Friday 7 September 2007

O'Donovan on Moral Reasoning

The 2007 New College Lectures have just concluded and all those who attended were recipients of some wonderful teaching from Professor Oliver O’Donovan. When I met with him in Edinburgh last year to discuss the series Professor O’Donovan suggested that he wanted to present three talks on Moral Reasoning. He indicated that he had much thinking to do in the area and wanted to spend (perhaps) the next 10 years (!) exploring the topic. The series he presented on the 4th, 5th and 6th of September was titled Morally Awake? Admiration and resolution in the light of Christian faith. His talks were titled Waking, Admiring and Resolving.

Waking - On Night 1 he framed his opening talk around wakefulness - the mind alert to shape decisions and actions - using the metaphor of a journey. He suggested that moral reasoning requires us to think more seriously about the need for frequent journeys from what is the case, to what is not yet the case. To consider making right choices based on what is “good” and “right”. Moral thinking he said requires a journey from observation to obligation, from “goodness of the world” to the “rightness of some action”.

He outlined that we are to be attentive to: a) the world that surrounds us and with which we interact, b) self, c) and time, being only able to act now, although being able to reflect on the past and imagine the future. [An aside: I’d like to think through the place of prayer as we not only imagine the future but seek God’s intervention to direct our paths in specific directions; to make our imagined future reality. I think of Abraham pleading with God in Gen 18:16-19:29 to spare Sodom; seeking to God’s mind and the future and being changed in the process himself]. He also reminded us that to live life with one’s eyes closed is no excuse for our actions.

Admiring - On night two he explored “Admiration” and suggested that it “finds its proper object in the good, and terminates there”. Admiration is not mere effort or action, rather, it is “rest” in the biblical sense of the word. A form of knowledge, an experience of the objective. He suggested that through this “cognitive affection” we experience the world. Not just knowledge of “bare facts”, or unselfconscious objective knowledge. Moral knowledge is reflective.

There was much to consider. For me, his explanation of the place of attentiveness to the self was helpful. Our love of God and neighbour he suggested must be self-aware, not simply absent-minded.

Reflective self-love, the foundation of other loves, is the polar opposite of an unreflective pre-moral self-absorption, a self-complacence which consists in a failure to grasp the concreteness of the self, and so leaves us at the centre of our own universe without any bearings upon the reality of others.

An ordered knowledge of the world should lead to an ordered knowledge of self. Self not in competition with our “neighbour”, “God” or anything else. A warning against disproportionate attention to self.

There was also an acknowledgement that Christians believe that God is the source of our awaking and that the world is not fully grasped except as God’s creation and indeed new creation. The goodness of God is not just a gift, but also a promise of that which we might anticipate and to which the Bible in its pages point.

Resolving - On night three he closed the circle so to speak on his first night metaphor – the conclusion to the journey. [An aside: I assume also that in one sense it is the beginning, with “resolving” leading in turn to further experiences of “awaking”.] His concern in this lecture was how we make the transition of reason from what is the case to what we are to do. He started by pointing out that each area of experience of the world requires its own path of moral discussion (e.g. bioethics, political ethics, economic ethics etc). Moral reasoning is not mere problem solving, not just seeking solutions for life’s dilemmas. “Decision” he argued is “thinking brought to the point of action”. Not simply which of two courses of action to take, but simply “to take a course of action”. Not in a vacuum, but shaped by a train of thought which has resolved upon a course of action”.

He cautioned against viewing practical reason as ‘deliberation” and of weighing things up - of “proportional calculation”. He stressed that reason as resolution is to clarify our view of the work God has prepared before us to walk in, to point to where we might step in making a decision and engaging in action.” Quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:1-2) he reminded us that we are to be “living sacrifices” as a consequence of “renewed minds” – thought leading to practical reasoning and action. The mind renewed “towards” the discernment of God’s will”.

In moving from observation to obligation, from “goodness of the world” to the “rightness of some action”, he suggested “not everything that should be done, should by us be done” (quoting Paul Ramsey). And, that compromise is part of resolving, “compromises are decisions, explicit or implicit, that render ideals practicable”. But of course with the sober reminder that there can be bad compromises as well as bad ideals. [An aside: This is an area of his talk that raised issues for me (and others), that I need to think through, as much of Paul’s writing would point us in the opposite direction at times, avoiding compromise that is counter to God’s truth in his Word].

He brought the discussion back to faith, love and hope and their relationship to moral reasoning and practical action, and offered a challenge, as well as a question, “How are we to understand the thought, that a process of thought beginning with love and proceeding, through hope, to faith, must reach love once again as its climax?”

Finally, he suggested that admiration is made perfect when faith and hope lead us beyond the seen world to the love of God and that resolution is made perfect when faith and hope lead us beyond individual decision to common service of God pursued in love for one another. Resolving that we will act together as a community he suggested is the purest form of action. [An aside: While he was making a general point about Christian community here, his example was very much focussed on the Anglican Communion. I suspect many would question this point, certainly the first question in question time gently challenged the point. While Scripture does stress that Christians are to seek to be like-minded, this is a call to have the mind of Christ. If seeking to live in harmony requires us to act in harmonious error, then Scripture would call upon us to take a stand against views that are counter to God’s wisdom as reflected in his Word]. Professor O’Donovan’s point was essentially to stress the need for love and respect within the body as we morally reason and seek resolution and action together. More specifically he was gently arguing for denominational unity, no more and no less. His conclusion returned to the more fundamental truth in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we are to seek to have the mind and love of Christ as we are lead by the Spirit to act with one purpose.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. (Phil 2:1-2)

The Lectures were outstanding. Professor O’Donovan did not disappoint. While as expected, the talks were demanding, it was a privilege to gain access to some first thoughts on an exploration of an old (and important) topic. While the lectures resonated well with Professor O’Donovan’s previous work, he was sharing and in a sense rehearsing some new ideas. The talks will be available on the New College website in the next week. Byron Smith has also provided his own summary and comments on his Nothing New Under the Sun Blog that are worth a read.

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