The Ironic Fairy of History

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Oliver O’Donovan has just released a book that provides a classic illustration of why the moderate and progressive segments of the Anglican communion in the UK, Canada, and the US are all sick unto death. At the same time, he has done good work before this — in The Desire of Nations, for example. And much of this book — Church in Crisis — is actually quite good as well. But the good is in terrible company, and is being made to serve fruitless and suicidal ends.

I was braced for some loopiness because the book was blurbed enthusiastically by Rowan Williams, and you know how that goes. But his preliminary spadework was really pretty good — despite some hints here and there of what was coming. But then it all came together in the last chapter, and the book lived entirely up to the expectation that Rowan had established for me. The Archbish had said this on the back cover: O’Donovan “consistently takes us to the questions others are not asking and refuses the ready-made questions and answers that paralyze our thinking about the sexuality debates.”

In the first part of the book, O’Donovan is careful, thoughtful, even-handed, sophisticated, learned and more. In the last chapter, the book crescendos in a phantasmagoria of non sequiturs. Here is a small sample, each one followed by just a few words from our sponsor.

“If there are homosexual Christians who see themselves in this way, then, precisely because they intend to take the disciplines of the Christian life with perfect seriousness, we may and must listen and speak to them with perfect seriousness about the good news in Jesus Christ” (p. 103).

But of course, this is only the case if the true center of authority is to be found in the disciple’s sentiments and self-justifications and not in the master’s commands. We must take the homosexuals’ self-assessments as authoritative only to the extent that any such self-justifications are authoritative, which of course they aren’t.

“Why would there be a gospel for the homosexual any more than a gospel for a teacher of literature, for the civil magistrate, or for the sucessful merchant (to name just three categories that the early church viewed with the same narrowing of the eyes that a homosexual may encounter today)? (p. 106).

And, of course, in response the question should immediately arise whether the early Church was correct to view these persons with suspicion. If they were, then we should still be viewing them with suspicion. If they were not, then we should not be. And if the suspicion directed at sexually-active homosexual “Christians” throughout the entire history of the Church has been correct, then let it continue. If incorrect, then let us abandon it now in repentance. But how about some exegesis first? O’Donovan tries to anticipate that clever trick by creating some hermeneutical wiggle-room early on in the book, which in these pomosexual times is not hard to do. Simple right? Clear wrong? All this deep theology is making my head hurt.

“A soldier needs to learn about ‘just war,’ a financier about ‘just price,’ and so on. Again, can it be any different in the realm of sexual sensibility?” (p. 108).

Sure it can. It is completely different. Scripture provides multiple examples of soldiers fighting the way soldiers ought to fight. Scripture provides multiple examples of merchants conducting their pricing operations in an honorable way. It contains no examples of “just sodomy.” And by “no examples,” just to be clear and precise, I mean nada, zilch, zip, zero.

“The world has never seen a phenomenon like the contemporary gay consciousness. There have been various patterns of homosexuality in various cultures, but none with the constellation of features and persistent self-assertion that this one presents” (p. 114).

Let us assume this assertion correct, which it almost certainly isn’t. But let’s grant it for the sake of discussion. Why is this unique development assumed to be an ameliorating point in favor of some kind of softened judgment? Why isn’t it assumed to be the most perverse development in the history of the human race? As in, this is “far worse than Sodom”? “This thing is unique — it must be the mother of all perversions.” Why don’t we take that line?

“And seriously trying means being seriously patient. Anyone who thinks that resolutions can be reached in one leap without long mutual exploration, probing, challenge, and clarification has not yet understood the nature of the riddle that the ironic fairy of history has posed for us in our time” (p. 119).

The ironic fairy of history? Nah — history is no fairy, ironic or otherwise. But a lot of current historians and theologians are. And that, as it turns out, is why we are even having this discussion. And on a related note, I am a little uncomfortable with the call to “long mutual exploration” and “probing.”
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