Theology as Therapy: Reading Oliver O’Donovan

In Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, John Ames, the elderly Congregationalist pastor who narrates the book, has a conversation about sin and the mystery of salvation (this is the sort of thing that happens in Marilynne Robinson novels) with Jack Boughton, his namesake. Jack is the recently returned the prodigal son of Ames’ best friend, back in town to upset the order of things:

There was an uneasy silence, so I remarked that he might find Karl Barth a help, just for the sake of conversation.

He said, “is that what you do when some tormented soul arrives on your doorstep at midnight? Recommend Karl Barth?”

I said, “ It depends on the case,” which it does. I have found Barth’s work to be full of comfort … But in fact, I don’t recall ever recommending him to any tormented soul but my own.

It’s a funny, bitter conversation, one in which the thing under discussion, sin, which can reveal itself in the tendency of human beings to harm rather than comfort one another (whatever their intentions), is on full display. Barth tends to not be my own first choice during stormy nights of the soul (that would be Bonhoeffer), but I also read plenty of theology for comfort. There are risks with this sort of thing and there are theologians eager to tell you about all the dangers of approaching theology as therapy. I admit that the barely baptized self-help of Joel Osteen et. al. looms on the horizon with its menacing thousand-watt smile. But, it would be strange if moments of comfort were never a part of the experience of reading and studying theology. Some theologians who most passionately protest a therapeutic moment in theology often champion a theology so abstract and distant from lived experience that it forgets that it is human beings, poor and needy, heartsick, fast fading as a shadow at evening (Psalm 109) who are trying to say something about God. While we cannot make humanity the center of our theology; we cannot erase our humanness either. Sometimes theology is born out of the moment when we are “weary with crying out” our throats parched, waiting for God’s arrival (Psalm 69).

I’m thinking about all this after I finished Oliver O’Donovan’s latest book Finding and Seeking. It is the second book in a planned trilogy and considers “ethics as theology”: a finding and seeking in the Spirit of how to live a responsible life in response to God in the world he has created (that’s how I’d try and summarize it at least, but O’Donovan is notoriously difficult to summarize). I found Finding and Seeking to be something of a comfort, even as it challenged, convicted, and confused (at points). And, at one level, the comfort I found in its pages should not be a surprise: while it is a work of reflection on the structure of ethics rather than more straightforward guidance on particular issues, it is reflection ordered to the practical realities of life. It is theology that asks to be lived. Yet, at another level, if you crack open its pages, you may find the adjective “comforting” does not apply for you. O’Donovan is something of an acquired taste – his arguments are often dense, idiosyncratic, difficult. A bit like Ames, I’m not sure I can recommend his work to anyone’s tormented soul but my own.

But, for me, it is comforting all the same. I think part of what I appreciate about O’Donovan is that he is a map-maker; he provides an account of where things are in the world, and where we are in relation to them (I was pleased to discover this matches his own self-description of his work: “In general my thought has a mapmaking character, situating and organising features of the conceptual landscape. This has troubled those critics who distrust ‘architectonic’ ambitions. For me, relations between things are a way of blowing open the questions raised by the things themselves”). He does not supply many concrete answers to particular questions and dilemmas; it is more that he provides frameworks within which to consider the questions we encounter. This sort of map-making leaves readers with plenty of work to do in terms of actually embarking on their own journey, but it also provides a certain flexibility as they try to find a particular path forward in their circumstances. Maps are tricky things, of course. They may reach their edges before you would like and leave unmarked spaces that still need exploring and description, or the mapmaker may have misjudged some profile in his survey so that the map does not match the terrain as it should. I also know that I can spend too much time studying maps and not enough time out on the actual journey. But I, at least, find myself frequently lost and confused in life, unsure of where to step, of where I am, of how the deepest things are related, and so I like maps. Or, more truthfully, I need them, and am always surprised (and sometimes faintly jealous) that some people seem to trundle along without ever asking for directions or noticing that the landscape we are traversing is so strange and difficult.

O’Donovan covers a number of different topics in the course of his map-making in Finding and Seeking as he traces the shape of Christian ethics via the virtues of faith, love and hope (1 Cor. 13:13). O’Donovan seldom repeats or summarizes his ideas in his prose; for a map-maker, he doesn’t always provide all the sign-posts to his own argument one might hope for. This is part of what makes reading him a challenge and also makes him difficult to summarize (as already mentioned), so it is tempting to just highlight a few pieces of wisdom picked from the book’s pages. This doesn’t do justice to the overall structure of the book as O’Donovan walks through ethics considered in light of faith, love, and hope (and the characteristic sins – doubt, folly, anxiety – that are their shadow), but I’m not sure I can manage that sort of structured description in this already meandering blog post. You will have to take a look for yourself, but perhaps I can give you a bit of a taste (I’ve quoted at length below because it gives a better sense of O’Donovan’s prose, and because I’m not entirely sure how to break down some of these paragraphs in a way that actually captures what O’Donovan does – his work does not lend itself to the Hauerwas-ian one-liner).

For example, the following notes on the possibility of finding wisdom:

The call of wisdom is an existential condition, not an episode. What sense, then, can be made of the blessing pronounced (Prov. 3:13) on one who finds wisdom? To “find” is to attain a decisive purchase, to achieve a position where it is at one’s disposal. … There is a point of arrival to be looked forward to, a point of purchase on the world’s order. If Wisdom always presents herself on the horizon of possibility, our arrivals cannot be final, but we should not make the mistake of skeptics in every age, supposing that if we cannot know with finality, we cannot know at all. That would be to impose an abstract ideal as a condition of our knowledge, a condition irrelevant to our temporal situation, making the knowledge actually available to us disappear. Knowledge is offered us, knowledge suited to our pilgrim condition. … The knowledge “found” on the way of pilgrimage is neither ignorance nor speculation. It is valid within its own conditions, makes real contact with reality, allows us to attend to what is of ultimate and penultimate importance.

Consider O’Donovan’s definition of ideology as “a form of truth comprehended within the practical demands of the public order … closing off inquiry in the interests of stable harmony, transgressing the limited capacity of any political order to determine wisdom.” Given my own appreciation for conceptual maps, mentioned above, O’Donovan notes the following caution:

It is the world we are given to know and love, not a representation of the world. Our imaginative representations are not the realities. … If allowed to, reality will correct and renew our imaginations. What we have to guard against is a representation entrenched in our minds, a “subjective object” that stands between ourselves and reality, blocking the view. … Meaning must have a perceptual and question-generating character. The search for connections is an open search, and theoretical positions are subject to the censure of reality.

Or, consider the wise way O’Donovan introduces a discussion of anxiety and hope:

The third elementary form of “possible sin” is that of anxiety, sin in respect of time, a failure to allow the promise of God’s good future to illuminate time given us now for action. Anxiety is a passion, a species of fear. Fear at its most general extends to all futures, and there to everything that will or may transpire, or may be anticipated as transpiring, within and beyond the scope of our capacity to act, but anxiety is the fear we experience specifically in the face of action and its perilous opportunities. It is not to be denied its useful function in focusing our deliberations upon a purpose. An anxiety-free existence could mean only that we were inattentive to the peril of opportunity, either inertly forgetful of our agency or failing to appreciate how our fate must hang on it. We are summoned to display confidence, but confidence must be won by deliberation out of anxiety; we are not endowed with it as a birthright. Passions have their proper place in practical reason, fear and anxiety among them. But passions are not be indulged in. They are the emotional springboards which we must press down upon if they are to launch us into action. So when Jesus declares, “Do not be anxious!” (Matt. 6:31), he means “Cease to be anxious!” It is a call to set the unknown future of life and action in the light of God’s promise. That is to say, it is a call to hope. Anxiety prepares us for our moment of response when the Spirit repeats this call to us, ordering us, as Jesus ordered Peter, to step out of the boat of our anxiety and to walk the waves.

Or, more in a more concrete vein, here is his description of the challenge to ethical reflection posed by our contemporary media environment:

If “new every morning” is the tempo of divine grace and the tempo of personal responsibilities, it is because morning is a time when one can look back intelligently and look forward hopefully. It is the tempo of practical reason. The media’s “new every morning” (quickly becoming “new every moment”) is, one may dare to say, in flat contradiction to that daily offer of grace. It serves rather to fix our perception upon the momentary now, preventing retrospection, discouraging deliberation, holding us spell-bound in a suppositious world of the present which, like hell itself, has lost its future and its past.

O’Donovan ends his book discussing discernment, that point when we try and figure out “what is to be done next.” This search to discern the calling of God in my particular life, in my particular circumstances, leads to a search for a “path … a search for a congruence of normativities, where the ordered demand of the creation, the agential powers which we are conscious of possessing, and the moment of opportunity into which we are thrust all flow together.”  Where does O’Donovan’s book fit within this search? Paths, at least in the sense that O’Donovan is using the metaphor, are not clearly marked and mapped. A work of theology, even a very good one like O’Donovan’s, cannot reveal your particular path, the next step you need to take in the dilemmas you encounter. But, in the search for this next step, I think theology like Finding and Seeking helps identify some key landmarks and can also provide some encouragement to the weary traveler. As O’Donovan admits, in the interview linked to above, theology is not disconnected from our very human sense of need, of confusion, of seeking (even as we find):

In the end the questions I have asked have been the questions that have been important to me. Like C. S. Lewis I can say, “I have written the books I wanted to write.” But “want” must have its full depth of meaning: the books I have written are the books I needed to write — needed in order to go on thinking, needed in order to speak about the Gospel to those who had a right to hear it from me, and why not add, at the risk of being histrionic, needed in order to live. Christian Ethics is a wearisome business when it is aimed at telling other people what to do. My first readership has been myself. But we are none of us alone; if I find myself puzzling over the complex path of Christian discipleship in our puzzling age, I can find others to puzzle with me.