20 October 2005

o'donovan on tradition

Before dozing off at night, I've been picking up and reading Oliver O'Donovan's Common Objects of Love: Moral Reflection and the Shaping of Community (Eerdmans 2002). This is a relatively short book (only 72 pages) containing his 2001 Stob Lectures presented at Calvin College and Seminary. The three lectures, for all their brevity, nonetheless raise important issues and present helpful insights about community and shared identity from a theological perspective.

At one point O'Donovan begins discussing the importance of tradition in community formation. He suggests that tradition involves both a present activity of sharing, but also involves a possession of patterns and practices that have been received from the past and continue to be recognized. This is something rather different from "traditionalism," which attempts to start afresh with something that's fallen into disuse. There may be nothing wrong with that in various situations - some traditions ought to be revived - but such a retrieval is not, in itself, tradition.

O'Donovan goes on to gesture towards the command, "Honor your father and mother," noting that the law of Moses was directed to the adults of the community and thus this command is not first of all about the behavior of children. Rather, it is directed to adults, calling them to sustain and continue the process of cultural transmission of which they have been the beneficiaries from their own parents. I found this is an interesting observation (thought hardly novel, I suppose).

Of course one of the troubling things in the world, O'Donovan goes on to note, is that there "is more than one society, more than one set of social self-representations, and so more than one window on the world, each showing a somewhat different view" (36-7). This, however, gives rise to a difficulty: on one hand, truth makes exclusive claims and will not be contradicted; on the other hand, given that humanity is inherently social, the communication of truth cannot occur outside of a social context. In turn, this creates a further difficulty, forcing a society to act more urgently in maintaining its tradition in the face of competing visions of reality, while that very urgency betrays the fact that the tradition is not the "simple mediation of reality" that it claims to be (37-8).

This difficulty is one that is particularly pressing within modernity. O'Donovan writes:
Modernity especially, born of a lively rediscovery of the relativity of traditions, concealed its own transmission of tradition by a tradition of scorn for tradition, so providing itself with a cloak to hide the nakedness of its self-perpetuation - like an enlightened schoolmaster who sets the pupils the discipline of writing out a hundred times the sentence, "Never reproduce what someone else has dictated!" (38)
I thought that quotation was too good not to blog, summing up in a single vivid image, the condition of postmodernity, where the pupils have come to see the schoolmaster's dissimulation all too clearly.

O'Donovan goes on to note that theology provides its own perspective on this situation, "a narrative that unfolds the fall and the redemption of society, its self-knowledge and its self-love" (39). This "social and epistemological 'fall'," O'Donovan suggests, is not a matter of falling into "plural consciousness as such." Otherwise, the fall devolves into a problem of ontology, of the fall of unity into plurality, of difference - a fall that supposes the god of Neoplatonism, rather than the Trinity of Christian faith.

The biblical story of the Tower of Babel suggests instead that plurality, rather than lying at the heart of evil, is in fact a curb on evil's effects. The fall into sin that the Scriptures narrate is not one of unity into plurality, but of "false pretension to achieve the perspective of God," seizing upon a "discrimination to which human beings must come," but claiming rights to that discrimination before it was granted by grace (40-1). Thus, human idolatry seeks to confine God into its own structures so that society's traditions, rather than forming "a window through which its member see the world," instead becomes "a screen which blocks out what is most worth seeing" (41).

What is necessary, then, is the patience of a faith that lives within an eschatological tension, in a hope for a universal society that relativizes our present social identities as part of the temporal order that continually passes away. Without this vision of the eschatological reign of God, we cannot see our communities and social forms "in sober clarity, as grounds neither of boasting nor shame" (44). And this eschatological vision, and the present ascesis it engenders, is to be found by becoming "actual members of a real community," that is, the church "constituted by the real and present image of God as uniquely lord, and the real and present image of mankind as subject uniquely to God" (44).

And such a community only comes into being through "Jesus Christ, very God and very man."