Being Good and Doing Good

Martin Marty, Fortress, 1984

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This is an old treatment of ethics by a veteran theologian and historian, and it’s significant that its relevance remains constant still.  An interesting perspective is Marty’s identification of a literary basis for being ethical.  ‘Let a text speak to us and present a horizon through imagination and emotional acts’ (p 57); this is an alternative to the rational arguments for ethical discourse and action.  The final two chapters deal with how we live:  the public sphere where the individual is linked with fellow believers as well as non-believers in the whole world of human beings, and the personal sphere, various areas of private life that also have public effects (p 91).

Marty’s methodology does not go into details about what to do in certain issues (eg abortion, pacifism) but to see the relatedness of all life in what he calls ‘zones’.  The zone of the body (the self), those where we are intimately related to family, friends, the neighbourhood, institutions (schools, local church), place of employment.  The impetus to responsible living comes from our baptism, living the forgiven life.  He closes his book with an appeal to Christians to contribute to the common good, to find themselves at the foot of the cross in sight of an open tomb.  ‘That is the space where Jesus meets humans’ (p 128).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.