Practical Theology Today and the Implications for Mission
Hazle, Dave, International Review of Mission
A. Rebirth of practical theology
Two distinct paradigms of theology co-exist today. On the one hand, there is the paradigm of theology as a set of sub-disciplines, of which practical theology is one. On the other hand, there is the paradigm that sees theology as essentially practical, and the various sub-disciplines of theology as interrelated in order to serve this practical end. (1) For many years, the former paradigm, emanating mainly from Western theological circles, was the dominant one. Practical theology from this perspective was seen as the "finishing school" of theological education. It was concerned with equipping theological students for the practical aspects of the task of ministry, such as preaching and pastoral care. However, over the last three of four decades, this area of theology has undergone what some have described as a "re-birth" (2).
This rebirth has involved, among other things, a re-examination of the nature of theology as a whole, and the place of practical theology within it. Furthermore, it has fostered the development of socio-theological aspects of theology (such as political theology), and challenged the traditional methodologies for theological reflection. In general, the debates that have led to this rebirth have come to see theology as having a more practical orientation. Even those who maintain some notion of sub-disciplines in theology would consider
... practical theology, as that branch of theology which is concerned to explore the relationship between, on the one hand, Scripture and the tradition of the Church and, on the other hand, the whole range of Christian praxis in the world. (3)
Practical theologians are careful to point out, however, that this practice-centred approach to understanding theology is not new. Forrester, for example, notes:
Practical theology as a distinct theological discipline is comparatively young but the idea that theology as such is a practical science has been there from the beginnings of Christian theological reflections. (4)
In this paper, I wish to consider some of the implications of this practical paradigm of theology for mission. I propose to do so in three steps. First, with reference to a schema of the genre of theology proposed by Edward Farley, which is widely acknowledged, I will examine the development of the discipline of theology and the disunity between theology and practice, which has accompanied much of this evolution. Secondly, I will briefly discuss some of the contemporary sources of this practical perspective on theology in general, and of this rebirth in practical theology in particular. Thirdly, I will describe some of the features of this practically oriented understanding or practical paradigm of theology that are emerging. For each feature I will then discuss how this informs the task of mission.
B. Stages of theological evolution and the problem of disunity
Farley posits the view that there are four distinct meanings of genres of theology that he, in turn, associates with different stages of its evolution. For him, these genres reveal an essential ambiguity in the use of the term "theology". First of all, there is theology as the knowledge of God, which is based on an understanding that theology is synonymous with an awareness of God cultivated through the practice of prayer, study, worship and discipleship. Farley refers to this as "habitus", which connotes the idea of theology as a way of life.
In the second genre, viz. theology science, "theology is an episteme, a scientia, an actor cognitive disposition in which the self-disclosing God is grasped as disclosed." (5) This understanding of theology became the framework within which all Western knowledge was understood; during the medieval period it provided the impetus for the establishment of universities. With either of these two genre (habitus or science), theology is understood as a unified whole without division into theoretical and practical aspects.
This changes with a third genre. In this frame of understanding, theology comes to mean a discipline of inquiry and study. This, in turn, gives way to an understanding of theology as "a cluster of relatively independent studies". (6) Theology science (singular) gives way to theology sciences (plural). Theology is here seen as a "faculty" with distinct sub-divisions, such as Old and New Testament, dogmatics, and church history. With increasing specialization there is less integration between the different branches of theology, and a gap between the sphere of academic theology and the life and ministries of the churches.
Farley sees the fourth genre as systematic or dogmatic theology associated with a more modern usage of theology. This refers to an understanding of theology as a single sub-discipline that is separated from the existential-personal dimension akin to theology habitus. "Academic systematic theology has, on the whole, become increasingly remote from the practices of Christian faith in the churches and in our societies." (7)
Farley laments what he sees as the progressive narrowing of the understanding of theology and the concomitant loss of the earlier genres, especially theology habitus. More importantly, he bemoans the disunity between different sub-branches of theology and, by extension, the dichotomy between theology and practice. This disunity he sees as accentuated by such formulations as that which was offered by the German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who, in the face of the threat of expulsion of theological education from the university setting, which the Enlightenment occasioned, proposed a formulation that saw the task of theology as essentially practical, like those of law and medicine. Theology was seen as a tree whose roots included subjects like history and philosophy of religion. The trunk of the tree, its source of strength, included the systematic study of the Bible, history and doctrine. Schleiermacher considered practical theology as the fruit-bearing crown of the tree. It was the "crowning discipline organizing the other theological specialities towards the end of formulating the specific rules and procedures governing clerical practice in the church." (8) As such, it included homiletics (preaching), liturgics (worship), catechetics (education), poimenics (pastoral care) and diakonics (management and public service). (9)
Farley has aptly described the end result of such a formulation as the "clericalization" (10) of theology by which theology generally, and practical theology more so, became limited to the sole purpose of preparing clergy for the ministry. What is more, Schleiermacher's proposal helped to create a notion of practical theology as applied theology. Put another way, it created a distinction between "pure" and "applied" theology.
The rebirth of practical theology, however, reflects a reversal of this trend. How has this rebirth come about and what have been some of the contributing factors? For a better understanding of this emerging paradigm we now turn for a brief look to some of the sources contributing to the rebirth of practical theology.
C. Sources in the rebirth of practical theology
One contributing influence has been the debate about theological education in Europe and North America, which, although it continues today, was at its height from the 1960s to the 1980s. The debate was stimulated by attempts to address concerns about the apparent failure of theological education to equip more of the clergy to make appropriate responses to the existential concerns of contemporary society, as reflected especially in congregational life. The debates about the nature of theological education, however, have not been the only source of influence for this rebirth of practical theology.
The Dutch theologian, Gerben Heitink, argues that another factor that led to this new or renewed paradigm of practical theology, particularly in Europe, was the social changes that took place in the middle of the 20th century, and which saw the demise of authoritarian culture and traditional sources of authority such as the church. (11) Practical theology emerged "as a theory of action", and was seen as part of the response to a crisis of relevance. A growth in the social sciences and their related professions, as well as therapeutic approaches, particularly in the area of psychology and psychotherapy, intensified this process.
The common concern of theology and the social sciences for the human person meant that it was almost inevitable that these changes in the social culture would foster interaction between the two disciplines. This interaction has been a significant source of influence on the rebirth of practical theology.
The new paradigm in practical theology has also been attributed to the rediscovery of practical philosophies that emphasize an essentially practical nature of human reasoning. For practical theologian Don Browning these sources of influence include:
The tradition of practical wisdom (phronesis (12)) or practical reason associated with Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, the American pragmatists William James and John Dewey, and the neopragmatists Richard Rorty and Richard Bernstein. These include also the hermeneutic theory of Hans-Georg Gadamer, the critical theory of Jurgen Habermas, the communitarianism of Alasdair MacIntyre, and many others. (13)
This new fascination with practical philosophies (which Browning points out has impacted theologians of varying specialities and is not limited t0just those who teach practical courses) (14) has been centred on the notion that understanding is essentially concerned from start to finish with application, rather than with developing universal theory.
Yet another contributing factor to the rebirth of practical theology has been the rise of contextual theologies. (15) These theological approaches are illustrated by various theologies of liberation, not least of which is that originating in Latin America. Such approaches to theology have emphasized praxis or faith-based action as the starting point and goal of theology. Traditionally, Western theology has been seen as the articulation of an "objective" universal core of revelation based on an interpretation of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, and practical theology was seen as the application of this core. Contextual theologians have questioned the objective claims of traditional Western theology as well as the theory-application formulation of that approach, and have sought to highlight the essentially contextual nature of theological reflection. Caribbean theologian Kortright Davis notes:
Western theologians are attempting to educate themselves about the new theological surges emanating from the Third World. They have finally realized that there is no universal theology; that theological norms arise out of the context in which one is called to live out one's faith; that theology is therefore not culture free; and that the foundations on which theological structures are built are actually not transferable from one context to another. Thus although the Gospel remains the same from place to place, the means by which that Gospel is understood and articulated will differ considerably through circumstances no less valid and no less authentic. (16)
The debates in the area of practical theology have placed it at the forefront of theological enterprise and have fostered a rethinking (for some, a restoration) of the structure and character of theology. I now turn to a description of some of the features of this emerging paradigm and how they inform the task of mission.
D. Features of the practical paradigm of theology and their implications for mission
The presupposition of this approach is that theology is ultimately about the response one makes to one's understanding of God, and God's will in one's existential reality. This is because it is one's actions that ate the ultimate measure of understanding. The writer of Matthew's gospel records a parable which Jesus told about two sons who were both asked by their father to do some work for him on his farm. (17) 0ne said he would not go but did, while the other agreed to go but did not. Jesus, it seemed, commended the son who did the work and used the parable to demonstrate to the Pharisees why prostitutes and other "undesirables" who, on the surface, did not seem fit for God's kingdom, were in fact acting more in keeping with the kingdom mandate than the Pharisees were. It was the action of "undesirables" that was the ultimate sign of the kingdom. Right understanding and giving assent to that understanding are good, but right action is better. What is more, without an action dimension, theology runs the risk of being little more than intellectual gymnastics.
Whether the response is personal or corporate, ecclesiastical or political, prophetic or pastoral, theology now seeks to set forth an answer to the question, "What would God have me/us do?" However, and more than that, theology's answer seeks to fulfil, in a given time and context, the ethical demand of God's revelation for that time and place. Theology with a practical paradigm is therefore inescapably missiological.
In this section I will examine tire features of this practically oriented perspective on theology that arise out of the current debates about practical theology. As each of these is described, I will also indicate how mission is informed by it.
1. Theology is praxis-centred
Theology within a practical paradigm is more praxis-centred. It is so in three senses. In one sense, praxis becomes the ignition point for theological reflection. It is praxis-centred, secondly, in the sense that theology is ultimately expressed in praxis of faith-based action. Thirdly, it is praxis-centred in the sense that the context of praxis is taken more seriously. This approach puts mission at the centre of the theological enterprise. It is not just an adjunct to theological reflection but the beginning and end of the theological process. It is the concern for appropriate mission that drives theological reflection and effective mission in the service of the gospel, and that ultimately judges the appropriateness of theological understanding.
What this praxis-centred understanding of theology also means for mission is that it must respond to contextual peculiarities, and therefore must involve an ever-deepening understanding of the context in which it is carried out. In my homeland of Jamaica, failure of the church to come to terms with the historical, cultural and socio-economic factors which shape the patterns of family have consistently resulted in a practice of ministry which has not adequately ministered to the needs of non-marital families, which ate common especially among the working class population. The needs of single parents, most of whom are women, the struggles of men to be more than marginal fathers, and the challenges of cohabitation all remain almost ignored because of the church's insufficient awareness of the contextual realities that impinge on working class families.
A church that bases its theology on a practical paradigm understands that its mission must arise out of its deepening awareness of its context, and therefore invests in the analysis of the context. Such a church also recognizes that mission strategies are not always transferable. What has worked in one setting must always be critically assessed when attempts are made to transfer it to another setting.
2. Branches of theology relate to each other and to other disciplines
A practical orientation to theology is characterized by a richer inter-relationship between different branches of theology, and between theology and other disciplines. From this perspective, practical theology is not just the phase of application of theological theory, or a bridge between theology and practice. There is, here, a multidirectional flow between different aspects of theology rather than the unidirectional flow assumed in Schleiermacher's fomulation, which we looked at earlier.
One implication of this for mission is that mission must draw from the wide range of theological resources for its basis and sustenance. Mission in its particular expressions must be built on the theological foundations laid in the normative sources of the Christian faith, such as the scriptures, traditions and liturgy. We engage in mission out of our response to our understanding of God's intention. It is, therefore, not without basis that we act, and it is within the range of theological resources that we must actively find that basis. Mission without a theological basis is mere activism. Moreover, our mission must be sustained by a vibrant spirituality born of a theological heritage, which through the ages has experienced what it means to rely on God's word and power. Similarly, the range of theological resources must also provide the motifs and patterns from which models for mission are shaped.
At the same time, mission is not just the passive recipient of theological wisdom, for the theological enterprise is dynamic and multidirectional. The lessons and challenges of mission engagement must therefore challenge the age-old assumptions of our theological roots with a view to uncovering ethnocentric biases, which undermine the cause of the gospel, as well as to discern afresh God's "Now Word" for mission today.
To mention again one of the major problems in Jamaica: The church's mission to families today must benefit from the resources and insights of traditional theology about family, but it must also challenge some of the traditional theological assumptions related to family and propose more contextual alternatives. For example, on the one hand the traditional biblical model of covenant relationships between God and the church may continue to be a potent part of our theological understanding of relationships in a family. On the other hand, traditional notions of what a family looks like, with its ethnocentric biases towards a nuclear configuration, might need to be challenged by the reality of engagement with a host of other family forms, if mission is to be sufficiently inclusive and far reaching.
One of the areas most enhanced by the practical orientation to theology is theology's relationship with non-theological disciplines. Other disciplines, particularly the social sciences, have come to be seen as vital allies for the analysis of the human condition, as well as tools of ministry. This marriage between theology and other disciplines cuts across the sacred-secular divide and is based on the assumption that God's truth and God's meaning are present in the world and wait to be unearthed, and that complementary disciplines are able to interrogate concrete situations in ways that theology cannot.
A practical paradigm of theology implies a multidisciplinary approach to discerning the mission of God today. If the church is to address the concerns of contemporary society, it needs the tools of other disciplines to access a fuller understanding of that culture. In this regard, mission must become more research-based. By the judicious use of social scientific research advocated by a practical paradigm of theology, the researcher can strengthen the analysis of the context and also intensify the potential to see and hear God in the lives of the participants. Moreover, mission is enhanced by enlisting the services of other disciplines. In the past, disciplines such as history, philosophy and psychology have 15een used to complement the biblical sciences in mission. Increasingly, contemporary mission must benefit also from the contribution of other disciplines like sociology, management and technological sciences, such as computer technology.
3. Theology is a living process
Theology seen through the eyes of the practical paradigm is not a fixed body of knowledge. (18) Instead, it is a living process that responds to the needs and realities of the context. Theology has always developed as a response to particular situations. For example, it was the response to particular pastoral questions that in the New Testament constituted the earliest strands of Christian theology. Similarly, it was the responses to the questions stirred by the controversies of the early church that shaped its theology. Over time, some of these theological responses came to be considered as authoritative beyond the situation for which they were originally intended. The theologian in each age and context must ask if traditional theology is still authoritative. The questions posed by the context determine how the understanding of God is worked out in that context. It should not be strange, then, that as realities change some aspects of theology will change from time to time and from one context to another. This does not mean that God changes or that God is little more than some human construct, but rather that the response to our understanding of God will vary from age to age and from place to place. Christian theologians of each age and context must consider what ate the questions that cry for answers, and seek faithfully to express a relevant response that is consistent with the God of the scriptures.
In light of this, mission today must be a living process that responds to contemporary changes. It cannot be a repeat of the old ways of doing mission characterized by the movement of resources only from North to South, or from rich to poor. Instead, it must affirm the contribution of all aspects of the church worldwide and be marked by the flow of resources in either direction. In this regard, the material dependency that exists in some of the poorer sections of the church must be sensitively confronted, with the aim of fostering more self-reliance among the poorer churches and relationships of greater interdependence between richer and poorer churches.
The reality is that with declining membership among the richer churches in the North, it is conceivable that in the foreseeable future they might not be able to provide the material support they presently do to the world church. On the other hand, although many of the churches of the South might not have much in the way of material resources, very often they have an abundance of spiritual resources from which other churches can learn, and churches of the North might need to become more open to accepting personnel resources from the South.
As a living process, mission must be responsive rather than imposed. The priorities of mission cannot be imposed from outside the context of action by those sections of the church that control more of the material resources. Instead, mission must respond to the needs of the context as understood by those operating there. Through its analysis of contemporary realities, mission must seek to discern what the contextual questions ate, what theological response is needed and what this means for mission.
In addition, mission must employ what liberation theologians call the hermeneutic of suspicion, whereby it can question traditional theological assumptions. The notion of mission as an enterprise in foreign "heathen lands", of as involving receiver and sender, must face up to the reality that eighty percent of the church is now located in the former "heathen lands", and that the people of God are dispersed throughout the world and therefore mission is about partnership at home and abroad.
4. Theology is not just for the specialist
A practical paradigm of theology sees it not as the exclusive prerogative of the specialist academic theologian or clergy. For Caribbean theologian William Watty, scholastic theology that involves the is01ated study and reflection of a specialist professional theologian is a questionable methodology since it reflects mostly the abstract thoughts of the theologian as they are influenced by his or her cultural experiences and realities. Instead, "Vital communication and intensive participation in the life of people, not scholastic isolation, is the best theological method." (19) This is not to discredit the value of the academic theologian who engages in deeper research and reflection to facilitate more comprehensive understanding. It is, however, to acknowledge that the goal of theology, viz. to understand God and how to respond to God, should be the concern of every member of the faith community and not the exclusive domain of the faith community's intelligentsia.
What this means for mission is a fuller recognition that its task is not the exclusive domain of the specialist mission theologian or ordained clergy but the prerogative of the whole people of God. Mission conferences and events must begin to reflect the fact that mission is not just for male academics over fifty. In recent years, more has been done to foster the partnership between men and women in mission and this needs to be encouraged. However, much more needs to be done to involve the non-academic, lay members of our churches in the discussions about mission. More particularly, the need for greater attempts to reach youth and to involve youth in the church's mission must be placed squarely on the church's agenda.
5. Theology's discourse has a broader sphere
A practically oriented perspective on theology broadens the sphere of theology. Theology by this paradigm is not limited to the life of the Christian community or the theological seminary but finds expression in the wider society. For Catholic theologian David Tracy, all theology is public discourse, and he identifies three distinct spheres to which he sees theological discourse being directed. These are the wider society, the academy and the church. (20) The presupposition is that God is at work everywhere in the world and wants to speak and enact good news, which will foster human flourishing, within the public sphere. God is interested in the issues and situations that concern all of creation, and not just the Christian community. God is arguably more concerned about homelessness than about houses of worship. God is as concerned about peace in the Middle East as about disunity between member churches in the WCC. Theological discourse must be as concerned about political consciousness as about doctrinal purity.
What this practical perspective on theology emphasizes is that mission has to do with how the people of God become a healing and transformative presence in the world, in partnership with God. The church does not exist primarily to maintain itself but to serve the world around it; this is the world that God loves and for which God in Christ died. Practical theology also points to a multifaceted understanding of mission. An emphasis on social justice issues should not replace evangelism, nor should either of these obscure the churches responsibility to address personal issues of morality and family wellbeing. Mission must seek a balance between the various facets of its task.
Moreover, mission must take place as much in the community of faith as it does in the wider community. It should seek to, "serve the ecology of institutions, voluntary associations, and instruments of publicity and public influence in and through which Christians can direct the impact of Christian formative and transformative wisdom and power in society and culture." (21) For this reason, mission must forge alliances with non-church agencies which share a common interest in the welfare of human society.
In summary, contemporary debates in practical theology have fostered an understanding of theology as essentially practical. This paradigm of theology is characterized by being praxis-centred, it has interconnected branches and relates to other disciplines, it is a living process and is not limited to specialists but has a broader sphere of discourse. These features in turn have implications for mission. From this theological paradigm emanates an understanding of mission that takes context seriously and invests in an analysis of the context. It also draws upon the widest breath of theological resources for its basis, enlists the services of other disciplines for its effective execution, fosters interdependency, rather than dependency, between North and South, is for the whole people of God, is multifaceted, and reaches in partnership with other agencies beyond the community of faith into a world that is waiting to be transformed more fully into the kingdom of God.
(1) Browning and Tracy are representatives of this school. See, for example, D. Browning, Practical Theology: The Emerging Field in Theology, Church and World, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1983.
(2) D. Browning, "Towards a Fundamental and Strategic Practical Theology" in E Schweitzer, J. van der Ven, Practical Theology: International Perspectives, New York, P. Lang, 1999. p. 54.
(3) D. Lyall, Integrity of Pastoral Care, New Library of Pastoral Care, London, SPCK, 2001. p. 24.
(4) D. Forrester, "Can Theology be Practical?", in Practical Theology: International Perspectives, New York, P. Lang, 1999. p. 16.
(5) E. Farley, "Theology and Practice Outside the Clerical Paradigm" in D. Browning, ed., Practical Theology, op. cit., p. 22.
(6) Ibid., p. 24.
(7) J. Fowler, "The Emerging New Shape of Practical Theology", Conference of International Academy of Practical Theology, 1995.
(8) D. Browning, ed., Practical Theology, p. 4.
(9) P. Ballard and J. Pritchard, Practical Theology in Action: Christian Thinking in the Service of Church and Society, London, SPCK, 1996, p. 59.
(10) E. Farley, "Theology and Practice Outside the Clerical Paradigm", p. 26.
(11) G. Heitink, Practical Theology: History. Theory, Action Domains, Cambridge, William B. Eerdmans, 1999, pp. 2-5.
(12) D. Tracy defines phronesis as prudent understanding of variable situations with a view as to what is to be done. In D. Tracy, "The Foundations of Practical Theology", chap. in Practical Theology, op. cit.
(13) D. Browning, A Fundamental Practical Theology, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1991, p. 2.
(14) D. Browning, Practical Theology, p. 3.
(15) See for example P. Ballard in P. Ballard, and J. Pritchard, Practical Theology in Action, op. cit., p. 4.
(16) K. Davis, Emancipation Still Comin': Explorations in Caribbean Emancipatory Theology, Maryknoll New York, Orbis Books, 1990, p. 70.
(17) Matthew 21: 28-32.
(18) L. Green, Let's Do Theology: A Pastoral Cycle Resource Book, London, Mowbray, 1990, p. 95.
(19) W. Watty, From Shore to Shore, Kingston, Jamaica, Cedar Press, 1981, pp. 8-9.
(20) D. Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and The Culture of Pluralism, London, SCM Press, 1981, p. 5.
(21) J. Fowler, "Practical Theology and the Social Sciences", chap. in Practical Theology: International Perspectives, op. cit., p. 293.
Rev. Dave Hazle is a minister of the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. He is currently doing doctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His research is in the area of practical theology, with a special emphasis on the pastoral care of Caribbean families in inner-city communities.…
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Publication information: Article title: Practical Theology Today and the Implications for Mission. Contributors: Hazle, Dave - Author. Journal title: International Review of Mission. Volume: 92. Issue: 366 Publication date: July 2003. Page number: 345+. © 1998 World Council of Churches. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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