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November 2011
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When I wrote my first work on religion and popular culture, Virtual Faith, more than thirteen years ago, I did not conduct the research with any kind of sophisticated qualitative-theological consciousness, a consciousness that has rapidly become something like the gold standard, or at least one gold standard, in practice-based theologies. I worked, rather, largely from social science and religious studies research (about popular culture and generational identity) in correlation with theological concepts (mostly theologies of culture and hermeneutical and philosophical theologies — the stuff of my graduate studies at the time) — rendered intelligible for a “crossover” audience of academics and educated lay readers. That is to say, even though I did study music videos closely and give my own interpretations of them, I did not foreground that “qualitative” process and instead was focused mostly on working through concepts and ideas that related to (whether arising from, carried by, or funding) spiritual practice in contemporary culture.

I have been thinking about the staying power of what I call such “philosophical research” in practice-based theology in the midst of the strong turn toward social science methods for theology. Philosophical research is, in a sense, a very traditional way of writing theology for pastoral questions. This research is written at some critical remove from a pastoral situation, or else a pastoral situation becomes the occasion for a reflection that steps back to consider broader and deeper issues that might bear on a pastoral situation. But in this research, there is typically no fresh “data” presented about the actual practice at stake; no new qualitative or quantitative information is introduced in the research. But that does not mean that actual practice, action, or performance is absent. Practice is the occasion for the philosophical exploration, and a new practice – however changed, renewed, or even transformed – is the intention of the philosophical exploration. It is meant to try to make an intervention in the thinking of the academic or pastoral worker, wagering that this particular way of carrying the argument about what to do will in fact be persuasive for the goals of ministry or culturally-interested theology.

And so while I call it philosophical research, it is not abstract argumentation for the sake of mere clarification of ideas or unaccountable rumination. It has action as its target, and therefore theological rhetoric as its instrument. It has to consider how to make the case with sufficient academic sophistication to meet the canons of critical reasoning in theology, and with sufficient pastoral richness to meet the exigencies of pastoral action in the real world. Or as the Indigo Girls put it, to help us take our lives (less) seriously.

To call it philosophical research does not mean that one necessarily uses “philosophy” in the sense of a discipline distinct from theology, as if one has to be quoting Immanuel Kant or Hannah Arendt. Remember that philosophy was at one time seen as a partner for theological study, and indeed that for much of the tradition, philosophy is not separated out from theology.