MARS HILL AUDIO Journal
Oliver O’Donovan in Conversation
The Gospel and Public Life: Cultivating a Faithful Witness in the Face of Challenge
On October 8th, 2013, British moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan visited America’s capital and participated in a dialogue with Ken Myers and Matthew Lee Anderson. Held a few blocks from the Capitol building, the conversation addressed questions and themes of political theology and was loosely centered around O’Donovan’s 1996 book, The Desire of the Nations.
Oliver O’Donovan begins the discussion by explaining how our modern definitions of words such as “secular” and “public” fall short of their full meaning. The term “secular,” O’Donovan explains, in its historical sense meant simply “to do with the affairs of this world,” and the term “public” meant “the appearing of what we are, truthfully and fully, to a world which is constituted, for the moment, as a receiving world, and an openness to the two-way engagement with that world.”
In this section, the conversation turns to the tendency within American churches to want to “sell” their product in the most appealing way possible, not necessarily the most Christian. O’Donovan suggests that watching government happen in the simplest instances is often the best way to see how the grace of God is being mediated through the rule of a particular government. O’Donovan explains how political theology has an ecclesiological mode which takes the church seriously as a society and shows how the rule of God is realized in the church.
In what activities is the political nature of the Church most evident? Preaching and praying, not voting or activism, are the most significantly political activities which the Church undertakes, O’Donovan argues. In the question and answer session, O’Donovan responds to the question: What are the qualitative differences between the judgments of secular governments and the judgments of the Kingdom of God? Doesn’t the Church have a unique redemptive role, distinct from the role of government?