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Oliver O’Donovan against Decline Narratives

April 22nd, 2015 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I’ve finished Oliver O’Donovan’s latest book, which I have mixed feelings about. However, in light of my recent musings on the rhetoric of ‘decline’ within the evangelical world, I was intrigued to see O’Donovan offer his own critique of those approaches.

The following is part of one long paragraph, broken up into smaller bits for ease of reading online.

If on looking back we fail to see the order and history of the world presented to us normatively, we shall fall into a historicist despair of world-time. “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Eccles. 7:10). We cannot not see goods in the past, for the world God has made is good as a whole, and it is full of goods.  But we may see these goods from a distorted angle, as doomed to be swept away by time, constantly succumbing to entropy, by their impermanence attesting the triumph of de-creation over the good hand of the Creator.

We must look on the past not only as history but as the history of God’s world, a goodness sustained and upheld to the end. Thus in framing normative laws prudence becomes a way in which we can remain constant to the vision of God’s goodness that has been given us. Jesus connects “remaining in my love” with “keeping my commands” (John 15:10). In the goods of earth and heaven we find provision for our present agency, affording resources for the moment in which we are given to act.

The unwisdom which asks why past times were better than these has assumed a false position, that of an aesthetic observer valuing goods of different ages from some supposed time-transcending viewpoint. Our position in time is not capable of judging the present against the past, any more than it can judge the present against the future. It is a moment of deliberation, of making up our mind to act.

Many detailed cultural comparisons between different times are, no doubt, not illusory: if it is said, for example, that the examinations routinely passed by eighteen-year-olds in Britain half a century ago are too difficult for university graduates today, the claim may be put to proof But even if we validate it, we cannot extrapolate from one moment of proven decline to universal entropy. It is not wisdom to pretend to do so. Luxuriating with morose aestheticism in the decadence of our times, we rob ourselves of the normative significance of our knowledge as law, showing the ends and modes of action we may presently conceive: to teach the young, and teach them carefully!

I’m actually curious how that final paragraph squares with O’Donovan’s emphasis on the unwisdom of comparing the goods of various ages. O’Donovan’s main worry seems to be the architectonic approaches to history, and while the emphasis here is against ‘decline’ narratives, he might easily have critiqued ‘progressive’ approaches from the same point of view.