What is Faith Reflection (Theological Reflection)?
By Mike West
Anyone who has consciously tried to connect a specific secular situation they face with their Christian faith may have (unwittingly) been doing “Theological Reflection”. Over the past half century theologians have been creating tools to help in the task:
- To make sense of situations from a Christian perspective
- To seek ways of acting in complex situations
Starting and ending with the situation helps to keep our response in secular language. Thus we can respond to Bonhoffer’s question “How do Christians speak meaningfully of salvation and proclaim the coming of the Kingdom and the Lordship of Christ in a religionless context?” (see Letters and Papers 30 April 1944)
An alternative model of starting with the Bible and applying it to the secular situation has to make the leap between the social and economic worlds of the Bible and ours. This is so large that the results can be selective. We have all wondered at those Christians who, for example, insist that Leviticus demands that women must be subordinate to men but who do not equally insist on the dietary rules! However, this method does depend on a firm belief that the Bible is the Word of God- the deposit of many generations seeking to understand and respond to the presence of God in the world.
The below model has been proved to be useful in a wide range of situations. It works best when used by a small group, but can be used by an individual. Impress your friends by calling this the hermeneutic circle!
The model was first used by Liberation theologians, and in Britain developed by workers in urban and industrial mission.
Stage One: Experience
Begin with the situation, take a long view including its history and wider connections. If it is at all complicated you might select the key themes and work on them one at a time. Try to avoid jumping to ethical judgements at this stage.
Stage Two: Analysis
We may want to use a variety of analytical tools, statistical, economic etc But for a Christian analysis these two work best.
- What are the human consequences? Who benefits and who suffers?
- What are the powers at work?
(Power might be abstractions like racial prejudice, nationalism, market forces)
Choose the most important human consequences and powers at work for stage 3 also.
Stage Three: Reflection
Identify Biblical and theological resources which seem relevant to each of the human consequences and powers from stage 2. If working in a group this could be done by brainstorming. In any case having identified the Christian material review it critically – beware of false connections and misuse of materials especially the parables! (This does assume a fairly wide knowledge of the whole Bible)
Stage Four: Response
Apply the Biblical and theological material identified in stage 3 to the situation. What alternative lines of thought and action do they suggest?
Can you now (not earlier!) make some moral judgements?
Can you identify actions which will bring healing?
Can you identify questions which might lead to better analysis?
Can you suggest creative alternative solutions?
Does Theological Reflection work?
It is a way of thinking about the situation – it does not produce The Answer!
A group facing changes as their employer sought to impose radical cost cutting measures found these biblical sources helped them:
Falsifying the scales in Amos, the unjust steward, making bricks without straw, Paul and the silversmiths.
In thinking about the insecurity employees experienced they used these:
Sing us the songs of Zion in Babylon, Peter walking (or rather not walking) on the water, early church meetings behind closed doors.
It may not be obvious that these texts had anything to do with employment: their value may lie in the fact that they are surprising!
Canon Mike West is a Church of England Priest and SCM Friend
Faith (or Theological) Reflection was made popular by the Liberation Theology movement. Find out more about Liberation Theology here.