Beyond the suspicion of politics

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon UK

Here’s the next instalment in my series summarising and assessing Oliver Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (CUP, 1996). Click here for other entries in the series.

Chapter One: Beyond Suspicion

Modernity separates theology and politics because of two suspicions: (1) politics corrupts theology (theology gets used to justify or legitimate political interests)’ and (2) theology corrupts politics (divine authority threatens human freedom). In late modern liberalism these suspicions have fused and broadened. ‘Late modernity’ (i.e. postmodernism) suspects political theology because it suspect sectional interests. ‘The Southern school’ (i.e. liberation theology) has made this criticism well. But it cannot move beyond criticism because its ‘universal suspicion’ rebounds on itself (11-12). True prophets, however, cannot speak only of the errors of false prophets. Their judgments arises from their constructive proclamation. (11) ‘After Ahab, Elijah must anoint some Hazael, some Jehu.’ (12)

Moreover, the Southern school has ignored the concept of authority which it is at the heart of the main issues for the Northern democracies (with have to do with the interplay of freedom, markets mass communication and so on).

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon US

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon US

In this context current political theology has opted for knowledge derived from action or from suffering. At best this (rightly) links knowledge to obedient action. But it often squeezes out space for God’s revelation (‘reflecting upon action’ to the exclusion of ‘reflecting on revelation’).

A common theme in O’Donovan’s work as a whole is the assertion that ethics must begin with descriptions. For example, to distinguish the freedom fighter from the terrorist we must employ descriptive concepts.

So central to The Desire of the Nations is an attempt to define the nature of political authority through an exploration of the concept of the reign of God (19). This is world-affirming (affirming the ‘goods of creation’). It also focuses on the political act rather than political institutions. In other words, O’Donovan is not going to outline the right political institution or system. He is interested in political acts.