A foretaste of the kingdom of God
Oliver O’Donovan on the sovereignty of love
Oliver O’Donovan’s Entering into Rest (Eerdmans, 2017) is the third in a series of books on “Ethics as Theology.” In these books, O’Donovan explores the ways in which the practice of moral reason — if examined closely — reveals that “Ethics opens up towards theology.” In the initial chapter in this final volume, “The Sovereignty of Love,” O’Donovan remarks that in the “thirteenth chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul takes a triad of virtues that was familiar to him and his readers in the form of ‘faith, love, and hope’ and rearranges it: ‘now there remain faith, hope, and love, these three.’ And as though to draw attention to what is done, he adds: ‘The greatest of them is love.’ What did he mean by doing this?”
O’Donovan argues that “when love is taken from its median position and relocated at the summit of the triad, it is a statement about the finality of community. But it is also a statement about the end of time, for love is now placed at the far side of hope, the virtue that ‘anchors’ the endurance of time in a future of promise. An Ethics that had never heard tell of such a future could only end tentatively, in an uncertain hope of endurance for any further goal there may or may not be. Hope acquires its assurance with the word, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has drawn near’ (Mark 1:15). Yet though anchored to this promise, hope cannot draw the Kingdom near enough to be talked of and experienced, for hope lives only in the dark. An Ethics that concluded in hope would be apophatic, gesturing towards a goal of which it could not speak. The same evangelical logic that brings assurance to hope, then, also implies that hope cannot pronounce the last word in Ethics. The Gospel confirms, but also reorders, practical reason. The Kingdom’s drawing-near offers agency a provisional view of the final point of rest. Failure to reach that point would leave Ethics, with however great an emphasis on hope, a backslider from evangelical joy.
“The drawing-near of the Kingdom is a reality that has first to be announced. It is not merely teleological, projected forward by the logic of moral experience, but eschatological. Ethics must be told of it, and then learn to refer to it in terms of moral reason. But the moral reference is possible only if the Kingdom, which lies beyond the goods of world and time, can somehow be represented within the goods of world and time. How may that be? Paul’s answer to this question, achieved through his shift of focus, is to bring back a second time and a new way, what ethics has already known: love.
“Love’s métier is a world of meaning and goodness. Love is focused on an object, finding its rest in an objective world, not simply in its own exercise. God could have responded to the moral loss of mankind by making new worlds of which mankind was not part; instead, he has restored the world of which we are part, making it hospitable to our purposive action. The logic of Paul’s inverted triad, then, is the logic of salvation and eschatology: no eschaton could be a Kingdom of God for us, if it were not also a redemption and recovery of the created work of God that we are. As we are offered love as the climactic moment in our moral thinking, concluding, ordering, and making sense of what has gone before, we know it as familiar, and yet we have never encountered it before like this. To discover the sovereignty of love is to discover created good given as a foretaste of the kingdom of God, as the future appearing in its present familiarity, the past reappearing with a new message of what God will do.
“Love’s sovereignty is discovered beyond hope by an agent who has accomplished deliberate and purposive action and can include that experience in the good he or she is now given to love. That is to say, it is a reflective love, not simply an enjoyment. The good on which love feeds is the good of what God has done for and through love itself. . . .
“What, then, has Paul achieved by his inversion of the triad, faith, love, and hope? He has indicated, first, an eschatological extension of practical reason, an extension implied by the drawing near of the Kingdom of God. To conceive of an end of action is no novelty; that idea is native to practical reason, and even the idea of a final end is not entirely alien to it. But the end is where natural practical reason finds itself exposed and unsure of its ground, in need of a disclosure to bring to light what it is groping after. In that disclosure is given back what natural practical reason ‘had’ in its abstract ideality, and conferred what it ‘could not have’ apart from promise. The destiny of practical existence is governed by the logic of the resurrection: restoring the world, and opening up a world made new.
“Second, implied in this eschatological extension is an ecclesiological orientation of practical reason. Nineteenth-century moralists, torn between the direction set by Kant and the direction set by Hegel, sometimes assumed that what was new about Christian moral reason was its emphasis on the individual, the ‘personality,’ and that the orientation to community was the hallmark of antique pagan ethics. Behind this assumption lay Aristotle’s conception of the polis as the context where human action is satisfied, a conception vigorously reinstated by Hegel. This opposition overlooked the essential difference between the polis and the church. Augustine knew that the overcoming of pagan ethics involved a movement in precisely the opposite direction. Christian moral reason differed from antique moral reason in understanding community not as the context for practical satisfaction, but as the essential content of it. It achieved its overcoming of the polis, in other words, not by elevating the individual subject over the community, but by accepting community in a commanding position among the moral purposes of agency, a change made possible by the re-foundation of community in Christ. . . .
“The sovereignty of love, then, is bound up with the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, the decisive pledge within history of our last end.”