Friday, January 07, 2011

Participation and Mediation

Ward, Peter. Participation and Mediation: A Practical Theology for the Liquid Church.
SCM  Press, 2008, 204 pages.

Peter Ward asserts that practical theology participates in the Trinitarian life of God, and in this book tries to weave together disciplines that typically exist in different departments. He opens with chapters on culture and mission studies, then shifts to chapters on patristic theology and the various forms of mediation. His goal, to “not reproduce the kind of dislocation between practice and academic theology that I had been introduced to in my undergraduate studies. At the same time I wanted to pass on a love for study and for the tradition of the Church.[1]
Ward certainly encourages a love for study in this book. I enjoyed the brief surveys of missiology and cultural studies in the early chapters. He has read widely. I also appreciated his attempt to weave these contemporary forms of academic discourse into conversation with the tradition of the church, particularly Trinity, participation, communion, mediation, and the theology of the great tradition. The best idea in the book is his attempt to bring together these often separated strands of academic and practical theology.
The book is challenging because I think it actually does reproduce the very dislocation between practice and academic theology he wants to eschew. One way to say this is to say that although the book is about bringing practical theology into engagement with academic theology, what the book actually does is to reinforce the difference. It asserts without actually showing. An example of this is his thesis: “Through participation practical theology becomes a discipline of prayerful encounter with God. One of the key reasons for this is that ‘theology’ mediates the presence of God.”[2] Although Ward is at great pains to say that theology mediates the presence of God, in the end it is not clear to me how theology does so in a way unique from anything else. Ward leaves the impression that anything can mediate the presence of God, even a peanut butter sandwich.
Later, Ward writes, “Practical theology is theological because it is reflection. Reflection is the mediation of and a participation in the Trinitarian life of God.”[3] Ward then moves on and into high theological language of participation, but it is not at all clear to me that simply by using doctrinal language from Barth and Calvin and others that Ward has now resolved the dislocation between practical and academic theology. In fact, by developing the argument as he does he may even be guilty of strengthening and firming up the dislocation. Perhaps the problem is that I think Ward fundamentally misunderstands the patristic doctrine of participation, which begins and ends in the life of the Trinity rather than the mediating structures of culture and communication.
I agree with Ward that the cultural is a place of convergence in contemporary theology.[4] I am still a bit thrown by that thesis even while I agree with it, because I simply have not gotten my head around what culture is or signifies.[5] Central to the argument is the belief that in the move towards the cultural “theologians are tending to see ‘ideas’ about God as somehow connected and conditioned by historical and social realities.”[6] This is true as far as it goes, but I would have thought that the doctrine of sin would remind theologians in every age of the truth of this.
Finally, I am inspired by Ward’s definition of liquid church. “Liquid Church expresses the way that ecclesial being is extended and made fluid through mediation. The Liquid Church moves beyond the traditional boundaries of congregation and denomination through the use of communication and information technologies.[7] This definition offers theoretical possibilities for illustrating the permeability of church and world through the mediating work of communication and information technologies, and his further rhetorical question—“How can theological capital and the Christian habitus be developed in this context of an extended ecclesial life?”[8]—issues a worthy missiological challenge. I just think the book on how those technologies participate in the life of God remains to be written.

[1] 25.
[2] 26.
[3] 104.
[4] 39.
[5] “Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (67). Agreed.
[6] 47.
[7] 137.
[8] 191.

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