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Practical Theology: What Will It Become

by John H. Perkins

Father Westerhoff, and Episcopal priest, is professor of religion and education at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 1-8, 1984, p. 116. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Only a few years ago this article might have been titled “Practical Theology: Will It Be?” Today there is good reason to believe that indeed it will. Now the question has shifted to “What will it become?” In this early stage, there are numerous formulations and recommendations. Thus far the conversation has tended to be centered in the academy; my intent is to make it more public.

Although my thinking is inspired by the seminal work Practical Theology: The Emerging Field in Theology, Church, and World, edited by Don Browning (Harper & Row, 1983), my thoughts essentially are an attempt to make sense of what I do, and thereby add one more opinion to the important effort to reform and renew theological education. While I owe much to the stimulating ideas of Don Browning, David Tracy and James Fowler in Practical Theology, I wish to attempt a small, constructive personal contribution rather than to enter into dialogue with them. That will need to come later.

Obviously, all of us are influenced by both our past experiences and our present activities. More of my life has been spent in parishes than in theological schools. Even now, as a professor in a school of divinity, I spend two days a week in parish ministry. As a result. I understand myself first as a parish priest and second as an academic. My faith in Jesus as the Christ is translated into a commitment to life in the church -- life in a community of faith called to live in, but not of, the world as a transformer of culture. I understand my role as priest to be that of a bearer of the community’s symbols, a mystagogue who leads others into mystery and a hermeneut who, as an instrument of knowing and interpretation, represents God to humanity and humanity to God. I understand my role as a professor in a theological school to consist of helping the church, critically and constructively, to reflect on its life and work so that it may be faithful in its mission, and of helping to form and educate people for various ministries in the church.

However, since first joining a theological faculty more than a decade ago, I have been troubled by the “professional” understanding of ministry that emerged in Protestant churches and their seminaries a quarter-century ago.

Having left behind an interpretation of profession as a response to a personal call from God, along with the church’s corresponding recognition of personal charisma (a God-given grace), Protestants adopted a modern secular view of profession as the possession of the specialized knowledge and skills necessary to qualify for institutional approval and, thereby, employment. Indeed, today most Protestant clergy think of themselves as professionals, and the Doctor of Ministry degree has formalized a credentializing process for the profession.

Over the past 25 years, theological education has followed two divergent models: some faculty, while committed to the church’s ministry, have adopted a graduate-school-of-arts-and-sciences model of education; others, while committed to scholarship, have adopted a professional-school model.

While I recall reading about the post-Schleiermacher tendency to understand practical theology as made up of numerous dimensions -- the liturgical, moral, pastoral, spiritual, ecclesial and catechetical -- within a clerical paradigm, I experienced it as a number of nonintegrated, specific disciplines of ministerial studies separated from other isolated disciplines dispersed throughout a confused theological curriculum.

I discovered that the liturgical concern among some had become preaching; among others, techniques for conducting worship; and among still others, historical modes of worship. Even in those schools keeping the study of liturgics in the curriculum (typically understood as the history, theology and practice of worship and/or preaching), those who taught theory typically did not teach practice. Further, separate specialists in liturgics and homiletics were being trained, professional organizations for each created, and journals to support these specialized fields established. The pastoral concern had become counseling, usually adopting a medical model informed by secular psychology and therapeutic practice. This separate discipline then developed its own training program and certification system known as clinical pastoral education (CPE). It trained its own specialists, offered its own degrees and had its own faculty, professional associations and journals.

The catechetical concern became Christian education, typically following a schooling model informed by secular pedagogy. It too developed its own degree program, granting master’s degree in religious education, and establishing a group of specialists, lay directors and ordained ministers working in the field. Along with this new specialty came the usual graduate programs, degrees, faculties, professional associations and journals. The spiritual dimension, I found, was ignored in most Protestant seminaries, but where it was retained, spirituality turned into either training in technique or a course or two in historical theology. The moral concern was taken from the practical field, and subsumed under systematic theology, creating a new field of theology and ethics.

Ecclesiology tended to adopt a business-management model informed by organizational development. While this specialized field assumed various names, such as the care of the parish,” it focused on organization, administration and, sometimes, the sociology of religion. Concerned primarily with institutional survival, it included leadership understood as church management, evangelism understood as church growth, stewardship understood as church finance, and so on.

Thus ministerial studies, a conglomerate of subdepartments and specialties, came to exist in ‘competition” with other faculty departments or divisions. More significantly, these studies tended to focus on “how-to” concerns, or the application of what was taught in the “theoretical’ fields of biblical, historical and theological-ethical studies (each also separate from the others and supported by its own professional associations, journals, degree programs and faculties). Thus a devastating gulf divided theory and practice. Ministerial studies tended to become devoid of theological foundations and neglectful of spiritual and moral concerns. They essentially were intended to provide future clergy with the skills necessary for employment as the professional ministers of the church.

I have never been happy with this situation, just as I have never been satisfied to be known solely as a Christian educator, restricted to predominantly applied courses training professional educators and ministers for parish education understood fundamentally as church schooling. Before I had any content for the title, I thought of myself as a practical theologian whose function it was to integrate theology and the various dimensions of ministry as they relate to church and society.

Theology I understand to be an articulation of a faith community’s experiential-reflective knowledge of God for the ends of living together as a sign of God’s presence in history, and of discerning and doing God’s will in the world as a witness to God’s intentions for history. Therefore, theology comprises three related processes of reflection and discourse: the foundational, the constructive and the practical.

Foundational theology, rooted and grounded in God’s revelation in the past, is a historical mode of reflection that, by exploring the origins of the Christian faith community, attempts to answer for each generation the fundamental question of what it is to be Christian.

Constructive theology, aware of God’s continuing revelation in the present, is a hermeneutical mode of reflection that, by exploring our particular historical, social and cultural situation in the light of the church’s tradition, attempts dialectically to make sense of both our contemporary experience-knowledge and our tradition.

Practical theology, emerging out of life in a faith community, is a doxological mode of reflection that, by placing itself within the context of the church’s service to God, attempts to facilitate the goal of a faithful life in the present on behalf of God’s future. As such, practical theology is composed of six dimensions. Although each is distinguishable, none is separate from the others. Indeed, they are necessarily integrated, for, properly understood, each is simply one doorway into and expression of a single whole. These six interrelated dimensions are the liturgical, the moral, the spiritual, the pastoral, the ecclesial and the catechetical.

The liturgical dimension (life as worship) focuses on life in a professing community. It includes both the community’s cultic or ritual life (repetitive, symbolic actions expressive of the community’s sacred story) and its people’s daily work (vocation or ‘profession”) in the world.

The moral dimension (life as seeking justice and peace) focuses on life in a witnessing community. The moral includes both the people’s character -- their perceptions, dispositions, intentions, attitudes and values -- and their conscience -- the processes by which they, as believers in Jesus Christ and members of his church, discern the will of God and, guided by the community’s ethical norms and principles, decide faithful action within particular moral situations.

The spiritual dimension (life as relationship) focuses on life in a praying community: it includes both interior experience -- the direct encounter with God resulting in a personal knowledge of God’s love -- and exterior manifestation -- daily life lived in an ever-deepening love relationship with God, or life as a testimony to the sifts of the spirit.

The pastoral dimension (life as caring) focuses on life in a serving community. It includes both consciousness, or the embracing of suffering and the identifying with the needy of the world, and sacrificial love: the capacity to live with others in relationships of healing, sustaining, guidance and reconciliation, expressed in caring for the sick, the needy. the poor, the hungry, the lonely and the captive.

The ecclesial dimension (life as being) focuses on life in a sacramental community. It includes both community life, lived as a sign of God’s grace expressed through a nurturing, caring family, and institutional life, lived in society in stewardship of God’s gifts and witnessing to God’s intentions.

The catechetical dimension (life as becoming) focuses on life in a learning community. It includes both formation through evangelization and enculturation -- the processes by which we are converted and initiated into the church and its tradition and thereby come to acknowledge ourselves as a people in covenant with God -- and education, or those processes of actualization that help us to live out our baptism by making the church’s faith more vital, conscious and active in our lives; by deepening our relationship to God; and by realizing our vocation in the world so that God’s saving activity may be manifested in persons and in the church.

Through the formational processes, the tradition is acquired, sustained and deepened. The aim of such processes is to conserve and provide roots in the past. It is an intentional, experiential, nurturing process within every aspect of parish life. Further, it is foundational to the whole catechetical process, and is essential and developmentally possible for children.

Through the educational processes, people critically examine the tradition, reshape it and apply it to life. Such education’s aim is to transform and provide openness to the future. It is an intentional, reflective, converting process related to every aspect of parish life. Secondary to the formational processes in that it necessarily follows experience in sequence, it is essential and developmentally possible for most adolescents and adults.

To illustrate: a person’s character is shaped or formed by life in community. It is both foundational to and prior to conscience, for conscience combines the advocacy of our visions and passionate convictions with the disinterested analysis necessary for moral decision-making, the latter resulting from education. Therefore, moral catechesis is concerned both with how our character is shaped and how our conscience is educated.

A third important responsibility for catechesis is its integrative, reflective task. For example, within the liturgical dimension there is a possible estrangement between the church’s worship and its action in the world. One essential task of catechesis is to help the church prepare for meaningful worship by reflecting on its life in the world. Another is to help it prepare for faithful action in the world by reflecting on worship. In this way, catechesis can bring about the integration of the two foci of the liturgical dimension.

Certainly, each dimension of practical theology is expressed in each of the others. For example, within the cultic-life foci of the liturgical dimension, the first half of the ritual (the service of the Word) is intended to be catechetical. Each dimension also contributes to each of the others. For example, the character is fundamentally shaped through participation in the community’s rituals.

Equally important, the two foci of each dimension of practical theology -- one in the church and one in the world -- help to encourage a dialectical relationship between the Christian faith community and other perspectives and efforts to shape our common life.

My dream is that the old divisions in ministerial studies, with their clerical emphasis and their specialized disciplines such as Christian education, will dissolve, and that a field of practical theology made up of people with broad theological knowledge and a deep, holistic understanding of each dimension -- as well as a focused concern for one dimension -- will emerge. Then all practical theology courses would be team-taught and would aim at integration. In some cases, a course in Christian initiation would integrate every dimension. Other classes would integrate two dimensions, as I do now in courses on liturgical catechesis, moral catechesis and spiritual catechesis. Each would integrate theory and practice, foundational theology and secular disciplines, as well as experience in church and society with reflection in the divinity school.

Of course, this is just one person’s limited imagination and explication. Both conversation and exploration must go on, The most difficult hurdle, of course, is the academy itself. How it educates, hires and rewards its faculty members influences how they behave. How its faculty designs its curriculum and determines its courses influences what is taught, and by whom. Still, I hope that this article will stimulate the process of forming the field of practical theology.


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