Reviews of

Author’s Response to RBECS’ review on Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics

In Bloomsbury, David G. HORRELL, NT Ethics, Paul, Samuli Siikavirta on November 2, 2010 at 5:43 pm

2010.11.06 | David G. Horrell, Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics. London: T&T Clark, 2005. 360 pp. ISBN 0567083349. Hardback.

The RBECS review is available here.

I am grateful to Samuli Siikavirta for taking the time to engage at length with Solidarity and Difference and I hope that these few brief remarks by way of response may help not only to clarify issues but also, perhaps, to take discussion beyond where the book leaves off. I note that Siikavirta has little to say about the bulk of the book, offering a brief summary of the eight main chapters with few signs of any disagreement or debate. (That I spent “only… four and a half pages” on baptism does not seem to me a particularly telling criticism of a wide-ranging book on Pauline ethics, though of course one could write much more – even a thesis on [say] baptism and moral formation in Paul.) If that means he was broadly convinced by the exegesis, then of course I am pleased; but I suspect things might not be so straightforward. Yet my conviction is that the debates and disagreements, at least in terms of the understanding of Paul, have to be pursued through exegesis. Only a cogent and detailed reading of the crucial texts can show whether, say, the law of Christ (Gal 6.2) is rightly to be seen as a reference to the paradigmatic moral pattern of Christ’s self-giving, or what Paul’s instruction is in complex arguments such as 1 Cor 8.1–11.1.

Most of this lengthy review, though, is taken up with presenting and discussing the various theses from the final summary chapter. Siikavirta is not always convinced, as signalled by his various questions and queries, but it is not always easy to understand the point being raised. For example, Siikavirta questions “whether Horrell dismisses ethical concord too easily – after all, he himself acknowledges that Pauline ethics cannot be separated from Pauline theology”. Of course, as I indicate in the book, there are some areas for Paul that are appropriately subject to a diversity of moral convictions and practices (notably food) and others that are not (notably sex). But my point is to indicate the kind of moral concord for which Paul fundamentally calls. The metamoral values are those of corporate solidarity in Christ and generous other-regard: these obligatory moral values form a kind of “moral concord”, if you like, within which a certain circumscribed diversity may remain – not entirely unlike the coercive and strictly limited tolerance of modern political liberalism, hence the point of comparison. Similarly, I don’t think I “forget about [my] own claim that Christian ethics ultimately stems from the Christ event” when I stress that, in some areas of specific substance, Pauline ethics shares convictions about what is good and bad with other traditions of morality evident at the time. It’s not entirely clear what it means to say that “it sounds unjust to the narrative itself to claim that redemption from the personal power of hamartia and freedom from it would not make Christian morality utterly different in its very core from that of the non-Christian Hellenistic world”. If “in its very core” means that there is a distinct narrative which underpins a particular sense of identity and thus motivates moral action, then I agree. But, as I attempt to show, this does not mean that this difference extends to specific ethical convictions and practices. Indeed, the point of the example from 1 Cor 5, examined in detail in Chapter 5 of the book, is to show that even where the rhetoric of distinction between church and world is strong, the substantive ethical norm (concerning sex with one’s mother-in-law) is shared – and that this bears some significant implications for our conception of the relationship between church and world, not least in terms of morality. (See now my essay ‘Particular Identity and Common Ethics: Reflections on the Foundations and Content of Pauline Ethics in 1 Corinthians 5’, in Friedrich Wilhelm Horn and Ruben Zimmermann (eds), Jenseits von Indikativ und Imperativ: Kontexte und Normen neutestamentlicher Ethik/Contexts and Norms of New Testament Ethics [WUNT 238; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009] 197-212.) To give another example, in 1 Cor 6–7 Paul gives a specifically christological basis for his assertion that sex with a porne is wrong, while sex with one’s spouse is right (even if the spouse is an unbeliever). But these ethical convictions are neither generated by nor distinctive to that christological motivation. Thus, in one sense it is right to say that the “fundamentally Christian motivation for moral living” distinguishes “Paul’s ethical teaching from the non-Christian knowledge of good and evil”, but we need, I think, to be clear that distinctive narrative foundations and theological motivations do not necessarily imply distinctive ethical practices as such – and this is a point of some wider significance.

Which brings me to some final remarks, on the point where Siikavirta thinks that my argument “limps at its worst”! This criticism is directed at the closing paragraphs of the book, where, as a third possible model for the contemporary appropriation of Pauline ethics, I mention the possibility “that to generate an ethic appropriate to our plural, indeed global, society, we need to articulate new stories, new myths, about human solidarity and difference that avoid the notion that only Christ can provide their basis, and in so doing go not only beyond but also against Paul” (Solidarity and Difference, p. 290). Siikavirta is not alone in finding such remarks too sketchy (cf. Victor Paul Furnish’s comments in his review in the Review of Biblical Literature), and I was aware that they were (albeit “gently”) provocative, and certainly not in any way systematic (not least since they take me well beyond my own field of expertise). The suggestion seemed to me worth raising, however, not only because it provokes Christians to think about the extent to which such a move might parallel the move they are happy to celebrate in relation to Christianity’s appropriation of Judaism’s traditions (cf. also p. 203), but also because it raises a serious issue for contemporary political ethics. If it is correct to conclude that moral values and practices are narratively grounded, rooted in communities of shared practice, then how is societal solidarity and generosity to be generated without some such shared narrative foundations? I appreciate that my provocative remarks might be interpreted as a vaguely envisioned dream for the end of Christianity, and its distinctively ecclesial communities. But it need be nothing of the sort, not least because most people inhabit, and are shaped by, a series of narratives, local, religious, occupational, and so on. After all, even Stanley Hauerwas is fond of recalling his identity as a Texan, son of a bricklayer – which implies that he is (in part) shaped by narratives of identity which are not themselves specifically Christian, but have to do with geography and family. So might local communities of solidarity and other-regard be nurtured partly through the processes by which people discover and develop a shared local narrative, which reflects local experiences and local concerns, incorporating people from a variety of religious traditions and commitments? That might be one example. Another might be the ways in which, through activities such as “scriptural reasoning”, Jews, Muslims and Christians read their sacred texts together, and perhaps find, in some respects, common points of commitment and story, not least in their critical opposition to certain aspects of secular consumerism and the all-embracing narrative of the customer and the market. Yet again, one might argue, as Jeffrey Stout has done, that liberal democracy itself constitutes a tradition with certain values and goods, which can be sustained and celebrated through certain kinds of practices. So the kind of possibility I all too briefly sketch as a possible model for appropriating Pauline ethics is both more evident in practice and less threatening in its potential than it might appear to be.

David G. Horrell

© D. G. Horrell 2010

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