Practical Theology and Pragmatic Theology

For many, the discipline of practical theology is summed up in the question, "What do we do now?" There's history, there's theology, there's social sciences... and once they do their thing, practical theologians can come in, take the baton, and make it all "practical." This pragmatic move, however, is only one slice of the pie. Practical theology is, in my understanding, a bit more complicated than that. Asking the "what now?" question is certainly part of it, but it's not the only part nor is it the definitive part.

To assume that practical theology is just about making theology practical is to reduce the stakes of practical theology. What's at stake is reality itself, not just the question of how we live in it. Andrew Root has written about the problems of "applied theology" in his book Christopraxis. As another bright Andrew (Andrew Zirschky) writes,
"...when we engage in practical theology it leads to the active and intentional entanglement of our theology and our actions. This weaving together is not a top-down approach where we start with abstract theological concepts and then distill them into acontextual or universal principles of action. That would be a form of applied theology that fails to respect the difficulties, realities, and subtleties of ministry in a complex world. Rather, practical theology is a true dialogue, a fluid dance, between the concrete, messy reality of our situation, and our theological understandings..." (Practical Theology as the Foundation of Youth Ministry). 
The truth is, the pragmatic questions of practical theology are just the last steps of a complicated and nuanced approach to theological reflection on human experience and divine action. Pointing a way forward is something done only as a "fluid dance," in connection to a careful description of concrete reality, interpretation of conditions and contributing factors, and theological resources and reflections which are necessary to give that way forward its shape and character (if you're interested in a more detailed description of the tasks of practical theology, check out Richard Osmer's work, especially Practical Theology). If it's just about taking a lesson from history or from dogmatics and making it "work," or gleaning a strategy, then I would not necessarily call that practical theology, I'd call it pragmatic theology.

Pragmatic theology assumes that the defining question for its task is, "how can I make this practical?" It is on the lookout for the practical in everything and it rejects the things that aren't practical. It searches for the "practice" we can exegete from a given "theory" and outsources the work of theorizing. "What can we learn from this?" it asks. "What's the lesson for today?"

While the questions of pragmatic theology are really important, even fundamental to practical theology, there is a distinctly different approach. Practical theology doesn't, first of all, insist that the theological must be practical--it's not fundamentally on the lookout for the practical in theology. Rather, it insists that the practical is theological. Practical theology is on the lookout for the theological--the stuff of divine action--in the world of human experience. It looks to exegete the theological from practice and, in doing so, to point a way forward. It assumes that theory belongs to practice and that practice belongs to theory and thus, it does not just generate new practice from theology but new theology from the interdependence of theology and practice. It names God's action in people's lives and looks to participate in it. Therefore, practical theology is actually ministry.

This is all, of course, how I want practical theology to be defined. Not everyone who calls themself a practical theologian would agree with every nuance of what I've just said. But I hope we can all agree that we're not just the last leg of the race. Practical theologians are not just waiting for social scientists, ethicists, and theologians to do their job so we can apply it. Practical theologians are about attending to every task as practical theologians.

I hope that every discipline has a pragmatic edge, even dogmatic theology. Practical theology certainly does. But it is no more defined by that edge of its work than any other discipline. Practical theology is not just pragmatic theology.