Ecclesiology & Ethnography - US Conference 2012 Reflections

Twenty-four hours after we closed the Ecclesiology and Ethnography Conference at Luther Seminary, here’s is what I’m left with:

Mostly questions.  Of course, often questions can be more generative than answers.  As my high-school history teacher, Lowell Hagan, taught me: the kinds of questions you ask determine the kinds of answers you can get.

Among the questions, this first one was particularly poignant for me at this stage in my work:

What has been the method implied in my practical theological projects to date…and what method do I intend to use in my future work?

In other words, the conference compelled me to be more reflective and intentional about the methods evident in my theologizing.  As a practical theologians, we share the basic assumption of the Ecclesiology and Ethnography proposal that the social sciences have a place in the work of theology.  Pete Ward, who edited the book whose release was timed with this conference, Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography, summarizes its proposal as the conviction that understanding the church requires viewing it as simultaneously a theological and social/cultural entity and that as a result both qualitative and theological methods will be needed.  More precisely, the proposal asserts that instead of using both varieties of method sequentially, the research needs to be simultaneously theological and “ethnographic.”
This is a challenge to some over-simplified versions of practical theology that isolate the descriptive and interpretive moments from the normative (theological) one.  Candidly, I think most of my work to date could be accused of operating within this simplified paradigm.  As a result of the EccEth conversations, I’m going to have to be more deliberate and explicit about how the descriptive and interpretive moments are, themselves, theologically shaped.  The truth is, even when we try to bracket theology out of this descriptive work, it is there anyway.  Methods, as John Swinton notes “are carried out within a particular set of methodological assumptions…about the the way the world is and how people should function within it…an implicit or explicit theological position (Perspectives 77-78).

Don Browning, a key figure in the redevelopment of practical theology, framed the descriptive task as a theological one:

"Descriptive theology can use all the human and social sciences; their special explanatory foci can add power to the insights of descriptive theology. But descriptive theology uses these special foci with an explicit and critically grounded theological horizon." (Fundamental Practical Theology 112).

In many ways, the ecclesiology and ethnography conversation is returning to the questions of interdisciplinary method that practical and pastoral theology have been debating for decades.  But rather than merely rehashing old arguments, this network brings a key insight and narrowed focus.  The key insight is the one I already mentioned above.  That is, we need to admit that our work is not a linear practice-theory-practice movement (another oft-simplified concept) but that theory is there at the start too.  (Again, this is something Browning articulated, which his notion of theory-laden practices).  This insight invites theologians to be purposeful about how their descriptive and interpretive work is also theological.

The narrowed focus is also a promising turn in this conversation.  Rather than discussing broadly the relation of theology and the social sciences, this conversation centers around subsets of both categories: ecclesiology and “ethnography” (broadly conceived as qualitative methods).  Maintaining this narrowed focus, I think, is important, and something our conference strayed from somewhat by often substituting ecclesiology with theology generally, and including mixed methods approaches rather than strictly qualitative ones (which are already quite an extension of “ethnography” as it is generally understood within the social sciences.)

My own interest is in practical ecclesiology (ie. drawing on both qualitative and quantitative methods) so I personally welcomed that extension, but it seems to me that when the EccEth conversation expands either or both foci it risks repeating well-worn discussions and sacrificing the opportunity to make a critical contribution.

All that to say, the conference and the conversation is going to make me as a practical theologian more intentional about my theological method, and as someone particularly interested in ecclesiology, I hope this conversation can hold that focal point in its agenda.

A second question also came up for me:

Which are we more interested in: ecclesiological ethnography or ethnographic ecclesiology? 

That is, which is the noun and which is the adjective?  Are we trying to produce ethnographically-informed normative doctrine of the church…or theologically-informed description of the church? I don’t think there was a real clarity on this, despite the fact that the participants were overwhelmingly theologians of some sort by training.  Tony Jones, of emergent church fame and a recently minted PhD in Practical Theology from Princeton Seminary, made clear that his dissertation/book intended to do both.  The division isn’t as neat and tidy as my question suggests since both doctrine and description intend to say something about reality.  Both hope to present the church as it actually is (even though there was debate related to this kind of realism vis-à-vis social construcitonism.) 

A third and final question: What might it mean to “think with the church?”

The phrase “thinking with the church” comes from Ignatius of Loyola and he go so far as to say that “we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it.”  Clearly, this way of thinking with the church would place normative theology in a position of negating the perspectives which social sciences could offer.   But I still like that phrase—thinking with the church—for a few reasons.  First, “church” could be substituted with either “the tradition” or “the concrete congregation.”  Second, because while “with” can imply all kinds of different relationships (including “in harmony with”) it tends to connote a sense of solidarity and companionship which I think is a helpful way for us to view the right kind of  relationship that theologians ought to have with both the tradition and actual congregations.

Third, in the phrase and the passage it comes from, Ignatius is reminding us of something important: our current frames of reference are both adjustable and fallible.  Thus his indication that if it looks white to me, but the church says it is black, I shall treat it as if it is black.  For Ignatius, this was a simple extension of his obedience to a church that he took to be the Spirit-led and thus authoritative voice of truth.  My point is,  that both what we believe and how we choose to act with reference to these matter; there is a clear role for perspectival choice and this is something theologians need to take seriously.  We need to be both aware of and candid about the choices we are making because what we have chosen will shape what we (are able to) see.

What happens when one accepts as truth lofty ecclesiological doctrines and then goes to do qualitative research in a congregation?  Will their faith in the doctrines be shattered, such that they’ll feel a need to invoke a strict division between the concrete congregations and the church to which theology refers?  Will they, in view of the dissonance reject or modify the theological claims they began with?  Or, on the other hand, might their theological starting point enable them to see something in the concrete reality through research that the “objective” researcher would miss—or even consistently deny?  I, at least, hold out a hope for the later, though I have to make two acknowledgements.  First, the former scenario has and does happen with some frequency is not difficult to demonstrate.   Second, there is certainly the possibility in the second scenario that the “seeing” is nothing other than a delusion produced by conviction.  Cases of this are also available, and often its occasions bear tragic results.  As weighty as these two acknowledgments are, I do believe that one of the functions of doctrinal theology (and spiritual practices by which one comes to more deeply believe and experience it as true) is to make visible in the ordinary world that which ordinary eyes—even those of well-trained social scientists—will never see.  I suppose, here, I am also suggesting that it is not merely a researchers theology which shapes qualitative research but perhaps even more importantly spirituality (this is something which John Swinton alludes to in the volume as well).

1 comment:

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