In Part One of this interview, Kathleen and Gordon spoke with Janel Kragt Bakker about their work in the field of practical theology. In Part Two, Janel asks Kathleen and Gordon to talk about the chapters they contributed to Opening the Field of Practical Theology.
Gordon, the chapter you contributed to Opening the Field of Practical Theology is on Neo-Protestant practical theology. What are some of the key features of your approach to practical theology?
Gordon Mikoski (GM): Princeton Seminary, where I teach, has always positioned itself to moderate between extremes. Princeton Seminary was founded as a response to deism and rationalism on one hand and the excesses of revivalism and emotionalism on the other. Princeton Seminary has sought to marry piety and knowledge instead of following one or the other to excess.
Following in this tradition, in my chapter I draw on resonances with evangelical theology and with liberationist theology, holding the two together. In the Reformed tradition, which is where I am situated, we are particularly sensitive to issues of idolatry; we see how certain values or norms get held up as ultimate, often at a great cost.
I find the liberationist discussion to be really helpful for unmasking all kind of idolatries of power. Yet, I also find the liberationist perspective too flattened in relation to human experience and God’s immanence. There’s a very important way in which God is transcendent. As Søren Kierkegaard maintained, God is completely “other.” God is not just a projection or comfort—God also breaks into our world in various ways and disrupts things. The incarnation itself is disruptive, but it leads to life abundant.
That doesn’t mean I don’t take human experience seriously as a source for theological reflection. Psychology, sociology, and the rest of the social sciences are important dialogue partners for theology. And so is history.
Prior to the Civil War, Presbyterians in the North and South could not agree how to interpret the scriptures about slavery. Ministers and theologians went around and around on the topic. But as historian Mark Noll has pointed out, the question of how to interpret the Bible on slavery was eventually decided not by the biblical scholars, theologians, and pastors, but by the army generals. In other words, human experience—the facts on the ground—changed, once and for all, how we read the scriptures on slavery. That’s an example of how human experience plays a role in theology.
In light of this approach to human experience, what is the role of sin in Neo-Protestant practical theology?
GM: Churches that emerged out of the Protestant Reformation tend to have a very realistic view of human life, both individually and collectively. In the Reformed tradition we maintain that even our best human aspirations are shot through with distortion, power plays, and self-interest—not to mention dysfunction and brokenness. This kind of critical principle is crucial.
Not only does this critical posture help unmask falsehood, it also reminds us that no one perspective has the right answer. We are all biased; we’re all implicated. We all distort things in various ways, and we need the critical interaction of others in order to see our own limitations and move to a better place.
Some people think Calvinists are pessimistic; I think we’re just realistic. All you have to do is read the newspaper and look around to see that human sinfulness is the norm. But people misinterpret the role of sin for Calvinists, thinking that we see humanity as worthless. That’s not actually the case. Calvin used the image that we are all mirrors for God’s glory. The surface of the mirror is all scratched up, but there’s still an underlying structure of goodness in human life. The mirror needs polishing and fixing.
Even reason did not survive the fall. Our use of reason is subject to all sorts of power agendas and distortion. For instance, alcoholics can use reason to explain their dysfunction so that it sounds like their life is right and normal. But it’s not; they’re rationalizing the dysfunction.
There are plenty of idols around. The human heart is an idol factory. We make idols out of everything. Part of the task of the practical theologian is to unmask idols, and you don’t get very far unless you acknowledge sin. Sin is more than alienation and oppression (the focus of much of liberation theology). It is naïve to think that if you just structure society in the right way, the natural goodness of humanity will come out. We’re all broken; we all have our issues. The concept of sin allows us to focus on the social as well as the internal condition of each human.
Kathleen, your chapter is on Roman Catholic pastoral theology. Why do you describe it as “pastoral theology” rather than “practical theology”?
Kathleen Cahalan (KC): Traditionally, there’s been no field of practical theology in Catholic seminary education. While it is changing, pastoral theology is still the dominant language.
Unlike in Protestant theology, pastoral theology has not been understood as pastoral care among Catholics. Rather, the clerical paradigm has been dominant in much of the Catholic tradition. Pastoral theology was intended to help priests become better sacramental ministers and confessors.
After the Second Vatican Council, the term “pastoral” shifted to mean the church’s relationship to the world. Vatican II steered the church away from the clerical paradigm toward a public paradigm in which the church’s job is to get out and embrace the world. And the world needs to know what the church is about.
With the liberation movements that began in the early 1970s, we saw the seeds of a strong practice-oriented way of understanding pastoral theology among Catholics, which gave way to the rise of reflection on theological method. Now there is a practical paradigm emerging, and Catholics are becoming increasingly interested in the language of practical theology.
You mention that the Second Vatican Council also gave more credence to the importance of the ministry of the laity. How has this focus on the laity affected contemporary Catholic pastoral theology?
KC: There is an ongoing tension in Catholicism surrounding lay ministry and its relation to pastoral ministry. Catholic theological educators have been asking: is the clerical paradigm, which had long dominated Catholic seminary education, adequate to train lay ministers? This question gave rise to theological reflection as the dominant kind of training in Catholic seminary education, which values human experience in conversation with the scriptures and tradition.
But we’ve also seen a strong pullback toward a clerical paradigm and a strong notion of the priesthood reemerge. The spine of Catholicism is the ordained priesthood, so this tension is always going to be around in some way.
You identify a dialogue between experience and tradition in Catholic pastoral theology. What is the significance of this dialogue?
KC: This dialogue is at the heart of the story of twentieth-century Catholicism. If Karl Barth was the pivotal figure for Protestants in the twentieth century, Karl Rahner was the pivotal figure for Catholics. Rahner turned theology to the subject, beginning theology with not with God’s revelation but with how the human subject is created to receive the divine. Rahner shifted the starting point of theology, honoring human experience and the human capacity to be in relationship with transcendent reality.
One stream of Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council has placed a strong emphasis on experience as a way of receiving and knowing who and what God is. We see experience honored in methods of pastoral theology that promoted theological reflection. In this method, people sought to bring their experience into dialogue with the tradition, rather than receive the tradition in a more passive way.
There has been controversy in Catholicism over moral norms. What is the role of experience, and what is the role of the tradition, in determining our morals and ethics? That question has been important in Catholicism for a long time.
Most Catholic theologians see a dialogue between the teachings of Catholicism and personal conscience. Conscience is our highest moral authority, but conscience is always tested by the community and the tradition. Experience is valuable, but the community plays a vital role in forming, shaping, and critiquing conscience.
GM: This dialogue between tradition and experience has parallels in Protestantism too. As we wrote our chapters for Opening the Field of Practical Theology, along with compiling and editing the volume, we observed many areas of overlap between Catholic and Neo-Protestant practical theology—not to mention overlap with various other traditions represented. But there’s enough differences, too, to make things interesting.
Learn more about the Seminar on Integration in Theological Education and Ministry, in which both Gordon and Kathleen are participants.