Why not a Christian Sociology? A Call for the Christian Student Vocation (4)

This is the final part of my autobiographical account of my discovery of the Christian student vocation.

     A few months earlier, my marble with birthdate had come out of the Government’s 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 had 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 critical and self-critical; as a Christian you had better first know philosophically what you are talking about since it is not only your own Christian profession that is on the line.

     Philosophically? Hadn’t Orientation-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 not previously heard. Dooyeweerd’s 4 volume A New Critique of Theoretical Thought[12] 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)[13] with essays from various scholars among them Kroner, van Peursen, Ellul and a piece on “Law and Logic” from Dooyeweerd’s colleague in jurisprudence 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.

     Ted was a mathematics lecturer. I was an under-graduate student in sociology. Our respective contributions to Monash University intersected in the life of one of the clubs affiliated with the Monash Association of Students (let me repeat: the word “association” is important – the attempt to make the student association into the on-campus equivalent of an “industrial union” played into the hands of those who wanted the university to be a “union-free” zone via their 1999 VSU legislation). It was in that social context that I was introduced to scholarly material, intensely relevant for understanding the sociological discipline, and indeed my own studies. The important piece of advice that Ted gave me, as I subsequently came to realise, was a “nutshell” formulation or application of what Dooyeweerd calls a “transcendental 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 [14].

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 that arise from sociological research? Is it a necessary postulate for sociological reflection?

     In other words, it was not in “normal” lectures  and tutorials that I learned how to engage in genuine theoretical dissent about pre-scientific commitments within the scientific domain. Nevertheless, here was advice that remains a vital part of the scientific contribution that is my calling as a student, one who studies, and it relates to how scientific and philosophical dissent should be understood. It could not be avoided in course-work. It means taking a path that scrupulously avoids forcing one’s pre-scientific commitment upon a philosophical opponent, or even appearing to do so. A comprehensive philosophical account of theoretical reflection involves explaining how we should view the forming of theoretical concepts and then of how we engage in philosophical communication. I had not encountered this Christian view of philosophical communication about the truth before. Certainly this was not the apologetics of Francis Schaeffer who, by the way, seems to have scrupulously avoided any mention of Dooyeweerd.

     Since I was a student, which involved ascribing due respect to 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 is a challenge that 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.[15]

     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 in sociology and other social sciences under the rubric of “value freedom” (Wertfreiheid) by Max Weber.

     But just as important, there was also an implicit normative dimension here concerned with a student’s relation to a lecturer. Christian students who dissent from the view of the impossibility of a Christian sociology (or other science), should not get themselves lost trying to appeal to a presumed inviolable individual right to give free expression to their personal identity, nor even cloaking this in the pious language of faith. Instead our Christian calling involves an immanent critical orientation that seeks to contribute positively to scholarly discourse. In particular, and especially, this is the case when discussion involves theoretical and philosophical disagreement over pre-scientific, supra-theoretical commitments that are unavoidable in all 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 formed carefully so that it truly contributes to advance genuine scientific communication. 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 “way of study” (as an important dimension of a coinciding “way of life”) that has not sufficiently and self-critically avoided the myth of religious neutrality.[16]

     A Christian scientific engagement requires such a critical orientation and nurturing a scientific awareness 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? And is it not of direct relevance to us in our scientific discussions?

     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 a painstaking empirical assessment of all relevant data. It requires ongoing attention to detail and complex arguments. The aim must be a contribution to scholarly communication that 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 investigation.

      In those days, from all the identified perspectives within sociology it was generally agreed that a Christian sociology was impossible, unthinkable. But, even so, within sociology there was an emerging plurality of what are referred to as “perspectives”, often incompatible with each other, that still unite to defend the “secularization” of theoretical reflection. Since secularization had pushed religion to the margins of public life there is simply was no question of whether there can be a Christian sociological perspective. Christians in sociology, yes. But a Christian sociology? Hardly.

     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). Children of the church, who had long-since given up on their baptismal vows, were at that time in the forefront of debate that 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. This transformation was well advanced in the 1970s at Australia’s universities. On all sides, Christian students were faced with so-called enlightened opinion, also within church, telling us that Christianity was no longer a viable “way of life”; it was, at most, a fringe “spirituality”.

     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 could only be the expression of a pre-theoretical prejudice and when it is affirmed it is not unusual to find that it is accompanied by a dogmatic insistence that the humanistic standpoint is autonomous and religiously neutral. That is still the case.

     That was over 45 years ago. There is still much work to do. And as I have suggested at the outset of this 4-part posting, the future refreshment of a Christian way of life within the South West Pacific may well depend upon the way in which Christian students begin to give expression to their corporate responsibility for each other across this region and beyond. We should not bewail the smallness of our student efforts; we should simply get to work and give honour and respect to the One who calls us to follow Him, and so as students of Jesus Christ seek to be loyal and faithful stewards.

BCW

26 April 2016.

 

__________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

[16] 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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