Reviewed by Jacob Shatzer
In this second volume of his “Ethics as Theology” series, Oliver O’Donovan seeks “to follow moral thought from self-awareness to decision through the sequence of virtues from faith to hope” (ix). While it seems simple at the outset, the actual product is quite dense and complex. O’Donovan masterfully weaves together questions about the self, the Spirit, the world, and the process of coming to a decision. The pattern of self, world, and time that is present in the first volume also guides this one, as O’Donovan moves from selves to the world to time in his consideration of moral decision making. His virtues line up with these three, with his discussion of the self connecting with faith, his discussion of the world connecting with love, and his discussion of time connecting with hope. In what follows I attempt to give a taste of each chapter’s main themes.
The first two chapters focus on the self. In the first chapter, he weaves together three issues: relationship of ethics and theology, pneumatology, and ethical agency. We have a “sickened agency” that is made whole by the Spirit as we seek to respond to God’s call. Ethics is reflective on practical reasoning and moral instruction based on the Holy Spirit-given freedom of the Gospel. The Spirit is the warranty of the promise that we find if we seek; ethics would otherwise come undone in the perpetual return of the seeking and finding (4). “Ethics must wait on doctrine” (6). Doctrine completes Ethics by speaking of and an end of God’s works; Ethics completes Doctrine by offering it an understanding of itself as a practice of praise (6). God’s call constitutes the self and the world even before the self responds (12), and the sin against the self is to deny our doubt this call (20-21). Chapter two explores the root of action by expanding the notion of faith. Faith is an obedient beginning that points beyond itself to subsequent developments. Agents are to be responsible, which means answerable to another outside ourselves (31). Moral agency is marked by openness—saying “Yes” in faith leads to a very full sense of self-offering. O’Donovan turns to 12-year-old Jesus at the Temple and Jesus in the garden prior to his crucifixion as examples of this openness (35, 38).
O’Donovan treats “the world” in the following two chapters. In the third chapter, he explains the “second call.” This comes through God’s good world and calls the agent to practice engagement (47). First the agent finds herself as called by God, and then, she finds herself in the world as one object of love among other objects (53). God calls the agent, the agent thus finds the self as object, and then the self realizes there are other objects. The self is both subject among subjects and object among objects. This is the context for freedom and responsibility. The fourth chapter focuses on how human agents interact with and know the good. O’Donovan emphasizes that the good is objective and calls forth the agent’s desire; it is not constructed by the agent’s desires. “The world” gives shape to our existence as agents (72). Agents interact with the world with knowledge and love, which are bound together (81). O’Donovan names “folly” the sin against the world (“objective failure to live in right relation with the world” ). Folly manifests itself in four ways, three of which are treated in this chapter (inconsiderateness, opinion, and prejudice).
In chapter five, O’Donovan extends his treatment of knowing the good from the knowledge/love relation to wisdom, which takes into account the temporal nature of our agency. Thus he shifts to his third emphasis, time. He treats desire (“the opening of love to time’s distribution of created goods” ) and eros (“a specially heightened form of desire” ). Then he introduces the fourth aspect of folly: ideology, which closes off inquiry in favor of a stable harmony (109). This violates the temporal nature of our experience of the good as agents. Chapter six draws out love as directed by faith and hope to come to rest in God, not lower works of God. O’Donovan then turns to testimony, that given by God at Jesus’ baptism and by Jesus before Pilate. This then extends to “confession” as faithful repetition, amplifying the testimony we have received (137). This confession is also related to moral confession, as we identify our wanderings.
Exercising affective agency requires considering our time. This is the third step, which emerges in chapter seven. The first step was being formed by what we have learned to love, and the second step was following what has been achieved for us through confession and faithful repetition. O’Donovan turns to “today,” whose future is open to use and in which God call us to obey. We frame a purpose with the future right ahead of us, taking advantage of “opportunity” (146). The opportunity is a time in the world, for the agent, open to the immediate future (147). The agent’s relationship to the future should be defined by hope, not anticipation (built on tendencies of the present assumed to be realized in the future). “Anxiety” (“failure to allow God’s promise of a good future to illuminate the time now for action” ) is the sin against time. O’Donovan treats the first two of four manifestations of anxiety in this chapter: greed (“accumulation serves no other purpose than to possess” ) and impatience (“refuses to wait on God’s time for the opportunity”;). The other two forms of anxiety will emerge in chapters eight and nine.
The eighth chapter explores practical reason’s end in purposes, from which come actions. Purposes open into execution (179). They require an enduring train of thought to produce them, which is deliberation. O’Donovan deals with decision, choice, and prudence. He also introduces the third aspect of the sin of anxiety, consequentialism (201). He defines it as “the positing thought of a future best possible outcome, working backwards from which each decision may be made securely and transparently in light of it” (201-2). Two problems emerge: this de-theologizes the eschatological blessedness/happiness of Christian thought by removing its dependence on God’s promise, and it also turns tendencies into final decisive outcomes (202). Deliberation must take tendencies into account, but not as certain outcomes, which cannot be known.
Chapter nine tackles discernment. Deliberation leads us to determine a purpose of what to do now, which requires discerning the time, and discerning what I am to do. This leads to a discussion of vocation, the self in the future, not-yet realized (222). This is the third consideration of the self (the first two being an agent responding to a summons and as a participant in the created world). However we are tempted to retreat from discerning God’s call and instead read present experience in a way that delivers the future up. This is the fourth sin against time, historicism, which makes time—rather than essence—the primary dimension of reality and the source of all meaning (230). This fixes us on the now and cuts us off from the past and future.
O’Donovan’s postscript includes a brief summary of the current book as well as paragraph-length descriptions of three “loose ends” that he will take up in the forthcoming third volume.
Several strengths present themselves. First, O’Donovan’s structure of self, world, and time, as well as his treatment of the three sins of doubt, folly, and anxiety and their various manifestations serve as a helpful overall structure for the book. Second, O’Donovan’s emphasis on finding and seeking—especially their cyclical nature and the ongoing character of the moral task—provides a helpful perspective. Third, Scripture informs and shapes O’Donovan’s discussion in continually surprising ways. He draws on stories to illustrate notions such as openness and even uses distinct emphases between the Synoptics. His exegesis is careful and able, and Scripture truly forms the enterprise. One weakness—or perhaps not a weakness as much as something to be aware of and account for—is the sheer density of the book. It is one that rewards slow, careful reading and rereading. It is best suited for those with at least some preliminary training or exposure to theological ethics.
Jacob Shatzer is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies Sterling College and Book Review Editor for Ethics here at Books At a Glance.
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Finding And Seeking: Ethics As Theology Volume 2