This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of Bearings magazine, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
The question sounds almost sophomorically abstract: What is it to know something? But the answer has significant real world consequences in, for example, how we educate our children, how we structure educational systems, and how we prepare for our life’s work.
I’ll start with an oversimplified example. My bicycle. What is it to know that bike? Do I know the bike if I understand the function of gears and gear ratios, the physics of acceleration and friction, the frame’s geometry, the properties of aluminum? Or do I know the bike when I get on it, learn to ride it, to fix a flat tire, and get used to how it handles as I use it for both transportation and fun? The first might roughly correspond to theoretical knowledge of the bike, the second to practical knowledge of the bike.
The answer to my question, of course, is that both are ways of knowing the bike. Both theoretical and practical knowledge are important. When it comes to bikes, though, we tend to value practical knowledge over theoretical knowledge. While there may be a few people who understand the mechanics and physics of a bike but have never learned to ride one, I’m guessing there are many, many more people who ride bikes all the time who don’t think it’s important to learn about the molecular structure of the frame that supports them.
When it comes to the academic world, however, and it’s as true in theological education as anywhere, the situation is exactly the reverse: theoretical knowing is prized far above practical knowing. At this year’s American Academy of Religion, a doctoral student told me that a seminary professor who was impressed with his work encouraged him to pursue doctoral study but discouraged him from practical theology. (Quite bluntly, the professor said he wouldn’t write the student a recommendation if he chose practical theology because “you are better than that.”) Before either of us could jump to unfair conclusions, the student assured me that this professor was unaware of scholarly developments in the last several decades. Nonetheless, as happens with such comments, I was troubled by the tendency to demean the intelligence required for ministry and the complexity of practical theological knowledge, including the discipline that attempts to understand it. There is a sense in theological schools that if a student is smart she or he should consider academics rather than ministry. If really smart, she or he should pursue philosophical theology. Why is this?
Scholars in other areas have noted the difficulty of valuing and comprehending the knowledge required to do a practice well, even when the ultimate aim is teaching a profession, such as nursing and law. When I teach pastoral care to divinity students, I assign chapters from nursing scholar Patricia Benner’s From Novice to Expert. Benner argues that the “knowledge embedded in actual nursing practice—i.e., that knowledge that accrues over time in the practice of an applied discipline—has gone uncharted and unstudied.” She prefaces the book by acknowledging that her research will disturb some of our “most dearly held beliefs and assumptions.” Her study of nursing practice reveals that conceptual clarity does not necessarily lead to good practice; rather, it follows upon it. Some expert knowledge arises prior to our ability to theorize it and is more comprehensive than any mental characterization could be. Good judgment “begins with vague hunches and global assessments that initially bypass critical analysis; conceptual clarity follows more often than it precedes.” Paradigm cases—powerful experiences that refine theories—“transmit more than can be conveyed through abstract principles or guidelines.” Maxims or what some practical theologians label “hints and tips” often distill complex practical insight that makes sense “only if the person already has a deep understanding of the situation.”
All these observations challenge conventional assumptions about knowledge that prize
theory over practice. But Benner is not dismissing theory. Rather she underscores the fluidity and necessity of reconnecting theoretical and practical knowledge. One conclusion is particularly noteworthy: Though “a wealth of untapped knowledge is embedded in the practices and the ‘know-how’ of expert nurse clinicians,” a lag in its description and comprehension contributes to a “lag in recognition and reward.” Even more important, failure to comprehend practical knowledge also limits the development of theory.
This conclusion could easily be applied to theological education. I assign Benner’s work because I want students to respect the knowledge they gain through practice as highly as they respect what they acquire through books and lectures. I build into assignments opportunities to gain practical knowledge. I also want students to consider how knowledge emerges over time through experience, an understanding Benner gleans from a model developed by Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus, science and philosophy scholars respectively. This model is based on study of expert pilots and chess players and the insight that there is more to human intelligence than computer formulas can ever comprehend (Mind Over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer).
Benner also relies on Hungarian-British chemist Michael Polanyi who arrived at similar conclusions in the mid-20th century. He is best known for his claim that “we can know more than we can tell” (The Tacit Dimension). That is, practical knowledge we cannot put into words informs the theories we do articulate. In fact, unbridled striving after conceptual lucidity—a pursuit characteristic of many theological curriculums and doctrinal systems—can even impede understanding. A musician loses the flow of music if she focuses only on her fingers; a person loses a sense of a word’s meaning if he concentrates on each repeated sound; we all lose when theology is constructed as beyond all but the erudite. We understand things not by looking but “by dwelling in them.”
This is not always the message students take away from graduate study. Practical theological knowledge bears a resemblance to knowledge that philosopher Michel Foucault’s describes as subjugated, “written out of the record” and ranked “low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity” (Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings). I think here of tensions between practical and speculative theology that run back to differences between Bonaventure and Aquinas in the 13th century; Luther’s not entirely successful protest against speculative theology in the Reformation; and more recent efforts in pastoral and practical theology to seek knowledge in practice.
Why does all this matter for theology? Because many Christians have privileged academic theology in all its lucidity as the most important theology, we have excised a wide terrain of theological knowledge alive and well beyond the bounds of the academy. This makes it difficult to see and understand theology as it operates in religious communities, robs everyday Christians of an important vocation, and, most disquieting, limits where we locate and how we understand divine reality itself (e.g., as something about which we can obtain sure knowledge via intellect).
During my final week of sabbatical at the Collegeville Institute, I walked across the frozen river to hear a School of Theology student and Saint John’s Abbey monk, Brother Lewis Grobe, present a project on the value of manual labor within the Benedictine monastic community at Saint John’s University. As he defined manual labor, certain words jumped out. It is physical, material, bodied, functional, and impermanent. So it lies close to the ground, I thought, to humus—decomposed matter—and related terms, humility, and even humiliation. It doesn’t produce anything lasting—dust resettles, goods deteriorate, plants die. I couldn’t help but wonder if one of the reasons we devalue the “work of our hands” and practical knowledge is their proximity to the dirt and dust of the world, the menial tasks of life, and the wrong side of the Greek dualism of mind over body that crept into Christianity centuries ago. We think we have gotten beyond this, and in many ways we have. But it is hard to prize the messy, uncertain, fleeting, flawed kind of knowledge that emerges out of doing something well with our bodies over time for the sake of the wider community.
Even so, as Grobe’s fine work makes clear, there is a hunger among many people today to reconnect with the earth and with theological knowledge that comes through our hands and bodies. The flourishing of practical theology is only one of many signs of a renewed effort to undo negative politics and to appreciate the intricacy of theological knowledge as it emerges in the midst of everyday life.