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Excerpts from Rollin Grams' Rival Versions of Theological Enquiry, Chapter 5 (Part 3)

This is the third post presenting material from my (Rollin Grams') Chapter Five: Rival Versions of Enquiry into the Pragmatic Task of Theology' in Rival Versions of Theological Enquiry (Prague: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2005).  One subsequent post will continue material from this chapter.

IV. 'Theological Reflection' and the Pragmatic Task

‘Theological reflection’ is a phrase used by various scholars for the movement in theology that affirms beginning with practice and experience.  The word 'reflection' has come into common parlance in theological circles: 'Biblical reflection,' 'theological reflection,' 'reflective practice.'  Behind this term is a hermeneutical position: that enquiry can be thought of as reflection rather than, e.g., interpretation of texts, rational argument, application of a system of belief, and so forth.  Robert Kinast has explored ‘theological reflection’ as a way of doing theology in five ‘styles’: ministerial, Christian life, feminist theology, missiology, and practical theology.[1]  He examines each of these according to the type of experience that is in focus, how this experience is correlated with the faith tradition, and what sort of practice is in view.

Each of these styles of theological reflection begin with practice.  Their tendency is therefore to deconstruct theology (at least theology constructed on other, even canonical, grounds), although different theologians will give more or less emphasis to traditional authority in theological reflection.

The same concerns (suspicion of rationalism, appreciation of the community's authoritative role, understanding of the dynamics of belief as cultural, web-like, and contextual) may be addressed in a tradition enquiry approach to the tasks of theology, without the deconstructive agenda of theological reflection that is to some extent inherent in beginning with practice.  It may also begin enquiry with observations on experience of one sort or another.  But it will, in the process of theological enquiry, place them within the framework of the tradition and subordinate them to the authority of Scripture and the theological tradition.  Theological interpretation, not reflection, is therefore the right way to understand theology in a tradition.  However, as I will argue below, practices may also be construed as one important dimension of a tradition—a point Don Browning also makes in the fourth example of the appendix.

Not only should the priority of practice and the understanding of practice in terms of experience instead of the practices of a community and tradition be questioned, but also Kinast’s understanding of theological reflection as correlation (note the third column in the tables in the appendix).  ‘Correlation’ is not a neutral way of expressing the matter.  It is a method various scholars (such as David Tracy) have used, following Paul Tillich.  The process of correlation requires examining the Christian answer in relation to all other answers, which in turn requires seeking answers not only in the tradition but also in the contemporary situation.  These answers from the situation and the tradition are then, somehow, correlated.

David Tracy suggests theological enquiry should be done within three publics: society (technoeconomic structure, polity, culture), the academy (following the rules of all the academic disciplines), and the church.  These three publics produce three types of theology: practical (for the society), fundamental (for the academy), and systematic (for the church).[2]  Methodologically, this is similar to R. Schreiter’s four forms of local theology.  Yet one of the fundamental questions for correlational theologising and beginning from experience is whether or not the meaning of experience is constructed from one’s interpretive framework (theological convictions, community), as G. Lindbeck has argued.[3]  Perhaps, as Lindbeck avers, the very capacity to have certain experiences and to understand them depend on one’s cultural-linguistic framework (a framework that must include conversion, a Bible-based theological enquiry, and the indwelling Spirit of God, to expand Lindbeck in important ways but consistent with his overall point).

For James D. Whitehead and Eveylyn Eaton Whitehead,[4] the focus of theological reflection is on church ministry, and they seek not a theological opinion about the cases or experiences of ministry but a pastoral response to them. Experience may confirm, clarify or challenge the theological tradition just as the latter does experience.  The Bible provides analogies in paradigms, images, themes, or historical precedents that correspond to the present situation.  The authority these have is as testimony to how God’s people have experienced God and responded to Him (12).  A pastoral response is called for.  This is more than forming a theological opinion.  It is also trying to build consensus about a course of action, forming a plan, working on motivation, and being sure that the action flows from the theological reflection (requiring skills in co-ordination and logic).

Kinast also discusses Thomas Groome's theological reflection for Christian education.[5]  For Groome, the focus for theological reflection is life experience, in which the drive to become fully human ('conation') is addressed.  A conative pedagogy strives to engage people in their (5 goals): self-identity (corporeal, mental, volitional), socio-political setting, community’s historical, Christian tradition, striving for self-transcendence, and making decisions that make their Christian faith a ‘living’ faith.  Theological reflection involves a focusing activity (chosen by the educator--a Bible reading, a field trip) and an identification of a generative theme.  The focusing activity may be symbolic (biography), a shared concern (parents for children), overtly religious (sacramental worship), or broadly human (care for the elderly).  Assumptions in Groome's approach are that God is actively revealing Himself in the everyday life of people and that ‘people are agent-subjects within events of God’s self-disclosure and can actively encounter and recognize God’s revelation in their own historicity through reflection on their present action in the world.'[6]  People appropriate God’s revelation in Jesus through their own contemporary experience.

The process of theological reflection involves the following five steps for Groome.  Participants in the focusing activity name the generative theme (e.g., reconciliation).  They then reflect critically on their experience of the generative theme by attending to (a) past developments of the theme; (b) present assumptions, prejudices, interests and values; and future possible developments if present practice continues.  Third, they make the Christian story and vision accessible to participation in the variety of past embodiments of the story and vision in Scripture and tradition.  Fourth, they engage in a dialectical hermeneutic of participants’ own stories and the Christian story and vision.  Finally, they decide how to live the Christian faith in the world.  Through this process, people see that revelation occurs as much in deeds as in words, and there is a cyclical relationship as both of these enhance the revelation of God for the other.

Among the other examples Kinast discusses (and Robert Schreiter will be discussed later), Don S. Browning's 'descriptive theology' for practical theology will be noted.[7]  Descriptive theology entails the following:

                    Vision: a community’s theological horizon (God, creation, sin, grace, redemption, salvation). 
                                  This makes metaphysical claims.
                    Obligations: flowing from vision, these are practical-moral implications for living what is
                                  professed.  This makes ethical/rightness claims.
                    Tendencies-needs: human impulses for food, shelter, security, relationships, self-esteem, etc.
                    Environmental-social setting: This setting shapes the 'community’s vision, obligation and
                                  tendencies-needs by determining the constraints on an otherwise idealistic picture.'[8]
                    Rules-roles: These spell ‘out who acts, in what circumstances, with what authority and by
                                  what means.  There may be discrepancies between what is said and what is true.'[9]

This thick description becomes Christian practical theology when it is applied to a particular faith community.  After this thick description of the community, what is found can be compared to the community’s normative texts (Biblical teachings, confessional statements, doctrinal positions, community traditions).  The expectation is that current practice and normative Christian texts sharpened by historical theology can be fused together within a new horizon of meaning.  On Browning's approach, Kinast comments that his method is

not the application of theological convictions to concrete situations as they arise.  The practical concern has been operative throughout the process--in the description of the situation, in the analysis of historical, normative texts and in the fusion of horizons of meaning.  Strategic practical theology is the intentional implementation of what practical theological reflection has been working toward all along.[10]

These approaches to theology as theological reflection share a starting point in practice and experience, which remain in view and carry authoritative weight in any engagement of other theological tasks.  In the next section, this perspective will be discussed with respect to mission theology as the three rival versions of enquiry are compared and contrasted.

[1] Robert L. Kinast, What Are they Saying About Theological Reflection? (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000).
[2] Cf. Terrence W. Tilley and John Edwards’ discussion of David Tracy in Postmodern Theologies, ed. T. Tilley (cf. p. 31).  References are to Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology (1951) and David Tracy’s * (1981).
[3] George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine.  The following quotation gets to the heart of the matter: ‘Similarly, … to become religious involves becoming skilled in the language, the symbol system of a given religion.  To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.  A religion is above all an external world, a verbum externum, that molds and shapes the self and its world, rather than an expression or thematization of a preexisting self or of preconceptual experience’ (p. 34).
[4] James D. Whitehead and Eveylyn Eaton Whitehead, Method in Ministry: Theological Reflection and Christian Ministry (Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward), 1995).
[5] Thomas Groome, Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980) and Groome’s Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991).  He also discusses theological reflection for education with reference to Patricia O’Connell Killen and John de Beer, The Art of Theological Reflection (New York: Crossroad, 1994).
[6] Robert Kinast, What Are They Saying About Theological Reflection, p. 18 on Thomas Groome.
[7] Don S. Browning, particularly in his A Fundamental Practical Theology: Descriptive and Strategic Proposals (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991).
[8] Robert Kinast, What Are They Saying About Theological Reflection?, p. 55.
[9] Robert Kinast, What Are They Saying About Theological Reflection?, p. 56.
[10] Robert Kinast, What Are They Saying About Theological Reflection?, p. 58.