Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today


Practical theology

Religionless Church Interview

Last week my interview with Mason Mennenga came out. I had so much fun recording it and we cover a variety of topics.

  • my spiritual migration
  • academic interests
  • interactive church
  • Religious but not spiritual
  • nerdy takes on Bonhoeffer and ‘the world come of age’

He also has a wonderful style for his podcast where he features the music of a different artist every time. He chose Workman Song for this episode and it really came together.

Please listen to the episode and then let me know what you thought!


H is for Hermeneutics

You may know that I hail from an evangelical-charismatic background.  What you may not know is that I am continually challenged in conversations about the need to interpret our experiences and texts.H-Hermeneutics

We don’t just have experiences – like we don’t just read (and believe) the Bible – we interpret. We do it as second nature because to be human – and thus social – is to be thoroughly saturated in language and symbols. We speak, and indeed think, in language. It permeates every thing we do and are. It is part of what being human means.

Our pocket dictionary defines hermeneutics as:

Hermeneutics: The discipline that studies the principles and theories of how texts ought to be interpreted, particularly sacred texts such as the Scriptures. Hermeneutics also concerns itself with understanding the unique roles and relationships between the author, the text and the original or subsequent readers.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 638-640). Kindle Edition.
Hermeneutics is a massive and complex field. Since this an ABC’s series, there are two things that you need to know :

  1. The word has been in use since the 17th century even though the idea is an ancient one that can be traced all the way back to the Greek philosophers.
  2. Everything changed in past 90 years. With the publication of Heidegger’s Being and Time in 1927, philosophy (and then subsequently the human sciences) took a hermeneutical turn.

One of Heidegger’s most famous students was Hans-Georg Gadamer. His 1975 book about the world of interpretation called Truth and Method expanded what is called the hermeneutical circle.
The five elements are characterized as:

  • pre-understanding
  • the experience of being brought up short
  • dialogical interplay
  • fusion of horizons
  • application.

I could not possibly do this topic justice in a single blog post – If you want more info there are links at the bottom of the page. ?

I just wanted to share an example of how the hermeneutical circle is employed in my field of Practical Theology. I tend toward utilizing the work of Paul Ricoeur and his ‘second naivety’ myself, but the example I want share is from Richard Osmer who utilizes Gadamer as his framework.

These elements allow Osmer to transition into analyzing the role of the congregational leader along these lines.

  1. He first examines the idea of guiding the congregation as a community of interpretation.
  2. Secondly, he addresses the need to guide interpretation evoked by the experience of being brought up short.
  3. Lastly, guiding the dialogue between theology and other fields of knowledge. Leadership of this kind is defined as “the exercise of influence.”

This influence engages in different forms of communication and is a collaborative effort. These three elements factor in significantly for the spirituality required to carry out the leadership that Osmer envisions.

  • The Descriptive–Empirical Task is called Priestley Listening and finds great importance in the power of presence.

The author illustrates the spirituality of presence by addressing several levels of what is called attending which is then integrated into concepts introduced earlier such as the congregation as a community of interpretation.

  • The second task is the Interpretive Task called Sagely Wisdom.

The interpretive task draws off of thoughtfulness, theory, and wise judgment. Osmer appeals to Israel’s wisdom tradition and to Jesus being the hidden wisdom of God revealed.

  • The third task is the Normative Task, which is called Prophetic Discernment.

The author utilizes a familiar pattern in this chapter similar to the previous two. Weaving together narrative, theory, and scriptural illustration.

  • The final task is the Pragmatic Task, classified as Servant Leadership.

Osmer identifies the three forms of leadership as task competence, transactional leadership, and transforming leadership.
The motif of “deep change” is introduced through the writing of Robert Quinn and is woven together with Old Testament imagery in order to illustrate the type of leadership that is required in this task. Quinn’s Four-stage model of organizational change (called the transformational cycle) involves: Initiation, Uncertainty, Transformation, and Routinization.

You will find that in almost all hermeneutical addresses, there is a common two common themes:

  1. They form a cycle, a circle or a spiral – signifying an ongoing (continual) process.
  2. The second stage or step is one of negativity, negation or something negative (like Uncertainty). This is important because it is only after was pass through the unknowing that we come to see-know-engage-understand-assimilate-fuse in a new way.

In conclusion:
We all interpret. We think, experience and speak through this lens.
The past century has seen a hermeneutical turn in almost every area related to human behavior, belief and social understanding.

For Further Reading:

A nice article on Heidegger and Gadamer

A massive and heady article on Hermeneutics from the Stanford Dictionary

A quick article on Paul Ricoeur and the Second Naïveté

Modern Theology’s Opportunity (3/3) : Neither Barth Nor Schleiermacher

Christian theology has an opportunity moving into the future. In part 1 I outlined modern Christianity’s problem. I could say more about Christendom, Colonialism and Consumerism (the 3 C’s of modern Christianity) and will later this week.

In part 2 I looked at modern Christianity’s temptation to concede, attack or retreat: concede to the private/personal realm, attack in the public realm or retreat into silos of privileged speech in the religious realm.

In order to understand how deep the problem really is, it might seem helpful to use modern Christianity’s binary way of thinking (as I alluded to in the title of this post). The either/or, mutually exclusive way of conceptualizing and framing issues is to tempting: conservative/liberal, literal/figurative, Catholic/Protestant, white/ethnic, male/female, gay/straight,

This is not our way forward.

When thinking about just Protestants in N. America you have to account for everyone from fundamentalist to charismatics, evangelicals to liberal mainliners, Pentecostals, Quakers and emergent types.

Ours is an age of diversity, multiplicity and plurality. Our theological approach needs to reflect that.

We are cresting into some form of late, high, hyper or post Modernity. This is evidenced in the fractured cultural arena and an unprecedented awareness of pluralism.


There will never be one great theologian again. The days of the great single voice are over. When Moltmann and Cobb pass, we will see the end of an era.

Now we refer to Feminist theologians, Liberationists, Process thinkers, the Yale School and Emergent voices. The closest we might get is referencing someone as Barthian or a Hauwerwasian.

This move toward the collective is significant. It pales, however, in comparison to the real shift.


The more significant shift is away from abstract, speculative and universalizing brands of thinking.
The future is found in:

  • concrete
  • interdisciplinary
  • qualitative analysis (observation)

These are but three of the reason that I love my discipline of Practical Theology. It is concerned not only with the ideas but with the practice of faith. It is inter-disciplinary because no one field is adequate to fully investigate or represent what is going on in an area of concern. It utilizes qualitative methods (interview, ethnography and case study) to flesh out the phenomenon under review and to represent the real and lived experience of those living faith out on the ground.


The models used in the past are inadequate then, they are harmful. Linell E. Cady’s chapter in Theology at the End of Modernity holds a powerful explanation of the problem and opportunity. [1]

The problem with a liberal approach’s emphasis on experience is obvious. The past century has exposed the fatal flaw of this opportunistic brand of Christianity. The ‘Christian Century’ ended somewhere between Hiroshima and 9/11. We can talk a more about this at a later time.

The answer, however, is not retreat into fideistic models that protect religious or god-talk from outside review by setting up religious speech as a privileged and incommensurable realm. I have been critical of both post-Liberal and Radical Orthodox approaches for this very reason. Neither the authoritarian modes of , say, Reformed thought nor confessional schools like these are sustainable in the 21st century.

“Moving toward this vision of theology means abandoning the systematic, ahistorical, textually driven mode of theology for one that is far more contextual in its attention to embodied religion.” [2]

Cady goes on:

“All too often theologians have pursued an ahistorical engagement with the great theologians of the past, regarding their positions as perennial Christian options rather than as strategies peculiar to a specific place and time.” [3]


In closing I want to make a subtle distinction. There is a deep resonance with the concerns about non-contextual, speculative, universalizing and systematizing approaches to theology. It just so happens that Practical Theology provides a different approach. Cady explains:

“(This) model of theology suggests the need for more careful attention to the historical and cultural context within which theological reflection is located. Moving in this direction would align theology closely with the history of religions … (becoming) more attentive to the analysis and evaluation of embodied religion.

The skills of the sociologist and ethnographer would begin to shape theological expertise, providing important supplements to the prevailing exegetical and philosophical orientations.” [4]


Our age asks us to move from abstraction, speculation and systematics to a collective and inter-disciplinary approach to lived religion. [5]




[1] It is not that I am fascinated with Gordon Kaufman – but with those who are attempting to answer the questions that he raised. I hope to address them from within a Practical Theology approach.

[2] p. 93

[3] p. 97

[4] p. 82

[5] Please read my previous post on The Body and Embodied Religion

Constructivism or Critical Theory (part 2 of 3)

Warning: These 3 posts are very nerdy. There is a reason behind my madness … but just be forewarned.

Yesterday I admitted to social construction being my philosophical orientation within my chosen field of Practical Theology (PT). A constructivist view is important in (at least) two ways:

  1. It is an admission that we are all subjects of a constructed reality who are both actors and those who are acted upon within a larger structure of expectations, attitudes and behaviors that we have a) inherited b) been formed by and c) reinforced by our actions and participation.
  2. It is an acknowledgement that no one is a object to be studied nor are we objective – but that we are all subject who are acted upon and who act in accordance to our position within the given structures and our possibilities given our location within that greater culture.

Admittedly, this is not an easy position to take. It is a commitment. One must commit to exploring the world this way philosophically, experientially and intellectually.Boy at Cockflight_3

Here are 3 ways that this commitment plays out: 

Two weeks ago on Homebrewed released another installment of Mimetic theory (an early blog is here – another pod is to come this Fall). Girard and those who follow his line of reasoning say that we humans, even as babies, learn what to desire my mimicking (thus mimetic) those who care for us. We learn even what to desire (like what foods) by imitating them. Think of this as the outer edge of the ‘learned behavior’ line of reasoning.

Social Construction says that we are not individuals first. There is no access to a  pre-social self. We are formed, groomed and socialized into our families, tribes, societies and cultures and the we occupy and possess within that larger structure a place as subject. This subjective position means that we are actors – but not before we are acted upon. We are not objective in our perspective nor are we simply objects of study. We are subjects who have been subjected.

If you have read the above 2 paragraphs you will see why I put up such a stink this Summer about my approach not being ‘liberal’. I do not believe in the autonomous, selective nor the pre-institutional self. I am a social constructivist who believes that we are socialized, groomed and conditioned from day 1.  (more on this tomorrow)

This next section in admittedly technical but I think that is a fascinating snapshot of a larger landscape. 

I read an amazing article by Lynn Schofield Clark about the incremental difference between Critical Theory and Constructivism as it relates to qualitative research (which is what PT does). Critical Theory is something that I am very interested in employing in my research and that is why Clark’s clarification about how it impacts research is so important.

Both ‘critical’ and ‘constructivist’ approaches desire to “confront injustices in society”. They also both recognize the limitations of people’s opportunities and imaginations for changing unjust social systems due to due the inherent constraints of being a subject within that very system.

Both approaches have an Achilles’ heel. Critical theory has to try and get away from it’s Marxist origin which can overly reductive and materially deterministic. Constructivism (which is more humanistic) can be limited by attempting to validate its findings with claims inherited from the natural sciences. Critical researches are not concerned with seeking validation from the sciences because they are working more on the meta-theoretical.

While both approaches share a large amount of overlap, one glaring concern about Critical researches is:

 its tendency toward elitism. With its proponents’ commitment to the idea that research can bring about a better and more equitable world, critics charge that critical theorists tend to assume that they are not only more capable of analyzing a situation than most; they are better equipped to offer a proscriptive plan of action…

Further, critics charge that critical theorists can be unwilling to listen to the experiences of those most adversely effected by current policies and the status quo, as they tend to focus their analyses on persons and institutions in positions of power and authority. This, critics note, causes critical theorists to be out of touch with the very persons they purport to be most interested in helping.

This concern has given me pause to consider my approach.

The last thing I wanted to pass on is a great line from the Clark article about validity:

The research is valid to the extent that the analysis provides insight into the systems of oppression and domination that limit human freedoms, and on a secondary level, in its usefulness in countering such systems.

Tomorrow I want to talk about “when good isn’t enough” and why my post-colonial concern propels me beyond the liberal label.

Why I’m Into Practical Theology (1/3)

Warning: The next 3 post are going to be very nerdy. There is a reason behind my madness … but just be forewarned.

Philosophy is a hobby for me. I blog about it here a lot because I really enjoy the dialogue and I learn tons in the exchange of ideas. I have had to cut back on blogging as I am now preparing for my qualifying exams.  While I am getting a PhD in Practical Theology,  the inescapable fact is that the ‘Ph’ in PhD is

I often hear the old line that ‘we can’t believe our way into new ways of acting – but that we act our way into new ways of believing’. While I understand the direction behind the challenge, I am suspicious of it’s accuracy for two reasons:

  1. I have been deeply impacted by my studies and this has led to my behaving differently.
  2. I fundamentally object to the binary of belief and action as if they are two different things.

Believing something is an activity and we actively believe something. My mentor, Randy Woodley, is fond of saying ‘you don’t have to tell me what you believe. I know exactly what you believe – I can see it in what you do’. He says this in reference to a Native elder watching the perennial arrival of white missionaries come to the reservation.

I’m afraid that even my earnest desire to be what Donald Schon calls a ‘reflective practitioner’ betrays an underlying binary.

In my Master’s thesis on contextual theology – in a section highlighting the work of Paulo Freire – I wrested with this tension.

More than the believing of propositional truth, the praxis model invites encounters of “doing the truth” quoting Gustavo Gutierrez as saying “contemplation and practice together make up a first act; theologizing is a second act”.

This expectation both comes from and puts forward an understanding of epistemology that is significantly different than theoretical or speculative theologies.  It challenges theologies that are too general and assumed to be universal by questioning the very nature of knowing. Truth is not out there to be brought in; the truth is in here to be brought out.

That is how I got into Practical Theology. 

Rarely a day goes by without someone I meet, even check-out clerks at the grocery store, joking with me that theology isn’t practical.  I must have heard that 500 times in the past 5 years.

I don’t blame people for the misunderstanding. The field might better be called ‘the practice of theology’.  The truth is that the field of PT has changed radically in the past 30 years (more on this tomorrow). It used to be attached to things like homiletics (the art of preaching) or liturgy or pastoral counseling. It is no longer a ‘how to’ kind of field.

PT is really more sociology done with a theological lens – we use qualitative methods (vs. quantitative methods like statistics) to access ground level experiences and practices. Philosopher-types would  lump it in to phenomenology. The main focus of PT is to examine how a given issue of study is actually lived out in real contexts (locations and congregations). We use interviews, case studies, ethnographies and other qualitative methods to do our research.

Here is where the philosophy stuff comes in! When doing PT you must locate your particular approach within 4 generally recognizable categories. The  4 Philosophical Orientations are:

  • Postpositivism
  • Constructivism
  • Advocacy/Participation
  • Pragmatism

Postpositivism is mostly for those who want to report their qualitative findings in more quantitative terms (like for medical studies where stats are valued).

Constructivism is my orientation. It focuses on social and historical constructions and allows one to formulate critical theories about underlying issues.

Advocacy/Participation is the favorite of feminist approaches (among others) because it a) actually advocates for tangible change and b) it ensures that the group being studies is not exploited for the researches privilege.

Pragmatism is an approach that is problem-centered and is more willing to utilize different methods depending on the desired outcome of the research.

I hope you see now why I am into Practical Theology. I thought it would be good to introduce the everyone (including the Homebrewed crowd) to the discipline for 3 simple reasons:

  1. my blog style and topic selection is going to have to shift slightly as I prepare for these qualifying exams.
  2. Callid has begun his PhD in PT at Boston. So 2 out of the 3 theology nerds are in PT (and Micky Jones may be soon to follow). That is a lot of practical theology.
  3. Callid and I were talking and it dawned on us that even our friends don’t really know what it is that we do.

Over the next two days I want to build a bridge to what I will be doing and clarify a couple of things that are still left over from this eventful Summer.

Haunted by Zombie Categories

I have spent that last two weeks reading and shoring up my familiarity with Creation Ex Nihilo and the Trinity respectively. As fascinating as that has been,  I have to admit that am speculated out. I can only take so much speculative theology. This is part of why I am so happy to be in the field of Practical Theology. The other reason is that I have a real heart for the church.

I love Practical Theology. It is a fascinating field that is in the midst of a significant reinvention of itself. As an interdisciplinary engagement within the academy, it interacts with local faith expressions (like the church) in the hope to mutually benefit both the local church and the academy as a sort of go-between.

One of the major changes in this reinvention comes from the recognition that Practical Theology had not doing its own homework. It had fallen into a stale habit of simply attempting to apply the work of other disciplines. Applications of other’s work is fine at some level, but that is no way to gain credibility within the academy. If you want to be taken seriously in that world, you have to endeavor to innovate and explore – just like everyone else.

John Reader is one of my favorites. In the book Reconstructing Practical Theology: the Impact of Globalization the author examines the impact of globalization on everything from families and spirituality to the economy and ecology. There are two specific aspects of the book that I want to post about today and tomorrow: ‘Zombie Categories’ and ‘why the Eucharist isn’t Enough’.

Zombie Categories

Change can be seen in the categorization used within scholarship, specifically as it applies to fields such as practical theology. Reader borrows the term “zombie categories” from Ulrich Beck to refer to existent categorization that are fundamentally dead but which still limps on refusing to go away quietly. This situation forces us to exist temporarily in parallel worlds both utilizing “old, familiar and increasingly redundant” categories alongside “new, emerging and untested” ones.

Reader examines the historical developments and transitions, quickly surveying from the early church to the professionalism and secularism of the twentieth century. This is why it is so important for contemporary theologian to interact with fields such as psychology, sociology, economics, and even the political. As much as I appreciate and have learned from the Big 4 of Theology (Systematic, Historic, Biblical and Philosophical).

In a quick survey of the territory it is becomes clear that the issues encountered under the heading of globalization are not simply a series of incremental changes to which we must adapt to keep operating. The impact of globalization challenges the very frameworks and concepts that are familiar to the practice of Christian ministry.

I get push-back all the time for saying that we need to reexamine and desperately reinvent the very frameworks and vocabularies with which we engage in ministry.

The concerns of local ministry and pastoral care along with the conduct of worship and the diverse challenges needing to be addressed in any context ask something very distinct from us now. The transient nature of globalization paired with a virtually liquid social structure requires a different set of questions and a unique collection of frameworks to adequately address the challenges of ministry and spirituality in a world where the boundaries are constantly shifting. These concerns are most appropriately addressed by re-imagining internal categories inherent to the tradition, partnered with the resources made available by engaging with “the insights of other disciplines”.

This is not about answering the same old questions in slightly different ways for our new context – this is about asking entirely different kinds of questions about the formation of self, the family relationship, construction of community and the nature of religion.

Tomorrow I want to look at how consumerism forms our concept of ‘self’ and why the Eucharist – no matter how tightly we hold to it or how faithfully we perform it – address what is going on with us these days. But first I needed to state how deep the change is and how profound its impact on us is. Cleverly updated answers to the antiquated questions are not going to cut it anymore.

Something else is needed. Our world is not simply a bigger version of what used to be. When people keep insisting that ‘this’ is just an amplified version of ‘that’ they may be missing the point of what it is exactly that we need to be doing here.  “Doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday” may be the worst idea in the history of the church. It may not be –  but it is sure to kill us while we lie in the very bed that we made for ourselves. 

Originally posted at HBC 

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