The Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral theology, social
anthropology, and the imagination of the human
OUP £20 (978-0-19-872206-9)
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
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
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
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.