Religion & Liberty Online

Oliver O’Donovan on the Secular-Spiritual Life

In a recent event co-sponsored by Christian’s Library Press, professor Oliver O’Donovan engaged in a robust conversation with Matthew Lee Anderson and Ken Myers on the topic of the Gospel and public engagement. The audio is now available via Mars Hill Audio. Sign-up is required, but is both simple and free.

Anyone who has read O’Donovan is familiar with the weight and depth he brings to such matters. As was to be expected, this is a conversation filled with richness, nuance, and the types of rabbit trails that, to one’s great delight, end up not being rabbit trails after all.

The discussion is worth listening to in full, but O’Donovan’s kick-off discussion of “the secular” is of particular relevance to our discussions about economic, cultural, and political transformation. For O’Donovan, modernity has wielded a peculiar influence on the way Christians view “common life” in the “common world” — one that has led to a problematic approach to what we now think of as “the secular.”

It used to mean something quite different:

Historically, the word secular meant to do with the affairs of this world – i.e., it was the life of creation extended into history as distinct from the intervention into this world and the work in this world of redeeming it and saving it. So every Christian lived a secular life and a spiritual life, in that a Christian is engaged, has tasks, has a life to live within the common terms of a common world, and at the same time an awareness and response to the work of God in saving it.

Resurrection & Moral OrderMyers follows up by pointing to O’Donovan’s book, Resurrection and Moral Order, which speaks of this recent development as having something to do with an “improper divorce of sanctification from justification.” How much of our distorting of “the secular,” Myers asks, is tied to a Protestant divide between justification and the ways it plays out in the world around us?

O’Donovan responds:

…In grasping what God has done in raising human nature from the death of sin, one has to grasp the restoration of human agency, the making of it vital again. It is passing from death to life in the power of the Holy Spirit. And this division, between, as it were, the retrospective (justification, forgiveness, wiping out) and the prospect, is a division of aspects which cannot be a division in substance or reality. The work of God is a transforming work, as it is a forgiving work, and a forgiving work, as it is a transforming work.

The tendency, of course…is to always regard these as separate gears. We shift from one to the other. We need justification when we’ve sinned; then we forget about it. Then we need sanctification in order to do something. That’s not how we’re encouraged to think about it. They come together in the Spirit of Christ.

Anderson prods a bit further on this point, noting the context of North American evangelicalism, to which O’Donovan responds with a nice summary of the types of implications such a divide introduces:

Are we afraid to say that living for God involves postures, patterns, initiatives that are not immediately comprehensible to other people? It seems to me that if we talk about being given life from the dead, we talk about being in a strange situation — a situation that is paradoxically related to the world as it goes on its merry way. We’re very much part of that world, always within the terms of that world, and yet all the time questioning its dynamics — opening it up. And the meaning of new life has to be, among other meanings, a disturbing meaning, in which what we can’t do is say, “Well, there’s the world, and that’s alright on its own terms. Let it go in its way, and then we’ll now attend to relating to God quite separately from that.” That’s not the way God related to us, I’m inclined to say. He came to suffer and die under Pontius Pilate. And there is a model for the life we will be called to and given to live.

From here, things only get more interesting, as O’Donovan moves from the “secular” to “the public” and all that it entails.

Read Anderson’s summary of the event here. Listen to the full discussion here.

[product sku=”1121″]

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.