Confronting Christian Sociology’s Cordon Sanitaire

As I have said in previous posts: I had begun to doubt the common “privatised” view of religion as a fourteen year-old. Because I could not accept a “privatised” view of religion, I was not at all willing to accept that the “everyday secularisation” that had already become part of my life should be ignored as religiously neutral. It was not. And that it was not religiously neutral was confirmed by the way in which the sociological explanation of “secularisation” was set forth in lectures and tutorials for us undergraduates as a process that was taking place above our heads, without our own involvement.

In that context to affirm that the teaching of Jesus Christ meant discipleship was a way of life and not merely a way of worship, something to be lived out publicly, had to clash with the “sociological tradition” which presupposed that Christianity had been consigned to the “background”, released to the private realm. And so, my under-graduate years were indeed a spiritual challenge. Even with sociology as my BA major, the idea that my major concern should have been with the development of a Christian sociological perspective did not come easily to me, and it was certainly not presented as a serious project for sociology students.

The ambiguity that I began to confront was this: if the development of a Christian sociology was to be viewed as a contradiction in terms, then this alleged fact needed to be investigated by those who considered it to be so. The theoretical view that was then challenging the dominant positivist view considered facts to be always part of a socially constructed reality and if the impossibility of a Christian sociology was fact did it not need to be investigated so that an explanation of the reality of its social construction could be set forth? And the investigation should definitely not be left to Christian students themselves. Was the social construction of reality perspective put forward by Berger and Luckmann a genuine sociological perspective or not? Or was the “debunking motif” that Berger claims as an integral part of the sociological perspective to be understood as perpetually biased on the side of those wanting to show the secularity and religious neutrality of the scientific discipline? In which case “secularisation theory” thus understood seems to imply a deep religious bias that a Christian sociology shouldn’t be attempted

I am suggesting that such an investigation is not at all peripheral. If society was indeed to be studied in terms of “secularisation theory” then to investigate why a Christian sociology was not possible, by those who believed it was not possible, must go to the heart of sociology itself. The negative case, if it is to function as part of scientific sociology, needs to be argued not merely presumed. The fact that it was merely presumed, the fact that Christian sociology was not a problem for investigation but an irritating problem that needed intellectual avoidance, simply indicated that “secularisation theory” was collapsing under its own antinomies. Without such developed argument, the proposition “There is no Christian sociology” is simply a dogmatic utterance blocking genuine research. And that’s just to discuss how it functions for students who don’t see any inner connection between their religious faith and their studies, even if they claim to have no religious faith.

So sociology, qua discipline, was merely affirmed to be religiously neutral. At that point we have come to a point where a significant sociological research question comes into view: how is it that the reigning commitment to “secularisation theory” didn’t require such challenging questions to be asked! How was it that sociology could be taught with its underlying secularised assumption masked? Why was it that the secularising social life of the students themselves was not part of any “invitation to sociology”? The absence of frank and open discussion about “secularisation” in its personal dimensions and consequences simply revealed a sociology that was dominated by an exclusive and unhelpful dogmatic attitude.


At this point, I guess, my concern with the discipline that has become my major concern, requires some “relativisation” by referring to the prevailing education context of those times. From early on in high school, University entrance had been held out as something for students who were in the “top bracket”. University studies were a pre-requisite for future leadership in our society (or was it to be as student cynicism had it: just a “piece of paper”, a qualification in order to obtain a job?). Only the very brightest and the best would go on to “uni”. And once inside the academy, the under-graduate student discovered – sometimes to his or her deep consternation – that courses were organised in ways that may have required students to choose a “specialist” path but did not necessarily provide a scientific and philosophical training that gave them any basis upon which to make decisions concerning post-university contributions, employment and service. And in the process the idea of the university that had to that time prevailed, as a place of learning with an expectation of student curiosity was subverted. In Australia’s universities this utilitarian view was led by the prestigious professions of law and medicine first securing their place in the emerging scheme of things and they led the way with the basic BA and BSc degrees no longer retaining their central place as pre-requisite for any advanced specialist and professional study. High school was the launching pad for law and medicine and training in a well-rounded scientific competence would be replaced by job-training. Training in science (in all of its specialties) was being replaced by job training specialisation. The hopes of students who entered university in the 1960s hoping to enter courses that would allow them to transcend the narrow, specialised paths required for high school matriculation were soon dashed.

Getting it all Together

I may have had a vague idea of this at the time but it took some time to understand the maelstrom into which I found myself as an undergraduate. What emerged was an intellectual or more exactly a philosophical and theoretical problem that required coherent solution as my university studies proceeded: How was a student to “get it all together”? The demand was that one simply “get through the course”, to worry about intellectual integration later. Such philosophical questions could be attended to after one had become qualified, after one had proven oneself in specialised research in one discipline? Besides, who was going to listen to you anyway?

This problem was also part of the social and cultural atmosphere at that time? We breathed an air full of youthful criticism. There was idealism but it was always tempered by such a utilitarian calculus that – philosophically – suggested that the way forward was to stop being concerned with presuppositions, with pre-theoretical commitments, with asking basic questions about the structure of scientific inquiry.

I guess this kind of utilitarian “wait until you are qualified” fob off had already been inculcated in a “softer version” from family and school, and not so much from church, especially if it tended to indulge youthful aspirations.

Whatever we did as university students presupposed our eagerness to avoid “getting into a rut”. Was the university qualification, a BA, merely a passport to owning a home in the eastern suburbs? Was a BSc a flag that added to one’s marriage prospects? Was a university course merely a way to put off conscription if one had been unlucky enough for one’s birthdate marble to come out of the national service barrel?

I can’t tell the full story here. That would require some discussion of what seems now to have been something of a holding operation due to the stimulating writings of John Stott (1921-2011) and Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). But I can say that a lot of things came together when I read a draft translation titled Reconstruction and Renewal of Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), that would later be published as Roots of Western Culture (1979).

Choosing Ruts Carefully?

But that was also at the time, late in 1971 when I attended a lecture by a Sydney evangelical philosopher, who had already attained his place in a university faculty, who put it in these terms when addressing the inaugural National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1971:

“Choose your ruts carefully!”

He may have been saying this with a considerable dose of irony but I found myself deeply alarmed by the call (and I still do) (The congress was for senior churchmen but the lectures were invaded by many interested evangelical students like myself). Had we not been challenged by the purveyors of the same evangelical outlook to go to university in order to challenge the view that life was inevitably to be “stuck in a rut”? Had we not been told on all sides, including in our churches, that we, a younger Christian generation, needed to serve Christ and avoid the ruts in which our parents’ generation had found themselves? Even our parents, those who still held out hope for us that we would freely give ourselves to our callings, had implicitly warned us about the way post-war “progress” had left them “in a rut”. Were we not warned about the peril of “going along with the crowd” – was not conformity the pathway to a future life lived that lacked authenticity? The genealogy of this view may have been English, but it was a view well entrenched within our generation’s cynicism, albeit somewhat “Christian” to boot. R. H. Tawney had associated it with his fictitious character “Henry Dubb”:

We go to work to earn the cash to buy the bread to get the strength to go to work to earn the cash … [quoted in R H Tawney “Christianity and the Social Revolution” Chapter 11 of The Attack and Other Papers Statesman 1981 (repr of 1953) pp. 157-166 at p. 163 ftn.1. This was a redraft of a 1935 review in the New Statesman.]

But then in 1971, what was this widely-respected Christian evangelical scholar doing by espousing a view that, as I then read it, undermined the self-same evangelical challenge that had, presumably, been thrown out to him earlier on in his life? Was academic success merely the means by which a person gained public permission to implicitly sneer at the urgency with which one started out as a Christian on the path of “higher learning”? How could Christian discipleship be maintained in such ruts? I was not so much angered as disturbed, concerned that this prominent scholar had so seriously accepted the view for himself that a Christian life for a university graduate was necessarily to live with such a dissonant world-view, one that seemed to acquiesce in his own compromised idealism as he set forth his view that the doctrines we live by needed to be affirmed by scripture, tradition and reason.

What was the antidote to this compromised scholastic idealism? An uncompromised anti-scholastic idealism, perhaps? A consistently moral, this worldly, materialism decorated with one denominational choice of biblical bunting?

To be continued ….





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