Introducing Theological Action Research: a Christian practical theology practice
For many people, including many Christians, the language of ‘theology’ conjours up things that are remote, abstract and distanced from real life, faith and spirituality. Worse than that, ‘theology’ can seem to be a threat to faithful people, making things more burdensome and complicated than they need to be.
Yet the way of doing theology described in this little introduction is not at all like this. It takes its character from the ancient understanding of theology as ‘faith seeking understanding’ (St. Anselm), and works with diverse groups of people, and a variety of traditions and expertise, in order to come to better understanding of faith, its words, and its practices. Our conviction is that the practices and words of faith-full people are themselves significant expressions of theology, all be it often in more hidden or implicit ways.
Many Christian theologians will claim that their ‘talk about God’ is rooted not only in the authority of Scripture and Church traditions, but also in human reason and experience. For all that, it remains true that a good deal of what is written under the heading of theology remains at a distance from the faith and lives of ‘ordinary’ (often quite extraordinary!) Christian women and men. Theological Action Research is, at its heart, a way of bringing the ‘ordinary’ voices life and faith into conversation with other theological voices, so that a wider conversation can be entered into. It is in this conversation between biblical and church traditions, faith life and experience, and diverse expertise that we can, together, discern what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
So how are the voices from practice and ‘ordinary faith’ heard in theological action research? Learning from action research methods, theological action research uses a range of data gathering in order to hear voices ‘on the ground’. These may be questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, or observation exercises. This data is the ‘raw material’ of the voices of practice which need to be heard in our theologies. It is transcribed and made available to key reflectors, who come from variety of perspectives, some relating to the faith community taking on the research, and others rooted in a more academic position. Reflective conversations enable key themes and insights to be identified from practices. These themes can be then presented to the faith community for ‘checking out’ and further reflection, and can be brought into dialogue with the traditions of scripture and the churches involved.
Such a method is, in itself, a remarkable opportunity for different kinds of faith community to share and learn together. As well as this, the insights of lived and practical faith powerfully shape new theological ways of understanding, both for the academics and the practitioners in the community. We all learn from each other to see things differently, and more honestly. And this re-visioning leads to new thinking, new practice, and new energies for mission.
Dr. Clare Watkins, University of Roehampton
For more informaton on some key characteristics of Theological Action Research see:
TAR Key Characteristics