Daniel S. Schipani

The Conrad Grebel Review 25, no. 3 (Fall 2007)

Don S. Browning. Christian Ethics and the Moral Psychologies. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

This book is part of the Religion, Marriage, and Family series, edited by Don S. Browning and John Witte Jr., that stems from research projects originally located at the University of Chicago and, more recently, Emory University. Here Browning presents the fruits of a decade of work on the relation of Christian ethics and the moral psychologies, a time when he developed and expanded material included in earlier books such as Religious Thought and the Modern Psychologies: A Critical Conversation in the Theology of Culture (Fortress, 1987; rev. ed. 2004) and A Fundamental Practical Theology: Descriptive and Strategic Proposals (Fortress, 1991).

Browning seeks to fully answer key questions: Can the normative disciplines of moral philosophy and Christian ethics learn something from the workings of psychotherapy and the nature of moral development? Can Christian ethics trust these new psychologies? His main thesis answering these and related questions is this: “Yes, contemporary moral psychology can contribute to Christian ethics, but only when it does its research with competent pre-scientific or pre-empirical understanding of morality [the kind of philosophical and conceptual clarification of the meaning of morality that all good empirical moral psychology requires for conducting its observations, tests, and experiments]…. Christian ethics must critique these psychologies at the same time that it learns from them [and] must also help develop more adequate pre-empirical and philosophically sound models of morality” (2-3).

The Introduction develops a perspective on the relation of modern moral psychologies and Christian ethics by identifying the book’s main themes. Chapter one, “Multidimensionality of Praxis in Christian Ethics,” presents the author’s view of the content of Christian ethics with special attention to Reinhold Niebuhr. Chapter two, “Moral Psychology and Critical Hermeneutics,” discusses human development as seen by various perspectives in contemporary moral psychology, including a critique of foundationalism (the attempt to find, and work with, an objective, valuefree, and tradition-free way of considering moral development).

Chapter three, “Going Deeper: The Relation of Moral Education to Christian Ethics,” focuses on Johannes van der Ven’s view of the formation of the moral self and his application of Paul Ricoeur’s theory of moral education and communication.

In chapter four, “The Dialectic of Belonging and Distantiation,” Browning proposes using the phrase “practical theological ethics,” one that constructively combines two fields: “Practical theology needs to be more normative and theological ethics needs to be more descriptive and transformative” (85). He also discusses critical hermeneutics in light of Hans-Georg Gadamer and, especially, Ricoeur.

The next two chapters –“Attachment, Love, and Moral Development” and “Altruism, Feminism, and Family and Christian Love”– focus on the multidimensional reality of human love and Christian love. “Generativity, Ethics, and Hermeneutics: Revisiting Erik Erikson” follows as chapter seven. In these three chapters Browning illustrates the diagnostic value of two of the more recent and commanding moral psychological traditions, evolutionary psychology and the psychoanalytic ego-psychology of Erikson. Chapter eight, “Flanagan’s and Damasio’s Challenge to Theological Ethics,” introduces readers to moral psychologist Owen Flanagan and cognitive neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who help clarify some premoral aspects of ethics and morality. “Christian Ethics and the Premoral Good,” chapter nine, discusses why Christian ethics must attend more carefully to the premoral (morally relevant but not morally definitive) goods of life, and makes the case for “a Christianity that includes within the themes of creation, judgment, and salvation a proximate concern for human flourishing” (220).

Finally, in chapter ten, “Violence, Authority, and Communities of Reconstruction,” Browning focuses on youth violence. He proposes that the most comprehensive reason behind this violence is the deterioration of the voluntary, face-to-face institutions of civil society, and that the most inclusive strategy for curing youthful violence entails reviving society’s authoritative and grassroots communities.

A thoughtful reading of this book takes considerable time and energy, mainly because of the complexity of its subject matter and the plurality of sources and voices that Browning brilliantly engages while constructing his own practical theological ethics. Also, his revision of a series of articles eventually leading to the publication of this volume would have benefited from further editing to make the reading smoother, especially the transitions between chapters and the flow of the overall argument.

This book should be required reading for advanced courses focusing on Christian ethics and the human sciences, as well as for interdisciplinary studies engaging psychology, philosophy, ethics, and theology.

Daniel S. Schipani, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, IN