On Walden Pond: "To solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically."

One of the things I love about Walden is that it is a philosophical throwback, an example of when philosophy was about how to live. Nowadays when people think about philosophy, particularly academic philosophy, they imagine it to be a spectacular waste of time. It's all about abstractions that have little to do with how we should live. Once upon a time, philosophy was about wisdom. Not so much anymore.

Walden, by contrast, stands firmly in the Socratic tradition, a treatise that interrogates (perhaps a bit rudely) the person on the street--sifting through our ways of life, goading us to think, and trying to clear the path toward the good life.

In Chapter 1 of Walden Thoreau states as much:

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.
That's what I like about Walden. It was an experiment in living, yes, but it was a philosophical experiment. It was an attempt to discern the best way to live. Not just theoretically but practically.

In this regard, I think theology can learn a lot from Walden.

Truth be told, there is a lot of theology out there that seems to me to be a massive waste of time. I have little patience for this sort of work. A part of this, I think, is due to my training in the social sciences. Clarity and concision of expression are prized in our academic writing. Say what you mean, say it clearly, and move on.

These are virtues that seem to go missing in a great deal of philosophical and theological writing, where obscurity appears to be a sign of depth. A confession: There are a lot of theologians out there who are widely lauded among theological bloggers who I find to be a complete waste of time. (Rule of thumb: If Hegel and a Heidegger emerge early in the discussion you're in for a painful experience.)

It's my belief that there are no deep, inaccessible thoughts. There are only bad writers and thinkers. That and a lot of posturing. Any theological idea worth discussing can be expressed in simple, direct, and clear sentences. True, without the requisite background it might take a lot of simple, direct, and clear sentences, but that is all you should need as far as tools go. Speak plainly! Anything more than that is posturing, pretension, and the self-protective habits of the guild.

But not all theology is like this. I recall meeting my friend Mark for the first time and asking him what his academic discipline was. He responded, "practical theology." Good Lord, I thought, Isn't that an oxymoron? Apparently it wasn't. I'm not qualified to give you a precise definition of practical theology, but at root it's an attempt to do theology for the church. It's the attempt to use theology in prophetic and pastoral ways to help equip the church for mission.

This doesn't mean that practical theologians won't engage in speculative discussions about God. It's just not speculation for the sake of speculation. Generally, there is a pastoral aim. For example, Wittgenstein famously argued that a lot of the philosophical problems philosophers debate are actually pseudo-problems created by an imprecise use of language. Basically, a lot of philosophical "problems" are due to muddled thinking and sloppy word use. Proper philosophical discussion, then, according to Wittgenstein, was to be therapeutic, an effort to show embattled philosophers that their debates were misguided and useless.

I think we need to do a lot of that sort of work in our churches. Many Christians have tangled themselves up into theological knots. So a lot of practical theology is about helping untangle those knots so that all that mental energy can get redirected into mission. "To show," in the words of Wittgenstein, "the fly out of the fly-bottle." Good theology should bring peace and calm. But a lot of Christians are theologically anxious, confused and tense. Good theology within the church can help with this, therapeutically speaking.

There is much more to say about all this. But I'm not the one to say it. Practical theologians can weigh in as they see fit. My main point is simply this: I think theology would do well to take a cue from Walden. I think theology should help "solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." Particularly the problems faced by the church. And, in fact, many practical theologians are doing just that. May their tribe increase.

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12 thoughts on “On Walden Pond: "To solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically."”

  1. I agree with what you said here. God's glory awakens within my spirit a sense of wonder, love, humility, peace, and a trembling delight. Spiritual beauty for me is an elegant, inner radiance. The longing of my heart is for union with the Christ. Not everything in me is beautiful. I need to weed out the flaws and ugliness that is within so that Beauty may shine forth and reflect within my soul. 
    He attracts me to the point where I feel drawn into the intimacy of His heart where my fears are calmed and love is awakened with a childlike joy and wonder that transcends human understanding. I have come to glimpse the stillness of soft and tender mercies.  I have discovered some of the Beauty within me. I always pray for God to burn away my arrogance and fear so that Christ's beauty may shine all the brighter.

  2. There are really only two questions to be answered by any theology:  Is there a God -- or is there not?  Dare I label either answer speculation, having little to do with practicality?

  3. 100% agree, but can you actually say such things and still get published?  After all, if you write clearly, how are the compilers of the Festschrifts going to hi-jack what you said after you are dead?  Seems to me many of the real theologians today are at work in the various social sciences.  I just wish they had freedom to make those metaphysical connections that they only hint at right now.

  4. I think asking if God exists might be one of the most practical questions one could possibly ask.

    It's similar to asking what "The Good" is. You're asking a question about that which your entire life would, potentially, orbit. Think of Tillich's Ultimate Concern.

  5. I also want to be quick to say that the social sciences shouldn't be help up as some sort of model or exemplar. We have our own set of problems.

    Mainly I'm talking about how clarity of writing is prized in the social sciences.

  6. The other day someone said to me in passing: "The only area of theology I have never found interesting is theological ethics."  I thought to myself: "Theology that has no ethical implications?  What's your motivation for reading it?"    

  7. I see your point.  I am currently re-reading Armand Nicholi's "The Question of God" which compares/contrasts the lives of Freud and Lewis.  Also a re-read is "The Spiritual Brain", by Mario Beauregard and Denise O'Leary.  I shall add Paul Tillich after that.  Thanks! 

  8. So true. At last! A point you and I can utterly agree on :). Actually, even in the social sciences, I have heard faculty members (NOT you) say, "Tell me what you're going to say, then say it, then tell me what you said." Irritates the snot out of me. Isn't that telling it twice more than necessary? Say it clearly once, please. 

  9. Love this.  And it's why qb has become so fond of N. T. Wright and Dallas Willard and Walter Brueggemann:  all of what they write - Wright on the N. T. from Second-Temple Judaism, Willard on spiritual formation from a specialty in phenomenology, Brueggemann on the O. T. prophetic literature - is fabulously deep and provocative in purely philosophical terms, but the implications for ethics, and Christian living more broadly, are never far from the surface.  And I should not have neglected to mention Peterson and Hays.

  10. Have you ever done a post on comparing/discussing Tillich and Jung? I don't understand either of them really well, but it seems to me that Tillich's Ultimate Concern or Ground of Being sounds a lot like Jung. I forget what Jung called it, but the level that goes deeper than the collective unconscious ... 

  11. I tend to think that the question 'does God exist' is the wrong question, but I am an unapologetic fideist. I would point to Bonhoeffer's suggestion that questions of whether and how God can exist are human questions which seek to 'know' in the sense of 'comprehending', while the real question is 'who?' - the question that seek to 'know' in the relational sense. 

    You are right, though - we theologians speak in riddles, and this is mostly self-serving and egoistic (I have always thought it a desire - even a longing - to be taken seriously by philosophers). It is a constant bafflement to me that Barth wanted his theology to be for the Church and yet his contribution was a work so very long that no good pastor would have the time to read it.

  12. I like Henri Nouwen because his writing is always both simple and profound. Of course, he was a counselor first and an academic second.

    One another note, my family lives near Cornell University. A lot of them are bright, practical people with limited formal education. They often refer to folks from Cornell as "educated idiots". When I graduated from there, they swore I wasn't one. However, they never would tell me which word didn't apply: educated or idiot. ;-) 

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