Centre for Theology and Public Issues

Centre for Theology and Public Issues

The Strange, the Disciplined, and the Disinherited: Practical Theology’s Contested Future

News | 14.12.2017

What is the future of practical theology? Nomi Pritz-Bennett offers her assessment of the papers and the ensuing discussion at third session of the Future of Public Theology Conference hosted by CTPI, 30 November – 1 December 2017.

The sessiondevoted to “the future of practical theology” was in many ways self-reflective. In their respective ways, the three speakers made a plea for a future in which the discipline can emerge as more distinct, authoritative, and even autonomous. To that end, their papers showcased a desire to revisit questions having to do with norms, authorities, and methodologies. From Heather Walton’s insistence that practical theology should venture boldly into creative theological constructions made up of “compounds of strangeness,” to Jeremy Kidwell’s contention that “practical theology is a discipline in need of discipline,” and finally, to Leah Robinson’s call to embrace the discipline’s “disinherited” status in the academy as a way forward, one is left with the distinct sense that practical theologians are uneasy with the discipline’s middling status as an interdisciplinary nexus between systematic theology and the social sciences. As a result, all three papers seek out ways of establishing the discipline as authoritative and independent in its own right. In this review I will provide a summary of the papers given, followed by a critical reflection at the end.

Heather Walton’s paper, “Norm and Form: The Challenge of Contemporary Theological Practice,” launched the session with a challenge to the discipline with regard to its accepted “norms.”

Why is it, asks Walton, that when practitioners come to the constructive phase of their study, they emote instead of seriously reflect? Or, when reflection does take place, practitioners simply fall back on the already accepted norms of systematic theology. As a result, innovative and constructive theological thinking is not being done. Walton, therefore, calls for a venture into theological creativity. Instead of assuming the normative status of theology, practical theologians should be challenging the normative grounds upon which theological claims are made. They should furthermore remember that those doctrines which we now regard as normative, were themselves once “compounds of strangeness.” Relying on current theological norms may provide a sort of

“shelter” for practical theologians, but this should be discouraged. Practical theology should be in the business of re-arranging theology into new patterns that are strange, creative, and as a result, liberating.

In a paper entitled, “Navigating the Space Between the ‘Ideology of Expertise’ and the Solipsism of Sectarian Community,” Jeremy Kidwell made his claim that “practical theology is a discipline in need of discipline.” In some ways, Kidwell’s argument follows along from Walton’s call for more serious constructive reflection. However, where Walton calls for a venture into “strangeness,” Kidwell instead urges a shift in methodology and a return to quantitative analysis as a means of establishing more disciplined analyses and practices within the discipline. For Kidwell, the real tension exists not between practical theology and the social sciences, but between quantitative and qualitative methodologies. The current hegemony of qualitative analysis, argues Kidwell, followed as a result of the critiques made by MacIntyre, Hauerwas, and Milbank regarding the way in which the social sciences seek to explain phenomena from the vantage point of supposed neutrality and law-like generalizations. Milbank, especially, argued that it is religious persons themselves who provide the matrix for interpreting the data of the world. Yet why, asks Kidwell, must our research of this matrix be primarily ethnographic? The future of practical theology, therefore, is not in a doubling down on the qualitative mode, but, first, in raising the profile of quantitative analysis and, second, in doing mixed-mode scholarship. Big data, especially, can help to ground bottom-up theology, so long as we navigate carefully the ethical questions that arise when making use of big data (these are: surveillance, algorithms, and consent).

Finally, in her paper, “And Practical Theology….: on why doing practical theology is enough,” Leah Robinson challenges the way in which practical theology has become an “and” discipline. That is to say, a discipline that theologians make recourse to as an afterthought – after, for example, having first done the more “serious” work of systematic theology. Robinson links this trend to the prejudiced notion that systematic theology is scientific and rational, whereas practical theology is subjective and emotional. As a result, practical theology has adopted methodologies and practices from other disciplines in order to gain credibility, but this has led to its “disinheritance” within the academy as a discipline that is dependent and interdisciplinary. Yet, argues Robinson, practical theology should be at the “forefront of the academy” given that theology, ultimately, is not about speculation but about practice. Practical theology should, therefore, “make its own methods of research,” even while embracing its status as disinherited. By necessity, a loss of inheritance leads to creative survival, and this is the way forward for Robinson: A disinherited discipline working for the disinherited, by way of its own creative means and methods.

In the question and answer period, perhaps the most pressing question posed to the presenters came from John Swinton. Given these arguments – that practical theology should re-arrange theological patterns and venture into strangeness, that it should use quantitative methods of analysis and big data, or that it should create its own methods of analysis from the vantage point of being disinherited – how are we to define theology? What is theology, within these proposed configurations? Swinton further elaborates: Can a phenomenological survey, for example, lead us to redefine the doctrine of providence? In response to Swinton, Walton warns that “to define is to kill,” but goes on to propose that theology is a task we undertake as a result of being in the image of God. It is a “creative making” engaged with tradition and lived experience. Robinson notes that we already have “too much theology,” perhaps trying to make the point that Swinton’s question is not the right one to be asking, given her argument that systematic theology is already in a position of academic dominance and power. Kidwell expresses a nervousness about the “constructivism” that practical theology veers towards when making such definitions. “Theology is a communal undertaking,” he responds, but quickly adds, “but it is also disciplined” – referring to its undergirding methodologies.

Yet perhaps Swinton’s question can be pressed once again, given that each of these papers, in their different ways, do seem to demand less dependence upon the resources of systematic theology, and perhaps even suggest that the way forward is a stricter divorce between the disciplines. In pushing for greater autonomy from the norms provided by systematic theology (though surely the view that systematic theology is an uncontested monolith is a caricature), shouldn’t a more robust discussion be had about how one goes about the business of establishing new norms and authorities?

So, to Swinton’s query, “how are we to define theology?” one might add a few more concerns: First, can practical theology maintain its “disinherited” identity if autonomy and independence are gained? Surely “disinheritance” is a function of living in the shadow of other disciplines. Does this vantage point, then, really offer a way forward? Second, can practical theology shun its interdisciplinary character in favor of greater autonomy without thereby doing damage to its vocational purpose as a bridge between theology and lived life? And finally, do practical theologians push too far the notion that systematic and practical theology exhibit oppositional logics? Robinson suggests that the tension between the two consists of the tension between theory and praxis, speculation and action. And yet, as this session attests, practical theologians are quite concerned with questions of theory, and their methodologies require a fair bit of constructive speculation. Systematicians, for their part, are often quite concerned that theology be done in, and for, the community. One might also add that to theorize about praxis is not itself the same thing as praxis, even while we would also want to say that speculation is itself a form of embodied praxis. It does not serve us, therefore, to pedal the narrative that practical theologians are not engaged in speculation and theory, or that systematic theologians are not concerned with concrete life. Instead of greater autonomy, perhaps we ought to be re-imagining a relationship of greater interdependence, exchange, and cross-pollination.

Nomi Pritz-Bennett is a PhD candidate at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. She is a member of the CTPI executive.