The story of the ten lepers in Luke's Gospel contains a number of explicit virtues. At the outset there is the plea to Jesus by the lepers themselves: "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us." A regular feature of healing stories in the Synoptic Gospels is either a plea for mercy, to which Jesus responds (e.g. by blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:47, Luke 18:37), or Jesus showing compassion to someone who is vulnerable (e.g. to the widow of Nairn in Luke 7:13). A number of Christian ethicists have followed Augustine in arguing that "love," or perhaps better "compassion," is at the heart of Christian ethics. There are, however, distinct differences between those ethicists who argue that love/compassion is always personalist or individualistic and those who believe that it can be communitarian and be translated into norms.
At the end of the story of the ten lepers is thanksgiving. For most commentators this is a straightforward expression of gratitude, which they see as instructive for Christian moral behavior. A belief in divine grace should encourage people to be grateful. Yet some have argued that understood within the social context of the Middle East, gratitude in the story is a form of submission and closure: the one who has been healed acknowledges Jesus as the source of the healing and concludes their relationship. Expressing gratitude is, then, the end of a relationship not the beginning of one.
Applied or practical theology within the Western academy is the discipline especially concerned with this interaction between faith and practice. Sometimes this relationship is envisaged as faith shaping practice, sometimes as practice shaping faith, and sometimes as an interaction of the two. Applied theology within the modern academy has a similar comparative, critical role to that of systematic theology as well as having clear links to secular disciplines such as sociology. A discipline that was once considered to be an appendix to systematic and biblical theology within the academy has now become a central player in understanding the tension or, perhaps better, interaction between faith and practice evident in all of the other areas of theology. It is also a discipline that has made considerable use of the social sciences to understand this interaction more fully.
Applied theology a generation ago often consisted of little more than practical advice to ordinands. A teacher with considerable experience of ordained ministry would teach young ordinands how they should conduct funeral services, how they should preach, how they should conduct pastoral visiting, or similar related tasks. Having studied biblical and systematic theology in the academy, the applied or practical theologian was the person responsible for teaching ordinands the practicalities of ordained ministry. In the Church of Scotland applied theologians typically taught within a university, but often had been university chaplains or highly regarded parish ministers first. In the Church of England "pastoral theology" (as it was usually termed) was more typically taught within a seminary, albeit by priests with pastoral experience similar to that of their counterparts in Scotland.
However well intended this model of applied theology, it faced serious difficulties. The parish experience of those teaching applied theology for any length of time, whether in the university or in a seminary, inevitably became more distant. So, just as trainee teachers frequently resent being told how to teach children by those who no longer teach them themselves, ordinands were often suspicious of the advice they were being given by former parish ministers, however experienced they had once been. Again, models of professional formation from disciplines such as medicine, suggested that the proper place for practical training was not in an academy but in the context of the job itself. Critical placements alongside reflexive practitioners were more likely to generate good professional formation.
Once the profile of those studying theology within the academy also changed it was soon clear that this "hints and tips for ordinands" approach to applied theology was no longer appropriate. The pluralism of present-day students within the Western academy, noted already in all other areas of theology, has also had a radical impact upon academic applied theology. The discipline still maintained a central focus upon faith and practice, but it could no longer assume any shared faith or practice among theological students. The relationship between divergent, and sometimes conflicting, patterns of Christian faith and practice now became the primary subject matter of applied theology within the academy.
The concept of "praxis" is sometimes used within applied theology to denote this new understanding. Initially taken from Marxist studies, it suggests that behavior is given priority over theory, but that there remains a two-way process between the two. In a more traditional understanding of religious practice it was often assumed that faith takes priority over practice. Christian faith thus sets the template for Christian practice. Within theological studies it was frequently assumed that the primary task of theology was to establish an adequate faith based upon a careful study of the Bible and Christian tradition. Once that had been achieved then issues of practice could be addressed. In a similar way it was often assumed in philosophy that the primary task was to produce clarity of thought and theory before any practical problems could be adequately addressed. Marxist studies reversed this understanding, arguing that what people actually do and how they behave should be the starting point of analysis. On this approach, practice is given priority and theory is, in the first place, the attempt to understand practice. Once theory is adequately grounded in an analysis of present-day practice then it too can shape future practice.
By no means all applied theologians give explicit credence to Marxism (although some liberation theologians certainly do), but they do typically work from this approach based upon praxis. In the relationship between faith and practice they give far more attention to practice than most other theologians do. Those working within applied liturgical studies often argue that it is worship that shapes doctrine and in turn is shaped by doctrine. Those working within Christian ethics argue that it is Christian communities that mold Christian character, which, in turn, shapes the ethical decisionmaking of individuals. Those working within Christian education argue that Christian formation within families, churches and, perhaps, within schools, is crucial for nurturing faith, and that this faith, once nurtured, should then inform Christian formation. In each of these areas within applied theology there is a priority given to practice, as well as an awareness of a continuing interaction between practice and faith. And in each of these areas the social sciences assume an important role.
Naturally an extensive use of social sciences within any area of theology is likely to generate suspicions of relativism and reductionism. A suspicion of relativism is raised here, as it is in other areas of theology, by the increasing pluralism of those teaching and studying applied theology. And a suspicion of reductionism is generated by the fear that extensive use of social sciences will soon eliminate transcendence altogether. Churches and church practices will soon, so it is feared, be reduced to the purely secular. For example, a use of organizational or business theory to understand churches will simply reduce them to nothing more than secular organizations or (worse still) businesses.
This is surely a profound misunderstanding of both applied theology and the social sciences. To explain or understand churches or religious practice in social-scientific terms is not in itself to explain them away. There manifestly are, for example, financial and economic features of institutional churches: they have budgets, they raise income and they spend money. All of these features can be compared with the similar activities of secular organizations and, if they are to be achieved effectively and efficiently, might benefit from such comparison. But to assume from this that institutional churches are "nothing but" financial/economic institutions would be an obvious exaggeration. Similarly, church leadership does have points in common with other forms of secular leadership. Yet studying it in this way does not of itself imply that it is only to be understood in this way. A judicious use of social science within applied theology is perfectly compatible with a commitment to transcendence.
At the heart of applied theology, then, is a concern for faith, practice, and theology. Even if the relationship between these three has become more complex and varied within the Western academy today, a concern to study and better to understand their relationship remains.
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