by Rupert Shortt
see title page for more information
and chapter 1 on Rowan Williams
and chapter 12 on Miroslav Volf
(Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005)
Oliver O’Donovan and
Joan Lockwood O’Donovan
SHORTT: When Rowan Williams was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Oliver, you saluted the choice of a theologian who does not think it the business of theology ‘to make Christian faith less offensive to modern man, but rather to expand modern man’s imagination to the dimension of Trinitarian faith’1 This remark could serve as a compendium to your writings and Joan’s, which probe fundamental questions at the boundary between Christianity and secular reason. A slightly longer abstract of your joint project might run as follows. You believe that biblical models of corporate life remain relevant, despite being embedded in very different forms of society. You are therefore critics of liberal self-sufficiency and of the way liberal writers tend to bracket off two millennia of Christian thought. You do not accept that circles can be progressively squared from within liberalism’s own resources: liberal enlightenment is, after all, a form of universalism, and like Christian and Islamic universalism, it is supersessionist and inclined to suppose that it has subsumed whatever good there was in the past. As David Martin has argued, ‘The virtue of universalism always harbours the vice of imperialism, but whereas liberal enlightenment sees that very clearly with regard to religious universalism, it is less clear about its own imperialism.2 You expose what you call the monist potential of secular enlightenment and its self-appointed role of referee rather than contestant; and you point to the ways in which religious principles can regain relevance after periods of eclipse. For example, the international dimension of European Catholicism was devalued by the Reformation and the Enlightenment, but re-emerged after 1945 in the reconstruction of Europe and the founding of what became the EU. You are therefore unabashed in commending the active acknowledgement by society of the lordship of Christ over political institutions. And unlike many liberation theologians, whose use of the Bible you see as highly selective and yoked to alien political vocabulary, you are happy to deploy scriptural models more comprehensively. In your major work The Desire of the Nations3 you follow the core images of God’s rule as found in the Hebrew Bible to analyse the essential moments of political authority: ‘salvation’ (yeshua – God’s rule that brings victory, vindication and peace to his people); ‘judgement’ (mishpat – God’s rule that distinguishes between the just and the unjust); ‘possession’ (nahala/torah – God’s rule that provides particular space and structure for the life of his people); and ‘praise’ (epainos – God’s rule that is acknowledged by his people as they gather for worship). The German moral theologian Bernd Wannenwetsch, among others, has hailed these features as constituting ‘a pattern of political authority from where a faithful witness can be expected and judged’4 For your more critical reviewers, of course, the problem lies precisely with the scale of your ambition, and what they see as an enthusiasm to restore some idea of ‘Christendom’. Let’s begin with your own accounts of what you’re doing.
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: Thank you for that. The best way of describing how I understand my political work is with Anselm’s famous programme, ‘faith seeking understanding’. It is not only faith’s primary object, God, that needs, but the world in which we have to live. I find myself set down in the late-modern world, looking around and trying to find my way. But the late-modern world is in various respects incomprehensible, which is another way of saying that its secular reason is not wholly reasonable. It doesn’t reason far enough to satisfy those who have to live in it. It presents us with a series of assumptions that create practical contradictions. And so, as a believer, I look to the Christian faith to shed light on what is going on. I am not interested in the restoration of Christendom. It is a post- Christendom politics that my faith has to engage with, to make sense of late modernity as the cultural setting in which I am given to live. That means looking deeper into the soul of modernity than its own superficial self-presentation would encourage. I explore these questions as someone who finds living in the modern world a conceptual and practical challenge. PoliAnd that is why the phrase ‘practical reason’ crops up a good deal in what I write and say these days. If there is any programme of recovery in my work, it is the recovery of practical reasoning, which has been lost in theology, as also in philosophy and the social sciences. My teacher, Paul Ramsey, subtitled one of his books, How Shall Modern War Be Conducted Justly?5 – stressing the word ‘shall’, not as a future of prediction, but of deliberation. How are we to think about how to act? And how are we to think, especially, about how to act in political contexts, in our human solidarities? How are we to think of ourselves as citizens – but what is a citizen? – of nation-states – but what is a nation-state? Where are we to find an intelligible account of the non-self-interpreting forms and structures through which we have to pick our way? I am a political theologian because, as a thinker, I can only address these questions with reference to the illuminating power of the Christian faith. I am a political theologian, because, as a believer, I need to be able to put one foot after the next.
SHORTT: Would you say more about your grounds for thinking that secular reason isn’t reasonable enough?
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: Reasoning has become addicted to abstract schemas. It picks out certain forms and totalises them, ignoring other aspects of reality. A simple example is what we commonly say about democracy. Democracies announce themselves as constituted by a choice of government by the people or, even more immodestly, by the actual government of the people. No one who has performed the humble duty of casting a vote can find that description remotely transparent. The person whose name I marked will not (chances are) get into Parliament; if she does, she will not form part of the government; and to crown it all, I know hardly the first thing about her. The self-description of democracy is a wholly abstract one, and to bring it into contact with reality we must first treat all the key terms – ‘people’, ‘choose’, ‘government’ – as terms-of-art in need of extensive theoretical development. Why do we describe ourselves in ways that conflict so directly with our surface experience? Why do we talk about ourselves in conventional ways we don’t really believe in? Is there a bad faith written into the heart of late modern culture, or have we got into a position where we simply don’t know what we are doing? What has happened, I think, is that in the attempt to negotiate practicalities, the late modern world has slimmed its practical political reason down to a minimum. It lives off a starvation-kit in which only a few limited and fragmentary thoughts are left over from what was once a more nourishing understanding of society and government – a theological one. So a theologian may be of help, but not, of course, simply by fitting old answers to new questions, but by recovering resources for new answers. The answers we need now have to be sought out and prayed for, won from engagement with these bewildering contradictions.
SHORTT: I’ve heard your work described as very cautious as well as ambitious: cautious in the sense that you’re often reluctant to commit yourself on an issue that doesn’t have clear theological underpinnings.
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: I think both those judgements are right in different ways. I’m cautious about promoting political programmes, even those that I look favourably on. Programmes are the work we pay our politicians for. It is the work of a political thinker to clarify what is being done when such programmes are made, what they are good for, what their risks and dangers are, and so on, and to help us conceive more clearly the wider coherence within which we and our politicians act. And that is where the ambition comes in. I am not among the postmodernists: in principle I admire grand narratives, seductive as they may sometimes be, and want to set things in their broader framework. At the beginning of The Desire of the Nations I said that we stand in need of ‘Christian political concepts’. Those you mention are drawn from a number of important biblical terms that I selected in order to open up the discussion. They are expansive concepts, but not unhelpfully vague. And they are genuinely political. Within the framework, however, those who have to act, must act. The thinker cannot and should not try to devise everybody’s actions for them. The thinker can and should show what the shape of any given action is. So there is a moment of proper restraint in political thinking, but also a moment of assertive interpretation.
SHORTT: I’d like to put the verdicts of some of your critics to you later. But to continue for the time being with setting out your stall: Joan, you’ve done a good deal of work on the critique of secular liberalism. You see idolatry lurking in this civil creed, because of its hostility to what you’ve termed ‘communities and institutions embodying transcendently given and permanently binding constraints on human action’6 Could you describe your position, and, perhaps, explain how you have come to hold it?
JOAN O’DONOVAN: May I begin by describing my critique of secular liberalism as one phase of an abiding concern to understand the spiritual, intellectual and practical failures of our time in their historical distinctiveness. Broadly, I am convinced that these failures reveal a distinctive manner of human oblivion to transcending goods and rights. In recent years I have consistently identified secular liberalism with (what I take to be) the prevailing modern strand of libertarian and contractarian thought which, I have argued, takes as its starting point the self-centred, self-owning and self-creating subject, and claims to be able to get from that sovereign individual will to an ordered political community, largely through the mechanism of collective contract, of binding collective agreement. But it never really does arrive at political community, because political community presupposes a shared communicating in a wide range of spiritual goods from the beginning – and that’s just what liberalism denies. In my youth, I was fortunate enough to come under the influence of two political philosophers who profoundly understood this failure of modern liberalism, and conveyed it in their writings with riveting luminosity: namely, George Grant and Leo Strauss. I encountered these thinkers as a graduate student, having come out of an undergraduate background in psychology and sociology that had left me wholly unconvinced by the approaches and arguments in these ‘disciplines’ and, as a Christian with some theological learning, suspecting both of serious intellectual depravity; but I then lacked any clear understanding of how they fitted into the larger liberal picture, historically and theoretically, and what the philosophical alternatives to them might be. Strauss, the Jewish Aristotelian, and Grant, the Christian Platonist (who was himself indebted to Strauss), furnished me with both a comprehensive philosophical critique of modern liberalism and the social sciences, and two compelling intellectual alternatives to them.7 As importantly, Grant took up the question posed by Strauss of what role biblical Christianity had played in the coming to be of the modern liberal belief that humans are ‘historical’ beings who, individually and collectively, create their future out of their own open-ended choices8 Grant’s answer – that the unique biblical narrative of ‘history’ had degenerated into an intra-mundane ‘historicism’ – hinted that there was already something problematic about the biblical narrative. And I suppose that my subsequent career has been a sustained attempt to rescue biblical theology in its political aspects from this implicit charge. For me this has meant quite simply returning to pre-modern theological articulations of political authority and order which situate it within a dynamic conception of humankind as created, fallen, redeemed and sanctified. Historically, so much of the liberal derailing of Christian political thought has involved a letting go of the biblical doctrines of: firstly, created moral structures to human community, in which love and justice, law and freedom, righteousness and communal right are united, and which are prior to and presupposed by every political order; secondly, humankind’s solidarity in sin, as the condition of God’s providential establishment of human political authority to be an external, communal remedy; and thirdly, the perfecting of redeemed moral community in the coming Kingdom of Christ, eschatologically present in the universal communion of the visible and invisible Church. When political authority is no longer circumscribed by these doctrines, it has forgotten its proper purposes and limitations, and becomes idolatrously overweening and engineering, as the egalitarian welfare state is today.
SHORTT: And your alarm over what you see as the authoritarian drift of secular liberalism is matched by concern about the complacency with which this is viewed by many people, including many Christians, who suppose that life today is broadly continuous with the political and legal inheritance of our Christian past.
JOAN O’DONOVAN: Yes. They are not reckoning with the evidence that we are living through an eclipse of our Western political and legal traditions. To my mind, a telling piece of evidence for this eclipse is the destructive impact that post-war human rights legislation has had and is having on particular legal and political cultures in Europe and elsewhere. It is clear that rights legislation (especially where it is constitutional and linked to judicial review) is revolutionary and supersessionist in theory and practice, its purpose being to challenge all existing legislation expressing common social, moral and religious judgements deemed by liberals to interfere with the individual’s indeterminate freedom of choice. The legal individualism of human rights law (regardless of its inbuilt social qualifications) breeds contempt for a legal past in which both legislators and the legal profession, for the most part, assumed a cultural, moral and religious horizon for public law. As a native Canadian, I have been deeply distressed (but not in the least surprised) at the scandalous judicial attacks on public religious freedom that have been conducted under the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, and other federal and provincial rights legislation. So when I hear from English judges and lawyers about the revolution in legal education that Britain’s Human Rights Act of 1998/2000 is bringing in, I am none too sanguine. While the history of British jurisprudence is scarcely represented in today’s legal curriculum, it is inundated with courses on European rights jurisprudence.
SHORTT: In his contribution to this book Christopher Insole outlines his reasons for rejecting the anti-liberal narrative of thinkers like yourselves9 How would you defend your work against his criticisms?
JOAN O’DONOVAN: I would say that Christopher Insole’s presentation of our anti-liberal historical narrative – that there is a ‘modern turn’ in the late Middle Ages that is ‘supposed to come to fruition around the seventeenth century’ – does not do justice to our appreciation of late-medieval and early-modern political thought. While I do see such thinkers as Marsiglio, Ockham, and Gerson as background (and in some sense, seminal) figures for an increasingly voluntarist and subjectivist strand of natural rights theory, I also see them as presenting important theoretical alternatives to later developments. This is clear in various of my articles of the last five years. Indeed, I have tried to return contemporary thought about rights to the theological formulations of Ockham and Hooker most particularly. At the same time, I have maintained unequivocally that Christian political thought is better off without the concept of human rights, which always deflects attention from God’s right, God’s law and God’s justice. Curiously, Christopher Insole’s reading of our historical narrative conceals the likeness of his theoretical aspiration and our own: namely, to recover a ‘forgotten tradition of liberalism’ that is ‘theologically informed and motivated’. This, I would suggest, is what Oliver set out to do in the penultimate chapter of The Desire of the Nations. Central to this tradition for both Oliver and myself is the theory of government as responsible and limited, as giving judgement under law, and as legitimated by its judicial function. Having said that, there are aspects of Christopher Insole’s liberal agenda that I cannot endorse, chiefly his focus on the preservation of individual liberties. Rather, I would propose that political liberalism that recollects its biblical foundations seeks to preserve individual and collective freedom (that is, moral agency and action) in their interdependence and manifold theological dimensions.
SHORTT: Thank you. Let’s stick with broader threads for the time being by discussing your attitude to Christendom. Perhaps you could start, Oliver, since you’ve hinted that this part of your work has been misinterpreted. Faced with talk of a civil life where citizens and rulers alike are attentive to God’s rule, the natural liberal response, encapsulated by a theologian such as John Kent, is that it’s all very well in a country where the great majority of the population are religious believers. But it won’t do, notwithstanding forecasts of a swing in the pendulum, in a highly secularised country like Britain.
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: Some reviewers have suspected my interest in Christendom as carrying a hint of reactionary conservatism about it. As I say, I have no agenda for the restoration of Christendom, and cannot even conceive what such an agenda might look like if I were to have it. I hoped I had made that clear in The Desire of the Nations, but it was not heard, perhaps because secretly people really want an agenda for the restoration of Christendom. But I do intend to listen to the Christian tradition on political as well as other subjects, and that is why I am so often caught reading old books when I ought, no doubt, to be keeping abreast of the latest thinking. Those who listen sensitively to the past understand their own present better. It can liberate us from the implausible prejudice that our modernity downstream of the French Revolution has made us more Christian than previous ages could be – ‘better Christians than the apostles’, as Kierkegaard liked to say, scornfully. In The Desire of the Nations I took issue with the late John Howard Yoder, a man dearly loved and much admired for the best of reasons. Yoder became an important voice for the Anabaptist communities of America, which had not been noted for producing theological reflection. He broke through a certain taboo in bringing their traditions into discourse at a serious intellectual level with other Protestant and Catholic theologians. Nevertheless, in his determination to give the Anabaptist account of things a voice in the public realm, he seriously falsified Christian history in reading it as a capitulation by the Church to the attractions of power. In doing so he encouraged a generation of American Christians to swear their fealty to the First Amendment. Some of the Yoderian rhetoric, though with more nuance and some important safeguards, was taken up by my friend Stanley Hauerwas, for whom the term ‘Christendom’ acquired a wider use, referring to a religious epistemology that relies excessively on an appeal to public plausibility. It was in response to this trend that Joan and I compiled our bulky reader, From Irenaeus to Grotius10 to put in the hands of English speaking readers a wide selection of political texts from the missing 1200 years. In these texts you can watch the discussion go forward, and ask yourself: Are these people arguing like Christians? How are they using Scripture? Are they critical of themselves and one another? Do they understand the judgement of God against proud princes? Do their voices ever resonate with ours? My favourite example of that concerns the Devil’s offer to Jesus of all the kingdoms of this world. I know of only two interpreters who have said that the Devil could make this offer because the kingdoms of the world were diabolical. One was John Yoder, the other Pope Gregory Hildebrand – not the most obvious bedfellows!
SHORTT: What, then, is the point of attending to the past?
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: It all adds up to an argument that Christendomhas something to teach the modern Christian.We late-modern post-Christendom Christians will not be capable of authentic Christian witness unless we have learned from Christendom. Take, for example,the question of how law relates to morality. A generation ago it seemed as if this question was settled beyond dispute in favour of the view that law had to proceed independently of morality, with no interest in virtues or ideals but concerning itself only with harms. Today we are caught up in a fervour of re-moralising legislation. The earnestness of the human rights movement, with its missionary zeal and indifference to all the deep problems in the concept of rights, is one sign of that. But it goes beyond human rights. The hunting controversy in England and Wales may have a historical significance greater than its marginal substantial interest would ever warrant, as
the moment when the pursuit of a new public morality overleaped the traditional liberal hedges of rights and harms. Once again we heard arguments in which the vice of ‘cruelty’ was alleged as a sufficient reason for invoking the criminal law, without any reference to human rights or harms. Christian theology has a long and discriminating legacy of discussing law, one which puts deep tap-roots down
into its understanding of God, human nature and salvation. Had the theological tradition been more vitally present to us in this period, it would have warned us both against the sub-moral and the supermoral ideals of law.
SHORTT: Joan, I imagine Oliver’s arguments form part of the rationale for your endorsement of church establishment.
JOAN O’DONOVAN: Yes. Establishment is probably more under threat now than it ever has been. However, in my opinion, the Church of England will deserve to be disestablished unless its bishops, clergy and laity become less absorbed with the pastoral implications of establishment and more theologically serious about its political and legal implications. It is safe to say that the vast majority of the Church of England clergy and laity today, including members and ex-members of the legal profession, have never had occasion to reflect (theologically or in any other way) on the role that the established Church has played, and, indeed, continues to play, in the British constitution. The fact that, for example, the historical and contemporary statutes of the Church of England are ‘primary’ public legislation is of little significance to them. But these statutes (which concern doctrinal, liturgical and disciplinary, and not just administrative, matters) have something to say about the political community of Great Britain and its common goods, about the past and present evils that assail just and right human relationships within that community, and the parameters of an appropriate political response to them, and, most fundamentally, about the authority of the British government and its legislation. Moreover, I think that the greatest obstacle to a renewal of public interest in the theological resources of English church establishment for understanding our political community and its law is not the presence of other religious communities or some supposedly secularist consensus of the general population, but the accumulated failure of theological education and evangelical nerve in the established Church itself.
SHORTT: Could you, Oliver, address another criticism now, in a way allied to that of John Kent, and in another way at odds with it. This cavil is summed up by David Martin, who is on the side of seeing high theological ambition in your writings, and yet wants to query how much your contribution to political debate is specifically Christian and outside the range of an independent secular formulation. You’ve already answered this at one level by saying that we’re all sitting on the shoulders of Christian giants, whether we’re aware of it or not. But David Martin would want to take a crucial example like the Christian attitude towards the use of force11 and say, If you’re not a pacifist, it doesn’t really matter what Christian lens you employ as the focus of argument, because you are going to end up in the same boat as everybody else: assessing likely scenarios within a tiny range of real options. In other words, just-war theory might have theological origins, but the arguments are entirely available to secular reason, with little or no reference to theology.
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: The plausibility of this objection, it seems to me, arises from a trick of perspective. Moral reasoning proceeds, as we know, from the broadest, most wide-ranging convictions about God, the world and human action down to the detailed points on which concrete practical decisions turn. But concrete decisions present themselves as binary alternatives: we can turn left, or we can turn right; we can say yes, or we can say no. That is simply how we organise possibilities to make them digestible, as it were, for decision. Now, the objection goes: if Christian moral premises make any difference at all, it must be seen in concrete decisions at the end of a chain of reasoning. We must expect to find Christians and only Christians saying yes, where non-Christians and only non-Christians say no. But such cases rarely, if ever, occur. Christians are actors in the same world as everyone else; they face the same binary choices, and therefore participate in the same common calculative reason surrounding those choices. Those who in 2002 believed as a factual proposition that Iraq was close to acquiring, but had not yet acquired, a WMD capacity, were more likely to judge the case for war favourably than those who believed either that it already had such weapons ready to use, or that it was nowhere near acquiring them. But Christians as such had no reason to hold to one account of these facts rather than another. So if they were not pacifists, the prudential question was likely to sway them as it swayed others, depending on what they took the facts of the situation to be. The trick of perspective here is to make us focus our attention on the most concrete levels of political reasoning, as though they were the only levels that mattered, and moral thinking were merely a circuitous preparatory journey to bring us to a pre-arranged crossroads of decision. It has forgotten Eliot: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason’. Although moves at that level of thinking are furthest removed from theological first principles, and so most likely to be common to believer and nonbeliever, no living, thinking human being confines his or her practical reasoning to deciding things. Not even public bodies do so: the practice of politics requires policy, not only decision. And differences in policy determine the kind of circumstances that present themselves as needing decision. Once you have identified a given public decision and described it, you may find it difficult to see how Christians could respond to it very differently from other people. But by that time the interesting part is all over: identification and description of decisions is the essential intellectual work. Why did WMDs become the sticking point with Iraq? Because of the UN Convention on WMDs. Why was there a UN Convention? Because of huge revulsion at the Western and Soviet policy of massive deterrence, a revulsion focused in very considerable measure within the Christian Churches. Why were the Christian Churches interested? Because they had a long-standing, if partially eclipsed, tradition that asserted the importance of discriminate conduct in warfare. What was the basis of this tradition? The belief that international conflict, though it lay outside the scope of human law, did not lie outside the scope of divine judgement, and that guilt and innocence therefore mattered in war, too. Can non-Christians not embrace the tradition of discrimination without embracing the belief about God? Well, certainly some do so. There is a jackdaw quality about how most people acquire their moral convictions, that allows them to fill their nests with such fragments of Christian or other moral thinking as seem to meet their needs. Justwar thinking has been popular recently, precisely because it speaks to pressing contemporary problems. But it was not always popular: total warfare was at one point the dominant strategic wisdom of the West. So if discrimination in warfare is a humane insight of some importance which can be lost, we should ask what were in fact the conditions for its recovery in the West and the conditions that need to be met if we are to hand it on to future generations with some semblance of moral coherence. Then, it seems to me, the significance of the theological train of thought will be quite apparent.
JOAN O’DONOVAN: As to how a theological perspective can make a practical difference, I would like briefly to shift the conversation to the area of economic practice. Over four centuries, the liberal economic tradition (which, admittedly, has Catholic neo-scholastic as well as Protestant roots) has emancipated the capitalist free-market from most of the moral restraints imposed on economic conduct within medieval Christendom. While too many Christians over the generations have been found either actively promoting or passively acquiescing in capitalist economic vice and its scientific rationalisations in the modern pseudo-science of economics (Can there be a human science that eschews moral judgements?), there has always been Christian proclamation and practice of a more demanding economic ethic, ruled by principles and models of love and justice drawn from the Old and New Testaments. And over the last century, the Roman Catholic magisterium has done more than any other Western institution to demonstrate the continuing relevance of key principles and concepts of scholastic economic ethics developed from classical, biblical and patristic sources. In our day, we need only look at the strong Christian initiative and involvement in movements and organisations for just international trade and debt relief to poor countries, more conscientious consumption habits in the rich nations, and the development and use of technologies throughout the world that are socially, culturally and environmentally beneficial, rather than destructive.
SHORTT: I’m sure that at one level your argument could be multiplied many times over. As is well known, Old Testament Judaism is often described as having evolved into ‘ethical monotheism’, with the implication that its novelty partly consisted in the harnessing of morality with religious belief. It is also generally accepted that Christian virtues such as humility and compassion were quite foreign to the ethos of many pagan societies. But this doesn’t necessarily stop the advocates of Niebuhrian realism from feeling hemmed in. David Martin has summed it up thus: ‘In a global and plural situation it is virtually inconceivable that any society might be so uniformly Christian as to be governed by some version of Christian sharia, as even the Poles made brutally clear after 1989. More fundamentally . . . Christianity is not a religion amenable to that kind of translation, partly because the very attempt is subverted by its own inwardness and suspicion of legal externality, and partly because Gospel precepts lie outside any conceivable structure of political action.12 I wonder if you could use this comment to put further flesh on your argument.
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: I agree with what David Martin assertS: a Christian form of sharia is unthinkable, not least because the Christian understanding of the gospel does not permit such a thought. But I disagree with what he appears to conclude. It is an odd alternative: either sharia or nothing. The excluded middle, it seems to me, is a form of legality that reflects the Christian refusal to absolutise written statute. The gospel transcends all earthly politics, yet it makes
possible an earthly politics unlike what we might otherwise have had. Christianity has had its own legal traditions very different from sharia, traditions that insist on the principle of equity, the importance of precedent and the relevance of customary practice. For this, as a glance at a writing like Perkins’s Treatise on Equitie makes clear, it has the most directly evangelical reasons. Consider, for example, the attitude towards the death penalty in the West. Christians were making anxious noises about this in the fourth century, when it caused them much more heart-searching than just war ever did. For a period in the Middle Ages these concerns were suppressed in the face of the more urgent priority of establishing the idea of a law-state. But they revived again, because they were part of an on going theo-political quest: an attempt to find a point where the dynamic requirements of earthly justice could be qualified by a turn towards mercy in response to the mercy of God. Remember Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice. David Martin is right to preserve a certain realism about the possibilities open to any political actor, especially in the face of the strong temptation in a democracy, born of fear, to credit its leaders with infinite power and infinite malice at the same time. But when everything necessary has been said along those lines, there are still some real decisions that major political actors will have to make, and those decisions will carry a large moral, and implicitly religious, freight. It is never the case that there is only one possible course of action unfolding inevitably. The course of events may sometimes assume a kind of inexorability, but even then the manner in which realities are faced can be honest or dishonest, courageous or timid, compassionate or ruthless. From the most restricted room to manoeuvre we may still win one or two hard nuggets of well-made decision – or we may fail to win them.
SHORTT: I suggest we talk later about the war on terror, and deal first with the just war, as Oliver, in particular, has done a lot of work in this area. Given what you’ve said, it seems clear that you can’t countenance the bracketing of Christian just-war thinking with general moral theory.
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: That depends on what ‘general moral theory’ is supposed to be. If general moral theory is a distillation of the practical casuistry of a formerly Christian civilisation, something like the just-war ideal will be part of general moral theory simply because general moral theory derives from Christian reasoning. But if general moral theory is what anyone must subscribe to be rational, it seems clear to me – in opposition to my friends John Finnis and Germain Grisez – that you don’t rationally need to think in just-war terms. Most of the civilisations of the world would not have been rational on those conditions. Islam, with its own well-developed logic of law and war, does not think in such terms. Its thoughts often present the most interesting alternatives to Christian just-war categories, for example, in the role played by the notion of a sacred territory, the dar al-Islam, in authorising conflict. For Christian tradition no territorial consideration is an authorising factor as such; the only authorising factor is a concrete injury perpetrated by one side against the other. But not only is it wrong to say that the just war idea is simple rationality; it is not even the simple rationality of the West, for just war theory has had its high tides and low tides in the history of Western thinking. One can, I believe, search the debates of the Second World War without finding any extensive moral scruple about non-combatant casualties. Even Bishop George Bell of Chichester mounted
his great defiance of the wartime spirit of vengeance not primarily on the issue of non-combatant Germans but on the issue of non-Nazi Germans. In the second half of the twentieth century, driven by concerns over the policy of mutually assured destruction, the category of non-combatant immunity seemed suddenly to recover its relevance. Paul Ramsey stressed that, while the restraints imposed by the principle of proportionate harm are elastic, the principle of non-combatant
immunity from direct attack is absolute. Non-combatants are caught up in a war collaterally, of course, and may suffer gravely; yet to make them the deliberate object of attack is an unqualified sin. It was on this basis that the massive destruction strategies of the 1950s and 1960s were exposed to consistent criticism from Christian sources. And so today the climate is different. During the war in Afghanistan in late 2001, we were told, a controversy arose in the USA because commanders in the field were expected to have every potential target cleared by lawyers in the Pentagon for risk of excessive collateral non-combatant damage. A set of moral factors had come into our thinking that weren’t there when the Second World War was fought. They can be intelligently or unintelligently applied. But I cannot regret they are there.
SHORTT: Do you detect an American Evangelical influence behind this change?
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: Roman Catholic, actually. The Roman Catholics led the recovery of the tradition, and Protestants took it up later. Paul Ramsey was of course the most influential Protestant advocate, but the Roman Catholics led the way.
SHORTT: I think you believe that Jimmy Carter played a creditable role in this process because of his demand for armaments that could be used more discriminately – for example, tactical nuclear weapons that could be targeted on silos, not cities. You’re critical of the peace movement on this point, because the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and others opposed the newer generation of missiles, describing them as first strike weapons designed to make a nuclear war winnable.
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: Nuclear deterrence was the first great moral disgrace of the West after the Second World War. Jimmy Carter, despite the low rating that his Presidency gets in the USA, even from Democrats, deserves some honour for having turned the development of American weaponry away from the morally unusable towards the morally usable. I was very cross with the peace movement in the 1980s, which got into the self-contradictory position of obstructing every attempt at nuclear disarmament. While Moscow and Washington were gingerly trying to trade disarmament moves, the peace movement found nothing better to do than complain that each new disarmament package made nuclear war more possible. But who ever thought that nuclear war wasn’t entirely possible as things stood? Only the true believers in nuclear deterrence! So the great lie at the heart of deterrence, the idea that you could make your weapons so destructive that they would prevent war breaking out, was swallowed hook, line and sinker by the peace activists. You see why political theology has to exist: to prevent those who love peace from scoring own goals.
SHORTT: I think that’s an important argument, though one might add that the peace movement was motivated by additional concerns that can’t be dismissed on this basis. Given the rigorous principles you’ve spelt out, I imagine you’d be among the first to question the war on terror, on the grounds that it is impossible to wage war on an abstraction.
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: That’s absolutely right. There are, of course, two possible levels of questioning: we may ask whether the various acts – the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq and a variety of actions below the level of warfare – were justified on their own terms; but over and beyond that we have to ask whether the enterprise has been correctly conceived by this umbrella-notion of a war against terror. Conceiving an action rightly is nine-tenths of its justification – and misconceiving it nine-tenths of its corruption.
I’ve argued that it’s not the task of a theologian to pronounce judgement on particular government policies. The theologian is a citizen, too, of course, and forms views on policy like any other citizen. Yet it is not those views that theology is in business to promote, but the categories and criteria that are relevant for forming them. Paul Ramsey’s book Who Speaks for the Church? was very critical of the freedom with which the churches habitually pronounced on international policy, but he thought highly of the formula used by Archbishop Michael Ramsey in 1965, addressing Harold Wilson on armed action against rebel Rhodesia: ‘If [the Prime Minister] and his government think it necessary to use force for the perpetuation of our existing obligations in Rhodesia, then a great body of Christian opinion in this country would support him in so doing.’ The judgement is the government’s to make; but the terms of the question are not the government’s to set. The ‘great body of Christian opinion in this country’ wants to know something more than what the government has decided; it wants to know whether the government has asked the right questions. Public discourse around a war is very depressing, because everyone wants to cry Yes or No more loudly than the next person, and nobody elucidates the shape of the decision to be taken. If in the period before the invasion of Iraq the moral analysis had been done with more care, the implications of the sequel would have been clearer to everybody afterwards. Instead of all that ‘pro-war’, ‘anti-war’ posturing, we
should have asked: What might it take to justify such an enterprise? Then it would not have been so easy for governments to shrug their shoulders when WMD were not discovered. The dishonesty of all that was a result of the chaotic character of the earlier debates, in which the Churches, especially, could have done much better than they did.
SHORTT: Are you clear that Iraq should not have been invaded?
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: Good things have come from it, I’ve no doubt. Whether the suffering will in the end appear to have been worth it, it would be impudent for a Westerner at the present juncture to say. We shall have to wait for the Iraqis to tell us, when they have put these terrible decades behind them. Yet even the good is best attributed to the providence of God. It can hardly be a matter for self-congratulation, since the Western policy has proved so ill-judged. If you make it the centrepiece of your causa belli that Iraq possesses concealed WMD and it turns out that it hasn’t, the moral ground on which you stood falls away beneath your feet. The British and US governments may not have known the truth in early 2003, but in acting so decisively upon a false hypothesis, they were gravely imprudent. Grave imprudence is a species of practical immorality. On that ground alone the British Cabinet should, for the sake of constitutional integrity, have resigned as a whole, and been reappointed, perhaps in a different form, to complete the work of reconstruction in Iraq. That would have fittingly acknowledged a major blunder, putting us in a better position to help Iraq recover. You don’t have to think that a blunder is worse than a crime to know that a blunder can be pretty bad. When all that has been said, however, I must add a general point about judgements on the past, judgements of the form, ‘should have’ and ‘shouldn’t have’. It is a central point of Christian moral thought in general, as well as more specifically of just war thinking, that we cannot and must not rest in such judgements. ‘Judge not, that you be not judged. ’We cannot indulge ourselves by building our moral postures on other people’s mistakes – it is one of the things that the Christian tradition has identified as ‘hypocrisy’. We notice mistakes as they are made, and learn from them – but always and only en route to the next challenge. The goal of just-war thinking, as of all moral thinking, is deliberation. That is to say: ‘how shall war be conducted justly?’, now or next time.
SHORTT: Can you both devote part of the remaining space to talking a bit more personally about your formation and broader theological outlook. One of several points that have struck me is that you are Evangelicals who would like to see Catholic principles reinstated or promoted in our public life.
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: I am the first Anglican in my family. My relatives were Roman Catholic on one side, and on the other side Methodist. I found my way into the Church of England as a child more or less on my own, and received my catechesis there in an Evangelical context for which I can never be sufficiently grateful. Half a century ago the Evangelicals in the Church of England were doing very well with young people; as a result many Christians passed through their hands who afterwards put a greater or lesser distance between themselves and the Evangelical tradition. I never underwent such a break. Formal theological study confirmed me in a strong commitment to the Scriptures as the norm of all theology, a central emphasis on the atoning death of Christ, and (less strongly present in my theological work, perhaps, but occupying me more at present) a belief that God’s reality is inward as well as outward. I am deeply thankful to have been born in a generation of ecumenical progress. My time in Canada in the late seventies and early eighties exposed me for the first time to intensive interaction with Roman Catholic theologians, and I discovered not only new things I needed to think about – especially in ecclesiology – but also to what a surprising extent the theological concerns I brought with me evoked an echo from them. I like to say, exaggerating only a little, that I learned how to read Karl Barth from a Jesuit. So although I think of myself as an Anglican and as an heir of the Reformation, I regard my Christian heritage as broader than that. The grounding in patristics that one used to get in the undergraduate theological syllabus at Oxford has always been important to me. And my early research on Augustine, of all the Church Fathers the one who speaks most eloquently both to Catholic and Protestant concerns, has been a guiding light to me ever since.
JOAN O’DONOVAN: My Catholic leanings are toward a medieval tradition of Christocentric Platonic ‘realism’ (in the schoolmen’s sense), with which I would regard the Reformation emphasis on the body of Christ as a community of participation in Christ’s real benefits (epistemological and soteriological) as continuous in important respects. So the trajectory that I have followed in recent years is from Bonaventure and Wycliffe to Luther and Calvin. At the same time, I
am thoroughly with the Reformers in viewing in a wholly negative light the juridicalising of the body of Christ and of salvation that dominated (but by no means exhausted) late-medieval papalist ecclesiology and penitential theology. Indeed, it seems to me that, on the one hand, the juridical individualism of the medieval penitential discipline, with its spiritual economy of graded sins and punishments, satisfactions and assigned merits, was the seed bed of the late medieval development of ‘subjective rights’, understood as individual moral powers and entitlements. Of course, it must be remembered that late medieval ‘rights’ were embedded in a framework of divine and natural law that was not radically dismantled until the seventeenth century, when the full impact of Renaissance humanism and science had been absorbed – mainly by Protestants. Still, there was a medieval anticipation of the excessively self-conscious, calculating moral subject. On the other hand, the theory of the pope’s supreme jurisdictional powers in the Church, extended even beyond this world (into Purgatory), involved a most unfortunate positivising and juridicalising of the theological concept of law, that anticipated the secularising of this tendency in Renaissance legal humanism and republicanism, and its Protestant successors. In so far as contemporary Protestant and Catholic political thought persists in these individualistic and juridical orientations, they shed insufficient theological light on, and offer insufficient theological hope to, our over-legislated, litigiously minded, and ideological polities. There needs to be a more wholehearted return to the traditional Christian political concepts of obligation, obedience, law and justice, which dwells on their social-relational and transcendent divine meanings, and thereby opens up human political thought and action to the unity of love and justice, grace and law, in God’s work of creation and salvation. I would add, however, that contemporary Roman Catholicism has the unequalled pedagogical tool of the papal encyclical for renewing the theological framework of political thought. Papal social encyclicals over the last century have offered much that is worthy of universal Christian attention, and deserve to be used more extensively
by other Churches than they have been. Christian political thought would be considerably more theologically robust today if its practitioners had all made a careful study of the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, particularly, his 1888 encyclical on human liberty.
SHORTT: You’ve spoken warmly of Augustine, Oliver. Is he your greatest intellectual influence?
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: Yes. Augustine’s is a complex, courageous, painfully honest and extremely well-balanced Christian mind, which gets some things wrong but more things right. I can sympathise with what he gets wrong as well as with what he gets right. He is a crucial focus for Western ecumenism, since, as I’ve said, his influence has been so great both on Catholics and Protestants. I received a precise but important influence from the reading of Karl Barth, who taught me how the theological endeavour had to understand its intellectual responsibilities and its authority. At one stage I was in danger of being branded a Barthian by well-meaning English colleagues who used the term to characterise anything that struck them as tending to enthusiasm. But in my view a moralist can never follow Barth in his approach to ethics, and it was to Paul Ramsey that I looked for my understanding of how Christian ethics should proceed. Although he was no historian himself, he pointed me back to the sources of just-war theory in the political theology of the late Renaissance. Through him I discovered Hugo Grotius, whom I have read with an enthusiasm that strikes many people as rather eccentric – but that is because they know him only through secondary sources, not first hand. It was Joan who introduced me both to more contemporary political philosophy and to the political legacy of the Middle Ages.
SHORTT: Early on in this conversation, Oliver, you defined your role as being to do with spelling out principles, rather than recommending concrete courses of action. I’d like to return to this subject now, because it leaves some observers feeling that there’s a top-down quality to your work. They might want to start with thinking about the experiences of communities rather than with questions about authority, for example. They would perhaps want to start with their experience of visiting people in prison, rather than abstract theorising about penal policy. Could you say something about your approach in relation to communitarianism and some of its prominent advocates, such as Rowan Williams and Duncan Forrester?
OLIVER O’DONOVAN: The term ‘communitarian’ is a fairly loose one, and these two colleagues’ work is rather contrasted, sharing, perhaps, only the absence of a doctrinal character that mine may sometimes display, and a preference for questions that arise ‘from below’, namely from society rather than from government. The clue that I find helpful in understanding Rowan Williams is to see him as an apologist. His famous Kierkegaardian tag about ‘making Christianity difficult’, i.e. deliberately inverting the project of the rationalising apologist who attempts to facilitate faith by ridding it of difficult features, doesn’t mean that he turns from apologetics, as Barth does, to dogmatics. He makes our difficulty an apologetic opportunity. He uses it to appeal to an experience of the world that is more broken and less ordered than we usually like to acknowledge. He seizes on awkward and unassimilable fragments that will open the way to the mysterious, those that defy smoothing out, just as faith itself does. I heard him very memorably the other day on the practice of kneeling. Rowan can be quite difficult for the proverbial ‘plain man’. Paradox and unexpected reversal is the essence of a Williams train of thought; the Kingdom of God is always slipping its hand surreptitiously into the doubter’s back pocket and replacing the wallet and credit cards with a better funded set. His engagements with ethics and politics tend to be night-time raiding parties, less interested in knowing how they work than in finding out where they break down, and not with any idea of repairing them, either.
These posts are by guest authors for Fulcrum