By continuing your visit to this site, you accept the use of cookies. These ensure the smooth running of our services. Learn more.

Chickens and Eggs - Theology and Practice

I read something this week that said 'theology follows practice' and to an extent that is true, but it seems to be oversimplified since it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to discern which actually came first.

At a macrosopic level, it is quite easy to find examples that show how a theology was developed to support a practice - such as the practice of "confirmation" employed by many infant baptising traditons.  The practice began as a pastoral response to a perceived need for more baptisms than a bishop could possibly do; allowing his vicars to do all but the last bit, which he'd then do next time he passed that way.  Centuries later, clever theologies have been developed to justify the practice on other grounds.  But it isn't quite that simple, is it?  There was a whole underlying theology of baptism, and of the fate of unbaptised infants, that prompted the pastoral response.  So which came first?

Many practical theologians talk about 'starting with experience' as if somehow we have no pre-existing theological framework - conscious or otherwise - to shape our practice or thinking.  While any active reflection has to start somewhere, there is no such thing as absolute objectivity, and my practice and my worldview are inextricably linked.

Back when I was studying contextual theology as an undergrad. one of my breakthrough moments was when I grasped that the essential difference between different approaches to theology was where they chose to start the reflection process.  Some choose to start from 'theory' - dogmatic or systematic theology - and then apply this to real life, reflecting and refining as they go.  Others choose to start from 'experience' - contextual, various '-ation ' and '-ist' methods, practical theology - and then reflect on this in the light of scripture and tradition.  Whilst the two process are not identical, they do achieve pretty much the same ends.  Of course since my 'eureka' moment about 4 years ago, I have seen this written more eloquently by some writers, but am still struck by the prevelence of 'either/or' views.

The theology I unconsciously acquired as a child and the unreflected-upon experiences of my past both shape my thinking now.  I cannot say that one inevitably precedes the other.  In my version of the 'pastoral cycle' I envisage both a spiral and multiple entry points for considering any specific thing, and the whole somehow entwined with both conscious and unconscious influences...  Chickens?  Eggs?  Omelettes? - Or just some sort of scramble?

The more I know, the more I know I don't know and, without a totally literalist reading of Genesis 1, we'll never answer the question about chickens and eggs.


  • Yep, that's pretty much what I thought when I read it too. Only you seem to say it better!

The comments are closed.