ON HUMAN WORTH
Duncan B Forrester
SCM Press Ltd, 2001, x +307pp
‘In order to believe in human equality it is necessary to believe in God.’ These words of R.H. Tawney underpin and, to some extent, encapsulate the thesis of Duncan Forrester’s fascinating and rewarding discussion of equality and human worth. His resolve to identify and explore the key theological issues associated with human worth is well worked out in a book which is clearly structured, highly readable, informative, and passsionate.
In the first two chapters of the book, which compose Part One, the author surveys the ‘meanings’ of equality and discusses a range of contemporary non-Christian positions. Complex and subtle material is presented clearly and with a light touch. Part Two is entitled, ‘The Christian Shape of Equality’ and is made up of chapters presenting the main biblical teachings which relate to equality, giving an overview of Christian thought on the subject across the centuries and introducing the work of Tawney, Kierkgaard, liberation theologians and modern Roman Catholic social teaching.
Building on the first two thirds of the book, Part Three addresses ‘Fruits of Equality: Practices and Policies’ and devotes a chapter each to the response of Christian individuals, of the Church and of society (although this third chapter focuses in large measure upon the ‘politics of inclusion’). This part of the book is, perhaps the weakest, combining as it does a certain amount of hand-wringing description with a fundamentally statist approach to policy formation.
It is a revealing statement on p.72 in which Forrester commends a theology which is ‘rooted in the real world and its issues and its suffering. It cares for people more than for intellectual coherence, or literary elegance, or academic respectability’. Of course. The ‘crucial step from academic detachment to fellow-feeling’ (p.17) must indeed be taken. But to write a book of this sort, with its endeavour to persuade its readers that one understanding of ‘human worth’ (and the attitudes, policies and behaviours which flow from it) is superior to other understandings, surely presupposes the conviction that what is not intellectually coherent will undermine and otherwise harm the very people for whom ‘theology’ cares. It is for this reason that Forrester’s failure to engage with the detailed arguments of those holding other understandings of equality and worth to some extent works against the compassionate concern for the poor and disadvantaged which so evidently and winsomely characterizes the spirit of the book. To be sure, Robert Nozick, F.A. Hayek, and P.T. Bauer are all mentioned but it cannot be said that their arguments against a certain sort of egalitarianism and the public policy which it produces have been thoroughly described or dealt with. And it is surprising that the work of authors so significant and diverse as John Milbank, Helmut Schoeck, Herbert Schlossberg, Antony Flew, Ludwig von Mises or Thomas Sowell receive not so much as a mention.
The reader encounters an example of the weakness that this introduces into Forrester’s argument almost at the very beginning of the book. He asserts that ‘the very act of giving underscores the inequality between us’ (p.3) as though this were necessarily a bad thing, a position which sits ill with a theology of the grace of God. Later in the book, happily, the author tells us that ‘Legalistic and imposed egalitarianism can do much damage; far better is what one might call the egalitarianism of grace.’ (p.170). This in contrast to his argument in the Prologue that, ‘Personal initiatives are hopelessly inadequate to the scale and complexity of the problem. It would be better if some of my resources should be rechannelled anonymously through the taxation system … That would be both less patronizing and more likely to have positive results than impulsive individual giving.’ (pp4-5) This not only ignores the way in which the management of ‘resources rechannelled anonymously through the taxation system’ is vicious, inefficient and (as Forrester implies) impersonal and has proven far more ‘hopelessly inadequate’ than the alternatives, it also fails to take into account the very many alternatives that there are.
Thus, Human Worth, is a well-informed treatment of a vital issue which both introduces theological distinctions and raises personal questions with lucidity and passion. However, it fails to take into account some important political-philosophical critiques of egalitarianism and as a result makes practical and public policy recommendations which are generous-hearted but weak-minded. Two parts good; one part bad.