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.”
David K. Naugle on the reordered thinking of the redeemed
The penultimate chapter of David K. Naugle’s Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness (Eerdmans, 2008) is titled “Reordered Lives: All Things New.” Under the heading, “Reordered Lives of Intellectual Virtue,” Naugle writes:
“A reordered love for God reorders how we think and prompts us to cultivate intellectual virtues, or holy habits of mind, in Christ. A fundamental blessing of redemption is the gift of the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), and it comes with a commission to develop it. Jesus demands in the greatest commandment that we are to love God intellectually, not only with heart, soul, and strength, but also with our minds (Matt. 22:37). In Philippians 2:5, Paul admonishes believers to ‘Have this attitude [or mind] in yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus,’ especially when it comes to a way of thinking about service and sacrifice on behalf of others. Paul also asserts in 1 Corinthians 14:20 that naiveté in wickedness but sophistication in thought are essential components of Christian discipleship. ‘Brethren,’ he says, ‘do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.' As a part of this rising chorus, Peter also challenges us with the succinct admonition to ‘prepare your minds for action’ (1 Peter 1:13). If we ignore these injunctions, we could fall prey to what John Stott has called ‘the misery and menace of mindless Christianity.’ Rather, we are after, to use Stott’s words again, ‘a warm devotion [to Christ] set on fire by truth.’
“Our minds and imaginations were subject to futility, darkness, and ignorance when unredeemed. Salvation shifts our mental paradigm and changes our intellectual status considerably. As theologian Bernard Lonergan has pointed out, redemption ‘dismantles and abolishes the horizon in which our knowing and choosing went on and it sets up a new horizon in which the love of God will transvaluate our values and the eyes of that love will transform our knowing.’ Or as Paul puts it rather simply in 1 Corinthians 1:5, believers in Christ are ‘enriched in him, in all speech and all knowledge.’ For where there is love for God, there is also love for his truth and wisdom, and where there is love for his truth and wisdom, there is also love for God. In short, we now have a longing to know.”
David K. Naugle talked about this book on Volume 96 of the Journal.
David K. Naugle on the high stakes in sustaining the truth about reality
On Volume 60 of the Journal, I talked with David K. Naugle about his award-winning 2002 book, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans). Most of that book examines the history in question in philosophy and the social sciences. In a late chapter, Naugle offered “Theological Reflections on ‘Worldview’,” which included some discussion of “Issues of Sin and Spiritual Warfare.” That section of the book begins with a long discussion of Romans 1:18–32, which is followed by these paragraphs:
“Romans 1 paints a disturbing picture, yet it seems true to life. From Paul’s perspective the human heart is intuitively aware of God and the manifestation of his power and glory in his handiwork. But because of sin-induced corruption, it disregards this intuitive awareness. Yet its native religious impulses prompt it nonetheless to manufacture alternative faiths and philosophies in place of God and the truth. It reconceives religion and reinvents reality industriously, and is responsible for the existence of a multitude of fallacious worldviews in any culture at any time. But these bogus visions of the heart are subject to a forthright apostolic critique. They are an exercise in speculative futility. They cast men and women into profound spiritual ignorance. They are confused with wisdom (and vice versa). They terminate in moral reprobation as divine judgment. These idolatrously based belief systems, in their futility, darkness, foolishness, and depravity, make up what the New Testament calls ‘worldliness.’ As Craig Gay asks, could it not be true that ‘worldliness rests not so much in personal temptations to debauchery, but instead lies in ‘an interpretation of reality that essentially excludes the reality of God from the business of life’? In other words, worldly behavior is the eventual outcome of worldly views that dot the cultural landscape. Therefore, the origin and multiplicity of relativistic worldviews are rooted in the depravity of the human heart as explained by the theology of Romans 1.
“This picture of the human condition is intensified by the fact that the Bible reveals that the entire creation and its human stewards are caught up in the midst of a spiritual war of cosmic proportions. It pits God and the forces of good against Satan and the powers of evil. These finite powers that insanely oppose the infinite God were originally made by him and had to be good, even as he is good. Romans 8:38–39 indicates that angels, principalities, and powers are among the divinely ‘created things.’ Colossians 1:16 teaches that Christ as the agent of creation is responsible for the existence of the entire cosmos, including ‘thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities.’ In short, God through Christ created the whole realm of reality, including the company of the angels. Though they received their being, purpose, and power from God, these spiritual creatures turned against him in a mysterious and monstrous act of pride and rebellion (e.g., Isa. 14:12–14; Ezek. 28:11–19; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). Motivated by fierce animosity, they became his resolute enemies, intent upon subverting his divine authority and destroying all his works. They are good creatures gone bad, and now in an attempt to certify their autonomy they engage God and the angels of light in a fierce fight for universal domination. As the pinnacle of God’s creative work, the human family is directly implicated in this battle of the ages. Not only are all people affected by it — caught in its crossfire, so to speak — but they are also participants in it, aligning themselves consciously or unconsciously with and fighting for one side or the other, depending upon their spiritual orientation. Thus humankind has to struggle not only with an inherited internal depravity, but also with temptations and assaults from without that reinforce their fallen condition. How difficult it is, therefore, to know God and view the world aright!
“Under the vice [sic] grip of the disenchanted worldview of modern naturalism and scientism, many have relegated this scriptural depiction of angels, Satan, the demons, and spiritual warfare to ‘the dustbin of superstition.’ There is no doubt, however, that what Gregory Boyd aptly calls ‘a warfare worldview’ permeates biblical revelation, is foundational to its message, and has been essential to Christian theology throughout the history of the church. Marshaling impressive evidence from cultures worldwide, Boyd [in his 1997 book God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict] demonstrates that Western secularism is perilously unique in its elimination of the ‘warfare worldview’ from its cultural consciousness, especially its biblical version, which he describes in these terms: ‘God's good creation has in fact been seized by hostile, evil, cosmic forces that are seeking to destroy God’s beneficent plan for the cosmos. God wages war against these forces, however, and through the person of Jesus Christ has now secured the overthrow of this evil cosmic army. The church is the body of Christ has been called to be a decisive means by which this final overthrow is to be carried out.’
“‘The world is a battle zone,’ Boyd says, and that ‘is why it looks that way!’ Now assuming the veracity of this perspective, I submit that central to the ‘warfare worldview’ of the Bible is a ‘worldview warfare.’ A worldview warfare is a warfare over worldviews; that is, a megabattle between the forces of light and darkness over the identity or definition of the universe. A key stratagem of the devil, who is the father of lies (John 8:44), is to conceal the true nature of things through the proliferation of multiple cosmic falsehoods in order to secure the blindness of the human heart and its ultimate spiritual perdition (2 Cor. 4: 3–4). In the conflagration that has engulfed the universe, the truth about reality is satanically enshrouded in darkness, and a multitude of idolatries and fallacious conceptions of life, counterfeiting as wisdom and enlightenment, are put in its place. The truths about God, creation, fall, and redemption must forever be banished from human consciousness. What better way for Satan to deflect the light of truth than by corrupting it and replacing it with false visions of realty that dominate the cultural landscape? The control of the zeitgeist, or the intellectual and spiritual climate of the age, is a most effective means of controlling what goes into the hearts of men and women, shaping their interests and ruling their lives. Worldviews are the basis for a zeitgeist and are at the center of this process. If this big-picture strategy succeeds, then there is only an occasional need for personal temptation to sin. How people get their jollies is of little interest to Satan if he has already captured and misdirected their hearts.
“This proposal that a ‘worldview warfare’ is a critical component of the ‘warfare worldview’ of the Bible has been supported in an influential way by Heinrich Schlier [in his 1961 book Principalities and Powers in the New Testament]. On the basis of Ephesians 2:2, he proposes that a worldview, or what he calls the ‘spiritual atmosphere’ of a culture, is the ‘principal source of his [Satan’s] domination.’ In this text, he believes the meaning of the word ‘air’ in the expression ‘the prince of the power of the air’ is best interpreted appositively by the phrase following it, ‘of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.’ Thus he suggests that the ‘air’ is not only the literal realm in which Satan exercises his powers (in accordance with Jewish understanding), but it also refers in context to the universal spirit which fosters rebellion and unbelievers. Therefore Schlier thinks it has significant sociocultural meaning. ‘It is the general spiritual climate which influences mankind, in which men live, which they breathe, which dominates their thoughts, aspirations and deeds. He [Satan] exercises his ‘influence’ over man by means of the spiritual atmosphere which he dominates and uses as the medium of his power. He gains power over men and penetrates them by means of this atmosphere, which is his realm, the realm of his power. If men expose themselves to this atmosphere, they become its carriers, and therefore contribute to its extension.’
“Ephesians 6:12 would seem to reinforce this interpretation with its reference to the struggle ‘against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.’ Also, in 1 Corinthians 2:6 Paul implies that there is a wisdom of this age and of the rulers of this age which stands in sharp contrast to the divine wisdom in Christ which he proclaims. Schlier notes, however, that this is not the devil’s exclusive method of control, for he attacks natural life at every level and can even inflict physical harm quite apart from such socio-spiritual concerns. Still he is convinced, based on the authority of the apostle, that the ‘spiritual atmosphere’ is Satan’s principal source of domination, a concept which functions very much like a Weltanschauung.”
Pope Benedixt XVI on “gender” and the devaluation of the family
On December 21, 2012, less than two months before announcing that he would step down from the papacy, Pope Benedict XVI gave a brief address to the Roman Curia. In anticipation of Christmas — the miraculous formation of the Holy Family — he spoke of some of the challenges facing the Church in the world. He spoke of the various dialogues in which the Church was engaged, “dialogue with states, dialogue with society — which includes dialogue with cultures and with science — and finally dialogue with religions.” He also spoke of the critical need to articulate with confidence the ontological links between human dignity, creaturehood, sexuality, and the family. He inisted that “the question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself — about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human.” Here is a paragraph from that address:
“The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. He quotes the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes so’ (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient). These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term ‘gender’ as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society. The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: ‘male and female he created them’ (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.”
The complete text for Pope Benedict’s address is available here.
Douglas Farrow on the anti-humanist logic of “gender”
In 2007, theologian Douglas Farrow presented readers with a slim book titled A Nation of Bastards: Essays on the End of Marriage. One of the themes in those essays was “the relation between marriage and political freedom, and so also between marriage and religion; for there is no such thing as a non-religious basis for freedom. I want to contend that marriage, understood in classical Christian terms, is a bulwark of human freedom within the state and, if need be, over against it.”
In that book’s Introduction, Farrow acknowledged his identity as “a person with little inclination toward the politically correct, and with no respect whatsoever for the cowardice and apathy that today masquerade as the virtue of tolerance.” Farrow’s courage and passion were recently (in April 2020) evident in an article online titled “No More Lies: Exposing the Roots of Gender Ideology.”
Farrow — Professor of Theology and Ethics at McGill University in Montreal — observes that the cultural revolution which began as a defiant defense of “free love” has rapidly descended to “a denial of the goodness and even the importance of the body. It has been led, by its own internal logic, to the current ‘trans’ phenomenon, in which personal identity is said to be created or recreated by the individual agent acting independently of and, if necessary, in opposition to the body.
“The revolution, in other words, has moved on from licensing sexual liaisons to suppressing the very idea of sex, and with it any coherent thought of the species qua species. We are not animals, after all, which (we said) must obey animal instincts and urges. No, we are almost angels, which do not require bodies. Since we presently have them, however, we will force them to do our bidding.
“This is the thinking, not only of the transgenderist, but also of the transhumanist. As Steve Fuller admits in Humanity 2.0, the latter doubts whether there is anything ‘worth continuing to defend as distinctly “human”.’ Neither works with those high hopes for the human being that once grounded our civilization on the axis of faith that runs from Christmas to Easter. Both labour instead under a heavy load of self-loathing and despair, the load Christ came to lift.”
Later in the article, Farrow argues that the confusion about “gender” in the present generation (who are also, I might add, confused about the fuller meaning of “generation”) has its roots in the divorce culture defended by their parents and grandparents. “We have by our own behaviour generated sufficient insecurity in our children regarding their natural place in the world, and whether they are truly loved by those who brought them into it, for experiences of alienation to multiply and to feed off one another in chaotic fashion. This not only renders clinical work more difficult, it renders the need for compassionate solidarity with those who are suffering more likely to be misconstrued as a need to affirm their present course of action and even to celebrate their own labels for it. This no worthy clinician would ever concede as wise. Neither should we.
“Moreover, it must be recognized that we ourselves, through the underlying culture of contraception and abortion, have created the conditions for doubt about the goodness of the body and about the soul’s relation to the body. Hence also about the public institutions that, just because we are bodily — because we are rational animals and not angels — bind us together in the good life that is the social life. It must be recognized that we ourselves have created the conditions under which it is no longer acknowledged that the will of God (as Augustine says) is the essence of each created thing, but affirmed instead that one’s own will is the essence of the self and of all that concerns the self. And that affirmation cannot sustain public institutions, whether marriage or any other. It cannot sustain public space or social goods at all. It can only break them down, completely and utterly.”
Farrow’s article, published on April 25, 2020, is available online here, at the website of The Catholic World Report.