Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore: Theology, religious communities and practice
New trends in theological education break down conventional boundaries between the academy and congregational life, says an expert in pastoral theology.
March 12, 2013 | Training a new generation of scholars while also teaching “lived theology” is a major challenge in today’s theological education, said Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion of Vanderbilt University.
“I think people today are more acutely aware of how relevant everyday religious practices are in forming theological assumptions among religious believers,” Miller-McLemore said.
Ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), she earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Her research is in religion, psychology, and culture; pastoral and practical theology; and women and childhood studies.
She is the author of numerous books, including “Christian Theology in Practice: Discovering a Discipline,” and is the editor of the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Practical Theology.
Miller-McLemore spoke to Faith & Leadership about the increasing commitment to understanding lived theology as well as issues of gender and children in Christian life. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Is there a disconnect between theology and what you once called “the thick, complicated realities and patterns of everyday bodily and communal practice”? Have things changed in the past few decades?
A lot of my work has been about giving more respect to the kind of theology that is operating outside the auspices of an academic institution. I wouldn’t want to romanticize congregations or ministers as being the “true theologians,” but I think there is a need to distribute value more widely across the spectrum of where theology happens.
If you go back and look in 1980s dictionaries like the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology and you look up “theology,” you will find definitions that are completely, entirely focused on cognitive beliefs. They’re about articulation of faith claims and refining of faith claims and debating and contesting and evaluating faith claims.
I think that was a pretty standard perception. It was easy for those trained to go into the ministry to carry with them that perception -- or misperception -- that theology is really something done in elite, intellectual circles.
Things have changed, so much so that I just was part of a dissertation defense earlier today that quoted [a systematic theologian] as saying that theology is all about what people do in practice.
I think there’s been a long-standing conviction that theology should be relevant, but actually trying to do that in both teaching and writing is a fresh pressure and commitment. Certainly, people like Paul Tillich were public theologians, and people were reading their sermons, and in some ways they were connected to churches and publics.
But I think people today are more acutely aware of how relevant everyday religious practices are in forming theological assumptions among religious believers.
Q: What are the implications for theological education?
I would say that things have changed, but maybe not as dramatically as one might hope. I think seminaries by and large are doing a better job than university divinity schools, partly because they are more proximate to religious congregations, and they are by nature more creative and imaginative and more interested in thinking integratively. They have to, because they’re pushed by the needs of their students in more acute ways.
I see some pretty interesting things happening in seminary education to break down the conventional boundaries between disciplines and between the academy and congregational life.
But there really still is, and probably always will be, some tension between the values and standards of academic scholarship and at the same time really responding to practical needs of religious communities and their leaders.
I think that’s probably been a several-centuries-old problem. It’s not a new problem of the varieties of knowledges and how they are related to each other. I think it’s still hard to teach toward practice, and there area lot of reasons for that.
There is a place for theorizing. The academy has to have a place. It’s just [a question of] how to keep a fluidity between it and the wider world of religious communities and practice.
Q: Could you offer an example of what you mean by “lived theology”?
People may not think about it this way, but when people make decisions about the distribution of household labor, it isn’t just a practical decision. It is a decision that has at least moral, if not religious, convictions.
We don’t think about these things as theological, but they’ve been formed by scriptural and theological traditions. So something obvious like male headship -- that was a theological conviction that was based on certain Scriptures, and to challenge it, you aren’t just challenging a question of political or personal preference.
You’re actually thinking about how do you imagine God, and how do you imagine humans in relationship to God.
I’ve become really interested in bodies and theological knowledge. So that has led me to think about how in our bodily actions in worship life we are actually proclaiming certain convictions theologically.
So, for example, I come from a free church tradition that does communion every week and have been participating lately in a very different tradition in an Episcopalian context that also does communion -- a liturgical church tradition that goes back to Catholicism.
And the ways of sharing communion bodily exemplify deep theological convictions about what the meaning of participating in that ritual is. Whether you process to the front and hold your hands out in front says something very different than if you distribute bread and grape juice in individual cups on trays and people serve each other.
Those practical, everyday actions were intended to carry significant meanings, and people don’t think about it. But it does shape how we understand ourselves and our relationship with divine presence.