Friday, February 25, 2005

What Is Practical Theology? Part II

Practical theology (PT), as a discipline, takes a great deal of interest in empirical information. In fact, there is an entire school of thinking within PT -- found mainly in the Netherlands and Germany -- that's called "Empirical Theology." Practical theologians, because of the importance of the groundedness of the discipline, are often well-versed in a social science, the way James Fowler was in developmental psychology when he developed his Stages of Faith Development.

(An aside: to all of you pissy commentors, I never said that practical theology was the only type of theology that is grounded, just that it is the most committed to being grounded. Contextual theologies like liberation, feminist, and black theologies surely blur the line between systematics, PT, and biblical studies.)

Other practical theologians take other disciplines as their dialogue partners, often social psychology, social theory, and sociology. All of these are important to the practical theologian who is trying to determine what's going on in God's world. Thus, we turn to social scientists who specialize in figuring out the "what's going on?" question. And more and more, practical theologians are taking up the instruments of empirical research and gathering data themselves.

This does lead to two interrelated questions: 1) What is the practical theologian's mode of interdisciplinarity? It's intellectually dishonest to raid other disciplines for their fruits, especially when they're saying what you hope they'll say. So one must enter humbly and respectfully into dialogue with a field that is not one's primary are of expertise. And 2) Who sets the agenda for theology? It seems odd to let psychologists or sociologists dictate what we should theologize about. On the other hand, when a dramatic social change happens (e.g., globalization), or something happens in the natural sciences (e.g., discovery of the "gay gene"), it does seem incumbent upon theology to respond. Again, these are not decisions to be entered into lightly.

Ultimately, this is what it means for PT to be "grounded." It means that there's a descriptive moment to PT that does, indeed, set it apart from other types of theologizing.


Blogger lisa carlton said...

please say more about this pissy commenting - it sounds really meaningful

7:22 PM  
Blogger Ecclesial Dreamer said...

In spite of the commentators this is a great post. I like what you are saying so far. Sometimes I wonder if our whole culture of higher education has gone too far down the road of specialization to ever recapture the study of theology as habitus. But the fact that someone like yourself can articulate things like this as clearly as you do while being "in the system" (so to speak) is very encouraging to people like me who are on the outside looking in.

I think that as ecclesial leadership structures begin to transition away from the current paradigm of senior pastors and towards a more "open source" paradigm that we will begin to see the gap between clergy and laity narrow to the point that theology will again be seen as a unified area of study leading to a way of life instead of a fragmented piece of a puzzle that is only applicable to those "in the ministry". Nothing could be more practical than seeing communities of faith begin to embody this theological way of life together which would slowly create a new context and need for a new kind of theological education. Unfortunately, based on the pastoral search committee I was on in my previous church I think we are still a long way off.

I am looking forward to seeing how the rest of your thoughts unfold.


10:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just read part I and II including what the "pissy" commentors had to say. I must admit I like what you've written here, including however, what the pissers said. Pissy they may be but I can sympathize with them, for they do have a point to an extent. Really what you are saying here about PT doesn't seem, to me, to be anything new. Liberation theologies (which would encompass black, feminist, queer, asian, mujerista, latin american & African) would not disagree in the least of what you have written here. In fact, they embrace the social sciences so much that often times they are accused of nothing more than marxist propaganda. To this accusation they've defended themselves sufficiently (for the most part).

I cannot swallow your line that PT is, "the most committed to being grounded." Really? How do you know?

Furthermore, is PT a contextual theology? Or does it assume it can transcend context? If it doesn't, and I assume this is the case, then how is PT any different from a contextual theology. How does PT not employ the same method as liberation theologies? What is the method of PT? If you say by examining what is "going on in the world" and correlating it with scripture and tradition (history), then isn't this then the same method a Liberation theologian would employ? Or an existential or contextual theologian?

I eagerly await the third installment of your definition of PT, for up to this point I am not convinced it has anything new to offer or say anything that hasn't already been said. I anticipate your third installment will speak adequatley to this concern.

1:41 PM  
Blogger DLW said...

I'm guessing that all PT is contextual to the problem being addressed and the framework adopted from the social sciences.

Some of the pissiness may stem from how we "evangelicals" fall into the same academic territorialism that is endemic in the social sciences.

Hi Tony, I did a post at my blog, the Anti-Manicheist, about some of your posts and thought I'd let you know about it.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Jan said...

Practical theology is "the rubber meets the road" of how our thinking about God integrates with how we live our lives in God.

To wonder why PT does not have its own source theologians, is to separate and dissect living from the thinking. It is only in modern days we have placed disciplines in different categories so we can pin them down to the dissecting tables in academia land.

In years past, hot houses of faith communities would live, work, study and pray together, noticing how God works in the soul. They could name it and pass it on others in the next generation.

Maybe it is time to get PT, thinking and living the Gospel as an integrated whole.

5:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

name some of the founding fathers or big names of practical theologians.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Jan said...

Benedict and Scholastica
Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal
Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross
Ignatius of Loyola
The Wesley Boys

How's that for a start?

9:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

to add a few more:

Socrates (Plato)
Thomas Aquinas
Thomas More
Gustavo Guiterrez
Paul Tillich
Soren Kierkegaard
Karl Rahner
Jon Sobrino
Ignacio Ellacuria
The Boff brothers
St. Mother Thersea of Calcutta
Thomas Merton
Paul F. Knitter
CS Lewis
Blaise Pascal
St. Augustine
Dorothee Soelle
Robert McAfee Brown

-woops, it looks like some of these thinkers could be classified as other types of theologians than just practical theologians. Who said, "all good theology is practical theology?" Maybe carl braaten? Does anyone know who said that?

10:15 AM  
Blogger Dan Price said...

"theologians, they don't know nothing about my soul"

7:53 PM  
Blogger RobeFRe said...

It would seem that the theologist must start with some systematic theorization
in order to effectively realize the practice of theology, although I wonder how often Moses had to throw his staff before it turned into a snake, and as he systematically applied those skills, did the snake get bigger and bigger until 'Surely!', he thought, 'It must be big enough? I'll show those charlatans what liberation theology is all about!' If I have emersed in the Spirit of the Pure, then can I continue to habitually force the purification process and run from innocence? Must I not endear innocence and thereby repent as seldom as possible, or was Rasputin correct...Repentance draws God to me, therefore I must sin?

12:24 AM  
Blogger niebuhrian said...

Just wanted to thank you for the articles. As one who will soon enter a graduate program in practical theology, I appreciate your perspective and look forward to hearing more.

As an aside, Dan, thanks for the quote from Wilco.

As I reflect on your posts, I am struck by the two questions you posed in the second to last paragraph. They are good questions that are appropriate for all of us who would define ourselves as "practical" and "theologian." My personal background is as an ordained PC(USA) minister and almost a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (two more months of supervision). The way that I have started to look at practical theology, and remember this is a start, is not only is it a response to the world, to knowledge, or to experience, but it is also a discipline that is concerned with formation. That is, it is concerned with meaning (not just in the world, but with God, life, and the intertwined relationships of the two) and it is concerned with practice (which is more appropriately suited to the response catagory). The intertwining of these two results in a formative event for the theologian, minister, lay leader, etc...

These are just thoughts that have been smashing around in my head, and they need more fleshing out, but that is another story for a different time. Thanks again for your thoughts...

grace and peace

7:05 AM  
Blogger niebuhrian said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:07 AM  
Blogger David Malouf -- said...

Forgive the minutia, but a "gay gene"!?! Are you serious?!? Is that what has allowed y'all to enter the "is gay okay" discussion?

I'm fully serious - no pissyness. Is this accepted as "fact?"

If you read these comments and you know anything on this, I could really use the insight or reference. I'm a Bio major that is waiting for a real study on the "gay gene."

Please email!
davidm777 at

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What theological method is employed by practical theologians? Perhaps there is more than one? Does faith precede practice? Does practice precede faith? Does praxis have a place in practical theology? Where on the hermeneutical circle does practical theologian enter? The evangelical begins with scripture. The Existentialist begins with concrete reality in the present. The Liberation theologian begins with suffering of the poor. Where does the practical theologian begin? How does the practical theologian seek to make scripture practical? How does the practical theologian seek to make tradition, dogma, and doctrine practical?

Is theology always second in practical theology? That is, first comes a sociological assessment of the world, and then we do theology?

Where does the kingdom of God (the reign of God) enter into practical theology? Is the dichotomy between the heavenly sacred and the earthly profane upheld or deemed false?

Who isn’t a practical theologian?

11:02 PM  
Blogger christian scharen said...

from our lilly seminar on pt, this proposal: pt is centered on and oriented towards matters of contemporary baptismal living (discipleship), how people 'put on christ' in the life of faith.

that is, the key task that defines when theology is practical is when it seeks to make the christian faith a way of life. all theology is practical insofar as it is oriented towards discipleship. pt is by definition focused on the practice of the christian life.

so who are the most important practitioners of pt?
the baptized, their pastors, and only then intellectuals who do this for a living like you and me.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Jimmy said...

Tony, I'm not sure what you meant by saying it seems intellectually dishonest 'to raid other disciplines of their fruits.' If that means one uses some other discipline's methodology in an amatuer way (thus distorting it) and trying to prop up one's results under the banner of the other discipline, then agreed. Also, I can't imagine that there is a problem as to who 'sets the agenda for theology' unless it is something outside of the church itself. Theologians serve the church and the concerns of the church. (if they don't, they've forgotten that theology is a secondary practice). To the extent that local congregations are actually involved in this world, they should be setting the agenda as to what questions ought to be explored in their own communities and states. What I find to be more interesting is not which issues to tackle, but what is the relationship between the local church, and global issues. Seacrest Out

8:04 PM  

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