Practical Theology

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately on the subject of “practical theology.”  I didn’t turn to this subject on a whim, I have some general and specific motivations for thinking long and hard about this particular matter.  Generally speaking, the work I hope to be doing is traditionally defined under the rubric of practical theology: namely, congregational ministry.

Theology is often broken down into sub-disciplines:  dogmatic theology, historical theology, philosophical theology, systematic theology, practical theology.  One theologian, David Tracy, conceives theology as a three-tiered whole.  First is fundamental or philosophical theology which looks at the “conditions of possibility” for the theological enterprise.  It investigates the general truth and limitations of theology, distinguishing it from other endeavors.  Then, there is systematic theology in which we find the dogmas or doctrines of the church, hopefully contextualized historically, organized into a coherent system.  Finally, we have practical theology in which the spray of ideas finds a home in the life of the church:  teaching, preaching, advocating, caring, etc.  While the three “moments” in theology are distinct, they are inter-related and never, finally, separable.

The arts of preaching, pastoral care, and leading worship are typical foci for academics engaging in practical theology.  If I intend for my work as a minister to be faithful, effective, and true, I would be remiss to ignore the rich resources found in the writings of practical theologians.  Those who have commented at length about preaching–the new trends, old styles, and many theologies undergirding it–received a lot of my attention in my last year at Divinity School.  My ministry thesis focused on a theologizing about preaching.

Over the summer I spent some time reflecting on pastoral care through my chaplaincy experience.  This art is saturated with theology, too.  I considered the idea of “embodied theology”, that is, being theological with those with whom I am in a caring relationship.  This means doing the work of love, attention, respect, and support without, necessarily, using or imposing the language of my own faith tradition.  I can be a Christ-like presence, and thereby witness to the gospel, without ever explicitly praying, singing from a hymn, or reading the bible with a grieving person.  This makes all the more sense when I am caring for someone who is not religious or is involved in another faith tradition (say, Judaism).  My purpose is to meet the immediate spiritual and emotional needs of the person, not convert them or force them into strictly religious conversations.

These experiences have led me further down the road of practical theology, into the more specific concern I now have.  I am interested in the ways that all of life, from the most mundane activity of folding laundry to the glorious experience of holding a new-born, is brimming with theology.  This means searching out God’s presence in the midst of our ordinary, run-of-the-mill, often messy lives.  It means discerning God’s Spirit in the decisions we face, even the seemingly a-religious decisions about what to do with our family finances, if anything at all, in order to live more faithfully and more fully.  In short, I’ve become interested in practicing theology, in becoming a practitioner of theology–not as an academic who writes a treatise on “Soteriology”, but as a person who lives a faithful, purposeful way of life with the full, rich resources of his faith tradition.  In addition, as a minister, I’m profoundly interested in empowering and equipping other people of faith to practice theology more faithfully and more fully.

My hope is to make a case for this turn to “practical theology” as the focal point for ministry.  Not simply because there are traditional practices of ministry–preaching, pastoral care, leading worship–that deserve my theological attention as a professional minister, though they do; but because all our lives, our whole lives, from our waking to waning moments, are bustling with practices that are bursting with theology.  Tapping into this theology will help us all receive the fullness of God’s transforming love for our world.

So in the months to come, I’m hoping to explore the meaning of “practical theology” in our day and age, and situate myself in its trajectory.  A few plans are in the works for a blog that will explore topics, themes, and particular practices of our everyday lives from a distinctly theological angle.  These nascent plans are rough and undefined at the moment, but they are already filling me with excitement.  I hope to share more soon.

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2 thoughts on “Practical Theology

  1. Good thoughts, Michael. That third from the end paragraph made me think of _In the Midst of Chaos_, which happens to have been written by Bonnie Miller-McLemore who I think “does” practical theology in the academic sense of the phrase. Interesting overlap. 🙂 Also, I find myself saying a lot that what divinity school does well is allow us to think theologically about all aspects of our ministry — but you’re right to emphasize the way we also, as ministers (and indeed, as Christians) embody our theology. Looking forward to what follows — and glad you are filled with excitement.

    • Thanks Laura Jean! I love Bonnie Miller-McLemore, and I’m reading some of her work currently. I hope to continue engaging the rich thought-worlds of practical theologians of her ilk as I continue in ministry. Thanks for the title of that book–I was not aware of it.

      I do trust that the kind of practical theological thinking we turn towards traditional ministry endeavors can be aimed at other “more mundane” activities, like family budgeting or organizing our meals, in an effort to struggle into a more faithful, just, and full way of life. And, just as important, will be the empowerment of lay christians to do this kind of theologizing for themselves in the context of a faithful, supportive church community. Divinity School may not afford us the chance to strategize on this level because we are so often just beginning to learn how to do this for ourselves. Bringing others on board is a challenging task which, I suspect, requires patience, sensitivity, and the art of translating “big ideas” into accessible, exciting resources for those unskilled in the technical jargon of theology and related fields. This is where I’m hoping we can come together and work alongside each other to share experiences and methods, techniques and creative innovations, and, of course, encouragement.

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