Chapter Two | Theoretical Framework and Literature Review

Key theoretical lenses for social science research

The scope of this research has an interdisciplinary span. It is deeply theological, yet it draws from a broader theoretical framework in two academic fields. The first is the field of Adult Learning Theory. The second is the field of sociology and urban studies with a special focus on suburban studies.

Key texts and authors

Epistemological Considerations

It is important to preface a discussion of adult learning theory by situating the discussion within an epistemological framework. This research and literature review is not intended to expound upon philosophical hermeneutics, but it is important to note that the research and researcher is situated within a post-positivist constructivist framework.[1] Two key philosophers will be germane to the framing of this conversation. The first is Jürgen Habermas and The Theory of Communicative Action[2]. This is broadly known as Critical Social Theory. Gary Simpson helps to understand Habermas’ work in his book Critical Social Theory.[3] The second philosopher is Hans-Georg Gadamer in his work Truth and Method,[4] where he discusses the fusion of horizons and linguisticality. This is important to note because this theoretical frame creates the basis for using Participatory Action Research as the primary research methodology for this project.  The members of the congregations to be studied will work in conjunction with the researcher to communicatively construct new ideas and practices that will shape the research itself.

Theories of Adult Learning

It is important to connect Critical Theory to theories of Adult Learning. Several Key authors have done this. Stephen Brookfield does this in The Power of Critical Theory,[5] Developing Critical Thinkers,[6] and Teaching for Critical Thinking.[7] Mary Hess has co-edited a piece with Brookfield entitled Teaching Reflectively in Theological Contexts.[8] Jack Mezirow’s work with Transformative learning[9] is another piece of this frame that draws upon critical theory and the importance of change. Mezirow states that a key question for the adult learner is “how I can compose a story big enough, with a horizon broad enough, to account for as much as possible of my actual life and render it available to me as a coherent, re-membered whole.”[10] These authors provide both theoretical framing and practical methodology for facilitating the transformational, communicative process that will happen in this research.

Cognitive Development and the Development of the Social Self

Robert Kegan is among the leading theorists regarding human cognitive development. In two key books—In Over Our Heads[11] and Immunity to Change[12]—he proposes that there are five orders of consciousness through which the neuro-typical human develops over time. The first three levels are the natural child-to-adolescent developmental process. However, the modern world, and now the postmodern world, has created a need for a fourth and fifth level of consciousness that requires the individual to move from dependence, through independence, and into a multi-perspectival interdependence with the other. Kegan’s theory intertwines well with other important theoretical and theological frames for my research, namely communicative action, Trinitarian relational ontology, and Social Trinity.[13] It is the assumption, based on Kegan’s work, that most of the adults involved in this study will operate in the third order of consciousness, with some operating in the fourth. Kegan suggests that it is possible to help people move toward fifth level thinking. His methodologies will be instructive to the purposes of this research.

Spirituality in Adult Learning

Spirituality is not strictly a theological frame located within the church and seminary. There is a growing body of literature within the field of Adult Learning that addresses the issue of spirituality on a broader scope. Elisabeth Tisdell is a leading voice in this regard. She says that spirituality is “personal belief and experience of a divine spirit or higher purpose, about how we construct meaning, and what we individually and communally experience and attend to and honor as the sacred in our lives.’”[14] Other important authors in this lens are Jane Vella[15], Dent Davis[16], and John Dirkx.[17] It will be important for this study to address this broader frame of spirituality when addressing the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation within the congregation, in order to allow for non-Christian ideas to enter into the conversation.

Christian Spirituality as a Theoretical Lens

Christian Spirituality is a frame that can be placed in both the social science theory category and the theological/Biblical category. The academic study of Christian spirituality has grown over the past twenty years. This is evidenced through the formation of the academic guild The Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality (SSCS), which is a sub-group of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). Two authors in particular contribute a theoretical frame to this research. Sandra Schneiders states that “constructive postmodernism may be the intellectual climate in which spirituality as an academic discipline will finally discover breathable air.”[18] Philip Sheldrake specifically discusses spirituality as a public activity and places it within the context of the urban setting.[19]

Sociological Lens: The Suburb

Another important theoretical frame for this study is the sociological construct called the suburb. Strictly speaking, a suburb is the populated region that surrounds a central city. It is not urban and it is not rural, it is sub-urban. It is also called the urban sprawl. This is a fitting description since the railroads, streets, highways, industrial complexes, civic centers, and residential units that spider out from the central city resemble a splotch of ink dropped from the ceiling onto the floor. The population density typically decreases as the distance from the city and the median household income increases.

Not all suburbs are the same, however. There is not a simple division between urban life and suburban life. Myron Orfield identifies six distinct types of suburban communities: at-risk segregated, at-risk older, at-risk low density, bedroom-developing, affluent job centers, and very affluent job centers.[20] These six types represent one of the greatest challenges of suburbia: the socio-economic stratification of the suburban population.

This research will focus on the bedroom-developing (B/D) suburb. The B/D suburb is comprised primarily of residential neighborhoods that are separated by great distances from shopping centers, schools, and civic centers. We will focus on the B/D suburb for a number of reasons. First, it is this type of suburb that conjures up the stereotypical caricatures and is most associated with the suburban lifestyle of the United States. Second, this is the place where the largest relative percentage of people live.[21] Third, it is an in-between space. The B/D communities are primarily populated by middle and upper-middle class people. They are not the extremely wealthy of the affluent regions, nor are they the extremely poor of the at-risk communities. Bridge-building is an important component of the missional imagination and the most logical people to build bridges are those who are naturally in the middle. We will see how the B/D suburban church is uniquely positioned to become a connective tissue to the metropolitan church.

The B/D suburban culture of today is the result of modernity that dominated United States culture in the nineteenth century. Six modern, American ideals helped to shape our current situation: progressivism, mechanistic utilitarianism, manifest destiny, individualism, commodification, and consumerism.[22] Not all of these are unique to the United States, but all have definitely contributed to the social imagination of the B/D suburbanite. We currently find ourselves in a late/post modern situation where the inertia of their effects still creates a dominant current, but their foundation has crumbled and the younger generation is struggling to find its footing in the world that modernity has created.

Additional information regarding both the historical development and the current issues of the suburban context will be drawn from the work of John Teaford[23] and Kenneth Jackson[24]. Both of these sociologists bring a rich perspective on how technology—especially transportation technology—has driven the urge for urban sprawl.




[1] Post-positivist, constructivist epistemology is to be understood broadly as the hermeneutic lineage of Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, and Ricouer as outlined in Jean Grondin’s book Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, Yale Studies in Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

[2] Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 vols. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984).

[3] Gary M. Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).

[4] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed & Ward, 1975).

[5] Stephen Brookfield, The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching, 1st ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005).

[6] Stephen Brookfield, Developing Critical Thinkers: Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting, The Jossey-Bass Higher Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2008).

[7] Stephen Brookfield, Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions, 1st ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012).

[8] Mary E. Hess and Stephen Brookfield, Teaching Reflectively in Theological Contexts: Promises and Contradictions, Original ed. (Malabar, Fla.: Krieger Pub. Co., 2008).

[9] Jack Mezirow, Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress, 1st ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).

[10] Sharan B. Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella, and Lisa Baumgartner, Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide, 3rd ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 215.

[11] Robert Kegan, In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

[12] Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Leadership for the Common Good (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009).

[13] Anderson connects the “grammar of Trinitarianism” to the “social-relational psychology” presented by Kegan. E. Byron Anderson, Worship and Christian Identity: Practicing Ourselves, The Virgil Michel Series (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 151-169.

[14] Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 200. Also see Elizabeth J. Tisdell, Exploring Spirituality and Culture in Adult and Higher Education, The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).

[15] Jane Kathryn Vella, Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults, Rev. ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002).

[16] Dent C. Davis, “Dialogue of the Soul: The Phenomenon of Intrapersonal Peace and the Adult Experience of Protestant Religious Education,” Religious Education 102, no. 4 (2007).

[17] John M. Dirkx, “Images, Transformative Learning the Work of Soul,” Adult Learning 12, no. 3 (2001).

[18] Elizabeth Dreyer and Mark S. Burrows, Minding the Spirit: The Study of Christian Spirituality (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 21.

[19] Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology : Christian Living and the Doctrine of God (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1998); Philip Sheldrake, “Imaginative Theology: A Strategy of Subversion,” Spiritus 5, no. 2 (2005); Philip Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality, Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion Series (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007); Philip Sheldrake, “Spirituality and the Integrity of Theology,” Spiritus 7, no. 1 (2007); Philip Sheldrake, “Spirituality and Social Change: Rebuilding the Human City,” Spiritus 9, no. 2 (2009); Philip Sheldrake, Explorations in Spirituality : History, Theology, and Social Practice (New York: Paulist Press, 2010).

[20] Orfield, 31-48.

[21] Ibid.,  42.

[22] This is by no means an exhaustive list. These selected ideals will help frame our suburban conversation.

[23] Jon C. Teaford, Post-Suburbia : Government and Politics in the Edge Cities (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Jon C. Teaford, The Metropolitan Revolution : The Rise of Post-Urban America, The Columbia History of Urban Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006); Jon C. Teaford, The American Suburb : The Basics (New York: Routledge, 2008).

[24] Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).