Christian Ethics at the Boundary

Feminism and Theologies of Public Life

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Karen V. Guth
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , September
     231 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Christian Ethics at the Boundary, Karen Guth uses her feminist ethical perspective to attempt to unite three theological streams—witness, realist, feminist—that have operated separately in the Christian theology and politics of the twentieth century. Acknowledging the divides and polarization between witness and realist theologians, Guth highlights the importance of creating a safe boundary for the theological community that would allow the contextual work of theologians such as Robin W. Lovin, Kathryn Tanner, and Monica A. Coleman to be extended into embracing critiques to develop a new trajectory for the theological future in Christian ethics. Guth discusses the significance of both ecclesial and extra-ecclesial politics by integrating some divided streams of public and political theologies in the North American Protestant context. In particular, Guth approaches Niebuhr’s thought on the church, John Howard Yoder’s realist approach, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s politics of love from a feminist perspective. She provides her analysis and the implications of these theological streams in three ways: first, she addresses the dismissal, misinterpretation, or neglect of these theologians; second, she articulates the importance of Christian ethics in modeling productive ways for embracing difference; and finally, she tries to enhance “the potential of their work to meet current moral challenges” (31). Through this analysis, Guth seeks to reconstruct safe boundaries for the theological community for argument and critique—what Kathryn Tanner calls a “genuine community of argument.”

Guth elaborates four interrelated arguments. First, she argues for “the destructive impact of the witness-realist divides of the last half century in a particularly acute way” in the Protestant Christian theology in North America (7). For example, in chapter 1, she engages theologians such as Karl Barth, Robin W. Lovin, and Stanley Hauerwas, and the divides between them that provoke her to think about the significant contribution of these contemporary witness and realist theologians from her feminist theological perspective. Secondly, Guth posits that doing Christian ethics at the boundary allows us to create new agendas: for example, “ecclesiology as a new agenda for realists,” “feminism as a new agenda for witness theologians,” and “creative maladjustment as a productive theological stance for all Christian ethicists” (8). In this way, for Guth, feminist theology is indispensable as the boundary of both Niebuhr’s realist and Yoder’s witness approaches. Thirdly, Guth proceeds to extend her argument to include broader debates within natural law, virtue ethics, and other of the many topics outside of public theology, including Catholic moral theology. Her readings invite the Christian churches to engage ethical judgments in a flexible way. Finally, her fourth argument calls for debates within American Protestant public theology—particularly those relevant to the legacies of Niebuhr, Yoder, and King—that approach the boundary and include constructive criticism and encouragement to different theological perspectives. In this way, her work seems to show a creative method for an effectively cooperative vision in Christian politics.

One of the most remarkable contributions that Guth makes in her analysis is her projection of Martin Luther King Jr. as “a theopolitical ally whose work features ‘feminist’ arcs,” even though she understands that King failed to address the problems of sexism in his work (30). For example, in chapter 4, Guth emphasizes King’s concept of agape love and his nonviolent resistance that have influenced various works of feminist and womanist theologians including those of Monica A. Coleman, Karen Baker-Fletcher, and others. Additionally, projecting “church as communities of creativity” (183), Guth argues for King’s challenge of addressing questions that make witness, realist, and feminist theologians engage the importance of the church as a sphere of moral formation that supports extra-ecclesial politics (30).

This book could be enhanced by providing the historical, political, and theological backgrounds of the three theologians discussed most extensively for those who are not familiar with them. Some terms in the book, such as “boundary” and “public life” are not explicitly and concretely defined for novice readers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

JungJa Joy Yu is a doctoral candidate at Claremont Graduate University and the author of Breaking the Glass Box: A Korean Woman’s Experiences of Consceintization and Spiritual Formation.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karen V. Guth is assistant professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. She earned a PhD in religious ethics at the University of Virginia and holds an MTS from Harvard Divinity School and MTh from the University of Glasgow. She is the author of several articles and essays in peer-reviewed journals and publications, such as Theology Today and the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics.



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