Discernment, Practical Wisdom, and Christian Spirituality: A Study in Practical Theological Method
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Many practical theologians have acknowledged the central place of practical wisdom (phronesis) within their hermeneutics. This acknowledgment has attributed to a flourishing dialogue between practical theology and ethics, philosophy, systematic theology, and the social sciences. Fewer approaches to practical theology, however, have engaged Christian spirituality, and particularly the practice of discernment, in shaping their hermeneutical frameworks. This dissertation contributes to the study of practical theology and practical theological hermeneutics first through a critical-confessional examination of the relationship between the practice of discernment in Christian spirituality and practical wisdom, and second through the formation of a practical theological hermeneutic of discernment. The dissertation argues that practical wisdom is tradition-constituted, and within Christian tradition, practical wisdom is characterized by the practice of discernment. To this end, the dissertation examines two different approaches to practical theology common in the American context (a critical-correlational approach and a critical-confessional approach) and the different ways in which practical wisdom is conceived in these approaches. The dissertation then argues that if practical wisdom is central to practical theological hermeneutics, and wisdom within Christian tradition is characterized by attending to and discerning the action of the Holy Spirit, then practical theology within the Christian tradition should practice discernment of the Holy Spirit in its hermeneutics. In light of this, the dissertation examines discernment as a practice, virtue, and method of inquiry within the Christian spiritual traditions of the fourth century desert elders of Egypt, Benedict of Nursia, and Ignatius of Loyola. The practices of discernment found among these figures then play an important role in the development of a hermeneutic of discernment in the remainder of the dissertation. Practical theological hermeneutics and practical wisdom are more than a method of inquiry, but a virtue and practice embodied by Christian communities and constituted by Christian tradition. Following this understanding of wisdom and practical theological reflection, the dissertation identifies the contributions a hermeneutic of discernment can make for theological scholarship, including education, through its attention to context, to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and to affective dimensions of knowing, with particular reference to the formation of wisdom.