Sunday, February 27, 2011

The novelty of today

"This train of thought offers us an insight into one aspect of the challenge presented by the contemporary ecological situation, its novelty. The world has never seen a phenomenon like the contemporary resource and ecological crises. There have been various patterns of ecological degradation in various cultures, but none with the constellation of features that this one presents. And we need hardly be surprised at this turn in history if we reflect on the extraordinary discontinuities that exist between late-modern society, taken as a whole, and traditional societies. To understand the contemporary ecological situation without achieving some understanding of late-modernity as a civilisational phenomenon is out of the question. But then, how can we understand late-modernity without understanding contemporary ecological crises? Can we pretend to take a reading of the spiritual condition of our ultra-technological age without reading deeply the distinctive and novel forms of emotional experience that it has generated? It does not matter whether we suppose this society and its emotional forms will be short-lived or long-lived. The point is, they are of our day; they constitute a horizon of our mission. To live in our time, as in any other, is to have a unique set of practical questions to address."

- Oliver O'Donovan, Good News for Gay Christians:
Sermons on the Subjects of the Day
, §13.

Who knew that O'Donovan was such a radical greenie? OK, I confess I have changed a couple of words in the above quote. But only a couple. Wherever you see "ecology" (and cognates), substitute "homosexuality" (and cognates) to discover the original (which can also be found here). But my point is that the novelty of the contemporary situation is morally relevant, whether we are considering homosexuality or ecological degradation. This is likely to itself be a contentious claim amongst those who think the application of Holy Scripture to our contemporary situation is always more or less straightforward. Yet there is no need to be threatened by the observation that God's Word addresses us today. We are quite familiar with the need to translate not just out of Greek and Hebrew and into our own tongue but also out of the socio-cultural context(s) in which the scriptures were written and into our own. This is not always an easy task, but ignoring it won't make it go away. Of course, this needs to be a genuine translation that seeks to communicate the meaning of the scriptural witness, not simply the replacement of scriptural concepts, forms and ways of life for those we find more familiar or comforting.

If only I had remembered this quote in some of our supervision meetings as it may have saved a little time! Still, it good that he has been pushing me to try to articulate the nature and implications of this novelty. I will be posting more on the novelty of today's ecological situation in coming weeks. Any help on the interpretation of its theological and ethical significance would be much appreciated.


Sam Charles Norton said...

Is O'Donovan your supervisor?

byron smith said...


Sam Charles Norton said...

I'd forgotten - you lucky man :)