Thursday, 9 July 2009

O'Donovan on compromise

You gave a fairly prominent place to compromise in this evening's lecture—twinned together, I thought very helpfully, with ideals. On my reading, compromise enjoys a dreadful reputation in the Christian community at the moment. And you're also emphasising the need to act together, or with one mind—whereas I picture myself in a room with my brothers and sisters, recommending some course of action, that could be described as a compromise, let alone myself describing it as a compromise, and this seems like the political equivalent of suicide within the community. Are these just the times that we live in? Do you agree with that reading, or is there some way forward from this? Because, as I say, I think compromise has a very bad name, but I agree with you it's necessary, so ...

Thank you for that question, which is rather searching. I'm not sure that I can do more than kind of feel after an answer to it...

I think we distrust compromise because we associate it with a certain kind of temptation, which is a temptation to fall in with what everybody else is doing. To being conformed to this world, as St Paul puts it. That seems to me to be, as a phrase, perfect for summing up the nature of the bad compromise. [We are] rightly concerned about that: rightly on guard against any such concession, and of course, as we all know, it's ferociously easy, even for the most serious-minded of us, simply to fall in with the way other people do things, because it takes so much less effort, and our effort is being seriously required for other tasks ...

We fail to see ... as it were, the other kind of compromise, which perhaps ... perhaps it's a bad thing that we end up with the same word to describe two things, except when words are ambiguous, they warn us against certain very easy mistakes, and the fact that "compromise" is used both, as it were for the good [compromise, the] trying-to-focus-on-the-sheerly-practical-in-the-situation, the actually-bringing-into-shape of what it is that we really can do that will bear witness to God's command and to the object set before us, and [also for the bad compromise:] failing to do this because we fall in with everyone else, warns us that it's easy to mistake the one for the other, and it's easy to mistake the one for the other because discerning what is actually practicable is difficult. And we may think that because everybody disagrees with a course of action that we think right, therefore that course of action is not practicable. And that's one reason why the two types of compromise are so necessary to keep clear.

The question we have to ask is what is the best course of action that is actually available. And both sides of that equation have to be brought together. If we do that, and if we regularly did that, then compromise could lose its bad reputation perhaps.
This from Oliver O'Donovan's 2007 New College Lectures, Morally awake? Admiration and resolution in the light of Christian faith, in response to my question.

[This (unpublished) excerpt from the question time at the lectures is reprinted with permission from New College: the college at all times retains ownership of the intellectual property rights to all New College Lecture material (in printed or electronic form). The lectures themselves are available in PDF and MP3 form at the College website for personal review and study, but may not be retransmitted without express permission.]

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