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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

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Mapping the Theological Landscape

There are some helpful ‘spectrums’ about theology. I use Grenz & Olson’s formulation of:

  • Folk
  • Lay
  • Ministerial
  • Professional
  • Academic

as a starting point to initiate those who are entering the conversation. This summer I am teaching an Essentials of Christian Theology class online. It is the same class that I just finished teaching in Portland this past semester.

There are some crucial elements that help frame the reading for the class [link to our text – also in kindle] that I will be making a series of videos for.

I am suspicious of ‘spectrums’ generally and find ‘maps’ to be more accurate and more helpful. Here is my 23 minute attempt to map the theological landscape (as a protestant) for the 21st century.

We begin with Creedal, Confessional, Constructive, and Critical approaches.

Let me know if you have thoughts or questions 

There Is No Neutral Anymore

Perhaps the most important theme that has developed for me in 2017 is the ongoing realization that there is no neutral position. This has been with me conceptually for the past decade but the seminary classroom has made it less abstract.

One of the great challenge and great opportunities of the multi-denominational seminary is that students come in with layers of experiences, perspectives, loyalties, and insights. They do not come in as clean slates or blank canvases. We never start from scratch (thank God).

Training for ministry does not happen in a vacuum. It happens some where and some when. That is why yesterday I wrote that truth is not dead, it just needs to be understood as situated.

This is a big revelation and a potential stumbling block for some! Truth and meaning do not materialize out of thin air – they are constructed socially. The realization that our access to truth is partial, provisional, and perspectival comes with some profound implications.

Meaning, then, is correspondingly understood to be:

  1. Mediated
  2. Located
  3. Contested

Meaning is mediated because our understanding comes to us through inherited language, social constructs, and mental frameworks (paradigms).

Meaning is located because the same event or data may look very different or be interpreted differently by a different person in another place or time.

Meaning is contested because in a partial/perspectival understanding, no one interpretation gets a free ride or an automatic pass. Everything is up for review.

 

This realization can have a disrupting effect and can lead to disorientation. However, once it is embraced, there is a comforting peace that can settle in as knowledge of the world and claims within faith correspond more accurately to history and to the world as it really is.

Perhaps the two most significant implications are for the person who has been sold an ideology and for the perennial skeptic. Those two positions are tough to maintain in this new reality. There is no neutral (or exempt) position anymore. One does not simply get to sit back and poo-poo other’s perspective without providing an alternative. It is not sufficient to take shots at or poke holes in opinions that you disagree with.

Because our culture, and our understanding of truth, is so fractured … one has to make the claim or justify ones position in the arena of ideas or the court of public discourse. Nothing gets off scot-free, no idea gets a free ride, and no position is exempt from examination.

There is no neutral anymore. Inactivity reinforces the status quo and is, by default, taking a position.*

Two quick examples: theology and hair.

Whether the topic is women in ministry or speaking in tongues, it is not sufficient for the cynic to encounter a new perspective and simply say “I don’t know about that”. 20 or 40 years ago that may have worked, but it works no longer. If a young man wants to be skeptical after reading feminist theology or looking at charismatic excesses, he gets to do that, but he must bring something to the table in its stead. No longer can one take the privileged position of retreating to the way things are as a defense against engaging new ideas and challenging critiques.

This is a new reality that takes some adjustment. It can be uncomfortable for those who have been groomed or conditioned to succeed in the traditional way things have been.

Hair is an interesting example. It is not enough to make snarky comments about how trendy beards are without realizing that shaving in a social performance as well. One may feel free to criticize the money and attention that a women puts into her hair – but not doing your hair is a decision as well. For both men and women, shaving your legs and armpits are both political statements. For women of a certain age, coloring the gray and not coloring become an issue. A womanist friend of mine explained that African-American women can go-natural, use product, straighten or braid (among a myriad of other options) but they all make a statement (sometimes political) and that position will be reviewed and will likely be contested. There is no neutral.

Sir, you can criticize my expensive organic fair-trade cotton Tshirt, but your $4 Walmart knockoff sweatshop shirt or not wearing any shirt at all are both up for review as well.

Like it or not, the age of inactivity is over. Sitting in your house or protesting the government, cooking at home or going out to eat, buying nice furniture or going off the grid, having kids or using protection  are all statements and they are all consequential.

 

 

*Academics might reference this as the nature of the hegemonic order. The 20th century saw the ability to presume the established order of things dissolve at every level. Economy, politics, military, ecology, morals, religion, civility, marriage, gender, sexuality, occupations and trades are just a few examples of categories that display this loss of fixed and stable assumptions.  

Constructing Theology

There is an art about constructive approaches to theology. I am a big fan of the current trend toward constructive theology and away from ‘systematic’ theology. The problem, as I see it, it two-fold. First, God did not give us a system. What we have inherited is a story – a narrative.  Call it a covenant, call it a relationship, call it the community of creation … what we have is organic and earthy, connective and fleshy, sacred and ordinary at the same time. Systems are very man-made (and in this case ‘man’ is not generic but historically masculine) and extremely formulaic.

Systems are not inherently bad, mind you. It’s just that systems, and systematic theology, sometimes take on a life of their own and become mechanistic and assembly line in the age of factories. Doctrines and ideas are not gears that interlock in intricate and interchangeable ways. Even as an analogy, it leaves much to be desired, let alone the actual exercise production of systematic theology.

The second problem is that in order for all of the moving parts (gears) to work together in systematized and mechanistic ways, much of the data must be shaved off or conformed so that it all fits together in a coherent formula. The goal of systematic theology is to create a system that works as a unit – not to create a story that accounts for the all of the material and data. Systematic theologies are like feature-length movies that have been cut and spliced with a lot of film left on the cutting room floor. The result is that some elements may be neglected while others may get ‘forced’ to fit.

I am not begrudging the history of systematic theology, it is a rich tradition, but only saying that I prefer the move away from systematized and mechanistic approaches to theology and toward a more holistic and organic approach that accounts for more of the data/material of both scripture and church history, as well as human experience. Constructive theology is a different approach that says (in essence) ‘what we have here may not fit together or work together perfectly, but neither does life or faith’ – not everything conforms to a perfect form and it may not necessarily come together in a perfect and transferable unit.

Life and faith are messy but I would prefer that more of the picture be re/presented or accounted for than I am concerned that the categories work together cleanly.

What this shift to constructive theology has meant in practice is that I have taken a half-step away from systematic theology to begin the transition. I have inherited an Essentials of Theology class for this year-long appointment as my school (Portland Seminary) transitions to a new curriculum that will not include this class in this form in the future. So while I have left the inherited categories the same, I have changed two things:

  1. I changed the sequence so that ‘humanity’ (anthropology) was not an afterthought
  2. I don’t expect the content of each category to come together in tidy or even functional ways. They may – but that is not the highest priority.

These little changes make a big difference. Placing ‘humans’ second in the sequence means that we have to deal with the reality of bodies and location before we can tackle the idea that ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’. Our sequence of conversations goes God, human, Jesus, …. Instead of the more classic approach of God, Jesus, Bible, Holy Spirit, Church – then humans. As you will hopefully notice in today’s and tomorrow’s posts on humans then Jesus, sequencing is not trivial. [We will get back to nuclear-theology later in the week].

 

When I talk about being human from a theological concern, it seems to bring up a lot of complex words: incarnate, embodied, context, and enacted.  This is an opportunity to employ a playful and structural examination of these concepts. For instance, by simply applying a well-placed backslash, these concepts take on a new level of clarity.

  • In/carnate
  • Em/body
  • Con/text
  • En/acted

These notions take on a profound weightiness to validate human experience (and your story) as a place (or text) of spiritual insight and divine revelation. Your story matters to God. Your experience is valid and tells us something. Your existence is a living text (to quote Bonnie Miller-McLemore) that informs our theological examination.

I close with this: it is important to talk about what it means to be human before we talk about Jesus so that we know how big of a deal it is that Christians claim that Jesus was a revelation of something divine – that Jesus embodied God – or that the Word became flesh.

This isn’t a system. It isn’t simple. It doesn’t always fit together in a neat and tidy formula. It is a story that is messy, fleshy, and earthy. I hope that our approach re/presents that truth whether our ‘final product’ does or not.

 

 

Nuclear Theology part 1

How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A number that you probably haven’t even heard of.

Several years ago, I became concerned about the fading awareness of the atomic age. Growing up in the 1980s, the ‘cold war’ loomed over our politics and our evangelical Christianity. Thirty years later, the post-9/11 world sent me in search of theological addresses of some of my concerns and this is when I stumbled into Theology for a Nuclear Age by Gordon D. Kaufman. While Kaufman’s larger work is outside the scope of my particular theological project, I connect with his concern about the nuclear age very deeply.

It has now been more than 70 years since the bombs were dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is odd that Kaufman wrote in the 1980s – 35 years later – and I read his work almost 30 years after they were written. There is something oddly symmetrical about the reality of ‘the bomb’ becoming an issue again 70 years after its devastating power was first unleashed. I have been reading all of this nuclear theology for the past 5 years partly to exercise my own demons on the issue but partly because I feared that it would become a concern again with our global geo-politics.

The recent US elections have elevated nuclear war to a crisis level again.

My fascination with theological implications of the nuclear age is like being into a vintage band that has only recently come into popularity – thus the hipster joke above.

What follows below, and in the next several posts, will be selections of Kaufman edited or summarized into blog format. The book is a thin 63 pages and my hope is to whet your appetite to pick it up and join me in this consideration.

In a previous address Kaufman had suggested … that the nuclear age into which humankind has now moved – an age in which it is possible we may utterly destroy not only civilization but humanity itself – challenges scholars in theology and in the study of religion to do some radical re-thinking about our discipline and about some of the presuppositions taken for granted in our work. (vii)

There is a new situation in which humanity now finds itself – in which we are able, by the mere press of a button, to destroy our entire world as well as humankind itself – isn’t in a significant way ‘out of sync’ with the central traditional claim about God’s sovereignty over the world. (ix)

The religious eschatology of the West was undergirded by faith in an active creator and governor of history … and the end of history – whether viewed as ultimate catastrophe or ultimate salvation – was to be God’s climactic act. (3)

An end brought about by nuclear holocaust must be conceived primarily not as God’s doing but as ours. The possibility that we will obliterate all future human life is so novel and strange that it is difficult for us to grasp what we are up against. Human kind was never believed to have the power utterly to destroy itself; that power lay with God alone. Many, such as Karl Barth, say that this utterly calamitous self-destruction of humanity will never be allowed to occur. (4-7)

While it is my prayer that this is true … I am deeply convicted that we need to adjust the way that we think about our concept of ‘god’ in light of the new possibility and threat. If folks want to cling to classic/antiquated notions of a BIG GOD, I am fine with that (I really am). They will need to justify those claims again in this new era and not simply parrot formulations of previous centuries. Claims regarding GOD’s power and intervention cannot be grandfathered in to the emerging reality carte blanc.

 

The God Revealed In Christ

Who said anything about omni-potent?

One of the difficulties of being both a believer, and for me, a pastor is how much time and energy gets taken up by the god that you don’t believe in. I believe in god very deeply and have given much of my life to teaching and leading people into a fuller understanding of faith in and participation with the divine-eternal-transcendent.

I love and try to imitate Jesus. I guess that makes me a Christian. Which is fine because even if there was no such category as ‘christian’, I would still be fascinated with the phenomenon that gets labeled the spirit of Christ/the spirit of God/Holy Spirit. My attraction to the field of practical theology is to examine the ways that religious communities and people of faith live out their beliefs in embodied practices.

I am really committed to this thing that gets called belief-faith-religion. It plays an important role in my life, in my family, in my networks, in our society, and in our world. I feel the need to say this because I get frustrated at the increasing amount of time and energy that gets taken up explaining what I don’t believe.

God has really gotten out of control in our culture. You say that you believe in God or that you have had a religious experience and suddenly you find yourself defending lofty and foreign concepts like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, immutability, and impassibility. You get overwhelmed by an avalanche of historical atrocities and are asked to defend classic conceptions of an all-mighty or sovereign god in the face of human evil and suffering. Now there are accusations of hypocrisy, genocide, crusades, sexual abuse, and every manner of discrimination and hate.

All I said is that I like Jesus and the one that he called Abba. What have I been pulled into and am I obligated to adopt/defend all of these other things? Is it possible that the concept of God has gotten out of hand and grown over the centuries into the bloated and oversized thing that is unsustainable and indefensible?

Are we allowed to downsize this whole thing to a more understated and humble version? Someone might ask “you want a more manageable god?”

It’s not that I want to manage god or be in control of god … I just want a conception of god that isn’t so amped up, highly-caffeinated, or on steroids. I was looking at a model in the range of ‘the god revealed in christ’. I find that a compelling vision of god – more servant than Caesar, more nurturing parent than distant monarch.

I feel at times like the person looking for a reliable car but getting stuck with a pushy salesman who is bent on getting me into something bigger, faster, more powerful, and fancier. I just want something that gets there, I’m not sure about all the bells and whistles – nor can I afford the payments on the luxury model.

I’m looking for a place to rest but all the mattresses are king-sized, pillow top, space-age foam, with dual temperature control and animated bi-level posture support. I was hoping to watch the evening news and maybe enjoy a game on the weekend but all the cable packages are premier bundles with 500 channels from 130 countries including an extreme sports package and a 100 gigabyte DVR included with your unlimited data upgrade.

A smaller and humbler vision of god seems like heresy to most folks for whom the whole point of there being a divine being is that it is the biggest and best of whatever it is that you would value. Anything less, it appears, is not even worthy of worship and so it becomes an all or nothing dichotomy where God had better be everything that has been promised or there is no point in believing in God at all.

Like so many other things in our culture right now, religion has been turned up to 11 and you had better like it OR YOU CAN GET THE HELL OUT!

Through the advent season and into the new year, my meditation has been on the incarnation and the amazing reality that the eternal word (logos) became flesh and dwelt among us – emmanuel means that god is with us. For good or bad, god is now eternally bound up in the creatures’ fate. God has not only identified with humanity but has become entwined with humanity.

Incarnation is why our bodies matter to god and why our embodied practices mean as much or more than our ideas and concepts about god. I’m looking for the God Reveled In Christ.*

Tomorrow I want to ask if the classic notion of the big-god was destroyed when we entered the nuclear age. I’m not sure that conception of god survived the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like the star over Bethlehem, the mushroom clouds loom over us and divide history from its previous era.

_____________________

*I understand that G.R.I.C. may not be the biggest or best. I get that when we say ‘GOD’ we are saying more than ‘human’ loudly. I have no interest in projecting all of our hopes and dreams onto the screen of the heavens. I accept that those who hold to the inflated and super-sized Almighty King of the Universe are the gate-keepers and boundary guards of what they term orthodoxy. It has taken me 20 years to get comfortable letting go of their interpretation of the KINGdom but after surveying the theological landscape, I am sure that there is plenty of real estate that does not require certainty as an entrance fee.

Getting Ready For God Week

The semester is off to a good start and my 3 classes are coming together in exciting ways.

Side-note: my 3 classes this semester are ecclesiology, culture & systems change, and essentials of christian theology. 

In ‘essentials’ the topic for next week is God. A really interesting cross-reference comes from Changing Signs of Truth by Crystal Downing, which is being read by the culture & systems change class this week.

She has a really innovative take on (re)signing our inherited symbols in order to clarify what those sign/symbols point to or signify. There is a part of me that wishes we could have the two classes meet at the same time and talk about what it would mean to (re)sign the symbol of that little three letter signifier ‘g-o-d’.

For those of you who are planning to follow along and participate in the essentials conversation, I just wanted to let you know how excited I am about how this is all coming together. In the book that we will be using as our primary focus, the list of authors is impressive:
Stanley J. Grenz; John B. Cobb, Jr.; Sallie McFague; Serene Jones; Robert W. Jenson; Hughes Oliphant Old; Ellen T. Charry; Paul F. Knitter; Richard J. Mouw; Noel Leo Erskine; David S. Cunningham; Kathryn Tanner; Clark M. Williamson; Leanne Van Dyk; Letty M. Russell; Michael Battle; J. A. DiNoia, O.P.; and Ted Peters.

What is going to make this exploration even more interesting is that we are putting each section of the essentials book in conversation with an author/thinker from a different tradition/perspective. Those authors include:

  • Emily Townes
  • James Cone
  • Rita Nakashima-Brock
  • Catherine Keller

I am also adding:

  • Randy Woodley
  • Elaine Graham
  • Sheila Greeve Davaney

It is going to be an epic 4 month journey and I hope that you will join us for it.

Let me know if you have any questions or if I can be helpful in any way.

Yes Please

A couple of weeks ago I read a fantastic article that has stuck with me. The article was entitled “Feminist theology’s contribution to pastoral theology” [link] and it was 10 pages  packed with goodness.

One section that I have returned to several times said, “Margaret Farley[1] effectively encapsulates the program of feminist theology under three themes:

  1. relational patterns among human persons,
  2. human embodiment, and
  3. human assessment of the meaning and value of the world of ‘nature’.”

Those three themes resonate with me deeply.

Relational patterns among humans is the entire reason I got into the field of practical theology. I wanted out of theology as abstract ideas and speculation. The practices of faith and the lived reality of religious communities fascinates me. I want to know what people do with their faith, how it forms and informs their activity in the world. I am convinced that meaning is socially constructed and that belief must be relationally enacted.

Human embodiment is the logical outcome of this line of reasoning. Christianity is a religion centered on the event of the incarnation. Said another way, Christianity is an incarnational religion. Faith, to really be faith, must be embodied and enacted. Our bodies matter to God. This is why I love Elaine Graham’s use of ‘perfomativity’ in her book Transforming Practice. 

Value of the world of ‘nature’ is going to be increasingly crucial in our lifetime. The environmental/ecological issues are only going to become more intense and more consequential. The thing that many christians seem to confuse is that the ‘new heaven and new earth’ promise of scripture is not a clean break with this current one but a redemption/restoration of it at some level (or in some way). God loves the world (John 3:16) and what that means needs some new attention.

These three themes got me thinking: much of the time I wish that feminist theology was just theology. Part of how masculine theology gets to avoid using a modifier and hold onto the mantle of regular or plain ole’ theology is by employing the modifier feminist to qualify certain work.[2]

I’ll pause there for today. I just wanted to:

A) share this quote and these three themes with you

B) encourage to look for the work of Kathryn Tanner , Serene Jones, Emilie Townes, bell hooks, Elizabeth Johnson, Marjorie Suchocki, Monica Coleman, Sheila Greeve Davaney, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and my PhD advisor Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook in our theology in the new year series.

I’ll pick up tomorrow with ‘Your Kin-dom Come!’ and the work of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 21st Century” in Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside. 

________________

[1] Farley, Margaret A. “Feminist theology and bioethics” in Feminist theology: a reader / edited by Ann Loades. 1990, pp.238-254, at p.240

[2] ie. Mary Daly, Sallie McFague, Rosemay Radford Ruether who are explicitly addressing issue related to gender and patriarchy

 

Theology in the New Year

Starting in January, I will be teaching an Essentials of Theology class.  I wanted to invite you to follow along and even participate here as the weekly class themes will provide direction for blog posts.

We will be using 2 books and each week we will put them in conversation. The first book is Essentials of Christian Theology (Kindle $17) and the second is Introduction to Christian Theology: Contemporary North American Perspectives. There are a couple of PDFs later in the reading that I will provide links to when it is time.

This is going to be a fun format. Each section in the Essentials book provides two authors’ perspective. We will then place that material in conversation with a third (and different) perspective to both challenge and round out the dialogue.

The content will be electric so I wanted to invite you join in and give your theological reflection some zip in the new year! Consider picking up the books and following along as we explore some of the big themes of the faith. You will also be able to listen to MP3s of the lecture portion of class each Tuesday.  

January 9 – January 15

What Are We Doing Here? The Task of Theology

Reading: Essentials – How Do We Know What to Believe? p. 1-50

Lecture: Informed and Formed by the Faith

Conversation:  Intro – Badham chpt. 1

 

January 16 – January 22


God

Reading: Essentials – What Do We Mean by “God” p. 51-92

Lecture: 5 Gods That People Worship

Conversation:  Intro – Williamson chpt. 3

 

January 23 – January 29


Human

Reading: Essentials – Is God in Charge? p. 93-132

Lecture: Located and Active Agents

Conversation:  Intro – Brock chpt. 13

 

January 30 – February 5


Jesus

Reading: Essentials – How Does Jesus Make a Difference? p. 183-220

Lecture: Jesus in not Superman

Conversation:  Intro – Cone chpt. 14

 

February 6 – February 12


Spirit

Reading: “Spirit” chpt. 6 in Constructive Theology pdf.

Lecture: The Power of Pentecost and Perichoresis

Conversation:  Intro – Keller chpt. 16

 

February 13 – February 19

The Evangelical Tradition

Reading: Intro – Pinnock chpt. 6

 

February 20 – February 26


Sin

Reading: Essentials – What’s Wrong With Us? p. 133-182

Lecture: Competing Desires

Conversation:  Intro – Townes chpt. 15

 

February 27 – March 5


Church

Reading: Essentials – Why Bother With Church? p. 221- 256

Lecture: Ecclesiology and Environment

Conversation:  Intro – Oden chpt. 5

 

March 6 – March 12


Christian Life

Reading: Essentials – How Should We Live? p. 257-296

Lecture: Character and Habitus for the 21st Century

Conversation:  Intro – Hauerwas chpt. 8

 

March 13 – March 19


Context: Colonialism and Consumerism

Reading: Woodley “Missiology” pdf.

Lecture: Conscripted Into A Better Story

Conversation: Intro – Isasi-Diaz chpt. 17

 

March 20 – March 26


Other Religions

Reading: Essentials – What About Them? p. 297-326

Lecture: Are All Religions Paths Up the Same Mountain?

Conversation:  Intro – Hick chpt. 2

 

March 27 – April 2


The Good News

Reading: Elaine Graham – “Between a Rock & a Hard Place” pdf.

Lecture: The Evangel – Good News for the Poor?

Conversation:  Intro – Jeanrond chpt. 10

 

April 3 – April 9


Eschatology

Reading: Essentials – Where Are We Going? p. 327-365

Lecture: The End of The End

Conversation:  Intro – Taylor chpt. 18

 

April 10 – April 16


Putting It All Together

Reading: Intro – Devaney pdf.

Lecture: The World Wide Web of Christian Practice

Conversation: Weaving a Web of Meaning

 

April 17 – April 23


Constructing A Christian

Reading:  Intro – Buckley chpt. 7

Lecture: Dancing Our Prayers

Conversation: The Body and Embodied Practice

 

April 24 – April 30


Parousia

 

Four Theological Finds

I am coming out of an intense season of study. In that time I have found four amazing authors that I wanted to tell you about since I plan on referencing thier work a lot in the coming year.

My five qualifying exams were in the following areas:

  • Practical Theology (major field)
  • Religious Education (minor field)
  • Global Methodism (theology)
  • Critical Race Theory: Whiteness (practicum)
  • Social Imaginaries (cognate field)

In all of that reading, there were four thinkers that deeply impacted the direction of my work: Elaine Graham, Bonnie Miller-McLemore, Susan Hekman, and Sheila Greeve Davaney.

Sheila Greeve Davaney takes a critical and constructive approach to Christian theology that incorporates the most contemporary thought from philosophy, cultural analysis, and related fields to express an insightful address of the challenges that the church faces. In works like Theology At The End Of Modernity, Changing Conversations, and Converging On Culture she critiques historical approaches that have resulted in uneven, flawed, and unjust models of theology and church.

She is the writer whose work I highlight the most and I have even purchased a website in the hopes of doing a ‘summer school’ reading group of her work (more on that in coming weeks).

 Elaine Graham is the practical theologian whose work I want to emulate. She is in England and this gives her writing a unique tone from within a post-Christian context. Her books, like Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty and Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Public Theology in a Post-Secular Age are profound and challenging.

A unique aspect is the use of Judith Butler’s notion of ‘perfomativity’. Think of actions and the roles that we play in society like learning a language. The social structures and conventions that we participate in are both reproduced by us (as we utilize them) and they pattern us internally. We are formed by them as we conform to those expectations. She explains:

Practice is therefore structured behavior which follows certain rules or patterns. However, social actors are not unthinkingly rehearsing social conventions but purposefully reproducing them. Thus social structures are ‘reproduced social practices’ that endure to orient ‘the conduct of knowledgeable human agents’. (quoting Giddens)[1]

Graham is very clear that there are powers at work and structures that are reinforced as practices are adopted and transmitted through social relations and activities. Religion, like literature, medicine, and other structured activities, is both embodied and transmitted as we are simultaneously agents and actors within these given forms. “Practice is constitutive of a way of life, both individual and collective, personal and structural.” [2] In this way we both conceive of ourselves as free acting agents and are perpetually aware of the limited options on our menu and sense the perimeters (boundaries) that are heavily policed. “Practice both reflects and reinforces social relations and ideologies.” [3] Ideas come from somewhere, beliefs are grounded in some inherited framework, and practices (even religious ones) have effects both within us as participants and simultaneously reinforce the given structure.

Bonnie Miller-McLemore has written the three things that I quote more than anything else in my discipline of Practical Theology. Her four-fold definition of PT gives shape to the new (and massive) Companion to Practical Theology. She also wrote an article addressing the 5 Misunderstandings about PT that drew responses from far and wide and took up almost an entire issue of the International Journal. Lastly, she is a vocal spokesperson for the move from studying ‘the living human document’ to a more holistic and flexible understanding of ‘the living human web’. I will blog on all three of these next week.

Let me just say that this conception of theological refection was a significant move forward in recognizing the invaluable contribution that examining real lived experience could contribute to theological understanding. Human life is an interlaced, multifaceted, and complex set of connections and influences that are systematically layered with meaning and purpose that formulate a tapestry of significance and experiential material. The web is also living and dynamic – ever evolving and increasingly interconnected. You can see why I am attracted to this idea!

Susan Hekman is not a theologian but she has made a bigger impact on my theology than anyone else in the past three years. For those of you who don’t know, there is a significant fascination in much of theology with reclaiming Aristotelian notions of character formation and civil virtue. This desire makes me supremely nervous and theologically uncomfortable. Folks in this camp look to Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and its Christian descendants like Stanley Hauerwas. I have never liked it but had difficulty putting my finger on the exact reason why, and until I found Hekman and Graham I thought that I may just have to concede this battle for lack of clarity about the nature of my discomfort. Then I found Hekman’s feminist critique of the reclamation project and I was able to see the depth of the danger that this desire to go back represents for the church. I have only made a tiny bit of my writing about this public so far – but this will be a major theme for me going forward.

Thank you to everyone who has reached out this past year with affirmation and encouragement. I just wanted to whet your appetite a little bit and give you a heads up about what was coming in the next month.

[1] Graham, Transforming Practice, 98.

[2] Ibid., 110.

[3] Ibid., 103.

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