Shared Christian Praxis

By Thomas Groome

This material is one chapter from Groome's book: Christian Religious Education, Harper and Row, 1980.

Christian religious education by shared praxis can be described as a group of Christians sharing in dialogue their critical reflection on present action in light of the Christian Story and its Vision toward the end of lined Christian faith.

To begin with, shared praxis takes place in a situation of group dialogue. Shared in the dialogue is an articulation of critical refection upon one's present alive engagement in the world as a Christian. That present engagement is in fact the embodiment of one's own story and vision, and critical refection upon it takes place in light of the Christian communities' Story and the response which that Story invites. This requires that the Story and its Vision be made available in the pedagogical context. The fetes or end of it all is further Christian praxis that is faithful to the Story and creative of its Vision. Thus 1 understand there to be five main components in Christian education by shared praxis, each requiring some detailed explanation. These are: I) present action, 2) critical refection, 3) dialogue, 4) the Story, and 5) the Vision that arises from the Story.


Present action here mans much more than the overt productive activity of the present moment. 'It means our whole human engagement in the world, our every doing that has any intentionality or deliberateness to it. Present action is whatever way we give expression to ourselves. It includes what we are doing physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually as we live on personal, interpersonal, and social levels. In a sense, it encompasses any kind of human activity beyond the inevitable metabolic activity of our bodies.

It is this comprehensive reality of present action that is the object of critical reflection. Since the action arises from the self, the primary object of reflection is the self who reflects. All refection is primarily self-reflection because when we reflect upon our activity, we are in (act reflecting upon the self that is expressed in such activity. It is only by reflection on its own objectification in action that a subject can come to appropriate himself or herself.` Reflection on the self is also primary in the sense that in a praxis way of knowing one begins wish one's own constitutive knowing, with how one makes meaning out of one's own present action. To begin with what "they say" would be to fall back into a theory and epistemology. However (as seen in Chapter Six), the self is socially mediated. Thus while critical reflection is primarily on the self, it is ultimately on the social context by which the self comes to its self-identity. The whole socio-cultural context, with its norms, laws, expectations, ideologies, structures, and traditions, constitutes the present action for the participants' critical reflection.

I intend the word present here to have the meaning I gave it in Chapter One: the present of things present, the present of things past, and the present of things future. In other words, it is the historical self and society that are reflected upon, since our present action is the consequence of our past and the shaper of our future. By reflecting on present action, we can uncover the "pasts" that have brought us to such action, and raise to consciousness the "futures" in that action by becoming aware of its likely or intended consequences. This is why critical refection on our present action is a way of coming to know and name what I will call our own stories and visions.


Critical refection is an activity in which one calls upon I ) critical reason to evaluate the present, 2) critical memory to uncover the past in the present, and 3) creative imagination to envision the future in the present.

Critical Reason to Evaluate the Present.

At its first level of refection critical reason attempts to perceive what is "obvious" about the present. Very often the obvious is so much part of our given world that it is "taken" for granted and either no longer noticed or seen as inevitable. Critical reflection then, is first an attempt to notice the obvious, to critically apprehend it rather than passively accept it as "just the way things are." This is why Freire, the most notable proponent of a praxis approach to education, often refers to himself as "a vagabond of the obvious.

But while critical reason begins by noticing the obvious in the present, at a deeper level of refection it must delve below the obvious. By a critical evaluative analysis we can attempt to discover the interest in present action, critique the ideology that maintains it, and recognize the assumptions upon which it is based. This requires returning to the genesis of present action, and so we come to the role of memory.

Critical Memory to Uncover the Past in the Present. With the activity of memory critical reflection becomes a reflection upon one's reflection, a process of remembering the source of one's thinking. If critical reason is to discover the interest of present action, critique the ideology that maintains it, and recognize the assumptions upon which it is based, then the personal and social genesis of our action needs to be brought to consciousness. This is done by remembering.

The remembering cannot be a facile calling to mind. Simply to recall will do no more than maintain the influence of the past upon the present in a reified manner. Rather, critical memory is needed to break open the hardened shell of the past in the present, so as to prevent it from determining the present.

A critically remembered past can be a basis from which to choose the present and its future. A "forgotten" past, on the other hand, holds unconscious sway over the present and thus limits our freedom in shaping the future.' Remembering is not only a looking backward to the personal and social biographies of individual and community. It also requires a looking outward, a remembering of our present action with the source of that action in its present social context. It is becoming aware of the world of which we are members and how that membership shapes our present action.

By critical memory, then, together with reason, we can discover the personal and social genesis of our present action. In reflecting upon the source of our activity, we come to know our own story and to name our own constitutive knowing, that is, the knowing which arises from our engagement in the world. Without this our own stories are forgotten, and the world is named for us. But critical reflection is incomplete if it rests only on reason and memory. The purpose of naming our present and knowing our story is that we may have some freedom to imagine and choose our future.

Creative Imagination to Envision the Future in the Present.

Critical reflection is incomplete without imagination. Imagination is needed as we look at both the present and the past, but its predominant focus is the future. The reason we attend to the present and the past is that we may intend the future. But intending the future requires imagination; otherwise the future will be little more than repetition of the past.

The imagination I am describing here cannot be idle wonderment about the future. Rather, it must be a creative and shaping activity that gives intentionality to the future as it arises out of the present and the past. Imagination involves a refusal to duplicate what is given or to take the shape of the future as inevitable. It looks from the present to the future to envision the consequences of present action and returns from the future to shape the present in the direction of what might be preferred consequences.

In critical reflection on present action (praxis) the exercise of creative imagination is an expression of hope. Hope is what makes the real seem less real than it is, and the imagined more real than it is already. Only humankind has this ability for hope, because we alone can dream, envision, fantasize. If our educating is to promote this essential dimension of being human, then it must encourage imagination.

When education is understood as an activity of "leading out," the role of imagination seems even more obvious. The future thrust, essential to all education, demands imagination. But so much of our educational efforts stifle the imagination of the participants, telling them what to think and how to think it. So often what is authentic imaginative activity is dismissed as idle day dreaming or as naive idealism. We tell our students to "grow up," and by that we often mean "join our world and settle for it." But Jesus did not tell us to grow up. He told us, instead, that unless we become like little children, we cannot enter the Kingdom of God (see Mark 10:15). Little children are still capable of discovery, fantasy, and openness to what is not yet. The invitation of Jesus to become as children is, among other things, an invitation to imagination, creativity, and freedom. For education to lead out to that possibility requires imagination on the part of both students and teachers.

Critical reflection, then, requires the exercise of reason, memory, and imagination. 1 hasten to add that such are the predominant but not exclusive concerns of each dimension. All three are necessary for attending to the past, the present, and the future. While the focus of attention for our memories is the past, we also need to call on our reason and imagination if it is to be a critical memory that reclaims the past in a new way. In bringing reason to the present, we also need our memories to understand the genesis of the present and our imagination if we arc not to settle simply for what we find there. And as we use imagination to envision the future, the images we use come out of our memory and are evaluated by our reason. In other words, a distinction among the functions of reason, memory, and imagination is valid, but a separation is false. There are two other points about critical reflection that need clarification before we move on. The first pertains to the word reflection and the second to the word critical. Each word has the possibility of being misinterpreted.

Critical reflection engages both the rational and the affective capacities of the human person. In saying this, I am faithful to Aristotle's understanding of praxis as appetitive as well as cognitive. I first became convinced of the affective dimension of critical reflection in my own experience with groups of people in a shared praxis situation. 1 have found that in such groups emotions often run high. The language of critical reflection tends to mask this dimension and gives the impression of an intellectualistic and strictly cognitive activity. However, I must insist that in the praxis critical reflection is an affair of both the heart and the head.

Two factors explain why the rational and affective are inevitably fused in a praxis way of knowing. First, when we critically reflect on present action, it is primarily our own selves that we come to know, and we cannot know ourselves dispassionately. Head and heart are fused inevitably in self-knowledge. Second, the affective dimension enters into critical reflection because of the components of memory and imagination. Perhaps critical reason alone can be dispassionate (though I doubt it), but when linked with memory and imagination it certainly cannot be so. One cannot remember one's own story dispassionately, nor choose a future action without appetite to move the will. The acts of hoping and choosing not only include, but demand, desire. So when critical reflection is self-critical of one's own lived participation in the world for the sake of choosing further action, then the rational and passional are copartners in the process.

My second clarification pertains to the word critical. Critical here is not intended to mean negative criticism that finds only what is wrong in our present action and in the story and vision embodied there. 1 intend critical, instead, in the sense I have previously described as a dialectical critique. A dialectical critique affirms what is good and true in present action, recognizes its limitations, and attempts to move beyond it. Thus a critical reflection, far from being an exercise in debilitating negativism, is a positive creative activity. This is where imagination plays a vital role. Imagination is essential for the creative and transforming moment of moving beyond. Without it we end up, as Habermas appears to do, with only negative criticism.

It must also be emphasized that in critical reflection the source of discernment, as always, is not solely our own reason, memory, and imagination. It is only by the Spirit's grace of discernment working within our own human efforts that we can come to know reality in light of God's activity and contribute to its transformation according to God's will.


In a shared praxis approach to Christian religious education the participants' critical reflections on their present action as Christians are shared in dialogue within the pedagogical setting. Dialogue is necessary for building Christian community within the group. As the general context of Christian education needs to be a community of Christian faith (Chapter Six), so the immediate context (i.e., the learning environment) of the intentional pedagogical activity itself needs to be a Christian community. To the extent that a Christian community can be created within the educational context, that context is likely to be effective in sponsoring its members toward lived Christian faith. Sharing in dialogue certainly contributes to building such a community. Only in the dialogue of what Buber calls an I/You relationship` is it possible for us to form human community, and Christian community requires no less.

Dialogue is especially necessary in a religious education context using a shared praxis approach because the dialogue of participants is an essential part of the catechesis. In fact, the whole content and process of a shared praxis approach is to be dialogical. To be dialogical dues not mean that the participants are to talk back and forth "at" each other constantly; such a situation might not be dialogical at all. Paradoxical as it may seem, dialogue begins with one's self. At bedrock it is a conversation with our own biographies, with our own stories and visions. Of course, to be truly known by us, our self-dialogue must be externalized and shared with others, and they, too, must be heard if we are to know more clearly our own stories and visions. Thus dialogue is a subject-to-subject encounter (1/You), in which two or more people share and hear their reflective stories and visions. By such human dialogue the world can be named and common consciousness created for its transformation. "In the beginning is the word," but it must be a word of dialogue to be a beginning and not a conclusion.

Two essential activities are constitutive of dialogue, telling and listening. So often when people say they are ready to dialogue, they mean that they are ready to talk. But dialogue involves listening as much as telling. It must, however, be a listening that attempts to hear with the heart what the other person is attempting to communicate. Much more than the mere words or gestures of the other must be "heard." Our task in dialogue is to hear the whole world and person those expressions bespeak. Only in this way can either of us be affected by the exchange. Douglas Steere, who learned how to listen in his Quaker tradition of "corporate silent waiting on God," says, "How falsely a listener may construe what we say if he takes only our words."' When dialogue involves authentic expressing/listening activity, then the consequences are both disclosure and discovery for the people involved. By listening to others disclose themselves to me, I can help them discover themselves. And in disclosing myself to others, I can discover myself. If the dialogue is an expressing/hearing of our reflective stories and visions, then there is in it for everyone the possibility of discovering much more than we set out to disclose.

To say that the whole content /process of a shared praxis approach is dialogical does not mean that the educator cannot make present the Christian Story and its Vision by a variety of pedagogical techniques, including lecture. As 1 make clear below, and expand upon when describing the third movement of a shared praxis approach in Chapter Ten, the Christian community Story and its Vision must be made present within the pedagogical context, and this is the responsibility primarily of the teacher. But dialogue requires that the Story and Vision be made available in a disclosure rather than a closure manner. This means that it cannot be imposed upon the participants monologically, but must be made available in a way that invites dialogue with the tradition from their own lived experience.'

The dialogue I am describing and proposing here as the modus operandi of a shared praxis approach to Christian religious education is qualitatively different from discussion. This is one of the earliest lessons I learned while working with "The Crossroads,"' one of the first groups with which I used a shared praxis approach. We became keenly aware that telling ones story and vision and attempting to name one's world elicit a sense of reverence on the part of the listeners. I found it impossible, as did the regular members of the group, to respond to another's story with discussion-style rebuttals like "Don't you think that . . ." or "1 disagree," even when their stories were quite different from my own. This was brought home rather forcefully to the group one evening when a garrulous newcomer jumped in from the beginning and began to make such comments. He was quickly but gently told by one of the participants, "That is not what we are about here." I thought, How true! and realized then how different dialogue is from discussion. Freire explains the difference forcefully:

And since dialogue is the encounter in which the united reflection and :.coon of the dialoguers are addressed to the world which is to be transformed and humanized, this dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person's "depositing" ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be "consumed" by the discussants. Nor yet is it a hostile, polemical argument between men who are committed neither to the naming of the world, nor to the search for truth, but rather to the imposition of their own truth."

Freire gives an insightful and moving summary of the requirements for such dialogue (which he also learned about in his own educational praxis). To begin with, "Dialogue cannot exist . . . in the absence of a profound love for the world and for men." Second, dialogue requires humility because "the naming of the world, through which men constantly re-create the world, cannot be an act of arrogance." Third, it requires "an intense faith in man, faith in his power to make and remake, to create and re-create . . . ." It is not a naive faith, however, that ignores failure, but one that refuses to accept failure or human refusal as the final verdict. This love, humility, and faith must lead to a relationship of "mutual trust between the dialoguers." Such trust is more a result of dialogue than a prerequisite. "Whereas faith in man is an a priori requirement for dialogue, trust is established by dialogue." Fourth, dialogue requires hope, a hope that is aware of our incompleteness but is determined not to settle for silence or escape from reality. It is an active hope, but not an impatient one that gives up or continues only if there are results. Freire warns, "As the encounter of men seeking to be more fully human, dialogue cannot be carried on in a climate of hopelessness." And last, as we might expect, authentic dialogue presupposes "critical thinking.

Thoughts such as these cause Freire to be dismissed at times as a naive romanticist and utopian. And, indeed, a reasonable reaction would be to ask where such a community of dialogue can be found. It certainly cannot be found anywhere ready-made, nor is it ever likely to be realized perfectly. But in religious education by shared praxis it is the ideal that ever calls us forward. In my use of shared praxis with diverse groups and in very different contexts I have been amazed at the level of trust and dialogue that can build up quite rapidly. Instead of waiting for an atmosphere of perfect trust, openness, and dialogue before beginning, I have often begun with a group of strangers to each other and, in the praxis, have witnessed what Reuel Howe calls "the miracle of dialogue."

The last point to be made is that the dialogue is not only among the participants but also between the participants and God. Here again I am reporting what I and others have experienced in the praxis as much as prescribing what ought to take place. Very often, while listening to a participant tell his or her story, 1 and other participants have found our inner dialogue merging into dialogue with God. On many occasions shared praxis groups have reached a point of shared prayer together (sometimes taking a liturgical form) as the most fitting response to what was being heard.

The participants in shared praxis, then, share in dialogue their critical reflections on their present action. There is nothing uniquely Christian about such a process that would entitle it to be called Christian religious education. However, when our reflective activity is in response to the Christian Story and Vision, then our praxis is specifically Christian. When the Story and its Vision are retold and our own stories and visions critiqued in their light, then our educating can be called Christian. The fact is that there is an overall genesis or Story that explains where we as a Christian people have come from and an all encompassing Vision that calls us forward. In an educational context using a shared Christian praxis approach the participants reflect upon and share the stories and visions embodied in their present action, and those stories and visions are critiqued in light of the faith tradition of Christianity (Story) and the promise of and response invited by that tradition (Vision).


Scripture and tradition could be used to convey what I intend by the metaphor Story. But those terms are so overladen with the memory of past polemics (scripture or tradition) and divisive feuds among Christians that I am reluctant to use them here. I use the word Story, but if taken only in its literal meaning, Story is misleading. It may be advisable, then, to begin by saying what I do not mean by it."

By Story 1 do not mean simple narrative. Narratives are indeed part of our Story, but our Story is much more than our narratives. For this reason, and to distinguish it from our individual stories, I capitalize the word. By Christian Story I mean the whole faith tradition of our people however that is expressed or em6odied. As our people have made their pilgrimage through history, Cod has been active in their lives (as God is active in the lives of all peoples). They, in turn, have attempted to respond to God's actions and invitations. From this covenanted relationship there have emerged particular roles and expected lifestyles, written scriptures, interpretations, pious practices, sacraments, symbols, rituals, feast days, communal structures, artifacts, "holy" places, and so on. All of these embody, express, or re-create some part of the history of that covenant. The term Story is intended as a metaphor for all such expressions of our faith tradition as they are all pan of our Christian Story. From that Story, by God's grace, we draw our life of Christian faith, and by making it accessible again, we experience God's saving deeds on our behalf.

As indicated in Chapter Seven, remembering and representing the Story is an essential part of the Jewish and Christian process of knowing God. The life of Jewish and Christian faith is to be lived within the context of a community that embodies and remembers the Story. When in worship and sacrifice we bring ourselves before Yahweh, we are to remind both ourselves and God of God's saving deeds (see Deut. 2ti:5-11). The Eucharist is the recalling and remembering of God's saving intervention in Jesus Christ. We experience salvation for our time by remembering and re-encountering the Story of God's saving deeds. When we remind God and ourselves of the Story, it is as ii even God cannot but be moved by the memory, and for us it becomes a saving "event" once more. There is little more that a Christian community can do than authentically represent its Story. As H. Richard Niebuhr explained, the Church has an "inability" to state what its meaning is "otherwise than by telling the story of its life."

We must be careful, too, lest it ever be assumed that we are referring to "just another story," as if someone made it up. Bernhard Anderson issues a valid caution that in the shift from talking about scripture as history to calling it story, scripture scholars must not lose sight of the fact that "the God of the Bible is the God who acts historically, in real events and concrete circumstances . . . ." Anderson warns, "The notion that the Bible is only story, or that revelation . . . is only a mental event, sounds suspiciously like a new kind of docetism." Our Story is grounded in historical events and has its highpoint, for Christians, in "God's historical presence in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ."" The historical Jesus is the Story incarnate.

True, the written testimonies we have of Jesus were written by post-resurrection communities of faith, but the Christ of faith can never be separated from the Jesus of history. Jesus is the Christ, and the Christ is Jesus of Nazareth."

Now the crucified and risen Jesus Christ stands as God's unbreakable promise that Cod is always with us, continuing to make God's will known, inviting and empowering us to respond by living the realized Kingdom already and forging ahead toward its final completion.

God is still active in our history, and we are constantly called upon to respond and participate in that activity. But if we are to have aught by which to recognize God's will and work, then the Story of our faith community must be made accessible over and over again. God is active in our lives, but God was also active in the lives of our parents and grandparents and so on, back over the history of our people. If we are to know God and find salvation in our present, then we must remember the Story of that faith community.


I intend the metaphor Vision to be a comprehensive representation of the lived response which the Christian Story invites and of the promise God makes in that Story. As explained in Chapter Three, God's intention and promise for creation is the Kingdom. By Vision, then, mean the Kingdom of God, Cod's Vision for creation. From us it invites a lived response that is faithful to the reign of God. As we respond, we help to make the Kingdom present already. Meanwhile, God's promise of the completed Kingdom comes to us as a sure hope. Thus the call and hope through which we are to live our lives is the Vision of God's Kingdom.

It is important to emphasize that the Story and Vision are not separate realities, but two aspects of the same reality. The Story is the Story of the Kingdom; the Vision is the Vision of the Kingdom. The Vision is our response to and God's promise in the Story, and the Story is the unfolding of the Vision. 1 believe there are pedagogical advantages in setting them out separately (as will be more evident when I outline the five movements of a shared praxis approach), but we must avoid making a dichotomy of them.

The Christian Story and its Vision find expression, though not perfectly, in a community of Christian faith. They can be encountered there in the reflectively lived and shared faith of the whole community. But within the community, and in a context of intentional religious education, the educator has the responsibility of ensuring that the Story is encountered and its Vision proposed. In the community encounter between our own stories and the Story, between our own visions and the Vision, we can come to "know God" in an experiential/reflective manner. It will be a praxis way of knowing that arises from our own praxis, from the praxis of our community of pilgrims in time, and from the praxis of God in history.

Having said that the critical reflection on present action is to be done in light of the Christian Story and its Vision, we must now go a step further if we are to avoid posing the version of the Story and Vision that we know as hardened ideology, as a final theory imposed upon our praxis from outside of lived experience. That would be to fall back into the old "from theory to practice" epistemology. The reasons against that and for holding theory and praxis in a dialectical unity instead of a dichotomy have already been outlined in Chapter Eight. But there are also pressing historical and theological reasons for not accepting any version of the Story and Vision as hardened ideology to be simply applied to the "present."

To begin with, the Story is not yet completed, and it will not he so until the final coming of God's Kingdom. Meanwhile, as God's plan unfolds, we continue to find ourselves in new historical situations. God's activity in each age calls for its own response, which will always be somewhat the same as, but also unique from, the response possible or expected in previous eras. If our pilgrimage is to unfold the Vision rather than merely repeat the past, then the present cannot passively inherit and repeat the Story. We must appropriate the Story critically within the present experience, reclaim it, add to it with our own creative word, and in that sense "change" it. (Theologically this points to the need for development in our understanding of the tradition.")

Second, the Story is itself to be critically reflected upon, rather than passively accepted by the present, because the version of the Story that any group of Christians own and share can have elements of distortion. The distortions arise unwittingly and sometimes with the noblest of intentions, but the fact is that God's revelation has always come to us in the context of history. Each historical context, with its particular social/cultural ethos and ideologies, influences our interpretation and can give rise to distortions and certainly to "incompleteness." Avery Dulles insightfully remarks, "The Church may be seen as a variety of traditions, coming down from Christ and the apostles, undergoing constant development and adaptation. In the course of this development the traditions are sometimes enriched, sometimes impoverished, sometimes contaminated, sometimes purified."" An example of such distortion today is when the patriarchal world view of biblical times is used to exclude women from full participation in Christian community life and ministry. If such distortion is to be avoided as much as possible, then present critical consciousness must be active in reclaiming the Story of our faith tradition.

Last, there is no single agreed-upon expression of the Christian Story. There are many versions, all combining to make up the common Story of Christianity, but no one sub-tradition exhausts the richness of the whole tradition. Thus no one version can be imposed on a group of students as the only or final expression. Again, this may be avoided if people in the present and out of their lived experience are encouraged to bring their own creative word to reclaim the Story.

For similar reasons the present praxis of Christians cannot be rendered silent in the light of the Vision that arises from the Story. The Vision indeed is a critique of our present praxis and a measure of our faithfulness. But ours is also an open future, and its shape is being influenced by present praxis. The Vision can only be truly known as it is realized, and the understanding we now have of it must be adjusted as we move toward it. Thus our present praxis cannot be reduced to insignificance or silence in the face of our Vision.

All of this points to the need for critical scripture scholarship and theology to inform us as we attempt to critically appropriate the tradition. (The relationship between theology and religious education will be dealt with in detail at the end of Chapter Ten.) But even when the version of the Story and its Vision made accessible in a pedagogical context is informed by the best of scholarship, that version still cannot be passively accepted by the participants as the final word to critique their practice. That would also be to fall back into the old from theory to practice epistemological mode.

The objection could be raised here that it is misleading of me to make theory synonymous with Story. I agree that our Story is far more than theory, and with the presence of Biblical language and imagery in it is less likely to be reduced to theory than when couched in the language of Greek philosophy. But in the pedagogical context if our version of the Story's meaning is proclaimed from outside of lived experience instead of being critically appropriated and encountered in the midst of present praxis, then we are still caught, for all practical purposes, in a from theory to practice way of knowing. To maintain the unity 1 argued for earlier between theory and praxis, the Story/Vision and present praxis must be held intentionally in a dialectical unity with each other. This points to the hermeneutical principle that underlies a shared praxis approach to Christian religious education. I call it "present dialectical hermeneutics."


I will first explain how I intend each of the three words that make up this idea and then describe the process they give rise to in a situation of shared praxis.

Hermeneutics. Richard E. Palmer points out that the enterprise of hermeneutics has been understood in at least six different ways, but in general the enterprise has been understood by all of them as a "science of interpretation. Etymologically, the word comes from the Greek hermeneuein, which means "to make clear" and "to interpret." Thus it connotes both the search for meaning in a "text" or tradition and the activity of explaining to others what one has found." Christian religious education obviously requires a hermeneutical activity" because its task, in part, is to guide people in their attempts to discern Cod's will for them in their lives and to provide a space within which their discernment can be shared.

Present. My understanding and technical use of the term present has already been outlined in detail (Chapter One). In this hermeneutical context I mean by present the time of our existence in which the consequences of the past and the possibilities of our future reside. Thus to do a hermeneutic of the present requires that we look at the present and from the present to both the past and the future within it. Even as we critically reflect on our present and on our own stories and visions within it, we must also look to the faith Story of the people before us, and to the Vision which arises from that Story. However, for the reasons already given, the Story and Vision must be critically appropriated into our own understanding, and thus we need a dialectic in the midst of our present hermeneutics.

Dialectical. In the context of present hermeneutics a dialectical relationship has three united but discernibly different moments, and they arc not easily named. The most helpful terms for the three moments may be affirming, refusing, and moving beyond. In a dialectical hermeneutic of any "text" there is an activity of discerning its truth and what is to be affirmed in it, an activity of discerning the limitations in our understanding of it that are to be refused, and an attempt to move beyond it, carrying forward the truth that was there while adding to it in the new understanding." It is important to emphasize again that a dialectical relationship is positive and creative, rather than negative and destructive. The fiat affirming moment in the relationship is already a positive one, and the third moment of moving beyond becomes a creative and radical yea rasher than a debilitating no. Thus a hermeneutical dialectic between present praxis and the Christian Story and Vision recognizes the limitations in both our own praxis and in the Story and Vision as we know them, but it also recognizes the truth that is in them both and carries that forward to a new point of understanding and way of living the tradition.

The present dialectical hermeneutics used in a shared praxis context of Christian education can be set out as a four-part process. The first two parts pertain to the dialectic between present praxis and the Story, the second two pertain to the dialectic between present praxis and the Vision.

In the dialectical hermeneutic between our present and the Christian Story the Story is a source of critique for the present (Part 1, Story to present). In this it affirms some of our present praxis, makes us aware of shortcomings in our present praxis, and calls us to live the tradition more faithfully.

But the direction of the dialectic is not only from the Story to present praxis; it is also from present praxis to the Story as the present brings its own consciousness, insights, and needs to the appropriation of the Story (Pan 2, present praxis to Story). In this part there are dimensions of our Story that are reclaimed as of value and lasting truth But no one interpretation of our Story is ever its complete and final meaning. We can always return to it to find truths that were not recognized before because "the breadth and length and height and depth" (Eph. 3:18) of it can never be totally known by us. In this sense, every version of the Story is limited. In addition there are aspects of our Story we must refuse to inherit (to cite two obvious examples, dimensions of our tradition that have discriminated against women and legitimated slavery). Thus, we always have the task of affirming the truth in our Story but also forging beyond our present understanding of it and way of living it. In other words, it is not merely a matter of asking What does the Story say to our present praxis? This question must also be posed: What does present praxis do to and ask of the Story?

Similarly, in the dialectic of interpretation to be maintained between present praxis and the Vision, the Vision functions as a measure of our present praxis (Part 3, Vision to present). By this we can discern what to affirm in our present historical praxis. The Kingdom is already among us whenever and wherever God's will is done. Its presence already and the sure promise of its completion come to our present as consolation and affirmation. But given the reality of sin in ourselves and in our world, there are ways in which the Kingdom is not yet. Thus the Vision of the Kingdom enables us to discern the limitations in our present praxis that arc not of the Kingdom, and calls us to a Christian praxis that will be more creative of the Kingdom and more faithful to God's invitation.

The last part of the process (Part 4, present praxis to Vision), although not as evident, is equally important." For while the Kingdom is a measure of and promise to our present, that Vision is also an open future being shaped in part by present praxis, and our knowing of it is possible only as we shape it. Thus our present understanding of it can never be accepted as a blueprint for its final form. In a Christian educational context this fourth part of present dialectical hermeneutics calls for intentional decision making that is appropriate to the reign of God.

At this stage of my statement the reader may understandably be wondering how all these parts and pieces fit together, if in fact they do, and how they may be done in a concrete pedagogical setting that uses a shared praxis approach to Christian religious education. 1 will outline in Chapter Ten how I presently bring them together and how I have used them in a variety of pedagogical settings. When those examples are given, the statement 1 am attempting here may t9ke on greater clarify.


In an educational group using a shared praxis approach the participants attempt to appropriate the faith tradition critically in their own praxis and are invited to choose further Christian praxis in response to their shared dialogue and reflection. But as they appropriate the faith tradition, there is surely need for criteria to evaluate their appropriation and response. Without guidelines for discerning what is to be affirmed, refused, and moved beyond in the Story, there is danger that something essential and of "lasting" truth in the Story may be rejected. History teaches the lesson that while developments in our understanding and living of the Story take place, corruptions also occur. There is need, obviously, for limits to what may be refused in the past Story, limits beyond which what is appropriated ceases to be the Christian Story and places one outside the tradition. Thus a shared praxis group needs some guidelines (or what Newman called "marks of authenticity"") to guide their discernment and decision making.

A shared praxis group must constantly approach its task of discernment with prayer for the presence of the Holy Spent. The risen Christ who promised to be with us always and God's gift of the Spirit are divine assurance, group of Christians that they can know God's will and that errors, if chosen, will eventually be corrected.

But the ambiguity of life and its meaning can never be banished by simply appealing to the Holy Spirit. Within our human condition and covenant with God our own efforts at discernment, guided by God's grace, are always essential, and for them we need guidelines. 1 suggest the following three: consequences, continuity, and community/Church. None is sufficient unto itself. All three are needed in constant interrelation and mutual balancing.


The first and constant question before a shared praxis group as it makes its decisions and choices about further Christian praxis is: Do the likely consequences of my (our) decision contribute to making the Kingdom present now and to preparing the material for its final completion? In other words, is the envisioned response creative of the freedom, peace, justice, and wholeness that are essential to God's Kingdom? If the praxis chosen does not stem likely to have such consequences (and only time will tell with certainty), then it is erroneous. Thus the type and quality of Christian praxis likely to arise from shared praxis is itself a guideline for the group's choosing of a faith response. Nor can this "mark of authenticity" be dismissed as begging the question. It is often recommended by the gospels-"You can tell a tree by its fruit" (Matt. 7:20).


The decisions made by people in a shared praxis group must be in continuity with the story of the Christian community before them." They cannot take positions in contradiction to what is essential to the Story (and that can only be discerned by the whole community /Church). There will be practices from the Christian Story that a shared praxis group will decide not to continue, and beliefs, especially those on the lower echelon of the "hierarchy of truths, that they will refuse or radically reformulate. But the truth of the tradition must be affirmed, and new "truths" must be in continuity with it. Otherwise the decision made is erroneous. To give an obvious example, no group, having reflected on its experiences, could decide that the basic mandate of the gospels is no long er binding and that certain peoples or races may be hated. That would be in total discontinuity with the previous tradition and with the primordial revelation on which Christianity rests.


I describe the third guideline in this twofold manner because, although they art intimately related, two groupings of people provide a guideline for decision making. By community here 1 mean the immediate shared praxis group itself, and by Church I mean the larger Christian community to which the small group belongs.

Community. In an actual shared praxis group, as participants struggle to discern God's will for them, the discernment of that community itself, guided by the Holy Spirit, becomes a guideline for decision making. After many experiences with shared praxis groups I have come to know that the corporate quest for discernment has a reliability greater than the discernment of any individual. alone-and indeed greater than the sum total of the individuals. However, no small community of Christians can be a reliable guide of truth in isolation from the rest of the Christian community to which the small group belongs. To claim as much would contradict the catholicity of Christianity.

Church. The Christian community as Church has the right to teach. Such would seem to be the constant tradition from the earliest days of the Church down to our present. Therefore, the small community constituted by a shared praxis group must be informed by and measure its decisions against the belief and practice of the whole Church. In its Declaration on Religious Freedom (Par. 14) Vatican II stated that "the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth." The teaching of the whole Church must always be heard by the smaller communities that constitute it.

This raises the question, however, of what is meant by Church in this teaching context. If Church is understood only as what Dulles calls the institutional model," then teaching would appear to belong exclusively to the official hierarchy of the Church (and who the "hierarchy" is varies among denominations), with little role for the "sense of the faithful" and the research of the theologians. If, however, one understands Church according to a more community-like model which would certainly seem to be the recommended ecclesiology that emerges from Vatican II, then to say that "the Church teaches" is to say that the whole Church teaches and learns together. The ecclesia docens is also the ecclesia discens. Thus while protecting the notion of a teaching Church, we must deny the extreme conservative understanding that one small group (the hierarchy) teaches and the faithful only "learn;" while the theologians prove that the official teaching already given is correct (what Duller calls "regressive theology").

Assuming that the whole Church teaches and learns together, then, graced by the presence of the Holy Spirit, there are three sources of such teaching and learning (or what Raymond Brown calls "organs of teaching and belief''') within the Christian Church. These are the teaching of the official magisterium" the research of the theologians and scripture scholars, and the discernment of the people" (what has been traditionally called the senses fidelium, or the sense of the faithful).

The three together can be imagined as a tripod, joined in the ongoing reach to know and discern the meaning of God's revelation and our fitting response. To begin with, all three need to be in dialogue with communities other than the Christian one. When Christians talk only to each other about the meaning of Cod for our lives, we assume that we are the only people to whom God has ever revealed the divine self, that we are the only people among whom God is active. Such an elitist and imperialist attitude contradicts our own Christian conviction about the universal love of God for all people and God's activity within all history.

Then, all three agencies are to interrelate with each other in mutual dialogue, support, insight, correction, and affirmation. The official magisterium (and within the denominations this may be papacy or primate, general assembly or synod, and so on) performs the function of articulating a consensus position, but all three sources interrelate in service to the truth the whole Church seeks and teaches.

The faith life of the people must be informed by the reflection, research, and systematic investigation of the theological and biblical community. But the reflection of the scholars should be grounded in and arise from the lived faith of the Christian community. The Christian praxis of the people is informed by the consensus of belief and practice taught by the official magisterium. But the official magisterium must also listen to and be informed by the sense of the faithful." The official magisterium cannot claim to have a shoe cut to the truth; it must be informed by the research and scholarship of the theological community." But the theologians need the official magisterium to articulate a consensus position that is in keeping with what has come down from the apostles. Otherwise, theology is a maze of conflicting opinions and different schools of thought and by itself a confusing ground for decisions of faith."

Clearly, none of these three "sources" of teaching and learning in the Church can stand in isolation from the others. All three must work together in service to the "faith handed down." Yves Congar has a threefold arrangement that is somewhat similar to the one ! have outlined. He writes, "One must put truth, the apostolic faith which has been handed down, confessed, preached and celebrated, at the top. And under it, at its service, we must place the magisterium of apostolic ministry and the research and teaching of theologians, together with the belief of the faithful."

In summary, it must always be remembered that only by the help of the Holy Spirit can the truth be known (see John 16:13). When a group assembles to do Christian religious education by a shared praxis approach, it should come together in the prayerful presence of the Paraclete. But the participants also need guidelines to direct them as they fulfill the human side of their responsibility to discern the meaning of God's activity in history and their appropriate response. I have contended that if they 1) maintain continuity with and faithfulness to the Story of the Christian people, 2) choose a response that is appropriate to the Vision of God's Kingdom, and 3) are informed by the teaching and learning of the whole Church as well as by their own group discernment, then, with the help of the befriending Spirit, they are most likely to discern God's intentions for them and what their response should be. There can never be absolute certainty or final form to any understanding or praxis of the truth." We will know Cod's truth only as we do it, and from doing it learn to do it more truthfully. When such is our knowing, then the truth will set us free (John 8:32).

In the words the Fourth Gospel places on the lips of Jesus, the constant calling of all Christians is "to know you, the only true God, and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ" (John 17:3). It is the purpose of Christian religious education to promote our attempts at such knowing. In this chapter I have posed a shared praxis approach as one way of organizing intentional educational activity toward that end. It is a reflective/active knowing that arises from the present, is informed by the past, and is to shape our future. I have explained the main components of such an approach and the marks of authenticity that can guide the decision making of such a group. Now this question must be faced: How can such an approach be used in different concrete educational settings? I can do no more here than describe how I have been doing it. In fact, the reflections offered in this chapter have arisen from my own praxis.

The process for using a shared praxis approach has gradually evolved into five distinguishable pedagogical movements. Chapter Ten outlines and gives examples of them.


1. To reflect only on "overt productive activity" would limit reflection to the "production feedback" of Marx and reduce us to the knowing which Habermas attributed to the empirical analytical action. Thus we see immediately scribed here the importance of expanding our notion of human.

2. See Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, pp, 43-45.

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