The New Christians

The New Christians


What Is Practical Theology? Part Six

posted by Tony Jones

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.)



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