Practical Theology: Deconstruction and Politics in My Christopraxis

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 this round of conversations with Aric, Doug, Nick and Mark we’ve decided to be reflective on our own work, discussing for instance how Never Pray Again and The Unkingdom of God lead me to analyze and critique my own work in Christopraxis.

I have to admit that I envy the Two Friars guys and Mark when it comes to writing this post. Both their works are excellent examples of short, well-written projects that seek to provoke and engage the reader. Their objective is to give the reader an experience that will lead them to think deeply and act in a new way. Unfortunately for me when it comes to this post, my objective in Chistopraxis is different. This book is my most directly academic work, and it seeks not so much to provoke the reader as to re-conceptualize practical theology itself. This means I have no good reason for not dealing with issues and themes for which, in a slim book with a different audience, I could excuse myself.

There are two themes from Never Pray Again and The Unkingdom of God that lead me to be reflective about my own work. First, in Never Pray Again, the authors say:

“Ironically, one of the greatest inhibitors of empathy, dulling our sense of other people, may be religion. All our hand clasping, head bowing, and pious mumbling may be working directly against the goal of waking up by subtly programming us to act out of obligation rather than compassion.”

I find this quote a moving and interesting one. I’ve written a great deal about empathy in The Relational Pastor and resonate deeply with the step way from religion. This quote reminds of a very good book called God Against Religion by Matthew Boulton. Boulton uses the early work of Karl Barth and amazingly creative exegesis of the Cain and Abel story to show that worship itself is a fallen exercise, becoming ossified in religion. He explains that God desires for us to truly worship by throwing off religion and encountering God again.

This encounter with God in lived and concrete ways is my real focus in Christopraxis. I’m trying to argue in this book that people have real experiences of divine action and that academic/university-based practical theology has not honored these experiences and therefore has defaulted on its discipline’s commitment to attend to the theological significance of people’s lived and concrete experience. Ironically, when we deny the possibility of divine encounter then all we’re left with is religion and institutional churches. So denying religion and moving into empathy for our neighbor leads us, I think, to consider how it that the living God encounters us, asking how do people have encounters of revelation? If religion is corrupt, then what are the mechanism of divine encounter?

What this quote above challenges me on particularly in my own work, is to seek to describe more fully how religion and institutional forms function within the revelatory Christology that I present in Christopraxis. I like that Aric, Doug, and Nick want to deny religion as the place of revelation, but I do think it is essential for pastors and leaders to have imaginative ways of claiming a locale and shape of divine encounter beyond just deconstruction.

Turning to Mark’s thesis there is much to consider. To be quite honest (and I think this is deep compliment) Mark’s book impacted me more directly in a personal manner than an academic one. Mark is a prophet, and his call to conform to the radical call of Jesus is important for all of us to consider.

When it comes to my work in Christopraxis, Mark’s work challenges me to consider more deeply issues of institutional power, and the ways political agendas impact personhood. In Christopraxis I’ve not neglected these realities, but I’m not sure I have lifted them up as highly as they need to be lifted, and Mark challenges me to do. In my book I’m trying to think of the encounter of divine and human action as associated through what I called a hypostatic personalism (which I understand is a redundant phrase, but forgive me, I was part of PhD where its student advisory group was called Koinonia Fellowship—which is the height of redundancy). Through a Christology, rather a Christopraxis, which argues that God’s being is in the becoming in the personhood of the ministering Jesus, I seek to show how the act of ministry itself (the acts that you all do each day in ministry) are an invitation into participation in divine action. This focus on personhood, and my weakness for personalist philosophy, at times moves me away from more political conceptions of human and divine action. Mark has reminded me not to forget these, and that these experiences too can bear deep marks of divine action (as his stories show).

I do have concerns that in mainline Christianity the over attention to the political has made us unwilling or unable to attend to divine action and people’s concrete and lived experiences of God. Because we’ve deemed it unintellectual to speak of God as active in the mainline we’ve turned headlong to the political because we don’t know what else concrete we could do.

But this does not lessen or even eliminate the need for actions of justice and engagement against institutional evil. But I do wonder if we might see this engagement not as a political fight for liberation, but as the very act of ministry itself, as a way of joining God in God’s ministry, a ministry that hears the cries of the Israelites in Egypt and calls us, like Moses, to go in our own weakness to minister to people by calling the oppressive institution to let go of its strangling hold so that their personhood might be free as a witness to the Trinitarian God. I use this Exodus text often in Christopraxis because it reveals the heart of God’s own ministry and our call into it…but I could have, and should have, done more on how this looks in relation to oppressive institutions of poverty and racism.

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.

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