Students investigate social and religious practices through interdisciplinary, contextual research, exploring the meaning of human actions while seeking richly textured ‘readings’ of them.
Students perform critical and comparative theological reflection on practices in conversation with the Christian and other religious and philosophical traditions, attempting not merely to define those practices but to engage them with questions, analysis, and imagination.
Students develop contextualized strategies for creating, sustaining, and transforming practices in close relation to the institutional needs of faith communities and the lived religious experiences of persons in their social, political, and cultural settings.
General Description of the Degree Program
The purpose of the Ph.D. degree program is to discover and extend knowledge and to enhance teaching competence in practical theology.
Practical theology is the theologically positioned, interdisciplinary study of the practices of religious communities and of the traditions and social contexts that shape and challenge those practices. The practices of any religious community sustain and transform that community by embodying its shared values and enacting its foundational narratives. Examples of such practices include liturgical rituals; acts of service, justice, and compassion; practices of nurture, education, and formation; and the transmission of a community’s tradition to others within new cultural and social contexts. Religious practices appear in all faith traditions, though with their own unique histories and institutional settings and in relation to their own distinctive sacred texts, rituals, symbols, and theological understandings.
The Ph.D. program in practical theology at Boston University School of Theology, while positioned as a theological study of Christian practices in relation to the texts, ideas, history, and institutions of that particular tradition in its various manifestations, encourages the comparative study of those practices in relation to other religious traditions and from the standpoint of cognate disciplines and methodologies such as history, sociology, psychology, cultural anthropology, ritual theory, philosophy, and ethics. As with all programs of study at Boston University, students need not identify themselves as adherents of Christianity or of any religious tradition to engage in this study.
In studying the practices of Christian communities, the doctoral program in practical theology is designed to prepare students to understand and assess the contemporary situation, to reflect historically and systematically on the church’s embodied witness of faith, and to develop faithful and effective strategies for Christian practice. This preparation, while it has a common structure and an ecclesiological center, emphasizes the particularity of context and requires a diversity in focus that requires strong interdisciplinary skills and a highly integrative acumen. The primary interdisciplinary partners and methodological approach in studying religious practices will need to be chosen in relation to the particularity of the practices in question and so as to address specific problems identified. At the same time, there are shared tasks for which the Ph.D. program prepares every student.
First, students must be able to provide a thick description, analysis, and interpretation of practices. The individual student will typically approach this description primarily from within a single particular discipline (as a historian, or as a sociologist, for example), and therefore the student must become conversant with a particular language and method of research. Still, the study of practical theology requires strong interdisciplinary skills and a highly integrative acumen. A theological understanding of practices within their context is never only an empirical or historical science but starts from a hermeneutically defined situation and employs interpretive skills that bring to light the meaning of human actions, making possible richly textured ‘readings’ of them.
Second, students in practical theology must engage in critical and comparative theological reflection. The discipline of practical theology moves beyond an initial and more descriptive moment toward the ongoing creative task of re-imagining and transforming practice. In doing so, the discipline requires of all PhD students an ability to think systematically and historically about the beliefs and practices of the Christian faith and to ask questions and form judgments concerning the shared visions of goodness, beauty, and truth contained within the sacred texts, rituals, and patterns of community of that tradition, always in conversation with other religious and secular traditions. In this way practical theological research is never reduced to mere description, on the one hand, or a capitulation to practical considerations, institutional inertia, and contextual forces, on the other hand.
Third, the doctoral program in practical theology will prepare students to develop contextualized strategies for sustaining and transforming practice in close relation to the institutional needs of faith communities and the lived religious experience of persons in their social, political, and cultural settings. In this task, students will also need to enter into dialogue with a range of disciplinary partners such as, for example, the arts of music and rhetoric or the sciences of education, organizational management, and communication.
This approach to practical theology differs from those that take it as a curriculum designed to prepare Christian ministers or as a collection of professional skills courses by its focus on the integrated interpretation of a religious tradition, of the problems facing that tradition, and of the roles played by all the disciplines of theological education as well as the various arts and sciences in addressing those problems. This approach differs, secondly, from conceptions of a theological education that divide the disciplines into classical ones that form an essential core and then practical disciplines as merely “applying” the core.
In the Ph.D. program at Boston University School of Theology, practice is not only the application but the generating source of theological norms. Thirdly, while this approach to practical theology would include the study of practices traditionally called ‘pastoral theology’ (focused on leadership of liturgy and ritual, preaching, evangelism, religious education and formation, social action and outreach, community-building and organization), here the agent of practice is the faith community itself, not only or primarily a priesthood or the clergy. The proposed program, therefore, expands the older ‘clerical’ paradigm of practical theology.