Theology: the practically impractical?

Theology: it’s a ‘yawn’ word … makes even the most religious feel a sudden and overwhelming weariness.  Drop the T word in a sermon and you might as well announce the benediction there and then.  So what is it about theology that sees the faithful reaching for their pillows?

Granted, part of the problem has to do with perception, or misperception: that theology is an obsession with obscure religious theory completely disconnected from the hands-on concerns of real life.  It is the lot of the poor theologian to constantly redress this misunderstanding if he or she is ever to find an audience beyond the library.  It’s a vocational cross to bear.

Another part of the problem, however, is not with perception but reality.  In other words, this common aversion to its existence is theology’s own fault.  Too often theologians get so lost in their own speculative world that they themselves cannot make the connections necessary for theology to be heard let alone listened to.

I have to say, my own reading of today’s theology is of a much more responsive, practically oriented and publicly engaged sort than has been the case in the past. Certainly in my own sub-discipline–commonly known as ‘practical theology’–this is true.  The trouble is, even the most practical theology can be remarkably impractical—offering critically insightful analyses and inspiring new paradigms but nothing more. At the end of the day we are intrigued but none the wiser.

In his book Redeeming the Routines: Bringing Theology to Life, Robert Banks addresses the struggle of theologians to get really practical:

‘A theological analysis of an issue may be clear and accurate, but what about the prescription for dealing with it? All too often this is very general. Only rarely will the theologian provide an operational model for what might be done and offer practical recommendations or examples drawn from first-hand experience. We are left up in the air, tantalized by a vision of what is possible, but without the means of realising it.’

Of course, the struggle to move from faith to the nitty gritty of practice is not unique to theologians. It’s common to all of us. Banks again:

‘If you ask a representative sample of churchgoers whether faith and life ought to be in harmony, they will answer with a resounding ‘yes’. The rub comes when you put the question in a specific way, in relation to a particular aspect of work or area of responsibility. For example, if you are a homemaker and I ask you whether your religious convictions should influence the way you bring up your family and relate to your neighbours, you will probably nod your head in agreement. But then if I ask you whether these convictions have as clear and direct an influence on the kind of house you have, area you live in and the means of commuting you use, you will probably pause to think.’

When it comes to practice, perhaps theologians–perhaps all of us–struggle to get particular because to do so scrapes too closely to the bone. Theorizing about a theology of consumerism is one thing, but making practical revelations about the way I spend my money … well, that’s my business. Let’s get back to theology!

9 Comments

      1. Well, this week I’ve prepared and taught on economics and public theology; the use of the Bible in public theology; spirituality and sport; spirituality and depression/spiritual desolation; how apocalyptic thought shapes everyday ethics; as well as commenting on a PhD thesis drawing together management and communications disciplines with ecclesiology. I think I’d like a little more esotericism and angels dancing on the head of a pin sometime 🙂

  1. It often surprises me when I realise that many Christians see a divide between theology and faith. They are happy to discuss faith but it seems that to discuss theology is an elitist activity only enjoyed by the few. I get this a lot with many close to me. Now I am not pointing fingers here but I wonder whether this happens because many preachers do not make the connections. Sometimes I think it can be because they themselves have not the personal experiences to relate to, but sometimes I think it is fear of upseting their congregations. Many speak eloquently and soundly about what the scriptures may say but seem to stop short of spelling out what that may mean in reality. To do so may challenge too much. I think the liberation theologists are the best at making the bridge between the two and this could be because their theology comes from a deep and intimate experience of suffering and challenge.

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  2. I think theology at its worst is a bunch of over-educated people (generally men) having a conversation that no one cares much about (something that could be argued about a whole range of academia I suppose). At its best I think theology can be a continuation of the prophetic tradition in our modern, western, hyper educated context.

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  3. all of the above, taken as read and my head nodding in recognition, I would like to offer a word in defence of the word ‘theology’ from a couple of experiences recently. Granted, these were not in-house, church conversations, but with random strangers.

    On two occasions recently when travelling, I found myself in conversation with people who I had simply chanced upon in my need for transportational assistance. A Taxi driver in Brisbane and a Musician on the railway platform in Princeton. In the course of them helping me resolve my practical needs for transport and navigational support, they asked what I was doing far from home. In each case I gave the vague answer ‘speaking at a conference’.
    ‘What is your field?’ came the logical next question, each time.
    And so now twice I discovered that the answer ‘theology’ led to wonderful conversations of grace and questions and the space for uncertainty which leaves room for faith to emerge. For both of these short term travelling companions in my life, ‘theology’ laid a safe and level ground to stand upon, and to speak of our ideas, our convictions, our symbols, our wondering – me as a follower of Jesus, the taxi-driver as a hindu and the musician as humanist. Each of said to one another, genuinely interested – ‘tell me what you believe’ and each of us expressed connections and affirmations between our faith. And in that context we spoke of the particularities of our convictions: for me, naturally, to speak of the centrality of Jesus, and the claim that I believe love and compassion has over all my being – for friend and enemy and stranger.

    Possibly there is something inviting and humble in the word ‘theology’ (or having some God-talk) that may yet be redemptive…

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  4. Wonderful stories Beth. As you said in the opening, these are not ‘in-house, church conversations’. Perhaps that’s where theology is at its best. My concern is that when theology is only ‘in-house’ it is at greatest risk of being disconnected and irrelevant. Three cheers for conversational theology in taxis!

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