- ISBN: 9780367331092
- Published By: Routledge
- Published: March 2020
Robin Gill’s Christian Ethics: The Basics is designed to “be read by people coming from a wide range of different perspectives” and aims to “bring some clarity to the questions raised by any serious attempt to study the different ways that Christian ethics is, and has been, articulated across time and different global cultures” (1). Gill claims that such clarity is not only important to Christians but, because of Christianity’s widespread influence and proliferation over time, valuable to anyone who is remotely concerned with comprehending the development of cultures across the globe. Indeed, making better sense of Christian ethics is exceptionally critical to those who wish to understand the history of Anglo-European worldviews and morality (1–2). As a primarily descriptive account of Christian ethical discourse across space and time, this claim is as close as Gill comes to asserting an overarching thesis. The generality of the book is the source of the text’s greatest strengths and weaknesses.
It is immediately apparent to anyone who picks up Gill’s book that it is exceedingly accessible. He indeed achieves his aim of making this book intelligible to anyone with at least a general education. I teach an upper-division undergraduate course in religious ethics each semester that surveys different social issues and the ways certain religious groups have addressed them. Because many of my students are not philosophy or religion majors, they often have trouble engaging with some of the more theoretical texts I assign. However, I intend to use sections of Gill’s book next semester since it delivers the clarity it promises in the introduction throughout its entirety. I hope the change will make some of the concepts students visit in other readings more digestible. Particularly helpful is Gill’s critical reading of three of Christianity’s most towering figures: St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, and Martin Luther. In nearly every chapter, Gill rehearses at least briefly how each of these figures thought about a given issue—whether warfare, social hierarchy, or the relationship of God, humans, and nature. His parsing of their different approaches and theological orientations is among the most helpful portions of the book.
At the same time, the generality of the text limits its effectiveness at points. For example, Gill sometimes mentions a thinker’s position on a given issue but then fails to elaborate on why the figure took such a position or even how they defended it to their contemporaries. This broadness also seems to keep the book from engaging more current debates and scholarship around specific issues the book addresses. For instance, Gill fails to mention John Kelsay’s work on just war and religious violence and omits any publications on just war or pacifism published in the last seven years. Similarly, he does not consider Willis Jenkins’ work on Christian environmental ethics in the portion on ecology; and he only cites one work on Christian environmental ethics published in the last fifteen years: Pope Francis’ Laudato si’ (2015).
Kelsay and Jenkins are looming figures in their subfields; even in a primer to Christian ethics, their omission is questionable at best. In his introduction, Gill promises to make more sense of the religiously motivated violence that has proliferated globally in the past two decades. Yet, one cannot tell the story of just war theory, religious violence, and Christian ethics in a post-9/11 world without Kelsay. Likewise, one cannot give a complete picture of Christian environmental ethics without at least gesturing to Jenkins’ critique of environmental ethics in the wake of Lynn White—a critique that has significantly shaped the field’s trajectory for the past fourteen years. While Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther are important, it is often essential for beginners to have some introduction to contemporary debates and thinkers. Otherwise, these issues feel too far removed from their lived experience.
Last—to make a quite picky point here—Gill sets in bold terms and figures throughout the book as if there were a glossary of terms and figures one could reference in the appendices. No such glossary exists, and Gill does not always define these ostensibly important bolded terms. This choice is confusing, and it is likely to strike most readers as odd. Simply adding a glossary would have made this work exceedingly more helpful.
To be clear, this is an excellent introduction to Christian ethics—one would expect nothing less from Gill. Contrasting contexts are likely to explain some readers’ qualms about omissions and clarity regarding the state of the field. Compare an American ethicist who peddles in comparative religious studies to Gill, who is a canon theologian for the Church of England. The two are separated by the strange chasm between the atomistic discourses of European and American scholarship and via differing methodological approaches—his being more theological. In other words, while there is crossover in Continental and American studies in Christian ethics, there is still a significant difference in key players, foci, and trajectories of scholarly debate. However, the omissions and generalities noted here are not wholly satisfying for this very reason.
In closing, this careful survey of Christian ethics is recommended to Gill’s intended audience—that is, everyone. When one sets out to tell the story of Christian ethics, whether a lecturer, scholar, or practitioner, one must decide how to tell this exceedingly complex yet captivating chronicle. Practitioners tend to tell this story as a linear one with a centralized essence that evolves or adapts over time. Scholars tend to recount Christian ethics as a discourse—an argument had by many voices. Many will appreciate this book immensely because it seems to strike a balance between these two approaches. It is a challenging high-wire act, but Gill performs it superbly.
James W. Waters is a PhD candidate in religion, ethics, and philosophy at Florida State University.James W. WatersDate Of Review:January 24, 2022