What Is Practical Theology? Part IV

After an all-to-lengthy excursion into interdisciplinary method, it’s time to get back into the four core tasks of practical theology. Having been through the descriptive and empirical moments, the third moment of PT is the normative moment.

It is now, after gathering data and using the best of several disciplines to interpret that data, that the practical theologian makes normative claims for the life of the church. Often, practical theology is in conversation with the other volumes of the “theological encyclopedia” at this time, consorting with the likes of biblical studies, systematic theology, and church history.

But remember that the practical theologian is grounded in real-life, empirical data from church, society, and/or individual. In other words, the practical theologian does not think, “I’d like to spend my career studying the doctrine of sanctification” or “I’d like to write my dissertation on the Nestorian controversy” or “The world needs another book on the aorist tense.” (OK, simmer down. This is not meant to disparage those who do perform those important tasks. Without them, we’d never have to pay $75 for a book again!) The practical theologian, instead, is confronted with a problem. It might be a theological response to young women who cut themselves, or how to preach funeral sermons in the African American tradition, or how the emerging church is negotiating its relationship with culture (hey, there’s a great idea for a dissertation!).

So let it not be said that the practical theologian is not in the business of normative theology – she is, indeed, and it is normative theology that responds to crises in the life of church and world.

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  • Dr. Benway

    Let me ask you a question. Why would you fill your childrens heads with such rubbish.

  • StorminNormin

    Is Christ normative for normative theology? If not, then who is Christ? What is the Christology of normative theology? What is the Christology of practical theology? What’s that you say, it depends on the context? Is it relative to where one stands? Is it relative to the context? Is Christ relative to the context? I thought Christ is normative? Or is he constitutive? Or is he relative? Who the hell is Christ for this theology? -normps: What gives with Dr. Benway and his comment, eh? Not a very constructive guy. He just likes to knock others down in order to build himself up. It’s true, I went to elementary school with him and he did it there too. Dr. Benway, what is your problem? Can’t you see theoblogy seeks to make Christ fit into any mold it wants too?

  • D.R.

    Isn’t practical theology the servant of systematic theology? It seems the case when we look at the letters of Paul. He constantly made practical exhortations on the basis of His understanding of God or of the atonement, or a hundred other issues that related directly to the truth of God. So shouldn’t practical theology in some way be subserviant to systematics? And thus, we should be greatly worried about getting truth right in order to put our praxis in line. What I am seeing in some of these posts is that there is so much of an emphasis on the practical side that you are willing to give in the systematic side. That is some of my problem with Emergent. If indeed practical theology is of utmost importance to your ministry, wouldn’t you be equally or even more passionate about your systematic theology and careful to make sure you and others get it right? Shouldn’t a practical theologian be worried that Emergent is focusing so much on the practical that it could indeed leave the basis for it’s actions behind and begin to engage in unBiblical practices based on unBiblical theology? You see, that is my position as someone who is on the outside of Emergent. I see it as an ecumenical group who has thrown theology to the side to agree on practicality. That is a great worry to me, a fellow practical theologian.D.R.

  • Tony – you mentioned “Chicago theologians (Tillich, Tracy, Browning), there has been an evolving “correlational” model in which theology and culture stand in a dialectical relationship. Tillich said that culture asks the questions and theology provides the answers; Tracy and Browning amended this by saying that each asks questions and each provides answers — i.e., theology and culture stand in a mutually critical relationship.”

    I read, but didn’t study with Tillich. I took classes with Tracy and Browning. While my interest was more ethological (biological) than hermeneutical, I’d say Browning had far and away a better working sense for how correlational modes integrate practical disciplines, especially psychology, into theological reflection. If you read Browning’s footnotes especially (and his main texts), you’ll see how he openly laments the vacuum of theory and “practice” in practical theology, and how pastoral care has nearly uncritically (yes, uncritically) been sucked into the wake of counseling (Browning: “with superficial doses of Freud, Jung, Perls” for example). I once wrote a paper for Browning on “The Pycho-Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” otherwise unpublishable because it included confidential portions of legal cases (a competing paradigm) demonstrating the application of theological reasoning in the settlement of practical, legal cases – unheard of since clergy lost presumptive credibility in the Salem witchcraft trials, for starters. But, I think that to call Tracy a practical theologian in any clinical way is an extreme euphemism and an insult to the discipline: unless reading classic texts for plurality and ambiguity is itself the praxis. Tracy’s praxis of hope is, well: “let’s hope we can read some more books on hope; hopefully, classics.”

    Neither of these two are into quantitative measures (you mentioned European “empirical” theologies). Browning would likely be the most sympathetic. Probably, warm. I don’t know the current empirical status grounding European definitions of “practical” theology, but my last sense was that European empirical foci in state-funded theological centers stressed empirical and clinical inquires compatible with state-funded social medicine: like questions of whether martial “love,” or companionship in old age (grief studies), or aspects of communal life in church communities, or even prayer, had any measurable health effects, or putative qualitative effects (quality of life) in domains of mental and physical health – as justifications for social policy. Not a bad start. And truly empirical.

    One truly extraordinary difficultly, perhaps astronomical in costs, would be to develop truly scalar and differential measures, hard core measures, to sort out just which practical actions, and which effects of those actions are differentially attributable to theology (qua theology), instead of weighted by biological and sociological (learning) factors. Until then, I’m not calling practical theology, “practical.” Yes, theology might be practicing something; but, so what?

    For example, the universally low and relatively stable and fixed rates of infanticide are measurable and observable biological facts. The universal criminalization of infanticide (it’s criminal in every country) is theoretically testable (would rates change if we removed the laws?), but not ethically so (because we ought not change laws against infanticide – so the moral reasoning goes). An quantitative (empiric) measure might be devised to test whether theological convictions have any effect on the infanticide rate, say with legal sanctions held constant; but how to attribute a differential effect to uniquely “theological” reasoning is the problem. This is one huge reason why biological studies of religion pin religious expression to biological traits, with the question whether religion/theology is a gratuitous artifact in the sense any host of different theologies, or no theology at all, might make no observable difference in things like infanticide rates.

    The intersection between missional actions attributed to theological convictions versus the same actions as emerging from biological/ethological torque is not even studied as an empiric. Missionals can say all they want about how their theological convictions lead to praxis of digging toilets for the poor, teaching literacy in non-literate populations, providing food, medical, or other educational commodities to the poor – but, there’s still the empirical question to what extent these same activities are biological in nature (ethologically explained) because of our mammalian hardware manifesting in acts of altruism, with theology as a gratuitous artifact, or maybe as a necessary (yes, necessary) but not sufficient primer, of say, ambient biological potentials.

    Our problem with theology in the US is that we use proxy measures for empirics: testimonies about wonderful mystical feelings about theology, claims by missionaries of how theological convictions led to mission service, assertions about the “importance” of theology (pace, Tracy) – ungrounded by empirical tests. Say anything. It’s almost as if ad hoc, say-anything, testimonial (popular), or sophisticated (academic theology) are accepted proxies and unchallengeable canons of “practice” – not subject to empirical testing. More-so with empirical measures demonized as modernist in bias.

    Until, that is, a child of Christian science parents dies for lack of medical care. Redux, practical theology. But, why bother having “practical” theology by imposing on it a duty to have something to say about such practical questions, when medical ethics, law, public policy, and casuistic moral reasoning (Toulmin) already control our social domain?

    My own impatience with the wasteland to which “practical” theology has relegated itself in “superficial doses” (Browning), maybe less so now of psychology, and more so of hip-chic post modern philosophy – is an impatience that feels like I’m reading Plotinus’ philosophy of endless emanations – that never touch down to earth.

    My own personal integration of my beliefs into an integrity of practicing both law and alternative dispute resolution (advocacy, case evaluation, investigation, judgment / arbitration, mediation, negotiation, ProPer trial services, reconciliation / forgiveness / restorative justice) – in extremely concrete and practical cases lands me in a zone where I can easily loose sight of theology, under the intense crush of cases – but, it’s practical, practicing, practice. And it’s empirical not just because the results (case settlements) are observable; but, any sociologist with an adequate quantitative toolbox could test whether and how my and my clients’ theologies makes any difference, any practical difference, in the outcomes of concrete cases. Not an integrative approach for everyone. Not a paradigm. But, this “practice” both releives and magnifies my impatience with pseudo-“practical” theology. From my side of the sand box.

    The really tougher questions for “practical” theology in the next generations will come from facing the challenge of advances in quantitative sciences (biology, neuroscience, sociology, empirical psychologies, even econometrics), or rather, having practical theology in particular, and “theology” in general, resort to unmeasurable conversations with post-modern fancies, or alternatively, clinging to settled dogma (it will do both; but, more?) – where proxy claims (above) are taken as unchallengeable norms – while hard evidence in attribution studies show that “theology” has no or very little “practical” effect in ordering our lives and perceptions (e.g., Weeks, M., and Lupfer, M. B. (2000). Religious Attributions and Proximity of Influence: An Investigation of Direct Interventions and Distal Explanations. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 39(3), 348-363, and infra).

    It’s silly, really. Tracy seeming to think he can dispatch science on an ephemeral analysis of positivism being dead (positivism is dead: long live positivism), while religion is being studied with more quantitative vigor than ever. Soon, it could take a whole cadre of “practical” theologians just to keep up with the quantitative findings (like Eliade’s encyclopedism) – no less adapt practices based on them.