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T. Howland SanksMarch 12, 2014
Global Justice, Christology and Christian Ethicsby Lisa Sowle Cahill

Cambridge University Press. 328p $99

As is true of all Lisa Sowle Cahill’s writings, this latest volume from the distinguished Christian ethicist from Boston College is a significant contribution not only to that discipline, but also to theology. Here she is less concerned about particular social issues and aims to provide a sustained theological basis for global justice. She argues that the relationship between theology and ethics is a two-way street. “Not only do biblical and theological claims about salvation in Jesus Christ require active commitment to social justice; the practices in which Christians are already engaged shape their theological vision, and the just or unjust practical consequences of Christian concepts and doctrines are indicators of the latter’s truth and adequacy.” Hence, in subsequent chapters Cahill tries to show how the Christian doctrines of creation and sin, of the kingdom of God, of various Christologies, of the Spirit and the Cross have implications and consequences for global justice.

In the first chapter Cahill lays the basis for the central argument of the book: Despite the intransigence of sin and evil, personal, communal and social transformations are real possibilities. This conviction is rooted in her background in American pragmatism and the social psychology of G. H. Mead as well as Thomistic natural law theory. She believes that moral selves are formed in and by communities of discourse, but Christian communities are not “insular.” They interact and dialogue with other communities. Hence, shared commitments are possible, and theology is public discourse linking the church and the polis.

After reviewing the creation narrative and the dynamics of evil, she concludes that it does not explain why evil exists but rather points the way to God’s redemptive activity and calls for human response to eradicate its consequences. The Christian answer to the problem of evil is the kingdom of God, which gives content to salvation. Cahill argues that Jesus saw salvation as corporate and political and presently effective in transforming social and political life rather than purely personal and spiritual. Jesus’ kingdom was inclusive and open to the poor, women and outsiders (Gentiles). After noting the tension between the present and future aspects of the kingdom, she argues that the present dimension is essential to validate transformative action in Christian ethics.

For specifically Christian ethicists, the guarantor of salvation and transformative political action is Jesus as the Christ, fully human but also fully divine. How this can be understood is the focus of Chapter 4. Recognizing that there was a plurality of Christological formulations from the beginning, Cahill seeks to reconcile the two most important trajectories—Word and Spirit Christologies. Word Christology, exemplified in the prologue to John’s Gospel, has been “in possession from Nicaea onward” and emphasizes the divinity of Christ. It has had a lasting hold on the Christian imagination, so much so that much of Christian piety has been, as Paul Tillich once said, “practically docetic.” In the fifth century, the humanity of Jesus was not in dispute, but his relation to Yahweh was problematic. Today that is not the case, and hence there has been a recovery of Spirit Christology. Word Christologies tend to be abstract, whereas “Spirit christologies bring us back to history, the humanity of Christ, the concrete ecclesial texture of the experience of God, and empowerment for God’s reign. Contemporary Spirit christologies also have ecumenical and interreligious appeal.” But, for Cahill, the two Christologies should be seen as complementary rather than in opposition, since they both affirm that it is God who is embodied in Jesus. Ultimately, that relationship remains mysterious, and no formulation is adequate to it. In evaluating new formulations today, Cahill argues, we would do well to put more emphasis on orthopraxis as a criterion of truth and validity.

Since all experiences of Christ in history are mediated by the Spirit, the author devotes a chapter to the “Spirit of Christ in the church as the power that draws Christians together and unites them to Christ in practice, belief, and hope. The power of the Spirit is essential for Christian ethics as enabling ongoing personal conversion, community solidarity, and the practical enactment of the Kingdom of God—the reconciling politics of salvation.” Cahill then explores how Aquinas and Luther and some contemporary theologians offer resources for a Spirit-inspired ethics and politics. The following chapter takes up the question of how Jesus’ death on the cross can bring about the reconciliation of humans to God and neighbor or, in other words, how is his death salvific? She finds the substitutionary atonement theory of Anselm unsatisfactory and concludes that it “should be tied to resurrection and incarnation, and complemented by an ethics of the reign of God.”

In the concluding two chapters, Cahill offers her reconstructed vision of Aquinas’s natural law theory, which has a more dynamic and relational understanding of human nature and accepts the reality of change while still maintaining that “human beings have characteristics that perdure within change,” what Edward Schillebeeckx terms “anthropological constants.” Her version of natural law theory includes the “objectivity of some basic goods...their amenability to reasonable yet inductive inquiry, and their appeal across cultures despite local variations.” This makes possible a global ethic of shared values and human goods to promote greater equality, human rights, womens rights and the environment. The final chapter tries to show how hope can be engendered from within human suffering by human actions on behalf of justice. “The virtue of eschatological hope is in fact contingent on practices that bring us existentially nearer to the end of union with God.” As a concrete historical example she offers the transformation that took place in Liberia by the women who organized mass protests in the early part of this century.

This is a rich and rewarding, though sometimes dense, volume. Cahill demonstrates breadth and depth of scholarship and a command of a wide range of sources. She achieves her goal of showing the interdependence of theology and ethics, each of which serves as a criterion of the other.

Because of the book’s title, I was expecting a fuller treatment of the possibilities and problems with a truly global ethic. Given the well-known difficulties of intercultural communication and how deeply embedded our forms of thought, ideals and values are in our cultures, simply to assert that ideals and values can be shared across cultures or that some human goods can be universally known seems a bit too facile. While I believe it may be true, a much more in-depth treatment is needed. Can we hope that this eminent scholar will take this up in the future?

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