Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order is a touchstone for a lot of evangelical (and more broadly Christian) ethical reflection, in large part because there OOD offers up what he takes to be a properly “evangelical” approach to ethics and does so in a way that seems to steer a middle path between an overly narrow biblicism on the one hand and an a-theological pseudo-Christian moralism on the other. (Though to be clear, when OOD uses the term “evangelical” I don’t think he has in mind the socio-religious movement we often mean; he means, I think, something like an approach framed above all by the Gospel and the person of Christ). But I’ve long found the book – however intriguing it is – quite frustrating. For O’Donovan tells us there that our ethics ought to be oriented toward the Resurrection and, of course, he’s right. If ethics ultimately involves a kind of truth-telling about human ends and the Resurrected Christ is what it means to be truly human, then our ethics ought to be resurrection ethics. But what that means was, to be nice about it, elusive. Indeed, much of what I’ve read in conjunction with RMO tends to focus on the way OOD takes sidelong whacks at John Finnis’s “New Natural Law” theory as opposed to developing what it means to do ethics pointed at the Resurrection. (Of course, that may just be my limited reading).
In chapters 5 and 6 Self, World, Time, OOD goes some distance toward delineating what that might mean. (I’ve skipped commenting on chapter 4, you might note. So far as I can tell, he’s basically thinking about the disciplinary distinctives among moral theology, ethics, philosophy and such. Since I find those kinds of discussions utterly boring, I thought I’d just skip to the good stuff). The basic claim – to the degree that OOD ever makes a “basic” claim – is that faith, hope, and love make moral action intelligible and, ultimately, possible. It is not, pace our greatest Enlightenment thinkers, morality that limns what we might believe about God, but instead our apprehension of God and his acts that make morality what it is.
Consider, if you will, what it means to be a moral agent. It means to act purposively, to make a choice in which one path is better than the other. Suppose that only one half of Kant’s supposition at the beginning of the Grounding is correct – suppose we really are just fully determined creatures, as much a part of nature as anything else. Whence morality? How can we understand ourselves as agents in such circumstances?
The current consensus among our neuroscientists (as I understand things) is that we can’t. We’re not really agents, though it’s probably a nice thing that we think of ourselves as such, since it keeps the sci-fi dystopians (ala Brave New World) at bay. But to have “faith” as the Christian professes is to recognize (or perhaps better, apprehend) the ground of our being in God and in his saving acts. We can act (and indeed choose) precisely because God acts and chooses and we are imago Dei. All possibility of moral action is premised on this reality (even if some, most, don’t quite realize it).
One of the things I’ve often found striking about Kant is his use of “history,” especially in his more political essays, like “Perpetual Peace.” It’s always seemed to me that part of what Kant is doing in these kinds of essays is offering up to his readers a kind of “hope” that acting rightly, even if it doesn’t turn out well for you and me, will turn out well in the end. This sensibility, of course, gets radicalized by Hegel and then Marx – and then suffers a bit of a body blow with the 20th century. OOD calls this sort of hope “anticipation,” teasing out the possibilities immanent within the currently observed social and political order. The trouble with this sort of faux-hope is, I think, that it alternates between apocalyptic revolution and cynical resignation (especially once the first doesn’t work out). Christian hope, on the other hand, emerges from the unseen promise, the promise of a consummation that does not depend on getting our public policy just right. Hope in this sense is wildly freeing; it gives us the confidence to act rightly even when History seems to point against us. (Whittaker Chambers’ morose reflections on choosing what he believed to be the “losing” side – anti-communism – is redolent here, though overly long-faced, I suppose).
But all of this is governed by the thing that will “endure” and is the greatest of these, love. It is love, ultimately, that OOD wants to point to as the way to do ethics evangelically. But this is not some sappy, sentimental, let’s make ourselves feel good sort of love. This is the willingness to see things as they are – created by God for good things, excellent in their own way and to their own particular ends.
And here’s where O’Donovan is helpful, I think (even if my ruminations are not). When we think about how to do Christian ethics (or Christian political thought), we are to be governed, ultimately, by the virtue of love. Political orders, as the object of moral reflection, are to be oriented around love. I might have some reflections on this once I think more about what this might mean…