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Digital Culture and Ministerial Formation: A New Approach to Theological Reflection

In light of the networked communication culture of digitality, this presentation explores new possibilities for methods of theological reflection.

Published onJul 06, 2021
Digital Culture and Ministerial Formation: A New Approach to Theological Reflection

Digital Culture and Ministerial Formation: A New Approach to Theological Reflection

Daniella Zsupan-Jerome Ph.D

Saint John’s University School of Theology

Collegeville MN

USA

In light of the networked communication culture of digitality, this presentation explores new possibilities for methods of theological reflection, generally a linear process in practice.

In the context of theological education, and more specifically, in the context of ministerial formation as part of theological education, theological reflection is a frequently used process to bring the faith tradition into conversation with experience in order to arrive at a new outcome. Models of theological reflection generally include faith tradition, doctrine, experience, culture, contextual analysis as conversation partners. The methods of theological reflection that bring these elements into conversation are manifold, but they by and large involve naming the experience, naming the relevant aspect of the tradition and bringing these into dialogue. Moving through methods of theological reflection, at least in the formation classroom, are generally linear experiences, moving the process along from step one to step two, step three and so on.

In the digital context, we are experiencing a communication model that is increasingly networked instead of linear. In such a networked model, communication is embedded in a web with various nodes or intersections along the way, in which multiple lines of communication converge. Given the linear, step-by-step application of existing methods of theological reflection, the networked reality of digital culture raises the question whether such linear models remain adequate, or whether we can envision new methods based on networked communication. This presentation seeks to explore this question, inviting the possibility of a networked method of theological reflection.

What is Theological Reflection?

Theological Reflection is an often-used term in theological education that broadly refers to intentional thought achieved through a theological framework. For example, for a class we may propose as a learning goal for students to develop capacity for theological reflection; for this we mean for students to gain the ability to think with and through theology. While this general definition of theological reflection is not inaccurate, the term also refers to a more specific pedagogical model and method, especially when it comes to ministerial formation.

Theological reflection as a pedagogical model and method in ministerial formation is a sub-discipline of pastoral theology. As a sub-discipline, it deals with the overall process of “bringing to bear in the practical decisions of ministry the resources of Christian faith.” (Whiteheads, ix) This includes intentional engagement with the content of theology, intentional engagement with the complexity of ministry situations, and the ability to bring these together in a fruitful dialogue toward pastoral action. As opposed to the general classroom goal of theological reflection meaning for students to think with and through theology, theological reflection in this sense here refers specifically to approaching ministry situations with a theologically informed ability, in order to make a solid pastoral decision about a situation moving forward. When taught in seminaries and schools of theology, theological reflection as a specific pedagogy is offered toward developing ministerial skill in order to navigate and move forward from complex situations in the field. Along these lines, it is often one of the pedagogical components of field education or ministry practica.

As an overall ministerial skill, theological reflection is a skill of integration. “Theological reflection is an attempt to integrate the segments of our lives so we can live and breathe our beliefs. It is an activity of integration. It’s an activity of reciprocity.” (Gros 3) Theological reflection involves the identification and understanding of several elements at play in a given context, and the ability to bring these together in a fruitful way. In theological reflection we “capture multiple layers of reflection to fully understand and interpret what is happening.” (Click 34) This ability to identify, understand and bring together diverse elements is an essential skill for ministry, and as this paper will develop below, also essential for ministry in digital culture.

Theological reflection creates a space in which multiple elements bearing impact on a ministry situation can come to convergence, and do so in a way that yields a fruitful outcome, especially in light of the overall goal or mission of ministry. In creating this space, theological reflection is intentional about the integration of the elements involved. Elements of a situation, meaning personal experience, contextual realities and the vision of the theological tradition, will likely come to an intersection anyway with or without an intentional process like theological reflection; theological reflection does not create these elements, nor does it even bring them into a situation. Rather, what theological reflection does is offer hospitality by creating a space in which each of these constitutive elements can be recognized, understood, and brought to convergence with one another so as to create the possibility for authentic pastoral action.

What does it take to create a space for convergence? Some of the essential characteristics of theological reflection along these lines include listening, truth and creativity. First, listening is a fundamental disposition in theological reflection, it is the starting point for extending hospitality to the fullness of a ministerial situation. “The first step is to listen to the stories of those affected, before then moving on to locating those stories within the wider contexts.” (Garner 24) Whitehead and Whitehead rightfully note that the disposition to listen (attending) stems from a spiritual place, it is an openness and a receptive stance, an effort to keep empty the heart and wait on the Lord, and is a basic tool for reflective ministry. (71) In listening, we embrace a posture of openness and receptivity in order to recognize the stories involved: the story of those involved (individual and communal), the story oneself brings to the situation, as well as the Christian Story that bears impact on the situation. Various methods of theological reflection assign different order to whose stories come first in the process, but the overall disposition to listening initiates and pervades this receptivity to the stories involved.

Commitment to the truth or honesty is another characteristic of theological reflection. In fact, for some it is the most important requirement for doing theological reflection overall. (Killen and de Beer 76) In listening to the stories involved, we strive not only to recognize but also to honor and understand what these stories convey. When theological reflection creates a space for the convergence of these stories, it is creating a “holding environment – a gathering where it is safe to admit our doubts and acknowledge our differences, a protective space where we can explore the truth and tolerate the ambiguity of our ignorance.” (Whiteheads 76) In other words, theological reflection strives to hold up the authentic point of view of each converging element, and allows space and recognition for the truth of each of these elements. This is complex work, which not only requires honestly and true hospitality from oneself but also often finds tensions and conflicting points of view as these authentic perspectives emerge. How to navigate these tensions so that they become a source of creativity and new life is at the core of theological reflection. Commitment to the truth thus requires honesty, vulnerability and trust, and a commitment to methods that facilitate the creation of the space for truthfulness to emerge.

A third characteristic of theological reflection is creativity. As noted, theological reflection as a pedagogical approach to ministerial formation seeks to arrive at pastoral action. The point of analyzing a complex ministerial situation with hospitality and honesty is to determine a way forward from it. We can specify this “way forward” in a variety of ways – as a new idea, insight, question, decision, response, plan or concrete action step. Throughout these options, the pastoral action is something novel, it is a new and unique outcome emerging from the intentional and methodical convergence of the elements involved. The various methods of theological reflection point to this novelty element in the context of transformation, conversion, wisdom, conation or the ability to see what is and what is not yet but can be and should be. (Groome 97) Along these lines, creativity can be yet another way of naming this aspect of theological reflection. For Groome, creativity permeates the action/reflection dynamic that is fundamental especially to praxis based theological reflection. (Groome 136-137) Creativity is a term that emphasizes generativity and new possibility, coupled with a spiritual sense that both honors the Creator and the ongoing animating work of the Spirit. Creativity in theological reflection then stems from an open disposition to divine inspiration toward a life-giving outcome in the context of ministry.

Listening, commitment to truth and creativity are but three essential characteristics of theological reflection, though we can certainly list more. At the same time, these three are especially relevant not only for a fruitful theological reflection process, but also for the practice of theological reflection in the context of our digital culture. When it comes to envisioning theological and ministerial approaches to the digital context, there three feature prominently among the ways to engage in good communication, to build authentic relationships and to envision thriving communities. When thinking about what pedagogical processes might best serve ministerial formation for digital culture, listening, truth and creativity remain essential elements for building ministerial skills.

Questions of Method

As we have seen, theological reflection creates a space for listening to and honoring the truth of the many points of view that converge in a given ministerial situation, so as to discern and move toward a new, life-giving possibility for all. These points of view are termed the models of theological reflection, or in other words, the constitutive stories that are brought to convergence in a given context. The models generally include experience – that of the minister and that of other people involved, the broader cultural context(s) at play, and the Christian tradition bearing impact on a given situation. Whitehead and Whitehead distill a model of theological reflection into three parts: the religious tradition, experience, and the surrounding culture. (6) Bevans describes theological reflection models on a continuum of experience, ranging from experience of the present (called context) to experience of the past (which includes Scripture and Tradition.) (32) When examining the overall context, there exist a variety of ways of categorizing the points of view involved.

Theological reflection can also find expression through a variety of methods. Distinct from models, methods are way or the process by which the various elements of the model come to convergence. Theological reflection methods frame the space for the conversation, propose the thought process, lay out the path. They present a plan for a systematic consideration of the elements of the model involved. Theological reflection methods vary in terms of the number of steps: the Whiteheads have a three point method, Holland and Henriot presents four essential questions in their circle of praxis, Killen and de Beer propose a five-part process, Groome likewise offers five movements in his shared praxis approach. (Foley 125-140).

When practicing theological reflection according to one of these methods above, participants will engage in a conversation that generally moves in a linear fashion, following the proposed steps of a given method. While methods can vary, most of them generally include a plan that moves along a trajectory of identifying the elements of a story to thinking intentionally about the elements, to bringing the various elements into some convergence to recognizing a way forward. There is a linear progression to such methods – one would not propose a way forward without first identifying the constitutive elements and bringing them into conversation. There is a clear starting point (identification) and a clear arrival (action). Participants working with a method thus use it as a step-by-step plan for building the structure of the conversation.

When considering theological reflection methods, their linear progression and step-by-step structure seem evident. At the same time, scholars of method resist this linear progression and strive to present theological reflection as part of a broader, cyclical or spiral thought process that in fact invites participants to a habit of continual reflection. Even if one arrives at a decision for pastoral action, that is not set in stone, and should be re-examined and revisited through another round of the method. For example, Holland and Henriot’s method is intentionally represented on a pastoral circle (or circle of praxis) to show that theological reflection is without end, and that when we arrive at a decision, this is not a conclusion but instead always becomes a new opportunity for going reflection. (Holland and Henriot 7-9) Killen and de Beer also envision the five parts of their theological reflection method set in a circular spiral on which “action, by leading to new experiences in our lives, propels us back to experience. (Killen and de Beer 21) In the same vein, Thomas Groome names ongoing engagement of action, reflection and creativity as inherent to praxis, and insists that the “ praxis that results from one learning occasion can be taken up again in the focusing activity of the following one.” (Groome 137, 293) Along these lines, the “movements of shared praxis are dynamic activities and intentions to be consistently honored over time rather than ‘steps’ in a lockstep procedure.” (Groome 293) Emphasis on this broader, cyclical or spiral context assures that theological reflection remains a dynamic process, ever disposed to conversion, and ultimately open to grace and the movement of the Spirit. Couching the linear methodological process of following steps in a dynamic context of ongoing action-reflection lends theological reflection integrity and a process that promotes transformation and change.

While in theory theological reflection is both linear and cyclical, a challenge emerges that in practice, theological reflection in the context of formation tends to present a more linear experience. Participants engage in a group process of examining a case study or verbatim, while the facilitator moves the conversation along according to the steps of a method. Alternatively, participants prepare a written reflection about a ministry experience that is structured according to the steps of a given method. Whether in group or written by the individual learner, theological reflection becomes a methodical examination of an experience following a set of steps. Cast as a pedagogical activity and a course requirement to complete, this experience does not readily convey the cyclical nature of reflection or the ongoing dynamic of action-reflection that the scholarly theory envisions. Instead, theological reflection incurs the critique of being an “academic concept removed from life” that is “not flexible in trying to develop and validate different ways of reflection.” (Foley 10) In the classroom, we can teach the steps of a method and assess their coherent application to a real-life example, but we cannot as easily bring about in a learner the development of a habit of an ongoing, cyclical action/reflection thought process. An enduring question for theological reflection along these lines is how to extend its use beyond the formation classroom to the actual practice of ministry, where it becomes a skill and a thought process.

Theological Reflection and Digital Culture

The above summary of theological reflection as a pedagogical element of ministerial formation serves as a foundation for thinking about its effectiveness for engaging digital culture. In particular, for theological educators and formators, theological reflection raises the question of what thought processes or epistemological frameworks should we introduce (or re-introduce) so that ministers can effectively engage with experiences increasingly permeated by the realities of digital culture.

We can characterize digital culture by a number of elements, including but not limited to its networked structure, interactivity, hypertextuality, data collection, automation and connected presence. (Cloete 1-2) From constitutive elements such as these arise a number of questions essential for human relationships, interpersonal and communal: how might we connect with one another toward authentic encounters, how do we resist the commodification of the human person as a result of massive data collection, what do presence, embodiment and participation mean in a digital age, how might we understand community when gathering is mediated, how might we adhere to truth and forge bonds toward community and communion when the online environment increasingly disposes us to conflict, and more. Each of these are deeply human questions that also carry significant weight for theology and ministry. In the midst of such pressing questions, forming ministers with the ability to reflect theologically in and through digital culture becomes imperative. It is no longer about a culturally relevant thought exercise for a graduate classroom. Digitality is the ambiance we live in and strive to live out our faith commitments. Forming ministers necessarily involves awareness of the unique and particular realities of this culture, and theological reflection has the potential to continue to benefit ministry in this context.

As described above, theological reflection creates a space in which we can capture and engage with the multiple layers of experience in a given situation toward a constructive outcome. In this space, good theological reflection calls for the skills of listening and hospitality, commitment to the truth and honesty, and openness to creativity. When it comes to digital culture, such as space offers a possibility that is both relevant and transformative. The hypertextuality of digital culture presents us with a context in which multiple layers of information converge throughout the network, and do so fluidly and on a large scale.

The ability to sort through such convergences, to pause, listen, seek into the truth of the layers of information and embrace a creative posture has great potential for this context, and emerges as a basic pastoral skill.

Exploring method in theological reflection offers another question for its possibilities in digital culture. The question of linear or cyclical process gains new relevance when it comes to considering the networked reality of digital culture, and what processes or methods become most fitting for engaging a networked context. Campbell and Garner present the network as an essential framing concept for understanding digital culture and describe it a context of unlimited connections not only with information but also with other people. (3-6) The networked context of digital culture has had significant social impact, shaping relationships and community, and shifting the “model and logic by which society functions.” (9)

In a networked environment such as digital culture, transformative processes are necessarily fluid, relational and ongoing. As Campbell and Garner note: “mission in a networked relational environment focuses on how people reorient themselves toward God and begin a trajectory of movement toward Christ as the center of their lives. Thus there is a paradigm shift from encouraging a single-moment event or decision to recognizing a process of alignment with Jesus through relational connections.” (13) Considering this description, both the linear aspects of theological reflection methods, as well as the role of the result of theological reflection as a decision for action come into question. In a networked environment, do we still embrace linear processes that yield concrete outcomes? Alternatively, can we envision a theological reflection method that is networked? What process does it propose and what do we envision as its fruit?

It is generative to recall that theological reflection, although often linear in practice, is proposed as a cyclical or spiral process. This cyclical or spiral framework converges with the networked environment insofar as it resists finality and allows for flexibility and ongoing movement; it better conveys “process” than a lockstep formula. At the same time, cycle or spiral do not quite capture the expansive nature of the network or the importance of social connections throughout at each intersection point or node. To envision a networked method, there needs to be greater emphasis especially on the nodes as convergence points. These convergences are more than information points – they are fundamentally social and yield moments of encounter. This emphasis on encounter is one salient starting point for developing a networked method. Moving through the network and encountering another at a particular point calls for the simultaneous and mutual consideration of experience, personal and communal context, and tradition. It also calls for the consideration of the multidirectional dynamism of the network itself, as well as the network presenting, framing and prioritizing for us the information we receive. Grounding this in the concept of encounter is helpful for maintaining a relational standard for navigating the network, and it is also an integral to ministry.

While the concept of a networked method of theological reflection build on encounter needs further development, it is also important to note that method needs congruent practical experience in the formation classroom. In other words, a networked theory of theological reflection merits alongside a pedagogical experience that likewise underscores concepts of dynamism, process, encounter, hypertextuality and simultaneous multiple layers of meaning coming together. To what degree are “steps” involved in such a pedagogical activity is a worthwhile question for further development.

References

Bevans, Stephen B. 1992. Models of Contextual Theology. Revised and Expanded. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Campbell, Heidi A and Stephen Garner. 2016. Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Click, Emily. 2011. “Ministerial Reflection.” In Matthew Floiding, ed. Welcome to Theological Field Education! New York: Rowan and Littlefield. 31-45.

Cloete A.L., 2015, ‘Living in a digital culture: The need for theological reflection’, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies 71(2), Art. #2073, 7 pages. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ hts.v71i2.2073

Foley, Edward. 2015. Theological Reflection Across Religious Traditions. New York: Rowan and Littlefield.

Garner, Stephen. 2015. ‘Contextual and public theology: Passing fads or theological imperatives?’ Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice22(1), 20-28.

Groome, Thomas H. 1991. Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry: The Way of Shared Praxis. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Gros, Joye. 2001 Theological Reflection: Connecting Faith and Life. Chicago: Loyola Press.

Holland, Joe and Peter J. Henriot. 1983. Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Killen, Patricia O’Connell and John de Beer. 1995. The Art of Theological Reflection. New York: Crossroad.

Whitehead, James D and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead. 1995. Method in Ministry: Theological Reflection and Christian Ministry. Revised Edition. Kansas City: Sheed and Ward.

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