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.)


Blogger Fajita said...

When "experts" have conversations with their theories/theologies/methods before they have a conversation with their client/student/patient/kid in the youth group, someone's gonna get hurt.

The "end user" has unique needs that are not neatly summed up in anyone's education.

To the hammer expert, every problem is a nail. To the screwdriver expert, every problem is a screw.

It seems a respectful interdisciplinary appraoch would mean the "team" learns about the "end user" to find out if they are relevant to the solution - and humbly bows out if they are not.

Too many experts are skilled in finding ways to justify their existence every friggin' chance they get. Too many experts are hammering screws and making the problem, whatever it is, worse.

9:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

holy crap.... this is giving me a headache trying to think about. don't we just need to love the kids? just love them?

2:47 AM  
Blogger Jimmy said...

As a special ed teacher, first, I'd be running the show at that meeting. Second, the guidance counselor would show himself/herself to be a moron for suggesting that a kid with a learning disability might need special education. . .Might need? Third, I'd ask the Dr. to scribe me some Adderol while he was at it.

And finally, on a serious note, the hypothetical situation you described is one that I live out almost every day as a special ed teacher who has been trained theologically . What happens as the meeting is played out? People talk. People suggest possible solutions, and we include the student in generating solutions because someone's rationalilty in the room suggests that if s/he ain't in the game, it ain't on. Then the whole group decides the course(s) of action. But this is not made based on a consensus of what is the transversal rationality of the situation. It is a political decision. Who in the room is the most powerful? Who is the most persuasive? Who is willing to advocate for this boy and who is just tired and wants to go home? Who has the purse strings? Which systems of rationality set the rules (govt? school board?). Why does a white wealthy suburban school make x decision about the boy and y urban school make an opposite decision?

In the end of all the discussion about rationality, is the question of action, decision, choices, and so inevitably politics comes into play.

What are your thoughts on the this. What is the interaction between truth and power, between truth and politics?

5:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps an even easier example is anyone who has worked on a church expansion project. You have the banker worried about costs, someone worries about design, another on the size, etc. While these people are not trying to justify their existance, its that people are most comfortable talking about what they know. Since I am a banker, I would be the first to jump in on any money conversation.
While we are all "different parts of one body", how do we respond to the advice of those outside the body. Should it impact how we live and treat each other.
I may trust my atheist painter's advice on how to paint my house, but not take his advice on how to love my wife better. He may say he has read tons of marriage books, and watches Dr. Phil every day, but spending time in a field doesn't make an expert.

6:29 AM  
Blogger StorminNormin said...

For a methodology that touts "practicality" in the "real life," "concrete" "situation" - this theory is still rooted in academic idealism - it's all in the head, and even this "hypotheticcal" concrete situation can not be helped by a "postmodern" theological practical methodology as our good friend jimmy points out. He writes,

"What happens as the meeting is played out? People talk. People suggest possible solutions, and we include the student in generating solutions because someone's rationalilty in the room suggests that if s/he ain't in the game, it ain't on. Then the whole group decides the course(s) of action. But this is not made based on a consensus of what is the transversal rationality of the situation. It is a political decision. Who in the room is the most powerful? Who is the most persuasive? Who is willing to advocate for this boy and who is just tired and wants to go home? Who has the purse strings? Which systems of rationality set the rules (govt? school board?)."

Well done Jimmy, bravo. I wonder if those who came up with transverse rationality have applied it to their touted "concrete situation" which they hold so high, or if they just like to sit in a circle at the divinity school at kick around heady philosophical ideals....

Jimmy, I'd be interested to hear some your stories about this. You say this situation happens to you everyday. You are an amazing resource on this question. Please tell us more.

to the "Anonymous" hippy blogger who asks, "don't we just need to love the kids? just love them?"in defense of the author of this blog, i think his point is that he is trying to figure out how best to "love" childern and each of these persons related to the boy have a different idea of how to love the boy based on their relational contextual perspective of the boy....or am i wrong?

12:59 PM  
Blogger RobeFRe said...

Transverse Rationale sounds like a reasonable lable for any diverse group trying to find a unity and synergy concerning the fruition of some common interactivity. One of the problems with committees is that it will take common respect from each of the involved group for each other, a knowledged compromise of norms inarticulate to the circumstances yet strong dedication to to those pieces of the solution found within expertise at hand in the face of supercilious ignorance. A successful application of transverse rationale might need not only experts in particular fields of applicability but also a negotiator, moderator, fidelic to the best accomplishment of the group's 'raison d'etre' and capable of calming and assuaging large egos,the usual partner of expertise, bringing together the best out of the individual resources present.

3:27 PM  
Anonymous Scott said...


As the "imperialistic Barthian" here's how I'd respond...I'd listen, alot. It seems to me that each person discussing the situation of the kid in my group would have valuable things to say. They would each give me a window on the student's struggles, and what things could contribute to his well-being. My own theological commitments lead me to believe that this student is an unconditionally loved child of God struggling in the midst of God's creation. Our ability to assess his struggles and potential solutions to them apart from immediate appeals to divine revelation are part of the "space" God has given creation. The fact that the creation often looks like it doesn't "need" God is a testimony to the freedom bestowed upon it by its Creator. The doctor or the counselor will certainly give valuable insights into my student's needs, given that they are trained experts in some aspect of God's created order. Whether or not they acknowledge that the field in which they are experts is a created one shouldn't prohibit me from taking seriously what they say about the student's condition. If they insist that given their training, they conclude that a physicalist understanding of the student in question is the only viable one, then they have overstepped their bounds. They are making theological claims here, ones that I probably wouldn't honor. But does my refusal to accept their confession of faith prohibit me from taking their perspective seriously? I don't think so? Does this make me imperialistic?


7:46 AM  
Blogger Myles said...

i'll piggyback off of SCJ and proffer a tenative Barthian stand to the whole thing, coupled with the observation that in practical sessions such as the one described, the theologian isn't often accorded any kind of "expert" status. so, from the start, the theologian is on the defensive in terms of the equal playing field. ideally, what you describe could happen, but i don't see it playing out, particularly in a country of separation of church/state with a wariness towards faith-based anything, intiatives or otherwise.

9:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the goal is agreement on ideologies with different cultures, then you are on the right track.

However, I would see theology as opposed to this view. It brings different cultures to one ideology and one truth about God.

6:27 AM  
Anonymous jon myers said...

tony, this has been a great conversation for me to learn from. thanks to you and to most of the commentors. myles, you seem to question the validity of this process and the expertise of the theologian. i can agree that each participant should not be seen or understood as an expert. our world is highly specialized and therefore to be an expert in a general field will be questioned by most. but i don't think tony was going down that path.

i would agree that many people in that room would question the role of the theologian in that a modern setting. in a post-modern setting the theologian would be more respected than we might know. however, i do think you make a valid claim that religious-right and conservative/fundamentalists would be viewed as less helpful to the conversation. but then again, that type of pastor/theolgian would probably not get her/himself involved in that kind of conversation either. i know that is a critical thing to say, but there it is.

this conversation has got me thinking of a film i saw not too long ago called "What the Bleep do we Know" and it is a film about quantum mechanics/physics and spirituality. the intersting thing i noticed was scientists, physicists, spiritualists, and theologians had voices in the film. the film obviously had an agenda, as all films do, but transversal rational was very evident and seemed welcome by those interviewed. if you haven't seen it, you may want to check it out. peace.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Jimmy said...

Post Script:

1. You haven't said this was your goal in the hypothetical conversation, but I think it would be helpful to distinguish between seeking the "transversal" points, and the modern project of seeking the universally rational decision. I can see how easily it would be to slip right back into that trap.

2. I have a great deal of doubt that a 'postmodern' situation is going to entail having multiple disciplinearians sit at the table and give equal regard for other's positions as it relates to shared power in decision making. The setting of this hypothetical boy is the school system. It is going to maintain vigorously the separation of church and state because that is the setting of our culture, our American political system. Since the setting (with its power brokers) determines the possible decisions to be made, the pastor is most assuredly not going to be a powerful person in the decision, unless she/he just blesses the decision the team already wants to make. For this reason 3.

3. This is why I am so convinced by Hauerwas' argument that the church does not need to stand back and assume that something will get done only when Christians take part in the actions of the State, or by influencing the State. There is nothing preventing this pastor from a. having a view of this kid. b. that results in unique christian community interventions c. that the State doesn't even have at its disposal to begin with and which d. may have plenty of contact points with other disciplines but which do not require any loss or waterind down of theological conviction.

Listening and seeking points of connection with other systems is a desirable goal, so long as we don't wait for the blessing of those other systems to do what we've been called by our worldview to do;

4:10 PM  
Blogger Myles said...

well, it's not that the process is invalid, but that the likelihood of such a process happening is slight. jon, i'd say that in some respects, theologians have less ability to be experts than some disicplines, since our Subject is one that is self-revealed, not discovered ultimately. that being said, i'd still say that theology is the science from which all other sciences emerge, and the one by which all other sciences can rightly see.

so, how does that play into the scenario? 1) Theology is percieved as more theoretical than "factual", and thus will inevitably be percieved as having little to do with Jimmy's problems in school by other specialists. 2)Theology finds itself in the epistemological predicament of being humble by necessity, given its Subject, whereas other sciences, though originating from theology by some accounts (though i am not entirely convinced yet), approach their ends as totally knowable. 3) Theology finds itself as the most accurately concieved science, and yet, the least respected or listened to.

10:08 PM  
Blogger Fajita said...

Jon Myers mentioned "What The Bleep Do We Know?" as an example of this kind of conversation.

Great reference. I loved the film. It did represent people having a conversation about something and these people being from varied backgrounds. I like that. However, what comes into play is the danger of repeating mistakes of closed systems thinking as it applies to open system thinking, which several of the commentators on the film do.

Once upon a time, people believed systems to be closed, meaning no influence from outside the system could come inside the system. ie) I apply heat to water and it boils at a certain temp - the same temp everytime.

That worked if the system were actually closed. Systems are not closed. Water will or will not boil at a certain temp depending on pressure, what's in the water, what type of atmosphere it is in or is not in along with heat and tons of other variables.

The overreaction to the closed system theory was the open system theory. Rather than everything having mutually exclusive distinctions, there were no disctinctions whatsoever. Theoretically that works, but you can't bake a cake with it. Absolute open system thinking makes everyone feel good because of absolute equality, but sadly results in absolute uniformity, which is the same tyrrany of the closed system - from the opposite angle.

What might make more sense is thinking about semi-permeable boundaries that somewhat define the system, allowing some things in and not others. Furthermore, these boundaries are not static, but are influenced constantly - thus changing in size, levels of permeability, areas of permeability and so forth.

In the example of the kid in the school or the World Trade Center reconstruction, there are certain people who are not welcome into the system. A rapist does not get a voice in the kid scenario and the Nebraskan farmer does not get a voice in the WTC reconstruction scenario.

So, of the "appropriate" voices in the problem solving system, each voice contributes to an emerging solution that, hopefully, is better than any one "expert" could propose alone.

Furthermore, someone in the system might propose enlarging the system. ie) Mom says that her son (the boy in question) is really close to uncle Darryl. Aha, no one knew this but mom and dad and the boy. So the uncle enters in on some level. Who would have thought that up?

The architect knows a painter whose ideas are radical, but informative. The painter contributes to the WTC plans.

In short, transveral rationality makes sense. It is most effective when each contributor rejects universal or "nonversal" (is that even a word?) rationality. Hard to do. Both of these "ways of knowing" are very seductive in their own ways.

"Toward transversal rationality" sounds good to me.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

I am tooo lazy to email Tony, sorry.

Just thought you would likeot see the new attacks on emergent, in case you have not seen. You are a threat to the gospel, Tony.

3:13 PM  
Blogger D.R. said...

I may be a simple country boy who doesn't understand all that Princeton talk, but you know what I would do? I would think, the Bible is the only source of absolute truth in this room and I represent it. I would remember that Paul said that Christ died to give us all things and I would reduce everything to the fact that if the boy is ever going to improve and become the man God desires him to be he is going to have to drink deeply at the well of Christ. He is going to have to see a vision of Christ that is glorious, have an understanding of God that absolute holiness, and a heartfelt faith that realizes that nothing but the blood of Christ can lead him past his situations and to the promised land of a life of service and sanctification followed by eternal life. That may sound too churchy to you emergent guys or too charimatic or fundamentalistic to you post-evangelicals, but you know what, if you go to many prayer-saturated, Christ-loving evangelical churches, that is exactly what you will find happening. I pray that Emergent will not lose its way back to the cross of Christ.

8:25 PM  
Blogger Kurt Maddox said...

Maybe we could just use God's system and let the parent's seek the council they determine best for their child and make the best decision they are capable of making. The intellectualization of the hypothetical given might make for interesting philosophical exercise -- but, with a few hundred million kids living in poverty, transversal compassion might have a greater impact ;-)

11:14 PM  
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11:19 PM  

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