The relationship of religious education to practical theology

In this discussion we will explore the relationship of the field of religious education to that of practical theology. Please write a few paragraphs on this topic either initiating your own thoughts or responding to other people.

3 thoughts on “The relationship of religious education to practical theology”

  1. Maureen O'Brien

    I’ve been thinking for a while about the relationship of practical theology and religious education. In my own work and professional self-identification I’ve regularly straddled the two, so I’m disposed to seeing them as mutually supportive.

    In 2009 I gave a paper at REA:APPRRE in which I attempted to articulate some ways in which PT and RE can learn from each other. In brief, I proposed that PT contributes in a distinctive way to RE:
    a. A preference for staying grounded in a community’s particular faith identity as their form of participation in humanity’s common quest for the Divine, and thus considering the practices of particular communities to be integral to the work of PT
    b. A preference for praxis-based methodologies through which theory is generated in ongoing dialogue with practice for the sake of personal and social transformation faithful to the foundational vision of the particular religious tradition

    And that RE contributes to PT:
    c. Naturally, educational expertise! And especially, an impetus toward forming persons and communities toward “postconventional” perspectives (using a term congenial to developmental theories) necessary to thrive and work for the common good amid postmodern diversity and complexity, consciously attending to people’s psychosocial, cognitive, moral and faith life stages in light of these challenges
    d. A proclivity toward including interreligious engagement in our RE research and teaching, seeing this as vital for responsible participation in the education of people in a postmodern context

    Questions you might ponder:
    1. Would you agree with framing the RE-PT relationship as mutually supportive?
    2. Is my characterization of the RE-PT relationship compatible with our field of RE as it’s developed to the present day?
    3. How would you modify and add to the points I’ve proposed for the distinctive contributions of RE and PT?
    4. What are the practical implications for our curricula, how our students self-identify and contribute professionally in the future, etc.?

  2. Peter Gilmour

    From Peter Gilmour (posted by Bob O’Gorman)
    I’d like to contribute to the discussion of the relationship of religious education to practical theology. I see my contribution (which I have expanded on in an article that is being considered for Religious Education) as a case study engaging some important questions on this topic posed by Maureen O’Brien.

    Early in the ‘60s as a response to Vatican II, Catholic universities in the United States inaugurated graduate degree programs in religious education. Due to the nature of Catholic higher education in the United States, these programs were not under the control and supervision of the hierarchy. 50 years ago the primary audience for many of these programs was Catholic high school religion teachers – considering the vast number of Catholic high schools at that time.

    It was the developing field of pastoral theology (practical theology) which undergirded these programs. The 1964 formal proposal for instituting the Master degree in Religious Education at Loyola University Chicago states:

    The Institute provides an interwoven program of studies. It is not a catechetical, or biblical, or liturgical Institute, but pastoral (emphasis added). This means that the Institute studies the total action of the Church, which is preaching and teaching, praying and worshiping, guiding and forming. The program thus presents an organic synthesis of all these aspects of the Church’s life. Furthermore, the Institute is pastoral in the sense that is concentrating on the communication of the Christian Mystery to the concrete man of today. The Institute is interested in both the theoretical and practical order, – an understanding of what Christianity is and how Christianity can be transmitted and communicated to the man of today, content and methods. This is precisely the area of religious education in the fullest sense of the term.

    Pastoral Theology has evolved in definition and practice these past fifty years. In the early 1960s Pastoral Theology was defined as focused on the vital functioning of the church, in contradistinction to Neo-Scholasticism (operating in in the field of theological speculation). Pastoral theology was seen as a dialogue between real world experience, both individual (personal), social, and communal with the religious tradition – leading to transformation and action. Thus in the ‘60s religious education, as aspect of pastoral theology, had its own integrity – not reliant on or subservient to other forms of theology.

    Religious Education was understood as a process of information, formation, and transformation. Experiencing culture became constituent elements of Religious Education.
    Raising the status of Religious Education in Catholic schools meant having specific departments of religion with professionally qualified faculty akin to other academic departments such as science, math, English, etc. The pastoral spirit of Religious Education infused religion classes with a progressive culture where students could participate in discussions of personally and socially relevant topics in an atmosphere of honesty and openness.

    The direction of Catholic graduate religious education began to shift as early as the ‘70s. Catholic schools began to close and teachers in those schools began to move from school to parish venues. Many Catholic graduate who offered the Master of Religious Education began expanding their degree offerings to related fields of pastoral endeavor: Master degrees in Pastoral Studies, Pastoral Counseling and Divinity. Today, Master degrees in Religion Education in Catholic universities in the United States are few. However, the unique style of education initially incubated within Religious Education degrees – flexible and adaptable programs with an ability to put into practice the best theories of adult education, and teaching styles that best serve how adults learn most effectively – continues in these additional degree offerings in Pastoral Theology. At the heart of these degree programs is transformation, personal and social, individual and communal. Hence, many of these programs have become epicenters for educational innovation within their university contexts.

  3. I was at the Chicago Theological Seminary when the University of Chicago’s Divinity School held initial conversations about something new called “practical theology.” At CTS we were underwhelmed. But this was a divinity school at the U.of C. A seminary like CTS was a different idea. A senior theologian at CTS suggested that he indeed knew some theologians who were less than practical, but that the theology he taught came as much from our students and those who were members of the faith communities we served as with the academics from the academy. He suggested that theology was relational, incarnational, concerned about the human condition and God’s interaction with a people. We were to get inside this theology and teach it, not simply attest it.

    A practical comment: At that time I had on occasion been drafted to help students in the Div school’s MDiv program in their understanding of religious education. I soon discovered that this was a topical infusion not integrated within that school’s curriculum and therefore not appreciated by either the students or the faculty. About the third time I was asked to do my designated hitter position, I demurred. At the same time, the Div school canceled their DMin program.

    I felt (and still feel) that much of what is called “practical theology” (if, in any way taught like the CTS theologian mentioned above—Perry Lefevre) ought to be central and integrative for the educative task in both the MDiv and DMin courses of study.

    A thought: a place like the Div school might have viewed both of their degree programs as a kind of laboratory for the unpacking of this so-called “new” idea; it could have served as an integrative fulcrum, but as far as I know, nothing like that took place. In this regard I appreciated Peter Gilmore’s comments as to the integrative work done at Loyola’s Institute.

    What happened then (this was the 1980’s and 1990’s) now seems to me to be an illustration of the historic dichotomy I expressed above (the confessional, church-centered seminary and the divinity school’s scientific-academy focus). Not that it must remain an either/or; it could and should become a both/and…. but I think religious educators don’t understand the fundamental divide that exists between the church-centered confessional seminary and the academy driven modernistic assumptions anchoring the divinity school.

    And given that 25 divinity schools educate the bulk of our seminary professors (and neither the seminary or the divinity school ever address this impasse) the issue of the relation of practical theology to religious educators seems small beans. Whether we are (first) educators or (first) theologians, we are missing the theological and educational question that is in front of us; how is what we do in either the seminary or the divinity school is both religious education and practical theology???

    I think Chuck Foster has nailed the fundamental issues underlying my concerns.

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