What Is The Point?: My Journey of Meaning Making in Practical Theology

By Farris Blount III, PhD Student in Practical Theology 

Our world appears to be in steep decline. The global pandemic has laid bare the existing racial, social, and economic disparities in the United States, exacerbating the conditions in which millions were forced to live with prior to Covid-19. I live in Texas and have observed some troubling local realities as a result of this health crisis – possible evictions in the midst of rampant unemployment and reduced wages and increased exposure to food and “digital” deserts for children.

But what concerns me at a more fundamental, interpersonal level is what seems to be a pervasive lack of regard for human life. Despite data that demonstrates wearing masks can considerably reduce the spread of the virus, countless people have refused to do so. At the extreme, I have seen appalling videos of people coughing on others or engaging in behaviors that put people at risk. And lest we forget, we are also contending with another “pandemic” that has reared its head amid continuing police violence – the pandemic of racial injustice that has not valued Black lives since the beginning of America, often demonstrated through policies and practices that continue to emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and literally kill African-Americans.

In times like these, I struggle to discern how to respond as a PhD student studying Practical Theology. I wonder, as I see friends advocating for police reform and budget changes or more equitable access to health-care in front of city councils or faith leaders preaching against the inequalities that permeate our culture, what my role in building the “beloved community” is as I spend the majority of my days reading and writing. If I am being honest, I have sometimes felt like I am not doing enough; it feels as if my work has no tangible impact on addressing the social ills of our time.

However, as I began to reflect more deeply on my discipline in this time of quarantine, I realized that it can offer hope and encouragement even in what appear to be hopeless times. In fact, Practical Theology has much to offer in how we must learn to live together as humans if we are to survive not only now but in the years to come.

Practical Theology, from definition to practice, is a collective endeavor. It is a field of study that attempts to describe what is happening in a given communal context in order to make claims about what should happen. It uses theological and sociological tools to understand human experience and chart a path forward in light of that experience. Practical Theology also, according to scholars such as Bonnie Miller-McLemore, is done by multiple persons; for example, believers within a faith community engage in practical theological work alongside pastors and clergy.[1] In Practical Theology, there are no gatekeepers to the work of making sense of our communities, no monopolies on who is allowed to voice their opinions on how our world should be transformed in light of our beliefs in and commitments to God and one another. In other words, Practical Theology’s focus on valuing all human life is inherent in its very DNA.

The discipline’s commitment to community, however, has a unique focus on drawing attention to those issues that prevent all human flourishing. Simply put, there is a branch of Practical Theology that can be considered liberationist. It is rooted in the belief that God is on the side of the oppressed, and Jesus came to liberate those who are on the margins of society.[2] Practical Theology uses this framework of Jesus as liberator to examine the unjust institutions that are causing harm. It applies a critical lens to discriminatory practices and policies in and outside of the church to critique but also to reimagine a world in which people, and Christians in particular, can be more faithful disciples to the call of Jesus to love our neighbors. It challenges us to consider that until all people are able to live free of fear of retaliation or violence, we have work to do.

In its commitment to liberation, Practical Theology makes the implicit statement that there is something wrong in how we often engage one another. When we value profits over people, mandating that businesses reopen in the midst of a pandemic without enough personal protective equipment to support those on the frontlines, something is wrong. When we demand that states rescind “stay-at-home” orders without adequately accounting for the disproportionate number of African-Americans that are suffering and dying from the coronavirus, something is wrong.

This particular understanding of Practical Theology has helped me process my role in this current pandemic and beyond. I do not have the exact response we each should have– speaking out against that which harms is exhausting, and people often have to self-reflect on their own level of commitment to establishing a more just society in the face of competing priorities. However, I do recognize that I have tools to examine critically why politicians are advocating for state re-openings despite the thousands of Black and Brown people who are at extreme risk of contracting a life-altering virus. I realize, through the foundational work of practical theologians such as Dale Andrews, there are supporting resources available as I work with colleagues to assess how our Christian commitments are either being weaponized to support a President whose actions are antithetical to the life of Jesus or utilized to imagine new ways for us to be in authentic and caring relationships with one another.

My journey as a practical theologian is far from over; in fact, it is just beginning. But I take solace in that I have embraced a discipline that provides a framework to question that which is in order to imagine what might be.

[1] Bonnie Miller-McLemore, ed., The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Practical Theology, (Indianapolis: Wiley Blackwell, 2014).

[2] Dale P. Andrews and Robert London Smith, Jr., Black Practical Theology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015).

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