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September 2017
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I am in Amsterdam for the biennial meeting of the International Academy of Practical Theology (IAPT), a gathering of more than a hundred scholars of practical theology from around the world.

Whatever else one thinks of Amsterdam, its notoriety as a tolerant arena for the play of desires — intellectual, culinary, herbal, sexual — is well-established. Indeed, the theme for the IAPT this year is “City of Desires: A Place for God?” Plenary addresses and numerous conference papers will explore the theme of desire from theological perspectives, especially rooting the questions in everyday urban life and pastoral work. A draft conference book is here; abstracts for many of the papers are here.

After falling for the musical “Passing Strange” a few years ago, I cannot think of Amsterdam, desire and theology without reference to it. (Earlier, I wrote three posts on the musical: one, two, three.) In these two clips you can see the “pilgrim” discovering Amsterdam, and receiving — and singing in — a set of “secular” keys to the kingdom. Speaking of “the pilgrim,” the rock musical “Passing Strange” is one way to approach, in contemporary Western society, the significance of Ignatius Loyola’s injunction, throughout the sixteenth century manual called the Spiritual Exercises, to “ask for what I desire.” One need not equate desire with God to trust a loving attention to desire and its befriending as a path to God.

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This will be my third biennial, having attended Berlin (2007) and Chicago (2009), and on the flight over from New York, I noticed the same questions arising in me as before the last two biennials: How do I explain to international colleagues what practical theology is for me? On the surface, a commitment to practice might seem to join all practical theologians, but the second one steps into international

conversation – and, truth be told, conversation within North America as well – that turns out not to be true in any sustaining sense.

Is the mark of the practical theologian a commitment to practice? Immediately objections would be raised: what sort of practice? Pastoral practice – and that in service of the church’s goals? Public-social practice – and that in service of the common good? Liberative practice transducing all proposed spheres of action? Or is the word “commitment” itself problematic? Does the theologian need such commitment, and how would that be shown or confessed to others – through what rhetorics in one’s writing, by way of engagement with which audiences, and through involvement in what professional activities?

Perhaps commitment does not specify clearly enough the “scientific” dimension of theological work, which must live without the illusion of neutrality but still within the ethics of truth-telling and honesty regarding every topic under its purview.

Or perhaps the trouble is with the focus here on the practical theologian her/himself. Is the work of theology reducible to the endeavors of an individual theologian who is somehow responsible for a research agenda and for marking out a specific spot on an ambiguous map, or is it better to think of theologians as part of schools of thought, institutions or discourses that predate the theologian and carry their work into realms out of her/his control, whether those non-subjective institutions be termed “the church” or an economy of knowledge and power.

Part of the pleasure of doing practical theology – part of my own answer is that I hesitate to call myself a practical theologian, but would rather say that the matrices of practical theology and I cross through each other – is that I do not know any simple answers to these questions, and that how theology relates to action, practice, and performance is for me the most compelling of theological domains. So this community – including those gathered here in Amsterdam for the IAPT – continually calls to me with its learned and wise persons, deeper into the questions that give me life, that help me ask for what I desire.

Tommy Beaudoin

Amsterdam, Netherlands

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