Oliver O’Donovan on Context and Theology

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In one of the most interesting chapters of Oliver O’Donovan’s  remarkable Resurrection and Moral Order, we find a brief meditation on the relation of moral theology to culture.  Here he shows sympathy with Karl Barth, who ran afoul of the vast majority of German theologians that chose uncritically to make “the great new cultural fact of their time and place” the starting point for the theological task.  What follows is a discussion of Barth’s conflict with Brunner, with a sidebar to Tillich.  O’Donovan concludes:

It is hard to see how such an approach can become more than a work of ideology, in which the gospel is proved to be ‘at home’ in our favoured cultural setting, whatever it may be…What has now become painfully clear is that the theological tradition which springs from such thinkers [does this include Barth??] is unable to deal convincingly with those liberation-theologies which most blatantly subject the theological enterprise to the sectional perceptions of a single cultural group (‘black’ theology, ‘feminist’ theology, etc.).  It can show embarrassment at them, or it can be patronizingly interested in them; but it cannot now complain at being excommunicated, and assert the universality of theology, since all the time it has understood the theological task as a discreet exercise in cultural accommodation. (90)

O’Donovan, as you may have ascertained by this point, is not an easy read.  As little sense as it makes, it appears to me that he is including Barth alongside these other, clearly accommodated, theologians.  I’m happy, however, to be corrected by keener readers of O’Donovan.  It’s worth noting that this conversation takes place within his chapter entitled ‘Knowledge in Christ’, which is a meditation upon epistimology.  He is attempting to carve out a space somewhere between the classic defense of natural law in Aquinas (though he does no like the term ‘natural law’, preferring created order) and the  “Nein!” of Karl Barth.   Thus he ends up both appreciative and (con cajones) critical of these two powerhouses.  He seems to clearly stand with Barth epistimologically, though not ontologically.  In other words, he affirm’s Barth’s sole reliance on the Word of God for Christian knowledge, and yet he critiques Barth for not appreciating the usefulness of created order (redeemed at the Resurrection) to the theological and moral task.

The above quotation was from one of his small-print, “Barth-esque” sidenotes.   A sampling of what precedes this sidebar may help illumine the whole, and help us understand O’Donovan’s qualified appreciation of the created order to theology:

…revelation in Christ does not deny our fragmentary knowledge of the way things are, as though that knowledge were not there, or were of no significance; yet it does not build on it, as though it provided a perfectly acceptable foundation to which a further level of understanding can be added….the Christian moral thinker, therefore, has no need to proceed in a totalitarian way, denying the importance and relevance of all that he finds valued as moral conviction in various cultures and traditions of the world….But neither can he simply embrace the perspectives of any such culture, not even – which is the most difficult to resist – the one to which he happens to belong and which therefore claims him as an active participant.  He cannot set about building a theological ethic upon the moral a priori of a liberal culture, a conservative culture, a technological culture, a revolutionary culture or any other kind of culture; for that is to make of theology and ideological justification for the cultural constructs of human misknowledge. (89-90)

There seems to be an important distinction here between what is “useful” and what is of first importance to theology.  While theology can and should make use of the insights gained from various cultures, no single culture can ever be an uncritical basis of the theological task.  That distinction belongs, as we learn from Barth, solely to God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

I quite enjoyed O’Donovan’s description of liberationists as those who “subject the theological enterprise to the sectional interests of a single cultural group.” My own feeling is that the experience of those various cultural groups is important to critical thinking about Scripture and tradition, and to theology.  As O’Donovan insists, theology does not have to be indifferent to these various perspectives.  For instance, my courses in black church theology and history taught me to appreciate the Black Christian experience in America as instructive for what it means to live “on the underside of modernity.” (The phrase is J. Kameron Carter’s.)  But such experience, valuable though it is, is rendered into sand when it is forced to be a foundation for theology (Matthew 24:27).  The Logos, after all, God in the flesh, is the only ground that theology can take without being merely another culturally-conditioned construct of “human misknowledge.”

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