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Concepts of Person and Christian Ethics.

This is a wide-ranging book of moral philosophy and theology. Its unifying theme is the concept of personhood, which spawns a large number of related discussions on doctrinal issues (Christology, Trinity, eschatology), philosophical issues about moral theory (universalizability, discourse and narrative ethics) and specific ethical issues (abortion, animal status, human rights). A general position about personhood emerges, as follows. It should not be defined exclusively in moral or rational terms. Instead, its meaning evolves within a wider discourse about our social selves, our environment, and God -- as an essentially relational notion which we only grasp in community. This sets broad parameters for discussion about particular ethical issues, but not decisive arguments.

The study begins with brief reference to historical roots, then concentrates on contemporary philosophical discussion of personhood. It engages critically with those who are inclined to separate personhood from human being and identify it too closely with rationality (Singer, Tooley, Parfit). This position is attributed chiefly to the influence of Kant. Rudman finds the groundwork for a more relational view provisionally in Hegel but more significantly (and more interestingly) in Feuerbach -- in spite of Feuerbach's anti-theological stance.

The doctrinal section follows the fertile fashion of much current theology in its concern for Trinitarianism. Along with many others Rudman accepts there was theological pressure from early christological and trinitiarian debates to expand the meaning of personhood beyond isolated individuality. As God cannot be thought of simply as an individual, neither can we. Relationality is essential to understanding personhood, whether divine or human. But he is more cautious than some in the claims he makes both for theology in general, and for the doctrine of the Trinity in particular. He sees Zizioulas (for example) basing his views of personhood too exclusively on Trinity. Rudman believes the doctrine of creation is more foundational for the ontology of personhood (which provides him, later, with a better basis for relating the value of human personhood to ecological concerns). The temporality and embodiment of God and the freedom of persons are also considered in relation to the doctrine of creation. Creation is further emphasized through a consideration of its integrity and interrelatedness -- so the value of human personhood is not isolated or exalted to the exclusion of all other reality.

But what is the relationship between insights determined by this particular (Christian) tradition, and others? Is a Christian-shaped understanding of personhood and ethics even communicable beyond its own boundaries? Rudman thinks it is. Contemporary social theory and philosophical ethics both include some allowance for particular narrative traditions to assume a role in common, communicative discourse. Habermas (duly qualified) is one of Rudman's partners here. Equally, Hauerwas (also duly qualified) helps keep him loyal to some sense of Christian distinctiveness. This is best articulated in his general discussions of neighbour love and forgiveness (`the logic of superabundance'). The specific matters of human rights, animal rights and abortion appear less clearly clothed in distinctive Christian dress.

A more fruitful line to pursue, in this matter of Christian distinctiveness, might have been the question of the continuity of the person (personal identity). Rudman is suitably wary of Parfit's project to divide the person up into radically different phases, and he is aware of some of the ethical implications. He asserts that there is still a place for the unitary self. But there is not much development of the notion in relation to Christian doctrines of (for example) rebirth, resurrection, predestination, assurance.

In general the discussion is balanced, although the argument is not particularly trenchant. The position he adopts is reasonable and judicious, although not radical or tightly defined. As such it is a valuable resource book for anyone wishing to chart the issues which collect round the meaning of personhood (though the subject index is somewhat thin for that purpose). They are issues which will become increasingly important across a number of academic disciplines, and it is vital that theology continues its own dialogue with them.
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Author:White, Vernon
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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