Development Beyond the Secular

Theological Approaches to Inequality

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Catherine Loy
SCM Research
  • London, England: 
    SCM Press Imprint
    , September
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since 2000, development scholars and practitioners have renewed interest in how faith-based organizations contribute to international development. Catherine Loy’s Development Beyond the Secular: Theological Approaches to Inequality provides a fascinating insider’s account of how one such organization is rediscovering and striving to articulate its Christian identity. For Christian Aid, a large British interdenominational development organization, this shift was rapid. The organization changed from applauding its disassociation with Churches Together in Britain in Ireland in 2009 to promoting its Christian identity and strong links with British churches in official documents just one year later (x). Loy documents this period of change from 2009 to 2014, as staff struggled to adjust to the more overtly “Christian” Christian Aid as a church-oriented organization rather than an organization using secular models of development (55). In the process, Loy explores what Christian development means and how it might be comparable to or different from secular models of development.

Loy employs the methodology of practical theology for her study. She adapts the four voices approach, which has been used to examine the theology of organizations such as the Salvation Army (Helen Cameron et al., Talking about God in Practice, SCM Press, 2010), to listen to three distinct voices: (1) explicit theology as identified in Christian Aid’s published documents from 2009–2014, (2) implicit theology based on interviews with staff members and observations of staff meetings, and (3) null theology comprised of unspoken but important aspects of Christian Aid’s theology. By comparing the data from these three voices, Loy uncovers dissonances between formal and informal understandings of Christian Aid’s theology of development, helping to “focus attention on what has been overlooked” (4).

In setting the context for her study, Loy reviews literature on Christian and secular development. She finds that they have similar roots but have taken divergent paths since 1950. The author does see similarities between Christian development and the capabilities approach popularized by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum; however, she critiques the capabilities approach as largely focusing on individual freedom rather than the influence of community (39), and she notes its skepticism of religion as a restricting force on individual freedom (41). This uncovers a tension explored throughout the book between development as promoting greater individual rights and freedoms and the flourishing of a community of people in relationship with each other (46).

Loy then describes and evaluates the three voices of theology operating in Christian Aid. She finds that the explicit theology, as found in its formal documents such as Theology and International Development (2010) and Theology from the Global South (2012), is largely based on Karl Barth’s understanding of relational theology (49). However, she argues that these documents use the idea of relationality without engaging deeply with Barth’s understanding of relationship, leading to “expressing relational theology as compatible with rights-based approaches” (89) without acknowledging the tensions between individual rights-based and communal understandings of relationship.

Loy contrasts this formal discourse with implicit theology as articulated by staff members. She finds that relational theology is not well understood or employed (49), partly due to how relational theology is “not embedded into reflection on day-to-day action” (91). Through interviews and observations, the author identifies four key themes which drive the implicit theology of Christian Aid: prophetic voice, inclusivity, dignity of the person, and partnership (58). She finds that these different themes create tensions for organizational identity. Christian Aid staff struggle to be both prophetic and inclusive, and staff are “discouraged from placing these subjects (God, Jesus and the Church) at the center of the life of the organization” (54). Partnerships with local churches in developing countries are beset with inequality (74) and limited by prioritizing professionalism (85).

Next, Loy discusses a null theology of Christology in the organization. She finds that staff members draw on their understanding of Jesus to guide their practice, while the explicit theology gives “God and the divine aspects of Jesus far greater prominence than a Christology from below” (98). Loy suggests that this Christology from below needs to be more clearly articulated and discussed to address inequality between staff and local partners (117). Loy recommends that Christian Aid embrace its role as a conduit between funding churches in the UK and implementing churches in the Global South to help the organization to build reciprocal relationships where they are accountable to partners as well as donors (119, 124). Loy further recommends that Christian Aid designate funds to partners beyond achieving short-term development outcomes to build trust (120), further enabling UK churches and international partners “to draw together in closer relationships” (126). The author also proposes joint Bible studies for staff in the UK and church partners in developing countries (127).

Loy’s approach of practical theology examines the different voices of Christian Aid, but her voice is largely invisible when she turns to proposing theology and recommending changes of practice. It would be useful if she would have more explicitly described her own theological predispositions and professional background. Her findings also rely heavily on the perceptions of Christian Aid by sponsoring churches. Similar engagement with international partners in developing countries would have deepened the exploration of the book’s theme of partnership. Additionally, the language used by the book is vague at times, for example by using the term “faith-based development” in chapter 3 while not addressing approaches of other religions. Her recommendation in Chapter 4 about theological approaches to inequality are more directly relevant to Christian Aid than to other faith-based organizations without deeper engagement with how other comparable Christian organizations (such as Tearfund or CAFOD) have articulated their own theology of development.

These small limitations aside, Loy’s book provides an insightful exploration of the evolving beliefs and practices of a Christian development organization undergoing rapid change. It is a useful volume for scholars studying faith-based organizations in development; theologians interested in development, social care, and social engagement; and academics and postgraduate students who want to conduct effective organizational studies using practical theology. As faith-based organizations increasingly partner with religious and secular donors (including governments), more studies such as this one can help them to articulate and to embed their distinctive approaches to development into their practices.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan D. Smith is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds, UK.

Date of Review: 
June 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Catherine Loy was formerly a Regional Coordinator for Christian Aid as well as having been head of Christian Aid Week.


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