Postfoundationalist research paradigm –

Practical theology describes a context, interprets what has been discovered, brings in Christian
norms, and constructs models of Christian practice. It is a process that involves epistemology
and hermeneutics. For practical theology to be transformative, a postfoundational theological
framework that allows interdisciplinary work and interpretation of experience in a given context
is essential. Research in postfoundational practical theology can be conducted using narratives
and social constructionism to obtain meaning from events or situations and to construct
preferred realities.
This article examines and argues for postfoundationalism – transversal reason, interdisciplinarity
and interpreted experience – as a viable theological option against rigid foundationalism and
relativistic nonfoundationalism. Also discussed are the process and the interdisciplinary nature
of practical theology. It is suggested that narrative research and social constructionism should be
part of the research paradigm of postfoundational practical theology.
In practical theological research, a postfoundationalist approach over against rigid foundationalism and
relativistic nonfoundationalism is vital for meaningful theological inquiry.
Foundationalism and nonfoundationalism
Epistemologically, foundationalism at all times implies the holding of a position in an inflexible and
infallible manner; invoking ultimate foundations on which to construct the evidential support system
of various convictional beliefs. Foundationalism is the ‘thesis that all our beliefs can be justified by
appealing to some item of knowledge that is self-evident or indubitable’ (Van Huyssteen 1997:2–3). Schrag
(2006:21) states, ‘Foundationalism finds its mission in a quest for certainty. Unimpeachable knowledgeclaims is what it is after’. These foundational systems of knowledge are called ‘first principles’ (Thiel
1994:2) or ‘aristocratic beliefs’ (Rescher 1992:161), which are intrinsically credible. Such basic givens can
be anything from sense data to universals, essences, and experiences, including religious experiences.
Philosophically, the foundationalist views transform the narratives by which we live into the typical
grand metanarratives of modernity (Van Huyssteen 1999:62). Lyotard (1984:18) refers to this as ‘grand
narratives’ or ‘master narratives’. In the natural sciences, the implication of foundationalism gave rise
to a positivist empiricism or scientific materialism that, per definition, renders all religion, theology
and theological reflection subjective and meaningless (Barbour 1990:4). Theologically, foundationalism
implies biblical literalism, or positivism of revelation, which isolates theology from other reasoning
sciences in that it denies the crucial role of interpreted religious experience in all theological reflections
(Van Huyssteen 1999:62–63), thereby leaving the theologian to speak a language that may be internally
coherent but powerless to communicate its content because it is cut off from all nontheological discourses
(Green 1989:34).
Nonfoundationalists, on the other hand, reject the traditional rationalist or empiricist definition of
truth as an isolated correspondence between the self and the world, as well as the concept that sense
experience or ideas are privileged as the authoritative basis of human knowing (Thiel 1994:10). They
‘offer a picture of human knowledge as an evolving social phenomenon shaped by the practical
implications of ideas within a larger web of beliefs’ (Van Huyssteen 1999:64). Thus, meaning is never
fixed objectively or apprehended in context-free theories, but is always local or contextual (Quine
1969:27). Nonfoundationalism also denies any alleged strong foundations for belief systems, and argues
that all our beliefs form a groundless web of interrelated beliefs. Nonfoundationalists emphasise the
crucial epistemic importance of community, that every community and context has its own rationality.
Nonfoundationalism or anti-foundationalism is one of the most important roots or resources of
postmodernism (Cahoone 1995:13). The term ‘postmodern condition’, which was coined by Lyotard
(1984:xxiv), was used to reveal the incredulity of all metanarratives of modernity. We find the most
significant postmodern challenge to epistemological foundationalism in Rorty’s neopragmatism (Van
Huyssteen 1999:64–65). For Rorty (1989:22) our language, conscience and community are the products
of time and chance, and the justification of any claims to knowledge is a matter of social practice
only. Like Rorty (1982:xli–xliii), Joseph Rouse views natural science as social practice, as well. Thus,
science is no longer viewed as the paradigm of rationality, but as one genre of literature. In this kind
of postmodern culture, religious inquiry can coexist peacefully with scientific and all other forms of
inquiry, since there would be no need to find metanarratives or an encompassing theory of rationality.
This nonfoundationalist claim, that no authoritative givenness exists, is incompatible with theological
claims of reasoned attempts to understand the authoritative givenness of God’s revelation in the
Scripture, or its interpretation in sanctioned religious traditions. Van Huyssteen (1999:69) asks, ‘Is there
a positive and constructive way of appropriating postmodern nonfoundationalist critique for theology
without succumbing to the epistemic hazards of nonfoundationalism?

Having found both foundationalism and nonfoundationalism
inadequate for theological discourse, Van Huyssteen (1999:113)
proposes a postfoundational theology that fully acknowledges
the role of context, the epistemically crucial role of interpreted
experience, and the role of tradition in shaping religious values.
Theological reflection in postfoundationalism also points
creatively beyond the confines of the local community or culture
toward a plausible form of cross-contextual and interdisciplinary
conversation. Over against the alleged objectivism of
foundationalism and the extreme relativism of most forms
of nonfoundationalism, postfoundationalism emerges as a
viable third option that allows cross-disciplinary conversations
with our beliefs intact, and the shared resources of human
rationality in different modes of reflection. Müller (2004:4) calls
this ‘a third way’, a way out of the ‘stuckness’ of modernistic
or foundationalist science and theology, on the one hand,
and the fatalism of some post-modernistic approaches, on the
other. A postfoundational space is created between modernity
and postmodernity as we reconsider postmodernity’s farewell
to reason, the disparagement of logos, and the celebration of
difference, plurality and multiplicity (Schrag 1992:8).
Rationality in postfoundationalism is ‘an awareness of the
shared cognitive, pragmatic, and evaluative dimensions’ (Van
Huyssteen 1999:239). It is able to give an account and provide
a rationale for the way one thinks, chooses, acts and believes
(Van Huyssteen 1997:39). This rationality describes the dynamic
interaction of our various disciplinary dialogues with one
another – as a form of transversal reasoning that justifies and
urges an acknowledgment of multiple patterns of interpretation
as one moves across the borders and boundaries of different
disciplines (Van Huyssteen 2000:427). Through transversal
reasoning, this rationality provides a common ground for
communication between people who have different beliefs and
Transversal reasoning, as mentioned above, originated from
and was used by Shrag (1992:149) to describe the way in which
reason exists at the point of intersection between various
disciplines, paradigms and social practices. Shrag (2006)
Transversality enables one to unify without appeals to overarching
universals and undergirding necessary conditions, neither of
which are receptive to temporal passage and changing conditions,
be it the successive moments of consciousness or the changing
scenes of social practices.
(Schrag 2006:28)
This transversal reasoning was also called ‘shared rational
resources’ or ‘the resources of human rationality’ by Van
Huyssteen (2006:12, 40), and ‘universal intent’ by Nicholas
Rescher (1992:11). For Van Huyssteen (2006:11–13), rationality
takes many different forms, allowing us to integrate our
multi-faceted lives; understand ourselves as individuals and
communities; and relate to one another within and across
complex socio-cultural structures. It is the most important
‘epistemic goal’ in shaping the way in which we interact with
Postfoundational rationality is based on our own experience, but
is capable of reaching beyond. It starts with an individual and
extends to community. It acknowledges personal commitments;
identifies the shared resources of rationality in different
reasoning strategies; and reaches beyond the boundaries of our
own epistemic communities in cross-disciplinary conversation.
This rationality differs from community to community; there
is no trans-cultural rationality. Therefore, postfoundational
rationality is context-specific and embedded in tradition. At
the heart of the nature of rationality, there is a never-ending
quest for intelligibility – a quest for optimal understanding –
that is expressed in our ability to solve problems through an
ongoing process of personal judgment and intersubjective
accountability (Van Huyssteen 1999:173–174; 2006:11).
Van Huyssteen (1999:267) also differentiates theological
rationality from scientific rationality, stating that ‘There are no
universal standards of rationality against which we can measure
other beliefs or competing research traditions’. Rationality
should never be reduced to scientific rationality, and scientific
rationality should never be reduced to natural scientific
rationality. Furthermore, scientific rationality is different and
should be treated differently to theological rationality because
of a different object, language and method (Van Huyssteen
1997:263–265, 1999:129). However, these different reasoning
strategies in intellectual inquiry do not mean that they do not
share the same resources of human rationality, overlapping
epistemic goals and similar interpretative procedures. The
practical embeddedness of rationality in social, historical,
and cultural contexts justifies its interdisciplinary claims to
epistemological adequacy (Van Huyssteen 1999:119, 130).
Rationality is alive in the concrete world of human thought,
discourse and action, whether it is sought in the domains of
science, philosophy or theology (Schrag 2006:29).
Interpreted experience
In postfoundational theology, the focus will be the relentless
questioning of uncritically held crypto-foundational
assumptions. It engages in critical theological reflection in
order to evaluate the roles of experience, tradition and the
classic Biblical text. We explore our beliefs experientially and
interpretatively. It allows the creative fusion of hermeneutics
and epistemology. A postfoundationalist theology, therefore,
acknowledges context and the epistemically crucial role
of interpreted experience (Van Huyssteen 1997:4). Just as
all scientific observations are theory-laden, so all religious
experiences are interpretation-laden. This interpretation
provides valid religious meaning (Van Huyssteen 1997:19–20).
Agreeing with Van Huyssteen, Schrag (2006:25) asserts that
‘interpretation is called upon both in scientific discovery and
humanistic inquiry. It cuts across the culture spheres of science,
morality, art, and religion’.
This interpreted experience starts from the individual’s
experience and proceeds towards the interpersonal and
social (Müller 2004:7). Don Browning (1996:61), presenting a
similar picture in his A fundamental practical theology, proposes
differentiating common human experiences into three poles or
foci, (1) interpretations of the practices, inner motivations and
socio-cultural history of individual agents, (2) interpretations
of relevant institutional patterns and practices and (3)
interpretations of the cultural and religious symbols that give
meaning to individual and institutional action. These three
poles of interpretation make up a model developed from James
and Evelyn Whitehead’s (1980) two poles of reflection, that is,
‘personal’ and ‘corporate’ experience, which is based on David
Tracy’s (1975:43) ‘common human experience’. Tracy critically
correlates two principal sources of theology, (1) Christian texts
and (2) common human experience and language.
Van Huyssteen calls this interpretation a ‘received interpretation’,
in the sense that it is socially constructed, as opposed to an
individual or subjective construction, and emphasises the
contribution of tradition, culture and cultural discourses to
the interpretation (Müller 2004:7). Josiah Royce’s idea that
interpretation always proceeds within a community, and Charles
Peire’s argument that reality can never be known adequately
by an individual, share the same social constructionist idea
(Browning 1996:50–51). Van Huyssteen’s (1997:16) argument
encapsulates it well: ‘Our search for legitimate knowledge
always takes place within the social context of a community…’.

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