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24 March 2009

Andrew Davison on methods that ordinands are taught

SCM Studyguide: Theological Reflection
Judith Thompson with Stephen Pattison and Ross Thompson
SCM Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

THEOLOGICAL reflection does what its name suggests: it involves reflection on experience in the light of theology. In many colleges and seminaries, it is an integral part of education and preparation for ministry. For its most fierce advocates, it is nothing less than the beginning and end of legitimate (which is to say “contextual”) theology. For others, it re­presents the latest crisis of confidence over the content of the faith and its eclipse by the methods of the social sciences.

In recent decades, theorists of practical theology have produced innumerable sugges­tions for ways theological reflection might be done: with flow-charts and cycles, or with journals and story-writing, with the imagina­tion, in prayer, or with personality-type indicators. They are all here in Thompson’s book, and more besides. Its pages remind us just how much writing in applied theology proceeds by listing previous writers’ lists and summarising previous writers’ summaries. This is likely to become the standard textbook, at least for the present, since it provides a compendious and up-to-date anthology of these lists and summaries.

Thompson introduces us to all the main approaches to theological reflection, but takes as her standard the “pastoral cycle”: start by describing experience, continue by thinking about this in relation to a theological tradi­tion, and then return to address the situation in terms of what we have learned. (That theology might affect how we experience the world in the first place is largely overlooked.)

Theological reflection, then, pays theology a compliment by supposing that it has some­thing relevant to say. But if theology is so inert as to need endless prodding and manipulation to make it useful, then this compliment may be somewhat back-handed.

The book prizes self-criticism and breadth, and because of this certain unquestioned assumptions are all the more striking. The social sciences are taken to be philosophically and ideologically neutral. The theological perspective will not suit every reader to the same degree. It is distinctly Protestant and liberal: the theology we reflect with is almost synonymous with the scriptures, approached through personal Bible study, and the central injunction when it comes to this Bible study is that we avoid fundamentalism.

Any Christian committed to his or her faith will be “reflecting theologically” already. Thompson hopes that this will grow to be­come a regular, conscious discipline. Some, at least, of the forest of approaches presented here will help with taking it further, bringing questions from theology and questions from life into useful exchange.

The Revd Dr Davison is Tutor in Christian Doctrine at St Stephen’s House and Junior Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford.

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