In a characteristically eloquent passage near the end of The Desire of the Nations, Oliver O’Donovan gives credit to “modernity-criticism” where he believes it is due: such critics are willing to treat their own moment and culture as non-necessary and contingent for all its appearance of absolute givenness and naturalness, and this allows them to see that many of the things we take for granted are what are in fact the most surprising and characteristic features of our culture.
The willingness to subject one’s own “natural” culture to searching criticism–and therefore to realize that it is not “natural” or necessary at all–makes possible, O’Donovan suggests, the application of the Johannine perspective of the Apocalypse applicable indefinitely over the course of the unfolding of history:1 there are many Antichrists who (which) come and go, but who (which) all share the common trait of arrogating to themselves the prerogatives of God and of claiming the ability to sufficiently provide for all the needs of those who are under their sway. Pseudo-divinity ushers in its own pseudo-(realized) eschatology, and even, in the “voluntarist” iteration, its own rapture.
We are tempted to think, perhaps, that the concept of Antichrist, capable of such shifting and contrasting applications from age to age, is useless for serious theological analysis; but it is not so. There is no one Antichrist; but in any period of history Antichrist may take shape as one thing, challenging the claims of God’s Kingdom with its own. Every candidate nominated for the role of Antichrist has passed away. That does not of itself invalidate any attempt to identify it; for that identification is part of an age’s secret knowledge about itself, its interpretation of its own ‘today’ from the point of view of its today. Of course, those who want never to be out of date will never interpret their today; they will wait until they can read about it in the newspapers. But those whose business lies with practical reason cannot take their place among what P.T. Forsyth called ‘bystanders of history’. When believers find themselves confronted with an order that, implicitly or explicitly, offers itself as the sufficient and necessary condition of human welfare, they will recognize the beast. When a political structure makes this claim, we call it ‘totalitarian’. More subtle and more pernicious is the same claim made by a society, or by a civilization, in a series of self-interpreting doctrines which define metaphysical parameters for thought and action (even while innocently disavowing metaphysical intentions).
Behind the disparate appearance of the various critiques of modernity now current, we can detect a theme which recurs persistently. It centres on the notion of the abstract will, exercising choice prior to all reason and order, from whose fiat lux spring society, morality and rationality itself. Corresponding to the transcendent will is an inert nature, lacking any given order that could make it good prior to the imposition of human purposes upon it. To put it theologically: the paradigm for the human presence in the world is creation ex nihilo, the absolute summoning of reason, order and beauty out of chaos and emptiness. This does not, of course, honour God’s creative deed, but competes with it. Faith in creation means accepting the world downstream of the Arbitrary Original,2 justified to us in in being, goodness and order. Voluntarism, on the other hand, situates the agent at the source; it offers a mystical access to the moment of origination, and leads the spirit to the rapture of pure terror before the arbitrariness of its own choice. (The Desire of the Nations, pp. 273-4)