What is practical about being theological?
What is theological about being practical?

An address given at St Martin-in-the-Fields on October 14, 2018 by Revd Dr Sam Wells

I don’t really like the term practical theology. I don’t like it because for me all theology is practical. So to employ the term practical theology is to suggest two things that in my view are mistaken. The first is that theology is abstract and arcane, and that practical theology is the part that brings it down to earth. The second is that there’s a real thing called theology and that we need to create one branch of it that’s practical for the people who are a bit slow or impatient and want to see what the end product is, but that’s not the real part, that’s just a concession to those who can’t stay with the real business of theology.

Those are the reasons why I generally avoid using the term practical theology. But beyond those formal difficulties there’s a problem at the epicenter of the Christian faith. The word became flesh. Jesus is material, practical. Jesus embodied God’s primordial commitment never to be except to be with us. Henceforth there can be no talk of God as essentially abstract, distant or aloof: God is among us, and in Jesus God becomes as practical and material as we could possibly imagine. For Christians, all theology is reflection on this fact, and on the consequences of it in Jesus death and resurrection and the sending of the Spirit. There cannot be any theology that’s not practical.

But in general the term practical theology is not what it seems. Since around 1970 it has come to mean a theology that presupposes prior engagement or commitment. For liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Juan Luis Segundo and Jon Sobrino, theology isn’t fundamentally interpretation of texts or speculation about the infinite, it is critical reflection on action. They assume that, in the face of the level of injustice prevalent in South America in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, a Christian absolutely has to be committed to the struggle for liberation. Theology is then reflection on that engagement, including social and economic critiques of conventional attitudes to injustice. This theological reflection, known as praxis, leads to wiser and more considered engagement, which itself becomes the subject of reflection and again leads to more considered engagement. Thus an action-reflection circle becomes a spiral of increasingly considered engagement.

This was a new way of doing theology that arose from a new understanding of the purpose of theology. Rather than seeking to understand the ways of God, theology was now primarily about seeking to refine the engagement of human beings. It didn’t mean that liberation theologians had given up on the otherness and holiness of God. It just meant that they had decisively turned away from the notion of theology as a leisured pursuit of meditation and contemplation in the face of a world of suffering, and they had come to see the duty of theologians either to be poor or to see the world and God from the perspective of the poor – what’s sometimes called theology from the underside of history.

It’s not hard to see how quickly theologians from other social locations adopted this method and translated it into their own context. The most prominent were those who did so from the perspective of race and gender. For each of these the method falls into broadly three camps.

  1. The reformist camps say there is basically no difference between people under the skin, and concentrate on removing obstacles, whether procedural, attitudinal or legal, that inhibit the flourishing of hitherto oppressed groups. Thus there is rational reason why a woman shouldn’t be as good a bishop as a man – so the rules should be changed. Likewise admission or appointment procedures are invariably subject to unconscious bias, so committees must be trained in awareness so as to overcome such prejudice.
  2. The restorationist camps, by contrast, believe there is such a thing as profound difference across race and/or gender, but that if we recover that difference, we will better be able to perceive the complementary roles that each constituency best embodies and exemplifies, and this difference yields harmony rather than impoverishment. Thus some believe women are inherently more caring and that an ethic of care would be more prevalent if women were as honoured in society as men are.
  3. The rejectionist camps believe there is an inherent conflict across differences of race and/or gender and that the dominant group will never yield its control. Thus the subordinate groups must establish their own practices and institutions, such as women-only colleges or black law schools, in order to give them space to discover their own power that lies outside whatever relationship they might have to the dominant group, namely white men.

In practice many contextual theologians, who privilege the perspective of a particular social group, notably one based on class, race or gender designations, occupy a space somewhere in the middle of this triangle of reform, restoration and rejection, drawing on elements of all three approaches. The drawback of this is that such an eclectic approach can become inconsistent and its arguments accordingly flawed.

It’s not hard to see how such approaches migrate to the field of disability. The three obvious distinctives about disability are first that the diversity within the community of the disabled is immense, second that the danger that the disabled will be defined by what they are not is greater than for other social locations, and third that, unlike for example race, being disabled for many is not a lifelong condition but may be something that emerges at a certain point in life. Notwithstanding these characteristics, theology of disability shares the basic assumption of contextual theology that privileges the perspective of the disadvantaged person and regards that person as having a privileged view of God. Just as the most fully revelatory moments in the life of Christ are when as a newborn infant he was constrained by swaddling clothes and as a dying adult he was tortured by spread-eagled, nailed hands, so those who experience constraint in their physical or mental capacities may see their perspective as nearer to the experience of Christ than that of those who don’t experience such constraints. But the three strands of contextual theologies – reformist, restorationist and rejectionist are all alive within theology and disability as much as in other contextual theologies.

One other threefold distinction is worth mentioning in this brief survey, and that’s the question of what theology is actually about. Here the work of the late Lutheran ecumenist George Lindbeck is helpful. He talks about three strands of theology, which correspond to three eras: preliberal (pre-Enlightenment), liberal (Enlightenment), and postliberal (post-Enlightenment). The preliberal approach sees a clear correspondence between the language of the Bible and the world it describes. It perceives relatively little difficulty in taking the Bible as a factual account of the way things are. Lindbeck calls this approach ‘cognitive-propositional’, because it understands doctrine as a body of truth-claims about objective realities. The liberal approach sees religion as primarily concerned with particular experiences and the expression of particular inner feelings. Public, outer features of religion are objectifications of a fundamentally personal experience: thus, in theory, a Buddhist and a Christian might have basically the same faith. Hence this second approach Lindbeck call ‘experiential-expressive’. What Lindbeck proposes is a third, postliberal approach. This sees doctrines as like the rules of a language, guiding what ‘fits’ and what does not. The primary location of Christianity is not so much deep within the self of the believer, but in the worship and practice of the believing community. This community’s view of the world is formed by the scriptural narrative. Lindbeck calls this approach ‘cultural-linguistic’.

There’s no question that the impulses of what’s often termed practical theology are rooted in a rejection of the preliberal category of cognitive-propositional approaches. Such approaches seem disembodied, abstract, unfeeling, even heartless; in fact sometimes apparently unmoved by the incarnation. Yet practical theology can too quickly get caught up in experiential-expressivism. The weakness of experiential-expressivism is that the story too quickly becomes all about me. It can become consumed in the validation and assertion of the self, and God can become little more than a vehicle by which I find affirmation for my deep desires, a channel for my feelings, and an outlet for my convictions. The irony is that practical theology might seem to belong more fully in the more anthropological world of the cultural-linguistic approach, since the latter method is more inclined to consider communal practices, traditions and stories.

In summary practical theology means a commitment to three things: reflection as a second step after sacrificial action; a commitment to prioritise the perspective of the oppressed, particularly their perspective on God; and an inclination to see how these two commitments translate into the culture, language, tradition, stories and practices of a community.