Imagining The Normative Task of Practical Theology

What is "the normative"?

In practical theology, as it is broadly described (especially by Richard Osmer), there are four tasks which relate to one another in something like a hermeneutical circle. The four tasks can be approached differently at different times in different orders by different theologians, but what basically constitute the work of the practical theologian are the tasks of

1) Description - "what is the situation?"
2) Interpretation - "why is the situation happening?"
3) Normative - "in light of God's action and God's ministry, what ought to be happening?"
4) Pragmatic - "what do we do now?"

This is really basic, but this is at least a skeleton of what we call practical theology.

Significant time needs to be committed to each of these tasks... not only in engaging in them, but in explaining them. What does it really mean to "describe" a situation and to "interpret" it? What are our sources for constructing normative claims? Can or should you presume to "describe" without "interpreting" or presupposing various norms and strategies? Can we separate these tasks from each other at all?

I highly recommend Richard Osmer's Practical Theology: An Introduction if you wanna put some more thought into these things.

But, if you're still tracking with this post, I wanna think out loud a little about the normative task of practical theology. It's particularly this task, I think, that presents the greatest challenge... not so much even in its execution but in its conception. In terms of understanding just what it is we are doing, I think the normative task is the most illusive.

We're supposed to be asking "what ought to be happening?" with a special eye (since we're theologians, after all) toward God's presence or absence in the situation. I like that Andrew Root
adds a caveat:
“…it may be better to see Osmer’s normative question, what ought to be happening? not solely in an ethical frame, but also in a revelatory one, that is, asking, what ought to be happening (what ways should we perceive of reality, ourselves, the church, our practice, and conceptions of God) now that God has encountered us?” (Andrew Root, Christopraxis, 26)
We're not just asking about an "ideal" or about some objective truth (indeed, Root's critical realist framework doesn't allow for such simplistic categories... see Christopraxis for more on critical realism). But we are asking "ontological" questions. We're asking questions not only of the circumstances and contributing factors regarding experience (i.e. descriptive and interpretive questions) but we're trying to get at the object of experience. If practical theology centers on human experience, in my view, it does so in order to center on God's action. We're not just talking about human experience, we're talking about human experience of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That's what makes us theologians and not sociologists of religion. And we're talking about the ways in which humanity encounters God in "practical" lived experience. We're not just talking about what ought to happen under the rubric of moral norms. That's what makes us practical theologians and not theological ethicists.

We get in real trouble when the normative task takes a moralistic or programmatic/pragmatic vantage point (rather than a theological one). When our "ought" questions have their eye turned fundamentally toward "what we should do" and not foremost toward how God is acting, then we tend to leave things out and construct ideals, even hegemonic ideals. The normative becomes a prescription for what humans should do "in a perfect world." Things, then, get left out and and left behind. People's experiences of God get obscured - the collateral damage of the normative.

Take, for example, the sort of influence-driven "relational" ministry that Andrew Root took up arms against in his Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry. It was said, and still continues to be said, that youth ministry was fundamentally about influence--getting young people from point A to point B by whatever means were necessary, even "relationship." This was normative, so youth ministry was inarticulable in situation wherein influence was not happening. Is it still ministry if I'm not influencing kids? Not if influence is normative and ministry itself is articulated accordingly.

So Root reoriented youth ministry away from the pragmatic and back toward the theological - seeing that, even in those situations where influence was impossible or not happening, the God revealed in Jesus Christ is a God who meets us, enters relationship with us, and shares our place. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, not the influence of the church on its young subjects, is what is normative... so the minister expects to discover God at work in relationship, even when that relationship doesn't have an external "end" or outcome.

When we talk about what's normative, we're not just talking about what youth ministry should look like "most of the time" even if there are certain outliers. It's not a rule to which there are exceptions.

Since God's love and the ministry of God in the life of the world is universal (and I don't use that word lightly but with all the red-flags of postmodernity waving even as I say it), we should not accept a normative task which obscures the experiences of some and privileges the experience of others.  We cannot, for example, make the clear articulation of one's faith (as in a confession of faith or apologetic evangelization) a normative expectation, for it obscures the work that God is doing in the life of someone who will never be able to "articulate" their faith in rational arguments. I'm thinking of people with developmental disabilities. What's normative is that God is doing something - and the normative task will work to say something specific and guiding about that - and what will follow might look like "articulating the faith" for some but it might look like dancing for others (responsive human action is expected). The normative will speak of God's action and the pragmatic will speak of human actions which correspond to the action of God that is indigenous to their concrete and lived experience.

What we must endeavor to mean by "normative" is that theoretical and theological framework which does not accept "outliers" as collateral damage. We can't offer a true "ought" to a situation if it cannot speak to everyone who recognizes themself in the situation. We cannot offer something as normative if it only includes a privileged few. The God revealed in Jesus Christ - the God who shares God's very identity with the "least of these" (see Matthew 25) - refuses to afford us such exclusivity. As John Swinton has argued,
If a definition includes the weak and the vulnerable...then this is a strong indication that such an understanding may be concomitant with the God who reveals [Godself] in the Biblical narrative and especially in the life of Jesus, that is, as a valid theological understanding. If it in any way excludes such people, then it must be considered an inauthentic representation of the God who "secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy..." (Swinton, From Bedlam to Shalom, 26.)
As ministers seeking to participate in the ministry of God in the lives of others, we should never presume to be explaining the normative for all times and situations but we must move toward some guiding hermeneutic or even "rule" which can include every person to whom God ministers (read: everyone).