Oliver O’Donovan: The Failure of the Liberal Paradigm

Centrists / General Convention / Religion

Thanks David B. for pointing me to this thoughtful analysis by the Oliver O’Donovan, the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford. I’ve just pulled a couple of paragraphs out of the longer paper to give you a taste. It’s worth reading through a couple of times. I’m especially taken by the way he suggests a different path forward at the end of the paper:

“The relation of liberal Christianity to the modern world, then, contains a paradox. Turning, as all Christianity must, from contemplation of past and transcendent realities to consider how it must behave, it orients itself to a present world which has its primary meaning as our task, the challenge to our action. (That is the primary meaning of the present for us who live in it,at any rate; what meaning it may have for our grandchildren, who will look back on it as their past, is not ours to comprehend.) Yet liberalism fails to bring a critical practical reason to bear on the present world. In its pursuit of doctrinal reconstruction it treats the moral questions of the age as moral certainties, it views the indeterminate shapes of the present as sharp outlines. It may even imagine that in the present it can find some kind of speculative counterweight to correct a bias in past and transcendent reality. Instead of looking to the world as a frame within which to serve God and neighbour, it looks to it for a demonstration that in the past reality was misunderstood. Thus is crystallised the ‘modern world’, an artificial entity with no existence in real time, achieving its dominion over thought only as we allow the world of action, for which we should have our loins girded ready for adventure, to be permafrosted into a world of pseudo-fact.

The tragic fault of liberal Christianity was to have no critical purchase on moral intuitions comparable to that which it had on doctrinal judgments. Precisely for that reason liberalism proved vulnerable when twentieth-century society began to be riven through with deep moral fissures. In affirming the world, liberal theology condemned itself to shipwreck on the same rocks where a unified modern civilisation broke up. Decolonialisation left it without a dominant moral tradition that it could claim as forerunner of the Kingdom of God. When economic self-interest and the emancipation of the senses became the solvent forces of the new West, unhappy Christian liberals struggled to keep the smile on their faces and suppress their instinctive repulsion. Comparatively late in the story, the tradition of theological liberalism reached for narratives of emancipation to give its cause fresh propulsion.”

Read the rest here: Fulcrum: The Failure of the Liberal Paradigm

(Via Anglican Fulcrum.)

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Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. I wish he could translate some of this into plain English. I find quite a bit of it opque.
    For example :
    ‘It may even imagine that in the present it can find some kind of speculative counterweight to correct a bias in past and transcendent reality.’
    I don’t know what transcendent reality’ means –if not God or some such–if so, does it need correction ? If so why and how ?! We jsut aren’t told.
    ‘The tragic fault of liberal Christianity was to have no critical purchase on moral intuitions comparable to that which it had on doctrinal judgments.’
    I do not accept the veracity of this assertion. Liberal Christianity, has as I understand it, had much to say about moral intituitions, and indeed the living of a moral or godly life. For example, at an international level, it sought to challenge Hitler; and apartheid South Africa. At a more personal and inter-personal level it sought to assist individuals to reflect on their lives and decisions, through Clinical Pastoral Education, pastoral care & counselling, and some Jungian approaches and applications, to ethics and spirituality. In this moral intuition and spirituality were not split apart, from each other, or from action, in the reality of the world.
    But Oliver is unclear, and unhelfully does not give exaples of what he means, or cite examples.
    Who is shipwreaked ? Or at least run aground ?

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