Reflections on the 2003 conference
by Daniel Louw, President of IAPT
The conference was held in Manchester, United Kingdom, April 11-16, 2003. The theme of the conference was: “Theology and Public Life – Practical Theology in an Age of Pluralism”
Here are a few brief reflections on our conference in Manchester. A word of thanks to Elaine Graham and her team. Manchester was indeed an experience in terms of the interplay between theory formation and an exposure to the first “artifacts” of the so called industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th century. The aim of the conference was to debate the issue of “public” and its link to a practical theological ecclesiology. The opening address was delivered by the President, Marcel Viau [Quebec, Canada] on: Doing Practical Theology in the Age of Pluralism. His basic argument: in order to do practical theology in an age of pluralism, a theological discourse should become an “artifact”, i.e. the hermeneutics exercised by a theologian-artisan who uses aesthetics to interpret the theological tradition.
There were three plenary lectures: Locating Public Theology [Will Storrar, Edinburgh]; Public Theology in Manchester and Salford. [Dr John Atheron – Canon, Manchester Cathedral; Dr Chris Baker – William Temple Foundation; Prof Elaine Graham – Professor in Social and Pastoral Theology / Manchester]; and Public Theology in Global Context; [panel: Dr Elizabeth Tapia – Union Theological Seminary, Philippines; Dr Abraham Berinyuu, Tamale, Ghana; Dr Daniel Schipani, Mennonite Biblical Seminary, USA].
The seminar themes were the following:
- Public Theology and Transformative Pedagogy
- Public Theology and the Academy
- Social Exclusion and Social Justice
- Theology and Civil Society
- Spirituality and the public realm
- Public Theology in a Plural Society
- Public Theology and Popular Religion
In order to foster a debate on the notions of “public” and “praxis” in a practical theological reflection, I share a few personal impressions in retrospect of the conference.
1. It is clear that the concept “public” is difficult to determine. What became clear is that public is related to: relevancy, engagement, inclusiveness, encounter, open and critical discourse, and discernment. The task of a public theology is therefore to identify and address the deep underlying issues that are often too painful or awkward f or politicians and others to address in public debate, and to identify the coming agenda, the issues that people will be wrestling with in future. It is an attempt to articulate in the public square or market place, its convictions about truth, values/norms [goodness], meaning and the ultimate. It incorporates a true discernment in order to assess life and social issues in the light of the gospel [salvation]. Discernment means putting the events, choice and responses of today within the frame of the church’s understanding of the kingdom of God, taking the long view, with attitudes and understanding shaped by faith and imbued with hope. In the words of Duncan Forrester [Truthful Action, Explorations in Practical Theology: Edinburgh: Clark]:”…public theology is rather a theology, talk about God, which claims to point to publicly accessible truth, to contribute to public discussion by witnessing to a truth which is relevant to what is going on in the world and to the pressing issues facing people and societies today”.
Some of the burning issues, as identified during the conference, are:
- A new search for spirituality within processes of secularization
- Globalisation and its impact on local communities and economics
- Urbanization and the creation of a humane environment
- Social justice and the problem of social exclusion, marginalization and stigmatization
- The interreligious debate
- Violence, the misuse of power and the notion of human dignity
2. In terms of theory formation and methodology, the academic issue at stake was how to understand “practical” without ending up with mere practicalities and skills. At stake was the question: is all of theology “practical”, or is practical theology only a vehicle for other theological disciplines? Is practical theology only a functional endeavor, i.e. an attempt to apply what has been formulated by the other theological disciplines?
Within the academy, action theory is determining to a great extend the understanding of “practical”. With reference to Paul Ricoeur, action has to do with discourse and reason. Action is therefore more than merely behavior. Praxis therefore refers to a collection of actions dependent on discourse and reason. Five fundamental actions can be identified: doing, speaking, narrating, imputing and the naming of God.
Hans van der Ven [Nijmegen] added to these fundamental actions, five formal aspects of praxis:
- Beliefs about what is the case
- Expectations – what we hope for
- Goals [combining expectations and beliefs]
- Actions – routes how to reach the goal
- Assessment – how we feel and whether we have reached the goals
To his mind, the most fundamental action in a practical theological ecclesiology is the naming of God within the context of suffering/theodicy.
Within the academy there is a growing consensus that at the heart of practical theology are four basic tasks:
The descriptive-empirical task. This task focuses on the investigation of religious praxis in the present and implies a reflection on the living, human document. What is going on?
The interpretive task: Why is this going on? This attempt is to place empirical research in a more comprehensive explanatory framework.
The normative task: the focus on the construction of theological and ethical norms that can be used to assess critically the contemporary religious praxis
The pragmatic task: the development of rules of art, open-ended guidelines that can assist those who are leading or participating in a particular form of religious praxis.
One can conclude that two fields of research have been identified as objects for research in practical theology: communicative actions and the religious praxis. The implication is a paradigm shift from an ecclesial approach: the actions of the community of faith and ministry to the field of religious practices. R. Ganzevoort [2002:39] calls this practice the human praxis of faith. With regard to praxis, JA van der Ven [2002:21] adds to the empirical dimension also the imperative component of normativity, i.e. the teleological question relating to our personal life: who we are and what we strife for; the deontological question relating to our responsibility: what is right and what are we obliged to do?; the pragmatic or utilistic question relating to effectiveness and efficiency: which action will produce a teleologically desirable and a deontologically obligatory result or outcome.
The following critical question should be posed: but is praxis not more than merely action, communication, norms/values and function/strategy [practices]? What is the place of ontology with regard to praxis? Are human beings not more than merely action? These questions lead to the interesting topic of the place of being in practical theology. Reason and discourse are determined by internalized values and norms. Attitude and aptitude are basic components in actions – are they not perhaps the existential ingredients which give our being human a very specific existential quality? In a qualitative and ontological approach to “practical, the human quest for meaning and our relationship with the ultimate become important spiritual and theological issues.
In terms of future discussions my suggestion is that praxis in practical theology refers to:
- A hermeneutical and ethical dimension – intention, meaning and discourse as embodied in acts of communication and transformation, and determined by norms and values.
- An ontological and existential dimension: being as determined by belief systems and meaning.
- A functional and pragmatic dimension: practice as manifested in the efficiency of planning, design, models and strategy [ministry].
- A spiritualistic dimension: the impact of the encounter between God and human beings and the implication for human dignity and the naming of God.
Van der Ven JA 2002: An Empirical or a normative approach to practical-theological research. In: JET, Vol 15.2, pp 5 – 33, Leiden/Boston: Brill
Ganzevoort, R. 2002 WYSIWYG. Social construction in Practical Theological Epistemology.>In: JET, Vol 15:2, pp 34 – 42, Leiden/Boston: Brill.