Seminaries are fond of advertising their courses under the heading of “Practical Theology.”  This makes perfect sense, given that the primary business of a seminary is to deliver the modern post-graduate, professional degree taken in preparation for the profession of ministry.  In our economy, practicality is a cardinal virtue.  After all, who would be interested in taking a non-practical degree in medicine or law or ministry?  Therefore seminaries and churches rightly believe that theological training should be practical.

 This emphasis on practicality however is two-faced, having both good and bad side-effects.  It’s good in the sense that my former professor Ray Anderson describes it: as theology that walks the talk, and bridges the gap between theological education and living out the pastoral mission of the church.  Anderson wisely teaches that theology is “practical” when it practices the ways of Jesus.  In this way theology becomes “Christopraxis,” not “methods, techniques and strategies for ministry, lacking theological substance,” but rather ministry aiming “to ensure that the church’s public proclamations and praxis in the world faithfully reflect the nature and purpose of God’s continuing mission to the world.”[1]   In short, practical theology should be Christ-like, walking the talk, and caring for people.  That is the upside potential of theology.The downside is unfortunately all easy to fall into—by aiming to be practical, in the sense of learning methods and techniques.  Did Jesus teach a method or technique? No.  Neither did he write a textbook.  He was, and is, the textbook.  In person.  His theology is the living, breathing, story-telling kind.It seems to me that the most practical kind of theology often turns out to be the kind that looks impractical by the standards of modern education.  The most practical kind of theology might just turn out to surprise us because it does not focus on “practical things” like the techniques of ministry, psychology, politics and economics.  These techniques and disciplines don’t necessarily make theology practical; but rather practicing theology as a disciple of Jesus is what makes it practical.

One of my most poignant moments while serving as a hospital chaplain came when in a visit with a man so paralyzed by infection that he was unable to speak.  In that hospital room I did not find my training in the techniques of ministry, active listening or the social sciences to be the most practical; but rather my theological understanding of the presence and ministry of Christ was the most practical thing in the world at that moment, and I reflected on that while I sat silently for some time, and prayed with the man.

Here is the irony in the idea of “practical theology”: the most practical thing is often that which seems most impractical in worldly terms.  Theological study and reflection that helps us grow in the knowledge of God and Christ and each other has very little practical content in economic terms; yet time spent in this kind of theological study  brings us closer to God in Christ, through the Spirit, and turns out to be the most practical wisdom there is. 

[1] Ray S. Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis, (InterVarsity, 2001), p. 14, 22.

For those who are studying aspects of the origin of life, the question no longer seems to be whether life could have originated by chemical processes involving non-biological components but, rather, what pathway might have been followed.

-National Academy of Sciences (1996)[1]

Of all the fascinating scientific theories to have arisen in the past couple centuries, one in particular seems to generate more energetic debate than all the others combined—evolution, specifically Darwinism.   Why does the simple idea of evolution raise so many questions for so many people regarding the interplay of science and faith?  After all, science has brought an amazing wealth of new discoveries and theories over the past century, including the mysterious, even paradoxical dualism of quantum physics, the Big Bang and the origin of time and matter, deep space telescopes and the mystery of dark matter, and of course genetics and the sequencing of the human genome, which I claim is as monumental a tool as the telescope, and will be remembered as the biggest scientific watershed of our lifetimes.

Darwin’s idea of evolutionary tree (1837)

So why does the topic of evolution generate so much debate, and if I may say so, why does the debate so often have the unfortunate result of generating more heat than light?   Even the most ardent debaters should realize that highly intelligent people can be found on all sides of the issue.   The science behind the theory of evolution has always found support among theologians.  Darwin’s contemporary B. B. Warfield, the preeminent scholar of Princeton Seminary, provides a good example.  Warfield saw Darwin’s science as “thoroughly consistent with Christian theism,”[2]  and at the same time spoke with great authority on the doctrine of biblical authority and inerrancy during the decades immediately following publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859.

In my personal sample of academic colleagues I find many like Warfield who find evolution to pose no problem for their biblical faith.  This is because the conflict is not to be found with science, but rather with the atheism of “Darwinism” as a worldview that denies the existence of God.  Such a denial springs not from any rational science, but from faith-based belief, and must be seen as a faith position because neither God’s presence nor absence can be proven as a matter of scientific practice.

Let us then aspire to be people who find beauty both in science and in faith, and let us continue to say, both in the realm of scientific discovery, and in the realm of the wisdom of faith, “one wonders…”
Darwin’s idea of evolutionary tree (1837)

[1] I am indebted to David Berlinski for identifying this quotation in “On the Origins of Life,” Commentary, April 2006, Vol. 121, Iss. 2, pg. 22.

[2] . B. Warfield, review of The Religious Aspect of Evolution, by James McCosh, The Presbyterian Review 9, (July 1888), p. 511.

  The sketch is Darwin’s earliest known diagram of a hypothetical tree of evolution (1837).