Monday, April 4, 2011

O'Donovan: Begotten Not Made

In an attempt to procrastinate, I perused the new book section of the library again this afternoon. I stumbled upon Oliver O'Donovan's Begotten or Made?. Since I immediately thought that he was speaking to the Niceaen controversy, I almost lunged to grab this book off the shelf. Instead, O'Donovan deals with the issues of technology, medicine, and artificial procreation. The following excerpt from the first three pages (rather lengthy) were not only beautiful, but moving. While technology is nothing to be ashamed of or diminish (blogger bias, obviously), O'Donovan speaks about the subtle ways in which technological advances infects our thought processes. When everything in society can be made, why not allow such advances to infiltrate our understanding of human life? There is a sense in which O'Donovan wishes to encourage the romantic sentiment that human life is sacred and created by that which transcends us. His impulse seems to want to recover the essential aspects of that which makes us human and deny that everything can be created or made by human technology and machines. I appreciate that. Enjoy.
"When the fathers of the Council of Nicaea declared, in words familiar to every Christian who recites their creed, that the only Son of God the Father was 'begotten, not made', they intended to make a simple point. The Son was 'of one being with the Father.' He was God, just as God the Father was God. And to emphasize the point they used an analogy, based upon our twofold human experience of forming things other than ourselves. That which we beget is like ourselves. (I shall use the word 'beget', as the ancients did, to speak of the whole human activity of procreation, and not in the modern way, meaning especially the male side of the activity.) Our offspring are human beings, who share with us one common human nature, one common human experience and one common human destiny. We do not determine what our offspring is, except by ourselves being that very thing which our offspring is to become. Just so, the fathers said, the eternal Son of God who was not made, was of the Father's being, not his will. But that which we make is unlike ourselves. Whether it is made of matter, like a wooden table, or of words like a lecture, or of sounds like a symphony, or of colours and shapes like a picture, or of images like an idea, it is the product of our own free determination. We have stamped the decisions of our will upon the material which the world has offered us, to form it in this way and not in that. What we 'make', then, is alien from our humanity. In that it has a human maker, it has come to existence as a human project, its being at the disposal of mankind. It is not fit to take its place alongside mankind in fellowship, for it has no place beside hi on which to stand: man's will is the law of its being. That which we beget can be, and should be, our companion; but the product of our art - whatever immeasurable satisfaction and enjoyment there may be both in making it and in cherishing it - can never have the independence to be that 'other I', equal to us and differentiated from us, which we acknowledge in those who are begotten of human seed.

In making this contrast with reference to the eternal Son of God the Nicene fathers used an analogy. Like all analogies, it has its limitations. We cannot speak of 'begetting' in the divine being without making it clear what aspects of the analogy are not applicable to the life of godhead. At the same time, we cannot say that any human beings are 'begotten, not made' in the same absolute sense that we can say it of the Son of God. For all human beings begotten of other human beings are, at the same time, 'made' by God. Of no human being can it be said that he is simply 'not made', that he is at nobody's disposal, that no higher will acts as the law of his being. God's will is such a law for every human being, and every human being is at the disposal of God. Human beings, begotten of human seed, are also made; even Jesus Christ, considered simply as a human being is a 'creature' of God. Nevertheless, the ground of the analogy holds. A being who is the 'maker' of any other being is alienated from that which he has made, transcendent of 'begetting' is to speak of quite another possibility than this: the possibility that one may form another being who will share one's own nature, and with whom one will enjoy a fellowship based on radical equality.

In this book we have to speak of 'begetting' - not the eternal begetting of the godhead, but the temporal begetting of one creature by another. We have to consider the position of this human 'begetting' in a culture which has been overwhelmed by 'making' - that is to say, in a technological culture. And here we must stress a point that is often made by those who have taught us how to think about our technological culture - we may mention George Grant's Technology and Empire - and Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society - that what marks this culture most importantly, is not anything that it does, but what it thinks. It is not 'technological' because its instruments of making are extraordinarily sophisticated (though that is evidently the case), but because it thinks of everything is does as a form of instrumental making. Politics (which should surely be the most non-instrumental of activities) is talked of as 'making a better world'; love is 'building a successful relationship'. There is no place for simply doing. The fate of society which sees, wherever it looks, nothing but the products of the human will, is that it fails, when it does see some aspect of human activity which is not a matter of construction, to recognize the significance of what it sees and to think about it appropriately. This blindness in the realm of thought is the heart of what it is to be a technological culture.

Nevertheless, though thought comes first, there are implications in the realm of practice too. Such a society is incapable of acknowledging the inappropriateness of technological intervention in certain types of activity. When every activity is understood as making, then every situation into which we act is seen as raw material, waiting to have something made out of it. If there is no category in thought for an action which is not artificial, then there is no restraint in action which can preserve phenomena which are not artificial. This imperils not only, or even primarily, the 'environment' (as we patronizingly describe the world of things which are not human); it imperils what it is to be human, for it deprives human existence itself of certain spontaneities of being and doing, spontaneities which depend upon the reality of a world which we have not made or imagined, but which simply confronts us to evoke our love, fear, and worship. Human life, then, becomes mechanized because we cannot comprehend what it means that some human activity is 'natural'. Politics becomes controlled by media of mass communication, love by analytical or counseling techniques. And begetting children becomes subject to the medical and surgical interventions which are the theme of this book."

- Oliver O'Donovan, Begotten or Made?, 1-3, emphasis added.

1 comment:

Brian Gronewoller said...

Wow this is a great insight - thanks for posting it, Kaitlyn. I particularly loved this sentence:

"The fate of society which sees, wherever it looks, nothing but the products of the human will, is that it fails, when it does see some aspect of human activity which is not a matter of construction, to recognize the significance of what it sees and to think about it appropriately."

That hit a chord with me as I have been spending a lot of time contemplating the way in which the history of thought is often displayed. Most of what I have seen deals with simple cause and effect - some sort of portrayal of great minds taking previous ideas and then "making" them up in a new way to fit the needs of their day. I highly appreciate that this cause and effect does exist, but it seems to be a dry and desolate worldview to live within. Perhaps that is precisely because of what O'Donovan says: "it recognize the significance of what it sees."

On another note, I love Oliver O'Donovan. A few weeks ago I emailed him to see if he is taking any students in 2012, but, alas, he is retiring. Reading this makes me a bit more sad that I missed the window of time in which I could have studied with him.

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