The following paragraphs are some thoughts I took down while reading sermons by Oliver O’Donovan for my field education internship. O’Donovan's seven sermons were published initially in 2006-07 on the centrist evangelical Anglican website Fulcrum. O’Donovan is Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh, formerly Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford.
“The Failure of the Liberal Paradigm”
I thought O’Donovan’s opening sketch of liberalism was subtle and insightful. His recognition of its achievements was accurate and generous: we are all the beneficiaries of liberalism’s “habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly” (to quote Rowan Williams). O’Donovan’s emphasis on the liberal paradigm’s (Ritschlian) “primacy of the ethical” struck me as startlingly relevant and recognizable (I know these people!). But the sermon really hits its own unique stride when O’Donovan identifies the moral clarity of the 19th and following century as the factor enabling its revisionary attitude towards doctrine. The ethical convictions of the present could serve as the fixed pole from which to mold the received dogma into a more compliant shape. However, by taking the moral compass of its day as immediately apparent and actionable, liberalism foreshortened critical ethical deliberation. Per O’Donovan: “The tragic fault of liberal Christianity was to have no critical purchase on moral intuitions comparable to that which it had on doctrinal judgments.” On O’Donovan’s telling, when moral consensus in the West began to fissure in the 20th century, liberalism’s basis in moral intuition foundered, and it reached for a fresh story to animate it – namely, that of the emancipation of various oppressed communities. Here O’Donovan broaches his main thesis: that the liberal paradigm does a disservice to gays because it fits their particular experience into its standard “oppressed + victimized” category and gives little attention to the gay experience in its own right.
I found the first part of O’Donovan’s sketch convincing: liberalism prioritizes the ethical, traffics from the good to the true (and not too much the other direction), and thrives on moral clarity that is impatient with bourgeois and enervating ethical discussion. But I would have been interested to hear more about what O’Donovan thought the moral fissuring was that first imperiled this program (he mentions decolonialization). And I would also need more persuading that the emancipatory paradigm was a very late and desperate move for the liberal paradigm to make: doesn’t the whole emancipation storyline find its first footing in THE Emancipation (i.e., of black Americans; maybe it’s not as obvious to O’Donovan as a Brit!) and the women’s suffrage movement? Perhaps O’Donovan implicitly brackets these out because they operated by a different and perhaps more specifically, doctrinally Christian logic than their late 20th century successors? I wouldn’t want to defend that! Also, O’Donovan’s basic claim that the liberal paradigm is using the gay cause as a survival tactic and that it cares little for the specificity of gay experience is fascinating and bold: and yet, it would seem that the reason why so many gay people accept the liberal paradigm’s telling of their story is because it fits! That is, gays do not understand it as a paternalistic imposition that the liberal paradigm identifies them as an abused underclass in need of protection and emancipation! Whether other groups (principally, black Americans) are as glad of gays becoming the new cause célèbre in the emancipatory vision for which they were and are the pioneers is another matter.
I am fundamentally sympathetic to O’Donovan’s call for ethical deliberation with gay Christians about the nature and significance of their experience – apart from the trajectory of the liberal paradigm. At the same time, I find O’Donovan’s invitation suspicious. O’Donovan cites the provocative work of Michael Vasey, who suggested that because of their mutual focus on sex as a matter of interest in its own right (rather than a function of subjugation + emancipation), the natural conversation partner for gays would be Christians “of a more conservative stamp.” Nonetheless, Christians of a conservative stamp do not seem like fit interlocutors with gay Christians because as a constituency, they have shown little genuine interest in such conversations heretofore, and for the most part have rivaled their liberal counterparts in closing down ethical deliberation. To claim as O’Donovan that the situation of these Christians gives them a priori a greater openness than the desperate and declining liberals to listen to gays’ thick and exploratory description of their own, per se experience seems…cheeky, at best.
“Creation, Redemption, and Nature”
The sixth sermon of O’Donovan’s series takes as its point of departure the argument by the Church of Sweden that the “sacramental celebration of same-sex marriage” need not be plotted onto the basic Christian narrative of creation and redemption. O’Donovan points to this as an explanation for why this issue has caused such a fracas in the churches: in the perception of many, advocacy for same-sex relations has not identified whether “in contemplating a same-sex union…we are rejoicing in the bounty of creation, lamenting the distortion of human affections, or looking forward to the lineaments of the new creation.” Uncertainty about the situation of the movement within this Christian framework has created the fear of doctrinal revisionism. O’Donovan further posits that collapsing creation and redemption is characteristic of liberalism. The remainder of the sermon he dedicates to debating with R.M. Adams, whom he takes as a heuristic case of doing just that: erasing creation (“the world as it is”) as a source of moral discernment, altogether denying the perspicuity of nature, and moving determination of “the good” into a wholly future tense. The writing is very opaque here: but I gather that O’Donovan defends the moral intelligibility of the world, and within that, of the body’s expressiveness when rightly governed by the soul (He distinguishes between a good transcendence of the soul over the body within the terms of creation and a bad transcendence of the soul that occurs outside the terms of creation). By contrast, Adams seems to make of creation an empty set – the goods of sexuality like procreation and companionship are construed entirely apart from the “the way the world actually functions.” O’Donovan accuses Adams of thereby evacuating the “fulfillment” of creation in its redemption that is O’Donovan’s essential theological theme.
These are deep waters. I am very much on board with querying same-sex relations within the rubric of creation and redemption. Where I stumbled was on the epistemological stumbling stone. On my reading, O’Donovan’s distinctive insight is to connect the perspicuity of the natural order with the narrative of creation and redemption, such that denying its perspicuity also means denying the reality of creation. I haven’t read O’Donovan’s major work Resurrection and the Moral Order, so I am at a huge disadvantage here: but I couldn’t see why these were so interconnected. Couldn’t the natural order be rather resistant to our sin-warped discernment, but creation nonetheless constitute the robust antecedent to the redeemed world? I sympathized with Adams’ skepticism towards the perspicuity of “the natural order.” I floundered on O’Donovan’s rhetoric about ‘the way the world actually functions” as the moral clue that Adams refused to take. How do arguments from “the way things are” get off the ground? Does the heterosexual institution of marriage (the tacit object of this “way things actually function”) have a much more obvious continuity across time and cultures than various forms of homosexual commitment? O’Donovan also doesn’t have the corner on the market in insisting on the body’s essential expressiveness: in different forms, John Paul II and Rowan Williams have visited this topic, amongst others. Not only heterosexual desire can be conceived teleologically.
“Good News for the Gay Christian”
This final sermon is an extended attempt to re-envision gays, not as the latest abused underclass or as some ontological outlier to the rest of humanity, but as humans in basic solidarity with all humans in creation, sin, and redemption through Christ, called as all Christians to bear witness to the good news. O’Donovan argues that beyond this, however, gay Christians may have a special calling, which we all must discern together. This discernment, per O’Donovan, cannot happen in a vacuum, but requires conversance with the Christian tradition of moral reflection (But O’Donovan also observes that tradition rather than Scripture holds that marital commitment and singleness are “exclusive and comprehensive” options for gay Christians). The chapter is at its best when O’Donovan takes to task the simplistic anthropological assumptions inherent to the “desire-expression” view of human intentionality and action: he throws a heavy dose of obfuscation on the ostensive clarity of this common pair, on the grounds of original sin and its effects. O’Donovan also makes some provocative remarks about the novelty of the contemporary gay experience, and its mutuality within the larger frame of reference of late modern, capitalistic society. The fallout of this mutuality is that the riddle of contemporary gay experience is bound up with the riddle of modernity – and perhaps consequently gay Christians have unique insight to offer the rest of the body. O’Donovan advocates questioning friendship as the way forward in discerning the special calling of gay Christians within the body of Christ – rather than the “managerial juridicalization” of liberalism, which claims peremptorily to have plumbed the contours of gay experience. The chapter ends with the tantalizing hope that perhaps even if the church cannot come to agreement on this issue, that in the future it may no longer threaten and divide as it does now – we may collectively gain new perspective on the shape and size of the problem and learn to live with it, as we have with indissolubilist and nonindissolubilist views of marriage. I hope for that!