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Getting to the heart of ethics

by
20 February 2015

Robin Gill applauds the change in an academic's thinking

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The Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral theology, social anthropology, and the imagination of the human
Michael Banner
OUP £20 (978-0-19-872206-9)
Church Times Bookshop £18


THIS book is a fascinating and stimulating departure for the ever-energetic Michael Banner.

Appointed to the Chair of Moral and Social Theology at King's College, London, two decades ago, in his early thirties, he rejected his earlier "liberal" engagement with religion and science, and called instead, in his inaugural lecture, for "dogmatic Christian ethics". In the book that followed, Christian Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems (1999), he quoted Karl Barth extensively when discussing - stridently and in detail - the moral problems of euthanasia, abortion, health-care rationing, the environment, biotechnology, and sexuality.

These moral issues still absorb him professionally, but his focus now is upon what he terms "everyday life". In this book, Barth is mentioned in passing only twice, and Banner's new dialogue partner is social anthropology.

He argues throughout that the detailed ethnographic studies of social anthropologists - with their concepts such as "kinship" - have more to inform theologians than have either moral philosophers or bioethicists. For example, he argues that it is social anthropologists who can best untangle the complex kinship relationships that result from IVF and surrogacy (and even heart-transplant patients who befriend their donor's family), or who can identify changing forms of private mourning ritual within apparently secularised societies.

The picture of "everyday ethics" which emerges, he argues, is very different from, and richer than, that envisaged by bioethicists.

I am largely persuaded by this. Banner makes it additionally convincing by employing lyrical depictions of St Augustine wrestling with everyday life in his letters and Confessions. As a bonus, he reflects on six paintings (beautifully illustrated), in order to evoke some of the passion and compassion that he finds missing from many purely secular accounts of ethics. Here he writes at his very best.

The present book derives from his 2013 Bampton Lectures, and the text retains the playful and humorous (but sometimes barbed) feel of their delivery. Qualifications (resulting, doubtless, from the extensive peer review that it received) are typically made in long footnotes. This makes the text more readable and enjoyable, but also frustrating.

His lecture style tends to attract hyperbole. So at one point we are told that "Christians do not believe in the desperateness of childlessness - nor, indeed, in the possibility of having a child of one's own to over-ome this desperation." Frankly, this does not accord with my pastoral experience (or even with certain biblical stories). Then, a little later, we are told that he is trying only to "lower the stakes somewhat".

Again, moral philosophy and bioethics are both summarily dismissed, but no mention is made, say, of the distinguished work of Onora O'Neill or Alastair V. Campbell. And theologians are chided for ignoring social anthropology - but the work of, say, Timothy Jenkins or Douglas Davies (both Anglican priests) is ignored.

The rhetoric of the lecture hall might have been tempered further for publication in an academic monograph. That said, this is a very interesting and challenging work.


Professor Gill is editor of
Theology, and Canon Theologian of the Cathedral Chapter of Europe diocese.

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