What Is Practical Theology? An Interdisciplinary Intermezzo, Part III

OK, this is the final part of what was meant to be a brief tangent. But Jimmy brings up an important caveat in his comment below. My not-so-hypothetical situation of a troubled teen in the school counselor’s office was sanitized of the real-life complications of power. Being a trained social worker, and a special ed. teacher, Jimmy knows the power dynamics at work in a situation like this. It should come as no surprise that the pediatrician will come out on top in this hierarchy; not only does she have the most schooling, but physicians — and the scientific reasoning they employ — are highly regarded in our society. In contrast, social workers, psychologists, and youth pastors are often seen as dealing in data that is “soft,” over against the “hard” scientific data of a physician.

However, the postmodern, hermeneutic turn has done a great service, for it has leveled the playing field. Even the “hardest” scientific data is rife with agendas and money from pharmaceutical companies. In other words, no one is capable of delivering a straight, objective account of what’s going on with this boy.

There’s been lots of good work done by postmodern theoreticians about power dynamics. The most famous theorist of power is Michel Foucault; I think that Pierre Bourdieu also deserves serious consideration. Both attempt to deal honestly with power dynamics at play whenever human beings are attempting to negotiate a situation, and both are downright pessimistic about the possibilities of getting through power to the other side. Of course, they’re both lacking the Christian hope that God might have a hand in this negotiation…

  • Anastasia

    wait wait, pessimistic? Bourdieu may be, but I don’t read pessimism in Foucault. It isn’t as though he’s saying you can somehow transcend webs of power relations but I don’t think that amounts to pessimism. The fact that power is always negotiated means that you are never totally at a loss.

  • David M

    Maybe they have, but the postmodern theorists shouldn’t stop at stating that the hard sciences are spun. They should (and I thought they did) state that hard sciences are just as soft as soft sciences. Coming from the hard sciences, I can easily attest that most of what is published as “science” is so ridiculously spectulative that it should be called “fantasy that might correspond with reality.” I spent 3 years in a biology-based undergrad being scared to ever publish – most everything we ever read was shredded with vengance. “Scientists” don’t even TRY to be comprehensive anymore!I pray the postmodern turn doesn’t over-elevate the soft sciences in the vacuum left by the hard science fall. But then again, the only thing more mighty than the human endevours is the Spirit of God. Don’t know if they’re gonna go for that!

  • Jimmy

    What would drive the “problem student” conversation isn’t the chief dawg “medicine” (as the hard science in the room). What would drive that conversation today continues to be “liberal democracy” in the form of “seperation of church and state.” If we had a different national politic that gave less credence to “freedom,” the “medicals” of the group might just decide to shoot the kid up with anti-depressants, etc. whether the parent was on board or not. But they can’t because the power of the State in this country still gives a great deal of power to the citizenry, the power to even screw up their lives, or keep their lives screwed up. The only context that I have firsthand observed the “religious” representantive enjoying some degree of respect (and decision making) among other disciplines is that of the Chaplain. Even the medical establishment has recognized that religious convictions play a part in the prognosis and treatment of individuals. Having said that, once again, the “religious” would not enjoy this role if the Courts didn’t underwrite their POWER to do so. CF. Jehovah’s Witness refusal to transfuse blood; the Christian scientist refusal to accept medical treatment for their children. Even then, the State can and has intervened on children’s behalf and taken over the role of the medical decision maker.The point: there may be an academic shift in thinking about a more level playing field among the disciplines, but lets not kid ourselves to think that the pastor/theologian will enjoy real decision making power any time soon. So, back we are to Hauerwas and the very real point: we don’t have to wait for the State to bless what we do. What we do follows from who we become as we faithfully live out the scriptures. The church simply cannot wait for others to invite us to the table. When we are who we are called to be, things get down. This is not Hauerwasian tribalism or retreat. It is reality.

  • tony

    Jimmy, my friend, you’re just plain wrong about this. As both the youth pastor in the scenario and as an active police chaplain, the shift is actual and it is happening. It is not happening at the behest of some mythical “government” but instead at the behest of the people…the citizenry of a liberal democracy…a liberal democracy that, contra Hauerwas, is actually working quite well.

  • Chris Enstad

    Tony,What were the original professions? I believe clergy was one of them. What makes them one of the original? Because they were trained in and speak a specific language not necessarily that of the culture in which they work… doctor was one, lawyer the other.Part of the issue here is the desire to be seen as “relevant”. But who judges relevance? The clergy here should speak their language, the doctor may indeed “win” the scenario *in that time* but who has the truth here?I can’t help but think of Pope JPII, his words were more often than not disregarded by American culture (and it is the dying churches of the West who are so deeply enmeshed in this relevance issue), yet he spoke them into a humanity not prepared to heed or regard them. This is not a turn, in my opinion, it has happened over and over again in history. It happened on the road to Emmaus, it happened in that school office, and yet the truth is the truth. The spiritual condition of that young person may not tweak anyone’s report today, but it needs to be said so that the ears hear and the eyes see, who are we to know when the spirit will work a transformational moment? If you are always worried about power then ask yourself, Whose Power, and Whose Time?

  • Ken Archer

    Tony, your thoughtful articulation of practical theology has been so helpful for me. It seems to me that you are operating from some assumptions about epistemology which are only very recent (you’re top 11 book list gives the same indication), specifically, the anti-realist assumptions of postmodern philosophers. In my humble opinion, I think that some theologians are jumping on board way too quickly with anti-realism. Calvin Schrag, for example, has the same problem as Habermas, in that he may articulate an intersubjectivity, but it is an intersubjectivity amongst persons living in their heads, so what is really gained by being intersubjective other than agreement? The problem isn’t realism or interdisciplinarity or globalism, the problem is foundationalism and rationalism, which are tightly linked together and share the same origin in Descartes. Don’t you think it is important for pastors to know that they can speak confidently about reality? Sure, their confidence needs to be tempered with a more critical and nonfoundational realism, but if we lose confidence in our ability to present reality via language, then we lose a whole lot (discipleship, virtue and wisdom to begin with). I think that, were I the youth pastor in the meeting you describe, I would say little, but instead would encourage and affirm the others in the meeting in their commitment to the boy. Then, after the meeting, I would try to develop relationships with the participants and in that more appropriate context share my experiences and analyses of the complex reality that is the boy’s life. I think this reflects a more critical and nonfoundationalist realist approach that recognizes our ability to present reality in language but also the inherent complexity of reality, much of which is necessarily absent to anyone person.

  • Jimmy

    Oh Snaps! While I was away from school on paternity leave a very disturbed student of mine threatened to kill a teacher. The public school didn’t invite a pastor to the meeting, they just uni-politically transferred him to another school district. Funny, they didn’t even wait for me the pastor/school teacher to get back to school to weigh-in on the situation. Mind you, this is a small conservative Jesus lovin’ community I work in. Tony, my beef here is not to argue that a shift hasn’t been made in the academy, but at the end of the day, the Shaman’s treatment plan can be shut down by the Supreme Court, if it so chooses.And if that doesn’t convince you maybe this will: it is you my friend who is just plain wrong.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X