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Ethics and Religion in a Pluralistic Age: Collected Essays.

This book is no arbitrary miscellany but has a distinct plan which is explained at the outset, though it retains its character of a collection of essays. It might have been easier for the reader to do justice to the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, if the parts had been either set simply side by side as separate entities, or, better still, more closely welded together into one developing argument. What we are given is a number of related, interesting, convincing, but not closely integrated discussions.

The book's great merit is its fair-minded balance. Brian Hebblethwaite's combination of traditionalism and openness is particularly congenial to this reviewer, almost nostalgically so. It is refreshing to find Austin Farrer still acknowledged and quoted as an intellectual giant. If `old-fashioned' could be allowed to be a compliment, Brian Hebblethwaite is old-fashioned in taking one back to a world in which one aspired to be up to date rather than post-modern: a world in which theological arguments aimed at substantial conclusions. He is not afraid of bluntly commending a high Christology (pp. 114-15).

The book is divided into two parts, of which the first is concerned with a series of problems in which ethics and theology are mutually illuminating; and the second takes heed of our pluralistic age and especially the relationships between the ethical thought of Christianity and other faiths. It is a curious result of this division that Islam, the third `people of the Book', hardly gets a look in.

In Part I, chapter 6 is characteristic, in which he asks whether the doctrine of the atonement makes moral sense. He resists the notion that forgiveness requires a death, and finds models of atonement `based on the sacrificial cult or on the theory of retributive punishment' unsatisfactory to the point of being `morally objectionable' (pp. 81-82). So he comes to the not wholly traditional conclusion that what is necessary `for our salvation is not so much the death of Christ as the Incarnation' (p. 92). Doctrine and ethics come together in his conviction that it is not `the death as such that effects salvation for the world' but `Christ's perfect human offering of his whole life', into which offering we are allowed to enter (ibid.). Without rejecting this understanding, can we reclaim the characteristic Christian emphasis on the Cross itself as fundamental by a different shift from the traditional emphasis? A less legalistic theory of atonement could fret less about how Christ's suffering could avail to annul human sin, and address instead the even harder problem about how a good God could allow creatures, guilty or innocent, to suffer so much. Brian Hebblethwaite does indeed raise the question of 'absolving God from blame' (p. 78; and see pp. 154 f.). Is it irreverent to think of the agony of the Cross as God bearing the responsibility, one might almost say making amends, for the creation of a world in which there can be agony? Only someone who has endured to the limit has the right to affirm that the dangerous character of human life is justified and worthwhile.

Part II consists entirely of reprinted pieces, mainly concerned with Christianity and Eastern faiths, though he puts first an interesting chapter on the Jewishness of Jesus, in which he refuses to `distance Jesus overmuch from the Judaism of his day' (p. 103). There follow critiques of Don Cupitt and John Hick; and the final chapters are based on three lectures given in India on `The Overcoming of Evil'. If the book had been less firmly labelled a book about ethics, maybe he could have taken space to discuss more fully the tension, especially obvious in the development of Hick's thought but implicit throughout, between critical realism with its emphasis on truth and religious pluralism with its appreciation of other faiths (e.g. p. 138). To put this in a brashly oversimplified way, how far can Christianity, Islam and Buddhism all be true? -- and if their differences remain important, how can we avoid insisting that after all two of them are false? This book exhibits an encouraging tolerance, a truly ecumenical respect for the integrity of other faiths. Would it have been irrelevant to his purpose to explore more directly the intellectual demands of such tolerance?
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Author:Oppenheimer, Helen
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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