Theory over practice? Part I

Clearly, “theory is more important than practice” when it comes to Christianity.

Or at least, during a recent conversation a friend wondered if this was my view. She noted that I focus on theory in my podcast and speculated that perhaps the reason for this is that I am more gifted with theoretical concepts than with practical applications.

I told her that I could not disagree more: all of my theory is born out of experiencing (and needing to make sense of) powerful events in my life, both wonderful and terrible.

So why do I have this “theoretical” focus?

The reason, as I see it, is that discussions about practice are actually just as difficult as discussions about theory, but these difficulties present themselves in subtler ways and so they are actually more difficult to identify and address. Maybe a good place to start is the difference between a theoretical and a practical discussion.

When “talking theory” we are essentially speaking about generalities—considering the general principles that might guide our everyday actions or judgements. Thus we promote various theories on the basis of their merits, and we identify them as meritorious (and argue for them as such) based on their benefits, as perceived and judged by our faculties: intellect, imagination, senses, experience, etc.

When talking practicalities we are essentially speaking of specifics—considering how we would respond to this or that situation based on its particularities of setting, timing, nature, participants, etc. We develop our theories from our experience of similar, practical situations and we understand (and respond to) practical situations better by analyzing the results of our past attempts, out of which we form theories.

On the one hand, practice seems like it must always precede theory. How can I form general understandings without specific experiences to act as raw data, upon which to build such a theory? Yet on the other hand, like much of our understanding we learn through observation. This is much like language use, where humans always receive language before being able (and in order) to use it. Similarly, beginning at a very young age we experience emotional responses that guide our actions.

Thus the combination of modelling and disposition represent our “starting point” when it comes to responding to practical situations.

In other words we always already have inputs, whether our own or that of our parents, older siblings, etc. Added to these are our emotional responses that, even when we are unaware of them, have the effect of guiding our actions. Perhaps this is not “theory” in any true sense—certainly these inputs are not the product of any assessment or understanding on our part. Yet the upshot is the same: are responses are guided by certain factors and, as we develop, we begin to adjust future responses based on past successes (and failures).

So far, so good.

So as humans develop they increasingly understand the present in light of the past and so adjust their responses accordingly. In other words, they learn from their mistakes. Why then would I claim that practical discussions have subtle implications that can be more difficult to identify and address than theoretical discussions? What are these subtleties?

Well, let me answer that by first considering the aims of a practical discussion. When it comes to discussing everyday situations, whether as one seeking or giving advice, my aim is effectiveness in meeting my goals within the bounds of the ethical and the possible. In other words, I value “what works” (or seems reasonably like it might work) providing that the solution attains my goals, is feasible to carry out, and favours the good treatment of all concerned.

Now here things get tricky. Assessing what works (or might work) is obviously a matter of best-guesswork. Assessing what constitutes good treatment of myself and others may be even less clear. But the issue is not that we may disagree about what works (effectiveness), or about how feasible or ethical a particular approach is. Rather, the tricky part is that Christians actually have two sets of rules, depending on the situation: a) the normal, everyday rules and b) the Christian rules. And further, these two rule-sets have contradictory aims and boundaries.

Next post I offer examples of these two rule sets and how their contradictory aims and boundaries have subtle but important implications for Christians who are making practical decisions.

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