Review of “Behaving in Public: How to do Christian Ethics” (Nigel Biggar)

Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, and author of the new book Behaving in Public: How to Do Christian Ethics (Eerdmans 2011), is unboxable.  An Anglican who is “Protestant with regard to ecclesiology and the Lord’s Supper”, he also believes that “we are saved by grace through faith and works, and not by grace through faith alone.”  To further muddy the waters, he claims to be “much impressed by the rational methodological nature of Thomist ethics” and that he “has a strong penchant for casuistry.”  Add to this  the fact that he rejects strict interpretations of the Bible regarding same sex relations, believes that God is not merely a projection of human ideals or wishes and that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, finds democracy seriously problematic, and rejoices in a plural culture…and you’ve got one unboxable figure in Christian ethics. His method, one which he describes as a “Barthian Thomism”, is a via media between “conservative” approaches which are shy of attending to public policy and “liberal” ones which are theologically thin and bland.  What the Son of God reveals about the good, says Biggar, can only be a confirmation of what God the Father has created in the first place–though what Jesus reveals must always be examined “under the conditions of sin and in the light of eschatological hope.” ...

Read More

Peter Singer in a State of Flux?

There has been some time to digest the conference ‘Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer’ at Oxford a couple of weeks ago.  For anyone that wishes to watch some of the sessions, all of them are available on the McDonald Centre’s website here.  Whether you want to watch Eric Gregory and Toby Ord talk about poverty, Lisa Cahill and John Haldane talk about Thomas Aquinas and consequences, David Clough and Tim Mulgan talk about animals and climate change–or just John Hare being awesome–there is a lot of good stuff to check out.  The final round table (and especially the exchange between Singer and Nigel Biggar) was particularly good. The Tablet did a piece covering the conference (available to subscribers), but the Guardian also did one that is open to all.   The latter piece generated some 248 comments on the website itself, plus plenty of responses in the blogosphere.  For three interesting ones, go here, here, and here. Much of the ‘buzz’ is coming from the fact that a conference in conversation with Christians was an interesting place for Singer to reveal and publicly comment upon the fact that he is revisiting some of his most basic theoretical and meta-ethical positions.  In addition to talking openly and honestly about not having a good answer to the question “Why be moral in the first place?” (and also ‘regretting’ not having a God...

Read More

CatholicTV’s WOW Attempts to Make Catholicism Exciting For Youth

“A faith experience can’t only be about learning the ins and outs of the doctrine. It has to be a celebration.” So claims Bonnie Rodgers, the marketing and programming manager for CatholicTV, the Watertown, MA-based organization with 10.2 million viewers in 16 states. CatholicTV broadcasts the gameshow “WOW,” the network’s answer to “Jeopardy!’’ — but for the younger set. Instead of queries about geography and science, they face questions about the Holy Spirit, Lent, and eternal happiness. Seven Catholic elementary schools are competing this season, including St. Jude in Waltham and St. Bernadette in Northborough. The show, in its seventh season, has expanded its reach as far away as Pelham, N.H. The quiz show WOW covers a range of material about Catholicism and the children who compete get the questions a month ahead of time so they can study. Some are simple things the children learned in first grade (Question: On which day each year do we celebrate the Resurrection? Answer: Easter). Other questions are harder, and require diligent memorization (Question: What does ecce lignum crucis mean? Answer: Behold the wood of the cross). By the time the children finish studying, they can rattle off biblical phrases in Latin and Greek. WOW “helps people know that our faith is radical, and it’s alive, and exciting, and can be fun,” explains Rodgers. It is reassuring to see a seemingly-successful program...

Read More

Report from the Annual Convention of the College Theology Society

Today is the final day of the 57th Annual Convention of the College Theology Society. Several of us contributors and a number of friends and colleagues have attended a number of excellent papers (of course, some were not so excellent). This year’s theme has been “They Shall Be Called Children of God: Violence, Transformation, and the Sacred.” The National Catholic Reporter has provided (and will provide more in the coming days) some coverage of it. Overall, some 260 persons were registered for the convention. Plenary talks were given by William T. Cavanaugh (“Violence Religious and Secular: Questioning the Categories”), M. Shawn Copeland (“God Among the Ruins: Companion and Co-Sufferer”), James T. Logan (an African-American Mennonite theologian whose book on prisons and punishment I reviewed for Christian Century; he offered a great response to Copeland’s talk), and Todd David Whitmore (“Theology as Gospel Mimesis: Lessons from a Conflict Zone”). During a fourth plenary, “Alive Man Walking: One Person’s Story of Exoneration from Death Row,” Shujaa Graham, of the Witness to Innocence Project, movingly shared his story of being on–and released from–death row with us. During the banquet last night, Peter Steinfels and Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, who were honored with the CTS Presidential Award, also spoke. Afterwards, during the CTS Celebration that began at 9:30 p.m. and included music and singing (a tradition here), a number of us stayed up late reflecting...

Read More

A Character-Based Approach to Artificial Reproductive Technologies

About 10% of women of child-bearing years, that is 6.1 million women in the U.S., suffer from infertility (the inability to get pregnant after 1 year of trying or after six months of trying for those 35 or older). For many, an infertility diagnosis leads them to seek out assistance through artificial reproductive technologies (ARTs) like in-vitro fertilization (IVF) or gestational surrogacy, the use of which helps many infertile couples have the children they always dreamed of. The Roman Catholic Church, however, is well-known for its opposition to the use of such technologies, a stance which has become increasingly unpopular as ARTs become more common (You can read about the Church’s position on IVF here and here). Sean Savage, a Roman Catholic himself, presents an impassioned plea over at CNN’s Belief blog, for the RCC to change its stance on ARTs to accommodate for Catholics like him and his wife who resort to IVF to have the children they always dreamed of. Babies born of IVF are here because their parents loved, respected and longed for these children well before conception. These children could not get here through the conjugal love of their parents and it took a very deep love, respect, and commitment to pursue the medical treatment needed to conceive through IVF. There is no doubt in my mind that God is working through loving parents and...

Read More

Eschatology, Empowerment, and Ethics

Reflections on the readings for June 5, 2011 Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28:16-20 -or- Seventh Sunday of Easter Acts 1:12-14; Ps 27; 1 Pt 4:13-16; Jn 17:1-11a Whether your Sunday liturgy celebrates the feast of the Ascension or the Seventh Sunday of Easter, a first reading from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles awaits you.  In the opening verses of Luke’s Acts, we find a prologue that recapitulates the Gospel, placing special emphasis on the empowerment and mission of the disciples.  Both Gospel readings (Mt 28:16-20 and Jn 17:1-11a) also speak to a transitioning church community that bears the presence of God in new ways.  In the final verses of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus instructs his followers, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20). The close association between the mission of the disciples and the “end of the age” is significant.  Indeed, this plays out in a particular way at the beginning of Acts when the apostles witness the ascension of Jesus Christ.  As the apostles look up at the sky, two men appear in...

Read More

The Spirit in Ethical Reflection

Reflections on the readings for May 29, 2011 (Sixth Sunday of Easter) So what’s the big deal about the Holy Spirit? In this week’s first reading, we see Peter and John being sent to Samaria so that the people there, who have already been baptized, might receive also the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is all over the Bible but is really difficult to “nail down” in conversation. Of all three members of the Trinity, the Spirit is the one most neglected, and this makes a lot of sense. I teach a group of four and five year olds at church and I’m pretty sure they are good on God the Father (who is the star of the creation story they know so well) and Jesus the Son who we’ve been talking about all Lent and Easter. But as we approach Pentecost, I’ve been fretting about how to explain to them what the Spirit is. In the New Testament, the Spirit is connected with the growth of the Christian Church. The book of Acts, in many ways, can be read as a story of the Spirit progressing from Jerusalem (see the end of Luke and the prologue of Acts) to the four corners of the earth. The early Christians experienced the Spirit as power (Acts 1:8)—the power to speak in every language (Acts 2:5-12), the power to heal and...

Read More

John Jay Report

The general conclusion of the recent John Jay College report, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, was No single “cause” of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests is identified as a result of our research. Social and cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s manifested in increased levels of deviant behavior in the general society and also among priests of the Catholic Church in the United States. Some claimed that the report was just what the bishops ordered: it was society’s fault and not the Church’s.  Others claim the report was covering for the gay priest agenda in blaming society, while others noted that the report dispelled many misconceptions, including the one that homosexual priests were to blame.  Still others noted the $1.8 million dollar price tag  while others marveled that the price came with such a paltry conclusion as “well, you know, it’s really, really complicated.” One aspect of the report that seems to be missing from these discussions, however, is that social isolation and a lack of relationships seemed to play a significant role in the abuse.  Priests seemed to abuse “at times of increased job stress, social isolation, and decreased contact with peers.”  The priests who did abused were those “who lacked close social bonds, and those whose family spoke negatively or not at all about sex” and...

Read More

California Prisoners and the Common Good

On Monday, the Supreme Court ordered the state of California to reduce its prisoner population because of severe overcrowding. In a 5-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy explained that the state’s failure to meet constitutional requirements has caused “needless suffering and death.” The Brown v. Plata decision is published here by the Los Angeles Times. There has been a lot of fear-based reporting of this story, but Governor Brown is not immediately ordering the release of 40,000 violent offenders. How did we get here? A prison system built to hold 80,000 inmates now houses 143,335. Some say that we need to build more prisons. Others argue that the federal government should take over the detention of illegal immigrants so that the state prison system is not burdened with undocumented offenders. Some argue that we need to change the sentencing guidelines to prevent the incarceration of nonviolent offenders who could benefit from drug courts or rehabilitation programs on supervised release. Others say California should change the parole requirements as other states have done. Some argue that the county jail system could house state inmates to relieve overcrowding in prisons. And given the state’s severe budget crisis, the cost of each proposal is going to be heavily scrutinized. The LA Times reports that Governor Brown’s current proposal to transfer some inmates to county jails will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and...

Read More

A Quick Report from ‘Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer’ this Past Week at Oxford

There is much more to say about this past week’s amazing events at Oxford than I can fit into this blog post, and I will try to do so in a more systematic way once I’ve had some more time to think about everything.  For now, let me just share some thoughts along with a a few pictures. Here are two shots from where John Perry took me to ‘high table’ dinner at Christ Church College on Tuesday night.  For those of us who have never been there before, and only seen this room in the movies, it was an amazing experience…especially given that so interesting people were sitting around the table.  It certainly ‘set the scene’ for the special event that was about to unfold: The next day, John organized a manuscript colloquium for me, and I got a ton of helpful feedback from his graduate students and various faculty that attended.  Rob Vischer, of Mirror of Justice fame, happened to be at Oxford for the month, came to the colloquium, and (after asking me some good, hard questions) blogged about it soon after.  I have some serious revisions to do, but I’m so glad for the feedback from everyone there…and to John for setting it up. On Thursday the conference began.  John Perry did a great job planning and executing every aspect of it.   Here is he...

Read More

Recent Tweets