Philosophy is a hobby for me. I blog about it here a lot because I really enjoy the dialogue and I learn tons in the exchange of ideas. I have had to cut back on blogging as I am now preparing for my qualifying exams.  While I am getting a PhD in Practical Theology,  the inescapable fact is that the ‘Ph’ in PhD is

I often hear the old line that ‘we can’t believe our way into new ways of acting – but that we act our way into new ways of believing’. While I understand the direction behind the challenge, I am suspicious of it’s accuracy for two reasons:

  1. I have been deeply impacted by my studies and this has led to my behaving differently.
  2. I fundamentally object to the binary of belief and action as if they are two different things.

Believing something is an activity and we actively believe something. My mentor, Randy Woodley, is fond of saying ‘you don’t have to tell me what you believe. I know exactly what you believe – I can see it in what you do’. He says this in reference to a Native elder watching the perennial arrival of white missionaries come to the reservation.

I’m afraid that even my earnest desire to be what Donald Schon calls a ‘reflective practitioner’ betrays an underlying binary.

In my Master’s thesis on contextual theology – in a section highlighting the work of Paulo Freire – I wrested with this tension.

More than the believing of propositional truth, the praxis model invites encounters of “doing the truth” quoting Gustavo Gutierrez as saying “contemplation and practice together make up a first act; theologizing is a second act”.

This expectation both comes from and puts forward an understanding of epistemology that is significantly different than theoretical or speculative theologies.  It challenges theologies that are too general and assumed to be universal by questioning the very nature of knowing. Truth is not out there to be brought in; the truth is in here to be brought out.

That is how I got into Practical Theology. 

Rarely a day goes by without someone I meet, even check-out clerks at the grocery store, joking with me that theology isn’t practical.  I must have heard that 500 times in the past 5 years.

I don’t blame people for the misunderstanding. The field might better be called ‘the practice of theology’.  The truth is that the field of PT has changed radically in the past 30 years (more on this tomorrow). It used to be attached to things like homiletics (the art of preaching) or liturgy or pastoral counseling. It is no longer a ‘how to’ kind of field.

PT is really more sociology done with a theological lens – we use qualitative methods (vs. quantitative methods like statistics) to access ground level experiences and practices. Philosopher-types would  lump it in to phenomenology. The main focus of PT is to examine how a given issue of study is actually lived out in real contexts (locations and congregations). We use interviews, case studies, ethnographies and other qualitative methods to do our research.

Here is where the philosophy stuff comes in! When doing PT you must locate your particular approach within 4 generally recognizable categories. The  4 Philosophical Orientations are:

  • Postpositivism
  • Constructivism
  • Advocacy/Participation
  • Pragmatism

Postpositivism is mostly for those who want to report their qualitative findings in more quantitative terms (like for medical studies where stats are valued).

Constructivism is my orientation. It focuses on social and historical constructions and allows one to formulate critical theories about underlying issues.

Advocacy/Participation is the favorite of feminist approaches (among others) because it a) actually advocates for tangible change and b) it ensures that the group being studies is not exploited for the researches privilege.

Pragmatism is an approach that is problem-centered and is more willing to utilize different methods depending on the desired outcome of the research.


I hope you see now why I am into Practical Theology. I thought it would be good to introduce the HBC crowd to the discipline for 3 simple reasons:

  1. my blog style and topic selection is going to have to shift slightly as I prepare for these qualifying exams.
  2. Callid has begun his PhD in PT at Boston. So 2 out of the 3 theology nerds are in PT (and Micky Jones may be soon to follow). That is a lot of practical theology.
  3. Callid and I were talking and it dawned on us that even our friends don’t really know what it is that we do.

Over the next two days I want to build a bridge to what I will be doing and clarify a couple of things that are still left over from this eventful Summer.