Author: Cochran, Elizabeth Agnew
Date published: March 1, 2013
THE ACTING PERSON AND CHRISTIAN MORAL LIFE. By Darlene Fozard Weaver. Washington: Georgetown University, 2011. Pp. 209. $32.95.
Weaver's book develops a compelling and subtle argument about the importance of reflection on sinful actions for a Christian understanding of the moral life. In developing her account of the relation between sinful actions and human identity, W. speaks most directly to issues of particular concern for post- Vatican II Catholic ethicists and situates her work in relation to other Catholic scholars; she clearly and effectively demonstrates precisely how her book offers a valuable contribution to contemporary Catholic ethics. At the same time, she is careful to engage a range of contemporary scholars outside the Catholic tradition, drawing in particular on major Protestant ethicists. Her thoughtful use of sources from divergent traditions implicitly points toward ways in which an exploration of the nature of sin opens up possibilities for fruitful ecumenical conversations regarding sin, grace, and human nature.
Throughout the book, W. is careful to express her sympathies to contemporary Catholic positions that seek to avoid an excessive focus on sin and its penalties. At the same time, she suggests that current scholarly trends that emphasize persons rather than individual actions have coincided with a tendency to overlook the ways in which sinful actions impact a person's relationship with God in a manner that necessarily affects her character (34). W. works to develop a position that stands largely in keeping with person-centered tendencies of "revisionist" Catholic ethics, but that more fully acknowledges the impact of a person's actions on her relationship with God (98-99). She contends that actions are important in the Christian life because they draw humans closer to or drive them farther from God (87). Actions are a means by which humans grow in faithfulness toward God through ordering themselves in relation to particular created and spiritual goods. We "deepen or diminish" our intimacy with God when we choose particular actions (142). In turn, in order sufficiently to acknowledge the importance of actions for our character, we must take seriously the enterprise of naming moral actions so that we can live "truthfully" before God. W.'s reflection on truthfulness before God, drawing on Charles Pinches, is particularly insightful: she argues that our ability to name moral actions truthfully shapes our identity as moral agents, and that a truthful assessment of our actions is essential to promoting and pursuing the common good (144-45). W. concludes her work with a discussion of forgiveness and reconciliation, arguing that reflection on these activities points toward a view of sin that is not restricted merely to personal culpability, but that can instead be corrected and overcome through communion with God (161-62).
W. situates her work in relation to established debates in Catholic ethics. She offers two different balanced and extended discussions of debates between traditionalists and revisionists, noting limitations in both accounts of the relation between action and moral agency (68-79, 98-112). But strikingly, she is also intentional about engaging major Protestant theologians. For example, in arguing that action and personal identity are related, she refers positively to Stanley Hauerwas's advocacy of a teleological ethics of character that conceives human action in the context of personal narrative and stories (79-81). After discussing the role of narrative in shaping human identity, W. develops (and later returns to) an extended discussion of the novel Gilead, by Protestant Calvinist Marilynne Robinson, which demonstrates precisely how actions help shape our relation before God and our own self-understanding. W.'s use of this novel, as well as other narratives from literature and from current events, is a particularly powerful feature of her book. Additionally, her defense of the need for truthfulness before God draws upon Karl Barth's account of the divine word that God speaks to humans in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (182-83). W. does not directly address ways in which her account of sin and grace may overcome limitations in contemporary Protestant ethics, but her constructive use of Protestant scholarship nonetheless points toward the value of dialogue between Protestant and Catholic ethicists concerning the nature of sin and sinful actions, the constructive possibilities that a robust conception of grace can provide to our understandings of agents' moral capacities, and the centrality of one's relationship with God for understanding one's character.
Duquesne University, Pittsburgh ELIZABETH AGNEW COCHRAN