Practical Theology and the Messiness of Life

Stephen Pattison wrote an article entitled, “A Vision of Pastoral Theology.” In the article, he places practical/pastoral theology in the realm of “soft knowledge.” He argues this type of knowledge comes from wisdom, intuition, and mystery. He further argues that practical theology thrives in the “messiness” of life. It is down to earth and real. Here is a helpful excerpt from the article.

Aristotle distinguished between practical reasoning, which helps to distinguish the proper course of action or conduct, and theoretical reasoning, which helps one to arrive at true statements and beliefs (Hampshire 1978, pp.23ff ). Pastoral theologies arise in the sphere of practical reasoning and that they need to engage more of the person than the faculty of reason. They help people to distinguish how they should act and be. More than this, the kind of knowledge which is contained and expressed in pastoral theologies, even in their written form, is transformational knowledge.

Transformational knowledge is soft knowledge.

[It] involves intuition, wisdom, and mystery in contrast to technical control … Transformational knowledge is a ‘peculiar’ amalgam, different from the method- ological knowledge sought by the humanities in their academic and scholarly pursuits. Members of the transformational disciplines are always faced with the ‘messy’ aspects of human life. (Patton 1990, p.70)

Transformational knowledge emanates in large part from the transitional realm of the symbol. Here reason and emotion, conscious and unconscious, intersect and interconnect to generate fundamental, if not necessarily verbally expressible, under- standings, hopes, fears and world views. It is in this dimension that religion operates and from which it gains its importance and significance. Transformational, knowledge is messy. It amounts to informal knowledge, personal knowledge and that elusive thing wisdom: the kind of knowledge which is very difficult to evaluate and assess by any kind of examination process. It arises from people’s experience of living and their dialogue (at all sorts of different levels) with experience.

A Theologian You Need to Meet

Stanley Hauerwas calls him the “premier pastoral theologian of our time.” I first encountered him three years ago when I picked up his book on engaging the problem of evil. Since then, I have been trying to get my hands on everything he has written and I have not been disappointed yet. His theology is practical, relevant, and understandable. He pushes gospel truth into areas where theology desperately needs to have a voice. His name is John Swinton. He holds a Bachelor of Divinity and a PhD from Aberdeen. He is also a Registered Mental Nurse (RMN) and a Registered  Nurse for People with Learning Disabilities (RNMD). He currently holds a chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen. Here is an excerpt he wrote about himself.

The foundation for much of my research and teaching has emerged from my background in nursing, ministry and healthcare chaplaincy. I worked as a nurse for sixteen years initially within the field of mental health and latterly within the area of learning disabilities. I also worked for a number of years as a hospital chaplain, latterly as a community mental health chaplain. It was whilst working in these fields that I began to gain a passion for developing modes of care that are genuinely person centred and which take seriously the significance of theology, spirituality and religion within the processes of healing, healing and community building.

I am an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland with a strong commitment to supporting the work of the church. I am member of Aberdeen Presbytery and currently secretary of Christ’s College, which is responsible for the welfare and education of candidates for the ministry of the Church of Scotland.

I have a particular interest in multidisciplinary education and research. At present I teach cross-college courses in the schools of nursing and medicine at the University of Aberdeen. For a number of years I have taught an interdisciplinary course on spirituality and health that involves nursing students, medical students and students from the Arts and Theology. To my knowledge there is no other course like this in the UK. I also teach on spirituality and healthcare to nurses and occupational therapists at Robert Gordon’s University in Aberdeen.

I also engage in cross-college interdisciplinary research. An example of this would be our ongoing collaborative research with Professor Steve Heys who heads up the Breast Cancer Unit at Forresterhill Hospital in Aberdeen. We are working on a number of projects exploring the relationship between spirituality and women’s experiences of breast cancer.

My research profile is similarly multidisciplinary in its emphasis, and I have published extensively within the area of practical theology, pastoral care, mental health studies, disability theology and nursing.

I am honorary professor of nursing in the Centre for Advanced Studies in Nursing at the University of Aberdeen where I teach the role of the humanities and healthcare, nursing ethics and qualitative research. I supervise PhD students in nursing studies within a variety of areas. I continue to research and publish in the areas of nursing and medicine.

As you can see, his background and interests are quite unique for a theologian. This is precisely what is drawing about him. He addresses issues that are rarely discussed in Christian circles. He pushes the boundaries of his theology into areas that seem untouched by the influence of the church. He works out his theology in such a way that it is meaningful for all facets of life—even very foreign and challenging areas. Good theology always collides with reality. Swinton seems to live by this principle. Here are a few of the books he has written.

Pascal on Living in the Present

Blaise Pascal was a Christian philosopher, scientist, and mathematician that lived in the 1600’s. He had a sharp mind and wrote some helpful stuff. One of his famous works is titled Pensees, which is french for “thoughts.” The book is a compilation of meditations on various topics. The following is a quote from Pensees on living in the present. Pascal’s thoughts here are insightful and challenging.

“We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of time that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching. Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” [1]

[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensees (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 13.