by George Bailey.
Last week I was thinking about the epistemological frameworks which underlie practical research into the life of the church and Christian faith. This was informed amongst other things by reading Andrew Root’s book Christopraxis: a Practical Theology of the Cross (2014) – a theological methodology for practical theology based initially on Root’s research in youth ministry. At the weekend, I then took a group of young people to the Methodist Church’s children and youth assembly, 3Generate…
Root is one amongst several theologians arguing for a theological critique of the social constructionism which is dominant in the social sciences, prevalent in popular culture, and which can make a significant difference to several theological fields. The basic idea of social constructionism is that all knowledge is socially constructed. At one level this makes a lot of sense – we learn a shared language and associated understanding through social relationships. However, what does this mean for a faith perspective? How far does the theory go – are we unable to know any thing real? Can we only know our socially constructed version of reality? This could leave us in an infinite regress like a painter painting a picture of themselves painting a picture of themselves – in every painting within the painting there is an easel upon which you can see another picture of the painter and the easel. Is the only knowledge we can hold about God, ourselves and the world in some way socially constructed and not necessarily related to any actual reality?
Critical realism is an alternative framework with foundations in the natural sciences. For any science, in the broad meaning of that term – the deliberate human effort to know about reality – strong social constructionism is a problem because it can remove any concept of objective reality; all there is to know about are human attempts to talk about knowledge. Both the natural sciences and theology (the human effort to know about and talk about God) might need to argue for the existence of reality outside of our socially constructed knowing and for the recognition of a way that this reality interacts with our experience. Reality is really there and really knowable, but as soon as it interacts with our social constructions (that is, as soon as we experience it, and therefore interpret it, and so can think and talk about it) it is filtered through social constructions which always need to be critically analysed – hence ‘critical realism’. For Christian faith, this helpfully encompasses the way that although we live within socially constructed ways of understanding God, the world and ourselves, God is also a reality entirely outside of us and of our knowledge, and God can break into that social construction – we can experience God, and this is a new voice in our social construction which interacts with and develops our knowledge. How we interpret this experience is variable and sometimes conflicted, but it is nevertheless potentially a real experience of a real God which has a causal effect on our knowledge and action.
Root is keen to maintain as well that this experience of God is both individually interacted with and also communally the subject of social interpretation and knowledge formation. To reduce this only to individual subjective experience risks the extremes of some evangelical theologies which resist communal hermeneutic analysis. To only consider communal interpretation risks a move too far towards strong social constructionism akin to some liberal or post-liberal theologies which resist the possibility of direct experience of God affecting our understanding.
With this recent reading of Root’s version of critical realism in my mind, I arrived at 3Generate. Here the social construction of Christian faith is very apparent, and an analysis of that social construction is an inherent part of the ministry practiced by the organisers and youth group leaders. A large Christian youth event includes within it the desire of the faith community to help its young people inhabit the same conceptual space as the church. The language of faith and Christian discipleship is to be handed on carefully; yet what version of this socially constructed faith is to be shared? To what extent are the young people to be introduced not just into the broad terms of the communal language of faith but also to the tensions and conflicts that exist within that broad community? A further question is being negotiated within the event as to what extent the young people might receive the tradition of the Christian community, and to what extent can they by joining the community also shape and change it?
To stop there though could leave the youth event functioning within a purely social constructionist view of reality. The theme of 3Generate this year has been ‘In Tune’: how are we in tune with God? A critical realist epistemology is necessary to allow this expectation that young people (and old!) can have subjective experience of God which co-exists within a reasonable, and I would argue necessary, degree of social constructionist analysis. These issues are usually (hopefully) present in any local church’s life of worship, discipleship, mission and fellowship, but they can also often be left unspoken or lie hidden under the accepted way that things operate. As young people at 3Generate actively debate the way that they can experience God, and also how their voice might be formed and heard by the rest of the church, for me it is very clear that we all need to work harder at analysing our social constructions of knowledge, our subjective experiences of God, and how they are brought together in a critical realist epistemological framework to form a coherent and developing account of Christian faith.