Self, World, and Time

Article by   November 2013
odonovanselfworld93.jpgOliver O'Donovan. Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology, volume 1, An Induction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013. xiii + 138 pp. 

Oliver O'Donovan, the now-retired doyen of Christian ethics and political theology, has always posed a unique challenge to the would-be-reviewer. The reviewer's task, after all, is to distill a book to its core propositions and key contributions, and offer a summary judgment on its strengths and weaknesses. For most of the torrent of hastily-prepared books unleashed on the theological scene in this age of "publish or perish," the reviewer's task is comparatively easy. The Oxford-trained O'Donovan is something of a dinosaur, however, stubbornly resisting the call to publish until he has a meticulously-crafted magnum opus to offer. Aside from a few slender (though important) collections of essays or published lectures, he has only deigned to produce three real monographs over the past thirty years: Resurrection and Moral Order (1986), The Desire of the Nations (1996), and The Ways of Judgment (2005). Each one, however, it may be said without exaggeration, was a work of epochal significance, reshaping the whole discipline of evangelical ethics (in the case of RMO) and political theology (in the case of the latter two).  Indeed, considering their importance, we may be surprised that none of these three volumes is particularly large, weighing in at just 284, 320, and 330 pages, respectively. O'Donovan has long been a devotee of William Strunk's dictum, "Omit needless words," honing the art of packing maximum thought into the least possible space.

With his latest offering, Self, World, and Time, O'Donovan seems to have elevated this art into an obsession, distilling a work at least as wide-ranging and profound as Resurrection and Moral Order into a mere 138 pages. The effect on the unwary reader can be frankly bewildering. After a deceptively leisurely (by his standards, at least) introductory chapter, O'Donovan proceeds, in an eighteen-page section on "Moral Thinking" of simply dizzying density, to unfold, dismantle, and reconstruct from the ground up what seems like nearly all the foundational categories and questions of philosophical ethics. The reader foolish enough to attempt this whole section at one go is likely to find himself gasping for breath at the end of it. However, it should be clear that in calling this work "dense" I do not mean the gratuitous obscurity--tangled and clunky prose, liberal use of jargon and wanton allusiveness--that characterizes many works of theology and ethics (John Milbank is something of a poster-child for this kind of density). Rather, this book displays lucid prose that confronts us with sheer density of thought, each sentence compressing within itself what might usually comprise a full paragraph or page of argument, inviting the reader to pause, ponder, and unpack. Without wanting to sound overly effusive, one might describe the effect as like that of poetry; indeed, O'Donovan's liberal (if occasionally florid) use of metaphor borders on the poetic at times. In fact, one cannot resist the impression that, having reached an illustrious retirement, O'Donovan is sometimes just amusing himself by packaging arguments and ideas into ever smaller and more creative parcels of words, well aware of how long the weary reader will have to spend unpacking them. 

This density of prose, then, does not merely make life difficult for the reviewer, for whom any attempt at distillation or synopsis may seem vain, but also calls for a particular discipline in the reader. A book like this should really only be read in small chunks, with long breaks (days, ideally) to ponder in between, and yet this method risks losing the overall flow and sweep of the argument, which despite the enormous ground covered, displays an impressive unity and cohesion. The only solution, perhaps, is frequent re-reading. 

Having disclaimed any attempt to synopsize, and having effused instead about the book's delightful density, I must still offer some kind of introduction to its contents--what, the impatient reader will demand, is it all about? Well the first thing to note is that Self, World, and Time is the first volume of a trilogy; it is subtitled "Ethics as Theology, volume 1: An Induction." Volume 2, entitled Finding and Seeking, we are promised, will consist, among other things, of an elucidation of "faith, love, and hope," the three components of Christian moral action, while volume 3, equally mysteriously titled Entering into Rest, will consider the ends of moral action, the point at which the agent may reflect with satisfaction on his or her deeds as things provisionally complete. The reader curious for a fuller sense of what these volumes will involve need look no further than the final chapter of Self, World, and Time, which offers a tantalizing outline sketch of both sets of themes. 

Before saying any more about Self, World, and Time itself, however, we should pause to consider the subtitle, which all three volumes share--"Ethics as Theology." The conjunction, denoting apposition, is carefully-chosen. O'Donovan does not propose to discuss, as many before him, "Ethics and Theology" or "Theology and Ethics" (in which the two concepts are taken to comprise self-contained fields of inquiry, the latter of which should take its cue from the insights of the former) nor "Theological Ethics" (in which theology determines the content, and perhaps the form, of ethics). No, what we have here is an inquiry that begins in ethics and passes over into theology, but without ever leaving the domain of ethics; the conditions of possibility that make ethical thinking meaningful, O'Donovan contends, lead us inexorably to the central questions of theology, which in turn serve to elucidate the categories of moral experience. The subtitle, "An Induction," also gives us a key clue to the structure of the book: O'Donovan begins with the inescapable datum of moral experience, and asks us to reflect on what it means that we are creatures that think morally; from there he seeks to develop a sketch of what the inescapable components of that moral experience are, and how these components are in the end only intelligible in light of a God who commands and calls us. The result is a remarkably satisfying synthesis of philosophical and theological ethics (though the theological elements will be more fully developed in the later volumes), which takes seriously the rationality of moral reasoning as a universal human phenomenon, on which Christians have no monopoly, without thereby ceding to ethics a kind of autonomy that leaves Christian Ethics as a mere postscript or a wholly alternative discourse. 

What about the title, though--Self, World, and Time? This is perhaps the least satisfying aspect of the whole book, I must say, since it leads the reader to expect a rather esoteric philosophical inquiry on each of these concepts, so beloved of philosophers both ancient and modern. In fact, such philosophizing is fairly minimal. These three headings serve to designate what O'Donovan isolates as the three key components of moral experience: the subjective experience of agency, the objective moral field within which, and into which, the agent must act, and the temporal horizon through which action takes place. He will use the three general categories in the three central chapters of the book to discuss, in turn, "Moral Thinking," in which the agent deliberates upon action, "Moral Communication," in which this deliberation is informed by the objective order and authorities within the world, and "Moral Theory," in which this deliberation seeks to maintain unity over against the ever-changing landscape of time. The connection between these two sets of three headings, it must be confessed, is not immediately clear, and in truth, the sheer range of issues and questions covered within these pages defies any easy categorization, so that the "self, world, and time" rubric comes to feel rather inadequate. In other words, O'Donovan himself seems to struggle, like I do as a reviewer, to encapsulate in any neat formula the immense breadth of this book.

The reader should not be deterred by this apparent complexity, however. The order of exposition as it unfolds is in fact clear enough to the attentive reader, even when the headings are a bit opaque. Moreover, one need not be a philosopher to follow the argument. As mentioned already, the book proceeds by elucidating the universal features of moral experience to which we can all relate, and O'Donovan helps make the import of his arguments clear with concrete examples and Scriptural exegesis on nearly every page. Few evangelical readers will fail to be impressed with the urgent relevance and importance of this book's insights, especially for the American evangelical church. Shackled by an overly-simplistic notion of sola Scriptura, many of us have considered ethics a comparatively straightforward matter, rather than a demanding mental discipline, and consequently find ourselves unable to cope with or even account for profound moral disagreement. O'Donovan offers us a valuable corrective, alerting us to the perilous and winding journey that moral reasoning involves, while also illumining our path with a wisdom steeped in Scripture and seasoned by decades of debate.

W. Bradford Littlejohn is completing a Ph.D under Oliver O'Donovan at the University of Edinburgh and has written several articles on political theology.


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