Practical Theology: Self-Criticism Is a Virtue Right?

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 Mark Van Steenwyk

The unKingdom of God took me over a year to write, but (more importantly) at least a decade to gestate. It is my baby; it has my sense of self-importance, my clumsiness, and my sense of humor. I’ve written other books and will write more, but this is the book that will always, I suspect, mean the most to me. In a deeply personal way, the book is my offspring.

I’m well aware that my book-child has all of my own shortcomings hard-coded into its inky DNA. Which is why the idea of this post—to use my comrades’ books as a critical lens for my own—is hard.

Yet, here I go.

Aric, Doug, and Nick’s book, Never Pray Again, is wonderfully experimental. It is a loving subversion of prayer that tries to anchor spirituality in present action. Each chapter ends with tangible experiments one can do to, in a sense, deprogram the spirituality many of us have received: disembodied, impotent, coopted. It’s greatest strength is in its proactive and positive way forward. They sum up their intent (an intention they most certainly realized) in the final page of their book:

In this book we have sought to seize something immediate, direct, and surprising. Immediate: meaning that it is not something attainable only through esoteric knowledge, or practice, or extreme commitment. Direct: meaning that it applies interpersonally here and now, and not only in some spiritual or abstract sense. Surprising: meaning that we tried to ask what might lie behind and beyond the popular understanding of these ideas.

As I look down at my paper-back bundle of joy, I confess this weakness: it could focus more on what is immediate, direct, and surprising. To be fair, this is mostly intentional. My book is a penitential book at heart; I want my readers to feel the weight of being enmeshed within Empire. I want them realize that they are so thoroughly enmeshed that even their attempts at disentangling from Empire can often result in reinforcing and spreading Empire. Sure, there are elements of hope, but the book, as a whole, is more bitter than sweet. I wanted people to marinade in our existential problem before rushing to positive solutions, lest they jump past the important step of addressing their own complicity.

In retrospect, I think this was a mistake. It is one I hope to remedy in an upcoming book project. In the meantime, however, I suggested that folks read my book and then follow it with Never Pray Again. The two books complement one another. But please, read my book first (wink, wink).

Andrew Root’s book, Christopraxis was a refreshing read. I was daunted at first; I haven’t read much academic writing since my seminary days nearly a decade ago. But it didn’t take long for me to flex those seldom used brain-muscles. The thing I love about Christopraxis is its ability to root (no pun intended) theology in both human agency AND the experience of divine presence. For Andrew, “Christopraxis…is constituted in God’s own being as becoming in the action of ministry.” This resonates with my own liberationist tendencies, to recognize God’s inbreaking in relationship with the oppressed. Within radical Christian communities (like the Mennonite Worker and the broader Catholic Worker community) there is a strong tendency to collapse everything into the category of ethics…that, at best, spiritual practice is a helpful (but perhaps unnecessary) way to get to a robust leftist political posture that is rooted in solidarity. While Never Pray Again comes dangerously close to rendering spirituality as unnecessary decoration (though I think this is mostly a good thing…we all need more spiritual danger in our lives), Christopraxis firmly establishes a way of interweaving human agency and divine action…a hypostatic approach to theology and ministry.

I suspect this lack of hypostatic focus is a weakness of my book. I think such an emphasis is present, but not clearly enough. It would be easy for a reader to dismiss the mystical bits as extraneous, particularly because most of the examples of divine agency in my book are either 1) mystical experiences that may seem inaccessible or unique to a majority of Christians or 2) apophatic (that God can be known and described primarily through negation) which a growing number of people (wrongly) equate with functional atheism. Andrew’s emphasis on the normativity of divine action within the practice of ministry is a helpful balance to what could be seen in my book as exceptional mystical encounters or ethical heroics. From my own perspective, my book resonates with Andrew’s emphases, but I’m not sure I sufficiently demonstrated my assumptions about the relationship between human agency and divine action.

Reading Christopraxis and Never Pray Again helped me rethink my own book. In retrospect, I’d probably change a few things. At the same time, the shared resonances between our books affirm my deepest convictions. In other words, we agree with one another in all the right ways.

Mark Van Steenwyk is cofounder of Mennonite Worker, a Christian intentional community in Minneapolis. Mark is an editor at JesusRadicals.com and the producer and co-host of the Iconocast podcast.


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