The corruption of Christendom

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 Seven: The Redemption of Society (part two)

In the part of chapter seven, as we noted in a previous post, O’Donovan identifes four positive legacies of Christendom in Western culture:

1. Freedom (corresponding to advent and the gathering church)

2. Mercy in judgment (corresponding to the cross and the suffering church)

3. Natural rights (corresponding to restoration and the glad church)

4. Openness to speech (corresponding to the exaltation and the speaking church) 

These four legacies, however, have progressed in dangerous ways that bear the image not of Christ, but of Antichrist. O’Donovan entitles this section ‘Modernity and Menace’.

1. Absolute free choice

We break free not just from oppression, but from social constraint. Christians believe the individual is the measure of social good, but also that society is the measure of individual good. Modernity has replaced natural communities with communities of will. We are embarrassed by the sense of being owned by a family or a neighbour.

2. Suffering becomes unintelligible

There can be no duty to suffer death since in a contractual view of society the point is to ensure individual safety and well-being. Punishment furthers the agenda of someone else.

3. Natural rights become about self-preservation

Reconstructed from below, natural rights become about self-preservation. Since ‘nature’ has no teleology, natural rights become natural necessities (e.g. ‘we can’t buck the market’).

4. Language as the generator of reality

Modern society totalises speech. ‘Because the normal content of political communication, furthermore, has come to be the conflict of competing wills, speech has lost its orientation to deliberation on the common good, and has come to serve the assertion of competing interests.’ (282) We no longer deliberate, we spin.

This is the end of my chapter by chapter summary of The Desire of the Nations. In future posts I’ll offer some reflections by way of appraisal.