Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty

Elaine Graham’s

Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty

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Major Schools of Thought and Actors

In Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty, Elaine L. Graham addresses Traditional, Postmodern, Empirical, Liberation and Feminist perspectives on Theology and ultimately on Pastoral Theology. In order to address these perspectives, Graham traces the historical development of each, current theological realities, and prospective “horizons.” The result is an extensive review of the Pastoral Theolog (y)(ies) of the Church and its faith communit (y)(ies), viewed very strongly through the feminist pastoral perspective.

As presented by Graham, the Traditional perspective is built on Scripture that is rife with patriarchy and an overarching patriarchal hierarchy. While providing conventionally binding values and norms, the Traditional perspective is decidedly male-centered: traditionally-based pastoral theology tended to focus on the traits of a good male pastor and was essentially restricted to the pastoral ministry of ordained males. This Traditional perspective also ignores vital aspects of theology such as the situational nature of knowledge, the internal diversity and fragmentation of the faith community, and the external fragmentation and diversity confronting the faith community. In this Traditional mindset, there is an assumption of “the unimpeachability of the Christian community… in identifying the ‘Christian tradition’ as definitively binding on contemporary practice” (Graham 1996, 118).

Graham also addresses Postmodernism and its effect on Traditional Theology. Originating in the 19th Century but finding its greatest strength during the 20th Century, Western modernity advanced scientific perspectives and advancements that necessarily confront traditional systems, including but not limited to Traditional Theology. Based on tendency toward personal ethics and autonomy rather than requiring conformity to externally imposed moral codes, Postmodernism thought has dissolved many political, philosophical and scientific panaceas. These developments have resulted in an “Age of Uncertainty” that places theology within a context characterized by a high degree of pluralism, fragmentation, and skepticism. The challenges Postmodernism presents for theology, have resulted in a loss of innocence and made hierarchical imposition of moral values inappropriate.

Another phenomenon borne of Western perspectives and also addressed by Graham is Liberation Theology. Arising in the South American Catholic Church of the 1950’s and 1960’s Liberation Theology applies a “hermeneutic of suspicion” to Traditional Theology and critically focuses on the impoverished and oppressed. Liberation Theology challenges the faith community to shift priorities from personal salvation to socially just change (Graham 1996, 51, 136). Challenging the Church’s theory-based, clergy-dominated paradigm, Liberation Theology engendered a theological shift from theory to praxis or “theology in action,” as previously excluded perspectives of minorities and other groups are included in addressing issues of justice within society and the Church. Though the Church has issued “instructions” to move away from what it perceives to be a purely political and Western-intellectually driven approach to the Gospel, Liberation Theology remains at least one of several dominant paradigms in current society and the Church.

Empirical Theology, in which the social sciences are employed to explore, define and test religious values, beliefs and practices, is also addressed and followed in Graham’s book. Though including ecclesial study, Empirical Theology moves beyond to examine religious worldviews and attempts to appraise those worldviews by empirical-theological construction and analysis. Championed by theologians such as Don Browning and sociologists such as Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu, Empirical Theology is known by the hallmarks of ambiguity, freedom and creativity. Don Browning (1934 — 2010), a pre-eminent disciples scholar from the University of Chicago, examined the interrelatedness of psychology, sociology, morality, law, and theology. Stressing the importance of practical theology, Browning believed that it should be a public endeavor using reflection on the Church’s ministry in the world, integrating religious theory with religious practice. Anthony Giddens (1938 – ____), deemed one of the most prominent sociologists of modern times, posits that we are still in an age of Modernity; however, it is a late, reflexive modernity. Late, reflexive modernity, along with a world economy laboring under scarcity, may result in a new social movement transforming “life politics” — or the management of self-actualization — into a more dominant factor than “emancipatory politics” — or management of inequality. Believing that the importance of the self’s reflexive biography and changes in gender relations, Giddens maintains that those two factors may be in the forefront of a “democratization of democracy” in which conflicts are resolved and practices are created through social discourse among all groups rather than traditional authority or violence. Pierre Bourdieu (1930 — 2002) was a French sociologist and philosopher who rejected Sartre’s notion of the intellectual prophet. Along with Giddens, Bourdieu believed that self-identity is “reflexive”- an individual’s account of his/her own life — and those theories must be evaluated against empirical data gathered from day-to-day life. Rather than analyzing society by classes, Bourdieu referred to “fields”: the modern world is divided into social fields in which hierarchy is based on the struggle of individuals within it and involves numerous social relationships. In addition, for Bourdieu, language is a conduit of power. Traditional hierarchy establishes a system of the right and degree to which one may speak, lecture and be heard. Ultimately, Bourdieu was considered a major theorist of modern Sociology, as well as an ardent activist for groups that are traditionally subordinate, powerless and oppressed in society.

Feminist Theology, heartily espoused in Graham’s book, arose from Postmodernism, Empirical Theology and Liberation Theology. As Graham points out, modern moral uncertainty has resulted in a feminist focus on personalized social and political aspects of care and a liberationist focus on the impoverished and oppressed (Graham 1996, 51, 136). This feminist focus has resulted in a contribution that exemplifies liberating thoughts and actions benefitting all oppressed people. Employing the unique perspective of females, Feminist Theology insists on the vital inclusion of women’s language, issues and contributions to contemporary Theology. Criticizing the Church’s exclusionary male-centered tradition, Feminist Theology celebrates the gifts and needs of the faith community as a whole. Ultimately, Graham’s book focuses on the range of Pastoral Theology or “Practical Theology,” which has remained a consistent thread through Traditional, Postmodern, Liberation, Empirical and Feminist thought. “Practical theology” originated in European universities and traditionally refers to pastoral skills clergy must have at completion of theological study. Practical theology was the crowning aspect of studies involving the Bible, Christian doctrine, Church history and Christian philosophy. Deemed an “applied theology” in that the clergy’s studies were being practically applied in their work with the faith community, Pastoral Theology prepared clergy for leading the community’s worship, educating the community, preaching, and dialoguing with the community. Postmodernism challenged all Traditional faith systems, including but not limited to a male-centered Pastoral Theology. “Liberation theology” and the shift to praxis or “theology in action” seriously challenged the clergy-dominated paradigm, resulting in a shift to the hermeneutical and contemporary. Liberation theology’s “hermeneutic of suspicion” became means of transforming the valuable practices of the faith community. This paradigm remains significant in modern practical theology due to growing diversity of the faith community and their perspectives. Empirical Theology focuses on the “spirit” of enlightened social responsibility while Feminist Theology contributes the uniquely feminine perspective to the discussion.

b. Graham’s Application of Major Schools of Thought

In Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty, Elaine Graham argues that practical theology must face up to the challenges of a postmodern context characterized by a high degree of pluralism, fragmentation, and skepticism. It is a context of uncertainty in which it is no longer possible for theology to build on a consensus of values in society. Nor can theology take for granted the authority of traditional sources and norms of the church. It must find new ways of developing truth claims and values that will be persuasive to a skeptical postmodern world.

Graham develops an approach to normativity that can help the church and society move beyond the oppressive legacy of patriarchy, which defines human nature by assuming that maleness and masculinity are the norm. Using postmodern thought as her lens, Graham argues that Western modernity has dissolved many political, philosophical and scientific panaceas, resulting an “Age of Uncertainty.” Rather than completely destroying values, this “age of uncertainty” is more a loss of innocence allowing the pursuit of theological reflection and action. This search necessarily involves ways of employing traditionally binding values while seeking currently relevant transparency and coherence.

Graham argues that normativity must be approached reflexively, not prescriptively, as dialogue and reflection on the practical wisdom emerging in communities of transforming practice. As she puts it: “Principles of truth and value are not to be conceived as transcendent eternal realities, but as provisional” yet biding “strategies of normative action and community within which shared commitments might be negotiated and put to work. Ethics and politics therefore become processes and practices, rather than applications of metaphysical ideals.”u (pp.6-7)

Over the course of her book, Graham develop three central arguments about transforming practice in the Christian community: transforming practice generates new knowledge and values that cannot be formed in any other way; such practice is oriented to human freedom and love and struggles to overcome structures of domination, including the oppression of women; transforming practice discloses God and offers a model of transcendence that is compelling to many people in our postmodern context. Graham also employs three criteria to assess transforming practice: transforming practice must contribute to liberation praxis; transforming practice must give special priority to and make space for women’s experience and leadership; norms for transforming practice must emerge reflexively out of particular, local practices embodying new patterns of gender. Transforming practice must contribute to liberation praxis because, though this does not provide specific norms to guide particular actions, it does give guidance about the basic intent of transforming practice. Such practice contributes to the struggle both inside and outside the church to liberate people from social and economic oppression. Good practice is liberating. Transforming practice must give special priority to and make space for women’s experience and leadership in an effort to form new practices of gender identity, relationships, and roles. Finally, since the diversity of women’s experience makes it impossible to posit a single norm for all transforming practice, such norms must emerge reflexively out of particular, local practices that embody new patterns of gender in a specific Christian community. Transforming practice opens up a space for conversation in which people reflect on the values and meanings that are emerging out of their experience.

In Graham’s approach, transforming practice is pivotal. It is the generative source of new knowledge, values, and social patterns. She offers three criteria with which to guide and assess transforming practice in the church: transforming practice must contribute to human liberation as an expression of the Christian commitment to freedom and love; transforming practice must attend to women’s experience without “essentializing” this experience; transforming practice must support the reflexive consolidation of practical wisdom emerging out of practice, within a commitment to “alterity” or variability.

Throughout her book, Graham recognizes the importance of traditionally powerless groups, including but not limited to women, and honors the diversity of their experience within the Bible, the Christian story, and Christian tradition. As such, she stresses the importance of communal discernment of performative truth claims, giving special attention to women’s experience in their particular situations as her main sources of justification over tradition, reason, and scripture. Graham accomplishes this by using an interdisciplinary method by further developing the work of Empirical Theologian, Don Browning, and by European sociologists, Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu. Graham advances Browning’s emphasis on practical theology as a public endeavor that integrates theory with practice and benefits from the contributions of all individuals within the faith community. She also follows Anthony Giddens’ emphasis of a new social movement transforming “life politics” through self-reflexive biography and gender equality, resulting in conflict resolution and pastoral practices created through open social discourse among all groups rather than traditional authority. Finally, Graham espouses Bourdieu’s rejection of the intellectual prophet, rejection of traditional hierarchy’s establishment of “right” communications and passionate activism for the traditionally powerless.

Concerning the issue of the theory-praxis relationship, Graham claims the particularity of both the theory of divine and human action and the situation where they are related, acknowledging that a theory is built upon some generalizations and noting the need for contextualization. Graham espouses working at the “metatheoretical level” creating ways to guide the development of a theory of practice that takes seriously the diversity of people and the importance of particularity in pastoral ministry. Graham follows the lead of liberation theology and feminist theology in developing her approach to practical theology.

To consider theological rationale, Graham claims that God’s presence is found in specific and concrete situations. In other words, God works “incarnationally” in the particular and in the concrete. This means not only that the particular groups of women will have different experiences but that all experiences will be distinct. It also means that our incarnational God discloses Godself to us through our real-life issues, common experience, and practice.

2. Critical Evaluation

a. Graham’s Interdisciplinary Method

Graham develops her approach of transforming practice using an interdisciplinary method following Don Browning and entering into a dialogue with two European sociologists, Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu. Following in Browning’s, Giddens’ and Bourdieu’s footsteps, Graham developed an elaborate critique of ways in which gender theories within human sciences such as sociology may transform theology and pastoral practice. In doing so, Graham penned two works: Making the Difference: Gender, Personhood and Theology (1995) and Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty (1996: reissued in 2002 by Wipf and Stock). Though Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty is her more famous work, the two books reportedly comprise her doctoral thesis and the heart of her study.

Graham’s interdisciplinary method involves more than the theories of Browning, Giddens and Bourdieu. Commencing with her “Anatomy of Uncertainty,” Graham traces the historical sources of our currently ambivalent world. Beginning with the Traditional perspective that is built on patriarchal Scripture and hierarchy, Graham is faced with the traditionally male-centered Church that devalues and dismisses the language and experiences of oppressed groups, including but not limited to women. Graham criticizes the supposed “unimpeachability…of identifying the ‘Christian tradition’ as definitively binding on contemporary practice” (Graham 1996, 118). From the Traditional, oppressive, exclusionary worldview, Graham moves to Postmodernism. Welcoming Postmodernism’s dissolution of many political, philosophical and scientific panaceas and oppressions, Graham deems Postmodernism as innocence lost rather than value annihilation. For Graham, Postmodernism, with its pluralism, fragmentation and skepticism, makes it possible to pursue theological reflection and concomitant action by inhabiting traditionally binding values without the unnecessary constraints of false “certainties.” Along with Postmodernism, Graham appreciates Liberation Theology and its “hermeneutic of suspicion” that helped engender a theological shift from theory to praxis or “theology in action.” For Graham, issues of social justice within society and the Church are significantly importance. If Liberation Theology is significantly important for Graham, then Feminist Theology is absolutely vital. For Graham, transparency and efficacy cannot be achieved without the feminine perspective and dialogue of individual women, focusing on personalized social and political aspects of care and a liberationist focus on the impoverished and oppressed (Graham 1996, 51, 136). Finally, all these historical perspectives are threaded together through the “needle eye” of Pastoral Theology. Tracing Pastoral Theology from the Traditional worldview and altered by Postmodernism, Empirical Thought, Liberation Theology and Feminist Theology, Pastoral work is transformed from male-centered, clergy-centered work in which the faith community remains on the periphery to a community-centered and constantly evolving ministry with a uniquely feminist perspective.

In reviewing all these historical and theological phenomena, Graham employs a Postmodern flexibility that celebrates, advances and employs the Empirical theories of Browning, Giddens and Bourdieu. The interdisciplinary method employed by Graham is certainly impressive, at least in the eminence of her sources. At the time of Don Browning’s death, he was the Alexander Campbell Professor Emeritus of Ethics and the Social Sciences in the Divinity School. Receiving his BD (1959), AM (1962) and PhD (1964) from the University of Chicago Divinity School as a Disciples Divinity House Scholar, Browning was and is deemed one of the world’s most prominent divinity scholars. His forays into the interrelatedness of psychology, sociology, morality, law, and theology were trailblazing and his emphasis on practical theology as public endeavor by integrating religious theory with practice are prominent in Graham’s book. Developing Browning’s theories using a Postmodern and feminist perspective, Graham argues that focus on the faith community’s practices can create a feminist pastoral theology accepting the situated nature of knowledge, the internal and external diversity and fragmentation affecting the faith community and the diversity that is often ignored by traditional theology. For Graham, following Browning, practice is the crux of the Gospel (Graham 1996, 112-141). Anthony Giddens is an equally impressive interdisciplinary source for Graham’s analysis. Known as the most prolific sociological writer of all time, Giddens believes that the importance of the self’s reflexive biography and changes in gender relations may be in the forefront of a “democratization of democracy” in which conflicts are resolved and practices are created through social discourse among all groups rather than traditional authority or violence. Gidden’s theories are certainly conspicuous in Graham’s book, as Graham specifically states that the feminine/feminist perspective is irreplaceable. Following Gidden’s theories,

Graham criticizes the traditional perspective of pastoral theology, and shifts the focus away from male-centered agents and language toward less structured settings, alternative communities of faith and the female’s spoken experience. While Graham does not negate pastoral counseling, she relies on a feminist reconstruction using community, sacrament, prayer and sermon as sources for individual healing and community healing. Again following Giddens, Graham uses the feminist perspective of individual care and a diverse, complex array of pastoral sources and practices (Graham 1996, 48). Finally, Graham also employs the theories of Pierre Bourdieu. Considered a prominent intellectual in France, Bourdieu believed that self-identity is “reflexive”- an individual’s account of his/her own life — and that theories must be evaluated against empirical data gathered from day-to-day life. Bourdieu also believed in social “fields in which hierarchy is based on the struggle of individuals within it and involves numerous social relationships. Furthermore, within these social fields, the individual develops a “habitus,” which is an amalgam of an individual’s relationships and “engagements” in society throughout his/her life. Finally, Bourdieu propounded the theory that language is a conduit of power as well as a mode of communication. An ardent social activist, Bourdieu rejected traditional hierarchy’s system of the right and degree to which one may speak, lecture and be heard. Clearly, Graham is in tune with Bourdieu’s thought. Employing Bourdieu’s theory of “habitus,” Graham states, “Practice thus emerges as the process by which social relations are generated. As a working definition, we might characterize practice as purposeful activity performed by embodied persons in time and space as both the subjects of agency and the objects of history” (Graham 1996, 110). Holding that the patriarchal hierarchy of the Church once deemed only the dominant (male) groups language credible, Graham asserts that women within such a system are treated as objects, that women must reconstruct their self-narratives and that women require a suitable language with which to create and contribute new stories about women. Graham asserts the power of language, stating “The pastor and the church have a role to play in listening to women’s experience, in breaking the taboos of silence which surround issues of abuse, sexuality and nonconformity, and in rethinking harmful and oppressive images and church teachings in order to achieve greater justice and mutuality” (Graham 1996, 126).

b. Sources of Justification

When noting her sources of justification, Graham give special attention to women’s experience in their particular situations as their main source of justification over tradition, reason, and Scripture. Graham states, “In women’s preaching, the process of telling others’ stories is an example of conversational practice: matching the personal with the collective; of inviting the hearers to place their stories alongside those of others” (Graham 1996, 177). For Graham, women’s needs, experiences and voices embody a healing, reconciliation and empowerment for the Church. Women’s ability to name their needs and experiences shows the distortions and unrealistically “universalized” solutions of a male-centered practice. In addition, women’s telling of their experiences puts them into their correct social and political context. This stress on the experience, language and voice of women, Graham says, “may be understood as a plea for all theological discourse to recognize itself as situated, or as theologians more usually term it, contextual” (Graham 1996, 194). In this respect, Graham speaks from a strongly logical position: she highlights the transformation engendered by women proclaiming and preaching, stating that it is time for the Church “to allow the Scriptures to live in the lives of incest victims and survivors.” Rather than contributing to the crushing and oppressive silence, the Church must allow and encourage women and other traditionally oppressed groups to speak up. In supporting and expounding on these theories, Graham attempts to create a genuine program to reconstitute the values and assumptions underpinning Christian practice. (Graham 1996, 44)

While Graham’s analysis is thought-provoking and solidly presented in some respects, it is also open to criticism. First, Graham moves from the universal to the nearly-anecdotal. Most of Graham’s examples of women’s oppression rely on single illustrations. For a pastoral theologian, examination might be more constructive moving outward from single to universal perspectives. Secondly, Graham is apparently at a loss in explaining specifically which criteria the faith community may effectively use to evaluate its praxis. In at least some schools of thought, a practical theological approach must be grounded in theological reflection, and identity for Christians should be rooted in the Christian story whose central theme is the activity of God at the core of human experience. Third, Graham apparently too fully embraces postmodern cultural relativism and non-realist views of God in her work. Fourth, Graham apparently relies too heavily on the faith community as the safeguard of diversity and “otherness.” Since communal authority can at least theoretically be just as mistaken as hierarchical authority, it is difficult to know the proper response when relationships and authority within the faith community become abusive and/or capricious. Finally, at least one problem with basing moral codes on the language of the faith community is that the community possesses only what Graham calls “an impoverished vocabulary of moral discernment — in relation to the individual and the collective” (Graham 1996, 50); consequently, the language and poor communication skills of the community militate against Graham’s vision.

c. Theory-Praxis Relationship

The issue of the theory-praxis relationship engenders Graham’s argument that the faith community should essentially practice what it preaches. Praxis is so central in Graham’s schema that they are “not the outworking of faith, but its prerequisite”(Graham 1996, 205). Our practices create the structure wherein our faith in both God and God’s love can be developed. Graham claims the particularity of both the theory of divine and human action and the situation where they are related, acknowledges that a theory is built upon some generalizations, notes the need for contextualization, and works at the “metatheoretical level” creating ways to guide the development of a theory of practice that takes seriously the diversity of people and the importance of particularity in pastoral ministry. Graham follows the lead of liberation theology, empirical thought and feminist theology in developing her approach to practical theology, claiming that pastoral practices must encourage the development of human imagination, spirituality, and sociability. In fact, the heart of her book is reconstruction of the values whereby Christian praxis may be guided in this diverse and fragmented society, and to define at least one model of pastoral theology in postmodern times. Arguing that critical examination of values and deliberate actions of the faith community is the proper focus of pastoral theology, Graham criticizes the former centrality of the male-centered pastoral practice based on “applied theology.” As Graham states: “Criteria for authentic Christian pastoral practice as determined by a model of liberatory praxis locate human identity within history, and identify theological knowledge as arising from a specific context and harnessed to transformatory and political ends. Models of Christian pastoral practice within liberation theology ground the normative principles for social transformation in a model of action and reflection upon experience and social context. The criteria for authentic practice – the values of liberation – are both the sources and the objects of pastoral practice (Graham 1996, 139). As such, Graham’s vision of pastoral theology is based on culturally sensitive, inclusive, mutual and intimately connected human relationships rather than exclusive, dominant/submissive and separate relationships (Graham 1996, 28), For Graham, these culturally sensitive, inclusive, mutual and intimately connected human relationships are expressions of God’s love and are the centers of true conversations with God. As do other writers who explore praxis, Graham distinguishes “praxis knowing” from “theoretical knowing” (Graham 1996, 88). In fact, according to Graham, pastoral practice alone may retrieve and unite the shards of shattered Christian tradition. For Graham, practice is the beginning and end of theological reflection and any mention of God is necessarily connected with a relentless commitment to human liberation, for praxis as the way in which individuals and communities embody and act upon their beliefs. As a reflection and embodiment of individual and communal faith, praxis is necessarily unpredictable and inventive, healing both the individual and the faith community (Graham 1996, 52).

d. Theological Rationale

Graham’s theological rationale claims that God’s presence is found in specific and concrete situations. In other words, God works “incarnationally” in the particular and in the concrete. This means not only that the particular groups of women will have different experiences but that all experiences will be distinct. It also means that our incarnational God discloses Godself to us through our real-life issues, common experience, and practice. In espousing this rationale, Graham states that the desirable model for theological examination and formation should value cultural experience and social responsibility “as valid and legitimate sources of Christian concern and Divine revelation” (Graham 1996, 3). Noting the current controversy in pastoral care, Graham notes that, “One of the most contested areas in contemporary pastoral literature concerns those persons deemed fit to dispense care; the methods by which such care is administered; and the locus of purposeful care” (Graham 1996, 47). Even so, Graham strongly asserts contributions of women which are not merely their inclusion in an otherwise unchanged hierarchical system but their transformation of that system and of the pastoral theology embodying God and God’s work. Furthermore, our network of relationships, values and practices form our theologically sound “critical self-understanding” and “practical wisdom”(Graham 1996, 159).

Works Cited

Graham, Elaine L. Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty. London: Mowbray, 1996.

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