Thinking about a new method for doing practical theology

by Ben Pugh.

David Tracey, Seward Hiltner, Don Browning and Gordon Lynch, between them, addressed the deficiencies in Paul Tillich’s ‘correlational’ approach to relating theology to culture. They replaced Correlation with ‘Revised Correlation,’ the method that facilitates a two-way, mutually critical conversation between a particular cultural phenomenon and the Christian tradition. The one-way conversation of Tillich in which the culture asks all the questions and theology must give the answers, is here counter-balanced.

However, within Revised Correlation there seems to be a reluctance to pin down what aspects of culture qualify for theological reflection and what aspects of Christian tradition ought to be selected for dialogue. Don Browning unapologetically described Revised Correlation as a dialogue between the ‘Christian classics’ and “‘all other answers” from wherever they come.’[1] There is a problem at both ends of the process: the culture end and the theology end: a lack of criteria by which we are supposed to choose the thing to reflect upon, and a similar carte blanche as to what aspect of Christian tradition is best selected.

What I’m proposing tries to address both ends of the problem by offering clearer selection criteria. I am calling my new approach ‘Correlative Retrieval.’ This approach looks for actual vestiges of the gospel within contemporary Western culture that are selected for retrieval. Genealogical links to the original source for the phenomenon are traced historically as a first step. But, of course, even the original will be found to be flawed or otherwise not straightforwardly translatable back into contemporary culture. So, as a second step, the methods of biblical theology are used to help clarify or even correct the historically Christian thing that was discovered to be the source of the modern vestige. However, even once the biblical renovation work is done, a third step will be needed. Humility requires me to acknowledge the way the modern vestige has kept much better pace with developments than many of its Christian counterparts. So I make full use of these modern adaptations wherever they might be found to chime with the findings of biblical theology. In this way, the two-way mutually critical dialogue between culture and faith still happens, but it happens within clearer methodological parameters.

For example, an early experiment of mine was in the area of addiction recovery programmes. 12-Step recovery programmes are a classic example of a gospel vestige. The de-Christianisation process is not yet complete, so many of the signs of AA’s originally Christian impetus still lie close to the surface. Indeed, they are so obvious that Rick Warren’s team have already gone down the route of simply naming the ‘Higher Power’ and the ‘God of your own understanding’ as ‘Jesus.’ Thus their Celebrate Recovery is a straightforward reclaiming of AA for Jesus. But what I wanted to do was a bit more subtle. Historically, 12-step approaches are traceable to the Oxford Group of the 1930s. This was a Christian discipleship programme aimed at all Christians, founded by Frank Buchman, a Lutheran. The core concept of turning your life over to the care of God, of ‘letting go and letting God,’ was certainly influenced by the Keswick teachers whom he loved but was probably also deeply embedded in the Lutheran tradition from which Buchman originally came. Luther’s theologia crucis centred upon the importance of casting ourselves in faith upon the mercy of God, humbling ourselves profoundly before him, and then receiving the free gift of grace. But perhaps the genealogy does not stop there, since Luther’s main inspiration was Galatians and Romans. Indeed, the best place to go to reflect further on that core concept of, if you like, defeat-overcome-by-surrender, is Romans. There, the world of endlessly repeated defeat at the hands of ‘the flesh’ in chapter 7 gives way to the sunny Spirit-led life of chapter 8, with chapter 6 already having given the key to walking in this newness of life: present yourself to the new master, to God. However, even with the core ideas biblically renewed and clarified, I also needed to acknowledge that newer recovery programmes have kept pace with new developments in addictionology which the founders of AA could not have known about. Indeed, new programmes such as SMART Recovery and Rational Recovery are now beginning to supplement the 12-step approach and are proving effective. So, a new faith-based programme would need to not only biblically renovate 12-step recovery but also incorporate the newer insights that have been gained by secular research wherever this can be found to chime with the biblical insights – and I found some very exciting resonances.

So, with the help of two experienced practitioners in the field, a new faith-based programme was developed. It took the form of a book: Beyond this Darkness,[2] which was published in 2017. Since then, my friends and I have not exactly revolutionised recovery, but hopefully some people have been helped. As I further refine my method I hope it will be useful as a way of connecting gospel and culture in many other ways too.

[1] Don Browning, A Fundamental Practical Theology: Descriptive and Strategic Proposals (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1991), p. 46.

[2] Ben Pugh, Jason Glover and Daniel Thompson, Beyond this Darkness: A Faith-Based Pathway to Recovery from Addictive Behaviors (Eugene: Resource, 2017).

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