Those familiar with Don Browning’s thought will find little that is new in this volume, which is a collection of just under two dozen of the best essays of his previous work, spanning fifteen years (1991-2005). Only chapter twenty is previously unpublished. All the chapters are here reproduced, slightly edited, with one-page introductions by Browning that situate them historically and in the context of his scholarship.
The twenty-one chapters are organized under five areas. In part one, Browning offers a couple forays into the nature of fundamental practical theology, a topic to which he returns in the final section of the book. This is actually Browning’s primary interest, he tells the reader. However, he has worked out a fundamental practical theology through dealing concretely with marriage and family, and discussions of the latter form the bulk of the book. Browning is concerned that practical theology be related to both theological ethics and the public sphere, and he has developed four steps for a sound fundamental practical theology.
Browning attempts in part two to find a middle path through polemics surrounding family issues. Homosexuality and abortion are conspicuously absent from the discussion here and throughout, since Browning thinks that there are more fundamental and often ignored topics which set a more robust and necessary context for delving into the controversies of the day. He mentions the deinstitutionalization of marriage, the subversive effects on the family of the market, individualism and the general absence of fathers and father-figures, among others.
The third part offers a variety of essays loosely grouped under the title “Critical Foundations.” Here Browning provides some historical context; examines the family as the primary seedbed of virtue; discusses the relationship of narrative and biology to ethics and the nature of religious symbolism, especially regarding the question of family equality and husband-headship, a running theme through many of the chapters; and attempts a definition/description of marriage which takes into account its multi-faceted complexity as natural, interpersonal, social, legal, financial, sexual and religious. Here, as elsewhere, Browning develops an overarching principle that should guide family life, which he has called the ethic of equal regard. Simply put, this is mutual, unconditional respect which works for the good of the other.
The fourth section is dedicated to more practical matters and its chapters focus more than previous ones on ways forward through the current family crisis. A major concern of many of the essays, the role of religious institutions in helping families, is developed at greater length in this section. Browning advocates for a “critical familism,” which recovers the Christian tradition concerning the family, but not without improvement and adaptation to current situations. The complexities of critical familism are worked out in the concrete issues which he tackles.
Browning focuses on the need to develop a strong family culture within churches, among churches and within the wider society, which can only happen through greater cooperation among the various religious and civil communities. Churches need to develop stronger support systems for families as well as for less-than-ideal family situations (single parents, divorced couples, families parented by homosexual partners), especially focusing on the divorce problem and the absence of fathers. Browning also discusses the need for public policy changes in order to encourage healthy families, such as tax incentives, development of family-friendly workplaces, state-sponsored marriage and family education programs, required counseling before divorce, and thoughtful critique of many mass media family images.
While few readers will be interested in or agree with everything included in Equality and the Family, so wide-ranging is it, the book offers the best writings and ideas of an important marriage and family theologian. There are lucid descriptions of key issues, balanced perspectives on controversial topics, and a plethora of insights which will be useful for social scientists, policy makers, ethicists, spouses, parents, and theologians alike.