If the label fits, then I teach “impractical theology.” As a professor in systematic theology, I often get asked, “What does this have to do with real life?” Particularly when we discuss the complex world of the doctrine of the Trinity or any other subject matter that does not immediately show its application to ministry. “Praxis” here becomes synonymous with “real life”–as if reflecting on God, meditating on the Scriptures, and pursuing a deeper knowledge of God do not have anything to do with “real life.” As if life is somehow suspended when it comes to systematic theology. Or in other words, as if those who pursue that direction surely do something — but they do not practice anything.
This exclusion of the theoretical, the systematic, speculative, constructive dimension of the Christian life is often apparent in degree programs that require very few courses in doctrine and emphasize instead studies in preaching, counseling, scripture, and other topics that seem to relate directly to the life of ministry. The problem is that most seminary students do not come with the intention to go into the pulpit ministry (a place particularly closed to women). As a result, the majority of students who do not pursue a professional ministry (i.e., clergy) leave seminary ill-equipped for the practices of the non-clergy Christian life. And even among those who enter the ministry or continue in a clerical position, graduates are often better equipped to exegete a biblical passage or understand the psychology of congregations than to explain the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.
A popular definition of “practices” is given by Alasdair MacIntyre: “Practices are … any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended” (After Virtue, 187). According to this definition, systematic theology is a practice; knowing specialized vocabulary is not. Reading the Bible is not a practice, the liturgy of the hours is. Exegeting a biblical passage is not a practice; preaching is. Breaking the bread is not a practice, but the Lord’s Supper is. Prayer is not a practice; worship is.
MacIntyre’s definition is helpful, but incomplete. It neglects a decisive factor: the question who or what the establishes the cooperative human activity that we call theology. The answer, unfortunately, is a divided one: society, church, and academy. These three publics are not one but are rather radically divided. And as a result, what is considered “proper” theology is divided as well. In other words, what is practical to the academy appears rather difficult to apply to the church and often quite theoretical and speculative to the general public. Where do we begin the reconciliation? My starting point is a new course at the School of Divinity in the Fall semester called “Practicing Theology” that addresses these questions.
I wonder who will enroll in this kind of course? Am I perpetuating the division I am trying to overcome? I cannot see an alternative to the title: all theology is practical. What needs to change is the way we slot our activities and judge them based on performance, productivity, and expectations that may betray us. There are a lot of questions. Perhaps we will find some answers. I will post them on the blog — even if they are not practical.