Why not a Christian sociology? A Call for a Christian Student Vocation (2)

This is the follow up to my initial “call for a Christian student vocation”. Those with some knowledge of Latin will notice that my heading is somewhat redundant since a “vocation” is already a result of a “call”. But if readers have been attentive to what I have written already, quite apart from getting the gist of Nurturing Justice, they will realise that my complaint (made mainly to Christians, but if anyone else is paying attention to my lament then I’m delighted, welcome aboard) is that Christianity is not redundant. So this is a call for a Christian Student vocation if not for a Christian Student Movement across the South West Pacific. We in Australia need to link up with the communities to our North in PNG and West Papua and also across Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia, since there the Christian way of life is (still) alive and we are enjoined to not neglect our coming together (Hebr.10:25).

     As I wrote last time, this is a re-write of my earlier post that arose from my involvement in a discussion of Peter Berger’s recent view that a “theory of pluralism” should displace the remnants of a “theory of secularisation” within sociology. Something of Berger’s viewpoint is evident from this Youtube video of a panel discussion at Gordon Conwell Seminary December 2014.

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My confrontation with sociology goes back to my under-graduate years at Monash University (1969-1971). That was when I “discovered” my vocation as a Christian student. For as long as I have been reading works about sociology, I have been confronted with the implied and sometimes repeated claim that there simply cannot be a Christian sociology. In other words, the question is historically redundant; perhaps it is useful for clarifying what sociology isn’t, but the positive exploration of what could be involved in a Christian sociology is not at all something that sociology as a university discipline developed in the “west”, need ever entertain. It’s lack of possibility is simply taken for granted.

     My initial contact with sociology was with Peter Berger’s Invitation to Sociology (1963). That was when I was preparing to begin courses in sociology. The Monash Arts Faculty Handbook recommended it as “preliminary reading”, “which students should obtain for their personal use.” It took a few years for the full implications of Berger’s “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 presupposed by the sociology as I had been taught, and part of a pre-scientific commitment that had wider relevance than just this academic discipline. It was, in fact, an implied and rarely spoken insistence upon the necessity of sociology’s religious neutrality. It was simply accepted that theories and theorising are essentially parts of a religiously neutral exercise.

     It came with a lecturer affirming that meaning only arose because humans made their lives meaningful. This involved a recognition that apart from human action life was meaningless. Insight into the religious nature of this (humanistic) affirmation  came in the twinkling of an eye. And clearly it was also set forth with a dogmatic insistence upon the religious neutrality of sociology. And so, if sociology 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. A Christian sociology was excluded a priori . But on what grounds?

     The hidden presumed religious neutrality of sociology had now, in my 3rd year, been openly disclosed by the lecturer himself. This insight hit with what still seems like profound “bombshell” impact. My subsequent studies have ever since been undertaken in the wake of that “bombshell”. It might even be said that my professional contribution to the discipline has been in terms of a sustained, critical examination of the impact of what my friend and colleague Roy Clouser calls the myth of religious neutrality.

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    To comment briefly upon the view of Peter Berger in the above-linked Youtube video: it seems that he is on the cusp of acknowledging, albeit later on in his extensive and productive career, that the taken-for-granted nostrum about sociology’s religious neutrality is itself something very much like a religious affirmation, a necessary point of departure for his contribution to sociology. Nevertheless, he continues to resist that conclusion. There is a deep problem with the dogmatic affirmation of sociology’s religious neutrality, not least in the midst of contemporary bewilderment about religious and world-view pluralism and the demand that public life be resolutely “inclusive”. See also Berger’s most recent public lecture here.

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     This was 1971. Our sociology lecturers were clearly concerned about the conventional ways in which they were required to assess students. They frankly indicated to us that these assessment methods had proved deficient. They restricted student freedom rather than encouraging intellectual adventure. The conventional approach had induced them to ignore the efforts of their students to develop an integrated perspective from their studies. The BA structure had militated against the development of an integrated perspective. And so, for us 3rd year sociology students, (majors), a new system of essay writing had been devised to encourage us 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. But it was not only a curriculum that was restrictive upon students; I suspect the lecturers also felt constrained by it. They were also seeking “elbow room” of their own so they could present us with their considered viewpoints from their studies in sociology, explaining how this fitted together with their other scholarly involvements.

     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 renewal. It was then, and to this day remains an important stimulus, for sociological theorising around the world. This lecturer in the Sociology of Education, recently returned from doctoral studies in the United States, commended this work even while he acknowledged our difficulty in interpreting the book’s content. He affirmed 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, The Social Construction of Reality in a nutshell”. This interpretation is not above criticism, of course, and it needs to be asked whether it truly represents the nuanced perspective of Berger and Luckmann. Nor did the lecturer present it as the last word on the book. And nor am I trying to suggest that I was then “tuned in” to all the philosophical nuances and the emphases he gave these words in his lecture. Still, if it be taken with the seriousness it deserves, it not only endorses an existentialist, even nihilist, view, it also dogmatically suggests that any alternative view is simply an alternative way by which the dissenter creates meaning for him or herself. But as a universal principle it claims to explain, in rudimentary terms, what a person is actually doing who dissents from the view of the “essential meaninglessness of life”; they are “creating meaning for themselves” in the face of a profound challenge thrown at them by meaning-less reality.

     It took a few days for the impact and some of the consequences to sink in. My first thought was that if there was no place for a Christian world-view in sociology then there was no place there for me. But then a second compelling thought came to me. This thought did not come from 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. The thought was this: this world-view was seeking to make sense of everything by considering “meaning” in terms of what we humans achieve in our lives. A Christian sociology can not just reject this viewpoint but must then present a sociological perspective that is as wide as human responsibility, as diverse as the human task that we have taken up as stewards of the creation. The development of an alternative Christian sociology was thus obviously part of my calling as a Christian student.

     At that point in my formal education, as a Christian student, I was an office-bearer in the Monash Evangelical Union, and organiser of a substantial network of EU “cell groups” across the campus. This “bombshell” confronted me with a series of problems quite apart from its challenge to my coursework and how I would proceed to write the essays I handed in for evaluation.

     In The Sacred Canopy, Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967) [2] Berger had “theorised” about religious belief in ways that were consistent with this phenomenological approach to “meaning”. Later he developed a profound ambivalence about this account, since it read as a treatise in defence of atheism. That ambivalence resulted in his subsequent book A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (1967).[3] Berger’s published self-correction to assert religious belief, had already been published by this time although it had not been a central part of the Sociology of Religion course. Nevertheless, this led some fellow Christian students to the view that with Berger’s advocating the “rediscovery” of the supernatural in modern society he was not only pointing the way to how a Christian community can overcome the essential meaninglessness of life, but to a way of engaging as a Christian with sociology. But that still left the dogma of the religious neutrality of sociology beyond criticism and it did not, as such, overcome the affirmation that “life is basically meaningless”.

     Not only had I to complete the coursework in what I then was being encouraged to view as the “secular” part of my university involvement, but this other “religious” side of my life with the Evangelical Union also appeared in a new light. To say that it is a general and universal condition for human actors create meaning for themselves, is to imply that faith in Christ is simply a special instance of “religious” people creating a meaningful universe for themselves. The university, that had hitherto seemed to be splitting up into various competing philosophies, world-views and disciplines, let alone faculties and courses, now appeared in a new light. It was a venue of meaning creation against the underlying meaninglessness. The university itself was now a corporate social actor involved in the creation of meaning. Likewise businesses, clubs, the church, the state, families. Of the Christian community Berger had this to say:

When all is said and done, the Christian community consists of those people who keep on telling this story to each other, and some of these people climb up on soap boxes of some kind to tell the story to others. [4]

     The “light” of this “revelation” had been “turned on” in a lecture theatre but it somehow kept shining outside in the “everyday life” of the campus. Half of the EU executive had also been sitting in that lecture, enrolled in this same sociology course. My task was to ensure the smooth running of cell-groups, and I had developed the view that these small faculty centred groups were there to encourage EU members to consider their studies as the true focus of their student vocation at university. Of course, such study, from the viewpoint of the Christian club, included the study of the Bible and the lecture series we organised was framed with that part of a Christian student’s study in mind. We were one of the largest clubs on campus enjoying a genuine liveliness in our fellowship and our contribution to student life. But could I, as a Christian, endorse the view that “life is basically meaningless” and that meaningful life is what humans create?

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     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)[5] and The God who is There (1968) [6]

     These were books from Schaeffer’s earlier period before he became the “philosophical” guru for the Christian Manifesto (1982)[7], and “key note speaker” for the Moral Majority. It is noteworthy, however, that in his 1968 book, Schaeffer mantioned the spiritual relevance of post-structuralist and post-modern perspectives of Foucault, a long time before the Frenchman became fashionable with sociology world-wide absorbing his deconstructive concepts.[8] There was no real confrontation with phenomenology, as least to the sociological phenomenology to which Berger appealed.

     The other major intellectual “authority” among EU students was John Stott (1921-2011) whose Basic Christianity (1958)[9] was evangelical “orthodoxy” and this was then supplemented by a lecture tour at that time expounding his recently published Christ the Controversialist (1970)[10]. 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 the immediate social context of my various campus responsibilities. Looking back, I guess the sociology lecturer may have been giving voice to his own deep philosophical frustration, having gotten himself “hung up” trying to figure out some of the obscurities of conventional sociological theory, and the endless discussion about the “meaning of meaning”, whether the insistence upon “objective science” wasn’t just a “subjective prejudice”, and so on. 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 a way that made 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 it must be said that later on his own contribution to public life, from a “principled pragmatist” standpoint has been anything but meaning-less, let alone nihilist. He may have actually meant: “debate about meaning is meaningless. It is in social action that we find meaning.”

      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? For a short time I considered dropping out of the course. But then I suspected that would have mean that I was saying that for my purposes the statement was meaningless? That, sounded too much like the “dare to struggle; dare to win” of the neo-Marxist-Maoist Monash student radicals [11] for whom meaning was dissent, rebellion! 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 it was that suggested confrontation that challenged me, and it has remained as a part of my life, my vocation as a Christian student ever since. 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.

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[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] Peter L Berger The Sacred Canopy – Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Doubleday and Co. Garden City, NY 1967)

[3] Peter L Berger A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (Doubleday and Co. Garden City, NY 1969).

[4] Peter L Berger “Let’s get back to authority” Eternity, February 1972, pp. 30-32.

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

[6] Francis A Schaeffer The God who is There (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1968

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

[8] Escape pp.69-71.

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

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

[11] Michael Hyde (ed) It is Right to Rebel (Canberra, The Diplomat 1972).

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