Book Report: Elaine Graham's Transforming Practice: Pastoral

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[. . .] Graham also employs three criteria to assess transforming practice: transforming practice must contribute to liberation praxis; transforming practice must give special priority to and make space for women's experience and leadership; norms for transforming practice must emerge reflexively out of particular, local practices embodying new patterns of gender. Transforming practice must contribute to liberation praxis because, though this does not provide specific norms to guide particular actions, it does give guidance about the basic intent of transforming practice. Such practice contributes to the struggle both inside and outside the church to liberate people from social and economic oppression. Good practice is liberating. Transforming practice must give special priority to and make space for women's experience and leadership in an effort to form new practices of gender identity, relationships, and roles. Finally, since the diversity of women's experience makes it impossible to posit a single norm for all transforming practice, such norms must emerge reflexively out of particular, local practices that embody new patterns of gender in a specific Christian community. Transforming practice opens up a space for conversation in which people reflect on the values and meanings that are emerging out of their experience.

In Graham's approach, transforming practice is pivotal. It is the generative source of new knowledge, values, and social patterns. She offers three criteria with which to guide and assess transforming practice in the church: transforming practice must contribute to human liberation as an expression of the Christian commitment to freedom and love; transforming practice must attend to women's experience without "essentializing" this experience; transforming practice must support the reflexive consolidation of practical wisdom emerging out of practice, within a commitment to "alterity" or variability.

Throughout her book, Graham recognizes the importance of traditionally powerless groups, including but not limited to women, and honors the diversity of their experience within the Bible, the Christian story, and Christian tradition. As such, she stresses the importance of communal discernment of performative truth claims, giving special attention to women's experience in their particular situations as her main sources of justification over tradition, reason, and scripture. Graham accomplishes this by using an interdisciplinary method by further developing the work of Empirical Theologian, Don Browning, and by European sociologists, Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu. Graham advances Browning's emphasis on practical theology as a public endeavor that integrates theory with practice and benefits from the contributions of all individuals within the faith community. She also follows Anthony Giddens' emphasis of a new social movement transforming "life politics" through self-reflexive biography and gender equality, resulting in conflict resolution and pastoral practices created through open social discourse among all groups rather than traditional authority. Finally, Graham espouses Bourdieu's rejection of the intellectual prophet, rejection of traditional hierarchy's establishment of "right" communications and passionate activism for the traditionally powerless.

Concerning the issue of the theory-praxis relationship, Graham claims the particularity of both the theory of divine and human action and the situation where they are related, acknowledging that a theory is built upon some generalizations and noting the need for contextualization. Graham espouses working at the "metatheoretical level" creating ways to guide the development of a theory of practice that takes seriously the diversity of people and the importance of particularity in pastoral ministry. Graham follows the lead of liberation theology and feminist theology in developing her approach to practical theology.

To consider theological rationale, Graham claims that God's presence is found in specific and concrete situations. In other words, God works "incarnationally" in the particular and in the concrete. This means not only that the particular groups of women will have different experiences but that all experiences will be distinct. It also means that our incarnational God discloses Godself to us through our real-life issues, common experience, and practice.

2. Critical Evaluation

a. Graham's Interdisciplinary Method

Graham develops her approach of transforming practice using an interdisciplinary method following Don Browning and entering into a dialogue with two European sociologists, Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu. Following in Browning's, Giddens' and Bourdieu's footsteps, Graham developed an elaborate critique of ways in which gender theories within human sciences such as sociology may transform theology and pastoral practice. In doing so, Graham penned two works: Making the Difference: Gender, Personhood and Theology (1995) and Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty (1996: reissued in 2002 by Wipf and Stock). Though Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty is her more famous work, the two books reportedly comprise her doctoral thesis and the heart of her study.

Graham's interdisciplinary method involves more than the theories of Browning, Giddens and Bourdieu. Commencing with her "Anatomy of Uncertainty," Graham traces the historical sources of our currently ambivalent world. Beginning with the Traditional perspective that is built on patriarchal Scripture and hierarchy, Graham is faced with the traditionally male-centered Church that devalues and dismisses the language and experiences of oppressed groups, including but not limited to women. Graham criticizes the supposed "unimpeachability…of identifying the 'Christian tradition' as definitively binding on contemporary practice" (Graham 1996, 118). From the Traditional, oppressive, exclusionary worldview, Graham moves to Postmodernism. Welcoming Postmodernism's dissolution of many political, philosophical and scientific panaceas and oppressions, Graham deems Postmodernism as innocence lost rather than value annihilation. For Graham, Postmodernism, with its pluralism, fragmentation and skepticism, makes it possible to pursue theological reflection and concomitant action by inhabiting traditionally binding values without the unnecessary constraints of false "certainties." Along with Postmodernism, Graham appreciates Liberation Theology and its "hermeneutic of suspicion" that helped engender a theological shift from theory to praxis or "theology in action." For Graham, issues of social justice within society and the Church are significantly importance. If Liberation Theology is significantly important for Graham, then Feminist Theology is absolutely vital. For Graham, transparency and efficacy cannot be achieved without the feminine perspective and dialogue of individual women, focusing on personalized social and political aspects of care and a liberationist focus on the impoverished and oppressed (Graham 1996, 51, 136). Finally, all these historical perspectives are threaded together through the "needle eye" of Pastoral Theology. Tracing Pastoral Theology from the Traditional worldview and altered by Postmodernism, Empirical Thought, Liberation Theology and Feminist Theology, Pastoral work is transformed from male-centered, clergy-centered work in which the faith community remains on the periphery to a community-centered and constantly evolving ministry with a uniquely feminist perspective.

In reviewing all these historical and theological phenomena, Graham employs a Postmodern flexibility that celebrates, advances and employs the Empirical theories of Browning, Giddens and Bourdieu. The interdisciplinary method employed by Graham is certainly impressive, at least in the eminence of her sources. At the time of Don Browning's death, he was the Alexander Campbell Professor Emeritus of Ethics and the Social Sciences in the Divinity School. Receiving his BD (1959), AM (1962) and PhD (1964) from the University of Chicago Divinity School as a Disciples Divinity House Scholar, Browning was and is deemed one of the world's most prominent divinity scholars. His forays into the interrelatedness of psychology, sociology, morality, law, and theology were trailblazing and his emphasis on practical theology as public endeavor by integrating religious theory with practice are prominent in Graham's book. Developing Browning's theories using a Postmodern and feminist perspective, Graham argues that focus on the faith community's practices can create a feminist pastoral theology accepting the situated nature of knowledge, the internal and external diversity and fragmentation affecting the faith community and the diversity that is often ignored by traditional theology. For Graham, following Browning, practice is the crux of the Gospel (Graham 1996, 112-141). Anthony Giddens is an equally impressive interdisciplinary source for Graham's analysis. Known as the most prolific sociological writer of all time, Giddens believes that the importance of the self's reflexive biography and changes in gender relations may be in the forefront of a "democratization of democracy" in which conflicts are resolved and practices are created through social discourse among all groups rather than traditional authority or violence. Gidden's theories are certainly conspicuous in Graham's book, as Graham specifically states that the feminine/feminist perspective is irreplaceable. Following Gidden's theories,

Graham criticizes the traditional perspective of pastoral theology, and shifts the focus away from male-centered agents and language toward less structured settings, alternative communities of faith and the female's spoken experience. While Graham does not negate pastoral counseling, she relies on a feminist reconstruction using community, sacrament, prayer and sermon as sources for individual healing and community healing. Again following Giddens, Graham uses the feminist perspective of individual care and a diverse, complex array of pastoral sources and practices (Graham 1996, 48). Finally, Graham also employs the theories of Pierre Bourdieu. Considered a prominent intellectual in France, Bourdieu believed that self-identity is "reflexive"- an individual's account of his/her own life -- and that theories must be evaluated against empirical data gathered… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Elaine Graham's Transforming Practice: Pastoral."  Essaytown.com.  June 26, 2012.  Accessed March 19, 2019.
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