Sunday, September 09, 2007

O'Donovan on wakefulness IIIb: Resolving

Resolving (cont)
Ideals are goods imagined negatively, as possibilities. Goods are known historically and so can be anticipated, or imagined, where they do not yet exist. This turn from love to hope is dangerous. By focussing on possibility we may lose sight of the good already actually given to us. Yet this danger is inescapable; we must deal in possibilities. The key is to frame our hope in response to God's promise, which ensures that it will be in the service of created good, rather than an invention or construction of my wishes.

It is necessary to focus on the negative to anticipate the possibility of future good. O'Donovan discussed the example of Psalm 139 in which the final prayer of verses 23-24 "requires" the sudden shock of verses 19-22; the psalmist's gaze needed to shift from the perfection of God's work (verses 1-18) to the lack of perfection in the world.

Yet in the whole world of unrealised possible good, I have one life before death to achieve something. It is possible to fall in love with the as yet unrealised good and ignore the actual thing I can do. I may end up merely hoping for things I cannot realise and to which I cannot even contribute. Deep changes can and will occur; the lion will lie down with the lamb. I can't make this happen, but I may be able to help two quarrelling friends patch it up. We don't bring in the kingdom. Even though God's kingdom is our ultimate hope, I am instead to ask after the concrete thing given to me to do in the present in light of that hope and in witness to it. Paul Ramsey said, "Not everything that can be done should by us be done." The bad idealist can be dangerous - the negativity of the ideal will become the hallmark of all I do. I ought not to linger amongst the yawning caverns of non-existence; I ought to press on for what God has given me to do.

Compromise is thus what makes ideals realisable. We acknowledge our limits and seek what good we can do. We know this from the realm of law. An idealistic law is vicious, requiring too much, and so causes despair amngst those who would do good within their limits. On the other hand, we can have a demoralised law that demands too little. There are bad compromises as well as bad ideals, where we conform to the pattern of this world. We need to stand our ground where we have ground to stand upon. Judgement regarding what is possible is difficult, requiring courage as well as wisdom. Yet we are confident to risk failure if we know that even in our failure our actions will witness to the kingdom of God.

A good ideal is a possible ideal. A good compromise focuses the mind on where and how it is possible.

Not every possibility ought to be done. Asking "can we clone a sheep?" is the wrong question (and is answered by actually cloning a sheep, or by failing for long enough and in enough ways that we give up). The better question is "can we do good by cloning a sleep?" (and this is not answered by actually cloning (or failing to clone) a sleep), or "can it be a coherent pursuit of a God-given good?". This is where our description is crucial. Our ideals will be as good as our description of the good.

Moral rules are formulations of generic obligation. The basis of following them is that they are grounded in reality, not just that they are directive. Such rules are not given in nature, ready to be discovered by a careful observer, yet neither are they invented. They are 'constructed' in the same way as diagrams, arguments or formulae are constructed, i.e. it is not their content that we construct but their form. Like arguments, they are open to dispute, clarification and correction. And the claim that we ought to follow rules is itself a rule, grounded in the reality of regularity.

And in conclusion, some reflections upon acting together with others. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13.13) Why is love the greatest? We began with love, in a faithful admiration of the goods of the world, and have proceeded via hope to faith. But the whole movement becomes a cycle when faith is itself directed to love. Or to put it another (more Johannine) way, how is the command to love both an old and a new command? (John 13.34; 1 John 2.7-11; 2 John 5-6) Our actions contribute to a human history of action. If others can't build on my bold action, then I'm narcissistic (the classic example of a bold action that others are unable to build upon is suicide). Perfection of moral action is that we awaken together to shared service of God. Rowan Williams has devoted his whole office to this point (he is less understood on this side of the world at this great distance). With one purpose and acting as one (Philippians 2.2) - yet what is it that we are to imitate in the incarnation (Philippians 2.5)? Not simply being kind or humble, but Christ's acceptance of service and his demonstrated obedience to God. The Son is wholly equal with the Father, yet he was wholly absorbed in the Father's will. He gave priority to the Father, not because they were not equal, but because asserting equality was no part of his project. May we have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. May we act as one.

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Given the present situation in the Anglican communion and O'Donovan's concluding comments, I asked the question that I thought many would be thinking: can disagreement serve unity? His answer: yes, of course, in a dialectic pursuit of true unity rather than uniformity. I wish he'd had the chance to say more. For those interested, he has addressed this question (and the specific situation of the Anglican communion) at some length in seven sermons posted on the Fulcrum website.

Further questions proceed thus:
Q: Are laws just for the unvirtuous, as Aristotle claimed? Don't the virtuous simply do what is right?
A: No, Aristotelians overvalue spontenaity. "I believe that St Paul would, as St Paul always does, agree with me."

Q: 'Compromise' has a bad name around most Christians. Are we really meant to compromise?
A: Let's distiguish again between good and bad compromise. The latter is to conform to the pattern of the age. The former is simply trying to do what can be done, to bear witness to what God is doing. The key question to hold together ideals and compromise: "what is the best course of action that is actually available?"

Q: How can I know God's will for my life? How can I distinguish it from my imagination and desires?
A: I can't give you a series of rules beyond orienting you correctly: are you listening to God's word? Are you living the good things he's made (esp your neighbour)? Are you attending to his laws? I can lead you round and round the issue, but I can't resolve it for you because I'm not the Holy Spirit. The resolution is left to you and the Spirit.

Q: Are rights and duties good ideals or not?
A: Rights are more complex than duties. The focussing of moral discourse on rights is like the focus on equality. Both return to ontological presuppositions and make them do the work of phronesis. In each case, this is an abuse of a term, which in its correct place is quite useful, but which won't do the whole job for us. Duties are simply what the rules teach us. Of course, they need to be placed in a broader understanding of the world and admiration of the good that shows how duties relate (and do not ultimately conflict). We ought to avoid an atomistic understanding of either rights or duties. Morality doesn't start from a single point, but aims to get to one.

Trevor Cairney, Master of New College, thanked O'Donovan and offered an excellent summary of all three talks, which he has now published as a single post.
Twelve points for correcltly naming the Sydney suburb in which the photo was taken.
Series: I; IIa; IIb; IIIa; IIIb.

11 comments:

psychodougie said...

the discussion on compromise, and again in Q time, was i think the high the most engaging part of the night for me.

a Q that will again (or should) be large on Christians radar with the up-coming federal elections.

i also was very thankful for trevor's summary after the third talk (having missed the first two) - i look forward to reading his post.

Sam Norton said...

Well that was worth the wait to read! Lots to chew on. I love the little remark about Rowan; I was also struck by the similarities to Wittgenstein's project, ie the emphasis on right description and clarity. Thanks.

Anthony Douglas said...

My out of the left field vote is for Cronulla.

byron smith said...

Although I like to live in left field, not Cronulla.

Sam - no problem. Writing the summaries helped me reflect on what he said. Yes, I'd intended to ask about his attitude to Wittgenstein but then didn't get a chance.

Steve said...

Is the suburb Faulconbridge?

byron smith said...

Nope, sorry. I guess this is pretty difficult. Hint: inner west (I don't get out beyond here too often...).

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Rozelle or somewhere like Callan Park?

byron smith said...

Bingo! Very good. I thought this one would be quite difficult (unless people were familiar with this section of the bay run). Twelve points.

byron smith said...

You've just equalled Anthony's record for highest score in a single month (= 79 back in December 2007). And we're only seven days into March!

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Great. We had our wedding reception there.

byron smith said...

Lovely - it's a very nice area.