Putting the Practical in Theology
When I tell people that I am a practical theologian, I am typically met with one of two jokes: either the person will scoff and say, “Is any theology actually practical?” or they will say, “Shouldn’t all theology be practical?” I am certain that every profession under the sun is subjected to tired jokes like these. I laugh politely, and act as though I’ve never heard either comment before, while stifling an eye roll. I’m thankful when the joke is followed by the earnest question, “So what is practical theology?” The definition of the field is certainly contested, with each new volume of literature seeking to assert its own spin on what it is, and what we do. I have found that my answer has evolved substantially over time, from a simple, “It is the study of the practical dimensions of theology” during my undergraduate work, to a slightly more robust, “It is the careful examination of the relationship between theologically contextualized theory and practice” during my M.Div. And yet, I still found that definition to be lacking.
Now I am working on a Ph.D. in practical theology, and the quest to accurately describe my field has become a central preoccupation, so that I can properly situate my research and writing. Of the dozens of books that I have read which seek to define the field, I finally found one that I believe truly captures the breadth and in large part, the depth of what we do.
In 1995, Don Browning of the University of Chicago published A Fundamental Practical Theology: Descriptive and Strategic Proposals, a book which would become foundational for most subsequent literature on the topic. From a philosophical angle, Browning makes an audacious, if not truthful claim about the nature of theology at large that upset his colleagues from varied sub-disciplines of theology, and elicited much celebration from practical theologians.
His claim was basically, YES, all theology in all of its many forms is indeed practical. So, to validate those obnoxious jokes for just a moment, not only should all theology be practical, it necessarily is practical.
In what sense is all theology necessarily practical? To understand Browning’s argument, one would need to welcome to the table 20th-century philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer. By way of Gadamer, Don Browning argues that no person is a blank slate, receiving directly that which God chooses to disclose to us. Rather, we are contextualized creatures, shaped by our histories, our memories, our concerns, our languages, our assumptions about the world and the way it works, and the practical wisdom we have accrued over time in order to survive. All of these dimensions of our lives are brought to bear on that which we perceive, including divine self-disclosure.
Now, at this point, some of you may be shifting in your seats. Many biblical scholars, for instance, thrive on the ability to apply what are more or less scientific methods of inquiry to decode the ancient texts. Many theologians, likewise, rely upon commitments to systematic deciphering of divine revelation. But theology as a whole is just in recent decades beginning to wake up to the realization that all intelligent inquiry (yes, even scientific or otherwise systematic methodology) is born in the practical world—that is, all intelligent inquiry is born out of a particular context, and was given rise from human needs and desires. This is not to say that the pursuit of objectivity is null and void; rather it is to suggest that perhaps objectivity does not realistically play the role we once assumed that it must for our theological enterprise to be successful.
Why does this matter, you might ask? While most of you are not academically situated practical theologians, you all do participate in the practical dimensions of theology. In our Church of Christ tribe, we have often prided ourselves on the ability to receive divine revelation (by way of Scripture) in a more or less objective manner. Religion, we thought, is basically a science that shapes us. And while we were right that we were being shaped in the process of theological inquiry, we were wrong to presume that we come to the theological task as unformed blank slates. We were wrong to neglect the practical realities of our engagement with Scripture and doctrine. We were foolish to assume that we came to the text, to worship, or to our doctrine with no preexisting concerns, needs, or desires. And we were even more foolish to treat our contextual concerns as idolatrous or irrelevant to spiritual formation.
Admittedly, it can be a scary thing to imagine how our preexisting practical concerns have shaped our interpretive work, if we are under the impression that our salvation hinges on our ability to objectively decipher divine revelation without error. But what if theology as a whole has less to do with the plundering of answers, and more to do with the formative experience of seeking knowledge of the divine? What if our practical contexts shape us to ask more thoughtful theological questions? Could it be that the way of knowing God that is rooted in our everyday existence is the most valid mode of theology? I realize I am biased. And to be sure, Don Browning received much criticism for his assertion that all theology can be described as practical. His work did not fill in all of the gaps of the field; if anything, he opened up the field for more critical examination.
But now, as a practical theologian, I am perfectly situated to call these questions to task: in what way is our theological work practical? How have our practices shaped our theology? In what ways do our present contextual concerns continue to influence our theological work, and can we establish a healthy dialectic between ourselves and that which we observe and interrogate? I believe that these questions must become central, as we strive to model our communities after Christ in the 21st century. It is obviously no secret that many of our Christian communities have struggled to navigate present contexts with our historic theology. How might our ancient faith speak to our current context, and what questions and concerns might our current context bring to our theological reflection? I think that such questions must guide the way forward, lest we become that which we know to be meaningless and futile: a people who merely repeat the religious prescriptions of our ancestors without critical engagement with our present lives.