Why not a Practical Theology?

Today, I had the opportunity to spend some time reflecting on the future of the Church. It was deep stuff. Too deep, in fact, to be contained by a few minutes of  not-so-rigorous conversation. Hence, the continuation of my thoughts here.

It seems that any reflection on the future of the Church requires that we take a look at where she is now and how she currently relates to the world around her.

Things don’t look good from this perspective. The Church has seen a continual fall in attendance and membership. (Sorry, no citation on this stat. Just hear-say from several pastors and other folk.) This is likely because the Church can’t (or won’t) keep up with the cultural Jones’s, so to speak.

In preaching and in her rituals, she uses symbols that have become – or are becoming – vacuous to many. What does the cross mean to the 21st century man? It certainly does not mean what it meant to the earliest Christians. To be sure, for those who are rooted in the Christian, the cross has a quasi-similar meaning to the one it had to the early Jesus-folk, but our symbols must reach beyond our own traditions if we are to be “fishers of people.”

Remember, in this story, that Jesus enters the symbolic world of Peter, a fisherman. He uses symbols that are familiar to him as a fisherman. He does not ask Peter to step into a new world of symbols. Christianity, if it is to follow this example, must be predominantly without its own distinctive set of symbols. Instead, it must seek to constantly meet people where they are by appropriating the symbols of those whom they wish to “catch.”

To those on the outside, the cross is a symbol that belongs only to a certain people. It makes no (obvious) reference to anything they are familiar with in their current life. We uncritically slipped into doing the exact opposite of what we’ve seen Jesus do.

But the indifference to the Church that results from vacuous symbols is only one of her problems. And this is evident if we consider what the cross means to those who are not just on the outside of the Christian tradition, but to those who are hostile to it. To folk like Richard Dawkins, the cross points to the irrationality and immorality of a group of people who just might pose a danger for the rest of the world’s reasonable folk.

Some folk have responded to this indifference and hostility by (among other things) reworking the way that they talk about God, by reworking their theology. But it seems like the reworkings that I’ve observed always take a similar form: make the same kinds of (metaphysical claims) about the existence of God, heaven, etc. and just a) recast them with a set of symbols that are relevant to the culture or b) qualify them so that they seem less ridiculous to the rational inquiry of the 21st century man or woman.

To be sure, recasting claims with different symbols is, as I’ve already mentioned, a good thing. In fact, I think that new symbols are probably good enough for a lot of people to begin seeing the Church in a positive light.

But I’d like to question whether its really worth our time to qualify our claims so as to make them less crazy. Vast amounts of paper and time has been spent on this project. We’ve fought about evolution. We’ve fought about whether our metaphysical beliefs are rational. We’ve fought about the historical reliability of texts.

The effort we spend on our beliefs is not exhausted by fighting with those on the outside either. We spend much time doing “christian education” where we have to prepare our little Christian teenie-boppers to feel like they have a systematic belief system. Partially because of a festish, I think, for “supremely rational” worldviews and partially for the fights they will get into with folk on the outside. And partially, we must not forget, because its a good idea to critically examine what you think about stuff. (So, I’m not saying reason is unimportant. That would be silly. I’m saying its overemphasized.)

Is this really worth our time though? Children are starving. People are trafficked, raped, and abused. In the first world, we are often lonely and unattached to any life-giving community. We often stumble through our “modern” lives without ever actually getting that thing that we want most: true joy, elation, bliss, the realization that this life is beautiful and its worth living.

(To be clear, I’m not saying that all – or even most – people experience a profound emptiness or lack of joy in their lives. I only know that I’ve seen such lack of joy in my life and I’ve seen it (sometimes) in the lives of others. There may be plenty of folk who have found that sweet nector of life. There’s just not enough of them in my opinion.)

Clearly, if we Christians are interested in bringing heaven here, we’ve got some important stuff to do. So, instead of spending our time “figuring out what we believe” and finding out ways to make our beliefs seem less silly, why not just get rid of most of our metaphysical beliefs? Why not have practical theology?

To be clear, I am not saying that beliefs are unnecessary. Obviously, we need to believe certain things in order to make sense of our  Christian lives. I believe, as we’ve already seen above, that bringing heaven here is the most important task we can be engaged in. What I am suggesting is that the list of beliefs that we need to make sense of our Christian life is probably a lot shorter than we realize.

So, this is what I mean by a practical theology: let’s take our Christian practice as a given and ask, “What do we need to justify this practice?” Let’s articulate the beliefs that we need to justify the practice and just stop talking about metaphysics after that. Obviously, we will still need to talk about practical/ethical stuff.

But if we stop worrying so much about metaphysics, then we focus on the practical. We can focus on starving children, trafficked people, and the listless and blissless dweller of the 1st world.

This is, I think, a really different way of orienting our theology. It seems like the traditional way of doing theology is this: we make metaphysical claims. Then, we make epistemological claims. Our practices are corrolaries of our metaphysics and epistemology.

Here’s an example: God exists. God can kick our ass in hell. We know this “for the bible tells me so.” Ergo, love your neighbor.

I am proposing that we reverse our line of reasoning.

Instead of starting with God’s existence (metaphysics), let’s start with, “I should love my neighbor.” And then ask, “What do I have to believe to make sense of that practice?”

Such an enquiry, I think, would radically reshape our theology.

Do I need the virgin birth to think that loving my neighbor is a good idea? Do I need heaven? Or hell? Do I need angels? Or demons? Do I need a perfect bible? Do I need the trinity, that obscure doctrine that doesn’t make sense to anyone anyway? (Btw, that was actually the point of the trinity in the first place. To express a mystery.) Do I need Jesus to have performed miracles? Do I need a resurrection? Do I need a historical Jesus at all? Do I even need a metaphysically transcendent God?

Maybe. Maybe not. And we can repeat the same series of questions for all of our Christian practices. Do I need beliefs X, Y, and Z to think that going to church is a good idea or praying is a good idea or to think that justice in general is important or to recognize the value of worship?

This approach, I think, will also lead us to examine more closely what our Christian practices fundamentally are. What are we doing when we pray? What are we doing when we worship? When we practice lent? Or celebrate easter? It will lead, moreover, to the realization that some our practices and ethics are or can be, depending on how we understand them, in tension with one another.

In short, I am proposing that the fundamental question what we should ask in our theology is “What are we doing?” rather than “What do we believe?” When we start to ask this question, I think we will spend less time trying to make our beliefs seem less ridiculous and more time trying to understanding what exactly we are doing when we live this Christian life. And just maybe if we embark on a journey of figuring out what we are doing, we can do a better job of understanding and doing what Jesus told us we should be doing anyway: love God. love Neighbor.

But maybe this is a bad idea. Maybe there’s something that I’m confused about. Maybe this won’t actually help the Church in the future. Maybe – and more importantly – this won’t help bring heaven here. I’m not sure. And this is where I turn from my own private musings to you. This obviously looks like a good idea to me right now. But looks can be deceiving. Thus, the title of this post is a question, “Why not a practical theology?” I lay this propsal at your feet, dear reader. What say you? I am open to you calling bs.

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3 Responses to Why not a Practical Theology?

  1. AJ Petersen says:

    Hmmm…. that is an interesting proposition. What are the implications of doing this, though? I mean, plenty of people love others and do good to those around them, but they do NOT do it because they believe in a loving God and Savior. There is a divide here, and I don’t necessarily think that going from the material (practical/physical) to the ideal (ideas/metaphysics) is a smart idea. There were many philosophers who tried to do this and just ended up separating the material from the ideal further — take Immanuel Kant, for example. Kant tried to go from the phenomenal (material) realm to the noumenal (ideal) realm to prove God and just ended up making it worse.
    I think instead of ignoring metaphysics entirely, we should let it shape the way we do everything else and the way we think. So many people today debate metaphysics, but if they don’t let it affect their life, then it is useless. Maybe THIS is where the Church needs revolution… that’s my speculation. 🙂

    • Kevin says:

      Howdy AJ,

      I dig that you’ve commented on what I’ve written.

      I’m not quite sure I understand all of it though.

      It seems like you want to make a distinction between folk who do good things for God vs. folk who do good things for other reasons. A practical theology as I’ve tried to articulate it can make room for that, I think. However, I’m not super sure that such a distinction is necessarily that important.

      To your discussion of Kant: First, what do you mean when you say that Kant “made things worse” with his argument?

      Also, I think maybe I’ve failed to clearly articulate what I mean by a practical theology. I don’t think its very similar to what Kant was trying to do. I’m not trying to say, in other words, that we should take the practices of Christianity as a premise in an argument for the metaphysical.

      • AJ Petersen says:

        Ah, your last sentence makes more sense. I think that means that part of my question is answered.
        What I mean about Kant “making things worse” is that Kant set out to bring the ideal and material worlds together to “prove” God, when really he ended up further separating the two. He set out to synthesize empiricism and rationalism and ended up splitting them further.
        What I still question is the proposal that we focus solely on what we’re doing rather than what we believe. The problem I have with that is that most people do “good deeds”. Most people try to be good, but the focus of Christianity is WHY we are doing those things. The whole point is that BECAUSE Christ died and showed us the greatest love, we in turn can love others and seek to follow His example. I do agree with you that some people focus too much on what they believe and do not go LIVE out their beliefs, but I think if we only focus on the doing, then we are swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, to use a metaphor. I think that the purposes behind our actions and the actions themselves are two sides to the same coin.

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