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September 2017
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There are many disciplinary perspectives from which one can study theology and culture, an intersection that has never, for me, been less than a reckless passion. My own way theologically into this nexus, and thus to the study of rock and theology, has been with the assistance of a domain called “practical theology.” This field is often distinguished from systematic theology, moral theology, historical theology, and fundamental theology (not to mention many other ways of marking up the map of theological studies). Practical theology takes practice as its key conceptual focus, and practices of interest to theology (whether in “religious” or “secular” contexts) as its key reference point — whether as a starting point or as a conclusion to theological argument. Practical theology is not well known in Catholic contexts in the United States, though it is better known in Catholic theological circles elsewhere, for example Canada and Europe. The term “practical theology” was made most effective and critically robust for modern theology by the 18th-19th century Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, and ever since has been more common in Protestant seminaries and Protestant theological encyclopedias.  Given its rarity in Catholic circles in the United States, I am sometimes asked how I came to learn of it and find it useful. Here is part 1 of my brief account of how.

I was introduced to practical theology through Professor Thomas Groome during my doctoral studies at Boston College in the late 1990s. I had never heard of practical theology during two years of master’s work at Harvard Divinity School, and sometime within my first year of doctoral studies, Professor Groome mentioned the International Academy of Practical Theology and the contours of the discipline while we were talking about my interests in faith and culture, and how to situate those within disciplinary nomenclatures and intellectual alliances/interlocutors. From time to time, he would give me articles by practical theologians, many of them from the International Journal of Practical Theology, particularly because they crossed my own interests in philosophies of practice, continental philosophy, or popular culture studies, as ways of thinking with and for theology in practice. This took place while the content of discussions at the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (now part of the School of Theology and Ministry), where I was located, was still heavily tilted toward religious education.

As these introductions to the discipline were happening, several zones of exploration and personal history were coming together in the late 1990s and early 00s that further helped me feel a productive and promising caughtness in that ambiguous, open-ended, and unruly set of overlapping domains called practical theology:

[1] In my doctoral studies, I encountered a constellation of overlapping themes germane to practical theology: “hermeneutics”, “practice”, “discourse”, “historicity”, “culture” (preeminently Edward Schillebeeckx, David Tracy, JB Metz, Karl Rahner, Michel Foucault—and more personally, the work of my three doctoral advisers: Prof. Groome in a liberationist approach to faith education, Fr. Roger Haight, SJ, in a historically-grounded systematic theology, Fr. James Bernauer, SJ, in Foucault studies. I am aware that in some ways my work has been an attempt to describe that overlapping space for “theology and practice” which Groome’s, Haight’s, and Bernauer’s work helps indicate, and this work started in a dissertation I wrote on Foucault and Rahner on the relation between subjectivity and knowledge with reference to the exigencies of the contemporary theologian as educator. I was led to start thinking that practical theology in the Catholic theological world could both create and claim a space not yet sufficiently explored—having to do with what I was thinking could be denominated the theological ‘character’ of practice and of the practical ‘character’ of theology—in other words, or as I would say now, of the deep problem of theological production, of where theological claims and commitments come from, of the working-up in practice of theological knowledges and subjectivities;

[2] In my musical life, a continuation of my involvement in the “secular” world of rock music. I have been playing electric bass in bands since 1986, and increasingly in the bar-band scene from the 1990s forward. This world constitutes what feels like nearly half of my working/creative identity (if theology is the other half). In the interlocking cultures of rock and roll, the music industry, and the bar/club music scene, religion in general and Christianity in particular are rarely taken seriously, let alone “publicly”. I learned about the legitimate autonomy of these cultures and the need for curiosity, care, and practical facility in bearing my theological interests in these venues. Above all, I continued to be schooled in the inhabitation of multiple identities, “sacred” theology and “secular” music, and to learn to let through/let go the solidity of those denominations of reality into a problem of the disciplining of identity through the pleasures and limits of these worlds of theology and music; I also learned to be aware of what it means to be a theologian in worlds like rock scenes where theology really does not matter, even as philosophies of musical practice and performance are the very stuff of the scene. (I later learned of interesting work in practical theology on musical performance and theology, confirming my intuition that these interests could be held in this emerging discipline.)

[3] In my writing life, I was publishing a couple of books that focused on the practice of faith on the part of younger generations in contemporary societies marked particularly by the predominance of popular media culture and of corporate branding, and I was also experimenting with forms of writing that attempted to traverse different audiences (ministry, academy, general adult reader, curious young adult reader) at once—and these twin concerns for specifications of content and form for research in faith and culture seemed able to be comprehended by practical theology;

[4] In my teaching life at Boston College, then at Santa Clara University, and now at Fordham University, I have found practical theological emplacements—in methods, interlocutors, problematics—to be of great help in presenting the theological life to students to whom I have been charged with teaching courses in “pastoral studies” and “theological studies”. At Boston College, with primarily graduate students in ministry, I leaned more on pedagogical/ministerial literature in practical theology; at Santa Clara, with primarily undergraduates, I focused more on debates about method and practical theology’s relation to cultural studies; and now newly at Fordham and back to graduate students in ministry and in theology, and undergraduate students in theology, I am still refining the approaches I take. I find I am focusing more than ever on debates in philosophies of cultural practice and accompanying creative re-readings of Christian tradition that follow the lead that a radical turn to the powers of practice can introduce.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

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