Saturday, September 29, 2007

Luther on Lebensraum

We conclude, therefore, a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbour. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbour through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbour. Yet he always remains in God and in his love.

- Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

According to Luther, our problem is that we are curved in upon ourselves, trapped in self (incurvatus in se). Freedom is then to live not in myself, but in Christ and my neighbour. As a Christian, I am no longer the source of my own life, the provider of my own needs. I am delightfully dependent. My goals are no longer for myself, but for God and the common good. I can now live expansively, having been brought into the wide space of God's mercy: He also allured you out of distress into a broad place where there was no cramping (Job 36.16). Living in Christ and the neighbour: this is where we can find Lebensraum.
Eight points for picking the country.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Proverb of the week VIII

One who gives an honest answer
     gives a kiss on the lips.              - Proverbs 24.26

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Climate Clever-er

Apologies for the slight pause, and for the fact that this will be another Australian-specific post.
The Australian government has, until recently, been run by long-term climate change sceptics. But now, trailing in the polls and with a very concerned electorate, suddenly the (energy-efficient) lightbulb has switched on. Instead of major policy change, we have a $23 million ad campaign selling us the government's credentials and telling us to "be climate clever" by taking simple actions to reduce our domestic energy use, like switching off computers at the wall, using a clothesline rather than the dryer or buying more efficient appliances.

I don't buy it. Personal action is important, but so is policy with teeth. Why don't the big polluters have to pay for their environmental impact? Why do we still not have legislated emissions reduction targets?* Or concrete targets and genuine incentives for renewable energy? By trying to position itself as the sensible middle way between sceptics and 'doomsayers', the government seems to be doing the minimum necessary to give the impression that it cares about this issue without actually doing much. This quote put some things in perspective for me:

...voluntary action is great - but it is not sufficient. When we wanted to stop asbestos being used we just banned it – we didn’t ask people to voluntarily seek alternatives while continuing to subsidise asbestos producers. It’s far simpler to ban new coal fired power stations than it is to convince 20 million people to voluntarily buy green power. It’s easier and cheaper to simply legislate for high energy efficiency standards than it is to voluntarily change 50 million lightbulbs – one at a time. In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter how many energy efficient lightbulbs you install if the Government continues to approve new coal fired power stations and coal mines. It doesn’t matter how good you are at turning off your computer if our Government continues to undermine global action on climate change and the Kyoto protocol.

- Greenpeace Australia blog

And for those with a sense of humour, make sure you check out this clever spoof of the government's ad (for comparison, here is the original ad):
*The lack of specific short-term targets from the opposition doesn't make them much better on this score.
Five points for naming the potential victim of climate change pictured above.

The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil

After my recent post, have a look at this article on greed.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Housing affordability: Gittins, good government and greed

Sydney Morning Herald economics editor Ross Gittins has yet another stimulating article in today's SMH on the hot topic of housing affordability. He argues that none of the 'solutions' currently being kicked around by the MPs will improve the situation. Increasing the first-home owners' grant, cutting stamp duty, a subsidised saving scheme or anything else that gives buyers more power will only make things worse, pushing prices up:

That is because genuine solutions to affordability are counter-intuitive - contrary to common sense - and pollies often settle for "solutions" that don't work but sound like they should. Because the fundamental cause of hard-to-afford prices is demand exceeding supply, the only genuine solutions involve either increasing supply or reducing demand.
Instead of giving more buying power to all buyers (thus raising prices), Gittins argues, we can cut demand by removing the tax-breaks associated with property ownership. I'll let you read the details of his proposed alternative (and why he says it will never be implemented), but I found the article interesting for three reasons.

First, this piece once again highlights the way that the media often shortcircuits effective government. The very media scrutiny required to keep governments honest also encourages short term, populist solutions, those that are easily packaged and 'sold' to the electorate. Partially this is due to our own lack of patience. We want to see results now, and we threaten political failure to those who don't deliver on time. But I think it is also due to a common misconception of the nature of representative democracy. It is a widespread assumption that MPs are there to reflect our preferences and opinions, that they ought to be swayed by public opinion. But do we want those who govern us to be held ransom to our collective prejudices? No, they ought to lead, to be swayed only by persuasive arguments, not a daily media-driven popularity contest. We elect representatives to make decisions for us, on our behalf. We give them the time, resources and authority to make and implement judgements on our behalf and for the common good. They are not simply agents to enforce the will of the majority.*

Second, I really hope that this issue (housing affordability) doesn't come to dominate the upcoming election campaign. Not only are there more pressing and more important issues that may get marginalised by it, but collectively focusing on this issue encourages us in our self-obsession. I don't need more help in thinking about myself.

And third, there is a better solution, both simpler and far more difficult than the one Gittins suggests: "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions." (Luke 12.15)
*Of course, there is more to be said on this topic. Andrew Errington has started a series on Jesus and government, in which he will (of course) be drawing heavily on the work of O'Donovan.
Fifteen points for guessing the English town in the picture.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Proverb of the week VII

As a door turns on its hinges,
     so does a lazy person in bed.       - Proverbs 26.14

Monday, September 17, 2007

O'Donovan lectures now available

The recent New College lecture series given by Oliver O'Donovan is now available for free download in PDF format from New College (H/T Trevor Cairney). Audio recordings will soon be are now also available.

Here are links to my summaries: I; IIa; IIb; IIIa; IIIb.

UPDATE: Audio now available at the same website.

Moving on from Howard?

The Hon John Howard MP has spent eleven years as Prime Minister of Australia as leader of the Liberal/National Coalition. In the 2004 federal election, Howard's Coalition won by almost six points in a two-party preferred vote over the ALP. But now, with about six or eight weeks until the election (the date has not yet been set), he trails opposition leader Kevin Rudd by somewhere between fourteen and eighteen points, according to the latest polls. Some polls even predict he could lose his own electorate of Bennelong. With over twelve million people eligible to vote out of Australia's population twenty-one million, that's well over a million people who have changed their preference since 2004.

If you are one of them,* I'm curious: what has been decisive in your change of mind?
*That is, you voted for Howard's Coalition in 2004 (or placed them ahead of the ALP in your House of Representatives (lower house) vote), but if the election were held today, would give your lower house preference to Rudd's ALP. I'm happy for others (who have not changed their mind) to comment, but I'd really like to hear from those who have. You may comment anonymously if you like. However, please observe 1 Peter 2.17.

NB In case you haven't heard, there are new laws regulating enrollment deadlines. If you are over 18 and an Australian citizen, it is compulsory to vote. If you have changed address since the last election, you need to change your enrollment. There is now less time to do either of these than previously and if you don't, you will miss out and may be fined. You can enrol or change your details at the Australian Electoral Commission.
Image of John Howard at the recent APEC conference from Epoch Times.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Aeschylus on the getting of wisdom

He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despair, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

- Aeschylus, Agamemnon, line 179ff.
(as misquoted/paraphrased by Robert F. Kennedy upon the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr., and then also inscribed on RFK's grave)

I watched the second half of the SBS documentary on Robert F. Kennedy tonight with a friend from church and discovered how little I had known about him. For instance, I didn't realise how close he'd come to becoming America's youngest president, nor how much he'd already achieved in bringing people together. A vision of a possible future can be such a powerfully cohesive force.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Human rights: a stop sign, not a road map

Much contemporary discussion of ethics takes the form of claims about human rights. Yet the popularity of this mode of discourse threatens to narrow the range of ethical reflection. Although rights have a limited usefulness as a warning of imminent (or present) danger, by themselves they are a woefully inadequate conceptual resource for structuring reflection and behaviour. Rights provide a negative limit of obligation, borders beyond which one must not pass. But they lack a sense of a positive project, of growing a community, maturing a self in caring and variegated relation to others. The strongest positive statement in the widely cited UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is that "human beings... are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." Nearly all the rest of the thirty articles outline protective measures restricting the power of the state over against an individual. This declaration is rightly important, and does serve a very useful function. But it is not and should not be expected to be a comprehensive basis for our life together. And this is not simply because it is a product of its age and culture (notice that we are to live in a spirit of brotherhood, and that - understandably after WWII - the main fear is of state-initiated oppression of individuals); it is because rights themselves are a backstop measure, not the main game.

When a relationship has reached a point where both sides are standing on their rights, we are already in damage-control territory. If you have to claim your right to something, the positive goal of the relationship has broken down and it has now become a question of harm-minimisation.

In 1 Corinthians 8-14, Paul argues for the priority of love over rights, of thoughtful passionate concern for the other over the unrestricted exercise of my freedoms. God's love for us in Christ liberates us, not to do whatever we wish, but to do good to others, to serve them for the common good.

Often, our cultural assumption of the good life comes down to each of us pursuing our own agenda as relatively free from outside interference as possible. But there is so much more possible. Others are not obstacles to be negotiated in the fulfillment of my desires; they are opportunities for growth, visible signs pointing to God's coming presence and glory, the primary way in which we love God. The other is a gift to me; indeed, a significant part of that gift is that in the other I too can become a gift.

Rights are merely a stop sign; only faithful, hope-filled love gives us a map.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


I'm always late onto fads, and so this week has been my first experience of eBay. I'm selling two items of unwanted furniture and I must say it's been quite fun watching the bids go up (particularly since the highest bid has just doubled since the last time I looked earlier today). I can see why some people get addicted. For those who missed another craze, here's a classic video to enjoy.

Islam vs Islamism

Colin Chapman, CMS missionary to Egypt and Lebanon for seventeen years, offers some good basic advice on a Christian response to Islam and Islamism. I wouldn't be so quick to reach for the language of 'human rights' in the final paragraphs, but it's a useful piece nonetheless.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Proverb of the week VI

Like vinegar to the teeth, and smoke to the eyes,
       so are the lazy to their employers.                 - Proverbs 10.26

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.


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.

O'Donovan on wakefulness IIIa: Resolving

This is a summary of the third and final lecture of the 2007 New College lectures, Morally Awake? Admiration and resolution in the light of Christian faith, delivered last week by Professor Oliver O'Donovan. The first was called Waking, the second Admiring (and part two) and this one is Resolving.


Each area of the good world has its own ethics: bioethics, political ethics, economic ethics, and so on. Yet despite the great variety and complexity of the world (and hence of the descriptive task), all such description is of types and so stays general. But when we ask about our decisions, we deal in and focus upon particulars: ought I do this action, now and under these circumstances? The object of our practical thinking is a future action and is thus, by definition, undetermined. It cannot be described, only resolved upon. In the second lecture, we considered the moral import of the descriptive task. The moral act begins here, but it doesn't end with description. 'Is' must become 'ought'.

Schleiermacher, the great nineteenth century German theologian, was a typical Romantic in that he desired to describe the moral life in terms of innate intuitive duties without reference to rational reflection. This was a stubborn mistake of Romanticism, yet he was onto something more important in his desire to scrutinise moral 'conflict' in order to show that no conflict existed in the final analysis. There are no real dilemmas, simply conceptual confusions or temporal coincidences. For example, I may be asked by my boss to lie and face an apparent conflict between my boss's authority and my duty to be truthful. But I need to realise that my boss's authority doesn't extend to requiring my falsehood.

His concerns have been echoed in the late twentieth century by those ethicists opposed to what they call "decisionism", the tendency to characterise the moral life in terms of decisions, as though the soul's main characteristic was to be divided against itself. But they go too far in denying a place for "decisions"; to cut the soul off from decisions is to cut it off from action. Decision is the soul coming to the point of action. Decision is (literally) the "cutting short" of the natural indeterminacy of thought, closing the question for the sake of practical action. It is not the choice between two options, but the point of resolution (see the end of the first lecture for an illustration of this). Decision does not occur in a vaccuum of thought. Nor is "deliberation" a better term, as it relies on the metaphor of weighing and so places too much emphasis on comparing alternatives and on proportional reasoning.

O'Donovan then spent some time exegeting Romans 12.1-8 as a summons to engage in action. The initial call in verse 1 (present your bodies as a living sacrifice) is far-reaching and requires further specification, which begins with how to think (verse 2). The role of thought doesn't end when admiration ends. Thought has to make the journey from is to ought. We are to distinguish what God wills for us now. Indeed, verse 3 tells us that we need to think about how to think (it is not about how to think about ourselves, as many translations imply, but how to think about thinking). When discussing the act of thinking, Paul uses the Greek verb phronein throughout this passage, which, as in Aristotle, is the verb for practical reason - the ability to reach specific and concrete determinations, judgements about behaviour that will be particular for each of us. This differentiation across the various members of the body of Christ and their differentiated faith leading to different ways of service occupies the rest of the passage (verses 4-8). Each is to follow a practical course of their own, not fitting a general pattern of the age, but a specific one for each, discerning God's will. The renewing of the mind in verse 2 is towards (Greek: eis) the discernment of God's will. The warning in verse 3 is not so much about pride (thinking too highly of oneself), but against overthinking, an inflated view of the self's practical task. We must neither accept the general pattern of the age, nor an inflated estimation of one's own import.

Faith has two sides: faith as belief (linked to the loving knowledge of the world discussed in the previous lecture); and faith as trust, which looks forward in hope. Hope requires imagination, which can be either too dull, or too 'overthought' (having great ambitions but without practicality, mere airy ideals).


I will finish this lecture (and the whole series) tomorrow. Still to come is a discussion of the relationship between ideals and compromise and then some concluding reflections upon communal action and unity.
Twelve points for correcltly naming the Sydney suburb in which the photo was taken.
Series: I; IIa; IIb; IIIa; IIIb.

Friday, September 07, 2007

O'Donovan on wakefulness IIb: Admiring

Admiring (cont)
This is a summary of the second half of Oliver O'Donovan's second lecture in the 2007 New College Lectures Morally Awake? Admiration and resolving in the light of Christian faith. This second lecture is on Admiring.


The feeling of dread arises when we reach the limits of our knowledge. We fear the unknown. This is most clearly seen in children, who, in order to praise one thing as good, often need to demonise alternatives. We treat our dreads as though they were as real as our loves. We can love evil by refusing the adopt the self-reflective position, becoming curved in upon ourselves, according to Luther's definition of sin: incurvatus in se. We then divide the world in two: good and evil. This creates a negative sense of "world" to go alongside the positive use assumed throughout these lectures so far. This negative world is a world our self-enclosure pitched in opposition to the real world.*
*Perhaps I missed a crucial step in this paragraph. This is one section I'd like to revisit when the recordings and full text of the lectures appears on the New College website.

Repentence is thus the progress from unreflective knowledge to reflective knowledge. In coming to know ourselves we come to know (reflectively) our unreflectiveness. Conversion is the beginning of the perfection of love, which casts out dread, according to St John (1 John 4.8). Augustine spoke of learning to love the self, by this he meant that the love of God and neighbour is a self-aware love; we do not come to love God and neighbour absent-mindedly. These loves are not in competition. We do not love ourselves as much as we love God, for we are to love him with our whole being, and there is nothing left over after this love. Self-love is not self-interest or protectiveness, yet nor can we rule the self out of perfect love. Reflective self-love is the opposite of unreflective self-absorption in which we are left at the centre of our own universe without a purchase on the reality of others.

Love must be ordered. There are many good things in the world; how can we love a pluriform world? We need an ordered set of relations as we participate in the moral order. Our admiration has to be structured, rather than simply saying "wow" to each new thing. We must learn to value most what is most valuable. Our love must learn nuances, similarities, contrasts, causes and effects. An ordered knowledge of an ordered world will lead to an ordered knowledge of self. We come to learn about our eyes as we use them to observe the world. We discover that there are others like myself, who see and love. The neighbour is always the self's companion; indeed, it is through the neighbour that we come to awareness of the self: I am other people's other people - vulnerable, capable of disappearing to them as they are to me.

Returning (once again) to Augustine (a frequent touchstone throughout this lecture), in his De Doctrina Christiana he distinguishes between loving and using in order to create a hierarchy in which God is the supreme good to be loved. The first lecture spoke of wakefulness to the world, the self and to time, but why not to God? Why isn't God a fourth thing alongside the others? Each of the other three are not fully grasped except in relation to God. God is the source and end of our awakening. Yet God is not the direct object of our attention, except through the incarnation and prophetic utterance of the Spirit. How can God be the source of our admiration?

To answer this question, let us focus on the experience of gratitude. I admit that what is good, is good for me. I belong to this world and am indebted to its goodness. Gratefulness makes our knowledge of the world come alive. Yet it has also seen that good is a communication: it is for me, but from whom? Who is the source? Once we have caught ourselves being grateful, we are driven to address the supreme good. It is possible to enjoy this or that good without thinking of the source in the supreme good, though it is not possible to do so throughtfully. We can only grasp God's goodness is relation to created (and redeemed) goods. Love thus follows a path from the world through the self and neighbour to God.

Goodness for me is an event, a history. It occurs in time. This doesn't mean that change is all that matters. The goodness of God is not simply something past and achieved, it is also a promise. In admiring, we learn to anticipate God's future goodness. It is as we are placed before a given good that is open to perfection that we begin to hope. Hope holds before us a future that is our good. Opens a space in which we may act. Our ultimate hope, extended to an absolute future means we can intend to our immediate future.*
*Again, I wasn't sure I followed this section, but I think O'Donovan was making a similar point to Barth's comment about little and big hopes. He included a quote from Augustine and extending and intending, which I missed. There is more on hope in the third lecture.

Virtue is a form of goodness realised in others around us, a glimpse of what human action is given to be. Virtue is in the first place in the third person and visible, rather than internal. It is not a law, ideal or command. The virtues are not to be imitated, but to be loved. They are the evidence or seal on God's promise for our lives, communicating a promise of the perfection we lack. Virtue is a kind of goodness, not rightness.


Question time included queries about the Word of God (O'Donovan spoke with great care of Christ, the Scriptures and Christian proclamation), more on his closing comments about virtues, the reality of evil (O'Donovan repeated the view of the fathers that Satan is perfectly good insofar as he exists. The problem with Satan is not what is there, but what is not there: love. There is a hole at the centre of Satan. Living from fear is living out Satanic emptiness [making interesting links with Voldemort]. When we confront the Other, do we highlight what is not known and centre on that? Satan asks us to worship a lack. A further question asked then if evil only existed in the mind, to which he replied that evil is an event, a doing, rather than a being. Satan's evil is not in his being, but in his rebellion. In our sin we assert ourselves against reality), the difficulty of portraying goodness in art due to our cynicism (a protective mechanism, which believers can dispense with in order to be expert admirers), and on eschatology. This final question took a few attempts to articulate, until finally the questioner came right out and asked "Are you pre-, post- or amillennialist? What is your eschatology?". There was an audible dropping of the collective penny and we turned to hear O'Donovan's reply. "I have no eschatology," he said, "apart from that of the New Testament." He refused to systematise or sequentialise the scriptural images of what he called "the absolute future", though confessed his orthodox belief in the return of Christ, the judgement of God and the resurrection of the dead.

All three nights were well attended and had excellent, albeit fairly brief, question times. Everyone I spoke with agreed that this second lecture was the hardest to follow. As I heard someone say on the third night, "I followed him down all the streets, but I missed some of the corners." And I think my note-taking reflects that: I got many/most of his assertions, but didn't always grasp the logical links and moves between them. If these summaries feel jerky, that is why.
Ten points for providing a link to a very similar photo on this blog, taken just a few metres further back.
Series: I; IIa; IIb; IIIa; IIIb.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

O'Donovan on wakefulness IIa: Admiring

I will need to be briefer today as I have less time. Last night was also more difficult than Tuesday.

The second lecture was called Admiring and in it, O'Donovan spoke of the human echo to the divine 'behold, it was good'. Moral deliberation begins with observation and ends with obligation. It begins by admiring the goodness of the world and ends by resolving on the rightness of an act. In each case, this lecture sought to address the former, leaving the latter for the third and final address.

In the world are goods to be known and loved. Indeed 'admiration' admirably captures this affective cognition, or cognitive affection, this combination of knowledge and love. Admiring is not an act, it is a resting; the goods which we admire are objective (it would have been interesting to have heard someone press him on cultural construction of goods, but there were enough other interesting things in the lecture that no one did) and so morality is not a way of expressing ourselves or an act of will. Ockham's ontological miserliness needs to be countered by generosity if we are to receive anything in return. That is, whether something is 'good' or not is not an additional property added on later by human will, as though we get to decide and attribute 'values' to things.

Indeed, what we know, we know as good. What we do not know as good, we do not know. Morality doesn't begin after knowledge. Love is there with knowledge from the start. In this, O'Donovan was affirming Augustine's view of evil as privation, as a lack of good (just as darkness is a lack of light and coldness is a lack of heat), rather than as anything 'positive' in its own right. Indeed, O'Donovan's Augustinianism came through very powerfully throughout this talk.

But what about 'bare facts'? Don't we sometimes know things that are themselves value-neutral? Yes, though these are not instances of pure knowledge, purgued of subjective confusion, but of incomplete knowledge, aspects of reality that we do not yet know how to know. Like jigsaw pieces, we can describe their shape, colour and size, but until we know where they fit, we don't know them as something; we don't yet know them for what they are. Such 'objective' knowledge is only knowledge of the surface, ignoring the depth, and can only be sustained for so long.

So moral knowledge is not knowledge of bare facts, because knowledge of bare facts is not real knowledge at all. Neither does the observer disappear in self-forgetful fascination. No, moral knowledge is reflective knowledge that includes knowledge of the self as loving: "love implies love of one's own love" as Augustine said (somewhere).


I've run out of time and need to head off, even though I haven't yet got to the most interesting material on dread, repentence, conversion, the ordering of loves, gratitude and hope. I'll have to come back to this later.
Fifteen points for correctly naming this natural speleological feature.
Series: I; IIa; IIb; IIIa; IIIb.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

O'Donovan on wakefulness I: Waking

Last night I went to hear Oliver O'Donovan give the first of three lectures on Morally Awake? Admiration and resolution in the light of Christian faith.

This first lecture was entitled Waking and he took as his starting point the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume's famous paragraph questioning the route from 'is' to 'ought': how do we engage in successful moral reasoning such that our descriptions of the world (what 'is')and ourselves lead us to practical outcomes (what we 'ought' to do)?

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

- David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, book III, part I, section I.

This, he argued, was not an attempt to articulate what later became known as the fact/value distinction (between bare public facts and private selections of values), but was the first attempt to discuss the difference between the good and the right. What is good is something real about the world that we appreciate or admire; what is right is what we do as a result. We admire the good and resolve to do the right (hence the subtitle of the series; lecture 2 will be on Admiring and lecture 3 on Resolving).

Yet in order to trace a path from the good to the right, it is necessary to employ various metaphors or images: construction, insight, weighing up, making choices (O'Donovan, in keeping with his consistent anti-voluntarist agenda, was very critical of this last option). Although we may usually and casually switch images as suits the moment, at points, the metaphor we use is crucial. O'Donovan suggested that a key scriptural metaphor in this regard is wakefulness. Although in the Old Testament, the image is often used of God waking up and taking action, in the New, it is assumed that God is awake, he has acted. And so Jesus and the apostles frequently encourage believers to watch out or be alert (e.g. Matthew 24:42-43; Mark 13:37; 14:37-38; Luke 12:15, 38; 17:3; 21:36; Acts 20:28; Galatians 6:1; Philippians 3:1-3; 1 Timothy 4:16; 2 John 1:8). Although in Ephesians 5.14 waking is used of conversion, usually the image speaks of staying awake. We can't presume to be awake; we must be attentive to staying attentive.

And this attention is oriented in three directions: the world, the self and time.

First, we must be awake to the world, to the contextual framework that surrounds our existence, which precedes (and presumably postdates) our existence. It is possible to drift through the world inattentively, thinking it is a screen for my projections, and so fail to notice, or notice in only a fragmentary and fleeting manner. How we describe objects in our experience is itself part of moral deliberation: is a foetus a human being or a collection of tissue? To attend to the world responsibly means to avoid imposing our desires, assuming that how we want things to be is actually the way they are. This attention is not easy or straightforward. But failure to attend to how things are, to 'mistake' one thing for another (I thought you were an economic unit; little did I know that you were a human being with dignity and worth) is not innocent. Such inattention is culpable, and according to Augustine, is the basic human sin (the basic angelic sin is pride). Thus, the line between moral and theoretical reason does not lie between prescriptive versus descriptive language. To describe is already a moral act.

Second, we must be awake to ourselves. Although experimental disciplines practice a form of self-abnegation, this only makes sense within a larger self-awareness, a desire to avoid having myself as observer interfere with the object under observation. Attention is active, we need to look. And so to be aware of oneself as attentive is to be aware of oneself as active, as a force in the world, to find oneself as an agent in the world with distinct, albeit limited, responsibility. The failure to attend to ourselves as actors is the sin of sloth, the temptation to withdraw from the agentive self. This may arise from despair, or simply from a carelessness in which we sense ourselves as the suffer of the impositions of others: "Look what you made me do!"

Third, we must be aware of time, as well as the world and the self. I act now. I can reflect on the past and I can imagine the future, but I can only deliberate on the present. Of course memory and foresight are morally significant, but only as they impinge on the present. Moral thinking does not mean making predictions about the future; the moralist has no business with crystal balls. Even the Son doesn't know the day or the hour of that absolute future when the kingdom will come in fullness.

These three orientations help diagnose typical failures in moral deliberation. Attention to the world without attention to the self leads to the observational mode, in which ethics is replaced with social science. Attention to my own powers of agency without attention to the world leads to the technological imperative in which the ends serve the means. Attention to the self and to the world without attention to time leads to idealism, missing the good deeds for this time and place.

This trifold structure can also be related to a more familiar one. Love renews our consciousness of the world; faith renews our knowledge of the self; hope renews our awareness of time and possibility.

In question time O'Donovan was asked about the relationship between wakefulness and the past, prayer, conversion, decision-making, secular moral reasoning and sin. Perhaps the most interesting discussion was about decision-making. Often we understand moral deliberation as if we have an apple in one hand and a pear in the other and it's a toss up as to which we might bite into. Not so. According to O'Donovan, moral deliberation is a process of refining and clarifying in which we realise we have no other choice. The 'decision' is simply to recognise the outstanding candidate, not tossing a coin between two equal options.

The lectures will be are generously available for download in a few weeks now from the New College website.
Eight points for guessing the European city in the pic.
Series: I; IIa; IIb; IIIa; IIIb.

Proverb of the week V

Even fools who keep silent are considered wise;
      when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.

- Proverbs 17.28

September Points Table

The August points table is now complete, and as usual, I've now awarded ten points to Hecta, five to Poncho, three to Donna and one to Dave Saxey and Matthew Moffitt for taking out the top four spots.

September's competition scoreboard:

22: Moffitt the prophet
12: Matt Lemieux
At this point, there are over 370 points available, and more may well be offered during the month.
Twelve points to the first non-Sydneysider who can explain why this area of Sydney is in the news this week.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Evangelical Social Engagement

The Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance has released a Statement on Evangelical Social Engagement (published here in Christianity Today). It's an interesting read, and begins like this:

The confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ has immediate political implications for the witness of the church in the world.
Before you go and read it, ask yourself, "what are those implications?" - then see how closely they match the suggestions in the document.

Monday, September 03, 2007

A sign of the times

With APEC hitting Sydney this week (21 world leaders from nations comprising over 50% of global GDP), I'm looking for a sign. That is, a sign to go up out the front of our church. Any suggestions?

The current sign reads Thank God you're here. I'm intrigued to frequently find new people mentioning the sign as one reason they felt willing to check out our church. Earlier this year, I mentioned a few previous attempts, and also posted some pictures of the board.