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.


Blogger Todd H said...

It sounds like a really interesting direction for your dissertation. I'm also a fan of Browning's thought regarding research in practical theology. I'll be interested to hear how it all shapes up.

7:39 PM  
Blogger STeve said...

you might be interested in my PhD through the University of Otago - an indepth study of an emerging church using questionnaries, participant observation, etc using a practical theology methodology.
Drop me a line if you want, i live over at

7:48 PM  
Blogger Jimmy said...

Not to be a broken record, but one ought to consult James Smith's and James McClendon's "Convictions" as it relates to a 'sophisticated theory of interdisciplinarity' (by the way, I think you made that word up-- and if not you--somebody in your discipline). How one resolves (if they can) this issue of dialogue between disciplines cuts to the core of epistemology in the PM era. So answer this: should a PT practioner give priority to her political, social psychology, etc. theory to interpret church teaching/practice or vice versa?

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I suddenly find myself thinking of Cowboy Church and leafing through a recent reading Titled GROWING YOUR CHURCH IN 7 DAYS by Charles Lee Williams @ Creative Church Consultations Inc. 1994 an easy 118 page read, utilizing real congregation examples to uncover solutions to membership calamities.


10:58 PM  
Blogger David M said...

Like Jimmy, I too am interested in either a stated or observed preference of one discipline over another as disciplines "transverse." Which one gets priority? Does the PT philosopher decide? Is "interdiscpline" the latest trump card (so long as an "interdisciplinist said so . . . I mean they study EVERYTHING, you know!)?

Or does the "opposite of what I last held" trump? Like in the U.S. where being "not yesterday" gives winning power.

Can an interdisciplinist really dialogue with disciplines? Or just make semi-informed opinions based on more information than someone who hasn't transversed at all?

I greatly prefer PT/interdiscipline, but have been saddened by its results, especially as the pertain to areas that I DID study (single discipline).

Anybody doing thinking on effective interdiscipline-ing?

5:34 AM  
Blogger Naomi said...

I don't think it matters which "theory" gets priority. I'm currently working on a paper for my graduate work on the integration of psychology and neuroscience. In my case I think holding on to either discipline too tightly is rigid and ineffective...maybe this idea will shift for me when I get to the PhD level.

7:12 AM  
Anonymous Steve B. said...

Hans Frei, in Types of Christian Theology, advocates a model in which theological categories are privileged in the encounter with other academic disciplines, but “ad hoc” uses of any insights from any discipline are permissible and encouraged, in so far as they are helpful. This seems right to me, and the implication is that what is most important is to have a clearly articulated understanding of the nature of the church’s mission and a willingness to utilize whatever resources are available to participate in that mission. I think the ad hoc nature of the enterprise would make any attempt to provide a generalized theory of interdisciplinarity impossible.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Anastasia said...

analyzing your data may be interpretive, but gathering the data is also an inherently interpretive task.

I'm not sure what a theory of interdisciplinarity is. You're either using methods and/or data from more than one "discipline" or you're not. It seems like a practical concern, not a theoretical one.

All that means is that you're transgressing (or ignoring or attacking or whatever) conventional classifications of the data and conventional questions. Disciplines don't really exist except institutionally. Within a discipline people assume a set of appropriate questions, approaches, methods and evidence.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Anastasia said...

claiming "interdisciplinarity" justifies breaking the "rules" so to speak. And that is good, if you ask me, given that disciplines don't actually exist. It is unhealthy for them to become to reified.

That said, I think there is something to be said for disciplines at least insofar as they facilitate intelligibility between scholars. What I mean is, if we can agree on some basics, then we can have a conversation. Even if we disagree, we have some idea what we're disagreeing about.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Fajita said...

Anastasia had a great point about disciplines do not exist. Sub-disciplines do not exist either.

In the field of counseling and therapy, there are wars about which kind of therapy works best. But in the real world, no one who goes to counseling gives a rip whether they are getting cognitive therapy, solution-focused therapy, or narrative therapy. They care about getting better.

40% of change comes from the client. 30% of changes comes from the relationship. 15% of change comes from hope & expectation. 15% comes from what the counselor actually does.

I know this is straying some from the point, but I'm sure there is some correlation here.


5:15 PM  
Blogger David M said...

I, too, love the insight about disciplines-and-institutions.

What I loathe, though, is watching people trying to be interdisciplinary but missing the actual discipline of another's point-of-view.

For example, when I asked about "gay genes" in one of Tony's previous posts, I was directed to an author who used "interdisciplinary" information to make conclusions about homosexuality and genetics. Problem was, when I was in the neuroscience "discipline," we laughed hysterically at the very articles this author quoted to support his opinion. He didn't DIALOGUE, he just "interdiscipled."

In other words, ad-hoc and/or transversal tend to cling to what the thinker wants, even if it is "new" to the thinker, without allowing the discipline from which the information (or opinion) comes from to enter. In this example, the author used completely bogus "studies" to support his point, and I find this too common among "interdisciplinarians."

Maybe what I am poking at is that interdiscipline doesn't mean dialogue, as I wish it would. Maybe what I am poking at is that my 1 semester stint into Ph.D. work exposed what I had seen in Bachelor work: so long as you site, you can say anything because no one checks what is sited. Maybe I'm poking at the current state of human emergence/evolution in which Time magazine is as deep as "interdiscipline" is going to get - just too much specialization and too much information.

Maybe I think that this lame interdiscipline approach does not move us forward, and I get frustrated when good thinkers do such! The potential is great, but the living is accidently-lazy. I want better, for the thinkers, for myself, for humankind.

2:40 PM  
Blogger DLW said...

I think disciplines are social constructs we have made, and valuable constructs at that, and that ideally we should be cognizant of their constructed natures. We can do this by having an appreciation of the history of thought and a deeper liberal arts background. The goal should be for us to appreciate more the different disciplines, work better in inter-disciplinary settings and, perhaps, abduct/borrow methods and concepts from different disciplines.

I don't think we should get too worked up about the framing of issues. There is something to be said for methodological pluralism and taking different tacts to similar issues.

I also like to think of Jesus in Matthew 22:15-32 when he reframes the questions posed to him by the Pharisees and then the Sadducees. He didn't accept the divisive frames of his society, but drew on the OT to redirect people's attention to the need to deliberate on what we owe to God and what God's ideal intent for our relationships will be.

So I think the issue isn't just how we frame our lines of inquiry but how we reframe how we think about and approach issues and therein redirect our and others energies. This probably also has a good deal to do with maintaining oneself in the community of an academic discipline and the community of faith.


2:57 PM  
Blogger Jimmy said...

I think some great points have been made here. In the end, it seems, whatever one utters as "knowledge" or "conclusion" is in fact a conviction that accepts some things and rejects others, conciously or unconsciously having given priority to some tradition, discipline, or practice over others in coming to various conclusions. Perhaps then, anyone claiming to be an "interdisciplinarian" must explicitly state among his/her conclusions/convictions the very assumptions used to arrive there. They should say, "from social psychology, I accept that this is so and thus arrived at x conclusion." The goal then would be not to melt the 3 disciplines one might use into 1 "interdisciplinary" construct. It is rather to make claims about the state of things and provide the reader with a map of how you got there.

6:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

11:26 AM  

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