Theology for Changing Times

John Atherton and the Future of Public Theology

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Christopher R. Baker, Elaine Graham
  • London, England: 
    SCM Press Imprint
    , September
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Theology for Changing Times, edited by Christopher R. Baker and Elaine Graham, is a pertinent tribute to the work of the public theologian John Atherton. The contributors discuss the major themes of Atherton’s thinking and offer reflection on the nature of public theology. The discussion of Atherton’s career highlights the changing nature of the times in which he lived and underlines the extent to which he endeavored to develop a dynamic theology.

As the contributors indicate, Atherton’s public theology remains relevant and provides resources to confront the challenges of our times. The volume is successful in scoping Atherton’s thinking and contribution to the discourse of public theology; the discussion of how this public theology can be taken forward is tantalizing but I would have liked to have read more about “the future of public theology” referred to in the volume’s title.

Atherton was forthright in speech and a clear and thoughtful thinker, embodying the “no-nonsense” attitude associated with the north of England. The introduction written by Baker and Graham captures the impact of this context on Atherton’s thought, including his efforts to bring Christian theology into conversation with the market. As Baker and Graham point out, Atherton’s thinking is “uniquely forged in the social and economic crucible of Manchester and Salford, as the world’s first industrial cities” (3).


Moreover, the section on public theology and autoethnography in the introduction is well-judged and particularly moving. It indicates the extent to which Atherton was passionately connected to the issues which he discussed. The short space devoted to this aspect left me wanting to know more; perhaps an enterprise for a future monograph.

The second chapter of the volume is a piece written by Atherton—a wise selection on the part of the editors as this short work covers a range of Athertonian themes. This nugget demonstrates Atherton’s ability to offer clear and succinct analysis of complex issues, in this case Christianity’s contribution to wellbeing. It also offers pertinent demonstration of Atherton’s public theology method, an interdisciplinary conversation with a range of thinkers from disciplines including: theology, economics, sociology, psychology, and political philosophy. While appreciating the depth of thinking which has resulted in the piece, the weaving in and out of disciplines appears natural and effortless.

Indeed, Atherton’s ability to break down boundaries between the theological and the secular and to drive theology on to territories rare—and considered by some to be unsuitable, is one of his great achievements.

A number of the chapters in the volume focus on Atherton’s development of a conversation between theology and analyses of the market. Carl-Henric Grenholm discusses Atherton’s attempts to forge a Christian political economy for the era of globalization. Grenholm indicates that Atherton’s position evolved into one that holds in balance both reason and revelation: reason in the form of combatting poverty by paying attention to the equal distribution of capabilities (the influence of Amartya Sen) and revelation in the understanding of justice as liberation from oppression.

This is an insightful representation of Atherton’s thought, but I am not sure what Atherton would make of Grenholm’s conclusion to his chapter whereby he asserts the centrality of purpose for Christian social ethics as “sharp critique” of the economic order (79). Atherton was no stranger to sharp critique but may have wanted to temper Grenholm’s words with reference to practical and constructive engagement.

The chapter by Ian Steedman captures this balance and stresses Atherton’s willingness to engage with the discipline of economics in forging his public theology. Steedman argues that concern for equity in the economy should not lead to a dismissal of economic efficiency. Indeed, Atherton stands out amongst public theologians for his ability to hold together both prophetic denunciation and a willingness to engage with the reality of the world, for the sake of those marginalized by it.

Another key theme taken up by several of the authors is the nature of public theology, a concept which Atherton contributed to shaping. Hilary Russell’s chapter makes a necessary contribution by stressing the need for a public theology which pays attention to the grassroots. For Atherton, the church was not an abstract theological concept but the church of real parishes and real parishioners. Also emphasizing the need for contextualized public theology, Maria Power contributes a fascinating chapter on the potential for a Catholic public theology in Northern Ireland. She successfully captures the holding in tension that public theology requires, describing this in terms of a balance between theology and praxis.

This is an excellent volume but it would have benefitted from more reference to this future. In the afterword, Baker and Graham stick their necks out and give it a go, identifying the need to take Atherton’s thinking forward into a time of deepening economic, political and public crisis. They suggest strands of Atherton’s thought that are particularly relevant to this task including: attention to the empirical and contextual as place of encounter with the divine, Atherton’s concept of practical divinity, and his Christian realism.

One of the most thought-provoking chapters is provided by William Storrar, who tackles the topic of doing public theology in a time of populism or “public anger,” as Storrar defines the current climate. For Storrar, the role of public theology is to work with others to set provisional goals and turn expressions of public anger into hope. Storrar tackles this phenomenon admirably; however, does the degraded nature of public debate, characterized by such public anger, pose an existential threat to public theology? If the anger succeeds in removing the rational and empirical from public discussion, then theology will find it increasingly difficult to find a forum within which to work towards provisional goals. Had Atherton lived longer, no doubt he would have been outraged at the erosion of truth in contemporary debate and would have risen to the challenge of reasserting the need for robust analysis in the public discussion to which public theology contributes and depends.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark Dawson is Lecturer in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics at York St John University, UK.

Date of Review: 
May 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher R. Baker is William Temple Professor of Religion and Public Life at Goldsmiths University London and Director of the William Temple Foundation.

Elaine Graham is Grosvenor Research Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Chester.


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