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  • Practices of ‘Unsaying’:Michel de Certeau, Spirituality Studies, and Practical Theology
  • Claire E. Wolfteich (bio)

Spirituality studies and practical theology share in common a number of features: attention to practices; importance of historical and social context, interdisciplinary methods; concern with cultivating faithful ways of life, interest in appropriation and transformation. At the same time, there are marked differences in emphasis, language, and sensibility. One example: practical theology, long a predominantly Protestant discipline, rarely engages mystical texts or experience, generally preferring hermeneutic philosophy, social science, and ethics as dialogue partners. While some recent writing takes steps to weave spirituality into a framework for practical theology,1 mysticism generally falls outside the scope of the discourse. Mystical authors and texts, on the other hand, feature prominently in Christian spirituality scholarship, which has been strongly shaped by Catholic authors. Can we traverse this divide between mysticism and practical theology? What fruitful new insights might emerge for both disciplines if we go down this road? What challenges might engagement with mystical texts and experience pose for practical theological methods?

Michel de Certeau (1925–1986) serves as a provocative, if often enigmatic, dialogue partner in this exploration. As an historian, philosopher, theologian, student of psychoanalysis, political commentator, linguist, urban thinker, cultural theorist, and social scientist, de Certeau demonstrates an enormous interdisciplinary range. He also brings a voice shaped by his Catholic, Jesuit formation, however increasingly distant he becomes from that identity. As historian Natalie Zemon Davis writes: “Though in North America Michel de Certeau is known only in the university world, in France he was a celebrity, viewed as a major cultural critic, an innovative historian of early modern religion, and a religious thinker who in his life and work pursued a particularly engaged, open, and generous form of Catholicism.”2 Hence, conversation with him may offer a contribution as well to the project of articulating distinct Catholic approaches to practical theology.

While de Certeau is known for his influence in spirituality studies, he is less drawn upon as a resource in practical theology, despite his important writing about practice and cultural studies. In this article, I will argue that dialogue with de Certeau’s work suggests several significant avenues for dialogue [End Page 161] between spirituality studies and practical theology. De Certeau’s analyses of the practices of everyday life could well encourage spirituality studies to focus more attention on quotidian practice as the locus of our study. In this case, practical theologians would be natural interlocutors for spirituality scholars. Drawing upon de Certeau’s description of mysticism as social practice, I make a case for why practical theology, which typically has not engaged mystical texts, should do so. De Certeau’s analysis of the reading of historical texts, moreover, complexifies the tasks of appropriation and transformation that are integral to both practical theology and spirituality studies. Finally, I assert that his analysis of “mystic speech” and “practices of unsaying” suggest a needed corrective to practical theological method and discourse. While I raise some critical questions about the relationship between “unsaying” and prophetic voice, I follow David Tracy and others in arguing for the continuing development of a “mystical-prophetic” practical theology.

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White Shoes, © Brian English

[End Page 162]

Transformative Appropriation

Spirituality studies are often described as self-implicating, leaving the scholar, teacher, and student vulnerable to transformation. Some have described an “appropriative method” in spirituality studies.3 So too, practical theology is concerned, among other things, with critical and transformative appropriation of historical traditions in and for contemporary contexts. As one moves from descriptive theology to historical theology within Don S. Browning’s four movements of a fundamental practical theology, for example, one asks: “What do the normative texts that are already part of our effective history really imply for our praxis when they are confronted as honestly as possible?”4 According to Browning, this hermeneutical dialogue between the contemporary situation and historical tradition aims to guide action “toward social and individual transformation.”5

De Certeau, however, problematizes the reading of history and historical texts, pointing to the rupture, ambiguity, and excessiveness of the mystical experience in history. There is no simple act of translation or...


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