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Parallel 4

Practical Theology as Balanced Theology: Looking at the Method through the Concept of Balance behind Tai-Chi (太極)


Mr. Steven Shih-Hsien CHEN

MTh Student

Wycliffe Hall, the University of Oxford

This presentation aims to contribute to area number 2 (“Epistemologies”) and 4 (“Models/Paradigms”) of the conference. It argues that by looking through the lens of the concept of balance, a Chinese cultural characteristic, we can easier comprehend the nature of practical theology as well as the pros and cons of the pastoral cycle.


The presentation begins with a discussion of the epistemology of modern practical theology. It shows that the trend of "turn to practice" happened as a balancing voice to the previous over-emphasis on the context-free approach to building/using theories. However, this focus on practice was later tweaked back by some other practical theologians. This historical phenomenon makes the author perceive that at the core of practical theology lies a balance between theory and practice. This balance is necessary to avoid both contextual determinism/radical pragmatism and the dualism of the Enlightenment.


Next, the presentation demonstrates how the Chinese culture values the spirit of balance by drawing philosophical, political, and cultural evidence. A special focus will be given to the concept of Tai-Chi, an ancient Taoism image. With the help of this concept of balance, the presentation then proceeds to see how practical theology seeks a balance between different tensions (e.g., theory/practice, traditional belief/contemporary experience, description/prescription, working alone/cooperation, and theology/other disciplines).


Finally, the presentation uses the lens of balance to examine the pastoral cycle. The reason this method is chosen is for its population among Chinese Christians due to translated (Green, Ballard) and indigenous (董家驊) works which introduce this method. The presentation explains the criticism the pastoral cycle receives, such as the difficulty of having the second cycle, the suspicion of becoming applied theology thus underestimating the value of social science, and the falling into methodological atheism, etc. Arguably, these are also due to the imbalance between different voices within this method. Then, a typology of five approaches is presented to demonstrate how scholars address these critiques with their various versions of the pastoral cycle. The approaches are (1) intentional dialogue (Lau Branson, Lartey, Groome); (2) flexible sequence (Swinton, Mowat, Killen, de Beer); (3) frugal discernment (Green, Mckitterick); (4) enrichment of context (Leach, Mckitterick); (5) theologizing the method (Osmer, Lau Branson). The author argues that each approach is a force to promote balance for using the method. In the end, the presentation provides some suggestions for those who wish to use this method for future research.


Steven Chen (陳世賢, Chen Shih-Hsien). He has a social work background, finishing his MDiv at China Evangelical Seminary (Taipei) and ThM in practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary (USA). Before he came to the University of Oxford as an MTh student, he served as a full-time minister at KangHua church in Taipei, Taiwan.


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