The Center for Practical Theology’s Thirteenth Annual Lecture with Dr. Heather Walton

We were thrilled to welcome University of Glasgow’s Dr. Heather Walton to give the Center for Practical Theology’s Thirteenth Annual Lecture on December 4, 2020. Dr. Walton presented “Body and Stone: Practical Theology as Creative Work,” and Boston University School of Theology’s Lecturer in Practical Theology Dr. Callid Keefe-Perry responded to the lecture.

We were pleased to welcome our colleagues from BU School of Theology, Boston Theological Institute schools, and from the greater community. The video is available here. We are so grateful to Dr. Walton for sharing her insights with us.

Below, PhD Student in Practical Theology, Vaughn Nelson, responds to Dr. Walton’s lecture.

By Vaughn Nelson

As is now (almost) routine, attendees of the 13th Annual Lecture for the Center for Practical Theology gathered virtually on December 4, 2020, to hear from Dr. Heather Walton on the theme “Body and Stone: Practical Theology as Creative Work.” Dr. Walton has contributed deeply to the field of Practical Theology over several decades, and she is currently Professor of Theology and Creative Practice at the University of Glasgow School of Critical Studies. So, she is well positioned to reflect on the present state of practical theology as a discipline.

As Dr. Callid Keefe-Perry, PhD grad and newly appointed lecturer at STH, summarized in his response, Dr. Walton asks us to imagine what might be possible in Practical Theology if we put as much effort in developing aesthetic and creative capacities as we do in learning empirical research methods. What if, she wonders, Johannes van der Ven had declared forty years ago, not (only) that theology must become empirical, but (also) that theology must be creative? To be clear, she does not wish to undo the many gifts that the empirical and social scientific turns have offered Practical Theology, and she also confesses both her own “complicity” in and benefiting from the growing importance of these methods and methodologies. However, she does wish to name a concern that when social scientific enquiry becomes synonymous with Practical Theology, this disguises a move away from doing theology. Even as she wishes for the deconstructive blurring of many boundaries and binaries in the discipline (theory/practice, art/science, primary/secondary theology), she remains quite confident that if we are, in fact, theologians at all, then we have a responsibility to do something with our findings—something theological, creative, constructive. 

It so happened that I logged on to Dr. Walton’s lecture while taking a break from the final weekend of writing my term paper in the Practical Theology doctoral seminar. This was, on the one hand, an unfortunate excuse for the always-lurking self-doubt to surface in that crucial final push toward any paper deadline (Am I doing the very things she’s critiquing?). On the other hand, I had method and meta-discipline on my mind, and the lecture and response hinted at the exciting beyond in this field in which I’m being formed—beyond coursework, beyond practical theology’s past and present. I appreciate Dr. Walton’s acknowledgment of the empirical turn’s gifts. Like so many of my fellow doctoral students, I have sought a home in practical theology because of the serious—read: social scientific—attention it gives to practice, experience, lived religion, and the ways this focus resonates with liberative theologies’ priority of praxis as locus theologicus. Yet, I also echo her desire that words like ‘aesthetics,’ ‘creativity,’ and ‘imagination’ be treated with the same seriousness. Listening to Dr. Walton, I was aware of an unexpected tension that has emerged in my second year of this degree: after becoming enchanted with the theological writing of Mayra Rivera in Poetics of the Flesh and Sharon Betcher in Spirit and the Obligation of Social Flesh, it is more difficult than I expected to integrate such enfleshed theology with my “research interests,” to know what to do with theology like theirs in a practical theological mode. I suspect this has much to do with the educational stage in which I find myself, but I am making note that something about the way we celebrate the empirical in practical theology seems to make it just a bit more difficult to locate the place for poetic theory-laden theological writing.

Fortunately, my new educational home here at STH shares, I sense, Dr. Walton’s hopes. While listening, I thought of my first Teaching Fellow assignment in Dr. Courtney Goto’s “Doing Theology Aesthetically” summer intensive course. Student made creative theological contributions, not only by reflecting on various art activities, but also by reflecting and expressing through such forms. An important question I will carry with me into further theological, teaching, and ministry contexts is, “What can a particular aesthetic experience say, theologically, that words cannot?” I also had in mind Dr. David Jacobsen’s passionate insistence in our doctoral seminar that practical theology is, in the end, lest we forget, theology. Dr. Walton would be pleased. Paired together, even just these two notions are challenging and inspiring. Practical Theologians, with all our careful, self-reflexive accounting of experience, ought to have something say—about God, about the world, and about their entanglements—and some things can best be said, or perhaps only be said, through aesthetic expression. 

For her part, Dr. Walton attended to the form of her lecture as much as the content. She would speak, she promised, like a good preacher, in three parts—with points and illustrations. Before each part she repeated a variation on a litany that began, “Before I open my mouth to speak . . .” The opening third of her lecture consisted of excerpts from recent journal entries reflecting on her experience of the “troubles” (Donna Haraway) of recent months—time she spent on the east coast of Scotland, since remote teaching allowed such a change of scenery. These reflections then became entry points for critical engagement with the discipline of practical theology as the middle section. Finally, she offered us word images from those journal entries as “pebbles from the beach” where her reflections take place—imaginings of what might be in the beyond of practical theology. In Dr. Walton’s hands, life writing, in this case at least, is less the data she mines for qualitative themes, and more a capacious holder for expressions that do not have an obvious fit in the usual theological or methodological categories. (“Everything can fit in here: emotions are allowed, the body has entry, you can talk to God and to yourself and to others.”) Citing Dr. Claire Wolfteich’s influence, she says that for just this reason, her journals are an emerging source for her theology. Which leads me to wonder not only what this particular form of expression might say, theologically, that other forms cannot, but also what theologically potent forms we have yet to lend our ears, our eyes, or our touch. How might we, practical theologians, be positioned to help name and attend to those forms? Imaginative responses are, I gather, welcome.

Vaughn Nelson is a second-year PhD Student in Practical Theology, studying Religious Education as a source for embodied, liberative, and decolonizing pedagogies for navigating spirituality in (post)secular, pluralist contexts. He draws on liberation and postcolonial theologies, critical theories of disability and embodiment, theories of practices, and theories and research methods from the sociology of religion.

View all posts