Christian Practical Wisdom

What It Is, Why It Matters

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Dorothy C. Bass, Kathleen A. Cahalan, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, James R. Nieman, Christian Batalden Scharen
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , May
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Reading Christian Practical Wisdom: What It Is, Why it Matters is like going to the symphony. With the turn of the first page, the lights go down, the curtain rises, and the symphony begins to play! Multi-layered, complex in composition, containing a diversity of scholarship, and balanced by harmonic and independent reflections, the five authors of Christian Practical Wisdom offer a virtuosic work that articulates “a more expansive epistemology” by presenting Christian practical wisdom as “a kind of knowing that has been part of the Christian tradition though not readily recognized or emphasized” (277-78). Even as the authors provide a model for scholarly collaboration, their work also invites ongoing reflection about the sources and practices that are constitutive of Christian practical wisdom.

The five authors frame their account with Charles Taylor’s analysis of the social imaginary of the late modern (secular) age. In this time “disengaged reason and theoretical certainty” are privileged as “qualities of genuine knowledge while simultaneously diminishing practices and embodied experience as sources of knowledge” (13). By contrast, Christian practical wisdom represents an alternative account of the source of knowledge that habituates a faith-filled form of knowing. If, as Kathleen Cahalan notes, “wisdom is born of practice and…those who desire it must practice their way to it” (319-20), Christian Practical Wisdom offers an account of the “practice” requisite for the kind of knowledge that is constitutive of Christian faith.

Three parts and eleven chapters organize the authors’ account of Christian practical wisdom. Distinctive for its collaborative format, the work includes both collaboratively authored sections and chapters by individual authors. Chapter 1, “Framing,” and chapter 11, “Collaborating,” reflect the work of all five authors while chapters 2 through 10 include reflections by individual writers.

Even though the authors explain the principal task of Part 1 as “showing” Christian practical wisdom and Part 2 as “telling” about how it functions (16-17), these sections represent a single movement of argumentation. Part 1 reads as if one is listening in on a conversation between the five authors as they tell stories about experiences which form practical wisdom. These five chapters attend to and interpret lived experiences as sources of practical wisdom, which simultaneously serve as windows into the knowledge of God. Scripture and a broad canon of theological and cultural commentators refract the knowledge of these experiences, but the style remains informal and conversational. Reflections consider spooning, camping, swimming, rocking, and singing. Part 2 presents a line of argument that traces the eclipse of practical wisdom, the role of academic and practical theology as contributors to the retrieval of Christian practical wisdom, and the practices that can sustain the forms of knowing that comprise Christian practical wisdom. When read together, Parts 1 and 2 literarily embody “a willingness to explore the terrain where academic, ecclesial, and quotidian experience meet and diverge” (326). Part 3 concludes by extending an invitation to ongoing collaboration, while also expressing the authors’ profound gratitude and indebtedness to Craig Dykstra, to whom they dedicate their work.

Throughout, the authors’ unapologetic presentation of their work as an exercise in practical theology represents a notable contribution to practical theology as a discipline, while also making an implicit claim about the ends, means, and task of theological studies and theological education. Bonnie Miller-McLemore’s chapter “Disciplining: Academic Theology and Practical Knowledge” offers a thoroughgoing overview of the development of practical theology, the historical oversights of the discipline, and the extent to which “practical theology functions as one of the most important contemporary movements exploring alternative ways of religious knowing” (228). Noting the importance of practical theology, Christian Scharen similarly concludes: “this is the bottom line for the sake of this book’s larger project: in the Christian life, we need exactly this kind of knowing—concrete, as well as universal; timely, as well as timeless; a kind of knowing rooted in a capacity to understand situations with reference to their type and to hear their call, that is, the need to which one’s action responds” (174).

Even as Miller-McLemore, Scharen, and their co-authors present a thoroughgoing interdisciplinary work, the characterization of their work as an exercise in practical theology reflects the growth of the discipline, and offers a model for future practical theological engagement.

If in reading Christian Practical Wisdom one attends a “symphony,” the work may be read as presenting only the first movement of a much larger work. The authors conclude with an invitation to ongoing collaboration about the formation and durability of practical wisdom (325). Although, at a general level, this proves true—additional, concrete examples about the formation and preservation of Christian practical wisdom in individuals and communities would strengthen the work—this could also be applied more specifically. In particular, Part 2 lacks attention to the organizational structures and institutional processes that promote or inhibit the cultivation of Christian practical wisdom. Such attention would helpfully embed their account in the organizational processes that shape individuals and communities while also holding these processes up for analysis in light of the authors’ already incisive account. In the spirit of the authors’ convention for naming chapters, this addition could be entitled “Organizing” and could explore the organizational contexts and process in which Christian practical wisdom may form and flourish.

In the final analysis, Christian Practical Wisdom marks a critical turning point in the conversation about Christian forms of knowing in the late modern era. As such, it has the capacity to open a larger conversation about the form(ation) of Christian knowledge in a secular age, and the resources that can contribute to its renewal. Even as the “curtain closes” after the work's final pages, this represents only a brief interlude. The symphonic nature, collaborative format, and incisive analysis of Christian Practical Wisdom offer both a grammar for engagement and an invitation to scholars and practitioners to add their own harmonic contribution to the next movement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dustin D. Benac is a doctoral student in Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dorothy C. Bass is director emerita of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith.

Kathleen A. Cahalan is professor of theology at Saint John's School of Theology and Seminary, Collegeville, Minnesota.

Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture at Vanderbilt University.

James R. Nieman is president of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Christian B. Scharen is vice president of applied research at Auburn Theological Seminary, New York.




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