Book Review: The Desire of the Nations (PART 1)

Jesus is Lord.

This is something we who are called to follow Jesus are also called to proclaim. But this isn’t a simple proclamation of faith — like the shahadah, in which Muslims proclaim the oneness of God and confess that Muhammad is the messenger of God, this is proclamation with political implications.

This is the idea Oliver O’Donvan is dealing with in The Desire of The Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (1996). This review covers the first two chapters, where O’Donovan tries to get past Enlightenment suspicion of theological and religious motives and meaning in political action, and then tries to figure out exactly where and how political authority emerges in the biblical history of Israel.

O’Donovan starts with doubt and suspicion, which has come to color our understanding both of politics and public morality. He roots it in the effective abandonment of metaphysics in the West and the sense meaning itself was purely subjective:

In the seventeenth century philosophy came to lose confidence in the objectivity of final causes. Political community, even when created from below, had been believed to be ordained by Providence to serve the end of earthly perfection; but now there arose a tradition of explaining societies entirely by reference to efficient causes, focusing these in a notional compact whereby each individual citizen was supposed to have sovereignty over his own person in return for certain protections. Individual agents had their ends; but objective structures only had their origins. Moral purposes and goals, questions of human virtue and fulfillment, seemed intrusive, another form of theocratic temptation. The internalizing of morality, then, lead modernity once again to radicalize its suspicions. (p.8)

Liberation theology — what O’Donovan calls “the Southern school” — has been “the most effective” challenge in the 20th century to “the liberal consensus on the separation of theology and politics,” but it does so, O’Donvan notes, mostly drawing from within the liberal tradition itself (from the left edge). It leaves unchallenged the driving liberal notion that history “is the history of society, which embraces both the patterns of social order and of social right and the movements on unmasking in which these patterns are seen through and overthrown.” (p.9) In short, Modernity (the word I will use to describe the “liberal consensus”) already considers its own critique, which can then be turned around as a critique. It’s an ever-descending (or ascending, if you wish) inward turning spiral that seeks resolution but cannot find one.

In fact, O’Donovan writes of the pointlessness of criticism and suspicion in the 20th century sense — nothing can be built on it:

In a political theology that hopes to constructive and tell the truth, the ‘cue bono?’ question has a distinct but strictly limited usefulness. It alerts us to the fact that political theories are related to the actual political commitments of those who hold them. But it does not tell us whether those commitments are good or bad, generous or mean-spirited, true or false. It does not entitle us to think that no theory ever looks beyond the interest of its proponents. It is therefore useful as an interpretive tool, to test and to prove the scope and integrity of any given theory in the first place. Once totalized, criticism merely evacuates itself of content and turns into a series of empty gestures. (p.11)

The quest for authority, especially in a suspicious age, is of great concern for O’Donovan. And he roots authority in scripture — particularly in the story of Israel — and therefore, political truth and authority are matters of exegesis.

O’Donovan celebrates “the Southern School” for taking scripture far more seriously than most other theological approaches in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, again, the problem with the liberationists is they are too dependent on Modernity to construct meaning and purpose:

[The Southern School has], however, advocated a strategy of enriching [scriptural concepts] with other concepts borrowed from the social sciences. This strategy as such need cause no qualms; theology has often borrowed concepts from other disciplines of thought, and, indeed, the work of theory more or less demands it. … The problem is the choice of social-scientific guidance is a restrictive one, closing off the possibility of a fully political conceptuality. As we have observed, in speaking of ‘society’ late-moderns abstract from questions of government. This abstraction can serve a useful ascetic preparation for political theory: it can correct the formalism to which theories of government are prone; it can remind use that society is a vital dynamism that controls its leaders as much as it is controlled by them. Yet the societies we inhabit are politically formed. They depend on the art of government; they are interested in the very questions from which the study of society abstracts. (p.16)

(I never imagined appreciating a critique of liberation theology that claimed it isn’t political enough…)

The Southern school lacks “a concept of authority,” O’Donovan writes, and this is important because authority “is also a central theme of the pre-modern political theology, which sought to find criteria from the apostolic proclamation to test every claim to authority made by those who possessed, or wished to possess, power.” (p.17)

This suspicion of authority, combined with an inability to even conceive of legitimate authority, results in the “political incoherence at the heart of contemporary politico-theological aspirations” and no concept of a common good at the heart of any political endeavor.” O’Donovan hopes to reclaim this with a theology centered in the story of Israel. He makes a crucial distinction. We moderns want to ground legitimacy and authority in institutions and offices, but the divine rule outlined in the biblical story of Israel is the history of political acts:

The political act is the divinely authorized act. A political theology will seek to understand how and why God’s rule confers authority upon such acts. It is not its goal to describe an ideal set of institutions; for political institutions are anyway too fluid to assume an ideal form, since they are the work of Providence in the changing affairs of successive generations. The assimilation of the idea of authority to office and structure was a cardinal mistake which arose as Western politics turned its back its theological horizons. (p.20)

We must take Israel’s history seriously, because only a close reading of that history — as the history of redemption, rather than as progress — helps us make sense of of the meaning and ends of our lives.

To regain the biblical notion of authority, O’Donovan writes it is important to recover a pre-modern understanding of political authority arising in the gulf between God and Man, as opposed to the alienation of the human will from itself (characteristic of the humanist understanding):

The strength of this approach is its emphasis on the objective otherness of what confronts us in political authority. It has aligned this otherness, not incorrectly, with the great otherness that we discover in existence itself, the otherness which religion responds to of the human and the divine. But its failure is the failure of an underdetermined theism on every front: how to present the otherness of God as propitious to mankind. The presence of political authority is like a symbol on earth of the vaguely threatening inscrutability of the divine purpose for the human race. (p.32)

In scripture, the political authority is presented to Israel when God proclaims (and Israel liturgically chants back) “YHWH is King.” O’Donovan then engages in a remarkably close reading of scripture (really, it is impressive) to fill the chapter with examples of how God’s kingship manifests itself — God saves, God judges, and God possesses. He looks past institutions like the judges, the monarchy, the priesthood, and even prophets, to see the actions that characterize how God exercises sovereignty (a word that can be derived from מלך) and thus acts as Israel’s king.

The unique covenant of Yhwh and Israel can be seen as a point of disclosure from which the nature of all political authority comes into view. Out of the self-possession of this people in their relation to God springs the possibility of other peoples’ possessing themselves in God. (p.45)

From all of this, O’Donovan distills three theorems. (p-46-47)

  1. Political authority arises where power, the execution of right and the perpetuation of tradition are assured together in one coordinated agency. (For several years, I’ve described this process as: put two more more people together, and they will create and sustain power, its use, and shared resources. This makes political activity a fundamentally human one, and it is inescapable.)
  2. That any regime should actually come to hold authority, and should continue to hold it, is a work of divine providence in history, not a mere accomplishment of the human task of political service. (Or, as O’Donovan notes, political authority, “with its associated authorization of power, right and tradition, its demands for deference and the various social benefits it confers, is simply presented to us a fact within history.” There is no right or wrong side of history for regimes or their “types,” and any regime that can actually establish and maintain itself possesses the “mandate of heaven.” There are no eternal or blessed forms, merely the acts of God.)
  3. In acknowledging political authority, society proves its political identity. (“Acknowledgement is the fundamental relation between that obtains between a society and its own political authorities. It recognizes them — not in the constructive sense of conferring existence on them by recognition, but in the much more basic sense of simply acknowledging that they are there and they are theirs.” Politics cannot start without this acknowledgment.)

O’Donovan then looks at how this relationship between God and Israel was mediated — in Moses and Joshua, in the Judges, in the Kings, and then in the prophets. These are mediators, who bridge that huge gap between God and humanity, and they reflect the acts of God to deal with God’s people as circumstances demand. Because the story of scripture shows a God loathe to step in and radically alter the conditions or circumstances of God’s people (save for a few examples, such as the Exodus or the Incarnation). Rather, God generally acts within the confines of human history, uses human beings as He finds them, and acts through and in them.

I recently wrote a post about what I see as the major difference between Islam and the (badly named) Jewish-Christian tradition — that is, a long history full of failure and the contemplation of the meaning of the divine promise in that failure versus a short history of success. That expansive history is what God meets us in, and all of that history matters. Because God in present, and acts, in all of it.

This understanding of history is highly dependent on personality (that it, individual human beings in the right place at the right time) and circumstance. And this is deeply offensive to our modern sensibilities since humanity has been striving, since at least sometime in the 19th century, to create a world in which institution, law, procedure are far more important than personality and circumstance. In which government and society are mere machines, rather than things of flesh and blood.

But law has a place. Israel’s experience of exile, and the role foreign kings such as Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus play, show for O’Donovan that the rule of God works “internationally,” but is seen more as law rather than government, simply because that is the “international order” as we find it. (He also says something really tantalizing that he promises to explain in much greater detail later, “[I]f Israel’s experience of government is to be taken as a model for other societies, then we must allow that divine providence is ready to protect other national traditions besides the sacred one,” allowing for a significant degree of theological-based pluralism.) But explains this approach to law between the nations this way:

In securing the total tradition of humanity, we are in a context in which it is out of place to invoke the commanding role of government; but it is not out of place to invoke the role of law and to conceive relations between particular national communities in terms of law-structure. This says something about the limits of our collective identities. To be a human being at all is to participate in one of more collective identities. But there is no collective identity so overarching and all-encompassing that no human beings are left outside it. In that sense it is true that to speak of ‘humanity’ is to speak of an abstraction. Only in that sense, for in fact ‘humanity’ has a perfectly conceivably referent, and we should not hesitate to say that ‘humanity’ is real. But it is not a reality that we can command politically. We do not meet it in any community, however great, which we could assume the leadership. We meet it only in the face of Christ, who presents himself as our leader and commander. The titanic temptation which besets collectives needs the checks of a perpetual plurality at the universal level. There are always ‘others’, those not of our fold whom we must respect and encounter. (p.73)

Finally, O’Donovan tackles the idea and place of the individual within Israel, and he does this to deal with the figure of the prophet, who becomes the final kind of mediator between God and Israel, a person who “on the one hand … expresses the anger of Yhwh against the people, on the other the misery and despair of the people under the blow of Yhwh’s anger.” (p.76) The prophet’s position is one of profound loneliness, in which his complaints at his isolation are met only with a renewed call to the prophetic mission. The individual here doesn’t exist for his or her own ends, but “as the bearer of a social understanding which recalls the formative self-understanding of the community itself. The individual speaks with society’s own forgotten voice.” (p.80)

I find O’Donovan’s description of the prophetic calling a very useful way of understanding Christ, and the one in-between God and humanity who bore the harsh judgement of God while at the same time bearing the groaning of the people under that judgement. The difference, Christ is able to do something about it (something O’Donovan notes mere prophets cannot) — he forgives sins and then actually bears the sins of the world, and the wrath of God, in his death. Rising to show that sin, wrath and death do not have the final say.

This is thick little book, written by an Oxford don. I’ve covered just the first two chapters here, and I will press on, and get to the next chapter or two as I can.

One thought on “Book Review: The Desire of the Nations (PART 1)

  1. I look forward to your future comments on this book. I have ordered a copy [now that my SS check is in 🙂 ]. It covers many questions which have troubled me for a long time.

    Tom Wright has often expressed your opening statement as a dichotomy: “Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.” [I playfully misconstrued this in my mind as “Bishops are Lords and cabinet ministers are not. But Wright is certainly not a high church Tory.] My primary question is, “How can we participate in the providential governance of God, in society or even within the church, however fluid our structures might be, without becoming Caesar?”

    It is certainly true that Christ can do what the prophets never could. But it seems we also need prophets, such as Nathan, when even the king most beloved of God became a tyrant.


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