Why should Christians bother with philosophy?

This month, we publish a new addition to our popular Studyguide series – The SCM Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith by Ben Pugh. In this extract, he considers why there’s a need for Christians to get familiar with philosophy in the first place?  


The challenges that Western culture keeps posing to the Christian faith are ever new – and yet maybe never wholly new. What is for sure is that the goalposts keep changing. The SCM Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith will, I hope, equip you to understand the culture-shaping beliefs that are driving the kinds of questions it brings to faith. But the aim in introducing you to the discipline of philosophy is not merely a rearguard action. It is not as though all we need are weapons for our apologetic battles with people who have very different worldviews to our own – perish the thought. I am a very peace-loving sort of person. I have an instinctive distaste for the idea of humiliating atheists in public debate. I see the discipline of philosophy rather as a skill to learn, a language to acquire or as a lens to add. 

Let’s take the last of these first. I believe it is just as necessary to add philosophy to our collection of lenses as it is to have biblical studies, church history, systematic theology and practical theology. I find that the greater the number of different angles from which I am able to view this thing called Christianity, the simpler, the nobler, the more magnificent and worthy of my faith it becomes. By way of contrast, I find that the more I look at Christianity through only one lens the more complicated, less certain, more doubtful it becomes. Philosophy seems to be an especially important lens to use. Philosophers themselves seem to occupy a broad range of estimations of their own importance. Some, such as the rationalists perhaps, seem to see themselves as standing outside of the flux of everyday life like an umpire at a tennis match judging everyone else’s wrong moves. Others, such as the early Wittgenstein and Richard Rorty, seem to see themselves as finishing the business of philosophy altogether and making it redundant. I suppose both positions could be seen as equally self-important in different ways. The truth seems to be that, while no philosophical system is perspective-free and no philosophy gives us a complete picture of reality (and some philosophers make a point of not doing so), yet all the philosophies in the Studyguide do succeed in elevating us. They lift us up beyond the confines of our particular discipline. They don’t quite give us a bird’s-eye view of it, but they do give us an elevated perspective which allows us to see our discipline interlacing with other disciplines and with life itself. This is why researchers, in whatever discipline they are working, will typically invoke the name of a philosopher somewhere in their methodology section. They will say that they are working with this ‘epistemology’ or assuming that ‘ontology’. I have come to love more and more the way philosophy concerns itself with the really big questions of life. There is something about asking those big questions with the philosophers that allows me then to return to my theologizing or my biblical study with fresh confidence. Philosophy makes you feel like you know what you’re doing for once, however fleeting that feeling may be!

I mentioned that philosophy is a language to acquire. To help with this, most chapters have a glossary of some sort, some of which will be revision from previous chapters and others will be new terms pertinent to the new chapter. Sometimes I provide a ‘Terminology Time-out’ when I’m aware that I have been using a lot of technical vocabulary and a pause might be needed so that we can examine each term. At other times, rather like someone teaching a language in class, I will throw in unexplained terminology that is new, but you can tell by the way I’m using it what it means. In all these ways I am catering to the fact that, for most theology students, learning abstract philosophical concepts involves literally learning a new language, a language that the initiated converse in with ease but which leaves the uninitiated completely baffled. Soon, you too will know that language, and I am going to help you converse in it.

I also mentioned that philosophy is a skill to learn. The way skills are learned is through application: you try them out. This is why there are regular pauses for reflection or for discussion with others. You will be asked, for example, to think of a film or book that seems to express elements of existentialism or postmodernism, or to describe how something very like idealism can sometimes show itself in Sunday morning ministry. This is more than light relief; it is an essential part of the learning process, especially important when studying philosophers as they tend to speak in the abstract almost all the time. It is only when we apply philosophy that the lights go on in our thinking and we realize we might be starting to become a bit of a Platonist or an existentialist. We suddenly see the benefit of seeing life from the viewpoint of a philosopher.

Lastly, I will not be guiding you into trying to fit your faith into a philosophy
and twisting and distorting it or lopping bits off in the process. In relation to
your faith it is only a lens, though a very important one, and it is only a language, not a replacement for the living or written Word, and it is only a skill through which you can learn to express your faith better in the world today.

I sincerely pray that this book will be a great blessing to you, bringing within your reach concepts that you never knew about or which were going right ‘over your head’ before.

Ben Pugh is lecturer in New Testament and Applied Theology at Cliff College, UK. In addition to the SCM Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith he is also the author of the SCM Studyguide to Theology in the Contemporary World

Order the Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith before 30th November at the pre-publication offer price.


6 books to look out for at AAR/SBL 2018

Once again we’ll have a range of our latest titles and key backlist on display at the AAR/SBL Annual Meetings, held this year in Denver Colorado. Each year nearly 10,000 scholars attend, and the book exhibit attracts publishers from around the world. We’re proud to be hosted at AAR/SBL by our friends at Westminster John Knox Press. Here’s a taste of what we’ll have on display at their booth (#411)

1: The Abiding Presence: A Theological Commentary 

Mark Scarlata’s theological commentary on Exodus bridges the gap between accessibility and scholarly rigour to provide a unique perspective on the overarching theology of Exodus drawing particular attention to God’s revelation at the burning bush, Sinai, and the tabernacle. John Goldingay called the The Abiding Presence an impressive achievement” and Walter Brueggeman said it is”of immense value for preachers, teachers, and serious church readers“.

2: Buying God: Theology and Consumerism

Christians are deeply concerned about consumerism, but lack the tools to be able to engage robustly in the debate about its future. Economists obfuscate, politicians polarise, and church leaders bluff. Buying God argues that consumerism can be as redemptive as it can be parasitical. We just need to consume for God instead. Drawing on the Church’s rich traditions of Social Liturgy, the author Eve Poole, calls on the Christian community to renew its confidence and strength in proclaiming this good news.

3: Blue Planet, Blue God: The Bible and The Sea

The ocean dominates the surface of the earth and is in the pages of the Bible too. The Bible offers a view of the sea and the life it supports which affirms its intrinsic value to God as a good, and indeed essential, part of creation. Blue Planet, Blue God is a unique collaboration between the oceanographer Meric Srokosz and the biblical scholar Rebecca Watson not only offer environmental insights on the sea, but also connect the ocean with other key issues of broader concern-spirituality, economics, chaos, and our place in the world. Paula Gooder called it “one of the most unusual and enjoyable books that I’ve read in a long time“. 

4: Preaching Radical and Orthodox

Since its beginning in the 1990s, Radical Orthodoxy has become perhaps the most influential, and certainly the most controversial, movement in contemporary theology. Preaching Radical and Orthodox offers an introduction to the Radical Orthodox sensibility through sermons preached by some of its most notable proponents, including Stanley Hauerwas, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward. 

5: Work: 
Theological Foundations and Practical Implications

Moving from biblical theology to systematic theology to practical theology, Work: Theological Foundations and Practical Implications offers a comprehensive theology of work. With contributions from a variety of leading theologians including Miroslav Volf and Samuel Gregg, this book brings together biblical scholars, ethicists, economists representing a spectrum of theological voices.

6: Being Saved

With contributions from leading theologians and philosophers, including Oliver Crisp and Paul Helm, Being Saved: Explorations in Human Salvation brings together a series of essays on the major topics relating to the doctrine of salvation. The book provides readers with a critical resource that consists of an integrative philosophical-theological method, and will invigorate this much-needed discussion.

Find many more titles on display on the SCM Press tables, which you can find at booth #411, hosted by Westminster John Knox. 

If you’d like to meet the editor, David Shervington, during the Annual Meetings email David.Shervington@hymnsam.co.uk

Safeguarding – defensive weapon or missional tool?

A guest post from Helen D Cameron, author of Living in the Gaze of God: Supervision and Ministerial Flourishing

Do we have to do safegaurding?

This is a question that is still regularly asked in local churches and trustee bodies. Despite publicity regarding Jimmy Saville, Harvey Weinstein, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, I still hear people asking, do we have to do safeguarding?

I think we do, but I want to add a qualifying note. We have to do safeguarding as a Church in order that we all might flourish and live abundantly, but I want us to do safeguarding joyfully, enthusiastically and effectively.

I understand safeguarding as a missional tool rather than a defensive weapon to guard the Church from allegations from abuse.  Only when we understand to safeguarding for everyone as part of enabling God’s mission, will we stop seeing it as an unnecessary distraction from mission and ministry and something which stops us from doing mission.  The missional task for the Church is one of co-operation with God in God’s loving purposes for the world. God desires that we should have abundant life – and that is only possible if we live holy lives, which allow all people to flourish, and which offer protection to the vulnerable.

The fact that we are still asking the question suggests we live in a dream state in a mythical world where Church is always wholesome and God’s people free from sin.  Of course we have to do safeguarding because every part of a community must. The Church however should want to take a lead in this area and develop excellence because we believe that relationships should be holy and life giving, that in Christ we are set free, and we should therefore regard each and every person as those for whom Christ died and thus those who we offer service to, not oppression or abuse. Holiness should lead to flourishing for all and if it doesn’t it – isn’t holiness.

Excellence in safeguarding practice in the Church will come about when see it as an everyday part of the task of holy living, as part of Kingdom living where the weak are made strong and built up. When we view it this way it becomes not just the responsibility of the safeguarding officers as experts in safeguarding but  rather everyone’s responsibility.  Our accountability to God for whom we are, have been and are becoming determines our accountability to one another and for one another.  Honesty with God should create honesty between us as a community and as we are God’s gift to one another we cannot ignore our responsibility for care of the gift.

To live in the gaze of God is for the whole of the landscape of our lives and the landscape of our Church’s life to be examined. We may be found wanting. We have many times, in many places and circumstances been found wanting and have failed the vulnerable and weak who were entrusted to our care.  We have, as a Church, been arrogant, dismissive and failed to listen. We have colluded and failed to challenge those with power and authority. We have been like millstones around the necks of the vulnerable and contributed to their drowning in a sea of pain and loss.

So we need to change our culture, our world view, our attitudes and our practice but we also need to do better theology about the nature of sin and forgiveness, responsible grace and we need to improve our tools of accountability. So the better question to ask might be how do we improve the accountability of those in public and representative ministry, those who have role power and status, and how do we help ministers and those with significant pastoral responsibilities to develop an attentive gaze on how they respond to others, impact on them, attend to their own personal needs without seeking them elsewhere and take responsibility for their lives, practice, ministry before God?

I want to suggest that before we get to complaint and discipline procedures there might be a way to increase the oversight function for all those in significant pastoral ministry through regular, formal and intentional 1:1 supervision of practice. The Methodist Church following the publication of its Past Cases Review in 2015 is in a significant place in the implementation of the recommendation of the PCR report Courage, Cost and Hope (www.Methodistchurch.org.uk) that formal supervision of ministers should be introduced.  The Director of Supervision overseeing the work for the Methodist Church is the Revd. Dr. Jane Leach of Wesley House, Cambridge (www.wesley.cam.ac.uk ). The handbook for the training in supervision being offered to ministers in oversight of teams of circuit ministers developed by Jane Leach is entitled Responsible Grace.  The title comes from a reference to Randy Maddox’s book of the same title (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1994). Randy Maddox asserts that God’s grace does not descend “untethered into our lives” like a deus ex machina . Rather, Maddox suggests that God’s grace is always linked, always united with a summons to join with Godself’s redemptive work in the world. We are called and chosen to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth. We are healed and restored that we might become instruments of healing. We are forgiven and given grace and liberty to forgive others. We are therefore never mere passive recipients of grace, but we are called to become co-participants with God in redeeming the world.  We therefore have responsibilities – to create a safer Church and world, to offer to God the best of ourselves and we are called to faithfulness and integrity so that all might flourish.

Maddox’s phrase “responsible grace” manages to capture in a single phrase the joy of our partnership with God in being those who both hear the good news and in being the good news for the world. It is still God’s undeserved grace. But it comes with a summons to us to respond responsibly to that same grace revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

So, yes, we have to do safeguarding and we want to do safeguarding and we intend to do it excellently because it is central to the work of God.

Helen Dixon Cameron is Chair of the Northampton District of the Methodist Church, former Director of Methodist Formation of the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham and Co-Chair of the Anglican: Methodist Safeguarding Group. 

Living in the Gaze of God is published in November. Preorder now at a special launch price. 

What does mission look like in turbulent times?

At the end of Missional Conversations: A Dialogue between Theory and Praxis in World Mission – edited by Cathy Ross and Colin Smith, and published later this month – Ian Adams reflects on what mission looks like in a turbulent world:

We live in a period of great turbulence.

Such turbulence is characterised in part by mass migrations as a response to war, to persecution, to tensions within and between faiths, to shocking economic disparity and to climate chaos. Such migrations have in turn fuelled increasing urbanisation producing ‘a planet of slums’ (see Barker / de Beer’s chapter in Missional Conversations) leaving many of the most vulnerable ‘living on the edge of human consciousness’ (see Roche’s chapter).

A sense of such turbulence is, of course, only unusual for those of us who happen to have lived in relatively peaceful times and places. Turbulence has always been around, a common human experience. It just so happens, for many of us, to be a growing fact of life in our current contexts.

Mission in the way of Jesus the Christ always happens in context. Turbulence calls for mission to embody particular characteristics and expressions that will keep us grounded and hopeful. Whilst holding to the core nature of faith, such mission must always be shaped by and for the times.

The conversations in this Missional Conversations open up some of the many imaginative ways in which such mission is happening now. Mission rooted in the gift of community. Mission enabling new forms of church to emerge, accessible to people with little or no previous church story. Mission characterised by innovation producing ‘social liturgy – the practice of public commitment to the other that is explicitly rooted in and shaped by love of God’ (Bickley’s chapter).  Mission shaped through creative imagination as ‘a posture or a way of being in the world’ (Baker’s chapter).  Mission of local character, shaped by and for specific context, and offering particular learning from mission movements of the South. All with a desire to see a ‘journey from no-body to some-body  towards a renewed humanity for every-body‘ (Groody’s chapter).

To be sustained for life and mission in a turbulent world we need to nurture a particularly resilient form of spiritual life. In this epilogue I will suggest that if the way of Jesus the Christ is to be shared in our demanding and fast-evolving contexts then such a spiritual life needs to be one of attention and presence, of love and devotion. I will suggest that such a mission spirituality does not just happen, but needs to be engaged as a life of practice that enables us in some way to become what we seek. And that life and mission must not – and actually cannot – become separated.

In the language of the great missionary Saint Paul this is the way of faith through the practice of trust in the goodness of God, of hope through discerning longer, wider, deeper patterns at work, and of love, the greatest of these – the beginning and ending of it all.

A mission spirituality for our turbulent times will invite us to imagine such great themes, and to find ways to access them on a daily basis, enabling them to take shape within us, that we might become some small gift to the world in the name of Jesus.

This kind of practice takes practice. But it is important to remember that the practice is not the thing! The thing is always what the practice reveals. Practice will be demanding. It will also increasingly feel natural. Think of this as a falling as much as an ascent. A falling into the love of God. A kind of home-coming. A gift to us, and a gift to the world around us.

Ian Adams is a poet, writer, photographer and retreat leader. He is Mission Spirituality Adviser to Church Mission Society, and a Fresh Expressions Associate. He is the creator of the daily Morning Bell on social media, partner in the Beloved Life project and co-director of StillPoint.

Introducing ‘Theology Slam’

theology slam

We’ve teamed up with the Community of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace, the Church Times, and London Institute of Contemporary Christianity to launch a new competition – Theology Slam.  

“All of us are theologians. The minute we say something about God, we are speaking theology. Young voices, unheard voices, need to be nurtured in the practice of reflecting on faith and the wider world, and this event will do just that. I encourage applications, and look forward to reading the winning entries.”

Archbishop Justin Welby


“As public affairs take unexpected and often unwelcome turns, Christians in all traditions need to re-learn the art of a prayerful, scriptural wisdom – in other words, a theology – that will address our current dilemmas and point to creative and healing ways forward. I am excited at the thought of the fresh work that will be stimulated and encouraged by this event.”

Professor NT (Tom) Wright


Since I participated in a TEDx myself, it has been a dream of mine to see a theology TED event, because it’s such a great format. I am delighted that the Theology Slam will give so many budding theologians the opportunity to showcase their thinking in this way. I hope it will also make their work accessible to a far wider audience than is often possible, so that we can all raise our collective theological literacy. 

Dr Eve Poole, Third Church Estates Commissioner

Theology Slam is a competition searching for the most engaging voices thinking theologically about the contemporary world. 

The competition is open to anyone aged 18-30. It doesn’t matter whether you are a theology graduate and now doing a PhD or whether you’ve never been to university, if you are interested in thinking about God, and using that thinking to try to get to grips with some of the most important issues of our times, then we’d love you to participate.

For the first round, we’re asking you to write 500 words choosing from any one of 12 themes:

  • Theology and Mental Health
  • Theology and #MeToo/Time’s Up
  • Theology and the Environment
  • Theology and Artificial Intelligence
  • Theology and the Gig-economy
  • Theology and Social Media
  • Theology and Migration
  • Theology and Political Tribalism
  • Theology and Netflix
  • Theology and Good Disagreement
  • Theology and Disability
  • Theology and Consumerism

There are a few things we’d like you to consider in your piece, so do check the web page for more details – but importantly you’ll need to be able to expand it into a 7-10 minute talk, should you be one of the three shortlisted Theology Slam finalists.

But this isn’t just about writing – we think that theology is at its best when its communicated well, so in this first round we also want you to send us a brief introductory video (no more than 90 seconds filmed on your smartphone) with an introduction to who you are, and an explanation of why you’ve chosen your topic.

The closing date for entries to round 1 is 7th December. The three best entries will then be given a chance for tuition from a public speaking trainer and invited to refine their piece into a punchy, provocative 7-10 minute talk, in front of a live audience and a panel of judges at the second and final round, the Theology Slam Final, to be held in March. The judging panel will consist of

Mark Greene, Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

Dr Eve Poole, Third Church Estates Commissioner and author

Professor John Swinton, Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at Aberdeen University

Dr Isabelle Hamley, Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury

For more information, and to enter, visit https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/theology-slam

Autumn News

With the new academic year beginning, it’s high time to let you know what’s coming up this autumn…


Missional ConversationsGiven the essentially practical nature of mission, it is surprising that there has often been such a disconnect between those studying mission theoretically, and those involved in it practically.

In October, we’re publishing Missional Conversations edited by Cathy Ross and Colin Smith. The book introduces reader sto key themes in contemporary mission through global conversations between theory and praxis.

Exploring emergent themes in missiology, the book takes the form of a conversation between reflective practitioners – both those in academia and with those who are practically engaged.

Contributions include:

Andrea Campanale and Michael Moynagh on new forms of church

Ric Scott and Jonny Baker on the place of imagination and creativity for mission

David Bookless and Amy Ross on mission and the environment

Daniel G. Groody CSC and Amy Roche on mission and migration

To conclude, Ian Adams reflects on Luke’s account of Simeon and Anna as a lens through which to view what mission spirituality might look like in our turbulent times.


Also in October, we’re launching Theology for Changing Times: John Atherton and the Future of Public Theology. The launch takes place at Manchester Cathedral on 1st October, with evensong at 5:30 followed by the launch reception at 6:30. There will be input from some of the contributors to the volume. This will be followed by refreshments, as well as the opportunity to meet the editors, buy a copy of the book and mingle with the many people who knew John Atherton and valued his work. Tickets are available here.

SCM Press Pop Ups

If you’re training at theological college, the SCM Press Pop-up bookshop gives you the chance to browse a range of SCM Press titles, along with titles from our friends at Canterbury Press and Church House Publishing. We have a range of titles relevant to your course available at good discounts and a wide selection of supplementary reading in biblical studies, ecclesiology, practical and pastoral theology, ethics and doctrine. Have a look below to see if we’re coming to your institution, and if we are then come along on the day and see what we’ve got on display. If your institution isn’t listed, why not encourage your tutors or lecturers to invite us?

9th October – Cambridge Theological Federation, Westcott House (open to all students within the federation, including Ridley Hall and Westminster College)

6th November – Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham

20th November – Trinity College Bristol


November will be busy! That month the arrival of four new books. Firstly, there’s the latest publication in our SCM Research strand. Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary and the Body in Trauma Theology explores the nature of that trauma and examines the implications of identifying the trauma of this body.

Constructing new ways of thinking about the narratives at the heart of the Christian faith, the author Karen O’Donnell offers a fresh perspective on Christian theology, in particular the Eucharist, and presents a call to love the body in all its guises.

It offers new pathways for considering what it means to`be Christian’ and explores the impact that the experience of trauma has on Christian doctrine.

Susannah Cornwall, Senior Lecturer in Constructive Theologies at Exeter University says of the book “This extraordinarily powerful book does not retreat from the blood, loss and deathliness sewn into Christian theologies across the ages. Nonetheless, it also insists on their transformative potential and capacity to bring new light to experiences of trauma and its aftermath today. O’Donnell’s is a bold new voice in constructive theology”


The newest SCM Studyguide, the Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith is written by Ben Pugh, who also wrote the Studyguide to Theology in the Contemporary World Much like that latter volume, the book is designed to be a companion to be used throughout theological study to equip theology students to understand the culture-shaping beliefs that are driving the kinds of questions that western culture brings to faith.

It offers an historical overview of the key stages in the history of Western philosophy with each section carefully tracing the genealogical line of ideas and the Christian responses to them, right up to the present day. Throughout the studyguide students are encouraged to reflect on the ways in which what has been learned might be applied in both explicitly theological and wider cultural contexts – for example, they might be asked to think of a film or book that seems to express elements of existentialism or postmodernism, or to describe how something very like the extreme subjectivity of idealism can sometimes shows itself in Sunday morning worship. This bridging of the practical and the theoretical will prove a invaluable aid for those studying theology particularly if they are doing so with a view to going into different forms of Christian ministry.


Helen D. Cameron‘s book Living in the Gaze of God offers an accessible and timely exploration of the theme of ministerial accountability through the lens of one reflective tool – that of formal supervision of ministerial practice. Bold and far-reaching, the book addresses the key presenting issues around a need for a change of culture in the church as regards accountability for Sministerial practice.

The book outlines a theological and practical model of 1-to-1 supervision, arguing that such an approach enables the development of greater attentiveness to God, the self and others and thus enhances accountability. Laying aside the need to offer a ‘how-to’ approach, Helen Cameron instead brings us a rigorous and dynamic consideration of the interface between supervision, accountability and ministerial practice, and offers a theological underpinning for the issues.


SCM Press has a considerable pedigree in publishing titles around the theme of theological reflection aimed both at students and educators, and many of our titles in the area are now core reading for practical or pastoral theology modules and ministry training both in the UK and abroad. In that vein, Straw for the Bricks: Theological

Straw for the BricksReflection in Practice (edited by Gary O’Neill with Liz Shercliff) explores theological reflection as a tool for ministerial training and development.

Set to become an important resource for those within theological education institutions, adult theological educators and anybody with responsibility for initial or continuing ministerial development, the book breaks new ground in exploring how a model of conversation can be used to lay a foundation for learning which provides a new architecture for both academic curriculum and personal formation. It offers a practical guide to good practice supported by the lived experience of educators from All Saints Centre for Mission and Ministry working across several disciplines.

Kate Bruce, Visiting Fellow at St Johns College, homiletician and RAF chaplain says that the book “will nourish practical theologians, preachers and teachers as we refine our various approaches. It will feed poets, enable facilitators of parish debate, and offer sustenance to all who seek God in the earth of the everyday.”


If November wasn’t busy enough it’s also the month when religious scholars, theologians and biblical scholars from around the world congregate for the AAR/SBL Annual Meetings, held this year in Denver, Colorado. As always, SCM Press will be hosted by our friends at Westminster John Knox Press, and at their booth in the exhibit hall you’ll find a host of our newest publications as well as some important books in our backlist. The Senior Commissioning Editor, David Shervington, will be there – do get in touch if you’d like to meet and discuss any book project you might be developing. He’d be pleased to meet you. You can email him at David.Shervington@hymnsam.co.uk





Material Wealth And Wellbeing – Where’s the Link?

Image result for punch cartoon wealthThe work of John Atherton journeyed through involvement with issues of poverty in the 1960s–1980s, to engagement with economic systems as a cause of poverty from the 1980s – late 1990, leading to engagement with the wider subject of economics, its relationship with not only Christianity, but global religion and belief and its growing involvement with wellbeing studies. He was widely considered one of the leading public theologians of his generation who truly understood the power of the Market and globalisation, and its ongoing impact on the way we live. His was a tireless quest to the extract the hopeful and progressive potential of these epochal changes without sacrificing a commitment to empirical and critical thought.  In the following extract from his last published article, Atherton considers the question of whether wellbeing has anything to do with material wealth.


Standards of living and health lie at the centre of our understanding of human wellbeing. Their story is the account of ‘the world of daily life’ (Bellah, 2011, p. 2); of the struggle to survive and improve life, the history of how people have managed ‘to make their lives better’ (Deaton, 2013, p. xiv). This is everybody’s agenda. It certainly should be at the heart of Christianity with the gospel’s aspiration, ‘that they might have life, and
have it more abundantly’ (John 10.10, kjv). Historically, its record of promoting greater wellbeing has been mixed in practice and even more in theory, particularly since 1800 when the Industrial and then Mortality Revolutions began spreading their beneficial consequences across the world. So much of Christianity’s theory and practice was framed before 1800 that it lacked tools to engage such progressive change, especially economic change and economics.

The account of the sudden growth of income and therefore of living standards
from 1800 for Deaton represents ‘perhaps the greatest escape in all of human history, and certainly the most rapid one’. The economics of such material wellbeing is measured by incomes, with money as reasonable indicator of ‘people’s ability to buy the things on which material wellbeing depends’ (Deaton, 2013, p. 16). Income is therefore central to greater wellbeing as key component of food, clothing and housing, but also as facilitator of other aspects of wellbeing, including education, healthcare, participatory governance, welfare and society. Economists measure such progress across nations by increases in per capita income (the Gross National Product – GNP – divided by population). Such a
consideration of increasing incomes is related to decreasing poverty but also increasing inequality.

First, the historic increase of income resulted from the Industrial Revolution’s ‘long-term and continuing economic growth’ (Deaton, 2013, p. 34). From 1820 to 1992 the world’s inhabitants’ average income grew between seven and eight times, constituting a ‘historically unprecedented increase in living standards’ (Deaton, 2013, pp. 4–5, 167). In the USA, leader of this revolution, per capita income rose from $8,000 in 1929 to $43,238 in 2012, an amazing fourfold increase in only 80 years and the result of economic growth of 1.9% per annum, astonishing to our ancestors, but not to us (Deaton, 2013, p. 170).

Second, decreasing poverty was one of the greatest consequences of increasing incomes. So between 1820 and 1992 the fraction of the world’s population in extreme poverty dropped from 84% to 24% (Deaton, 2013, p. 167). This achievement was nothing to do with liberation theology!

Third, increasing inequality, the classic indicator of great divergences, of paradoxes of development, accompanied these progressive changes in incomes and poverty. Such income inequality since the Industrial Revolution has occurred particularly between nations. The wealthiest countries are 256 times richer than the poorest (Deaton, 2013, p. 20). Inequalities within nations, like the USA, have returned to rapidly accelerating processes since the 1970s. In the USA, the bottom 90% is ‘barely holding onto the living standards of its parents’ (Deaton, 2013, pp. 189, 205). The real gains have been made particularly by the top 1%. Nobel economist Stiglitz has summarized these developments in Vanity Fair: ‘Of the 1%, for the 1%, by the 1%’ (Stiglitz, 2012, p. xxxix).

To grasp the nature and extent of these transformations it is best to locate them in historical contexts. In 1798, Thomas Malthus published the Essay on the Principle of Population with its thesis that expanding populations increasingly outstrip the growth in food, shelter and clothing necessary to resource them. That gap could only be closed by education or morality (meaning marrying later, so having fewer children), or by starvation, war, disease. This Malthusian Trap operated throughout history from 14000 BC to AD 1800. So the world of daily life was shaped by one factor, ‘in the long run births had to equal deaths’ (Clark, 2007, p. 19). Before 1800, rates of technological advance were so low that incomes could not escape the Malthusian equilibrium. The only way to improve living standards was to lower population levels by reducing fertility or increasing mortality. Average living standards meant living ‘a pinched and straightened existence’ (Clark, 2007, p. 38), working every hour God sent you, with a poor diet so low in calories as to produce short people, often unable to work, with poor clothing, and living in crowded insanitary housing. That was the world before 1800, throughout secular and Christian history. That was what was changed by the Industrial Revolution breaking the Malthusian Trap, changing ‘forever the possibilities for
material consumption’ with all that brings for wellbeing (Clark, 2007, p. 2). So income per person began its inexorable rise, delivering billions out of poverty.

Importantly, this growth in income was not an isolated achievement in wellbeing. It related to Deaton’s other two features of wellbeing, health and subjective wellbeing, in that, generally speaking, higher incomes were associated with better health and subjective wellbeing. So better incomes and health over generations are reflected in increasing population heights. Before 1800, people were smaller, indicating calorific nutritional deficiencies, especially in childhood. The European male’s average height
in the mid-nineteenth century was 166.7cm; by 1980, it was 178.6cm (Deaton, 2013, pp. 158, 160). For Fogel, in eighteenth-century Britain, low calorific intakes meant meagre energy for work, low stature and high mortality rates. The Industrial Revolution brought higher incomes, and so higher calorific food intakes, greater wellbeing and stronger economic growth – what is referred to as the thermodynamic factor, constituting
30% of British economic growth since 1790 (Fogel, 2004, p. 33). It is these links between income, food, health and economic growth that illustrate the interaction between these central features of progressive human wellbeing.

Because of this centrality of material wellbeing to wellbeing in general, it is worth exploring debates in economics questioning this significance of increasing income for increasing wellbeing. These arguments are particularly relevant to conversations between Christianity and economics, with the former’s long history of critical suspicion of material wellbeing, money and consumption. Whatever wellbeing is about, it’s not about that at all for much of Christianity! There are two arguments over these matters in contemporary economics, relating to post-materialism and whether greater incomes make us happier.

First, arguments by economists over the emerging significance of a post-materialist age began in the mid-nineteenth century with J. S. Mill, founder of mainstream classical economics, and were repeated by reformer of the following neoclassical economics, J. M. Keynes, looking forward, in 1931, to the day when the ‘economic problem will take the
back seat where it belongs’ (Keynes, 1932, p. vi). Fogel argued more recently that ‘The touchstone of wellbeing … will be measured … in terms of the quality of health and the opportunity for self-realisation’, what he terms ‘spiritual rather than material resources’ (Fogel, 1997, p. 1905). But it was American political scientist Inglehart who argued that empirical evidence demonstrated the emergence of increasingly post-materialist societies in the USA and Europe. For him, post-materialist values have ‘tended to neutralise the emphasis on economic accumulation’ (Inglehart, 1988, p. 1203). This is obviously an appealing argument to the religious, being pro-spiritual and anti-economics/materialist. Yet on examining surveys from 1975–94 Easterlin found quite different trends reflecting the significance of the materialist in relation to social concerns: ‘the percentage of people naming the materialist response as part of the good life exceeded that of people giving the non-materialist response’ (the difference rose from 7 to 21% – suggesting clear shifts towards materialist values, not away from them) (Easterlin, 2004, p. 51). Deaton and Easterlin conclude, therefore, that the material remains of decisive importance for human wellbeing, as it always has been. Christianity needs to come to terms with that, but is not very good at it.

Second, economists like Easterlin and Layard have argued that subjective wellbeing as happiness does not increase with higher incomes, using surveys of nations with higher economic growth and income per capita. Again, this reinforces Christian opinion that happiness is not about higher incomes primarily. Yet research now points the other way in this highly contested relationship between income and subjective wellbeing. Within nations, richer people experience greater subjective wellbeing than poorer people. This is particularly the case with life satisfaction, indicating the relationship between higher incomes and life satisfaction as ‘remarkably similar’, ‘both at higher levels of incomes as at lower levels’ (Sacks, Stevenson and Wolfers, 2012, p. 67). This overturns the orthodoxy
of Layard that increasing happiness only benefits lower incomes, say about $10,000, so above that increasing incomes does not produce increasing happiness (Easterlin, 2004, pp. 23–31; Layard, 2005, p. 33). This new evidence also contradicts mainstream economic assumptions that the marginal wellbeing impact of ‘a dollar of income diminishes as
income increases’ (Sacks, Stevenson and Wolfers, 2012, p. 61).

Similarly, emotional wellbeing measures of happiness also indicate rises with nations’ average incomes, but the relationship is much weaker and less uniform than with life satisfaction. So Pakistanis and Kenyans experience greater such happiness than Danes and Italians. This limited relationship between income and experienced happiness also holds within rich economies like the USA. So beyond an income of $70,000 per annum,
‘additional money does nothing to improve happiness’, even though those
with more money report they have better lives (life evaluation) (Deaton, 2013, pp. 52–3). So money matters only up to a point for improving such happiness, leading Graham to talk of the ‘paradox of happy peasants and miserable millionaires’ (Graham, 2009). Higher incomes improve evaluations of life but not emotional wellbeing.

Given this new evidence that higher incomes are very significant for wellbeing, it is worth finally summarizing the nature and role of incomes in material wellbeing both in contemporary and historical contexts. Material wellbeing is ‘typically measured by income, the amount of money people have to spend or save’ (Deaton, 2013, p. 16). What Americans spend their money on can be divided between goods and services, income spent on goods constituting a third of the total in 2012, divided between durable goods, a third, say on cars, furniture, clothes, and non-durable goods, say on food (7.5% rising to 13% when you include food consumed away from home). In terms of services, the two largest items were housing and utilities, representing 18% of consumer expenditure,
and healthcare at 16%. These income-resourced expenditures represent ‘the stuff of material wellbeing’ (Deaton, 2013, pp. 171–2). Yet many often criticize such bedrocks of life. ‘Spending more, we are often told, does not bring us better lives, and religious authorities regularly warn against materialism’ (Deaton, 2013, p. 172). Yet such opinions
neglect the enormous benefit for human wellbeing of the escape from the Malthusian Trap which dominated and scarred most lives for most of human history.

The French historian Braudel’s three-volumed Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century, traces the evolution of such material wellbeing up to the Industrial Revolution. The first volume engages The Structures of Everyday Life, classically centred on the historically continuing bases of material wellbeing, food, clothing and housing, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century (and for most of history) (Braudel, 1981, 1982, 1984). It was these material essentials for wellbeing that were transformed by the Industrial Revolution, even though they still form the basis of current income expenditure. It is this story of dramatic contemporary change in material wellbeing, say from 1870 to the present, that has been charted in US history by Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War. Life in 1870 was closer to the Malthusian Trap. What happened after turned the whole world of material wellbeing upside down profoundly for the better. In 1870, Boston had 250,000 citizens sharing the streets with 50,000 horses (Gordon, 2016, p. 48)! Women carried water and fuel into the house and took sewage and ashes out. The labour extended to cooking on fires, hand washing clothes, making clothes, and was immense. Then came two revolutions in 1879, Edison’s electric light and Benz’s internal combustion engine, transforming life for ever, along with the production of nutritious safe food and drink and good cheap clothing (the rise of mail catalogues and department stores) and the connectivity of housing in terms of piped clean water, sanitation systems, electricity and electrical appliances, central heating and then air conditioning, and telephones representing continuing advances in communications. And from the house, the car and then the aeroplane opened the world to all with incomes. It is an astonishing story of the development of material wellbeing.

Material wellbeing is intimately linked to incomes or money. It is the former that dominates economic understandings, but the undue focus on the latter has led Christians, especially theologians and church leaders, to at best profound misunderstandings of material wellbeing and income.

The full version of this article can be found in Theology for Changing Times: John Atherton and the Future of Public Theology, published later this month. Edited by Christopher Baker and Elaine Graham, the book includes contributions from Hilary Russell, Peter Sedgwick and Anna Ruddick, as well as from Atherton himself. 

There’s still time to book on to the launch of the book from 5:30pm on Monday October 1st at Manchester Cathedral. Tickets are free. To find out more and book your ticket, click here.