Communicative theology

/ 30 September 2007

Iā€™m just now on my way back from Boston, after having spent a VERY packed 2 days working on the planning of an invitation-only conference that will take place next February on ā€œcommunicative theology.ā€ This is the name of a way of doing theology, as well as an emphasis within systematic theology, that a group of primarily European Catholic theologians have been working on. We were blessed to be introduced to it (those of us at this meeting) by Mary Ann Hinsdale and Brad Hinze, both of whom have collaborated on this form of doing theology for a while.

Two of the central authors of this field/form of theology are Matthias Scharer and Jochen Hilberath, and both were with us for the meeting. In addition, they had worked very closely with Brad and Mary Ann to ensure that the group who gathered this weekend was very diverse and already committed to intercultural communication (so we had a group of nine people, of whom only three were white, for example -- and men and women, young and old, vowed religious and lay, etc.).

I can't tell you how excited I've been by these two days worth of work! It felt in some very real way as if I "came home" to a part of the Catholic church that feeds me deeply, but which I'm not usually so in touch with -- at least not in its academic, professional forms.

What is "communicative theology"? That's a hard question to answer in a short form, but at a minimum I'd note that these European theologians have integrated a particular form of group processing (the closest thing I've seen to Parker Palmer's or Stephen Brookfield's work) with Trinitarian concerns. So they are working on relational theologies USING A RELATIONAL FORM OF PRACTICE. Imagine that!

Perhaps that doesn't sound so strange. It is, after all, a pretty organic and appropriate thing to do. But these are very senior, European -- and let's face it, white and male -- theologians (one is the director of the Ecumenical Institute at Tubingen, as well as holding the chair in dogmatic theology there, and the other is a senior researcher/faculty member in practical theology at the University of Innsbruck). That they should be so attentive to group process -- and so clearly aware of the tensegrity of it -- surprised and pleased me on some very deep level.

They are working closely with a strategy for group work developed by a woman named Ruth Cohn. The process is called "theme centered interaction" and is apparently very wide spread all over Europe in pedagogical circles. Of course, given that almost all of the writing about it is in German, it's not yet made it very far into English-speaking circles. This process has a clear focus on weaving together the "I" of the person with the "we" of the group and the "It" of the subject (in this case various theological concepts) and the "globe" (meaning, amongst other things, the contextual, social, and political dynamics swirling around us). The only other process I've found that's remotely like it, might be what the Public Conversations Project is doing (but again, they're not working in theological terms).

I suspect this formulation they are doing will be very accessible to Lutherans as well (right now the group working on it which met this weekend, and will meet in February, is Catholic), because in many ways it has the paradoxical kind of claims found in a theology of the cross at the heart of the process. In any case... expect to hear more from me about it as this process continues!