1 Whither Oliver O’Donovan? James K.A.
Smith | Doctoral Seminar | Calvin Theological Seminary | 20 November 2013 We’ve had the opportunity to work closely through O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order (RMO) and Desire of the Nations (DN). But these are just the first two panels of what is a triptych. The third panel is The Ways of Judgment (WJ), published in 2005. And just this year O’Donovan has started a second triptych, a three-volume work on Ethics as Theology, launched with a first volume entitled Self, World, and Time (SWT), described (importantly) as “An Induction” and not just an “introduction.” Subsequent volumes will be Finding and Seeking and Entering Into Rest. In this final class, in lieu of the opportunity for us to read these works together, I want to sketch how WJ extends the project of RMO and DN, and then—ever so briefly—offer some “first impressions” of SWT. Ways of Judgment: A Synopsis 1. The Project: Relation between DN and WJ Actually, “synopsis” might be promising too much; think of this instead as a compression of some key themes in WJ. Our first question might be: how does WJ relate to DN? Is WJ the “political ethics” that O’Donovan pointed out was needed in DN (p. 15) and somewhat promised—or hoped for—in the Preface to the paperback edition (DN, p. ix). Yes and no. While he does see WJ as the fulfillment of that promise, the promise “has changed shape in the keeping” (WJ, ix), in part because O’Donovan is less confident in the distinction between “political theology” and “political ethics.” (Indeed, this seems further confirmed in his latest project which explores Ethics as Theology.) So the relation between DN and WJ is “circular” in the best sense: WJ picks up where DN finished, but brings us back to DN’s starting point—which, we might recall, was to “push back the horizon of commonplace politics and open it up to the activity of God” in order to discern “what God is doing in human history” (DN, 2). O’D sees such a project as quite opposed to the “correlationism” that characterizes so much political theology in the second half of the 20th century in which “the proper political orientations were taken to be well understood” while “the shape of our theological beliefs” were treated as “indefinitely negotiable.” “I start from diametrically opposite assumptions,” O’D announces: The Gospel proclamation I take to be, in its essential features, luminous, the political concepts needed to interpret the social and institutional realities around us obscure and elusive. The work of political theology is to shed light from the Christian faith upon the intricate challenge of thinking about living in late-modern Western society (WJ, x, emphasis added). WJ is offered as that promised “political ethics” in the sense of its “pastoral importance: to give guidance to those who, believing the Christian faith or capable of suspending their disbelief,
2 have to exercise political responsibilities.” And that, it turns out, includes all of us because these “responsibilities are those which we all face…We all have many occasions to decide whether to approve or disapprove” (WJ, xi). In short, we all find ourselves in the ways of judgment.
I suspect that many of “us” who exercise political judgment—including especially those engaged in the very specific vocations of politics, administration, and elected office—will find WJ still just a tad abstract and high-flying. I find myself wondering what an even more concrete political ethics from O’Donovan might look like. Are there places where we can see O’Donovan intervene in specific political discussions, recommending certain policies, decisions, and judgments? Is there a treasure trove of op-eds he’s written where we can seem him working this out in public? Perhaps not. One can’t do everything, and his vocation may be the foundational and the transcendental. But I think there remains “translation” work to be done that would help us envision what it would look like to act politically in light of O’D’s triptych. Imagine O’Donovan offers a workshop on “good government” for all British MPs: What does he say?
2. Political Theology as “Apologetics” Political theology in this mode also has an important secondary function today: “it has an apologetic force when addressed to a world where the intelligibility of political institutions and traditions is seriously threatened. Christian theology sheds light on institutions and traditions, to address a crisis that is more pressing on unbelievers than on believers; and so it also offers reasons to believe” (WJ, xii). In this sense political theology is public theology and it serves the public by offering a genealogy of its own institutions (in the modern West). “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” (xiii). Here a distinctly Christian genealogy is a public offering: “Recovery of theological description enables us to understand not only what the goods of our institutions and traditions are, but why and how those goods are limited and corruptible, and to what corresponding errors they have made us liable” (xiv-xv). So this isn’t a usurper’s errand; it is, rather, part of the teaching ministry of the church: “Christian theology in these circumstances resumes its ancient role of educating a people in the practical reasonableness required for their political tasks” (xv). 3. The Thesis: Politics and Judgment We should note the architecture of WJ. The book is divided into three parts: Part I. The Political Act: Judgment Part II. Political Institutions: Representation Part III. Life Beyond Judgment: Communication The first third of the book, then, elucidates the nature of judgment as the heart of politics. This is O’D’s overarching thesis: “The authority of secular government resides in the practice of judgment” (3). He then defines judgment as “an act of moral discrimination that pronounces upon a preceding act or existing state of affairs to establish a new public context” (7). Note the sort of “act”-centrism here: the political is identified with judgments and judgments are acts of moral discrimination. One could wonder if hovering over or behind such an account is a kind of lingering “great man” picture of the political, a sort of hangover picture of “the ruler” issuing edicts. I don’t want to deny that judgments are made, nor do I think O’Donovan’s account
3 precludes a place for institutions and systems, but by centering politics in the act of judgment there is an odd way that the political seems to reduce to persons or agents. Nonetheless, O’D rightly observes that judgment is both “reactive” and “prospective”: we pronounce upon the past, but our judgments also create new contexts and possibilities. (One could track this back to his discussion of time in RMO.) “Judgment, then, both pronounces retrospectively on, and clears space prospectively for, actions that are performed within a community” (WJ, 9). In the former respect, judgments need to be true; in the latter respect, judgments need to be effective (9; these themes are then explored in more detail in ch. 2). Political wisdom is found at the intersection of these demands on judgment. “Good” judgments will be not be “idealist” in their devotion to some abstract principle of truth; they will be able to effect good government because they are true. Similarly, “good” judgments will be effective not by being merely pragmatic but because they rightly track the truth of a situation and the relevant obligations that apply. This is no mean feat.
I would note an issue in the ballpark here, carrying over from DN (and Jonathan Chaplin’s critique). By identifying politics with judgment and making judgment an “act of moral discrimination, dividing right from wrong” (WJ, 7), O’Donovan once again makes government essentially post-lapsarian. Now, he might point out that he is defining the task of secular government which is, by definition, governing in the saeculum, and hence essentially postlapsarian. True, but the picture of judgment tends to make injustice an essential condition, in which case there would only be judgment—and hence there would only be politics—where there is injustice. Indeed, he says exactly this: “Judgment…presupposes actual injustice, for judgment (in its central political sense) is response to wrong” (32). The Garden, we might say, is “pre-political” on this picture and government is only a post-lapsarian necessity. Apart from the wrongs of injustice, such judgment is not needed. “So political authority has no special mandate to pursue a public goal, ‘the common good’ conceived as a giant millennium dome. Mankind in his and her native social existence, to the extent that that is not impeded and hindered by sin, serves the common good simply by being societas humana. Government’s task is to respond to threats to the common good, repelling whatever obstructs our acting freely together” (WJ, 57). “Wrong, and nothing else, is the necessary condition, but also the sufficient condition, for governmental intervention” (62, emphasis added). As you know, in the Neocalvinist tradition following Dooyeweerd—represented so well in the work of Jonathan Chaplin—we have some skepticism about this identification of government and politics with the post lapsum (contra WJ, 59). The Garden, to extend the metaphor, already calls for government, not because of injustice but simply as a good requirement for social networks that extend beyond kin. So even “harmony” is something that needs to be administered, which calls for judgments—not because of injustice or wrongs but because of the conditions of finitude. So we might agree with O’D that judgment is at the heart of governing, but we would demur from the further claim that judgment is essentially reactive to injustice. It can simply be “reacting” to the conditions of creaturehood and the demands of time. That said, we can still agree about the unique constraints of political judgment in the saeculum (though we might, even then/there, have different understandings of its scope, without concluding that the Dooyeweerdian tack is essentially “big government” as discussed today).
4. Government, “Communications,” and Civil Society (or, “Freedom and Its Loss,” ch. 5) One of O’Donovan’s more idiosyncratic concepts is his use of the term “communications.” While we tend to restrict the word’s connotations to something like language or media, O’D is invoking an older, more expansive sense of the term (sort of like the old ways the English used to use the word “intercourse!”). By “communications” O’D means “patterns of holding things in common’ (67). These are many and varied and are neither reducible to government or the state (that would be totalitarianism) nor are they “owned” by the state. When we hear O’D speaking of “communications,” we might simply hear “civil society”—modes of social life outside of the state.
4 Now, in some ways, we have seen that O’Donovan limits the state/government’s task. It is not charged with promoting the common good; rather, that is precisely the task of other spheres of “communication” (WJ, 57). However, the state/government is tasked with defending the common good “for which the community as a whole must take responsibility” (57). So insofar as these other modes of flourishing “communication” are threatened, government does judge and act to defend the common good, for the loss of such “communications” is experienced as the loss of freedom (67). Insofar as these “patterns of holding things in common” are threatened, society itself is eroded. “Failure to communicate is a failure in the functioning of society itself” (82). The account of freedom here is thoroughly Augustinian: freedom is “the realization of individual powers within social forms” (68, emphasis original). Thus he repeats a maxim from RMO: “the objective correlate of freedom is authority.” Authority, then, is not a threat to freedom, an external “constraint” that compromises freedom. To the contrary, Authority (in the broadest sense, not political authority alone) attaches to those structures of communication in which we engage in order to realize freedom. And this is the sense in which freedom may be lost. Loss of freedom does not mean that the social orientation of human beings can be utterly thwarted. But we can be deprived of the structures of communication within which we have learned to act, and so we can find ourselves hurled into a vacuum in which we do not know how to realize ourselves effectively (68).1 This is why a society “is not free unless it can sustain the forms that make for its members’ freedom” (68). Because every identity is a social identity, forged in traditions and practices of these different spheres of “communication” (69-70), society has a stake is sustaining the tradition, practices, and institutions of communication.
O’Donovan offers a rich account of identity formation in ch. 5, but he doesn’t always seem attentive to the multiplicity of identity formations to which we are subject. Nor, oddly, does he here explore the specific question of how the church is a “communication” and whether/how that identity might trump others (or not). This discussion would be well supplemented by attention to Ephraim Radner’s discussion of “multiple consciences” in A Brutal Unity.
This theme of “communication” and civil society is then picked up again in ch. 14. As the basis for common life, these “communications” cannot be reduced to the commercialization of exchange. So it is not only the state that can erode our communicative freedom; a reductionistic (or “absolutized”) market can as well: “Our relations with others may include commercial exchange-transactions; but exchange cannot be the whole truth of the relations and obligations formed around them. ‘This is a purely commercial transaction’ can never be more than a specious explanation of social engagements that are either community-building or exploitative. No undertaking is ‘purely’ commercial” (248-249). This is why work is a fully-orbed human activity that enhances the material of communication (250-251)—and why unemployment is “the paradigm of social breakdown” (251).
I might note that this is a succinct way to explain why Cardus (http://cardus.ca), the think tank that publishes Comment magazine (of which I am the editor), is devoted to “the renewal of North American social architecture.” These structures foster “freedom” and flourishing in just this sense, and it is their erosion that oppresses, not the structures and institutions themselves.
5. Authority and Liberalism In this context, we see once again O’D’s nuanced relationship to “liberalism.” On the one hand, as he traced it in DN, many of the features we affirm in political liberalism are actually some of the “craters” of the Gospel’s impact that dot the political landscape of the west (image in DN, 212). Thus O’D will always (rightfully) emphasize that the individual needs to have some “transcendence” with respect to society: “Out of communicative process there must come a moment at which the individual stands apart and looks upon the social system as it were from the outside” (WJ, 75). And as he traced it in DN, this honoring of the individual was, in fact, one of the legacies of the Gospel’s impact on politics in the West—not just a “natural” insight but an “evangelical” impact. And yet it is just this ‘transcendence’ of the individual that late liberalism has effaced. “The liberal tradition used to defer to a point of transcendence in the individual, something which social identity could not account for, something which gave the individual an independent point of view upon society” (75). But this “individual” was never presumed to be a-social, a being “from nowhere”: By instructing the individual that conscience had precedence over every social demand, the liberal tradition did not throw him back upon the chances of an untutored imagination. It presumed that conscience had a source beyond both society and individual, that it was more than an echo of social claims, more than a projection of individual dreams. It presumed this because of the monotheistic faith that lay at the heart of its logic. Until the early years of the twentieth century Augustine’s controversial thesis, that there can be no “right” in a society that does not acknowledge the right of God, appeared to be the incontrovertible bedrock of liberal society (76).2 But because this has eroded, so too has the transcendence of the individual. Late liberalism, governed by what Charles Taylor would call “exclusive humanism,” is on O’D’s terms “polytheistic”: “A polytheistic society negotiates multiple claims with no cohesion but what it can impose on them, so that, in effect, it enforces its own sovereignty. Late-liberalism, one my say, in taking up the banner of ‘pluralism,’ has made itself self-consciously polytheistic” (76).
A related point, later on: “There could undoubtedly be worse tyrannies than that of the regnant liberal secularism, so sensitively averse to overt physical suffering. That much must always be said in its favor. But what cannot be said for it is that it fosters freedom” (237).
This is also why late-liberalism struggles with a coherent sense of authority. We can see that, based on O’D’s account of freedom, authority is a good to be exercised for the sake of freedom, not a threat to freedom. As such, authority “turns upon the non-reciprocal relation of subjects to rulers” (127). But non-reciprocality is the great stumblingblock of late modern liberalism. The “contract” myth is “an attempt to justify the non-reciprocal relation by deriving it from reciprocality” —I’m really just obeying myself! This is why, “[w]hen civilization
One might then compare Nicholas Wolterstorff’s attempt to return liberal society to this assumption in Justice: Rights and Wrongs.
6 thinks of political authority as one of its own artifacts, it conceives it in terms of institutions rather than events, and then, equally naturally, begins to resent being asked to defer to institutions of its own making. That is why ‘authority’ has little place in late-modernity” (128). And yet we continue to encounter it! One can see O’Donovan offering an alternative phenomenology of authority—and the experience of being found under obligation—here in WJ, pp. 130ff., which is then richly expanded and deepened in SWT. 6. Recognition, Representation, and Legitimation In DN you might recall that O’Donovan emphasized “acknowledgment” as a key feature of authority (DN, 47); in Israel, this found expression in worship, which is why, as O’D noted, political allegiances can so easily slide into idolatries: to recognize authority is a kind of lowwater mark of a sort of worship. This feature of “acknowledgement” is explored in WJ in terms of the “recognition” of authority (in ch. 8) and how this is worked out in the dynamics of “representation” in the West (ch. 9). The relation between “a people” and its authorities hangs on the question of representation and, hence, legitimation (ch. 10). O’D’s account here is deeply Augustinian (presaged in his Stob Lectures, Common Objects of Love ). “To see ourselves as a people is to grasp imaginatively a common good that unifies our overlapping and interlocking practical communications, and so to see ourselves as a single agency, the largest collective agency we can practically conceive” (WJ, 150). Such a “people” also “dissolves when it is no longer possible to think of these elements as acting, in some sense, together and for one another” (150). O’D also makes territory an essential feature here , a necessary but not a sufficient condition for peoplehood. “To see ourselves as a people is a work of moral imagination. […] Only when former Mercians, Wessexmen, and, later, Normans called themselves English without thinking, could such a thing as the English people be spoken of untendentiously” (151, emphasis added).
This deserves much more discussion, but I would just note that by making territory an essential feature, O’Donovan functionally excludes any way of thinking of “the church” as a “people”—which seems rather un-Augustinian. But I need to think about this further.
People precedes government: this is the conviction behind constitutionalism (154-156). “Politics arises only in the vis-à-vis of government to people and people to government. But they are not equal and opposite subjects: a government exists to preserve and secure its people, not vice versa, and the conditions for its doing so is that it is ‘ours,’ i.e., that it ‘represents’ the people” (157). “The question, Who bears the authority of the tradition? is equivalent to the question, Who represents the community?”  (Per DN, O’D claims that such a “notion of representation in the Western political tradition is grounded on the relation of redeemed humanity to Christ, the representative of all humanity in his death and glorification” — another one of the “craters” of the Gospel in the western political landscape.) One of O’D’s most interesting insights in this account is his emphasis on the affective dynamics of representation, “entirely absent from official theories of representation in the modern West” (163). This is taken up in ch. 10: “The mysterious alchemy of the affections elicits recognition, a people sees itself in the face of an individual thrown forward for the occasion, and representation occurs” (164).
Though note also his later account of the cross in this respect: “The cross challenges the aesthetic basis of representative rules and authorities…[ugliness, yet] As a visible emblem the cross has drawn men, women, and children into a universal community of attention, overreaching the bounds of their national, tribal, and family identities. […] The sweet cross (dulce lignum) has outshone the glamor of attraction that binds us to our political leaders; it has shown their appeal to be shallow and moody, by calling out the deepest springs of our loyalty and love. In the cross God has pronounced his “Ichabod!” upon the limelight of human importance” (232).
7. Judge Not! The decisive test of any political theology—especially one focused on judgment as the essence of the political—is “whether and how clearly it can articulate this counter-political moment in the New Testament proclamation of the cross, with its moral implication: ‘Judge not, that you be not judged!’ (Matt. 7:1)” (233). Here we return to some later themes in DN. Another one of the Gospel’s “craters” in the Western political landscape is the limiting of judgment (and government) and the incorporation of mercy in judgment. In this sense, political theology is a “corrective.” Having heard Jesus’ command to “Judge not!,” Christendom was that missional experiment in trying to absorb such an injunction in the work of governing, with rulers sent out from the church, “defined as the community that “judges not,” but bears witness to a final judgment” (240)—which is why the church, as the “paradigm society,” is “the locus of social renewal and recovery” (241), not because the church swallows government but because discples of Jesus formed in her bosom are those ones sent to judge in secular governing.3 (Some resonance with Hunter’s thesis in To Change the World here.) The society that refrains from judging is not a society without judgment, persisting in primal innocence before the knowledge of wrong. Not-judging is not detachment from judgment, nor a bewildering shrug of the shoulders in the face of imponderable demands. On the contrary, it is a society that has felt the need for judgment, has cried to God for judgment, and has seen it revealed in Christ; and believing what it has seen, it has judged for itself. A society that refrains from judgment does so because it has the judgment of God to defer to. Living under God’s judgment, then, and embracing it as the law of its life, it is free not to judge, since all human judgment is merely interim, waiting for the judgment that is to come (238). Note that this is an explicitly “evangelical” stance, not a “creational” conclusion: it follows from the specifics of the Christ-event, not because of insight into “natural law” or the “created order,” etc. It is, per RMO, a stance that follows from the resurrection (and ascension) of Christ. It is a legacy of Christendom. Overall, O’D takes a “long view” of the relationship between the church and secular government: “An effective church with an effective ministry, in holding out the word of life, than which there is no other human good within the world or outside it, will render assistance to
I find these brief reflections on the church more illuminating than his direct engagement with the church in ch. 15, which includes none of the richness of his analysis of the liturgy and sacraments in DN. Here his discussion of “the church” is more clericalist than it was in DN. (And his critique of the “Aristotelian turn in Protestant theology”—vis-à-vis “practices” [WJ, 266]—seems to miss the link to his own discussion of the importance of imagination and affectivity earlier in WJ.)
8 the political functions in society by forwarding the social good which they exist to defend. But that is to take the very longest view of the relationship” (WJ, 292). 8. On Not Losing the Individual (ch. 16) “To judge of oneself is the very heart of faith in God. And with this act the individual emerges decisively as the primary agent” (WJ, 294). But in modernity we see the emergence of another kind of individual, the “modern” individual. Actually, there are two kinds of “modern” individuals. There is the myth of the pre-social, atomistic individual of Descartes, Locke and Hobbes. This sort of modern individual is rightly criticized (297). “But there is another kind of individual to be met with in modernity…a subject who achieved individuality…[who] cannot be dismissed so easily. For we can detect a strong resemblance, and in the case of a Christian writer like Kierkegaard more than a resemblance, to the Christian ‘soul’” (297-298). This modern individual, in its reflexivity, is one who bears the marks of the Gospel’s impact. But the inheritance is selective: “Modernity is known by its reflectivity, yet this is not the reflectivity that Christianity shaped. It is not formed by hopeful attention to the inner dialogue with God, but by the incessant and disappointing struggle to get to the core of things, to occupy a position of strategic command. Kierkegaard understood this very well: reflection, he thought, had turned into ‘reflective stagnation,’ and it was the essential form of despair” (309). [Paging David Foster Wallace!] In modernity we get something like monastic introspection and a retreat to interiority. But the interior castle is empty; there is no encounter with God to be found there, so the result is despair (310). As a result, we come to over-expect from society: For as long as the absoluteness of the Christian revelation was taken for granted, the lofty superiority of the subject from society hardly seemed to matter, since for conscience’s sake, or for the will of God, the individual would perform everything and more that society expected of him. He was serviceable to society’s political organs, too. Habits of self-direction and self-judgment relieved government of the weight of its ordinary burdens of passing judgment; but more importantly, the subjective capacity to conceive and respond to the will of God as a sufficient reason for doing right and a sufficient justification for suffering pain, relieve society of another burden, which is could never bear and was never meant to, that of justifying right action and patient suffering (311).4 This “conscientious” modern individual is a selective inheritance, inheriting the burdens of the introspective Christian soul without the Word of grace. “The conscientious individual as conceived by modernity is a distorted version of something genuinely redemptive, the evangelical summons to be judge of ourselves” (312). To receive the injunction, “Judge of yourself!” without the good news of the Gospel—of God’s judgment in Christ—is to spiral into self-conscious despair. So again, the church serves society by embodying what it looks like to receive and live within this Good News (319).
A frame for reading Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo?
10 Self, World, and Time: Some First Impressions This important new book deserves another close reading. But let me offer a postcard of first impressions (nothing even close to a “synopsis”). • SWT is perhaps best described as a Christian phenomenology of our moral experience. In the spirit of Husserl, one could say that O’Donovan returns to “the things themselves” and seeks to elucidate moral facticity. It’s a work that is not primarily in dialogue with other books; instead, it is an investigation of moral reality. Indeed, one could compare its approach and feel to something like Levinas’ Totality and Infinity—not because it yields a similar account but because it is characterized by the same kind of attention to our being-in-the-world. It is quite arresting in this way. SWT revisits ground covered in RMO without simply repeating it—more like a deepening exploration of some of those themes, but now embedded within a robust pneumatology. While the Spirit makes some cameo appearances in RMO’s “evangelical ethic,” Spirit (O’D’s preferred reference, without the definite article) is central to his account in SWT (esp. SWT, 93-97). O’D deploys the biblical metaphor of “wakefulness” to get a handle on our moral experience. On the one hand, we wake up and just find ourselves obligated (echoes of Heideggerian thrownness but also Levinas’ me voici, particularly as read in Caputo’s Against Ethics). On the other hand, we are enjoined to wake up!, to become reflective about our moral situation and our moral responsibility—which is to be awakened to the truth of the world, the agency of the self, and the unique call of “our” time [which I am now out of!].