Anyone Interested in Learning About Heuristic Research?

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(continuing last week’s conversation about knowing, telling and being the truth)

In writing my doctoral dissertation, published in 1996, knowing and telling the truth was, of course, required.  This is how I introduced the methodology by which I sought that truth.

Research Method, Heuristic Research

The form of research and study that is uniquely suited to the study of revelatory and incarnational truth is heuristic research.  Since this form of study and the word “heuristic” itself are so unfamiliar to nearly everyone, I will share the definition of “heuristic”, in its entirety, as found in The American Heritage Dictionary, third edition:

heuristic  (hyoo-ris-tik)  adj.  1.  Of or relating to a usually speculative formulation serving as a guide in the investigation or solution of a problem:  “The historian discovers the past by the use of such a heuristic device such as the ‘ideal type'” (Karl J. Weintraub)   2. Of, relating to, or constituting an educational method in which learning takes place through discoveries that result from investigations made by the student.  3. Computer Science.  Relating to or using a problem-solving technique in which the most appropriate solution of several found by alternative methods is selected at successive stages of a program for use in the next stage of a program. –heuristic n1. A heuristic method or next step in a program.  2. heuristics (used with a singular verb)  The study and applications of heuristic methods and processes.  [From Greek, heuriskein, to find]  –heu-ris ti-cal-ly adv.

I find it intriguing that each of the sub-definitions of “heuristic” says something important about the research methods used in this study and project.  In particular, I am fascinated by “3”, a use that comes out of the discipline of computer science.  There is no doubt that what I learned at each stage of this project shaped what I looked for, and how I looked, in the next stage.  Remember, this dissertation was born in a missiology class when a missionary asked for our help as he prepared to go out on home assignment.  Initially, I designed my investigation to seek and develop ways to resource and train missionaries for this task.  That is why I began by gathering pastors together for interviews and observing missionaries as they performed the various tasks of deputation.  In the midst of these observations, however, the question and the method evolved.  The reading and study and interviews began to reveal a larger and prior question.  Eventually, with the help of Jim Wiegner, who had asked the initial question at the missiology class, the focus turned towards an emerging mission paradigm and the willingness/ability of American Baptists to identify and embrace this new work of God.  Eventually, what is being learned in this project could lead me full circle, back towards the previous question.  This past summer at the World Mission Conference I heard many of our missionaries once again calling for resources and training.  They know that missions are changing and they know they need to be prepared to interpret these changes to the churches and assist them in adapting to what God is doing in this new era. 

I am equally fascinated, and in addition amused, by the phrase in definition “1”; “of or relating to a usually speculative formulation.”  It seems to me that this is a typically secular way of describing, and demeaning, a “spiritual insight” or “revelatory knowledge” or “incarnational truth” that is the unique gift of spirituality to human knowing.  

I was first introduced to heuristic research when I attended the Dissertation Research Seminar in the winter of 1987, a required part of the Doctor of Ministry Program of the Ecumenical Theological Seminary.  However, I definitely did not integrate what I learned then into my thinking.  “Heuristic Research” was little more than an obscure phrase to me when I re-engaged the doctoral program in the fall of 1995.  I knew just enough to ask my teachers at the seminary, “What do I need to know about heuristic research to write my dissertation?  Where will I find what I need?”  Dr. Jack Biersdorf suggested that I would find all that I needed to know by reading a Project Paper submitted to the seminary, entitled, “Unity and Symmetry of the Hebrew Bible (O.T.)”, by Richard Lewin.  To evaluate his own research project, Dick utilized the “Outline Guide of Procedures for Analysis of Data”.

I would be delighted, even honored, to share more about my first experience with heuristic research with any reader that is interested.  However, for right now I simply want to add that what I learned while writing my thesis, SEEKING TRANSFORMATION BY AND FOR MISSION; American Baptists Identifying and Embracing a New Paradigm For the World Mission of the Church and what I proposed based on my research, anticipated many of the themes in the new “Go Global” mission emphasis of the American Baptist Churches, USA, that was adopted a few years later.

One More Example of Following the Principles of Heuristic Research
Writing a Sermon on a Complex and Controversial Subject

In December of 1993, I published a sermon series with the title, Turning the Tide, Sermons to Stir Christians to Moral Reflection and Action.  One of those sermons was entitled, Body Justice; The National Health Care Crisis Provides a Crucial Testing Ground for Christian Moral Principles.  Today, the national health care crisis still provides such a crucial testing ground.  But, my observations tell me that very few Christians are doing the needed moral reflection on this issue.

Other sermons in that series were written and preached on the complex and controversial issues of Abortion, Children in Poverty, War, Sexuality and Climate Justice.  Each message had some things in common.  One of those commonalities was how intensively I did my homework.

For example, intense preparations for the Body Justice sermon took a couple of months that were concurrent with the efforts of the Clinton administration, led by Hillary Clinton, to reform the health care system.  My church, located near the Ohio State University Medical Center, included many medical professionals.  I interviewed all of them for their unique points of view.  I received input from many other members of the congregation as I listened to everyone who cared to share.  I did extensive reading concerning the then current health care debate.  I consulted various Christian ethics scholars.  I read widely.  I studied relevant scripture, including the ethical issues addressed in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 5, verses 27-29:

When she heard about Jesus…, she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” immediately her bleeding stopped.

In the end, I came to my own conclusions, preached them and opened the door in the church for further conversation and action; minus any controversy or rancor because, it seemed to me, even those who did not agree with my conclusions knew that I had done my homework.

You may be interested that this was the result of all the sermons I did on the most difficult moral issues throughout 40 years of preaching.  I can not recall any significant or disruptive controversy following these messages.  (However, action steps sometimes did result in more conflict.)

The sermons and the principles are easily available to anyone interested in doing their homework on the disruptive issues that currently threaten to tear apart the body politic and religious communities.

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