Author: Malesic, Jonathan
Date published: October 1, 2011
Behaving in Public: How to Do Christian Ethics. By Nigel Biggar. Grand Rapids, M: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011. 142pp. $16.00 paper.
Why can't you behave? To some Christian ethicists, this is what the exasperated, paternalistic secular state asks unruly Christians when they use theological language in public discussion. Hence theology's supposed forced option: if it doesn't actively confront "the World," then it retreats into liberalism and irrelevance.
In his book, Nigal Biggar presents a way between the church militant and the church redundant. To him, behaving in public demands considerable virtue from Christian ethicists, including docility in listening, "tolerance-as-care, charity-as-respect and charity-asoptimal-construal" of another's position, patience, and "critical candor" when facing views that must be opposed (p. 75). Such virtues- save critical candor, rarely seen in the academy and politics-can greatly serve the church and the public, should Christians exhibit them when engaging secular arguments.
Before engaging, though, Christians must be clear about what they have to say. Biggar insists on defining this positively, not by contrast with a supposedly hostile world. The goal of Christians in selfarticulation is not distinctiveness so much as integrity- "tak[ing] care to work out their ethics in terms of their creed" (p. 7). Distinctiveness may follow, but if Christians find others on their moral page, then so much the better. The prophetic speech Biggar sees Richard Hays emphasize is but one mode of Christian discourse and not always optimal, if the aim is to make convincing arguments with theological integrity.
The public space where argumentation occurs is not an undifferentiated liberal vacuum, but a "plural place of polyglot negotiation and compromise over temporal, public goods, where tensions persist but are contained by a certain consensus about the ethics of communication and of handling disagreement" (p. 61). Thus theology need not stop conversation. Although everyone favors one particular final vocabulary, other vocabularies are intelligible to us; in trying to resolve ethnic conflict (Biggar's example) a Christian may speak of sin and forgiveness, even with reference to Christ, and some secular listeners may find the words resonant.
Besides, even in Western Europe's allegedly anti-Christian publics, honest accounting of society reveals that despite diminished church attendance, few actively antagonize the church, and the overwhelming majority feels a cultural bond to it, suggesting that overt though judicious theological language can be rhetorically appealing. And theologically, one must recognize that the church/world boundary is blurred because all are in via from sin to salvation, sharing "a common need for the enlightenment and correction of moral understanding" (p. 28).
Despite Biggar's appreciation for common ground between Christian and other ethics, he thinks integrity does at times imply distinctiveness: "The Christian narrative ... grounds certain virtues and fuels moral motivation in ways that the created moral order alone does not, and that other narratives need not" (p. 37). Biggar is thus ultimately critical of Lutherans Knud Logstrup and Svend Andersen, along with the Catholic "autonomy-ethics" movement of the 1970s, for whom, Biggar claims, natural law's universality entails no distinctly Christian ethic as such.
In his final chapter, Biggar joins the chorus criticizing the confrontational approach of Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank. Together, they exhibit a "theologically pathological tendency to idealize the church and denigrate the world" (p. 96). Separately, Hauerwas fails of ecclesial humility, Milbank of casuistic attention to particulars. Thus the radical disjunction Milbank sees between Christian morality and all other moralities is "as implausible as it is grand" (p. 98). Against them, and drawing from Earth's notion of "virtual Christianity," Biggar claims that the visible church makes explicit what is implicit in its perhaps unconscious forms, members, and activities. Thus the church, integrated within the world, remains integral to guiding viatores to perfection.
If Hauerwas and Milbank make too much of the church's radical distinctiveness, then Biggar may assume too much theological consensus about orthodoxy. He writes that "what the integrity of Christian ethics requires is careful reflection ... on whether the ethical concepts used are sufficiently shaped at all the appropriate points by relevant moments in the whole theological narrative. In a nutshell: granted creedal completeness, what we need is not distinctiveness but discrimination" (p. 23). Indeed, but what counts as "sufficient," "appropriate," "relevant," and "whole" is thoroughly debatable within historic and contemporary theology, making creedal completeness impossible to grant.
Biggar' s frequent claims to theological "orthodoxy" in the first chapter therefore invite the question: Which community grounds this orthodoxy? Biggar's "orthodoxy" itself appears an ideal category, grounded less in specific worshiping communities than in the academy, more to do with Earth's authority than with bishops'.
Frequent references to Biggar's earlier work indicate Behaving in Publics retrospective and summative character; the argument is rooted in debates that Biggar has had through nearly four decades. Biggar's clarity and conciseness make this a quick and enjoyable read. As a much-needed argument in its own right, and as an engagement with key trends and schools of Christian ethical thought, it will be valuable to ethicists, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates.
Advance Access Publication 27 September 2011