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Covenant, Community and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics

By Eric Mount Jr.
Pilgrim. 1999. 188 pp. Pb. $19.95.
ISBN 0829813551

Reviewed by Guy B. Hammond of Blacksburg, Va.

As the book's subtitle suggests, Presbyterian scholar Eric Mount's work can serve as an introduction to the entire field of Christian ethics, approached from a particular vantage point.

And that approach proves to be a productive one: an examination of three “deep symbols” that have provided the groundwork for a number of specific ethical theories.

Mount gives most detailed attention to the idea/symbol of “covenant,” perhaps of the three the most problematical, but also possibly the one with the richest implications. Its roots are, he asserts, Hebraic. Because of the United States’ distinctive history, it has taken the place of organic and hierarchical ideas on this continent. Covenant alludes to the keeping of promises; more than a contract, it suggests unlimited commitment to the claims of the “other.” Its promises are not just mutual agreements but are “vows before God.” Like the other symbols — indeed an important characteristic of all three — covenant “points to the interhuman and interdependent character of our existence as a given and not merely a choice” (p. 158).

Covenantal ideas have been criticized by liberals, feminists and postmodernists, often for legitimate reasons, Mount believes. Some covenantal visions have been restrictive, “contaminated by sexism — and racism” (p. 46). Idolatrous claims to religious superiority have not infrequently been put forward in the name of covenant. However, these criticisms can, Mount thinks, lead to a refinement of the theme rather than its abandonment.

The second symbol — “common good” — has its roots, according to Mount, in Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics rather than in the biblical narratives. Here the ambiguity is not so much in the term itself — conveying as it does a sense of communal shared identity and values — but in answers to these questions: Who gives specificity to the definition and who is left out when this is done? Can any collective determine a common good and still be respectful of difference? Can a distinction be made between common good and common interest (the latter being simply the sum total of individual interests)?

In Mount’s account the third symbol — “community” — also needs little by way of general definition. Rather, it is necessary to critique its various specific uses. Such views as communitarianism and revisionist liberalism are scrutinized to weigh whether they preserve an appropriate balance between individual liberty and communal solidarity. An important issue, Mount ponders whether a global community is emerging, whether humanity itself can become a moral community. He suggests the notion that “tribal” and larger identifications need not be antiethical.

While each of these three symbols has problematical aspects, Mount suggests that taken together they may help us achieve a balanced perspective. “The quest for community is the obligation of covenant, and the fostering of community of the right kind is at least one understanding of the common good. The three terms belong together . . . . Conceived as complementary, they combine respect for difference with affirmation of commonality” (pp. 156-157).

Using these three terms as tools of analysis, Mount explores current debates in the specific areas of family values, work and welfare, civil society and virtue, and global community. For this reviewer his reflections on sexuality issues and on “the covenant of work” were especially helpful. In sum, Mount’s book does much to recover the usefulness of three classic symbols that can assist us as we strive to develop a language for conversation about values in our pluralistic society.