Regulating the Empirical in Practical Theology

On Critical Realism, Divine Action, and the Place of the Ministerial

in Journal of Youth and Theology
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Through the exploration of youth ministry scholarship this article explores the empirical movement in practical theology. The article argues that while the empirical turn has helped practical theology better attend to the lived and concrete experience of human beings, it has also made the theological more difficult. Therefore, the first part of the article reminds the reader of how the empirical method brings distinct, and at times foreign, epistemologies into contact with the theological task. Reviewing this point, this article draws it deeper by turning to Charles Taylor, showing how the empirical methods obscure transcendence in favor of immanence. The article then constructs an approach to the empirical that might open the field to transcendence and avoid reduction. It argues for ministry itself being the motivation and shape of empirical work in practical theology, showing how ministry mediates divine action, while upholding the importance and particularities of human action.

Regulating the Empirical in Practical Theology

On Critical Realism, Divine Action, and the Place of the Ministerial

in Journal of Youth and Theology



CameronHelen; DuceCathrine. Researching Practice in Ministry and Mission. London: SCM Press2013.

HallDouglas John. Thinking the Faith. Minneapolis: Fortress Press1991.

HartDavid Bentley. The Experience of God: Being Consciousness Bliss . New Haven: Yale University Press2013.

JungelEberhard. God’s Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans2001.

SayerAndrew. Realism and Social Science. Los Angeles: Sage2000.

SmithChristian. What is a Person? Chicago: University of Chicago2010.

SmithJames K.A. How (Not) To Be Secular. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans2014.

SwintonJohn; MowatHarriet. Practical Theology and Qualitative Research. London: SCM Press2006.

TaylorCharles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press2007.


HartThe Experience of God p. 71.


Smith reminds us“As I have said above, social science generally wants to move beyond simple description to causal explanation. That is a legitimate aspiration. But it can only do us good to acknowledge that variables analysis is particularly limited in its ability to explain.” What is a Person? p. 305.


Smith says boldly“We have to stop prioritizing epistemology over ontology. And we have to stop equating reality with the empirical. We need to become critical realists. If we want to understand reality as it is, therefore, we have to understand and sustain a variety of conceptually helpful distinctions that uphold differentiations in and multiple levels of the real. To be specific, in our theorizing of brute facts we have to sustain things like objective epistemic judgments, objective ontological existents, and intrinsic features of reality. Without those we either give way to total relativism or intellectually compromise ourselves through ontological gerrymandering and fudging.” What is a Person?p. 153.


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