Ethics for A Fracturing World: The Lord’s Prayer

Name and Place for October 7 (’14)


Oliver O’Donovan

Reading books on ethics can be exhilarating as answers to questions are found after diligent searching, or avenues of thought are opened after what seems like eons of mental construction clogging the roadways of thought.  How ethics are formed and sustained is of vital interest to Christians who claim belief in a God who is the ethical source of all that is true, good, and beautiful.  After all, in him we move and live and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Oliver O’Donovan is like the filet mignon of Christian ethicists in that his work is costly, requiring time and effort to enjoy.  He wastes no words and chooses what he says with care, usually drawing us from one discipline to another with an application to the Church in a single sentence.  The following section is from his 2013 book Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology (Vol 1):

The Sermon (on the Mount) also, and importantly, includes instruction on the hermeneutics of the prevailing moral tradition: “You have heard that it was said….But I say to you…” (5:21ff.)  For this is the “new law,” distinguished from the old precisely by its readiness to go beyond simple prohibition and public regulation and to open up the meaning of obedience from the heart.  That is the true sense in which it is “radical.” More than any other ancient moral teaching it draws the disciple out from beneath the protection of accepted social norms and places him before God in full and truly founded responsibility.

At the very center of this text of moral teaching (6:1-18) there is the teachinO’Donovan_Self World Time_pb_fin_013.inddg of prayer—not only how to pray, that is, but what to pray.  Precise words are prescribed.  If we have understood the relation of prayer to moral thought, we shall not be surprised at this.  That such words should be open to private and public elaboration (economical elaboration, if we take Jesus’ warning seriously!), that they should generate noble liturgies and passionate private intercessions may be taken as a matter of course.  Yet the words are not merely an outline, a set of heads of advice or agenda items.  They are themselves a possession of irreplaceable importance in forming the “we,” the community of moral practice.  That is why they should be placed—the bare text without embroidery or expansion—at the core of every Christian liturgy.

The concept of worship as magnified personal self-expression, a large-screen projection of the “I,” obstructs the formation of the community by depriving lay members of the congregation of their proper ownership of the words of prayer.  If the primary material for common reflection, replacing hymns and prayers that can be learned, possessed, and used by every worshipper, comes to be the spontaneous feelings of the minister and the autobiographies of selected model Christians, there is no room for the interaction of community and individual to develop.  The model “I” overwhelms the (genuinely) personal contribution of the worshipper with a fake personality, imposing sentiments, moods, narratives, and reactions that purport to be personal but belong, in fact, to no actual person—not even to the minister, who affects them at the price of forcing his or her real personality into a straightjacket, trying to be the one single and embracing personality that will serve for all.

In traditional liturgies the occasional appearance of the first-person singular (in baptism and at the recitation of the creed) points to the Holy Spirit’s grafting of the believer into the community.  Yet its comparatively restricted  liturgical presence and its total absence from the prayer Jesus taught, where the first-person is always plural, points to the common identity built up by prescribed prayer, the “we” within which each and every “I” can realize itself.  The formal and predictable character of liturgy, giving us a purchase on the common “we,” enables us to accomplish a personal self offering together with all others who are gathered for worship.  The liturgical constitution of the “we” is one aspect of what should be meant by that pregnant, if elusive phrase, “ecclesial density” (64-65).

The book is Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology (Vol 1) published in 2013.  While some would regard everything O’Donovan says as dense, he is worth a second, third, or fourth read—however long it takes to understand him.  We grow stronger not by sitting, but by doing heavy lifting, brains included.

And excellent review of this book from November 2013 can be found here.  A shorter review can be found here.


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