Paper for the conference Being Surprised by God: Embodied Ecclesiology in Local Contexts, Utrecht, June 21-24, 2010
Rein Brouwer (www.pthu.nl/rbrouwer; rbrouwer@pthu.nl)

How can theological language be of help in describing and interpreting the empirical reality of ecclesial existence? What can we say about reality from a theological perspective? How can we describe the experiential reality of God’s performative presence in practices of faith in the local church? There  probably is not much disagreement about the normative-evaluative role of theology, but what about the descriptive-empirical task?  Is theology an adequate logic to attend to the empirical? Is there a way of discerning empirically if and how God is moving the church? Or is it just speculation to state that God is acting in a local faith community, nothing more than a leap of faith?

Practical theology depends on the methodology of the social sciences to get a grasp on empirical faith. And in this process there is always the risk of becoming too impressed by the social scientific interpretation of the church as a social entity. However, faith and the church are also, or primarily, theological facts. Empirical theological research ought to work with theological concepts. God’s self-revelation is part of the empirical reality, and theological concepts offer a unique epistemic access to this reality. That is why I intentionally introduced a theological concept in an ethnographic-empirical research on the meaning of believing and belonging to a local faith community.  The research was published last year.
I made use of social scientific theories on social capital and community, but I also worked with the concept of koinonia. Koinonia was part of the theoretical framework. I did not restrict theology to the normative task of how to interpret and evaluate empirical results. From the beginning, I employed a theological concept in discerning the uniqueness of community in a local congregation. We know that local congregations are important investors in social capital, and that they participate in shaping the community in their local area, like other interest groups and other collective civil initiatives. But might there be more to it? What is the promise in the concept of koinonia, and does that promise work out in the empirical reality of a specific local faith community?

This attempt to operate a theological concept in empirical research can be criticised for a number of reasons. One of them would be that by explicitly using a theological concept I am reading too much into the data, that is not there in the first place. Another point of criticism is whether working with an ‘indicative’ concept like koinonia would leave any room for ‘experience’.  What about the experiences of the religious subjects and how they express their faith, the so-called ‘implicit theology’ , or the ‘ordinary theology’ , or the ‘operate and espoused voices’ ?

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