Conundrums in Practical Theology

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Joyce Ann Mercer, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore
Theology in Practice, Volume 2


In Conundrums in Practical Theology, internationally recognized practical theologians address significant intellectual and practical dilemmas by discussing practical theology’s complicated history and position within the academy and religious communities at large. Its agenda is laid out in a sharp and powerful introduction by the volume’s editors, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore and Joyce Ann Mercer. For the contributors, the term conundrum means “a confusing or difficult problem or question” (2). In this serious task, leading figures in the field find themselves entrapped: they felt as if they had “opened up a hornet’s nest, a Pandora’s Box, better left undistributed if [they] wanted peace of mind” (2). These conundrums have deeply troubled practical theology as a field by raising issues of territory, status, exclusions, discrimination, power, prejudice, and much more (3). Moreover, the contributors share that examining these conundrums even causes “emotional and political turmoil” (2). Why and how do these scholars engage in this unwieldy task? What does tackling conundrums mean for them as scholars, practitioners, and administrators? What does it mean for the field of practical theology as whole?

What follows is an assortment of articles that considers why these conundrums surface intensely for practical theologians and how they take distinct shape within and beyond the discipline. The conundrums investigated in this book can be divided into key themes. Several chapters reexamine how we define practical theology and present emerging questions of theological epistemology. Miller-McLemore argues for a greater consciousness of the power dynamics that surround the theory-practice binary by discussing the struggle to put practical knowledge and its value into words and institutional practice (chapter 8). Eileen R. Campbell-Reed, on the other hand, discusses how using a single case study may provide rich practical wisdom, but may also be problematic (chapter 2). Campbell-Reed challenges practical theologians to overcome this difficulty by identifying a series of recurring misunderstandings over the use of case studies in doing empirical theological work. Jaco S. Dreyer investigates the “reflexivity conundrum,” exploring difficulties and dilemmas related to reflexivity in doing practical theological research (chapter 4). With such a sure grasp of the complex role of reflexivity, Dreyer argues that it cannot easily heal the “epistemological wound” of researcher subjectivity, bias, and positionality (92). The analytical conversation on epistemology continues in Katherine Turpin’s article focusing on the complexity of local knowledge (chapter 10). Turpin articulates theoretical and practical challenges in giving an account of local knowledge by raising the issues of “the contradictions, unconscious influences, and embodied knowledge” that shape “the insurmountable complexity of local knowledge” (251).

Other conundrums arise because practical theologians often find themselves standing in between multiple places and roles with various commitments and pressures to meet standards and loyalties required by each context. Mercer thoughtfully identifies interdisciplinarity as a practical theological conundrum, which has been understood as the field’s defining element and value (chapter 7). Mercer describes how interdisciplinary scholarship has often put practical theologians “in the position of not being recognized as holding full membership within any particular site within the academy” (165). Tone Strangeland Kaufman aptly explores the relationship between the descriptive and normative in engaging in empirical practical theological research (chapter 6). Kaufman’s contribution is specifically valuable for thoroughly describing the historical emergence of this conundrum and evaluating various positions presented by many scholars in the field. In her contribution, Claire E. Wolfteich challenges practical theology to move beyond its historic Protestant roots (chapter 11). Reflecting on her scholarship as a lay Catholic who teaches in a Protestant seminary, Wolfteich stresses the value of a dialogical approach to seriously engage other traditions in advancing the field as a whole. Faustino M. Cruz, a practical theologian and a prominent administrator also offers a critical reflection on his multi-layered identity, examining the tension between scholarship and service in theological education (chapter 3).

There are noteworthy chapters that bravely put into words issues that “have not been voiced out of fear” (6). Phillis Isabelle Sheppard discusses how practical theological scholarship has been implicated in the invisibility of lived raced bodies by pointing out “racist depictions of raced bodies within the disciplines [that] form the very individuals who shape those disciplines” (219). This difficult, heartfelt discussion of conundrums related to race gains another perspective in Courtney T. Goto’s chapter that analyzes racist tokenism and marginalization in the wider academy (chapter 5). Goto further develops the conundrum as “coercive mimeticism,” which is a process in which those who are marginal to mainstream Western culture are expected “to resemble and replicate the very banal preconceptions that have been appended to them” (114). Last but not least, Tom Beaudoin tackles a particular conundrum about the “theological significance” of practice by questioning three long-term disorientations in the field: practice, whiteness, and Christian-centrism (chapter 1). One of the most powerful reflections in the book comes from Beaudoin’s critical assessment of “the deeply white-radicalized character” of practical theology as a field (11). He challenges those in the field to reconsider practical theology “as a profoundly racial project whose whiteness inclines it to racist ways of operating that must be actively resisted” (11). Beudoin’s insight proves to be highly illuminating, taking this conversation well beyond this particular volume.

This volume would be difficult reading for people outside the practical theology guild because chapters assume a level of knowledge that non-experts do not have. The primary audience would be scholars and graduate students who have wrestled with these questions about the practical theologian’s scholarly identity and vocation. In the end, conundrums never fail to display a seeming intractability. That’s why what the contributors did in the volume is truly commendable. Their effort in illuminating these conundrums with such honesty, self-reflexivity, and professional risk truly captures what Claire Wolfteich describes as conundrums’ positive sides of “creativity and growth” (278-79).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eunil David Cho is a graduate student in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joyce Ann Mercer is professor of practical theology and pastoral care at Yale Divinity School, the editor of Religious Education, and author of multiple articles and monographs including Girl Talk, God Talk (Jossey-Bass, 2008), and a forthcoming study on church conflict. 

Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter professor of religion, psychology, and culture at The Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University and author of several monographs, including Christian Theology in Practice (Eerdmans, 2012).


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