A Book Recommendation on Moral Formation and Religious Life in the USA

Darrell L. Bock's picture

I have been reading on biblical ethics and moral formation for some time. I find it amazing that seminary currricula rarely require a class that focuses on this topic (That includes where I teach!. We tend to think it can or is just absorbed in one way or another. (But that is another topic for another day)

There are many good books to recommend in this area. I just finished a really good work that is a wonderful way to get oriented or introduced to the area. it is Wyndy Corbin Reuschling's Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promise and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality (Brazos Press, 2008). 

In this book she first considers the three major models of moral formation in our world today: Duty ethics (Kant), Teleology or Utilitarian ethics (Mill) and Virtue Ethics (Aristotle, MacIntyre). 

These can be summarized as follows:

1) Duty ethics (Kant): What ought we to do? Which rules should I follow? Tied to rational and laws of nature. Categorical imperative- what we must do, the good pursued for the sake of duty.

2) Teleology (Mill): What will be the outcome? Goal- happiness for the most. (Happiness, safety and security- keys to life- a common view)

3) Virtue Ethics (Aristotle); What character should I show? Exercise of virtues to attain the highest good. Well being, happiness and good. Intelelectual and moral virtues: theoretical wisdom, understanding practical wisdom- intellectual; generosity, self control, courage, modesty, self-respect, gentleness, truthfulness, humor, righteous indignation- moral virtues. (one could add humility, peacemaking, suffering for righteousness’ sake, mercy, justice). Cultivated through habits, choices and friendships. Community dimension and role lacking in other models.

She critiques what each lacks as well as noting what each one gives us. She argues for model that does not park in any one of these but uses what is good from each, as well as adding her own reflections on how a kingdom perspective impacts how we look a these three models for moral formation. She is especially concerned that our over individualized way of ethical reasoning leads to a selfish way of thinking morally and a kind of therapeutic orientation to life that is less service driven than discipleship should be. The role of community and biblical narrative are important to her as missing ingredients in our moral reflection. The messy accounts of life in Scripture are things that can lead us to reflect on how we should live. Community reflection over the complexities of life can also be of help. She wishes we utilized more of both as we think about developing moral discernment required for the messy situations of our own lives. She ends stressing the potential of three common church activities for getting us to be more morally sensitive: preaching, small groups and service as key elements in formation. 

This is a balanced and thoughtful book. It also is clearly and simply written, making it a nice read. If you have been curious to get oriented to an area that often is hard to get your hands around, this book is a good start.

Comments

When I saw Kant, Mill, and Aristotle as her main sources, I was dismayed.  Is it too pedestrian or red-state to have hoped that the Sermon on the Mount would figure prominently in a study on this subject?

Darrell L. Bock's picture

Mike:

She discusses the Sermon on the Mount and the work of Stassen and Gushee in Kingdom Ethics as she emphasizes the value of their work on this topic using the Sermon. So that is addressed. She also does not just use these three theories but critiques them, showing strengths and weaknesses.

Dr. Bock,

Assuming you consider Hauerwas in the camp of MacIntyre, how would you say her work improves on #3 Virtue Ethics in particular, since so much of the last paragraph (individualistic notion of self not being a good thing, community emphasis, narrative theology, etc) seems similar?

Thanks!

Jenny

Darrell L. Bock's picture

Jenny:

Technically, Hauerwas is Anabaptist and not so much a virtue ethicist. His emphasis on the community is something this book shares. Ruchsling's point is not so much that virtue ethics is wrong (as it has much to offer, she says). However, she argues that without a community dimension, it can be very individualized in perspective and that is the risk in its emphasis. It does not ask corporate or corporate structure questions.

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