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  • Writer's pictureRev. Spencer Potter

Creative or Traumatic Tension? The Potential within Practical & Ordinary Theologies

Defining the Practical and the Ordinary

Practical Theology is the academic discipline of theology. It examines and reflects on religious praxis in an attempt to mediate theological theory and practice in society (Latini, Heitink). It is capable of, and at times perpetrates, violence on ordinary theology.

Ordinary theology by definition is "the theology and theologizing of Christians who have received little or no theological education of a scholarly, academic, or systematic kind” (Astley).

Practical theology's academic exploration of theory-laden practices can, and do, assault ordinary people's theology. One only has to look to the clergy paradigm, or church abuses, to see a vulgar dynamic of practical theology in motion. This dynamic is not emerging. It is clear.

People claiming to be professional Christians have hurt and severely injured others.

Power Dynamics

Practical theology holds a position of power. It is an entry point to the whole theological enterprise. It has the power of authority and performance.

Despite this power, practical theology could not exist without average, ordinary people and the theology that emerges from the ordinary lived experience.

Ordinary theologies are like questions that come before the answers. Ordinary people form ideas before, and as, they perform services. Ordinary theology comes before the "superiority" of practical theology. Ordinary theology is akin to metaphorical baptismal waters that practical theology faithfully turns into wine.

...And the Lord knows that many outpourings of abuse are fueled by alcohol.

Given such abuses, the wisdom of exploring an intersection, much less a union between practical and ordinary theology is questionable. In light of church abuses and religious traumas, can the wounds between the ordinary and the professional be healed? Ordinary theology is nearly sufficient on its own and the exploits of practical theology are real. The pain is often acutely performed.

A Reverence for the Ordinary

Practical theology needs to love and amend with ordinary theology. There is a call to love, nurture, and help grow the practices of the marginalized and the ordinary. There is a demand to critically reflect upon lived experience. There is an opportunity to embrace the ordinary experience of God.

For example, who can theologize about trauma in an academic setting? Who can reflect and revise worship practices to be more inclusive and aware of suffering? It is often the practical theologian that must care for and create safe space for victims in real and practical ways.

In most cases, ordinary theology has no similar obligation to practical theology. By definition, ordinary theology happens naturally. At best, ordinary theology is invited to respect the pivotal ethic of practical theology. At worst, it is imposed upon by practical theology and subject to abuses of the Church. It is often disciplining and controlling.

It often takes a creator to reveal a re-creation. Ordinary theology is revealed, over and over again, to be the creator of practical theology. This is the scandalous truth of incarnation within theology. As Jesus states that he is "the way, the truth, and the life," he simultaneously eats with the average people, heals the ordinary blind man, and forgives the common sinner.

Practical theology, when done correctly, is pivotal. Beginning with experience, it seeks to meet the needs of the community in ever-more effective ways. It is itself transformed in the process of turning ever-more-closely to God. Questions of praxis and practice emerge and re-emerge to meet the needs and demands of the age. Practical theology facilitates the transformation toward a kingdom ethic as it embraces methods of growth.

In collaboration with ordinary theology, this transformation and growth can be miraculous. This relationship can succeed if proper respect and nurturing space is given to the ordinary and if the ordinary can realize the pivotal ethic inherent in practical theological work.

Practical theology can witness this miracle, but it cannot call for it. Ordinary theology can imagine this miracle, but it cannot perform it.


Rev. Spencer Potter is a practical theologian who is currently listening to the ordinary wedding practices of those in the Episcopal church. He is a priest at St Andrew's, a multicultural multigenerational Episcopal church in the suburbs of Miami, FL. He is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. candidate at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is married to Erin and together they have one son, Riley. Spencer enjoys walking to the ocean, road trips, and catching the occasional Montreal Canadiens hockey game or concert.

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