When we agreed on the theme of dialogue and communion for this issue, it occurred to me that the process of theological reflection and some of the models of theological reflection I have experienced provide a structure and a space for developing skills for dialogue and for engaging at a level that brings about communion. This article gives a brief description of theological reflection, and highlights its potential for growth in dialogue and communion, in religious congregations or the broader church community.
What is theological reflection?
You may have engaged in processes that were theological reflection, but were not called by that name. The term ‘theological reflection’ does not accurately describe the kind of theologizing that is meant when we use that phrase. Other names in use describe it somewhat better: contextual theology, experiential theology, or praxis theology. Over the past three or four decades, a variety of models of theological reflection have been developed (Kinast, p.1).
What all forms of pastoral theological reflection have in common is “a deceptively simple threefold movement. It begins with the lived experience of those doing the reflection; it correlates this experience with the sources of Christian tradition; and it draws out practical implications for Christian living” (Kinast, p.1). In theological reflection, the primary focus is the presence of God in people’s experience (Kinast, p. 3). Based on this broad description of the threefold movement, theological reflection could include the ‘see, judge, act’ method of the YCS movement (JEC in Quebec) or the reflection processes of base communities. Some readers may recall that theological reflection was a component of the four part pastoral circle put forward by Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, S. J., in their work on social analysis in the early 1980s.
A model for dialogue and communion
The model and method of James and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, which Kinast calls a ‘ministerial’ style of theological reflection, is the most familiar to me. It is also the method I believe has the greatest potential for fostering dialogue and communion in diverse groups, and across generations. While its most common use is in pastoral decisions, it is easily adaptable to other settings.
What follows is a brief overview of the method, which the Whiteheads published in a book, Method in Ministry in 1980, with a revised edition following in 1995 (see references). They understand theological reflection to be bringing the resources of Christian faith to bear in the practical decisions of ministry. Ideally, these decisions would include members of the Christian community or parish, and generally those who will be affected by the decisions, not only ordained ministers or those with pastoral roles or authority positions.
The Whiteheads consider three sources of information to be important in decision making and practice in ministry: the faith tradition, personal and communal experience, and contemporary culture, which are brought in conversation with one another. The method describes how the conversation among these three sources proceeds. It moves from listening, or attending, to assertion to pastoral response (Whiteheads, p. 1-5). Listening consists of “seeking out the information on a particular pastoral concern that is available in personal experience, Christian tradition and cultural resources” and “listening critically while suspending judgement”. Christian tradition includes Sacred Scripture, the history of the Church and interpretations of both over time. Assertion is described as “bringing the perspectives gathered from these three sources into a lively dialogue of mutual clarification to expand and enrich religious insight” and “having the courage to share our convictions and the willingness to be challenged”. Pastoral response moves “from discussion and insight to decision and action” and includes “discerning how to respond; planning what to do; evaluating how we have done” (Whiteheads, p. 13).
This kind of theological reflection is envisioned, and is to be practised, as a communal exercise, an ongoing community dialogue, and not just as a once-for-all event to deal with a particular issue. “The conversation is our life together” (Whiteheads, p.4).
This brief overview does not convey the colour or flavour of the process in action, nor does it give an outline for the process. These will be unique in each circumstance where theological reflection is done, but the basic threefold movement will be the same.
The process requires a significant time commitment from participants. This can be a challenge in a group with diverse schedules. Engaging in group theological reflection requires a certain level of skills for dialogue. Depending upon the tension or conflict generated by the particular experience the group chooses for reflection, facilitation may be necessary for the process to unfold well.
Young adults and theological reflection
During my years in university campus ministry, I led student retreats and programs that included theological reflection. One such program was a day-long event, which consisted of a morning experience in a food bank, or a temporary shelter for women and children, or a soup kitchen for homeless men. In the afternoon, we reflected on the experience using the pastoral circle previously mentioned in this article. Each time, a student expressed to the group the awareness that as educated persons, they had a responsibility to challenge systems that are unjust for persons in poverty. I did not plant this thought. Much to my joy, they came to it from their own experience and engaging with it in theological reflection. I also saw these young people had good skills for dialogue, and could speak from a faith perspective when a safe space was provided.
Based on this experience, and some others, I have seen that dialogue and communion are facilitated by the theological reflection process. While there are practical challenges to engaging in it, the possibilities it offers for deeper dialogue and communion are well worth the effort.
Kinast, Robert L. What Are They Saying About Theological Reflection? Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000.
Whitehead, James D. & Evelyn Eaton Whitehead. Method in Ministry: Theological Reflection in Christian Ministry. Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed and Ward, 1995.
Lorraine d’Entremont, SC
This text is taken from the Winter 2020 issue of the ad vitam webzine “A Communion that Generates Mission”.