Tag Archives | postmodernism

Transforming Practice | Elaine L. Graham

The cover of Graham's Transforming PracticePostmodernity has challenged modernism in every area. Positivist views of reality are being replaced by constructivist views. Modernity’s emancipatory mission to bring humanity out of superstition is now criticized as a new totalitarianism. Industrial capitalism is giving way to design flexibility. Universalism and metanarratives are being rejected in favor of fragmentary worldviews. How can pastoral theology exist in such an age? Is it possible to ground theology in something other than traditional metanarrative?

Using Gadamer’s practice theory, Graham argues that pastoral theology can be grounded in an understanding of faithful practice. She uses Gadamer’s habitus to describe “not merely ‘rule-governed behaviour’, but symbolic, purposeful strategies with many layers of meaning” (101). Habitus accounts for both human agency and cultural conditioning.

Practice thus emerges as the process by which social relations are generated . . . as purposeful activity performed by embodied persons in time and space as both the subjects of agency and the objects of history.” (110)

Graham uses feminist criticism to show how foundationalist understandings of theology rooted in modernism do not account for the heterogeneous experience of gendered people. In the end, Graham roots her pastoral theology not in a text or a tradition, but in the habitus and orthopraxis of the faithful community. Therefore, pastoral theology is not a “legislative or prescriptive [discipline, but an] interpretive” (208) task.

Elaine Graham is flat-out brilliant. She not only articulates her own views, she brings an encyclopaedic knowledge of various ethical, sociological, philosophical, and theological fields to the task. Her interpretation of Habermas’ Critical Theory in particular was incisive without being reductive.

I do fundamentally disagree with Graham’s conclusions, however, due to ontological and epistemological differences. When Graham roots pastoral theology in a hermeneutic of the situation, she removes it from the scripture and any historic understanding of God. For Graham, “not even the canon of Scripture thus inspired is definitive for all time, . . . no text embodies the truth absolutely and finally, but is merely a blueprint for, and prefiguration of, a reality still to come” (197). While I would agree that no text can embody truth absolutely, I do believe that God has chosen to reveal himself through text-as-inspired by the Spirit. If I understand Graham correctly, the normative role of scripture is gone with modernism and “the only vocabulary available to Christian communities in articulating their truth-claims is that of pastoral practice itself” (203).

Graham’s Transforming Practice has accurately described the uncertain state of theology as it tries to reformulate itself in a postmodern context. Her use of Gadamer’s practice theory enables her to accurately and faithfully observe and interpret the community of faith. Ultimately, however, her grounding of theology exclusively in the situation is unconvincing for me. My task moving forward will be how to relate the normative influence of scripture to a hermeneutic of the situation in a way that is dialogical and fruitful.


Graham, Elaine L. Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1996.

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