Moral Passion and Christian Ethics by Robin Gill

by
16 June 2017

David Atkinson looks at a neglected aspect of moral theology

Moral Passion and Christian Ethics (New Studies in Christian Ethics, Volume 34)

Robin Gill

CUP £75

(978-1-107-17682-9)

Church Times Bookshop £67.50

 

WHAT is it that drives Christian contributions in secular moral debate? What links rational ethical deliberation to motivations for moral action? Do people of faith have a distinctive part to play in public moral discourse?

The prestigious series New Studies in Christian Ethics has sought to engage with such ques­tions across a range of topics and disciplines. It is edited by Robin Gill, Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent. Gill has himself made substantial contributions to Christian ethics — and, indeed, social theology and the Church’s mission — through his prolific writings, editorial work, and contributions in the public realm to government committees on health care and bioethics.

This, his third book in the series, argues that the links between the emotional and the rational, and between moral action and ethical reflection, are complex, but that moral passion “often lurks behind and is implicit within” many appar­ently rational moral judgments, and needs to be understood and, indeed, transformed by moral virtues.

The importance of moral passion, the “fire that coaxes people into moral action”, was well-known in earlier writers such as Aquinas. Yet “moral passion” has not often been explicitly acknowledged in much recent work.

Gill seems equally at home with moral philosophers and government committees, contemporary biblical scholars and theologians, including Schillebeeckx, William Temple, and Ronald Preston. He describes him­self as a Christian ethicist “seeking to explore, discover, and learn”, and as someone who has sought to bring the Christian virtues of compassion­ate care, faithfulness and humility to bear in public debates.

In some places, I found the direction of the argument less clear than in others, but Gill’s primary purpose is to bring moral passion back into focus. This is clearest towards the end of the book when he discusses three issues. The first, individual “moral outrage”, includ­ing religiously inspired violence, could be strengthened further by Michael Polanyi’s concept of “moral inversion”. Second “collective effervescence” — to use Durkheim’s term — namely the corporate moral passions found within faith tradi­tions, not only Christian, but also the Bhagavad Gita. Third, and most distinctively, he discusses that radical Christian calling to love our enemies, with examples of forgive­ness from Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela.

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Gill begins with reviews and critiques of previous contributions to New Studies in Christian Ethics, and also to the journal Theology since its inception a century ago (of which Gill is current editor), as well as some of the Annual Lectures of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. A number of the authors surveyed illustrate high levels of moral passion. They also demonstrate the three levels of engagement for Christian ethicists in the public realm: with fellow theologians; with academics in other disciplines engaged in public ethics; and with those concerned with the truth-claims of meta-ethics.

For the last of these, Gill has dialogue with Mark Murphy, Stephen Evans, and John Hare, exploring the “moral gap” in, and vulnerability of, much secular ethics, and the tension between approaches of natural law and divine command. Gill also apprecia­tively explores Hans Joas’s work on faith as a viable and distinctive option in public debate, with moral passion to contribute, and needing a significant seat at the table.

Gill gives us many insights into his own approach and academic journey. There are inevitably many quotations and references to academic works, which occasionally get in the way of clarity. And £75 is extremely expensive. That said, however, this is an impressive contribution to a hugely important series for which, as for so much else, we are greatly in Gill’s debt.

 

Dr David Atkinson is an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Southwark.

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