Viral Authority

Oliver O’Donovan, a living great in Anglican moral theology, has focused much of his career on the question of authority. Now living near Edinburgh in Scotland (and an honorary canon of the diocese of Dallas), O’Donovan devoted many significant books to God’s authority and human authority. The question of authority is wider than politics, and in that regard the governmental actions of the past few months are worth our thought.
    And fortunately, O’Donovan recently weighed in on these very matters in a telephone interview with Ken Myers (of Mars Hill Audio). I recommend it highly: There’s no charge to listen: just scroll down the page to Oliver O’Donovan, and beneath the text that accompanies his picture you’ll see an audio bar (total length 51:24) and can listen right there.
    Here are some thoughts of mine with pointers to various points in the interview. In the first ten minutes Ken Myers introduces O’Donovan’s thought.
    At about 12:00, O’Donovan considers the possibility that there might be a blessing in this Virus time—if we learn a thing or two. But what might those learnings be? And how might they guide the big questions that, he says at 13:30, are still ahead of us?
    Particularly fascinating to me are the four or five minutes starting at 15:15. The decisions made in March were sudden, drastic, and sweeping. At that critical point it was not clear where authority was coming from. The political leaders, like all of society, found themselves summoned to follow “science,” and did so unquestioningly. O’Donovan is amazed at the spontaneous and unanimous acceptance of science as authority—amazed, but not surprised. Events move societies, and authority can arise in unexpected places.
    Sometimes, of course, political authority has been held by spiritual leaders—one need not go back to the Middle Ages to see it; consider twentieth century events in, e.g., India. The virus should teach us we don’t understand the origins of political authority. Where does the authority to command society come from? Ultimately, Christians will say, by faith, that events are in the hand of God, but that doesn’t mean every event or every response to events is a divine message.
    O’Donovan reveals the irony of that moment in March: for of course“science” is no one thing, scientists are seldom in agreement, and epidemiology is hardly the sole science with something to say about our response to the virus.
    The economy comes up at 33:30. At about 36:00 O’Donovan wonders about harms and concerns that may arise longer-term. He mentions the social danger of people in their young 20s not being able to move into the world of work.
    There is a mention at 38:00 on the importance of meeting together in churches, which leads at 38:45 to a profound expression of the importance of the Ascension. (The interview was done just before that feast.) The Ascension has much to say about our understanding of politics, particularly that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father as ruler of all things.
    At 44:30 there are final thoughts on the necessary virtues for both political leaders and citizens. Typically, O’Donovan teases out the importance that emergency resolutions were put forth by law. The way he puts this point, as with most of the substance of the interview, is not amenable to a tweet or a news bite.
    I commend it to my readers, even if you have time only to dip in here or there.
    No June seminar. The Good Books & Good Talk seminar on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been canceled. While we cannot yet set dates, I look forward to the resumption of these seminars, and plan to reschedule this one and also Our Town, which was canceled in March. Looking ahead, may I recommend Leif Enger? His breakout novel, Peace Like a River, was a hit a decade ago and bears re-readings; I am in the midst of his latest, Virgil Wander.
    July in Wisconsin! I will be teaching a course in Theological Anthropology: What’s the Good of Being Human? There are readings to do this month and next, with an in-residence week at Nashotah House July 20-24. Auditors are welcome. Details at


I is for Israel

In the Divine Alphabet, I is for Israel.
    The late Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson put Israel into his identification of God. Here’s the opening sentence of the heart of Jenson’s systematic theology: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.” God’s identity cannot be separated from his choice of Israel, and his action is rescuing Israel from her enslavement under Pharaoh.
    It’s like a marriage; it’s like the Song of Songs. “My beloved is mine and I am his” could be words sung in response by Israel to her God. Just as there’s no thinking of a husband apart from his wife, so there’s no thinking of God apart from Israel. God has created all the peoples of the earth, but this people, Israel, he has chosen to be his own.
    Why? We can get a sense of it from the purpose of Israel amongst the peoples of the earth. God calls Abraham and multiplies his descendants for the sake of all of humanity: “through you, all the nations of the world will be blessed” (Gen. 12). But we must also admit it does not make sense. Why Abraham? Why Israel? There is no answer other than that God chose him, chose them. The prophets will tell Israel as much later on, reminding Israel that she wasn’t better or wiser or smarter or more refined than anyone else. God just fell in love with her.
    The heart of it is this: “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
    Although there is no necessity for anything God does, and in particular there is no necessity for God to create or to choose a people or indeed even to care about human beings, the fact is that God has voluntarily and without any necessity tied himself up with people. There is no way to understand God, the real God, the God who really exists—no way to understand him apart from Israel. God will not be an abstraction. God is not a universal principle; he is not even something great like Truth or Love or Beauty. God, as Jenson says, is the one who raised Israel from Egypt, who rescued his beloved from her oppression, who stuck with her and shaped her and gave her the Law and spoke to her prophets; who did these things and who keeps on doing them.
    “Israel” was, first, a name given to Abraham’s grandson Jacob. In the midst of a lonely night, poised on the edge of danger, Jacob was met by an angel and had to wrestle with him. The angel was strong, but so was Jacob. Jacob also was shrewd, so he asked the angel’s name. However, the angel—who was really God—did not reveal his own name (only centuries later would he reveal his name, and that was to Moses). Instead, the wrestling angel gave Jacob a new name: Israel.
    Israel: do you see the “el” at the end of it? That means “God.” Is-ra-el means “He who wrestled (or wrestles) with God.” Jacob’s name reveals who he was wrestling with.
    It also reveals God’s character. God is one with whom we wrestle.
    Remember in “Fiddler on the Roof,” how Tevye talks to God? At one point, having recounted all the bad things that have happened to the Jews, he asks God: Couldn’t you choose someone else for awhile? Do you always have to choose us?
    “Israel” indeed points to this second thing about God. Not only is he identified with the people he chose; but also, the relationship he has with people is not a simple one. It involves wrestling.
    It might be good to ponder how you have had to wrestle with God.
    Out & About (virtually speaking). I preached on Ascension Day, May 21, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral; the sermon starts at about 12 minutes in and goes for about 8 minutes: ... You’ll be able to see I really like the Ascension.



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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."