Learning to make a difference

by Simon Sutcliffe.

We are pleased to continue our partnership with Spectruma community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. This year the study papers are written by Prof Anthony Reddie and Rev’d Simon Sutcliffe on the theme ‘Being the Salt of the Earth (A look at some peace and justice issues)’. This is the fifth of six through the year

In a church that loves ‘to do’ we might assume that if we want to learn how to make a difference then we need to develop techniques and resources for the task of doing. Attend courses and workshops on mission and challenging injustice; and whilst these courses are important, there is one other, often overlooked, focus for our learning. I want to suggest that learning theology is another really important tool for us to become salt in the earth, but not of it. In fact, it is the theology that stops the church from being another NGO. We have our own, unique, and different story to tell. In a book called The Pioneer Gift I wrote these words:

‘I understand theology as the language and memory of the church that has developed over thousands of years and in which I now participate. So just as a child learns language through the listening and participating in a particular cultural setting so I, as a theologian and a pioneer, have learnt how to speak of the things of God by being present with the architects and innovators of Christian thought. It is what it means to be a Christian, to be rooted in that memory and narrative to such an extent that it begins to shape my thought and practice’.

As with all memory traditions there are those groundbreaking moments: granny’s 80th birthday party, the time my dad fell off my push bike, my first kiss, the first time I held my child … in the same way theological memory is punctuated with kairos: the exile, the incarnation, the edict of Milan, Luther’s 95 theses … all mould my understanding of what it means to be a Christian — whether I know it or not! Equally language has developed that becomes common place to my community. In West Yorkshire where I grew up, we went chomping for wood near bonfire night and my mother would fettle things; where I now live in North Staffordshire, I am cold because I am nesh. Likewise, theology uses words that are rarely, if ever, used by other communities such as resurrection, sanctification, incarnation, ecclesia. Some of the words we do share with other communities take on new or different meaning such as hope, pray, God etc.

It is this language and memory of the church, theology, that shapes the kind of practice we engage in. Or to put it another way, learning our language and memory helps us to answer the questions ‘why should we be salt? And ‘how should we be salt?’

Another metaphor we might use for theology is that of lenses. Theology, this deep tradition that is held, shaped and passed on by the church, is like a lens that enables us to see more clearly, or differently, from what we might see without wearing it. Cyclists will often have a set of interchangeable lenses for their glasses. The purpose of the glasses is to protect their eyes, but in order that they can see more clearly there is a dark lens for bright days, a yellow lens for less sunny days, and a clear lens for cloudy, dull days. Each different lens helps the cyclist to see better.

A final metaphor that might be helpful is to see memory and language as being fundamental to identity. Our hearing, speaking and thinking are informed by our language (vocabulary) and memory (the tradition we can recall). It is this identity, knowing who we are, that enables us to have confidence in our vulnerability when we are guests.

If we want to be truly salt, light and yeast in the world, then learning our theology, our language and memory is as essential as learning our practice, our techniques. Together they help us to develop phronesispractical wisdom, wisdom of, and for, salt in the world, but not of the world.


1.  How would you define the word ‘theology’? What is your experience of it?

2. Can you think of theological themes which need re-definition for today’s world? (examples might be forgiveness, sanctification etc.)

3. Which theologians have most influenced you? How might you go about discovering more of the language and memory of the church? (for instance, do you know of the circumstances that led to the Nicene Creed been written? Have you read any of the theology that came out of German speaking world such as Bonhoeffer and Barth?).

3 thoughts on “Learning to make a difference”

  1. Thanks Simon. Very helpful. Not sure it exactly parallels but I’ve drawn much inspiration from the film “Life, Animated” which tells of how the family of Owen Suskind, who had an autism diagnosis at the age of 3, came to understand that he was interpreting the world through the “story shapes” of the Disney animated films that he loved. I can understand (to a degree) my own practice of faith as an interpretation of the world around me through looking for the “story shapes” of Christian scripture and tradition


  2. 1 Theology is presumably about our knowledge of God – our ultimate concern about life. For me God ONLY comes to mind in the context of my ethical concern for others. 2 Yes! Any theological themes that are based on judgment or exclusiveness, which in my opinion are therefore nothing to do with love. Also seriously unhappy about the individualistic notions of personal salvation, personal piety and presence. 3. Yes.


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