Thursday, March 31, 2005

Happy Birthday... me.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Blog News

1) Jeff Kursonis, of this post, is now blogging here. Check it out, and support his new church in NYC however possible.

2) I posted here, and it seems to have pissed some people off. Interesting line of comments follow.

3) My brother and sister-in-law run a very popular blog regarding women's basketball. He expresses his ambivalence about Liberty University's run to the Sweet Sixteen here and then responds to an email from me here. It's an interesting discussion in light of the recent how-to-be-a-Christian-in-a-liberal-democracy posts on this blog and at recent cohorts.

Happy Easter.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

What Is Practical Theology? An Interdisciplinary Intermezzo, Part II

OK, I'll start with a concrete situation in order to illustrate the promise of "tranversal rationality."

[UPDATE: This is a hypothetical situation; the "boy" is meant to represent a concrete situation or problem. Another analogy could be, for instance, all the people who together had to decide what to build on the site of the World Trade Center.]

You're a youth pastor, and you get a call from the guidance counselor at the local public high school; she wants you to come to a consultation. There's a boy in your youth group who is really struggling in school -- and in life -- and the school is calling together a group of people to brainstorm about what can be done to help him.

A week later, you show up for the meeting; in the conference room at the high school are gathered the boy's mother and father (divorced), guardian ad litem, court-appointed social worker, psychologist, pediatrician,
guidance counselor, school nurse, and homeroom teacher.

As the conversation gets underway, you realize that each of these "experts" knows the boy in a very different way, yourself included. In fact, each of you is an "expert" on the boy, but your expertises are quite different. The pediatrician speaks from her expertise as someone who has worked with many adolescents, she uses medical-scientific language, and she wonders if she should adjust his Ritalin prescription. The (Jungian) psychologist talks about the therapy sessions he's had with the boy, with the progress they're making, and about the boy's deep, internal conflict over his parents' divorce and his own learning disability. The guidance counselor wonders if he should be moved into special ed. classes, the homeroom teacher says he needs to find better friends, the mom says he's depressed at home and he listens to music that scares her, the dad wonders if the two of them should take a vacation to watch some spring training games, etc., etc., etc.

And you, the youth pastor, what do you say? What do you think the boy needs? Is part of his problem a spiritual problem? Is it entirely spiritual? Is he afflicted by demons? Has he been the object of spiritual abuse? Is your youth group a place where he feels welcomed and loved?

Tranversal rationality takes into account one of the premises of a pluralistic, postmodern, globalized world: there are many different "rationalities" at work in society. And as professionalization and specialization increase, the rationality in one field of knowledge or discipline is that much harder for non-specialists in that discipline.

Would you tell the pediatrician that she is wrong in bringing medical/scientific/pharmacological reasoning to bear on the boy's problems? Probably not. Nor would you question the guidance counselor's understanding of when to place a student in special education classes. Nor would you question the mother's claim to be an expert on the subject of her own son.

And you too, the youth pastor, you are the theological/biblical expert in the room. You bring a distinctively Christian rationality to bear on the situation of this boy's problems. Happily, in a truly postmodern setting, you can respectfully and sensitively articulate that rationality, and you will be shedding light ("truth") on the situation that no one else can or has.

So transversal rationality acknowledges the many rationalities at play in a pluralistic environment. As a method, it proposes that we look for intersections between rationalities -- "transversal" means "to lie across" -- and enter into dialogue at those concrete, situated moments (like around the case of our hypothetical boy). We must do so, however, with "epistemic humility;" that is, we need to be open to theoretical correction. And our results will be judged in moments of "praxial critique," in which the practical wisdom that comes out of the situation is tested in future, real-life situations.

Writing about the promise of this method, J. Wentzel van Huyssteen writes, "the fact that rationality lies across and links diverse reasoning strategies will also mean that we can step forth into cross-contextual discussion with personal convictions that we find rationally compelling, and at the same time be rationally compelled to open our strong convictions up to critical evaluation in interdisciplinary conversation.”"

(For more on transversal rationality, read this and this.)

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Do Yourself a Favor...

...and order this book!

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

What Is Practical Theology? An Interdisciplinary Intermezzo

For some important background, first read




and, especially,


If you take the time to read these, or at least the third, you'll see that a lot of water has already passed under the bridge. And over some Chinese food last night, Steve tried to rehabilitate my understanding of Barth, with some success. (I have no trouble acknowledging the extreme importance of Barth, but I think we need to go beyond him, hence my affinity with Moltmann.)

There's a lot at stake in this conversation; these are not simply the musings of a couple of doctoral students. Currently, there are only a few options available to Christians in a globalized/pluralistic/postmodern society: liberal accomodationism, conservative retreatism, Hauerwasian sectarianism, and the newcomer: Milbankian (Radical Orthodoxy) withdrawal into the liturgy.

I know, that's a lot of "-isms," but none of these options offers a Christian the ability to maintain a "robust doctrine of God" (Steve's words) and a robust understanding of pluralism. In other words, is there a way to negotiate a healthy, dialectical relationship with culture and maintain an orthodox doctrine of God? Steve and I both think there must be, there has to be.

Among practical theologians, there have been a couple major avenues for navigating these waters. Among the University of Chicago theologians (Tillich, Tracy, Browning), there has been an evolving "correlational" model in which theology and culture stand in a dialectical relationship. Tillich said that culture asks the questions and theology provides the answers; Tracy and Browning amended this by saying that each asks questions and each provides answers -- i.e., theology and culture stand in a mutually critical relationship.

Among the Barthians (Frei, D. Hunsinger, Loder), the response has been more of what Steve alludes to in his posts: theology has a unique ability to articulate issues of ultimacy, like God's revelation, which comes from outside of the created order. Thus theology trumps all other disciplines when it comes to issues on which theology is uniquely articulate.

While I appreciate the former's ability to take culture seriously, it tends to reduce theological reflection to the terms of culture (and can be a mask for natural theology, as Steve points out). The latter maintains theology's integrity, but stands in a position of interdisciplinary domination, which I find unacceptable in a pluralistic environment (it's tough to convince someone to have a conversation of mutual regard if you start out by stating that you will inevitably win the argument!).

That's why I'm attracted to the model of transversal rationality. I'll flesh that out in the next post...

Friday, March 11, 2005


...needed for Stan Grenz, theologian of the emerging church, who is fighting for his life following a massive brain aneurism.

[UPDATE: Stan died at about 4am this morning. This is truly a loss for all of us who desire progressive evangelical theology to thrive. Even as we grieve his loss and mourn with his family, we can be thankful that he left behind so much rich theological work. Godspeed, Stan.]

Saturday, March 05, 2005

What Is Practical Theology? Wow!

OK, I was all brewing up a great intermezzo post with a provisional definition of PT, then I got this anonymous comment that blew me away:

Practical theology is that theological discipline which is concerned with the Church’s self-actualization here and now – both that which is and that which ought to be. That it does by means of theological illumination of the particular situation in which the Church must release itself in all its dimensions.

This practical theology is a unique, independent science, a fundamental one in essence in spite of its reciprocal relationship with other theological disciplines, since its business of scientifically critical and systematic reflection is a unique quantity and its nature is not deducible. For it is reflection oriented towards committal.

The task of practical theology as an original science demands a theological analysis of the particular present situation in which the Church is to carry out the especial self-realization appropriate to it at any given moment.

Practical theology challenges the other theological studies to recognize the task which inheres immanently in them, oriented to the practice of the Church; the second demand it makes is that they should apply themselves to this task.

Anonymous practical theologian, reveal thyself.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

What Is Practical Theology? Part III

Practical Theology is a self-consciously hermeneutical enterprise. Now, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I think that all of life is, essentially, a hermeneutical endeavor. Each of us is an interpreter, of our surroundings, our traditions, our conversations, the media we engage, etc. In the words of one philosopher, “Interpretation goes all the way down and all the way back up.”

PT engages hermeneutical theory constantly, especially in an effort to mediate between the empirical-descriptive moment (as described below), and the normative theological moment (to be described in the next post). Thus, with a hermeneutical understanding, practical theologians will work with an interdisciplinary “dialogue partner,” like a particular school of thought in psychology, sociology, social theory, political science, etc.

For example, for my dissertation, I am performing an in-depth field study on eight “emerging church” congregations. Using a method of phenomenological research, I’m using focus groups, one-on-one interviews, participant-observation in the worship setting, and a congregation-wide census survey to uncover the core practices in each congregation.

However, all of this data will do me no good without an adequate interpretation – it’ll be nothing but a group of numbers and hours of transcriptions without my analysis. And the way I will analyze the data is to put it in the context of recent work in the sociology of American religion. Using tools like the National Congregations Survey (1998) and analysis by sociologists like Chris Smith and Robert Wuthnow, I hope to show how these congregations are similar to and different than other congregations on the American landscape. In other words: Where do these emerging congregations fit in the ecology of American congregations?

So that’s the essence of the interpretive moment of PT, and it also shows again how important it is for the practical theologian to have a sophisticated theory of interdisciplinarity.