Though I am no longer teaching theology as a full-time profession, I still do a bit here and there, most often in the field of what’s called practical theology. Though it’s an arena of learning I feel passionate about, I realise it’s an enthusiasm not commonly shared!
There are those for whom the mere sound of the word theology spells boredom. To these people, the term practical theology is an oxymoron. What on earth could be practical about theology?
Then there are those invested in theology who dislike the addition of the word ‘practical’. For them, this unfortunate designation to one particular field of theology is an insult to all other fields of supposedly ‘impractical’ theological inquiry—systematic, biblical and historical to name three.
Still others judge practical theology a sort of second-rung theology, entirely derivative in nature and perhaps best for those who don’t have the mind for more intellectually rigorous and foundational pursuits. From this perspective, practical theology is simply the application of pre-determined theological truth to a particular context or challenge.
The first response is, at best, unfortunate. That people view theology in such a dismissive way is based on a sad misunderstanding of what it is. Importantly, it calls those of us who teach theology to do so in more accessible and life-connected ways.
The second response is justified … mostly. Indeed, all theology is practical, or should be. The trouble is, it’s not. In my view, theology has often been its own worst enemy, unable to surface long enough from its own internal speculative quandaries to even notice it’s personal, social and political contexts.
But it’s the third response that most gets up my nose. Practical theology is not derivative theology. It’s not even applied theology. The designation practical theology gets at the heart of what the best theology really is. It’s this that I appreciate most about Terry Veling’s wonderful book Practical Theology: ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’.
According to Veling, the discipline, at its best, reclaims the ‘reintegration of theology into the weave and fabric of human living, in which theology becomes a practice or a way of life.’ For Veling, practical theology is ‘less a thing to be defined than it is an activity to be done.’ It is the practice of theology, not a pre-packaged box of propositions, but a theology discerned and known in the midst of the encounters and experiences of daily life.
This jells so much with my own experience. For me, the life-giving nature of theology has never been in its provision of a speculative and grand system of thought through which every situation of life can be interpreted. Rather, it’s about a way of knowing and understanding that flows out of and into experience—mine, yours, ours. For that reason, theology has always been for me more fluid than solid, more open than settled, more pervasive than undergirding.
Veling says it well: ‘Practical theology wants to keep our relationship with the world open, so that we are never quite done with things; rather, always undoing and redoing them, so that we can keep the doing happening, passionate, keen, expectant—never satisfied, never quite finished. … Practical theology is suspicious of any theology that is too solid, too well-built, too built-up. Rather it is a theology that is given over to a passion for what could yet be, what is still in-the-making, in process, not yet, still coming.’
Perhaps this begins to get at why I feel so much at home in practical theology. For in it, I’ve found a way of doing theology that arises directly out of the most pressing, immediate, and deeply felt challenges of my life and the life of those around me. What’s more, it gives these challenges and experiences an authoritative voice that pre-determined, pre-packaged truth can never allow.