Can there be a Christian sociology? An Auto-Biographical Reminiscence

My confrontation with sociology goes back to my under-graduate years at Monash University (1969-1971). That is when I “discovered” my vocation as a Christian student. For as long as I have been reading works about sociology, I have had to deal with the claim that there simply cannot be any question about a Christian sociology.

     My initial contact with sociology was with Peter Berger’s Invitation to Sociology (1963) when I was preparing to begin courses in sociology. It took a few years for the full implications of his “humanistic perspective” to sink in. But at the beginning of my third year, in a course in the Sociology of Education, there came a moment when I realized that the denial of the possibility of a Christian sociology was merely a pre-scientific postulate with which I could not agree. The realization came in the twinkling of an eye. If sociology, as thus configured, was indeed a secular and religiously neutral discipline, as our lecturer had emphatically implied, then there was no place for any scientific or theoretical contribution from the standpoint of a Christian world-view. This then rendered as highly problematic my participation in such an enterprise the hidden presumed religious neutrality of which had now, in my 3rd year, been disclosed by the lecturer himself. This insight hit with what still seems like profound “bombshell” impact.

     It took a few days for the impact and some of the consequences to sink in, but then a second compelling thought came. This did not arise in my thinking from any unaided reason. I did not, as may have been expected from a pietist evangelical perspective, retreat into myself; in fact I could not avoid discussing the issue. It came into almost everything I did, and into every conversation.

     This was 1971. Our sociology lecturers were clearly concerned that the conventional way of assessing students was deficient. It allowed them to ignore their student’s efforts to develop an integrated perspective from their studies. The BA structure militated against such a valid aim and so, for us 3rd year sociology students, (majors), a new system of marking had been devised to encourage to explore what we had encountered of the sociological perspective across the various units of our course. Looking back, this involved courageous pedagogy, opening up the possibility of heavier marking loads as they indulged our longer and oft-times convoluted essays. We were being challenged to integrate what we had learned from our studies of the various sub-specialties in sociology. Our lecturers were also seeking “elbow room” of their own in order to give their own perspective on sociology and their scholarly involvement. The work of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann The Social Construction of Reality: a Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966)[1] was an important part of the inspiration for this pedagogical innovation, as well as their sociological theorising. This lecturer in the Sociology of Education, recently returned from doctoral studies in the United States, referred to this work in acknowledging our difficulty in interpreting the book’s content. He went on, affirming it’s perspective in words I have not forgotten:

My view is this: life is basically meaningless until we, as human actors, create meaning for ourselves. Life is meaning-less and sociology is the study of how we create meaning.

     This, I took it, explained, “in a nutshell” The Social Construction of Reality. This statement was not above critical investigation as to whether it truly represented Berger and Luckmann’s nuanced viewpoint. Nor did he present it as such. And neither am I suggesting that I was then “tuned in” to all the nuances and the emphases he gave these words in his lecture. Taken on its own, it may seem to endorse an existentialist, even nihilist, view.

     At that point in my formal education, as a Christian student, an office-bearer in the Monash Evangelical Union and organiser of a substantial network of university clubs across the campus, this “bombshell” confronted me with a series of problems quite apart from its challenge to my coursework.

     Not only had I to complete the coursework in what I then was tempted to view as the “secular” part of my university involvement, but this other “religious” side of my life also appeared in a new light. This “light” had been “turned on” in the lecture theatre but it somehow kept shining outside in “everyday life”. Half of the EU executive had also been sitting in that lecture, enrolled in this same sociology course. Moreover, I had the task of organising cell-groups, the purpose of which was to encourage EU members to consider their studies as the true focus of their student vocation at university. We were one of the largest clubs on campus enjoying a genuine liveliness in our fellowship and our contribution to student life.

     Looking back on this time one can also detect the persistent impact of the apologetics of Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) from such works as Escape from Reason (1968).[2] This was Schaeffer’s more a-political, co-belligerent phase, a good decade before he became the “philosophical” guru for the Christian Manifesto (1982)[3], and “key note speaker” for the Moral Majority. It is noteworthy, however, that in his 1968 book, Schaeffer meantioned the spiritual relevance of post-structuralist and post-modern perspectives of Foucault, a long time before the Frenchman became fashionable.[4] The other major intellectual “authority” among EU students was John Stott (1921-2011) whose Basic Christianity (1958)[5] was evangelical “orthodoxy” and this was then supplemented by a lecture tour at that time expounding his recently published Christ the Controversialist (1970)[6]. Stott’s contribution to evangelicalism was to challenge the anti-intellectualism that was leading to fundamentalist activism among evangelical groups as students struggled with the complexities of modern life, the seeming inevitable moral compromises of “situation ethics” in a “secular society”.

     This indicates something of my immediate social context that had to be negotiated my various campus responsibilities. Looking back, I guess the lecturer was giving voice to his own deep philosophical frustration, having gotten “hung up” on trying to figure out what could be meant by such terms as “meaning”, “objectivity”, “subjectivity”, “society”. If this lecturer had been tackled in tutorials on what he meant by the statement, “life is basically meaningless”, he may well have suggested that the entire sentence be held in tension rather than focusing, as I seem to have done, in making him sound like an existentialist. He may have also explained the statement as a necessary “methodological a priori”, his effort to assist students as we came to terms with the contents of a difficult book. And later on his own contribution of a kind of civic principled pragmatism has been anything but meaning-less, let alone nihilist.

      Looking back I guess the lecturer was attempting to put a “nutshell” proposition before us as we considered the Berger and Luckmann volume in relation to the Sociology of Education. He was seeking to be a good teacher, pointing us to the work’s leading idea. That it clearly was, but at the time it also forced me to face up to a fork in the road. Was I going to take the student vocation seriously, or not? And so the question quite naturally arose: How could this statement – “Life is basically meaningless” – be squared with a Christian world-view? How could it be squared even if it were only half of the thesis? How should this fork be negotiated? Should I drop out of the course and would that mean that I had accepted that the statement was, for my purposes, meaningless? That, I guess, was when my irritation “peaked” but from that peak a fresh perspective emerged. I sought advice from my mature-age housemate, a fellow sociology student, the EU President. He said to me:

If you don’t confront this view head on, who is going to do so?

     Well that challenged me. Was I serious in my cell-group encouragement or not? Was this a view that we could ignore as we proceeded to encourage the Christian student vocation within the Christian student club? Were we going to simply tell our fellow club members, fellow Christian students, to get in line with this perspective and make a contribution that would assist in the transformation of Christianity according to the religion of human autonomy? Obviously not.

     Now, I look back and say quite confidently, (i.e. as a thankful Christian) that what that Sociology of Education lecturer had provoked, over the space of a few days, was a most important turning point in my own education. On reflection it is about an indispensable sense of the meaning of the Christian student vocation. “Bringing every thought captive to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) took on fresh significance. The term “meaning”, despite philosophical disputation all the way from Plato to Heidegger, and the inevitable “rolling of eyes” of fellow Christians, could no longer be taken as a religiously neutral signifier! Language itself holds together with all things in Christ (Colossians 1:17). A new sense of what the Bible gives us began to emerge.

     A little later on, in marking my essay, this Sociology of Education lecturer penned a comment that suggested that, by taking his comment so seriously, I was in danger of becoming “hung up” on philosophy. But, despite seeming to avoid the philosophical issue of how his own pre-scientific assumptions had guided his pedagogy, he had performed, for me at least, an act of profound social and indeed sociological significance. By his pre- or non-scientific comment, he had not only “made room” for his own deeply held pre-scientific view, but opened up a social space within social scientific discourse which invited students to take seriously and communicate their own sense of personal responsibility by bringing that to formal expression in coursework.

     So, I began to see university study differently. A BA qualifies a graduate to be a student. And a Christian BA is a student who is called to be actively and responsibly at work in study. I had not hitherto grasped this as I now did, despite have immersed myself in the perspectives of Schaeffer and Stott and many others. From then on my vocational commitment has been to contribute as a student to developing a Christian sociology rather than to a humanistic sociology claiming “religious neutrality”.

      A few months earlier, my marble with birthdate had come out of the barrel and I received call up papers requiring me to register for military service. Two years of military service lay ahead for me after BA studies had been completed. That was why I convened an EU cell group to study “The Christian View of the State.” In truth, I had no idea what I should do, or even how to go about forming a view about conscription. Could such a Bible study group be productive of some political insight? Our ecumenical group included a Pentecostal in chemistry, a young woman studying to become a nun in English literature and another who was already a nun. A mature-age “wee free” Presbyterian from Belfast invited a mathematics lecturer to join us. Ted Fackerell had recently returned to Australia from CALTEC and subsequently has become a recognised authority in applied mathematics with an understanding of quantum physics and black hole research. Ted put forward the view, knowing that some find it outrageous, that there is indeed a “Christian view of the State”. He also had the view that it is quite permissable to affirm a “Christian mathematics” and a “Christian physics” and for that matter a “Christian sociology”. But the rider was always self-critical; as a Christian you had better first know philosophically what you are talking about since the reputation of the Person you claim to be representing is on the line!

     Philosophically? Hadn’t Oorientation-Week brought out the fundamentalist who insisted to members of the Evangelical Union that “Don’t get taken captive by philosophy” (Colossians 2:8), meant that philosophy courses were off-limits for Christians? But Ted Fackerell pointed me instead to the Christian philosophical work of Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), a scholar whose name I had never heard. Dooyeweerd’s 4 volume A New Critique of Theoretical Thought[7] was housed next to Kant in the Monash University library and gave a Christian philosophical rationale for such an “outrageous” view of science. Ted said that if I were serious about a Christian sociology then I should not neglect intense study of this work as well as the current literature of my discipline. (Alongside these volumes in the library was a Festschrift in Dooyeweerd’s honour, Philosophy and Christianity (1965)[8] with essays from various scholars among them Kroner, van Peursen, Ellul and a piece on “Law and Logic” from Dooyeweerd’s colleague and correspondent, Hans Kelsen (1881-1973), the doctoral supervisor of Alfred Schuetz (1899-1959). Schuetz was the “new” social philosopher on our horizon; his work was implicit in Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality.

     The important piece of advice that Ted gave me was, as I have subsequently came to realise, a “nutshell” application of what Dooyeweerd calls a “transcendeitself ntal critique of theoretical thought”

By this we understand a critical inquiry (respecting no single so-called theoretical axiom) into the universally valid conditions which alone make theoretical thought possible, and which are required by the immanent structure of this thought itself.[9]

So, concerning the complex statement of the lecturer, I was encouraged to ask:

What kind of a statement is this and what is its inner connection with the subsequent findings from sociological research? Is it a necessary postulate for sociological reflection?

     Theoretical dissent about pre-scientific commitment had to remain part of a scientific contribution and thus could not be avoid in course-work. It would also mean taking a path that scrupulously avoids forcing my pre-scientific commitment upon a philosophical opponent, or even appearing to do so. This I had not encountered as a distinctly this Christian view of theoretical/ philosophical communication about the truth before. Certainly this was not the apologetics of Francis Schaeffer who never mentioned Dooyeweerd.

     Since I was a student, which involved ascribing respect for the lecturer’s authority in the class-room, my search for the right path of scholarly dissent did not have to get itself entangled in a disrespectful demeanour. That challenge remains! And it is an indispensable and normative part of scientific engagement. Ted would probably also have said that my response had to be in the spirit of a biblically-directed reformation of science not in line with a individualistic revolution oriented by my reasoning ability. What I thereby learned from this advice and Dooyeweerd’s philosophy was about myself in the student vocation. And so, when pointed to Dooyeweerd’s comment about theoretical and philosophical communication, I could see that it was not only The Social Construction of Reality that sought to challenge the dogmatic exclusivism that often prevails in scientific debate. A Christian sociology should be oriented likewise:

A sharp distinction between theoretical judgments and the supra-theoretical pre-judgments, which alone make the former possible, is a primary requisite of critical thought.[1o]

     This statement should not be taken out if its context. It only makes sense in the context of a Christian scholarship which inter alia cannot exist without focused research, fully part of an enterprise as wide as the redeemed creation order itself. What beckons here is an alternative Christian scholarly path to that which has been mapped out with Wertfreiheid authority by Max Weber.

     But just as important, there was implicit normative advice about a student’s relation to a lecturer. As Christian students who dissent from the view of the impossibility of a Christian sociology (or other science), we are not simply making yet another appeal to our presumed inviolable individual rights so we can give free expression to our personal identity as Christians in our studies. Instead our calling involves an immanent critical orientation that seeks to contribute positively to scholarly discourse. In particular this is the case when discussion involves theoretical and philosophical disagreement over pre-scientific, supra- theoretical commitments that are unavoidable in the activities of scientific investigation. Even when axioms with alleged self-evidence are set forth – as with what I heard in that 1971 Sociology of Education lecture – the reply, the “reaction”, needs to be part of scientific communication even if it is not about empirical findings. The normative dimension of scientific discourse can not truly be defended by philosophical argument alone. To suppose that all that is needed is a smart manipulation of a logical syllogism appealing to allegedly Christian presuppositions is to lapse again into a form of the myth of religious neutrality.[11]

     The Christian scientific purpose of taking up such a critical orientation and nurturing the resultant scientific awareness as taught in the self-critical spirit of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1-5). Is not the injunction to take the log out of one’s own eye before attempting to extract the neighbour’s splinter, an application of the second of the two great commandments given by Jesus in His summary of the law?

     Such a scientifically focused critique is certainly not undertaken in order to gain ground for dispensing holus-bolus with the sociological insights or results of research that arise from a perspective with pre-scientific assumptions other than one’s own. It is, ever and again, to begin the painstaking process, that requires exhaustive, if not exhausting, attention to detail and complex arguments. The aim must be that the resultant contribution to scholarly communication is sensitive on the inside of its empirically-focused discussions to the religious and world-view pluralism that is already immanently manifest within scientific and scholarly investigations.

      In those days, from structural-functionalist theory (Parsons and Merton) to “interactionism” (Weberian hybrid), “critical theory” and Marxism there was repeatedly evidence of the postulate that a Christian sociology is impossible, unthinkable. But, even so, within sociology as a university discipline (even as its scientific character was under intense scrutiny) was a plurality of ways to defend such a “secularisation” of theoretical reflection. Since secularization had pushed religion to the margins of public life there simply was no question of a Christian sociology. So it was said. In certain circles this assumption was welcomed as much in private life with a sea-change in the understanding of personal morality, sexuality and the human task of bringing forth a new generation. (We’re still in the thrall of Kinsey it would seem, let alone of Haight-Ashbury). What was left, it was often assumed, a thoroughly secularised albeit privatised religion which modern, democratic and scientifically trained university students and graduates who would know was merely a persistent but declining remnant of mythological culture from previous generations. Christianity may have been a bit more sophisticated, and with larger land-holdings, than the indigenous Australians, who in some places still clung to the evidence they saw on their horizon of the Rainbow Serpent’s activities long ago in the Dreamtime. The truly modern Christian view was to give biblical religion a thorough and long overdue makeover by transforming it by the application of the principles of autonomous human personality. On all sides, we were faced with enlightened opinion, also within church telling us that Christianity was no longer a viable “way of life”.

     To consider the possibility of a Christian sociology, as part of developing a Christian scientific understanding of creation’s meaning, came as a new and refreshing challenge. The denial of the possibility of Christian sociology can only be an assumption about the character of a pre-theoretical commitment basic to sociology, and hence to affirm it means giving free reign to an alternative religious standpoint, the assumptions of which can not be avoided simply by asserting the autonomous and religious neutrality of the humanistic standpoint.

     Further, any pluralist challenge of the secularization postulate within the sociological discipline should challenge the presumed religious neutrality of sociology’s account of the plurality of ways of life with their respective religious professions as they come to expression in a plurality of structures of human responsibility.

This is an early draft of a part of a larger essay considering the work of the American sociologist and scholar Peter L Berger.  BCW 3.3.16

____________________________________________

[1] Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann The Social Construction of Reality: a Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Ringwood: Penguin 1975). Originally published in USA in 1966.

[2] Francis A Schaeffer Escape from Reason (Leicester, UK, Inter-Varsity Press 1968). (Herafter Escape).

[3] Francis A Schaeffer A Christian Manifesto (Wheaton, Ill; Crossways, 1982)

[4] Escape pp.69-71.

[5] John R.W Stott Basic Christianity (Leicester, UK, Inter-Varsity Press, 1958).

[6] John R W Stott Christ the Controversialist: a Study in some Essentials of Evangelical Religion (London, Tyndale Press, 1970).

[7] Herman Dooyeweerd A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Amsterdam H J Paris 1955-1958) 4 volumes (Hereafter: A New Critique).

[8] W F de Gaay Fortman et al Philosophy and Christianity: Philosophical Essays Dedicated to Herman Dooyeweerd (Kampen, H Kok NV 1965).

[9] Dooyeweerd A New Critique Vol.1 p. 37.

[10] Dooyeweerd A New Critique Vol I p. 70 (author’s italics).

[11] Roy A. Clouser The Myth of Religious Neutrality: an Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories (Revised edition) (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 2005).

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