I have finally gotten around to read Oliver O’Donovan’s Self, World, and Time (2013)– a deceptively slim book, it’s filled with insights and, as all of O’Donovan’s works are, the argumentation is judicious, the prose dense, and the payoff is substantial. The book is an induction into moral theological thinking. It describes the basic contours of what such thinking requires, and sketches its shape. Some things stood out to me.

First, O’Donovan begins his reflections on the idea of “moral awareness” – a sort of “waking up” that is required to think morally. If Socrates asserted that the unexamined life is not worth living, O’Donovan here argues that the lack of moral self-consciousness is equivalent to committing the sin of sloth. The one who is morally unaware, the one who merely lives life as one goes through the motions, pursuing purely functional or pragmatic ends, as it were, is one who is slothful. Here one is failing to live in accordance with one’s moral nature – which is to say that one fails to live as a full human being. By contrast, the flourishing human life is one attuned to this moral dimension of living. The capacity to reflect upon one’s action, either in the evaluation of past deeds or in order to anticipate some future decision, must be engaged in order to be fully human.

Second, there are some solid reflections on the necessity of the community for proper moral thinking and living. Indeed, because moral reflection requires value judgment at every point, and because in the moral life our beings as persons are most involved, moral maturity can only be developed in the context of a community. O’Donovan gives us lessons concerning the relationship between authority and morality, and how to give advice in an effective manner. Moral theorizing, therefore, cannot be an armchair exercise. As in all of theology, moral theory must be fed by others and be in service of others.

Third, moral thinking requires holism – or, the constant recognition that in every moral event many simultaneous realities are at play. Every decision requires the bringing to bear of the three dimensions O’Donovan emphasizes: self, world, and time. A pre-occupation of only one or the other, O’Donovan thinks, creates a “grotesque” one-legged (and, therefore, non-functional) tripod that cannot serve moral living. O’Donovan has in mind a few particular moral theories here, among which is “natural-law realism.”

“There are still more grotesque shapes lying across the pocked surface of ethical theory, one-legged tripods that could never take form in life but subsist only in the fantastic world of intellectual theory, from where they are lovingly transcribed into textbooks for the supposed educational benefit of the young: the consequentialism that entertains no standards but projected future outcomes; the motive-ethic which acknowledges no law but the formal laws of agency; the natural-law realism with an exclusive interest in objective order. But good moral theory, like moral experience itself, triangulates.” – 18.

So, whenever one is engaged in moral thinking, one cannot be merely fixated on the existence of a divinely-ordained moral order that is outside of us. True enough as it is, one must also consider the position of the subject. The person considered must align himself to that objective order in faith, hope and love – moral conformity must reflect an internal disposition that coheres with that external order. This, O’Donovan thinks, cannot be done apart from Christian prayer and faith – true moral action is inaccessible apart from faith in response to a God who effectually calls. Faith is the “root” of morality (106). In neo-Calvinistic language, then, where one is on the antithesis affects one’s ability to properly function morally.

Further, that objective moral order itself cannot be abstracted from the whole Christian story of redemption. The cross – the resurrection order – is the context of moral objectivity. It is this faith in the past redemptive act in Jesus Christ which grounds the hope of a future certainty – moral living is given its active vigor and anchor by coming to terms with this theological reality. The coming of the future resurrection kingdom is that which gives our present living purpose; the immediate present is rendered intelligible because of the eternal future: “God’s kingdom… is the condition for our acting; it underwrites the intelligibility of our purposes. Our action may be framed consistently with it; it may acquire its immediate purpose from the eternal purpose that it foreshadows, indirectly but patiently.” (124). Again, in more theologically familiar terms, redemptive-history is the frame through which we understand our present, past, and future. It is in this theologically-conditioned history that we have to act morally. What we do, and how we plan, must be affected by it.

The book is filled with many more gems – I’m looking forward to reading volume 2.


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