(That post title is for you, Donny)
It seems that God calls two very different sorts of people to do work for his kingdom in speaking, writing, preaching, and so on. On the one hand, He needs people who go around with flamethrowers, blasting false prophets mercilessly wherever they see them, hurling prophetic thunderbolts at the ungodly, men who when asked “Is it peace?” reply like Jehu, “What peace, so long as the harlotries of your mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many?” On the other hand, he needs folks who are more even-tempered and soft-spoken, whose motto is “a gentle answer turns away wrath,” and who, like Joseph and Daniel, have learned the virtue of listening sympathetically and pursuing peace with their enemies. These two personalities characterize not merely individuals, but also denominations and traditions—Presbyterians are notoriously the former; Anglicans notoriously the latter.
The problem, of course, is that either of these personalities can often find themselves doing the devil’s work, rather than the Lord’s. The flamethrower may be so trigger-happy that he roasts friends and foes indiscriminately, and frightens away those who might be interesting in hearing God’s message. The peacemaker, on the other hand, might find that he has accommodated away his own grandmother in the interest of “seeking mutual understanding,” and has left anyone interested in hearing God’s message confused as to what exactly it might be.
And because of this, those of each personality may find it difficult to believe that the other group is doing the Lord’s work, and may dedicate themselves to thwarting the other’s work. Presbyterian hotheads start blasting away with their flamethrowers at the Anglican moderates whom they are sure are doing the devil’s work, and the Anglican moderates exasperatedly devote themselves to trying to douse all the flames that the evangelicals keep lighting.
It is precisely this predicament that has been thrown into stark relief by the gay controversy, and of which Wilson’s scoffing dismissal of O’Donovan’s The Church in Crisis provides such an excellent example. But of course, God needs both, and both need to figure out how to work together. Is O’Donovan making the kind of fatal compromise for which his race are so infamous (think Neville Chamberlain), or is he saying some profound and constructive things to which we all need to pay attention? Is Wilson raising a godly alarm against an attempt to sneak liberalism in through the back door, or is he, like the Confederate troops at Chancellorsville, getting spooked and pouring a volley into one of the best generals for his own side?
This is the puzzle I hope to solve in these reviews. I should be entirely forthright and say that, after careful reading and reflection, I think the answer is much more the latter, but I’ll try to establish that point-by-point.
In chapter 1, entitled “The Failure of the Liberal Paradigm,” O’Donovan seeks to trace the historical roots of the liberal movement, and in the process, displays the odd contradictions at its core—how did the middle-of-the-road peacemaker liberals become the drum-rolling radical liberals? It becomes clear in this first chapter that O’Donovan’s primary concern is with the liberal wing in the homosexual debate. This is a rather important point to note. Evangelicals might approach this book, having gotten it into their head (from reading reviews like Wilson’s) that O’Donovan is something of a liberal, and therefore, must assume that his main target is evangelicals. It is not. The audience he primarily wishes to address and call to account (albeit in as conciliatory a manner as possible) is the liberal wing of the Church that has pressed for gay ordination. We must keep this in mind throughout the book, or else we may find ourselves sorely confused at times.
He begins by observing that, in their actions regarding Gene Robinson and the blessing of same-sex unions, the North American churches were making political statements. He then remarks somewhat sardonically, “In defending them the North American churches followed the counsel that it was wiser not to be too explicit. The spoke to the world about a “discernment” they had been privileged to make over a long time and from the grassroots up, leaving the ontology of the question strictly to one side. The Windsor Report thought it surprising that the actions of the Canadian and US churches were so unaccompanied by theological explanation or interpretative commentary.” (2)
The Anglican Church, O’Donovan observes, has long been “liberal” in the sense that it has been in the “habit of negotiating stubborn oppositions by synthesizing them within a central, undogmatic stream of opinion.” This tendency became particularly important in the aftermath of the Oxford Movement, as the Church had to hold together strongly catholic and strongly evangelical wings. However, in the recent development of liberalism, we find that “the historically centripetal middle had become a new centrifugal pole.”
In response to the homosexual crisis, Canterbury and others have insisted on maintaining the traditional attitude of the Communion—“stepping back, untangling the skein, reconciling conflicting views, toning down exaggerated positions, forging coalitions, squaring circles, finding commonsense ways through,” but no one seems willing to do this anymore. “In its place are radical postures, strident denunciations, and moralistic confessionalism.” In this, again, it is important to note that his main target is the liberals, and to remark on the oddity that the liberals are now the feisty dogmatists; but of course, there is here also a criticism for the evangelicals, many of whom, feeling threatened, have felt the need to indulge in “radical postures, strident denunciations, and moralistic confessionalism” as well. Inasmuch as this is his point, we reach here a first point of tension, for the evangelical is going to insist that there are times when this is just what the Bible calls for. Perhaps so. But I would suggest here an analogy from Just War theory—only as a last resort, only when all peaceful means have been exhausted, because, while the conflict may in fact be just, there is a terrible risk that it may not be, and that we may do much needless harm. Biblically, I think, the danger of overhasty war is greater than the danger of overstrained peace. This point shall come up again and again.
As he sets out to tell the tale of liberal Christianity, O’Donovan first takes a moment to acknowledge the Church’s debt to liberalism. This will jar in the ears of many of us, but is surely a point always worth making. The questioning habit of mind that liberalism fostered, while deeply subversive of many valuable things, has also opened up insights and avenues of inquiry that the Church had never found before, and for this, we must give it credit. The jarring tone that O’Donovan here sounds is quickly harmonized.
O’Donovan’s analysis of the roots of theological liberalism is masterful. In the nineteenth-century (and indeed, beginning with Kant and pietism before), liberalism operated on the assumption of the priority of the ethical. That is to say, liberalism took it for granted that, while dogmatic conclusions were always debatable and doubtful, everyone could at least agree on what constituted morality. Thus, the liberals simply posited the reigning ethical norms, presupposing them to be valid, and then used them as a grid through which to force Scripture and tradition, disposing of the claims of each that could not stand the ethical test.
The liberal standpoint, while doubting all that the past held down, bowed in homage to the present: “The inner shrine of the liberal gospel was its attitude of respectful attentiveness to the world as it is.” The world as it was could be equated with the revelation of God, and liberalism thus broke down the traditional barriers between God and the world, and between the eschatological future and the sinful present. Because God’s revelation was coterminous with the present world, it could not stand in judgment over it, but always affirmed it. Church institutions, within the liberal paradigm, are an obstacle, since they are holdovers from a past that must be transcended, and since they display an antithesis between world and church that liberalism is keen to overcome.
All this is a sketch of the liberalism that prevailed until the World Wars, and which, by tethering the narrative of God’s self-revelation to the narrative of Western civilization, foundered on the same rocks that Western civilization broke up upon. Subsequently, liberalism had to find a way to reinvent itself, and the new form both contradicted and radicalized the earlier form.
The moral norms of Western consciousness could no longer be presupposed, since they were hotly debated and there was no longer (if there had ever been) an ethical consensus. As a result, liberalism, in keeping with its prejudice against the past, adopted as its new narrative and moral inspiration the struggle for emancipation, the struggle for minorities to overcome the prejudices of the past and assert their rights. The civil rights and liberation movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s “threw a lifeline to a floundering liberal imagination, offering a matrix by which the present could be seen as standing in perpetual judgment on the past, allowing the Western hegemonic tradition of modernity to rebrand its anticonservative appeal….In grasping the lifeline, however, Western liberalism paid its price. From that point on, it became identified with one kind of moral cause to the exclusion of others. It became a church-party proper, a specific agenda to pit against other agendas.”
This picture of course reveals a number of deep problems within the liberal paradigm, but here’s the key one for O’Donovan’s purposes. The liberal agenda has simply posited the moral right of emancipation causes—the particular features and interests of any given minority party are really of little interest or importance to the liberal agenda. The liberal agenda simply drags minorities forward, says, “You know what you really lack? Equal rights, freedom from abusive prejudice. That’s what we’ll give you. And then you’ll have everything you need.” As O’Donovan sharply puts it, “The gay cause is grist for the liberal mill while it is in militant mode, for the mill processes victim classes in want of a fair deal.” But, once the cause has been dealt with, once homosexuals have gotten their equal rights, the liberal agenda will abandon them and move on to another cause.
Who we need to hear from, O’Donovan insists at the end of the chapter, are not the liberal activists, but gay Christians themselves. What is it that they are really looking for? How do they understand their experience, and what questions are they asking about how they fit into the Christian community? Until we start hearing answers to these questions from them, instead of from the liberal clergy, we will not be able to honestly evaluate the nature of the questions and challenges that the gay movement within the Church poses to the Church. O’Donovan concludes by asking, “Is the gay Christian movement still attached to the wheels of the liberal chariot, content with the victim mentality that the liberal program prescribes for it? Or can it present itself as the bearer of an experience of the human that is, at the very least, of irreplaceable important for our understanding of our own times? Is it of age, able to speak for itself? On the answer to that a great deal may depend.”
All this, I think, should be entirely uncontroversial. Perhaps the most strident among the evangelical ranks will protest that they have no interest in hearing the gay Christian movement “speak for itself”—just call these sinners to repentance, and have done with it, some will say. But this is surely not a Christian attitude—even if we are to assume that the gay Christian’s experience is wholly corrupt and sinful, with nothing constructive to offer (and we’ll come back to this), we are surely bound to listen sympathetically to the sinner even as we call him to repentance. And, as O’Donovan suggests, listening sympathetically is something that few among the evangelicals or among the liberals has done properly.