, cultural, religious, political, etc.) is the expression of the same abstract freedom, each difference is ultimately seen as indifferent, that is to say, as not essentially different from the others and hence as irrelevant. Thus, despite all its activity, liberal society leads to an insurmountable stasis in which no choice is really effective. Concretely speaking, this means that a liberal society will be able to host within itself different cultures and religions only if they remain private, that is, irrelevant, and hence harmless, to the all-encompassing anarchic horizon. Within a liberal society one can be, for example, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, or Catholic — provided one’s religiosity is freely chosen. Pushing further the message that Lessing conveyed so forcefully in his play Nathan the Wise, we can say not only that there are no moral, existential differences between the major religions, but that these religions are ontologically identical. Liberal societies contend that religions are different expressions of the same private, formal, and abstract exercise of freedom. Third, since there can be only one ultimate principle, the coexistence of different totalizing worldviews is a priori ruled out. Liberalism, apparently allowing the coexistence of different cultures, traditions, and religions within itself, de facto prevents and seeks to eliminate the existence of any culture, tradition, or religion that does not fold itself to liberalism’s self-understanding. In this sense, the novelty of liberalism does not rest in its simply allowing cultures to exist freely within itself, its fostering their individuality, or its absorbing them into a dominant form as did the European totalitarianisms of the twentieth century. Rather, liberalism’s novelty resides in recreating in its own image every human expression (social, political, economic, cultural, religious) that falls within its horizon, while at the same time supporting the illusion that such contentless human expression still preserves its own integrity. Hence, rather than describing the unity that liberal culture generates as integralistic, relativistic, or multicultural, it would be more adequate to account for it in terms of a self-concealing totalitarian worldview.”
— from Retrieving Origins and the Claim of Multiculturalism, edited by Antonio López and Javier Prades (Eerdmans, 2014)