Professor Esther D. Reed
BA (Hons), PhD (Dunelm)
Professor of Theological Ethics
Esther D. Reed joined the Department of Theology and Religion in 2007. Previously, she taught for ten years at the University of St Andrews including one semester as the visiting O'Connor Professor at Colgate University, NY (Spring 2007). She is President of the UK Society for the Study of Christian Ethics Sept 2018-August 2021.
Esther's research and teaching are broadly in theological ethics, that is, the exercise of reason informed by the witness of Christian tradition(s) to the self-revealing grace of God that moves between the bible and human action. She has particular research interests in
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- Theological ethics as biblical hermeneutics
- 'Just war' reasoning in the 21st century
- Ethics and Artificial Intelligence
- Theology and Criminal Justice
She has 'lead' supervised 15+ research students to successful completion of PhDs, and 5+more to Masters by Research and MPhil awards. She is open to talking with prospective students about their areas of interest.
Esther's book The Limit of Responsibility: Engaging Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Globalizing Era (T & T Clark, August Bloomsbury 2018) was published recently. Responsibility is not a new topic in Christian ethics but too many accounts are delimited to the immediately personal. What’s needed in Christian ethics is a theologically informed theory of responsibility capable of grappling adequately with the new features of the problem of responsibility and reformulating the concept in ways that
- exceed agent-causality-consequence definitions that presuppose tight causal links between the agent’s actions and their effects
- face the temptation to relinquish the question of responsibility because, amidst the realities of globalization, the consequences of one’s own actions appear vanishingly small
- reckon with the unintended or unknown negative effects of actions on phenomena elsewhere
- make space for the additional concepts needed for the exercise of responsibility today: uncertainty, risk, solidarity, institutions, the future
- reverse the agent-act-consequence sequence to an understanding of responsibility that originates in You, that is learned from Christ and neighbor.
Esther has given numerous invited lectures including for the University of Bonn, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences; XII International Bonhoeffer Congress in Basel; New York Seminary; and University of Leuven.
My research life began with a study of the political theology of Dorothee Soelle. Her work inspired me to study the pathologies of the modern era through the lens of G.W.F. Hegel's construal of the master/slave dialectic and theory of recognition. After completion of the PhD, I concentrated on relations between Hegel and Schleiermacher and on some of Schleiermacher's early political writings and hermeneutic theory.
The journey then became a more focussed study of the systematic theological foundations of Christian ethics and moral reasoning. The Genesis of Ethics: On the Authority of God as the Origin of Christian Ethics (2000/2002) is a response to the challenge of radical, post-Christian feminists that the authority of God is the problem of Christian ethics not its answer. Using Mikhail Bakhtin's idea of authoring, the book explores connections between divine authoring and authority. Christian ethics is understood in terms of the answerability of God's Word.
The Ethics of Human Rights: Contested Doctrinal Problems (2007) offers an account of 'right', 'rights' and 'Christ the measure of natural rights' that seeks to support Christian people who use human rights instruments in diverse practical and legal contexts. Following Dietrich Bonhoeffer's starting point for discussion of natural rights, namely, Ecce Homo! 'Behold the Man' (Jn 19:5), the book argues that neither antagonism nor indifference are the only options available to Christian people in dialogue with, or working with, secularist approaches to human rights. A tropological reading of Genesis 9:1-17, God's covenant with Noah, is developed as a means of asking how the bible challenges, directs and gives substance to critical Christian engagement with human rights discourse.
Written at a time when many secularist theorists seem variously unable or unwilling to denounce torture as wrong, Theology for International Law (2013) offers a systematic engagement with contemporary issues of international law and its relevance for modern theology. Christian theology is familiar with questions about the relation of church and state, divine and human law, but little attention has been devoted to questions of international law. This book discusses challenges to classic just-war thinking from so-called fourth generation warfare, peoples and nationhood within divine providence, the ethics of territorial borders and the militarization of human intervention.
The Limits of Responsibility: Engaging Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Globalizing Era (2018) addressed the problem that Christian ethicists are ill equipped to think about questions of responsibility that extend beyond a tightly drawn agent-act causality nexus. The discipline is familiar with the topic of consumption where implications for action lead fairly directly to the need for lifestyle changes respect to food and clothing, whether or not to travel, whether to buy books electronically, renovating furniture rather than buying new, and such like. This book is about moral reasoning when relationships between agent, act and its consequences are often untraceable.
External impact and engagement
- Esther is involved with the 'Art of Narrative Theology in Religious Education' project, which is working to examine relations between narrative theology and Christian ethics in Key Stage 3 RE.
- Esther has also given workshops on ethics and security, migration and asylum, and theology and international law, together with a consultation on the use of unmanned armed vehicles (drones).
Contribution to discipline
- Studies in Christian Ethics (Editor)
Academic society positions
- Chair of the Board of Studies for the Southern Theological Education and Training Scheme
- Member of Methodist working groups on Faith and Order and Senior Leadership (2008-11)
Beyond striving to ensure that my students acquire a solid knowledge base in Christian ethics and political theology, my approach to teaching is driven by the demands of graduate workplace. A senior manager in a large multinational company replied recently to my question about what they look for in a prospective employee. ‘The ability to defend their work. … You’d be amazed how many people ask for extra time when I say that they are presenting the report tomorrow not me’. Mindful of this kind of demand upon graduates, I require of myself clear answers to the following:
- How do I get my students to a level of performance at which they are competent to be accountable to senior staff or the general public for their own work?
- How do I facilitate the kind of teamwork that engenders good communication and accountability?
- How do I help my students experience the need for ‘deep research’ that stretches their self-expectations and develops a range of research competencies?
- What kinds of risk should I encourage my stusdents to take in order to prepare for them for graduate employment?
Facing these questions means that the teaching encounter should challenge me, as well as my students. I must provide the conditions in which students can develop the knowledge base and skills toolkit with which to investigate the intrinsic interest of the subject matter. I must use classroom opportunities to help students realize their educational potential.
Modules that have taught recently, or contributed to, include:
- Philosophy of Religion and Christian Ethics (THE1106)
- Theology and Criminal Justice (THE2199/3199)
- Military Ethics in Christian Perspective (THE2023/3023)
- The Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (THE2204/3204)