Review: Theological Reflection for Human Flourishing: Pastoral Practice and Public Theology

[1] In this short and readable text, authors Helen Cameron, John Reader, and Victoria Slater summarize the results of an action learning event held at Ripon College in Cuddesdon, United Kingdom, in April of 2010. Sponsored by the William Temple Foundation and the Oxford Centre for Ecclesiology and Practical Theology (OxCEPT), this event was organized to facilitate a discussion between two groups of professionals. The first group was full-time pastors who engaged with institutions outside of the church in order to serve their parish communities. Such institutions included school boards, charity trusts, local partnerships, or forums. The second group was Christians who worked outside the church in professional ministries of pastoral care, such as chaplaincy or therapy. Members of this group were typically lay people engaged in some type of Christian ministry in an institution that was not explicitly religious. In both instances, participants shared a “concern about the impact of institutional structures on individuals” (118).

cameron.jpg[2] In order to focus the discussion, Cameron, Reader, and Slater encouraged participants to reflect on “blurred encounters” (chapter two) that had been experienced in ministry and to share those experiences with fellow participants. Primarily derived from the work of John Reader, a “blurred encounter” is a “pastoral situation in which boundaries are likely to be crossed and where the Christian will need to make a judgment as to the appropriate course of action” (17). Given the inherently liminal (in-between) aspect of the professions represented by the event’s participants, such encounters functioned as an easy “trigger” (xii) to motivate sustained dialogue. Participants reflected on moments of decision, when a person’s faith was compromised; moments of cross-cultural confrontation, when a person’s identity was in question; or moments of crisis, when a particularly difficult decision created conflict.

[3] Ultimately, these blurred encounters served as the primary impetus for an exercise in “theological reflection” (chapter one), an increasingly important aspect of Anglican seminary education.[1] In its most basic form, theological reflection is a process of learning, triggered by a particular experience that involves the mutually informing encounter of three entities: the person engaging in reflection, the contemporary context in which the experience occurs, and the faith tradition informing the reflector. In its best instances, this process provides a space for “a mutually nourishing conversation that may issue in new theological and practical insights and the possibility of transformative action” (2-3).

[4] The book begins with an introduction (ix-xxv) providing, among other goodies, brief but helpful summaries of “pastoral practice,” “public theology,” and “human flourishing.” As with all other aspects of the book, the point of reference is the religious and theological situation of the United Kingdom, primarily in its Anglican expression. Even so, other readers will appreciate the attention given to public religious expression, since so much theology is done without careful reflection on the theoretical and methodological foundations guiding the intersection of faith and public life.

[5] “Public theology,” the authors write, “is theology done in and about the public square” (xvii). Public theology and practical theology both work to prioritize unheard voices and missed conversations. Both likewise rest on the assumption that human flourishing should remain a central aspect of theological reflection, informing the theologian and, in turn, giving way to a public square more amenable to the Christian values of justice, hope, and peace. Reader, Cameron, and Slater define “human flourishing” according to the notion of well-being. Those intent on ensuring well-being join in the public effort to provide resources for healthy living, dependable relationships, a sustainable work-life balance, access to green space, and opportunities for creative self-expression. Public and practical theologies reflect critically on societal norms that minimize such resources.

[6] Approximately half of the book (chapters three, four, and six) summarizes the discussions held during the learning event at Ripon College. Each chapter is broken into three sections that correspond to the respective contexts represented by practitioners: professional-client relationships, organizations, and communities. For readers in ministry, who appreciate the opportunity to share experiences with others, the anecdotes of these chapters will be enjoyable. For others, however, the authors suggest attending only to those strands “that interest you the most” (xv). I found the situations and reflections related to individual professional-client relationships to be most valuable. It was here that the authors most clearly illustrated one of the key claims of the book: that dialogue can serve as a point of entry into theological insight.

[7] Chapter three summarizes the encounters submitted by participants. Among the more noteworthy, since it captures the notion of blurred encounters in ministry, was the decision of an Anglican priest to remove religious language from the funeral of a cancer patient. The priest, Tom, had developed a meaningful relationship with Mark, the cancer patient. What made Mark’s situation unique was the fact that he did not believe in God. Because Tom had reached out to Mark prior to his death, Mark had developed a deep trust and appreciation for his priest. But because Mark wanted his funeral service to “have integrity,” he requested that Tom not include anything “which suggested [Mark] had a Christian belief” (32). After discussing the issue with Mark’s family, Tom decided to honor Mark’s wish. By subjecting even his theological convictions to the possibilities opened by dialogue, Tom took a risk, but this risk turned out to be a place of genuine “encounter that met the needs of those involved and potentially spoke to them of the inclusive and unconditional love of God” (33).

[8] Chapter four summarizes the “common themes” named by event participants after hearing one another’s stories, while chapter six suggests ways these themes may result in practical changes. Again, I found the reflections offered by members of the professional-client cohort to be the most engaging. In response to such blurred encounters as those experienced by Tom, participants observed three points of overlap among their shared experiences. First was the need to explore the relationship between “role” and “self” (49-52, 101-102). Beyond technical expertise, participants concluded, was the importance of being able to engage in a “genuinely human” (50) or “authentic” encounter with the client (97-98). Second, participants suggested the importance of discovering new ways of knowing (52-55) as a process of cultivating self-awareness (105-108). In contrast to the exclusive valuation of knowledge according to cognitive or academic criteria was the importance of relationality. “Genuine human encounters,” participants urged, “can be the source of a different order of knowledge” (54). The basis for such encounters was dialogue. Third, the willingness to enter genuinely into relationship was necessarily accompanied by a level of risk and uncertainty (99-100), but it was here where participants found that their faith was most alive. Although the experience of blurred encounters limited their view of the future, living in hope provided a “willingness to take the risk of loving encounter” where “God’s purposes” were being worked out (56). This was a place of “practical mysticism” (57), where the practitioner had developed the capacity to tolerate, indeed embrace, the unknown.

[9] Wedged inside of chapters three, four, and six is a brief statement on the role of Scripture in the process of theological reflection. Alongside contributions by Cameron, Reader, and Slater are a few thoughts by Chris Rowland, New Testament scholar and endowed professor of exegesis at Oxford University. Somewhat surprisingly, the event leaders were struck by a noticeable reticence on the part of conference participants to engage the biblical tradition. Participants felt “stuck behind the text” (82-83), unwilling to listen to non-experts, or paralyzed by the dominating voice of secularism in their pluralist society. “The very thought of a collective idea of the good society” was disallowed by the “unreflective relativism” informing their public conversations (86).

[10] As a response to this reticence, Cameron and her colleagues encouraged participants to recall their own stories of faith and the connection between their faith and their current profession. Common to all was a sense of calling, an aspect of their faith commitment that drew them to the ministry in which they were presently working. The Bible then served as (what Clodovis Boff would call) a “correspondence of relationships.”[2] The Bible offered “an analogy,” disclosing relations between the people of God and the theo-political encounters of the biblical world. These relations then became analogues to the contemporary Christian and the socio-political forces inhibiting human flourishing in our society. “In this kind of engagement with the Bible, the words become the catalyst for discernment of the divine way in the present” (91).

[11] Cameron and her colleagues unpacked this analogical role by presenting a hermeneutic that was sensitive to the needs of an authentic, relational, and risk-oriented approach to questions of human flourishing. Drawing from the work of Rowland, they posited the existence of an “overall coherence” to the biblical account marked by three themes: “the breaking in of the kingdom” (76-78), the boundary-crossing character of the love of Christ (78-79), and “unmasking the empire” (80-81). Contrary to the concerns expressed by participants, a biblical reading guided by such a hermeneutic would supplement the public theologian’s ability to confront institutions antagonistic to the ideal of human flourishing.

[12] I found the work as a whole to be an easy and enjoyable read. Having spent some time in both full-time ministry and professions of service, I appreciated the sense of dissonance that can be felt when one dwells at the intersection of ecclesial and non-ecclesial domains. I would, however, add that such dissonance is not restricted to the liminal spaces between church and state. In my experience, it is often the church itself that mediates the most profound and troubling experiences of dissonance. Cameron, Reader, and Slater acknowledged as much by asserting that their book had been “produced out of a conviction that there are important discussions in the Church that are not happening” (120).

[13] It is for this reason that theologians and pastors should be careful not to associate “public theology” solely with the practice of addressing the res publica as an “object” critiqued from a theological point of view. Instead, the multiple conversations occurring in the public should inform inner-ecclesial conversations, as Cameron and her colleagues argue. If we do not welcome such voices, the church will quickly become obsolete in its reticence to engage society. Simultaneously, however, Christians should recall that their religious tradition is full of rich resources for confronting societal injustices. One need only recall the prophetic strand of biblical language that has informed so many cries for justice. It is only by engaging both sides of this mutually critical relationship that Christians will fulfill their role as public theologians pursuing theological reflection for the purpose of human flourishing.


[1] See, for example, J. Thompson, S. Pattison, and R. Thompson, SCM Studyguide to Theological Reflection (London: SCM Press, 2008). This model is based on the “pastoral cycle” of experiential learning.

[2] C. Boff, Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987).

William Myatt

William Myatt, Ph.D., is a lecturer in theology at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois. He also served as a pastor for six years in Omaha, Nebraska.