The Cresset
A Review of Literature, Fine Arts, and Current Affairs
Current Issue   books   poetry   archive   main site
Christendom in an Age of Enlightenment
Andrew Murphey

O'Donovan, Oliver. The Ways of Judgment. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005.

O'Donovan, Oliver. The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Early in oliver o'donovan's the ways of Judgment (WJ), the author draws a link between this book and his 1996 work, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (DN). Describing them as constituting "a single extended train of thought," O'Donovan "dare[s] to dream of the occasional reader who may take them one after the other in succession" (WJ, x). Rare, indeed, the reviewer who can fulfill an author's dream! Yet the notion of engaging not only with a notable new book, but with a decade-long project by a leading thinker, motivated me to take O'Donovan (Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, and Canon of Christ Church) at his word and return to The Desire of Nations before proceeding to The Ways of Judgment. The two books do, in fact, form an extended train of thought. Reading either one is time well spent: reading both in succession opens up a host of essential questions, showcasing the considerable depth of O'Donovan's account of the relationship between theological analysis and social and political life.

The Desire of the Nations is the product of deep and sustained reflection on the connection between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament, and on the political implications of the former for the tradition grounded in the latter. Its second chapter, "The Revelation of God's Kingship," is quite simply remarkable, a tour de force inspired by a deceptively straightforward question: What did it mean when First Temple Jews said, "Yhwh is King"? (DN, 32) O'Donovan's answer to this question is elaborate. It involves a discussion of the theological and political importance of salvation (God's deliverance of God's people from peril), judgment (the public distinction between justice and injustice), and possession (the land of Israel itself); and presents a conceptualization of political authority that includes the important roles of king and prophet and the complex dance of authority and dissent they so often performed. These political reflections bear fruit in an ethic that provides for the centralized exercise of political authority alongside the guarantee of a voice for individuals via the complaint-psalms and the prophetic and wisdom traditions, yielding a communally-grounded individualism that offers the best chance for social cohesion and self-defense:

[T]he conscience of the individual members of a community is a repository of the moral understanding which shaped it, and may serve to perpetuate it in a crisis of collapsing morale or institution. It is not as a bearer of pre-political rights that the individual demands the respect of the community, but as the bearer of a social understanding which recalls the formative self-understanding of the community itself. (DN, 80)

This discussion of politics in the Hebrew Scriptures leads into the ensuing discussions of the Christian tradition and the ongoing importance of the Israelite example. O'Donovan places the ministry of Jesus squarely within its Jewish context, noting that Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom while the church told the story of what happened when kingdom came (DN, 120). Mark's emphasis on Jesus' authority—the conjunction of word and power—emphasizes the unorthodox notion of politics at work in the New Testament, most explicitly displayed in Jesus' proclamation to the (spiritually and materially) poor and his call for the deep cultural transformation of Israel. '"Spiritual poverty' is not a mere analogy to material poverty; it is material poverty that has generated a spiritual orientation: dependence upon God and openness to his kingdom" (DN, 98). Using political concepts to illustrate spiritual realities, O'Donovan argues that "the Gospel of the Kingdom offers liberation to an imprisoned political culture" (DN, 119).

The Desire of the Nations culminates in a provocative defense of "Christendom," a daring attempt to rehabilitate a notion in serious disrepute of late, arguing that Christendom need not evoke the specter of compulsory religious establishments, pogroms, or the persecution of dissenters, but instead can be viewed as a recognition of the church's mission by the secular state. "The core-idea of Christendom is...intimately tied up with the church's mission," O'Donovan argues, and the "story-tellers of Christendom do not celebrate coercion; they celebrate the power of God to humble the haughty ones of the earth and to harness them to the purposes of peace" (DN, 195, 223). O'Donovan concludes by gesturing toward a theological analysis of justice, founded on the basic principle of authority being "reordered toward the task of judgment" (DN, 286).

The Ways of Judgment continues this project, and similar scholarly virtues are in evidence. Taking The Desire of the Nations as its starting-point, the political analysis of The Ways of Judgment is organized around the concepts of judgment ("an act of moral discrimination that pronounces upon a preceding act or existing state of affairs to establish a new public context" [WJ, 7]), representation (the process by which a people recognize themselves in their political rulers), and communication (the holding of things in common, the foundation of community). As in The Desire of the Nations, O'Donovan is at his most persuasive when outlining the theological underpinnings of his political vision. His careful connections between, for example, judgment and mercy (chapter 6), judgment and punishment (chapter 7), representation and legitimacy (chapter 10), and communication and work (chapter 14), are some of the finest sections of the book and link theological reflection with political analysis in astute and eloquent ways. O'Donovan presents a robust understanding of human freedom, arguing that political institutions exist to preserve the integrity of public life and that effective political judgments prevent the fragmentation of public space (WJ, 23, 55). This explicit recognition of the value of public life is especially welcome in these days of simultaneous privatization and globalization in both economics and politics. And O'Donovan relentlessly insists on the public and communal implications of theological reflection, pointing out that "[p]olitical theology has set its face from the beginning against an a-political theology—that is to say, a theology that simply disinterests itself in the order of social life and the practice of judgment, and presents the Gospel wholly as a realm of the spirit available to solitary individuals" (WJ, 233).

Several central concerns in The Ways of Judgment carry on and further develop insights central to The Desire of the Nations, serving to unify O'Donovan's overall enterprise and make it an especially robust and important undertaking for our times. From the first page of The Ways of Judgment, O'Donovan emphasizes the importance of government's judicial function. "The authority of secular government resides in the practice of judgment" (3), he writes, and he follows up on the promise of The Desire of the Nations (147-51) by exploring the various types of judgments that governments may render (political, economic, social) and the ways in which those judgments can facilitate the spiritual and material lives of citizens. By locating judgment and the judicial function at the heart of political authority, and representation as the process by which a people "sees itself in the face of an individual thrown forward for the occasion" (WJ, 164), O'Donovan leads his readers into a deep reflection on the significance of democratic practices and values, both institutional forms (penal systems, legislation) and the moral commitments that underwrite them. And if the political task is one of judgment, enhanced by legitimacy and representation, then O'Donovan's insistence on human freedom as a public, moral category leads naturally to his focus on communication, and to his careful concern with a vibrant public sphere in which people experience the fullness of communication in their daily lives through the practices of work and fellowship.

O'DONOVAN IS AT HIS MOST PERSUASIVE WHEN engaging in careful conceptual discussions linking the theological with the social and the political. Conversely, he is on shakiest ground when proffering broad generalizations about modern life, many of which contain just enough truth to make them truly misleading. Consider a few examples. O'Donovan takes issue with "the Enlightenment contention...that practical reasoning begins on its own, apart from history" (DN, 14). The further one reads, the more clear it becomes that O'Donovan equates modernity with "the" Enlightenment, and "the" Enlightenment with Kant, Rousseau, Hobbes, and a certain atomistic reading of Locke. Such a broad brush conceals more than it reveals: we too easily forget, among many others, the English Enlightenment of the eighteenth century so clearly elaborated in B. W. Young's Religion and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1988); the entire Scottish Enlightenment tradition, with its endorsement of humankind's moral sense; and the many-faceted American Enlightenment, so powerfully articulated by Henry F. May's The Enlightenment in America (Oxford, 1976). Given the opening pages of The Ways of Justice, and the way in which O'Donovan explicitly links the two works, it makes sense to talk of Oliver O'Donovan's "project," but talk of "the" Enlightenment or "the Enlightenment project" is not analogous, and is largely a myth created by critics. Such claims about an "Enlightenment project" (or, even more troubling, "the" Enlightenment project) reduce a philosophically and politically diverse movement to an undifferentiated mass, flattening out national differences and philosophical nuance in the search for a stick with which to beat contemporary society.

A totalizing and reductionist view of "the" Enlightenment yields a totalizing, and equally overstated, view of "modernity" or "the modern." The reader gets a hint of this view of modernity in the Acknowledgments section of The Desire of the Nations, when O'Donovan recounts that his 1986 sabbatical was spent "reading Hobbes's Leviathan very slowly" (DN, xi). Hobbes, O'Donovan argues, "marks the point at which the Tradition, as it were, abdicated, leaving the characteristic problems of modern political theory in its wake; and so he affords a point of view from which the contemporary value of the Tradition can be grasped afresh" (DN, x). Almost everything about this statement—the use of one thinker, Hobbes, to stand in for "the Tradition"; the capitalization; the unitary notion of "the" Tradition itself—suggests a reductionistic uniformity that masks the fact that "the" Tradition, and any tradition, is a series of contested issues, not a proper noun that can serve as the subject of verbs. Relatedly, O'Donovan contrasts his own notion of political authority to the "modern view" that understands such authority as constituting what rational agents would devise, or did devise (WJ, 53), a clear reference to Rawls and the contractarian tradition. But only a highly truncated understanding of modern thought could so quickly subsume modern views of political authority this way. What are we to make of Charles Taylor's call for Christians to "find our voice from within the achievements of modernity" (A Catholic Modernity? Oxford, 1999)? Or of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams's suggestion in a 2005 lecture at Oxford University that we explore an "interactive pluralism" faithful to "the Christian—certainly the Augustinian Christian—sense of the hopes and limits that can be seen in political life" (available online at

To be sure, a "humanist family of theories...ha[s] shaped the modern West," but it is by no means the case that this family of theories, without exception, has emphasized "the self-alienating character of the human will" (DN, 31). O'Donovan places "the notion of the absolute will, exercising choice prior to all reason and order" at the heart of modernity (DN, 274). What makes these overstated claims about "modernity"—and O'Donovan's persistent distinction between the modern world and something earlier, more religiously-grounded, more amenable to the Christendom-ideal—so troubling is the way in which they prevent us from confronting the complexity of our own times. In this way, the religious critic too readily falls into the trap of believing the secularization thesis's own advertisements. On this view of modernity at war with religious values, the presence of widespread religious belief (say, in the United States, where both belief and church attendance remain extraordinarily high compared to Europe) can only be explained as a kind of vicarious holdover from earlier times, bound to fade; and not, for example, as authentic exempla of a more complex and religion-friendly modernity than one might expect from merely reading Hobbes and Kant. How else, for example, can we make sense of the claim that "modernity is child of Christianity, and at the same time it has left its father's house and followed the way of the prodigal. Or, to paint the picture in more somber colours... modernity can be conceived as Antichrist, a parodic and corrupt development of Christian social order" (DN, 275), if not by under­standing its author to be positing a stark dichotomy between things "Christian" and things "modern"?

The culmination of this tendency to overstatement comes in O'Donovan's treatment of the modern conscience at the conclusion of The Ways of Justice. As opposed to an earlier understanding of conscience as the voice of God within—what O'Donovan calls the "discursive character of conscience" (308)—modern individuals, we are told, view the conscience as "a voice in the soul that immediately and simply, independently of reason, without appeal to the Gospel, commands us in the name of God, and sanctions its commands with torments of anxiety and fear" (308). But how many individuals behave in such a way, arriving at moral decisions "immediately and simply," without drawing on reason or their religious traditions? I can think of no one among my friends, family, or colleagues, who behaves in this way. Even if such a manner of proceeding has been called for by certain Enlightenment thinkers (though I can think of none here, either), it certainly does not describe the way actual, modern human beings operate. Alongside "moments of moralistic and ideological judgment which permit no reflective or deliberative interrogation," argues O'Donovan, "modern man is distinguished by a resolute and inexhaustible self-doubt" (308). This is a familiar line in certain strands of religiously-inflected political thought, one that laments the transformation of "conscience" over the course of several centuries. There is simply not space here to address the oversimplifications inherent in this account of the development of conscience in the Anglo-American tradition, nor to highlight the important political goals that have been served by expanding our notions of what constitutes authentic conscience and the ways in which such an expansion has served to advance inclusive politics and a pluralistic public sphere.

To be sure, O'Donovan distinguishes between "early" and "late" modernity, and aims his attacks largely at the latter. Yet it is clear that, to him, there is a direct connection between the two. "What makes life in the late-modern period different—its high level of technologisation, its sexual permissiveness, its voluntarisation of birth and death, its concept of politics as economic management—can all be traced back to seed-thoughts that were present at the beginning of the modern era, and are aspects of a necessitating web of mutual implications" (271). Carrying on with the botanical metaphor, O'Donovan argues that these late-modern pathologies are the direct result—flower from seed—of early modern thought. "The flowering of an idea comes when it assumes a structural role that determines what else may be thought" (272). This flower-seed metaphor is worth pausing over, since it presents a radical and highly-debatable claim about the relationship between the ideas of one historical era and the practices of another. Such an understanding seems simultaneously to understate the multiplicity of historical origins of various contemporary practices and overstate the power of ideas, and grows out of the same impulse that imputes an Enlightenment "project" to a diverse group of thinkers. By emphasizing the role of ideas, and by presenting late-modern life as the inevitable result of early modern ideas, O'Donovan offers a deterministic view of the relationship between philosophy and life. But is this the best metaphor for describing the complex process of historical change? After all, a seed can produce, at most, just one variety of flower. Does O'Donovan really mean to suggest that the relationship between ideas broached in the seventeenth century and social practices in the twenty-first century is as causal, single-handed, and deterministic as that between a flower and the seed from which it grew? If so, the reader is entitled to a fuller explanation of his view of historical change.

O'Donovan famously objects, in the first chapter of The Desire of the Nations, to the debilitating effects of the hermeneutic of suspicion preached by such thinkers as Foucault and Freud. Yet perhaps, while admitting that such procedures can threaten to infect our practices unduly, we should retain a certain level of awareness about the implicit dynamics of O'Donovan's own project. For example, he claims that "Christendom" offers a reading of Scriptural political concepts and a reading of "ourselves" (DN, 194). Given contemporary ethnic, religious, and moral pluralism, proposing to rehabilitate even a modified form of Christendom as "our" tradition (or, as he elsewhere puts it, "if...not our tradition...our great-grandfathers'" [DN, 226]), requires some careful treading. There seems, in both books, a surprising lack of attention to plurality both within the Christian tradition and in ethically diverse political contexts. Several references to figures such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder notwithstanding (DN, 151-52, 215-17, 223-25; WJ, 266), O'Donovan seems often to be offering up a rather monolithic view of what counts as "ours"— indeed, who "we" (moderns, or Christians, or Protestants) actually are. And if the First Amendment to the United States Constitution really does represent, as O'Donovan argues, "the symbolic end of Christendom" (244), perhaps we should be even more wary of traveling down this road to Christendom. Perhaps what O'Donovan says about a "Christian state" is true:

The idea of a Christian state, then, need not be the idea of a coercive state. Imagine a state that gave entrenched, constitutional encouragement to Christian mission not afforded to other religious beliefs, and expected its office-holders deference to these arrangements as to constitutional law. Such a state would have no need to restrict the civil liberties of any non-Christian, even to the point of allowing the highest offices to be free of religious tests. (224)

If so, however, one wants to know a great many things about what he has in mind, begin­ning with definitions of "coercive," "entrenched, constitutional encouragement," "expected," "deference," and "civil liberties."

I have dwelt at length on these larger issues because they serve needlessly to distract the reader's attention from the important contribu­tions made by O'Donovan's two-volume project. In other words, I see nothing in The Desire of the Nations or The Ways of Judgment that leads me to believe that the considerable insight of O'Donovan's political vision depends upon an overdrawn contrast between early and late modernity, or between pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought. O'Donovan's work offers a rich set of resources for thinking about how spiritual commitments implicate themselves into our ethical and political lives, regardless of other intellectual, cultural, or political trends that may or may not be going on around us. As mentioned at the outset of this essay, reading either volume of O'Donovan's political theology repays the reader richly: reading both opens up exciting new ways of thinking about both politics and theology, as well as the ways in which they have intertwined at the core of human experience.

Andrew Murphy is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Political Philosophy in Christ College, Valparaiso University.

Copyright © 2013
Valparaiso University