Book Review: Self, World and Time

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To my shame, this blog has not featured Oliver O’Donovan’s writing nearly as much as it should. This is largely because I’ve read far less than I’d have liked to by this point. Fortunately, as this excellent review over at Reformation 21 notes, O’Donovan has written three major books, and I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I’ve read only one of them. This, then, the first in a projected three volume project, is a rare treat. This is/was not an easy book to read, but it is rewarding and worth your time.
The sketch of where the author is headed in volumes 2 and 3 can be seen in the final chapter of this book, ‘The Trajectory of Faith, Hope and Love’, and will be titled Finding and Seeking and Entering into Rest, respectively. But to understand this present book as a mere introduction is to miss the mark. O’Donovan is keen to introduce us to the key idea here, ‘Ethics as theology’. There is a playful tone to his introduction, as he notes that “If Christian ethics has proved a bad idea, it must be in part because it has been too much the playground of good ideas” (p. vii), we are then treated to a discussion of the place of Christian Ethics in the academic world – “Too much a creature of fashion to be trustworthy as a science, too much of a creature of ideas to be pastorally helpful to the church, too “soft” for the university, too “abstract” for the seminary, Christian Ethics finds itself a despised outcast in the world, always hunting round for protective alliances” (p. viii). This is a book that represents a deep knowledge of and engagement with the topic, and the myriad of related topics.
‘Self, World and Time’ is divided into six chapters, dealing with Moral Awareness, Thinking, Communication, Theory, the task of Moral Theology, and finally the Trajectory of Faith, Hope and Love. It is in this final section that O’Donovan hints at the rest of this project, in a tantalizing way. But that would be to get ahead of ourselves. For such a dense book – dense in the sense of the depth of the prose, rather than an impossibility to read – this is a book immensely concerned with the actions of the reader and author. It is rare to read a book of this type and feel genuinely convicted, so I will quote the author about how a moral life, ultimately, is to be lived: “Morality supposes life of a certain kind, life of intelligence, responsibility, and freedom which is, as Saint Paul has told us, the life of “Spirit” (p. 4). Cerebral, intellectual and theological (and perhaps even philosophical) this book may be, O’Donovan is quick to ground his work in both Scripture and living faith.
As readers of my Tuesday Prayer series on my old blog may have noticed, I found one particular reflection very resonant. For O’Donovan, prayer is vital. He illustrates this in eschatological style with a beautiful quote from John Donne: “At the heart of moral thinking is a prayer for the coming of God to reshape our freedom from within: “Come and recreate mee, now growne ruinous”” (p. 42). There is no separation between the moral life and the life of faith for O’Donovan, and this life is one that must be girded through with prayer. I was also struck by a fascinating set of observations about being a moral adviser, which I explored in my post ‘The Pastor/Scholar/Christian as Moral Adviser’. But I digress, apart from the fact that it is a mark of a book of this calibre that it provokes more thought, writing and reflection. This is not a one-afternoon book, this is one to chew over and think through.
Further things that struck me were O’Donovans deep observations on authority as something that does and directs something for/to the individual: “Authority I take to be an event in which a reality is communicated to practical reason by a social communication. Unlike a purely theoretical disclosure, authority gives practical direction” (p. 53) and what it might mean when someone is unhappy with authority: “Authority penetrates social existence and gives it cohesion. Discomfort with authority in general (as opposed to discomfort with this or that exercise of it) is discomfort with society itself” (p. 54). I also appreciated the authors reflections on, among other things, anthropology, original sin, and Christ as the centre.
Before I conclude this review I must make mention of the third word of the title, ‘Time’, and thus share with you some of the gems regarding eschatology. For O’Donovan, eschatology is vital, because it is centred in reality and moving towards something. In his words; “At the heart of eschatology is the promise that all must appear before God to be judged according to our works. Our deeds are to be events in history, subject to ultimate appraisal” (p. 130). Such a view is often deeply unpopular, but this book does not shy away from the unfashionable elements of the old story, like sin and judgement. And O’Donovan is also powerful in speaking of the future more positively: “For simplicity’s sake we may speak of the many futures in terms of two types of perception: “anticipation” founded on the present, and “hope” founded on promise. Anticipation teases out a future that lurks within the present as a possibility” (p. 121). As he closes the book, in his discussion of Faith, Hope and Love, we are reminded again of Jesus, and provides a provocative understanding of heaven:

To espy heaven is to see our life and work within the purposes of God, a contribution which, of grace, he has permitted our agency to make to his universal plan” (p. 130).

In conclusion and closing, then, this is not an easy book to read, and so it is not for everyone. This is a deep book, a dense book in the sense that it is full and rich, but it is also a book that challenges the soul as well as the mind. There is, as the length and quotation-richness of this review might show, much to chew on here. As noted, I have already made use of this book in Tuesday Prayer, and the aforementioned post about giving Christian advice. I would, for the intended audience, but also thoughtful (And time-rich!) pastors and theology students, heartily recommend this book, and look forward in hopeful anticipation (pun intended) to the next two volumes.


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