Critical Realism at 3Generate

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.

16 thoughts on “Critical Realism at 3Generate”

  1. George, just tell the kids about Jesus and his love. They will thank you for it one day.
    Oh, and you might remind them that Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to get a degree in theology and put the world to rights; he told them to love God and love each other.
    It really is that simple!


  2. A survey in the USA found that 75% of young Christians who went to university stopped attending church. One wrote, “I tired of trying to hammer the square pegs of information about the real world into the neat round holes of the traditional beliefs I’d been taught in church.” I wonder what the statistics are for young Christians in the UK. Church attendance figures suggest that many give up on church long before they reach university. If they want to join certain Christian societies at university, they will be told that they are not welcome as members unless they sign up to a list of traditional beliefs. Creative thinking isn’t welcome within those groups and critical realism is taboo! A Conservative Evangelical I know left the Christian Union and joined Methsoc, “because at least you can have a proper discussion in Methsoc; everyone in the C.U. has to have the approved opinion on each subject.”

    Scott Peck, a psychologist and writer of several books on spiritual development, was very critical of the church’s attitude to a questioning faith: ‘One of the two greatest sins of our sinful Christian church has been its discouragement, through the ages, of doubt. In doing so, it has consistently driven growing people out of its community.’ If we are insistent that young people, and older folks too, accept the faith unquestioningly from the previous generation, we are giving them a second-hand faith. One of the great challenges for the church is how to help its members to progress from a stage of dependent faith to individual spiritual self-reliance, where they can explore their personal relationship to God in terms which are appropriate to their social and educational background, their personality and their stage of spiritual growth.

    In their study of church leaving and returning, Philip Richter and Leslie Francis found that a third of young people who left the church saw the teaching as ‘too simplified and unchallenging’ and a high proportion of older leavers felt that the church was ‘no longer allowing them to grow spiritually.’ How many churches make provision for those ready to move to a different stage of faith? How many churches run apologetics courses which allow people to come to their own conclusions rather than telling them what to think? In many cases, individuals who can no longer accept traditional doctrines will have to undertake a personal search for truth, either at the margins of the church or outside it. At a time when they particularly need the support of the church, they may find that leaving the security of traditional beliefs also means losing a sense of belonging and of community. How can a Non-Conformist church prize so highly those who conform to traditional thinking and neglect so readily those whose developing faith takes them outside the mould?!


  3. George. You question the assumption that the only knowledge we can hold about God, ourselves and the world in some way socially constructed and therefore not necessarily related to any actual reality. I would argue that the only knowledge we can hold about God, ourselves and the world is invariably socially constructed. If that were not the case then we would have two versions of reality and this is otherworldliness. I agree it is a tempting idea to see ourselves as individuals who have a view from nowhere from which we can survey the world, god-like, having power over what is out there and presumably other people. But I suggest we are deeply embedded within our particular culture and society, and that we actually create our sense of self through relationship with others. God, self, and our socially constructed world are interrelated. God is Love and we find God as we relate to others, responding to each other’s need. Some would argue that this is social construction, I would call this my Christian faith.


    1. Robert, Moses was a murderer on the run and Saul was a persecutor of Christians when they encountered God. If you think we can only find God when we relate in love to others, are you saying that all the desert fathers and hermit monks were deluded? And why did Jesus say ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart’ is the greatest commandment? Adam and Eve (literally or figuratively!) loved each other but still turned away from God. Presumably even Satan worshippers and other evil cults love and serve each other.


  4. Yvonne.
    Yes! Desert fathers and hermit monks did not retreat so they could pray for the state of their soul, but for their people.


    1. But can’t we pray for the state of our souls AND for other people? Isn’t that the difference between prayers of petition and prayers of intercession?
      I am not being argumentative for the sake of it, Robert. I really don’t like conflict! But you seem to be saying that we can only find God by loving each other. Now, I know you like to think that your version of the Christian faith is all-inclusive, but if we can only know God when we are being a being a goody two-shoes, surely that excludes most of the people most of the time? It is a human trait to be selfish. If it were not so, we would not need God at all.


  5. Robert, I don’t need reminding of 1 Corinthians 13; it is one of the best known passages in the whole of Scripture. However, I believe the perfect love it describes is God’s love for us sinners. Sadly, human love is both conditional and limited. I think perhaps you are confusing God with human kindness. And I can’t believe you are actually quoting the Bible after all you’ve said about it, but it shows you’re making progress! I live in hope 😉


  6. George. I feel there is something important here! You, Pavel and now Ed Mackenzie are asking questions about faith in terms of contextuality, universalism, individualism, social construction etc. What really fascinates and encourages me is the fact that we are actually asking questions about what faith means rather than justifying a particular view. Presumably this reflects the move from stage 3 to stages 4, 5 and 6 In James Fowler’s Stages of Faith – the move from a faith based on conformity to a questioning faith. This will also apply to discipleship in that what we actually do is a response to our faith. The implication of this is that I see the human condition as a progression from self-obsessed hedonism to other-obsessed altruism, rather than hold the judgmental, loveless, negative view that we are sinners who might one day repent. Actually it is pretty obvious that most of us have a questioning faith, otherwise what would be the point of theology?


    1. I should think most Christians don’t have a problem with a questioning faith, Robert.
      The problem is with those who think they know all the answers.
      Personally, I would rather accept the established creeds and doctrines of the Church Fathers than the arrogant opinions of the know-alls in the pews!


      1. I do not think I know all the answers. Mine is a questioning faith. As for the idea that I am an arrogant know-all in the pews is it not worth asking yourself why I am asking questions?


  7. You’re being a bit over-sensitive, Robert. Did I name you specifically?
    The point I am making is either we adhere to the wisdom of the early Church Fathers, or we just throw it open for anyone who thinks they know better to thrash it out between themselves.
    I’m sticking with Tertullian and Irenaeus. Their wisdom has endured for two thousand years; if their ship is going down I’m going down with it!

    ‘Thine be the glory,
    Risen conquering Son,
    Endless is the victory
    Thou o’er death hast won.’


  8. Tertullian came up with the bizarre notion that women brought evil into the world! There are some churches, especially Catholic and C of E, where women are treated as second class Christians, and even second class human beings! One of the glorious things about Methodism is that women have an equal right to speak from the pulpit. So I am not impressed by the wisdom of the Church Fathers who presumably read in the Gospel’s about Jesus’ inclusive attitude to women – and ignored it.


    1. Tertullian was a product of his age and culture, just as we all are. I’m sure some of his opinions were questionable but his doctrine of the Trinity is still accepted by millions of Christians the world over.
      As a woman in the Catholic Church, I feel awash with the grace and mercy of God the Father, the unconditional love of Jesus the Son, and the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit. I don’t have a problem with male hierarchy. I love and pray for Pope Francis, all the cardinals, bishops and priests, and especially our own priest, Fr Michael, who leads us with love and compassion in the ways of God.

      ‘I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’ Amen


      1. I am delighted that you have found a spiritual home that is offering you peace, wholeness, well-being and harmony. Shalom usually finds us when we focus on working with God to bring peace and blessing to others.


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