I read a lot books in the past year. If I was only allowed to keep one of those books going forward, there is no doubt which one it would be. Opening the Field of Practical Theology: an Introduction edited by Kathleen Cahalan and Gordon Mikoski is comprehensive and innovative. It address historic developments, contemporary concerns and even deals with the overwhelming whiteness of the field in a constructive way.
I use Bonnie Miller-MacLemore’s fourfold definition of Practical Theology to address the multifaceted nature of what has become the field:
- An activity of believers seeking to sustain a life of reflective faith in the everyday.
- A method or way of analyzing theology in practice used by religious leaders and by teachers and students across the theological curriculum,
- A curricular area in theological education focused on ministerial practice and sub-specialties.
- An academic discipline pursued by a smaller subset of scholars to support and sustain these first three enterprises.
In Opening the Field, Richard Osmer address this complex landscape by outlining/mapping four ‘streams’ that are found within the field – including representative figures illustrating the different approaches/concerns. The four streams are:
- the Hermeneutical trajectory
- the Transforming Praxis trajectory
- the Neo-Aristotelian trajectory
- the Confessional trajectory.
Osmer explains that these trajectories work like paradigms in Thomas Kuhn’s sense and that each works “with a very different orientation toward the empirical and human experience.”
The Hermeneutical Trajectory
- James Fowler,
- Charles Gerkin,
- Don Browning,
- Johannes van der Ven,
- Friedrich Schweitzer,
- Martina Kumlehn.
It is important not to think about these groupings as ‘schools’ of Practical Theology as if they all share a homogeneous or agreed upon approach. Osmer is clear to point out that there are important differences between these figures. However “all view practical theology as a hermeneutical activity, reflecting the influence of prominent figures in philosophical hermeneutics like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur and, more recently, new developments in cultural hermeneutics, semiotics, and aesthetics.” This stream is conversant with philosophical and interpretive concerns from other disciplines. Browing and van der Ven will be highlighted in the later section on historical developments and major figures.
The Transforming Praxis Trajectory
- Elaine Graham,
- Mary McClintock Fulkerson,
- Zöe Bennett Moore,
- James Poling,
- Thomas Beaudoin,
- Joyce Ann Mercer,
- Thomas Groome,
- Katherine Turpin,
- Rebecca Chopp.
Figures in this stream are ‘change agents’ who look to advocate for “persons struggling against structural and personal oppression (who) seek new ways of understanding the present context in light of God’s call for freedom and justice.” Authors have often built on the insights found in liberation theologies and Marxian critiques like critical theory. Since the 1990’s many have shifted to poststructuralist philosophers and social scientists like Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel de Certeau as the old Marxist approach was too totalizing and not location-specific.
“Poststructuralism turns this on its head, taking seriously the postmodern insight that knowledge is rooted in particular standpoints and works best by first analyzing the regimes of power, discourses, and everyday practices of its own context. This contributes to a process in which the standpoints of others involved in social transformation are engaged. Elaine Graham’s Transforming Practice represents one of the clearest examples of this shift.” 
This is the stream that I identify most closely with and I find the ongoing work of Elaine Graham one of the most exhilarating aspects of Practical Theology. I will employing a Critical Race Theory in my dissertation and have employed the work of Michel de Certeau in my cognate field of postmodern sociology. While it was the work of Don Browning that first attracted me to Practical Theology, I am not sure that I would continue to identify as a Practical Theologian if it were not for the promise of this stream. The prospect of interpreting the current situation or of examining and reinforcing a confessional expression does not go far enough.
The Neo-Aristotelian Trajectory
- Craig Dykstra,
- Dorothy Bass,
- Dianna Butler Bass,
- Kenda Creasy Dean,
- contributors to For Life Abundant.
This trajectory makes me very nervous but it is deeply influential within the publications of Practical Theology and is quite popular within many church circles (including evangelical, mainline, and emergent camps), especially clergy and those who train clergy. This stream attempts to recover the work of Aristotle in contemporary moral philosophy, especially in the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre. “MacIntyre seeks to recover Aristotle’s theory of virtue and character, arguing that virtues are acquired through participation in the practices and moral vision of particular religious and moral communities.” More will be said about the Aristotelian recovery in the later section on dominant concerns when words like phronesis, habitus, and others are examined. The fascination with reclaiming Aristotelian concepts is concerning and has been popularized by groups such as Radical Orthodoxy and the post-liberal camp.
The Confessional Trajectory
- Ray Anderson,
- James Loder,
- John Swinton,
- Harriet Mowat,
- Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger,
- Andrew Root.
The primary concern of this stream is given to confessing the faith. “Confession here does not refer to belief in doctrinal confessions or dogma. It points to the ways the church is gathered, built up, and sent to give witness to the gospel in a particular time and place.” Those in this trajectory also use terms and phrases like mission, witness, and performing the gospel when addressing the nature and purpose of the church. Karl Barth and his neo-orthodoxy are influential as are both Bonheoffer and Jüngel. Andy Root’s recent book “Christopraxis” is an example of this trajectory and is built largely on the work of Ray Anderson, Karl Barth and Eberhard Jüngel. Its conclusion calls for Ministerial Transversal Rationality – by which a profound contrast can be seen to the earlier Transforming Praxis trajectory.
I love this book and will be referencing it often in upcoming posts. If you are interested at all, I would highly recommend that you pick it up (it’s on Kindle as well) and jump into the conversation!
Leave a Reply