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Ordinary Theology Project

The Institute ceased its activity and the charity was dissolved at the end of April 2013 This is a copy of the NEICE website active at that date

Ordinary Theology Project

NEICE 1981 – 2013
The Institute ceased its activity and the charity was dissolved at the end of April 2013
This is a copy of the NEICE website active at that date

Exploring Ordinary Theology: A Research Project


This scheme of research comprises an in-depth study of the religious beliefs of adults who have received no formal, academic theological training, and of the unbelief of those whose background is similarly (from an academic perspective) ‘non-theological’. The major dimension of the project is a careful analysis and critique of these beliefs of ‘ordinary people’ from a theological perspective, with an eye to providing practical insights for those engaged in Christian mission and ministry in our society.


“If theology is what goes on in people’s lives, we know amazingly little about Christian theology”

Professor John Hull
NEICE Symposium, July 1996

‘Applied’, ‘pastoral’ and ‘practical’ theology, subject areas which inform the tasks of Christian education, preaching and mission, must take note of the ordinary language and logic of the religious believer and of those who reject religious belief. The communication of the Christian gospel in the contemporary context is greatly hindered because we do not take seriously enough: (a) the everyday theology of ordinary adult Christian believers, both that which is explicitly articulated and that which is more implicit and inarticulate, and (b) the nature and structure of beliefs about Christianity held by non-believers.

Those who are engaged in Christian education, apologetics and evangelism, as well as those involved in the Church’s pastoral ministry, need to know far more than they often currently do about the beliefs held by the adults for whom they exercise this ministry of teaching and care, and the ways in which they reason about religious and theological matters. The present research project is designed to meet this need.

The overwhelming majority of contemporary ‘God-talkers’ have not studied theology formally; but if they speak and think about God with any seriousness at all, they are inevitably engaged in doing their own theology. This is because theology is essentially the attempt to speak reflectively of the divine. ‘Ordinary theology’ is an appropriate term for the articulation of ordinary people’s religious understanding. This is itself grounded in a less articulate and more inchoate ‘subterranean theology’ (David Martin’s phrase), and in an even more fundamental complex of religious attitudes, values, commitments, experiences and practices. A proper study of religious believing must also include an examination of these less manifest faith foundations.


Research into ordinary theology is a multi-disciplinary task. It can be adequately tackled only by drawing on the theoretical insights, empirical data and practical conclusions of a number of subject-areas and forms of knowledge. This research project therefore draws on studies undertaken from a variety of perspectives (theological, philosophical and social-scientific) relevant to the theme. Two areas of original research are of particular importance:

(a) Theological and Philosophical Analysis

Undergirding this project is the conviction that the ordinary theology of adult believers (and the ‘atheology’ of non-believers) deserves the same careful analysis and critique as that which is routinely given to the reflections of professional theologians and scholarly critics of theology. Only by taking people’s theology that seriously can we discover what ordinary people really believe and why, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the content and form of their believing. The fact that ordinary theology is usually not well formulated is not an adequate excuse for ignoring it. The theological and philosophical analysis of ordinary theology forms the major part of this study. It involves the careful description and unpacking of the language and forms of argument that people use when speaking of God and religion (essentially a philosophical task). It also includes the evaluation of such beliefs from the standpoint, and using the resources, of systematic Christian theology, as well as by employing the tools of the philosopher.

(b) Descriptive Survey

But this theoretical analysis is not sufficient on its own. It must work on real data from real ‘ordinary theologians’. The belief-systems and reasoning structures of adult churchgoers, and of believing and non-believing non-churchgoers, need therefore to be studied in sufficient depth to provide the raw material for theological and philosophical analysis. The project therefore also involves both in-depth qualitative studies and questionnaire surveys in what others have called ’empirical theology’.


Two assumptions from the disciplines of theology and the field of the study of religion inform this scheme of research:

  1. The project shares the ‘postliberal’ theological emphasis on the actual religious tradition in which people are formed, and its communal context, by studying those who are formed in this tradition and describing its logic and sources in detail. It also draws, however, on the approach to theology that attempts a more distanced critical reflection and evaluation of these given belief-systems. The project thus takes seriously the standpoints both of Christian theological formation (learning the language of this particular tradition) and of critical education in Christian theological thinking (critiquing this language).
  2. In focusing on the language of ordinary believers, this project also involves some exploration and analysis of their ‘folk faith’ (variously designated as ‘folk religion’, ‘subterranean theology’, ‘implicit religion’ or ‘common religion’), as well as working with their more theologically explicit, and more religiously ‘conventional’, belief-systems.


It is hoped that the research will eventually result in the publication of books that will be of value both to academics and to a wider public, as well as journal articles aimed at scholars and researchers. Most of these products will describe, analyse and evaluate the nature of ordinary theology, and the theological reasoning processes of ordinary theologians. A major concern will be to bring the study of theology down to the grass-roots world of non-intellectuals. Here the knowledge of Christ – and its absence – is set in a very different context, and often displays a very different nature, from those explored by the academic theologian.

The project will also result in the development of research instruments and procedures that may be offered to preachers, ministers, evangelists and teachers in order to help them assess the content, structure and dynamics of the religious beliefs of their listeners and learners. It is also intended to generate publications targetted at this readership that contain practical suggestions about how the theological and religious beliefs, attitudes and values of adults might most readily be changed.

The project therefore has a range of outcomes, including:

  1. publications designed to contribute to the scholarly debate about the nature of religious belief; and
  2. products designed to help researchers and practitioners discover more about the beliefs of ordinary people and the relevance of such beliefs to their own work.

See Books publishedOrdinary Theology (2002); Taking Ordinary Theology Seriously (2007); Exploring Ordinary Theology (2013)

See Articles, essays and reports: ‘A Plea for Ordinary Theology’ (2002), ‘Preaching and Listening’ (2003), ‘Ordinary Theology for Rural Theology and Rural Ministry’ (2003), ‘Public and Personal Peace in Life, Religion and Education: An Exercise in Ordinary Theology’ (2007), ‘Who Do You Say I Am? Answers from the Pews’ (2007), ‘Giving Voice to the Ordinary: Theological Listening and the Mother Tongue’ (2008), ‘Ordinary Soteriology: A Qualitative Study'(2009).