Although I have been teaching college for ten years, this term marked the first time that I taught an introductory course in practical theology to both undergraduates and graduate students in the same semester. Many Catholics in the United States do not know about the field of practical theology, identified as it has been since Friedrich Schleiermacher with the training of clergy in the Protestant tradition. But over the last several decades, practical theology not only broke away from an exclusively clerical focus in Protestant theology, it has come increasingly to be adopted into the Catholic theological curriculum (no doubt due in part to the increasingly lay and practice-intensive focus and production of Catholic theology).
Catholic theologians Karl Rahner and David Tracy wrote compellingly about the importance of practical theology as the domain of theology that deals with the creative analyses of the church active in the world. Basically, they argued, it is practical theology that has a particular Vatican II-styled "Gaudium et spes" vocation. Globally there are many Catholic theologians who identify as practical theologians, but the U.S. scene has been slower to give itself as fully to practice as a fundamental category of theological inquiry, with the exception of some strands of liberation theology (despite the focus on praxis, a good deal of liberation theology is an exercise in systematics), feminist theology (the same could be said there as well), and the relatively new field of spirituality. Practical theology makes the theological meaning of practice in church and society its basic material, and involves itself in multiple conversations with students of practice across many fields. Along with pastoral theology on the Protestant scene, practical theology in the Catholic and Protestant scenes are part of the professionally organized "clinical" arenas of theology.
My graduate students at Fordham, in the Graduate School of Religion, quite naturally understand that and how practice matters for Christian life, because most of these students are pastoral professionals who have come back for further academic training. You might be surprised, however, to hear that my undergraduates at Fordham this semester were every bit as passionate about practice. It was just a little different interpretation of practice at stake for them.
For these mostly 20-22 year olds, they want theology to be practical. Without at all undercutting scholarly theological work, indeed -- they correctly intuit -- as a condition of theology in the academy, most of them want to know what theology is for in their lives and in their culture. Few things make me happier in teaching than to work with this desire. Because I share it. I am obsessed with questions of where theology comes from, how it works, and what it does -- in concrete, embodied, political, spiritual terms.
So you will not be surprised to hear that this semester, when I assigned my undergraduates to do theological "field research" about practices, they did it their own way, making the assignment speak to their worlds. I asked them to take the models of making theological sense of practice, and practice-based sense of theology, that we had studied, and go observe practices in their world that interested them. They were to write a report based on their observations, correlated to our course readings. This was my way of helping them develop more deep everyday awareness of practice as a theological experience.
Toward the end of the term, they each stood up for a few minutes to share their topics and findings with the class. Here are the practices that they analyzed theologically: street preaching, swimming, going to sleep, military fraternity exercises, studying theology, leafleting, encountering street musicians, displaying religious symbols in one's car, going to religious education (a 7-year old cohort), making a social justice retreat, taking in music at mass, running, Eucharistic "holy hour," dinner parties, al-anon meetings, wearing religious jewelry, and life on Facebook. Almost to a person, these students performed vivid, creative theological analyses of these practices, based not on speculation but on inductive learning alongside theological theories of practice that guided their denominating of the theological material present in each practice.
Let no one tell you that undergraduates cannot do serious theological work and keep their appointment with their dynamic young lives in the process. This group of twenty Fordham undergraduates raised the bar on the popular discourse about this generation. Let no one say this cohort of young adults is not primed for theological adventure. I hope that over this very holiday break, they are thinking theologically about how they sleep, eat, drive, exercise, pray, sing, and read. And that they are driving their families and friends nuts talking about it.
UPDATE: Please see my responses to comments in the boxes below.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York