Interpreting Culture as Important As Scripture and Tradition

Last week, I was at St. Catherine's College, Oxford, for a research colloquium on the study of religion in everyday life. The meeting was one in a multi-part set of colloquia, from last fall through this past summer, that were organized by Dr. Gordon Lynch of the University of London, Birkbeck, a well-respected researcher of religious practice in secular contexts.

Our particular seminar, involving a dozen or so scholars of religious practice and practical theology, was focused on ethical questions in studies of religion, media, and everyday life. The papers presented became the occasion for intensive consideration of many different ethical questions ingredient to and arising from such research, including the everyday ethical questions presented in secularizing, electronically-mediated cultures, as well as the ethics of researching and writing about these matters. My paper was situated somewhere between the two, exploring what the responsibility of the Catholic theologian is within cultures where the sex abuse and governance scandals and crises have taken hold, and in which Catholics have been peeling away from the official definitions of Catholic identity and practice. This description fits not only North America but many European countries. I argued that this situation presents ethical questions about the point of theological research, and its ecclesial and cultural interventions, that cannot be ignored, because they go to the heart of the integrity of the theological vocation in secularizing and scandalized cultures. Theologians must make decisions about what they think Catholicism is becoming in these contexts, because it clearly has changed and is changing.


Most of all is the imperative for Catholic theologians to become more skilled at interpreting culture as well as scripture and tradition. As Matthias Scharer and Bernd Jochen Hilberath argue in their recent book, The Practice of Communicative Theology (Crossroad, 2008), the ability to interpret how contemporary people make spiritual sense of their lives through "secular" objects is a "hermeneutical skill [that] is no less important and no less demanding than the ability to interpret the texts of revelation and tradition" (p. 34).

Our colleagues in cultural and religious studies have developed many important approaches to the study of lived religion in secular contexts, with which Catholic theologians could be in deeper dialogue. This will be more than an option for those who want to work theologically in cultural contexts like our own.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Cross-posted to Rock and Theology


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