Unsystematic Theology

When it comes to theology, systems and categories can both serve and hinder. Pastoral/practical theology is not interested in systems. It is interested in taking concrete biblical truth into concrete situations. It is theology done in real time for real life. This is an excerpt from Stephen Pattison’s article, “A Vision for Pastoral Theology.” In the article, he captures why pastoral theology is fundamentally “unsystematic.”

By describing pastoral theological activity as confessional I want to suggest that it is prepared to find its own expression of faith and personal and group experience and to speak directly about this, as did the early Christian apostles. It is confessional, too, in that it helps people to bear witness to the truths and questions of religion in a particular context.

It is partly because it is the product of direct reflection of particular and immediate situations and events that pastoral theology finds it hard to be systematic. Traditionally, the aspiration of theology has been to provide reasoned and ordered utterance at a high level of abstraction which has consistency and coherence, covering many eventualities, themes and areas in an even and illuminating way.

Pastoral theologies cannot (and perhaps should not wish to) aspire to this level of second- or third-order theology (Fierro 1977, p.317). It takes time and effort to develop complex systematic theologies and they may be of limited practical use once they have been manufactured.

Pastoral theologies will need to content themselves with being, for the most part, fragmentary, partial and unsystematic. In the modern world this should perhaps be recognized as grounds for pride rather than an inferiority complex! It is not only well-ordered theoretical systematic theology (second- or third-order theological activity) which covers all the bases in the game which is real theology and worth doing.

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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.