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.” ‘Thomism’, in Biggar’s self-consciously-named method, is the substantive noun with ‘Barthian’ serving as the adjective.
Many Christian ethicists who share a concern for avoiding theological thinness and blandness at the same time push for theological distinctiveness (the latest example is an article published in this past month by Christopher Tollefsen in Christian Bioethics)–but not Biggar. Instead, he reminds us that distinctiveness “is a matter of historical accident” and that it is no measure at all of what really matters: theological integrity. Attempts to be distinctive limit the common ground that Biggar claims Christians should have theological reason to expect to find with others. The world’s unified created order is “comprehensible by rational creatures, especially humans, who reflect God’s image. And since the created world is ordered for good, what is comprehensible includes goods or forms of flourishing.”
So, “notwithstanding an entirely proper concern for theological narrative integrity–and to some extent precisely because of it–the Christian ethicist should expect to find common ground with others.” Biggar warns Christians that Jesus’ own life (during which he was judged as heterodox by the religious authorities) should give us pause in thinking that the Church has a monopoly on moral understanding and insight. We have much to learn from our non-Christian interlocutors, and we should bend a humble ear to what is said outside the Church. And Biggar lines himself up with Barth and Hauwerwas in noting that “the will of God has has often been better fulfilled outside the Church than within it.”
Nevertheless, Biggar maintains his Barthian adjective in emphasizing that sinfulness has damaged human nature such that the salvation-narrative is not irrelevant. To the contrary, he suggests that human persons will not have the motivation to do what they know to be right “apart from the penitence, faith, gratitude, and hope that the story of God’s salvific initiative inspires.” The consensus that Christians can have with non-Christians is real (and therefore Augustinian rather than Rawlsian), but because “without love for God there is no true or perfect justice”, it will always be a “tense” consensus.
Some, Biggar admits, might claim that the middle path he attempts to walk in this book is “unstable” or “milksop”, but I agree with his defense that it is precisely because his view is so balanced that his punch “does not swing out wildly but drives straight home.” Perhaps this was on display at the conference that Biggar’s McDonald Center for Theology, Ethics and Public Life put on at Oxford this past May called ‘Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer: Utilitarians and Christians in Dialogue.’ Christian Ethicists like Eric Gregory, John Hare, John Haldane, Lisa Cahill, David Clough, and Biggar himself where able to invoke thick theological concepts like creation, forgiveness, and grace in pointing out perceived flaws and limitations in the arguments coming from Singer and other utilitarians, while being open to genuine common ground (which Singer himself highlighted in his final remarks) on issues like poverty, ecology, and treatment of non-human animals.
At times, and especially when claiming that “any argument in a public forum is bound to articulate itself in terms of temporal public goods” or that secular language “should always be used by religious citizens in public”, Biggar seems to reveal that his via media does lean in one direction. But this takes nothing away from the considerable punch that he nevertheless lands with a method that navigates a middle way. This is an important book that can help Christian ethicists come out of our camps and engage the public without sacrificing theological integrity.
Charlie– Great review – since I have not (yet!) read Biggar’s book, my comments are directed at your review. Certainly Biggar sounds like he is getting beyond the “sectarian-vs-theological sell-out” – which I agree is a kind of false, polemical contrast. Folks like Barth (contra German theologians who sold out to war) and Hauerwas (contra esp Reinhold Niebuhr who sold out to the Cold War) are not sectarians, but instead are always cautioning against wholesale compromises of theological language in the drive for social “influence.”
The one concern/question here would be your articulation of the importance of the salvation history narrative in terms of “motivation.” If we grant that the created order is made good, and that at that level, we should expect not distinctiveness but commonality, I think Catholics MUST agree – this is a key claim of Vatican II, and it is also central to Pope Benedict’s claims about the ongoing alliance of faith and logos/reason. On the other hand, does salvation history describe a story where we are called to some sort of supernatural destiny, something that is genuinely “beyond” the goods of the created order – which would then also relativize their importance and transform how we act toward these goods? Even if we describe this as charity – as love of God and neighbor – and not (erroneously) as some sort of dualistic abandonment of creation for some other “space” in the universe – won’t this be a matter of more than motivation?
Cashing this out, of course, should not exaggerate the “distinctiveness.” Yet I think about two areas – first, the idea of liturgy and sacraments, and in general the idea that worshipping/loving God is a fundamental good, and indeed a good that fundamentally shapes our understanding of other goods (e.g. our neighbor!), and second, the idea of witness, that one (not the only!) function of the Church is to offer the world a witness to the ultimacy of the supernatural end for all. As a kind of combination of the two, if I believe (as I do) that the Eucharist is an anticipation of the heavenly banquet feast of the Lamb which is celebrated for all eternity, won’t the priority and centrality of this good increase the “tension” in the consensus, particularly if some articulations of the consensus expressly exclude such an understanding of the human good? I suppose this may be covered by the “tension” Biggar discusses, but the way it is described here, the tension seems to arise from the extent to which the world’s understanding of human goods is obscured by sin. This is true. But what I’m saying goes beyond this, and says that there is a way in which, even the most perfected understanding of human goods is incomplete in light of God’s offer of eternal friendship.
Anyway, nice to see someone getting to the heart of these issues in ways that are more constructive than the usual polemics!