Saving the "secular": The public vocation of moral theology

Journal of Religious Ethics 37 (1):159-178 (2009)
Abstract
The London suicide bombings of July 7, 2005 were partly the revolt of moral earnestness against a liberal society that, enchanted by the fantasy of rationalist anthropology, surrenders its passionate members to a degrading consumerism. The "humane" liberalism variously espoused by Jürgen Habermas, John Rawls, and Jeffrey Stout offers a dignifying alternative; but it is fragile, and each of its proponents looks for allies among certain kinds of religious believer. Stanley Hauerwas, however, counsels Christians against cooperation. On the one hand, he is right to resist, insofar as liberalism illiberally excludes theology from public discourse. On the other hand, not all humane liberalism does this: Stout's, for example, is genuinely polyglot, requiring not a common secularist language but a common ethic of communicating. Such a liberal ethic and its attendant anthropology merit the support of Christians: there may be more to be said about the Kingdom of God than respect, tolerance, and fairness, but there will not be less. The Christian has good theological reasons to expect some concord with other inhabitants of secular space. Ethical distinctiveness is no measure of theological integrity; and neither theology ( pace Barth) nor biblical narrative ( pace Richard Hays) should be expected to do all of the ethical running. If Christians are to be thorough in their moral theology and intelligible in their public statements, then they must borrow non-theological material, formulate abstract concepts, and engage in casuistical analysis. Nevertheless, if an anxious insistence on distinctiveness is a mistake, concern for theological integrity is not. When the moral theologian borrows ethical material from elsewhere, he should integrate it into a theological vision structured by the Christian salvation-historical narrative, which will sometimes modify the meaning of what is incorporated. So in affirming humane, polyglot liberalism, the moral theologian will at the same time make salutary qualifications. One of these is the assertion of the need of liberal institutions to own and promote their moral and anthropological commitments. In such a confessionally liberal society, universities in general, and the Arts and Humanities in particular, would recover their vocation to form citizens in communicative virtues and to offer them a dignifying, morally serious vision of human being that could save future generations from a degrading consumerism on the one hand and violent over-reaction on the other
Keywords university  secularity  casuistry  public reason  Christian narrative  liberalism  moral theology
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    Karl Barth (2004). Church Dogmatics. Edinburgh: T and T Clark.

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