Practical theology and the humanities

Practical theology could be enriched by a more intentional and pervasive engagement with the humanities. Practical theology and its constituent disciplines should add interdisciplinary interface with literature, the arts, music, anthropology, and history to an already robust commitment to the social sciences. It seems to me that those in our field who have emphasized the hermeneutical character of our work point us in the right direction.

Martha Nussbaum-a philosopher with appointments in both the law school and the divinity school at the University of Chicago-argues in her recent book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010) that the humanities foster deep interpretations of the human condition and support the development of interventions into the social order that promote democratic flourishing because they develop, “…Searching critical thought, daring imagination, empathetic understanding of human experiences of many different kinds, and understanding of the complexity of the world we live in” (7). It seems to me that this is exactly the sort of thing that practical theology aims for as it makes critical and constructive use of the social sciences. Because we are unable to get to the “thing itself” (Kant) in lived human realities and are only able to approximate or provide renderings of those realities disciplined or grounded most often by qualitative empirical research, we always have to make interpretive judgments. Unless we are prepared to forsake qualitative empirical research in favor of quantitative empirical methods and data, then we should embrace unashamedly the hermeneutical character of our field…and consider the possibility of priority engagement with the arts, literature, and history. I would argue that such disciplines provide as much profound data and insight into lived human realities as anything yielded by fields like psychology and sociology. The kind of broadening of scope for practical theology makes sense when we keep in focus the fact that, for the most part, our field traffics not in “hard sciences” but hermeneutics and considered judgments.

I work as a practical theologian primarily in the mode of education. In thinking about my work as a Christian educator in light of what I have been saying about the need for engagement with the humanities, I have lately been playing with the following statement: “Christian education is an inherently interdisciplinary enterprise that must engage fields like the social sciences, the learning sciences, and the humanities if it is to be maximally creative and effective in meeting the needs of contemporary learners in a wide range of contexts.” While only a preliminary statement, I like the potential that it has to build upon and broaden what we Christian educators have already been doing, while opening up and legitimating engagement with poetry, painting, drama, music, philosophy, and history.

This is my story and I am sticking with it.

Gordon Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary

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