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Morality and its Christian teachers

08 September 2009

Here is a sweeping but concise survey that sheds light on current debates, Edward Dowler finds


Christian Ethics: A brief history
Michael Banner
Wiley-Blackwell £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

I HAVE been teaching Ethics in a theological college for the past eight years, and have always started the course with a historical survey of the subject, so that the sort of terms that moral philosophers use, such as “natural law”, “virtue”, and “conse­quentialism” can be put in context and, I hope, more clearly under­stood. Many shortcomings in my own survey would have been avoided if, at the start of my time teaching the subject, I had had such an excellent book as this: immensely learned, but highly readable; punch­ily argued, yet measured and charit­able; sweeping in its scope, yet dis­ciplined and concise.

Banner’s starting-point is the Rule of St Benedict, in which he finds a classic description of Chris­tian life, founded on the love of God and neighbour. With a brisk pace and frequent flashes of humour, he unfolds a story that develops through Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther. He then explores the “turn to the subject” in the work of Butler, Kant, and Kierkegaard, and reac­tions to it in writers such as Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin. Finally, he moves to more modern approaches, both Christian and secular, including a swingeing attack on the Utilitarian or consequential­ist patterns of ethical thought that are so now dominant in the con­tem­porary Western world.

Michael Banner is dean of a Cambridge college. The book coyly covers up its author’s identity by simply describing him as “a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge”. And, in the content of what he writes, Banner could certainly not be accused of a partisan over-concentration on Anglican moral theologians. Indeed, about the only one discussed in the book is Joseph Butler, whose faith in the workings of the individual consciences of men and women means that Banner thinks he needs to be defended against the charge of being “a fool (albeit one who wrote quite well)”.

Yet the author’s Anglican identity does, none the less, betray itself in subtler ways. It is visible, for one thing, in his impressive, magpie-like ability to select important voices coming from a variety of different traditions, and to show how they illuminate and connect with one another. This is particularly evident in his chapter “The Rediscovery of Christian Ethics” (in the modern period) which draws on Karl Barth and John Paul II as its two heroic figures.

Characteristically Anglican also is the strongly Augustinian influence that pervades the book. Serious Christian moral thought must, as Banner presents it, acknowledge the deeply disordered relationship of human beings to the world, which affects not only our knowledge of what is good, but our ability to per­form it. As Banner writes, “know­ing what we should do is not enough; we also need to learn to do it, and this involves a reordering of the will.” The distinctively Augustin­ian insight is that, in order to be good, we often need “therapy, not argu­ment”.

A further, related, Anglican strand is the deep-seated ambiva­l­ence throughout the book about the value of the natural-law tradi­tion. On the one hand, Banner sees a place for identifying what he de­scribes as the “thin” aspects of Christian morality, which are shared with others by virtue of “our com­mon humanity and reason”. On the other, he is perhaps more instinc­tively sympathetic to the “thick” forms of moral thinking in which morality is embedded in specifically Christian “traditions, practices and forms of life”.

Although I suspect a preference for thicker forms, Banner is scrupu­lously even-handed about this con­trast: his experience of work both in ecclesial settings and on secular bodies adjudicating complex moral issues in scientific research gives him an unusual first-hand grasp of each.

It is perhaps this ambivalence about natural law that leads to two surprising omissions. The first is that he includes no specific reflec­tion on the important “personalist” interpretations of the natural-law tradition which come from modern Roman Catholic moral theologians such as Grisez, Finnis, and Boyle. Such writers, following on from Aquinas, attempt to delineate what are the basic goods of human per­sons, which make for human flourishing.

Even more surprising, especially since Stanley Hauerwas makes an approving comment on the back cover, is that Banner does not dis­cuss the modern revival of “virtue ethics”, although the book as a whole implies a similar point to that made by Alasdair MacIntyre at the end of After Virtue that “we are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless different — St Benedict”.

The Anglican aspects of Banner’s book on which I have commented are significant because modern Anglicanism is riven by moral dis­agreements. These might seem less intractable if the antagonists on both sides had a clearer historical view of different ethical perspec­tives: those of other people, and also those that they themselves hold. For such people, or for others who are bored with the whole sorry saga and just want to know what Christian ethics is really all about, this book is a gem.

The Revd Dr Dowler, Assistant Chaplain of Malvern College, was Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, until earlier this year.

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