Labouring for the Kingdom: John O’Brien on Christianity and Social Democracy

Fabian Society coat of arms
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In his self-published book, John O’Brien, a Roman Catholic actively involved in Labour Party politics in the Republic of Ireland, muses broadly on matters of history, philosophy, theology, and politics. (He sent me a copy gratis, without expectation of a positive review.) This is not a scholarly book, but more of a manifesto reflecting his personal philosophy of life, and I am at a bit of a loss as to how to review it. Still, O’Brien shares his conclusions drawn from broad knowledge and wide reading straightforwardly and with conviction, and I’d love to hash out some of these issues with him over a Guinness, should I ever have the chance. (You can follow O’Brien on Twitter: @irishfabian.)

Christianity and Social Democracy, By John O’Brien (2021).

“I am the first one in my family who joined the Labour Party,” he told me. “I am an ordinary member of the Labour Party but I help out during election time and I contribute with others in the development of democratic socialism in the party.” O’Brien is formed in the reformist, gradualist socialist tradition of the Fabian Society, and opts for the democratic Marxism of Kautsky over the revolutionary praxis of Lenin and Trotsky, whose views, he argues, have enabled tyranny and oppression.

In matters of faith and theology, I’d characterize O’Brien as a (nonfundamentalist) theological conservative, but very friendly to currents in post-Enlightenment modernity. He affirms Roman Catholic dogma on the harmony of reason and revelation without flinching, and casts shade on modern revisionist theologians like Tillich and Bultmann -- a bit uncritically, it seems to me -- who reject or severely qualify such doctrines as the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, and the bodily resurrection. His book embodies a Roman Catholic respect for reason. O’Brien writes:
The greatest philosopher of the Middle Ages was St. Thomas Aquinas. He united reason and faith. He saw all truth as God's truth. He saw reason and revelation as leading to the same truth. They don't contradict each other (p. 63).
Still, O’Brien is no hyper-traditionalist, either:
Later theologians like William of Ockham and Dun Scotus believed that reason couldn't help us in finding God. For them faith is blind faith. They believed that we should make a leap of faith into the dark and accept Christianity based on the authority of the Church (p. 64).
He offers a glowing assessment of Descartes’ philosophy (I note that the distinguished Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion has worked diligently in recent years to retrieve the work of the benighted early-modern Frenchman). O’Brien is drawn most of all to the dialectical rationalism of Hegel, whom he reads (against the grain of some more postmodern interpreters) as a robust realist. Nonetheless, he applauds Soren Kierkegaard’s turn to the individual subject and draws inspiration from Karl Barth’s life-project of integrating a reasoned theology with socialist practice

How does Christian faith relate to the social order? O’Brien rejects the notion that any particular religion should be established in a modern secular state that protects the free exercise and tolerance of diverse faiths. Still, as a Catholic, he views social democracy as the civic polity most congruent with Christian ethics. He writes:
I believe that social democracy is the political means in which I can express my calling as a Christian. Christ calls on his followers to love their neighbour. I believe that social democracy gives practical political expression to that command (p. 140).
If O'Brien's book prompts some of his secular political friends to consider how a person of religious faith might work with integrity toward the common good, it will have served a useful purpose.

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