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From pre-cradle to pre-grave

17 October 2014

Robin Gill considers weighty reflections on various issues

Theology and Issues of Life and Death
John Heywood Thomas
Susan F. Parsons, editor
James Clarke & Co. £17.50

The Cambridge Companion to Life and Death
Steven Luper, editor
Cambridge University Press £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10 (Use code CT131 )

TWO very different paperbacks - one theological, personal, and very Welsh, and the other largely secular, didactic, and inter­national - but with a common concern for beginning- and end-of-life issues.

In Theology and Issues of Life and Death, the veteran Welsh theologian Professor John Heywood Thomas has gathered together lectures (including his inaugural professorial lecture given at Nottingham University in 1976) and mostly unpublished papers. The Christian ethicist Dr Susan Parsons writes a preface, and has helped him in this task. Over the years, he has been quite hesitant to publish - albeit very effective when he has done. So it is good to hear his voice again.

The seven chapters that form the book are very different in style - some are more academic than others - but his tolerant and inclusive humanity and love of Kierkegaard and Tillich underpin them all. He was one of the first British theologians to champion Kierkegaard. He was also dubbed by Tillich himself his "logical critic". His 1963 SCM book, Paul Tillich: An appraisal, was justifiably regarded as a masterly critical analysis of Tillich's dense prose and abstract concepts.

Following the largely unchanged script of his inaugural lecture, there are chapters on unborn life, the meaning of death, funerals, responsibility, and global death. The inaugural lecture is intelligent but a piece of its time, assuming as it does that Marxism is still a dominant force in the world and that Biblical Theology a spent force within academic theo­logy. (I think that Tom Wright might have something to say about that.) Subsequent chapters, however, have been updated to take some account of more recent developments in, say, stem-cell research and climate change. There is nothing especially original about his otherwise judicious comments on these recent developments, and there is quite a bit of repetition, which more thorough editing could have avoided. His text is enriched at many points, however, by thoughtful quota­tions from poetry, typically Welsh, and some­times even in Welsh.

Like other Cambridge Companions, The Cambridge Companion to Life and Death is written with students in mind, and those looking for an up-to-date and accessible ac­­count of scholarship in a particular area. The 19 contributors here are all philosophers who write well and clearly about life and death from various perspectives.

In the first section, five of them explore metaphysical issues, including the nature of human and other forms of life, human iden­tity across time, and the nature of human physical death.

In the second section, seven of the con­tributors examine issues of "significance", such as how the relative merits of particular human lives might be compared, whether a long life is better than a short one, whether the dead can be harmed, whether non-existence after death can be compared mean­ingfully with non-existence before conception (the so-called symmetry problem), and what constitutes a purposeful life.

In the final section, the rest of the contribu­tors address ethical issues around life and death, including both familiar topics such as abortion, assisted and non-assisted suicide, and killing in self-defence, as well as less familiar topics such as human enhancement, whether human procreation is morally good, and the ethics of extinction.

The tone of the essays is uniformly liberal and secular. There is little mention of reli­gious arguments, even those used by profes­sional philosophers who are themselves religious. For example, John Nottingham from Reading is mentioned only once in passing, and neither Stephen Clarke from Liverpool nor John Haldane from St Andrews features even in the bibliography. Never­theless, if one of the functions of philosophy, whether secular or not, is to help us to think more clearly, then this is what thisCompanionachieves admirably. For the most part, as befits aCompanion, technical terms are ex­­plained or avoided.

This is an important area, and it merits and gets serious and sustained thought in both of these interesting but very different books.

The Revd Professor Robin Gill is editor of Theology and Canon Theologian of the Cath­edral Chapter of the diocese in Europe.


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