Kathleen Cahalan and Gordon Mikoski are co-editors of Opening the Field of Practical Theology, an introduction to practical theology recently released by Rowman & Littlefield. By examining fifteen different approaches to practical theology—feminist, liberationist, Roman Catholic, evangelical, and postmodern, to name a few—the book illustrates the depth and breadth of the field.
Kathleen Cahalan is Professor of Theology at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary and Director of the Collegeville Institute Seminars. Gordon Mikoski is Associate Professor of Christian Education and Director of the Masters Studies Program at Princeton Theological Seminary. Both are participants in the Collegeville Institute Seminar on Integration in Theological Education and Ministry. Kathleen and Gordon spoke with Janel Kragt Bakker about their work in the field of practical theology.
Over the years many books have been published on practical theology. Why did you think a new introduction to practical theology was important or necessary?
Kathleen Cahalan (KC): Gordon and I both participated in a seminar on practical theology, theological education, and ministry several years ago. We realized that people were using the term practical theology in all sorts of different ways, and many of these usages were reductionistic or outmoded. We decided that a map of practical theology was necessary to help clarify the contours of the field.
As we maintain in the book, practical theology is not just one thing; there are many different ways to approach practical theology. We wanted to show practical theology in its complexity and multiplicity, helping readers navigate a broad-ranging field.
Gordon Mikoski (GM): That multiplicity gives people different points of entry into practical theology, finding conversation partners with different methods, perspectives, commitments, or ecclesiastical traditions.
How do you define practical theology?
KC: We choose not to specifically define practical theology since it is such a porous and open-ended field. Instead, we identify several key features of practical theology; practical theology is attentive to theory-practice complexity, oriented to performance as well as to social context and embodiment, holistic, interdisciplinary, flexible, theologically normed, hermeneutical, critically constructive, eschatological, and self-reflective.
Practical theologians employ different ways of combining these core elements into approaches to the field, which is why we resist defining practical theology and rely on scholars’ self-identification as practical theologians.
You, along with various authors in the book, challenge the notion of practical theology as “applied theology.” Why? What is wrong with this notion?
GM: The classic understanding of theology is that it has three branches: philosophical or systematic theology, historical theology, and practical theology. Systematic theology was understood as the essence of Christianity, and historical theology—including scriptural studies and church history—was the study of how systematic theology was carried out in history. Practical theology, then, was the crowning element of theology, which was the study of how we live in light of the essence of Christianity and its historical trajectory.
In this mindset, doctrines were understood to be objective and universal, and there was a straight line leading from theory to practice. This understanding of theology, unfortunately, resulted in a bifurcation between theory and practice; systematic theologians ostensibly did the heavy theological lifting, and practical theologians applied that knowledge to practical arenas.
I use an archery analogy to explain the classical understanding of practical theology, with the arrow being the doctrinal content and the target being the practical context. The idea was to perfect the aim of the arrow. Doctrine allegedly doesn’t change, so you just have to get better and better at hitting your target. The problem is that targets are actually quite varied. You can’t just aim at one target. Just like the targets are varied, so too are the arrows. Doctrines are multiple, and doctrines are often revised—they aren’t static.
KC: We’ve seen a huge shift from the classical understanding of practical theology as applied theology. Contrary to the classical understanding, in the postmodern context practical theologians understand that all theology arises out of local contexts, and that theory and practice inform and shape each other.
We also recognize that knowledge is not just conceptual but also embedded in practice; practice itself communicates theologically. Practical theology begins in practice, turns toward theory, and returns to practice. Practical theologians now have a more particular and contextual understanding of theology. Our theology is always shaped by the culture in which we are situated.
How did you decide which approaches to practical theology to include in your book?
GM: In a field as diverse and porous as practical theology, deciding which approaches to include was challenging. No matter how broadly you open the field of practical theology, you cannot contain the diversity in a single volume.
For instance, we included chapters on African American, Asian America, U.S. Latina/Latino, and white practical theology. This chapter on white practical theology is one of the creative contributions of this book—recognizing that in the U.S. white people’s theology is not “generic” but emerges out of specific contexts and commitments. Whiteness is made visible.
But there are so many other ethnicity-specific theologies we could have included, raising the connection between practical theology and autobiography. We tried to represent the range of practical theology in the U.S. without collapsing disparate approaches into each other. We could have easily included another eight or ten chapters.
KC: The various “openings” included in our book help articulate the complex interplay between theology and practice. The key for us as practitioners in the field is to do the work from the place where we are—hospitable and open to others but also aware of our own social and theological locations. This type of approach helps other people locate themselves in the conversation.
We did not intend for our book to essentialize the field, but rather to open the field by exploring different perspectives. And at the end of the book, we invite readers to take practical theology forward out of their own location and commitments.
What are some points of commonality among the various approaches to practical theology?
GM: One of the points of commonality is a focus on the human dimension of theology. Practical theology is a kind of Christian humanism. It’s thinking theologically in relation to the human scale and the human experience. We’re less interested in exploring the fine points of metaphysical doctrine about the Trinity and more interested in thinking about, say, how a Trinitarian framework gives us a way to think about unity and diversity in the way people actually live.
KC: Practical theologians try to discern how to live out our commitments in very practical ways—like shopping and exercising. Practical theology also has a very public dimension. Practical theologians think theologically about living in community, negotiating conflict, and navigating social systems.
What are some key differences among practical theologians?
KC: As we edited the book I was reminded that there are two dominant approaches to practical theology with different languages and different commitments. One approach is liberationist and the other focuses on practices of the Christian life.
Often, representatives of these two groups don’t have much to say to each other or talk past each other. Practical theologians in the liberationist camp understand Christianity through the lens of freedom from oppression. They often draw attention to systemic injustices and abuses. Theologians who focus on practices, by contrast, are more attuned to living a Christian life on the micro level.
Liberationists tend to be more deconstructive in their approach, and theologians focused on practices tend to be more constructive. We tried to appreciate both perspectives in the book, refusing to choose between one and the other.
GM: I learned a lot by working on the index to the book, noting which words show up frequently in each chapter. For example, there are some chapters that use language like sin, grace, and transformation, and other chapters that use language like alienation, marginalization, and oppression. But all of them recognize that there is something deeply wrong with our world and that Christian theology contains the promise and hope of making things right.
I’m gratified that we were able to include chapters representing both schools of practical theology, and I’m hopeful that increasingly we’ll see more productive conversation among practical theologians of all stripes.
In Part Two of the interview, we ask Kathleen and Gordon to talk about the chapters they contributed to Opening the Field of Practical Theology, on Roman Catholic pastoral theology and neo-Protestant practical theology, respectively.