Practical theology vs. “biblical” theologyPosted: December 30, 2010
James Poling’s “The Cross and Male Violence,” (earlier referenced here and here), addresses the concept of “practical theology,” a branch of academic theology that looks at the real-life effects of doctrine in various contexts. Poling argues that it’s not enough for theologians and pastors to determine whether a teaching is “right” or “wrong” in the abstract. They must also look at how those teachings shape communities, families, and individuals, and evaluate whether a doctrine is right or wrong based on its practical implications and applications.
In a way this is a restatement of the idea that moral and ethical evaluation of beliefs and behavior needs to be focused on their effects and implications, rather than on the intentions behind them. It’s not enough to say that a doctrine is “biblical” or “doctrinally sound” if it leads to harmful consequences for people and communities who try to live by it:
The ways that Christian doctrines and practices affect the everyday lives of ordinary people need to be considered alongside questions of ‘truth’ that is, whether the doctrines and practices conform to the revelation of God in Scripture, history, and rational thought.
Clarice Martin, black womanist New Testament scholar, describes the difference between hermeneutics of truth and hermeneutics of effects: “‘Hermeneutics’ is not simply a cognitive process wherein one seeks to determine the ‘correct meaning’ of a passage or text. Neither are questions of penultimate truth and universality solely determinative of meaning. Also of essential importance in the interpretive task are such matters as the nature of the interpreter’s goals, the effects of a given interpretation on a community of people who have an interest in the text being interpreted, and questions of cultural value, social relevance, and ethics. What is at stake in hermeneutics is not only the ‘truth’ of one’s interpretation, but also the effects interpretation and interpretive strategies have on the ways in which human beings shape their goals and their actions.”
This form of hermeneutics involves a rhythm or dynamic interplay between biblical texts from the canon and the lived faith and experience of communities of faith. An interpreter cannot understand Jesus by studying the Bible in isolation, but must be immersed in a community of faith that practices the faith today.
. . . .We need to know how religion functions at the level of the conscious and unconscious formation of perceptions and behaviors; that is, how the symbols, ideas, and rituals about God oppress or liberate the human spirit using the criteria of theology itself. If the ideas and practices of religious communities are damaging individual believers and their families according to Christian norms, then we have a responsibility to bring these realities to the attention of religious leaders for reexamination. For example, if certain forms of theology increase the suffering of woman and children by refusing to address issues of rape and sexual violence, then we must raise prophetic voices to protest such theologies. – Poling, “The Cross and Male Violence,” 475-6, emphasis mine.
This is both an eminently sensible approach to Christian theology and completely counter to how I was raised to understand “true” Christianity, which is how most traditionalist branches of Christianity approach issues of doctrine. Doctrine is either right and must be followed at all costs, or wrong, and to be avoided no matter how sensible or compassionate it seems. No in-betweens. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and if that makes people feel awful or makes their lives more difficult, that’s just tough luck. Following Jesus isn’t easy and sometimes involves enduring suffering, because of the effects of sin. And so on.
I often wondered why this had to be. If God really loved everyone just as we are – and created us to be just as we are, and if “he” was forgiving and slow to anger and all of that stuff we were taught, why there were all these rules that seemed so difficult for many people to follow, without any comprehensible reason behind it? Why did following them seem to cause such needless pain and damage in so many lives? My pastors always denied that persistent problems like domestic violence and abuse had anything to do with the doctrines related to marriage and family life. If husbands abused their wives and used the bible or complementarianism to justify it, it was because their understanding of the doctrine was sinful, not because the doctrine itself was sinful.
I began to see after a while that “biblical” Christianity seemed to define living a “good” life as following arbitrary rules that seemed unconnected to present-day realities and weren’t necessarily good in their effects on people. I began to see that the problems I observed with increasingly clarity all around me weren’t coincidental or random. They were natural, regular, even predictable effects of the doctrines I was taught as “truth.”
Somaticstrength’s recent post on evangelical understandings of forgiveness and how they relate to recovery from incest is a heartbreaking example of this. Survivors of abuse in fundamentalist or evangelical families and churches often have to deal with widespread enabling and excusing of their abuse, complete lack of support, and repeated attempts to dictate the terms of their recovery – for example, demanding that they must forgive their abusers both in order to be good Christians, and to “heal” from their abuse. As I commented on her post, this culture of abuse (both enabling abuse and treating survivors in an abusive manner) is a direct product of evangelical teachings on sin and forgiveness:
Demanding that someone’s recovery from abuse look a certain way is completely odious. Unfortunately it’s also completely in-line with the version of Christianity we were raised with; a lot of the teachings contribute to these kind of responses to survivors, and make them seem legitimate and even righteous.
Like the teaching that by far the worst thing we could ever do is sin against God, and that every single little sin we commit is enough to put Jesus on the Cross. And if God could forgive us for making “him” have to kill his son, and no sin against us, no matter how evil, could ever be as bad as our sin against God, then we have no excuse to not forgive any sin against us.
It occurs to me now that one of the many problems with this argument (you know, besides it being totally evil in the way it completely dismisses the gravity of true evil and cruelty perpetrated by humans) is that no human is God, so why should we be expected to be capable of divine levels of forgiveness?
Then there’s the fact that it makes being unforgiving into a worse sin than being abusive. And it makes a virtue and an obligation out of giving forgiveness cheaply, and even for free – forgiving people who, like it seems with your brother, have never asked for your forgiveness and don’t believe they need it and don’t see anything wrong with what they’ve done. Requiring people to forgive someone who is unrepentant is evil, IMO.
And the corollary of this is the teaching that it’s impossible for there to be a situation between two people where only one person is sinning or is in the wrong, because we’re all sinners. At least, I was taught that – there was no such thing as one person being 100% wrong. The other person could be 99% wrong, but you still had your 1% of wrongness, and that’s what you were supposed to focus on – that and the times where you were 99% in the wrong against that person – not on their sin. It kind of boggles my mind now to think that this was taught to children – I mean, talk about a recipe for enabling and excusing abuse. So disgusting.