SINCE 1995, the Very Short Introduction series of Oxford University Press has provided well-received “concise and original introductions to a wide range of subjects — from Islam to Sociology, Politics to Classics, and Literary Theory to History”. These two well-priced, new additions to the series — each with six clearly written main chapters — are very welcome and timely.
In War and Religion, Professor Jolyon Mitchell and Joshua Rey, both British Anglican priests, seek to be fair to a wide variety of Western and Eastern religious perspectives. By the end, it becomes clear that one of their aims is also to counter Richard Dawkins’s and Christopher Hitchens’s claim that “religion causes war.” Inevitably, their approach is broad-brushed and, disarmingly, they admit: “After four chapters in which we have done little but tell stories and ask questions, you may be hungry for overarching theory. . . we may not, however, be able to take it as far as the tidy-minded would ideally wish”.
With plenty of examples, photographs, and illustrations, basically they argue that “Religions have, at different times and places, motivated and commended war; provided justifications for wars that were fought for other reasons; softened the effects of wars; and offered resources to prevent them. Religions of peace are not always peaceful. Religious wars are not always religious. War can challenge religion, and religion can challenge war.”
Personally, I would have preferred fewer examples and more in-depth analysis of particular topics and religious thinkers, especially as the authors conclude (very properly) that generalisations about “religion” (and “war”) are misguided. Their final sentence, though, is optimistic: “There are forms of religion that can pierce the fog of war, so that in bright light under broad heavens we may forge the reality of peace.”
In contrast, The Virtues, while just as accessible as War and Religion, does offer more in-depth analysis and has a clearer narrative. Professor Craig Boyd at Saint Louis University is an expert on Aquinas, and Kevin Timpe is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Calvin Theological Seminary.
Their book opens with a general depiction of a virtue approach to ethics, with its focus on morally shaped behaviour rather than obedience to specific moral principles. In subsequent chapters, the authors examine, in turn, cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, courage, and justice), intellectual virtues (honesty, curiosity, open-mindedness, and perseverance), theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) and cardinal vices (pride, envy, avarice, wrath, sloth, gluttony, and lust). They also have extended discussions of virtues (and vices) as understood variously by Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Al-Ghazali, Maimonides and Confucius — noting differences and similarities between them.
They conclude positively: “The virtues may vary with cultural and religious contexts but still demonstrate considerable continuity in terms of their descriptions. People we know tend to behave in fairly predictable ways and this behaviour has at its core a stability that reflects their moral character.”
These are two useful books.
Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent and editor of Theology.
Another book in the same OUP series is reviewed here.
War and Religion: A very short introduction
Jolyon Mitchell and Joshua Rey
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
The Virtues: A very short introduction
Craig A. Boyd and Kevin Timpe
Church Times Bookshop £8.10