Book Review

The following review on my book was published at Clarion: A Journal of Spirituality and Justice, Jan. 2016:

Reading Karl Barth, Interrupting Moral Technique, Transforming Biomedical Ethics (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015)

There are those who labour long and hard in the world of Barthian scholarship (disputing and debating how Barth is to be read and interpreted) but never, in any substantive way, apply his exegesis and theology to practical and applied ethics (much less biomedical ethics).

There are others who, consistently informed by a secular approach to ethics, separate ethics from theology and, for the most part, substantive philosophy. This means, therefore, ethics lacks a deeper and more solid grounding. The strength and brilliance of Reading Karl Barth is the intricate and meticulous way that Ashley Moyse has integrated (in a way few do or can) an approach to Barth that interrogates and interrupts a questionable way of doing biomedical ethics (which tends to be more fixated on technique and skill manipulation). Needless to say, as the title of the books suggests, the task of Moyse is to transform biomedical ethics by taking the dialogue to a deeper and more demanding theological place—Barth is, for Moyse, the guide to such a destination.

Reading Karl Barth is divided into six discrete yet overlapping chapters: 1) Introduction, 2) Contemporary Bioethics and the “Sin” of the Common Morality, 3) The Technique of Bioethics and the Freedom for Encounter, 4) The Isolated Will and the Freedom for Agency, 5) An Anxious Institution and the Freedom for Human Life and a superb Conclusion, 6) Interrupting Moral Technique, Transforming Biomedical Ethics. There can be little doubt, when book is done, that Moyse has raised a challenge to the way much biomedical ethics is done and the dangers of such an approach. Each chapter, carefully and wisely so, unpacks and unravels, the core agenda of much of secular biomedical ethics and the inherent danger of those who uncritically adopt such a one-dimensional approach to doing ethics.

There can be no doubt that Karl Barth (regardless of the many and conflicting devotees of him) stands as one of the finest theologians of the 20th century, and Barth’s theology had a decided prophetic countercultural critique (at the level of theory and practice) of what is trendy and the cause de jour ethics of his time (and ours). Ashley judiciously and sanely mines the gold in the shafts of Barth’s thought and uses the well wrought insights of such digging to reveal the pallid and tumid nature of much biomedical ethics. Needless to say, at the heart and core of the book is the desire to rescue humans from an approach to ethics that is, by day’s end, quite dehumanizing, and, equally worrisome, given to the illusion that through enlightened techniques biomedical ethics will, in time, will healing through a combination of research, reason and power. Such an approach to ethics has a tendency to shrink the discourse to the smallest circle turns and, ironically, undermine the very project of biomedical ethics--such are the insights Karl Barth and Ashley Moyse illuminate when biomedical ethics delinks and cuts itself loose from theology and, by extension, philosophy at its best and noblest.

Reading Karl Barth is, in a sense, a must read for those interested in the interface, at the levels of theory and practice, between theology and ethics (particularly biomedical ethics). The underlying approach of the book can also be applied to the various and varied ways that ethics is often done in our time. It is, in short, as Ashley rightly observes and articulates, that only as we interrupt much of the moral technique of our age (which is often more an addiction to technique than actually morality) that, in any serious way, biomedical ethics will be transformed into something more fully human and humane.

Ron Dart

University of the Fraser Valley