We got the authors of three recent books of practical theology together and asked them to bang their ideas around to see what interesting overlaps and contrasts emerged. Andrew Root of Luther Seminary recently wrote Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross. Mark Van Steenwyk, founder of the Mennonite Worke Community, wrote The UNkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance. The guys from Two Friars and a Fool, Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson wrote Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get to Work.
by Andrew Root
In part three of Christopraxis I use the analogy of a yellow bunny to discuss the three layers of reality (which Aric, Doug, and Nick referenced). When my friend Theresa Latini read early drafts of the chapter she asked with a laugh, “How the hell did you come up with a yellow bunny at the center of the universe as analogy for subjective dependent reality?” I came up with it the same way I come up with almost all my thought-provoking stories, I didn’t; my son, Owen, did. One night at bedtime, Owen confessed in frustration that he was having a hard time believing anything happens when we pray. As if writing a chapter in Aric, Doug and Nick’s book he asked in a deeply articulate way that surpassed his seven years, “How do we know anything happens when we pray? It seems just like make-believe magic; I mean, what’s the difference between praying, ‘Oh, Jesus’ and ‘Oh, magical yellow bunny at the center of the universe…?’”
Aric, Doug and Nick want us never to pray again so that we might not ever use prayer to avoid the concrete and lived humanity of our neighbor. They want us to spend our energy not on our knees but with our hands dirty in action for our neighbor. They admit they’re skeptical of the kind of mystical experiences that Mark and I speak of in our two books. What they want is for us to love our neighbor and not use the mystical experience as a way out of action.
I agree! But to connect love and action is not to avoid the mystical. I believe they can only be connected through an assertion that reality is layered, mysterious, and spiritual. Love is the concrete, but nevertheless mystical, experience of sharing in the personhood of another. But what keeps this layered and mysterious reality from taking us out of the world? What I try to argue in Christopraxis is that ministry is the very happening of love, it is the act of sharing with another person for sake of whole life together.
Interestingly, and in contrast to Aric, Doug and Nick’s assertion, I heard in interviewing people who had so-called mystical experiences, that these experiences nearly always seemed to take them not out of the world, but deeper into it, to participate in personal acts of the ministry of love for their neighbor. It was through praying for others, or hearing God’s voice in prayer, that they were sent into the world to minister to the personhood of others (this is how I interpret the mystical story Mark tells in his book as well!).
It feels like Aric, Doug, Nick have fallen just a little bit into the trap of liberal deconstruction which has tended to believe that spiritual experiences are used to escape the world. But my own research, as well as the much more expansive study by T.M Luhrmann, reported in her award-winning book When God Speaks Back, shows it is actually quite the opposite. To pray (not as a religious act but as yearning to connect with a personal God) is to experience the being of God. And the nature of this God, I argue in Christopraxis, is bound in ministry—this God comes to the world (revelation) as minister, seeking to love the world. To encounter this God in prayer is not to enter into a mystical netherworld but to be taken into an embodied, lived experience of God’s ministry (to be transformed, as I was in the hole). Experiencing the ministering act of God in prayer is then (or maybe even simultaneously) to be sent into the world to share in God’s action of ministry by being ministers ourselves (as Mark was with Michael).
A mystical experience that does not minister to you is a pathology or even demonic possession. A mystical experience that does not lead us out into ministry in the world, for the personhood of our neighbor, is spiritual narcissism, and our prayers are only the echo chamber of our own voice as we seek a yellow bunny. Christopraxis, in the end, isn’t a book justifying mystical experiences, it is a book that critiques both the liberal and conservative ends of practical theology for not adequately attending to the layers and depth of people’s experience—the experience of God coming to us as minister, and our ministering to others.
My only proof that God acts this way is my (and many other’s through the millennia) testimony of experiencing this action, of being in a hole, and encountering the ministerial action of Jesus.
I respect deeply what Aric, Doug, and Nick have done in their book. And if it is true that God doesn’t act in the world as a personal (weak) force of ministerial encounter than they’re right, we should never pray again. And if never praying again, we should just use the Christian tradition to reinforce and enhance human action as we work and sweat to make the world a better place. OR, if experiences like Mark’s, mine, and many others are POSSIBILY real, then prayer becomes of vital importance, for it is the way of opening our minds (and hearts) to a depth of reality to encounter something that exists outside our own minds.
If all reality is nothing more than locked in the human mind, then never pray, for God is no better than a yellow bunny. But if we believe that there are things that exist outside and even transcendent to human minds (which most hard scientists would contend) then maybe prayer is the way we open ourselves to possibly experience this reality that is beyond us (most other religions agree with Christianity that this is true; prayer or meditation opens us to the depth of experience). And maybe this reality that some of us experience is actually a weak force that ministers to creation and humanity, ministering to us by taking what’s dead and bring new life. If we encounter this God as a ministering force, then this kind of divine action would allow us, would demand of us, that we join this God and minister to our neighbor and creation.
And that, Owen, my son, is worth seeking!
Andrew Root, PhD (Princeton Theological Seminary) is the Olson Baalson Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary. He is most recently the author of Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross (Fortress, 2014) and Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker (Baker, 2014). He has also written The Relational Pastor (IVP, 2013) as well as a four book series with Zondervan called A Theological Journey Through Youth Ministry (titles include Taking Theology to Youth Ministry, Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry, Unpacking Scripture in Youth Ministry, and Unlocking Mission and Eschatology in Youth Ministry). In 2012 his book The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry (with Kenda Creasy Dean, IVP, 2011) was Christianity Today Book of Merit. He has written a number of other books on ministry and theology such as The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being (Baker Academic, 2010), The Promise of Despair (Abingdon, 2010), Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation (IVP, 2007) and Relationships Unfiltered (Zondervan/YS, 2009). Andy has worked in congregations, parachurch ministries, and social service programs. He lives in St. Paul with his wife Kara, two children, Owen and Maisy, and their two dogs. When not reading, writing, or teaching, Andy spends far too much time watching TV and movies.