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Teaching Christian Practical Wisdom

Teaching Christian Practical Wisdom Christians coming together in practical ways Lilly Foundation Insights Into Religion

Physical actions mattered.

When Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore put on a clerical collar in 1977 — her senior year in college — and began working as a hospital chaplain she learned something the classroom didn’t teach. Physical actions mattered.


“Bodies are an especially important site of practice in pastoral care. Compassion is a physical posture with basic poses of sitting, standing, looking, touching…,” she writes in, “Christian Practical Wisdom - What it Is It, Why It Matters.” 


The book, co-authored by five scholars, explains what Christian practical wisdom is, why it’s often neglected and how it can be restored.


The 360-page book was published in May by WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.


“People probably understand that some people are able to live out their faith and live in engaged ways, but what’s missing is that they don’t understand some sort of knowledge in doing that,” said co-author Dorothy C. Bass, director emerita of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith. “There’s an identifiable kind of knowledge at work when we see people living wisely and well in the world.”


That’s practical wisdom, she said. It becomes Christian practical wisdom when it’s born out of a relationship with God.


“It’s another kind of knowledge, a little more contextual, embodied, responsive, engaged, adaptive,” Bass said. “It’s a different kind of thinking.”


The book explains that Christians with practical wisdom, “know their way around their neighborhoods not by map but as resident walkers who rely on body knowledge and all their senses. There, empowered by the Spirit, and joined in community with others, they discern a path that leads toward and offers foretastes of God’s new creation along the way,” the book reads.


Miller-McLemore, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Religion, Psychology and Culture at Vanderbilt University, starts the book with her chapter, “Spooning,” which is about body wisdom and compassion in pastoral care. In the first half of the text each author writes a personal story that illustrates Christian practical wisdom. The second half to the book further explains the concept, explained Bass.


The authors hope the book will be used in seminaries and will also influence faith leaders to explore and begin practicing Christian practical wisdom. 


Miller-McLemore explained that in the academy theology is often about theories and reasoning, which she said is important, but can sometimes be far removed from daily life.

“Practical knowledge is always changing. It has to be lived out, learned and practiced,” she said.


Christian B. Scharen, vice president of applied research at Auburn Theological Seminary, New York, wrote a chapter about practical wisdom in pop culture.  He writes about experiencing rock concerts as “holy ground” and says for many artists, their work is their calling.


“They are driven to create, to give their talent away for the sake of the life of the world,” he writes.


His chapter, “Rocking” emphasizes that rules cannot properly guide conduct, noting that things in pop culture, like rock, are often considered “the devil’s music.”


“Practical judgment helps see what is soul food, what is ear candy, and what is not worth eating at all,” he writes.


Scharen explained that he and his colleagues didn’t intend to write a book together. The idea came after they began exploring questions after “For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry” was published in 2008, which several of the “Christian Practical Wisdom” authors contributed in writing.


Scharen said the group began exploring questions about practical wisdom together, and discovered the answers together, which lead to the book.


James R. Nieman, president of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, said he hopes the book brings readers to a deeper sense of awareness. 


“There’s a way of knowing that faith is a lot more than head knowledge and that is part of how faith is conveyed and how it is carried within us,” he said. “It’s through our bodies, through how we reconcile and engage the culture about us, through the small in life.”


He writes about communal wisdom and how congregations have the ability to know something directly. The book also touches on wisdom in everyday life, biblical imagination, epistemology and many other pragmatic ways Christian wisdom has been, and can be applied.


The cost of the book is $30 and can be purchased online.




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