Books reviewed by James Woodward

Relating belief and practice

Theological Reflection by Judith Thompson with Stephen Pattison and Ross ThompsonTheological Reflection, Judith Thompson with Stephen Pattison and Ross Thompson
SCM Press 2008, (ISBN 978-0-334-04055-2), 246pp., pb £16.99.

It is no surprise that this book has already become a popular resource for students in the UK. It is well researched, clearly written and carefully organised. It is written by teachers who understand this area and the learning needs of students.

The book does precisely what it sets out to do: it provides an accessible guide to the key issue of relating belief and practice, offering a step-by-step introduction to theological reflection and how to go about it. It is divided into four parts. Part One defines the key concept, Progressing Theological Reflection (PTR) and presents a variety of approaches and models. Part Two sets out the elements of PTR and what resources are available to the practioner. These include Scripture (chapter 4), Moments of insight (chapter 5) and the ongoing discipline of practice in chapter 6. In the final chapter in this section the key area of the practitioner and emotions is explored through opening up theories about personality types and learning style theory. Part Three examines the wider world of theology (chapter 8), ethics and Institutions (chapter 9) and a commitment to lifelong learning (chapter 10). Part Four offers a toolkit for PTR and the book concludes with an outline of core texts. There is a comprehensive index.

The process set out in the book is as important as the content. Readers are invited to explore a variety of methods and choose an approach that suits them and their situation.  The emphasis is practical throughout, providing a ‘toolkit’ and many lived examples. The books attempts an integrating theology as it demand s that the reader make connections with prayer, the Bible, psychology, theology and ethics. The book shows how theological reflection can transform decision-making and action in personal spirituality, in ministry, and in the institutions in which we work, stimulating new connections between faith and life.
No book can accomplish perfection in this moving and contested area of theology. Part of its skill is in stimulating questions for further reflection.

First what is the relationship of theology to the social sciences? The social sciences are taken to be philosophically and ideologically neutral. In particular in the discussion of the use of personality types a number of critical questions for theology and the Christian tradition are not tackled. How are we to understand human personhood? Can we change our preferences in learning and compulsions? What are the potential areas of misuse for Myers- Briggs and the Enneagram? The authors are practical in their guidance about the use of such models but this area lacked a deeper theological reflection!

Second there is a comprehensive use of experience without any theological approach to the nature of experience. Is all experience good experience? What are we to make of experience that challenges our own? Where are the ‘non liberal’ voices of experience in these pages? Narrating and interpreting experience is a much more complex process than some of these exercises suggest.

Finally what place has the tradition, a systematic theology in all this process? Why is it that theology seems so irrelevant to the task of discipleship? Why does theology need rescuing from irrelevance? Does being a Christian change the way we see and interpret the world around us? What makes the faith so counter cultural?

None of these questions detract from the skill of this book. This is likely to be a core text for the time being. I hope that the authors will examine whether it succeeds in its aim to help us all develop our theological reflection.

James Woodward

Published in Religion and Theology Volume 17- Issue 3 - July 2010  pp 421-426