A holey trinity

Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society
August 16, 1996

Happy the students who have Paul Barry Clarke for their tutor. He has used an editor's prerogative to write some of the key entries and they are models of clear focused introductions to complex and wide-ranging topics. His handling of the "state" and "deconstruction" merit particular mention, as does a fascinating article on the unlikely subject of "noise". But it must be questioned whether his talents have been put to the best use in producing this book.

There are two advantages to a multidisciplinary approach. First, it offers researchers in separate disciplines the chance to learn something about other fields of scholarship whose books and articles they might not normally have on their shelves. To succeed here, the dictionary must satisfy two conditions: the quality of the articles in a reader's own field must be high and the other entries must briefly open up their subject, indicate its scope, and then give sound advice on further reading. In general this has been achieved. Each article ends with a select bibliography of up-to-date and easily accessible material. There are some lapses, however. The nontheologian interested in disputes over church services might reasonably look under "worship", but this contains no cross-reference to articles on "liturgy" and "liturgical movement", which are where the inquirer will find the desired material.

The second and more important opening for a cross-disciplinary dictionary is the chance to draw on expertise from different fields within individual entries. With creative cross-fertilisation, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Articles on social questions can benefit from theological insights; ethical debates can be grounded in the practical circumstances of actual societies. There is little evidence that this opportunity has been taken here. Nearly all the contributions are from authors who for the most part seem to have kept to their own ground.

Joseph Bracken's piece on the Trinity takes an obvious theme beyond the narrow confines of the topic. He discusses at length the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary "social trinitarianism" associated largely with Latin American liberation theologians who see in the co-equal relationship of the persons of the Trinity a model for human social structures and relate it directly to their political concerns. Yet even here an opportunity is missed. These same theologians are concerned also with gender issues, so we turn to the entry on "feminism" to see how their insights are used there, and find no mention of them, despite the article having been written by a theologian. There are just some predictable references to patriarchal religion and the ecofeminist preference for renewed worship of "the Goddess".

But the prize must go to the article on "population control", where the catalogue of missed opportunities is breathtaking. In a dictionary of society, the article makes no mention of the recent campaigns in China and India to reduce the sizes of families, with all the complex issues relating to the role of the family in those societies. In a dictionary of ethics, there is no discussion of the multitude of moral issues raised when the state intervenes in the most intimate personal matters and when the physical act of sex is divorced from the procreation of children. And in a dictionary of theology the article is silent on the teaching of the Catholic Church on this matter, and its profound influence in many of the poorest countries in the world. If any topic in the book was crying out for the interdisciplinary treatment, surely this was it. Yet this article does not even tackle the major questions of each discipline separately, let alone explore the interaction between them. On a subject that fuels great passions, and is of urgent concern to us all, what we are offered is detached, historical, statistical and dead.

Editorial judgement is also called into question by another feature of the book. From "animal rights" through to "zoos" is a series of entries reflecting the interests of coeditor Andrew Linzey. He would doubtless claim that these matters are vital to all three concerns of the dictionary, but they feel contrived. Certainly they do not make up for the lack of a genuine cross-disciplinary critique and insight in respect of the mainstream issues.

A Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society is an ambitious project, as the editors admit. Was it worth the effort? To put it bluntly, why should anyone pay almost Pounds 100 when library budgets are tight and shelf-space is limited? I support the multidisciplinary approach, but this example lets the cause down. It is not the book to break the departmental mould.

Anthony Freeman is a priest in the Church of England.

Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society

Editor - Paul Barry Clarke and Andrew Linzey
ISBN - 0 415 06212 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £85.00
Pages - 903

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