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Like much of the really exciting theology I’ve read this year (Rowan Williams’ Meeting God in Mark, or Hugh Gilbert OSB’s The Tale of Quisquis), The Ethics of Everyday Life is not a monograph, but a collection. In 2013, the theologian and ethicist Michael Banner gave the Oxford University Bampton Lectures, in which he argued that, when it comes to the low-key decision-making of day-to-day life, Christian ethics as it stands is simply not fit for purpose. These lectures represent a first attempt by Banner at constructing a new sort of ethics informed by social anthropology and centred on the life of Christ, and they are reproduced here more or less as is, with a neat but unobtrusive critical framework.
Lecture transcripts are often less accessible to the general reader simply because those who turn up to hear them in the first place can reasonably be assumed to have a certain knowledge of the field, and a certain investment in it. This is true here, although Banner is an excellent communicator; readers without at least a basic grasp of Christian ethics and its preoccupations might best start with his Christian Ethics: A Brief History. But for those who do have that grasp or are prepared to acquire it, this is an extremely rewarding read.
The lecture series form – essentially, a set of short exercises on a common theme – is perfectly suited to that first assault on a new (or renewed) methodology: it leaves plenty of space for unanswered (or unanswerable) questions, loose ends, ambiguities. And Banner has deliberately chosen to concentrate, not on “hard case” scenarios such as euthanasia, but on messy and open-ended things like kinship, age, infirmity, memory: everyday and universal things which are at best badly served by the predominant obsession with Big Decisions and either/or choices.
He carries it off, too. The tone is conversational and sometimes wonderfully dry, but never facile; it entirely avoids the faux chattiness of so much self-consciously accessible academic work. Banner is frank about the limitations of the exercise and the lacunae in his reading, especially of social anthropology, and this only gives his (initial) conclusions more authority. And, however provisional it may be, his ethical schema hangs together convincingly and well, and there is much with which to engage whether you agree with it or not. Only occasionally is there any sense of unfinished thinking: it seems odd, for example, to speak about the supposed medicalisation of childbirth without mentioning the risk of maternal mortality, which crops up only in the following section and under another heading entirely. But these infrequent moments do not undermine the excellence of the whole, or its potential as a new and exciting way of doing theology.
So much for my (theologically minded, Christian) perspective. When reviewing a book about religion, there is always the implicit question: but do you have to be religious to read it? That’s pretty straightforward when it comes to an academic monograph like Christian Ethics: A Brief History (the answer is “no”, for the record). Here it’s a little more complicated. The Bampton Lectures have a long history as a forum for spirited theological debate among Christians; they matter to people because the questions they raise, while of academic and cultural interest, are also material ones for the life of the church. In this particular case, I’d say it’s not necessary to buy in to the Christ-centred ethos Banner advocates; the motivation for reading might be as simple as knowing one’s enemy. The real bottom line is being prepared to take the faith of others seriously; to accord a place of some kind to religious feeling and religious practice, however alien, in the grand scheme of legitimate human experience. That is really the primary thrust of this book, and it ought to involve and to trouble readers of any faith or none.
Oxford University Press, hardback, 240 pp., ISBN: 978-0-19-872206-9. Also available as an e-book.
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