Practical Theology: The Buried Mystericism of Childhood

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 our last round of posts we used each other’s books in a reflective self-critique. This time we’re moving past critique all together to offer our affirmations of each other’s books. (Fair warning: this might be sickening for those blog voyeurs always looking for a little spilled blood over their shining pixels to keep them going at 2PM).

In my other posts I’ve mentioned a number of positive things about Mark’s The Unkingdom of God. As I said, it challenged me as much personally as intellectually, and to me that makes for a very good book.

Two things that stick with me from Mark’s book are

1) Mark and I both grew-up in Minnesota, so there are a number of stories and incidents that he speaks of that are grounded in the upper Midwest that just felt so familiar to me; the skill of Mark’s writing brought me into those experiences, and his book as a whole, in a powerful way.

2) this quote, particularly, stuck with me (from page 87):

Yet there is hope. Solle writes: “When we start digging up buried mystericism of childhood, the feeling of oneness and of being overcome arises anew. Memory clings to little, insignificant details.” In my own experience, the ability to see the world through God’s eyes begins with remembering childhood moments when wonder was a regular part of my life. By remembering my childhood, I am free to regain the faith of a child.

This is a damn profound line, and honestly, I think it deserves a full book (actually, it burrowed into me so intensely, it just might be my next project). Mark has hit on something that has lived deep within my whole career but I was never able to say as directly as Mark just did. My book Christopraxis starts with an experience of my childhood, and throughout the rest of my books, even my first blog in this conversation, the experience of my own children spills further. Actually, the reason I think that I continue to work out theological ideas in youth ministry is because I believe this quote is so true. I think the experience of children is so rich with the layers of reality, the mystery of existence, and freedom from socialization, that it just has to become more central to the life of the church. The kind of divine action that I seek to articulate in Christopraxis, a place were real encounters with God happen in our concrete and lived experience, is the invitation to return to our childhood experiences. It is to return to listening to the voice of children as we carry and love them; it means becoming again children as Jesus called us to—“but to children I have revealed the secretes of the kingdom.” Christopraxis is just an academic-y take on how this could be true, on how the kingdom of God can be such an unkingdom, using Mark’s words, that it can make the experience of children its heart, and even rudder.

Yet, if we are going to place the experience of children as central in the Christian faith (which only a Constantian Christianity would oppose, to again return to Mark’s perspectives), then we must return to soul. We need to again recognize that our experiences of the coming Christ are deeply soulful, and children are our leaders into these experiences because their ontological state makes them full of soul.

And this is what I’ll take from Aric, Doug, and Nicks’s book. They provide us with a very interesting conversation on soul in a chapter called “Heal!” Their argument reminds me of the decade-old (or more) book, Whatever Happen to the Soul?, by Nancy Murphy and Warren Brown who argued that thinking of the soul as some ghostly substance within us is not very helpful against the backdrop of a number of sciences, particularly the neurosciences that show how changes in brain structure can radically change moral reasoning and personality. These authors, like, Aric, Doug, and Nick, imagine the soul as something different than a metaphysical little Casper inside your chest.

Rather, soul is actually the spiritual reality of personal relatedness. We don’t individually possess soul, but are given soul as the gift of our relatedness with others. We share in soul when we share in the life of our neighbor, and in so doing we experience the concrete ministry of Christ according to Matthew 25. So if soul has a concrete location, it would be better to think of it as located in our face. It is when faces connects to faces that we enter an experience of soul.

And this returns us to children! Children are so essential, and are those that lead us into the kingdom of God, for they embrace and live only through the soul of personal relatedness. They possess no illusion that they can have a life outside the love, compassion, mercy, and care of the faces of mom, dad, friend, grandpa and so many more.

Never Pray Again is a brave and creative book that will draw you into deep thoughts about ministry, church, and culture. It did that for me!

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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