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Sociology

[4] Who Are Evangelicals?

by Philip Yancey

A friend of mine who runs an inner-city shelter for drug addicts and homeless people and is tantalizingly hard to place on any theological map made this observation: “I love evangelicals.  You can get them to do anything.  The challenge is, you’ve also got to soften their judgmental attitudes before they can be effective.”  As a journalist working primarily within the evangelical milieu, I have seen the truth of his remarks.

Indeed, you can get evangelicals to do anything.  This year alone I have seen a variety of evangelicals at work on several continents.  In South Africa I spent time with Ray McCauley, a larger-than-life character who in younger days finished second-runner-up to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Mr. Universe contest.  Ray founded a church in Johannesburg based on the charismatic “name it and claim it” philosophy, a church that ultimately grew into the largest in South Africa, with 32,000 members.  As the apartheid government began to crumble, Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu embraced Ray, no doubt coveting his nationwide television constituency.  In the process Ray’s attitudes, politics, and rigid theology began to soften.  White members grew disgruntled, and gradually the church’s makeup changed in a way that reflects the racial spectrum of the nation: 70 percent black, 10 percent mixed race or “Coloured,” 10 percent Indian, and 10 percent white.  Today Rhema Ministries’ many programs include an AIDS hospital and a rehabilitation farm for addicts.

At the other end of the country, in Cape Town, I met Joanna Flanders-Thomas, a dynamic and attractive woman of mixed race.  As a student she agitated against the apartheid government.  After that nationwide victory she turned to a local problem, the most violent prison in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela had spent several years of confinement.  Alone, Joanna started visiting prisoners daily, bringing them a simple Gospel message of forgiveness and reconciliation.  She earned their trust, got them to talk about their abusive childhoods, and pointed them to a better way of solving conflicts.  The year before her visits began, the prison recorded 279 acts of violence; the next year there were two.  Joanna’s results attracted the attention of the BBC, which sent a camera crew from London to produce two one-hour documentaries on her work.

Two months later I traveled to Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, a dirt-poor country where the caste system lives on.  There I met with leprosy health workers from fifteen nations, mostly European, who serve under an evangelical mission specializing in leprosy work.  Historically, most of the major advances in leprosy treatment have come from Christian missionaries—mainly because, as my friend put it, “You can get them to do anything.”  I met well-trained surgeons, nurses, and physical therapists who devote their lives to caring for leprosy victims, many of them of the Untouchable caste.  At their annual conference, the missionaries assembled a makeshift orchestra, sang hymns and prayed together, and shared practical hints on how to handle the Maoist guerrilla threat in Nepal.  In their leisure time, some of these missionaries climb the high mountains in Nepal, others focus on bird life, and at least one French doctor studies Himalayan moths.  Several had run the Kathmandu marathon, and two had taken a wild motorcycle trek across mountains and rivers into neighboring Tibet.  None that I met fit the stereotype of “uptight, right-wing evangelicals,” yet all would claim the word evangelical.  They had come to Nepal, after all, to spread the “good news” implicit in the etymology.

From Nepal I went to Beijing, China, where I attended an international church, 2000-strong, comprising members from sixty nations.  An African dance troupe led the music that morning, and the rented hotel room rocked.  I met diplomats, business executives, an Oxford philosophy professor, and platoons of young evangelicals who had moved to China in order to teach English and in the process communicate their faith to the Chinese.  Government restrictions forbade Chinese nationals from attending the church—ushers checked passports at the door—but later that day I met representatives from the Chinese underground church.  In the last thirty years, despite periodic government crackdowns that have led to harsh prison sentences for its leaders, the house church movement has burgeoned into perhaps the largest Christian awakening in history.  Experts estimate that 70 million Chinese now worship in house churches scattered throughout the officially atheistic nation.  One of the leaders met with me even though authorities had explicitly forbidden it.  “I’m 89 years old and I’ve already spent 23 years in prison,” he said defiantly.  “What are they going to do to me?”

A few months later, in Wisconsin, I attended a conference on ministry to women in prostitution that attracted representatives from nineteen different nations.  Several dozen evangelical organizations work to counter illegal sex trafficking and also to liberate women from prostitution, which in poor nations constitutes a modern form of slavery.  The representatives brought along some of their “clients,” who told wrenching tales of abuse and then credited the ministries with setting them free and helping them find new trades.

When I return from such trips and read profiles in Time and Newsweek about American evangelicals, I feel sad.  In the United States, everything eventually boils down to politics, and usually that means polarization.  Many Americans view evangelicals as a monolithic voting bloc obsessed with a few moral issues.  They miss the vibrancy and enthusiasm, the good-newsness that the word represents in much of the world.  Evangelicals in Africa bring food to prisoners, care for AIDS orphans, and operate mission schools that train many of that continent’s leaders.  There, and in Asia and Latin America, evangelicals also manage micro-enterprise loan programs that allow families to buy a sewing machine or a flock of chickens.  In the last fifty years, the percentage of American missionaries sponsored by evangelical agencies has risen from 40 percent to 90 percent.  Presently, about a third of the two billion Christians in the world fall into a category to which the word evangelical applies, a large majority of whom live outside North America and Europe.

A friend of mine visiting a barrio in Sao Paulo, Brazil, began to feel anxious as he noticed the minions of drug lords patrolling the neighborhood with automatic weapons.  The streets narrowed to dirt paths; plastic water pipes dangled overhead; and a snarl of wires tapped power from high-voltage lines.  The stench of sewer was everywhere.  Anxiety increased as he noticed that people inside the tin shacks were glowering at him, a suspicious gringo invading their turf.  Was he a narc?  An undercover cop?  Then the chief drug lord of that neighborhood noticed on the back of his t-shirt the logo of a local Pentecostal church.  He broke out in a big smile, “O, evangelicos!” he called out, and the scowls turned to smiles.  Over the years, that church had extended practical help to the barrio, and now the foreign visitors were joyfully welcomed.

In the United States, too, evangelicals are thriving even as mainline Protestant churches decline.  Evangelicals staff many of the five hundred Christian agencies which have sprung up since World War II to combat social problems.  Mega-churches based on the 17,000-member Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago and Saddleback Community Church in southern California are replicating in major cities.  A new, hard-to-classify “emergent church” has evolved to minister to the post-modern generation.  In fact, one recent survey revealed that 93 of the top 100 rapidly growing churches in the U.S. identify themselves with evangelicals.

Truly, you can get evangelicals to do anything.  The challenge, as my friend emphasized, is that “you’ve also got to soften their judgmental attitudes before they can be effective.”

When I was writing the book What’s So Amazing About Grace? I conducted an informal survey among airline seatmates and other strangers willing to strike up a conversation.  “When I say the word evangelical, what comes to mind?” I would ask.  Often in response I would hear the word against: Evangelicals are against abortion, against pornography, against gay rights.  Or, I would hear a name like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, two of the most visible, and political, representatives of evangelicalism.  For many people I talked to, evangelicals were a force to fear, a gang of moralists attempting to impose their will on a pluralistic society.

A journalist working in the New York media told me that editors had no qualms about assigning a Jewish person to a Jewish story, a Buddhist to a Buddhist story, or a Catholic to a Catholic story, but would never assign an evangelical to an evangelical story.  Why not?  “They’re the ones with an agenda.”  Evangelicals, according to the New York stereotype, will propagandize and proselytize.  You can’t trust them.  They’re judgmental.  They have an agenda.

Pollster George Barna found that while 22 percent of Americans say they have a favorable impression of evangelicals, 23 percent report an unfavorable impression.  Much of the reason traces back to the perception of evangelicals as a political force, a perception based on a most checkered history.

Until the 1960s, evangelicals were as likely to be aligned with the Democratic Party as the Republican.  For example, early in the twentieth century the prominent evangelical William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat, ran unsuccessfully for President and served in Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet until he became alarmed over the U.S. tilt toward entering World War I.  Evangelicals led the fight for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery—and also the opposition to it.  (Revivalist George Whitefield in the eighteenth century actively campaigned for slavery and the Southern Baptist denomination later formed over the right of missionaries to own slaves.)  At times evangelicals opposed immigration in an attempt to dam the flood of European Catholics.

In perhaps the high-water mark of evangelicals’ involvement in politics, they battled for a constitutional amendment decreeing the prohibition of alcohol, a measure later overturned and now viewed with considerable misgiving.  Evangelical African-Americans led the civil rights crusade while some white evangelicals opposed it.  In the 1980s, Jerry Falwell urged American Christians to buy gold Krugerrands and to promote U.S. reinvestment in South Africa in an effort to shore up the white regime.  Currently, evangelicals take a prominent role in championing the death penalty, supporting pro-life legislation, and retaining traditional definitions of marriage.  In short, evangelicals have taken political stances that sometimes appear quixotic, sometimes heroic, and often contradictory.

Modern evangelicals in the U.S. increasingly ally themselves with conservative politics.  Evangelicals rallied around Ronald Reagan, the nation’s first divorced President, who rarely attended church and gave little to charity, while viewing with suspicion Jimmy Carter, a devoutly religious President who taught a Baptist Sunday School class throughout his term in office.  Televangelist and preacher Pat Robertson ran for President.  So did Gary Bauer, head of the evangelically-based Family Research Council.  Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, who made the cover of Time in 1995, served in 2004 as a regional chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign.

To complicate matters, many evangelicals in places like the United Kingdom and New Zealand align themselves with liberal political parties, believing their Christian commitment enjoins them to seek government help for the poor and to oppose war.  And in China, many in the underground church see no contradiction in their support for the world’s largest Communist government.

According to author Randall VanderMey, “Evangelicals tend to view the church not as a giant ship so much as a fleet of rowboats and boogie boards, with each individual in search of an authentic personal experience with God.”  As we have seen, politics hardly offers the appropriate labels to slap on evangelicals.  What descriptors might apply, then?  In this book you will meet a wide variety of people who somehow fall under the label evangelical.  To adapt a comment famously made by a Supreme Court justice about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

Over the decades, the emphases of American evangelicals have shifted.  Early in the twentieth century, evangelicals tended to define themselves by doctrine, countering theological liberals with an emphasis on the fundamentals of the faith (hence the term fundamentalism).  In the years following World War II, evangelicals entered an activist phase, founding Bible colleges and universities, dispatching missionaries overseas, and reaching out to a young generation through such organizations as Youth For Christ, Young Life, and Campus Crusade.  Evangelicals were often distinguished more by a behavioral lifestyle than by doctrine: “We don’t drink, smoke, dance, or chew, and we don’t go with girls who do.”  Later in the century, many of these lifestyle distinctives broke down and the emphasis, in the U.S. at least, moved to politics.

Every few years the national media recognizes the cultural phenomenon.  Time magazine called 1976, when Jimmy Carter got elected, “the year of the evangelical.”  During Watergate, Charles Colson attracted much attention for his dramatic born-again conversion.  In 2003 Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed article in the New York Times acknowledging that “nearly all of us in the news business are completely out of touch with a group that includes 46 percent of Americans,” the proportion who described themselves in a Gallup poll as evangelical or born-again Christians.

Evangelicalism in the U.S. has become not just a set of beliefs or organizations, but rather a vast subculture that manages to flourish within an increasingly pluralistic culture.  In 2003 a book written by evangelical pastor Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, sold more copies in a single year than any previous nonfiction book in history.  The dozen books in the Left Behind series on the Second Coming of Christ have passed 60 million copies in print.  The Prayer of Jabez and the older The Late Great Planet Earth show that blockbuster evangelical books are no fluke.  And Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ stunned Hollywood studios with its success, due in large part to evangelicals’ support.

In a tongue-in-cheek article, “What Would Jesus Do,” GQ magazine’s literary editor Water Kirn spent a week immersing himself in the evangelical subculture.  He read from the Left Behind series, dined on foods recommended in the book What Would Jesus Eat?, listened to Christian music on Christian radio stations and on his CD player, shopped at an evangelical bookstore, watched Bibleman videos, and got his news from Christian television and evangelical Internet sites.  He even used a computer mouse pad purchased from a Christian store and designed by Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light.  Kirn admitted to some relief from the assaults of secular culture but ended up unimpressed by evangelical subculture: “Ark culture is a bad Xerox of the mainstream, not a truly distinctive or separate achievement.  Without the courage to lead, it numbly follows, picking up the major media’s scraps and gluing them back together with a cross on top.”  Yet the very fact that he could spend a week inside that “ark culture” shows its pervasive influence.

The British historian David Bebbington suggests this overall summary of evangelical distinctives, which will be used as a kind of template in this book:

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born again” experience.
  • Activism: the expression of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.
  • Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible as the ultimate authority.
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.

Under this overarching description, Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Orthodox Christians can be evangelicals even while remaining within denominational structures that might shirk the term.  The National Association of Evangelicals bars members of the National Council of Churches, and yet many of those denominations have constituents who gladly call themselves evangelicals.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must report that I am an evangelical.  I write books for the same publisher that produced The Purpose Driven Life (while trying not to envy its sales figures), and I write a monthly column for Christianity Today, a leading evangelical magazine.  I have spent much of my career within the evangelical subculture, poking around it as a journalist, exploring and sometimes challenging its foibles and eccentricities.  As one who emerged out of narrow Southern fundamentalism, I have found the subculture surprisingly broad and diverse.  Not once has a magazine or book publisher tried to censor my words.

I studied in the graduate school at Wheaton College, a place that honors and rewards scholarship.  I cut my journalistic teeth as Editor of Campus Life, a magazine published by Youth For Christ, and then served as “Editor at Large” for Christianity Today.  All three identify themselves strongly with the one person who best exemplifies the evangelical style: Billy Graham, who studied at Wheaton and founded the other two organizations.  And all three provided a nurturing environment in which I could work out my own faith, including times of serious doubts and struggles, even as I pressed against the limitations of the subculture.  Graham’s influence has been enormous: his crusades embraced mainline denominations, Catholics, and charismatics; he dismantled racial barriers; and he eased evangelicals into the public square by addressing such issues as civil rights, abortion, poverty, and the nuclear arms race.

When I mailed the manuscript for What’s So Amazing About Grace? to the publisher, I told my wife, “This book may get me blackballed by evangelicals.”  After all, it contained a chapter on Bill Clinton, not exactly a hero to most evangelicals, and a chapter on Mel White, who came out of the closet as a homosexual activist even though he clings to most evangelical theology.  I was wrong.  Nearly every day I receive an appreciative letter from an evangelical reader.

As a writer, I have found that by sticking to Bebbington’s four distinctives, especially his emphasis on the Bible, I have a wide range of freedom.  The Bible looms as a decisive self-corrective to the vagaries of evangelical theology and practice.  When readers complain, I reply that I am not the radical; Jesus is.  He sought out prostitutes and sinners, in the process attracting violent opposition from the religious establishment of his day.  He set the standard for personal holiness in the midst of a decadent society while responding with love and grace to the very ones who made it decadent.  As he departed, he prayed that his followers would not be removed from the world, charging them instead to live in its midst as salt and light, as representatives of a counter-kingdom based on peace and love and justice.

After spending several decades working within evangelicalism I would summarize its essential tenets in three statements:

This is our Father’s world. Evangelicals believe that God created the world and lavished it with care.  Any residue of goodness on the planet reflects God’s “common grace”: the sun shines and rain falls both on those who believe and on those who don’t.  All pleasure, including beauty, sexuality, art, and work, are God’s gifts to us, and we look to God’s revelation for the pattern in best ordering our desires so that in them we may find fulfillment and not bondage.

Theologian Langdon Gilkey said that if evangelical Christianity has a heresy, it is the omission of God the Father, the creator, preserver, and ruler of all human history and every human community, in favor of Jesus the Son, who is related to individual souls and their destinies.  I see his complaint not so much as a heresy as a failure in emphasis.  As C. S. Lewis, the patron saint of thoughtful evangelicals, once wrote, “When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”

As an expression of love for the world, God entered its history (the Incarnation) and gave the Son’s life as a sacrifice for its redemption (the Atonement). Its emphasis on Jesus and the cross separates Christianity from all other religions, and evangelicals hold fast to that distinctive.  In the mystery of the Trinity, God was “in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” (the Apostle Paul’s words).  Evangelicals recognize that the world has been invaded by evil, and believe that Christ began a process of reclamation, in which the church plays a crucial role, that will culminate in a final victory.

On one of Karl Barth’s visits to Union Seminary, someone asked him what he would say if he met Adolf Hitler.  The German theologian replied, “Jesus Christ died for your sins.”  Evangelicals’ emphasis on conversion stems from a profound belief that, as Paul put it, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”  Almost every message delivered by evangelist Billy Graham centered on that theme.  And yet Graham himself insisted that a stress on getting right with God does not imply a faith “so heavenly minded that it does no earthly good.”  Quite the contrary.  Evangelicals such as William Wilberforce, John Newton, and Charles Simeon in England led the way in social reform.

Sociologists in Latin America have documented how the act of conversion can lead to significant social change.  (See, for example, Base Christian Communities and Social Change in Brazil, by William Hewitt.)  A man goes forward to receive Christ at an evangelistic meeting.  He joins a local church, which counsels him to stop getting drunk on weekends.  With their help, he does so.  He starts showing up at work on Monday mornings, and eventually gets promoted to a foreman position.  With new faith and a renewed sense of worth, he stops beating his wife and becomes a better father to his children.  Newly empowered, his wife takes a job that allows her to afford education for her children.  Multiply that by several score converted citizens, and soon the economic base of the entire village rises.

Through the power of the Spirit, followers of Jesus advance God’s kingdom in the world. Karl Barth also said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”  Yes, and in recent years evangelicals have increasingly recognized the corresponding need sometimes to unclasp those hands and actively lead the uprising against that disorder.

Evangelical organizations like International Justice Mission fight to liberate victims of sexual slavery even as other missions minister to its victims.  Prison Fellowship International visits prisoners and equips them for life outside.  Mercy Ships recruits doctors to perform free surgeries in needy countries.  Habitat for Humanity pursues the lofty goal of providing suitable housing for whoever lacks it.  Organizations such as World Vision, World Relief, Opportunity International, Samaritan’s Purse, Food for the Hungry, and World Concern respond to human disasters like plagues and famines while simultaneously funding development projects to prevent the disasters from recurring.  In a reprise of the “settlement movement” a century ago, evangelicals are moving into major cities to establish community-based programs.  Belatedly, some evangelical organizations have taken up the cause of the environment.  Evangelicals run homeless shelters, addiction programs, and alternative pregnancy centers because they believe such activism helps further God’s kingdom in the world, a practical way of answering Jesus’ prayer that “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

In evangelicalism, you will meet characters both saintly and eccentric. You will read of dissensions and discord.  The history of evangelicalism is a history of humanity, with all its fits and starts.  As one who has been nurtured by evangelicalism, I hope you also catch something of the spirit fueling a movement that has proven to be light on its feet, willing to self-correct, and is above all committed to follow Jesus “who, though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, that we, through his poverty, might become rich, and who has left us an example that we should follow in his steps.”  That last is a goal to which all evangelicals aspire, however falteringly we accomplish it.  Without doubt, Jesus is the radical one.

Philip Yancey is a renowned Christian writer.  His book sales have reached 14 millions worldwide.  This is reprinted with his permission from his website.

[3] The Christian Student’s Approach to Sociological Analysis

by Dr. David Claerbaut, Founder, FaithandLearningForum.com

Here is the essence of an email I received from a student.

I didn’t realize that I was put into a class that I couldn’t share my religious views. I will contact the university about switching out of this class…I am not comfortable posting my beliefs on anything in this class anymore. The whole reason I chose this college is because it is a Christian University.”

I teach sociology.  I have also published extensively on urban sociology and social problems.  This experience has generated a very simple question: How should a Christian scholar approach the subject of sociology, and particularly social problems?

QUICK AND EASY

When it comes to issues of social controversy, one way is quickly to take sides on the matter and then open one’s Bible and apply some selected verses to the social malady.  For example, issues pertaining to gay rights of various sorts can nicely be handled by quoting scriptural injunctions against homosexual conduct.

One can do this with any number of problems, whether they pertain to family, minority groups, politics, or education.  Find what one believes to be relevant verses (or perhaps trot in some solid Christian doctrines), apply them and wrap it up.  Issue analyzed.  All done.

That is a very common approach among Christian sociology students.  It is an understandable one.  It is also ineffective and an easy way out.

Why?  Because one does not have to be sociologist to do this.  One does not have to be educated, or even well-read to do this.  One only needs an opinion and a Bible.

SOCIOLOGY is a SCIENCE

Sociology is a behavioral science—the science of human group behavior–not a collection of opinions.  Many do not understand that.  If sociology were merely a conglomeration of educated guesses and opinions it would not exist as a discipline.  Beyond the macro social theories—Structure-Functionalism, Symbolic Interaction, and Power Conflict, for example—it is based on carefully conducted social research.  To treat any topic in sociology unscientifically is to repudiate the value of sociology as a discipline.

So what is the Christian to do?

STEPS

As committed as we are to the Bible as Truth, it is not a sociology, biology, or political science textbook.  It does not claim to be.   Therefore, the  first step is to use the tools of the discipline of sociology—culture, social structure, socialization, history, institutions, power differentials, and other concepts—and apply them to the issue at hand.  For example, why does racism exist?  The simple and correct answer might be that people are sinful.  That seems correct.  It is not, however, a correct sociological reason.  Sociologically, racism is bound up with the history of slavery and white supremacy, the injection of racism into the nation’s laws, and its institutionalization in education through segregation and urban neglect.  All of those are examples of sin—sociological sin.

In the case of highly controversial matters, as in the case of issues affecting gays, the first step is a Christian one: Be fair.  Study closely the case on both sides.  In the case of gay marriage the matter involves equal rights vs. traditional (or even Christian) values that are considered foundational to what is the United States.

This does not happen nearly enough.  If I get 24 papers on the issue of gay marriage, I can divide them into three stacks.  Eight will condemn the very thought of such alliances with scriptural documentation.  Eight will proclaim the importance of equal rights and damn the “fundamentalists” who are attempting to impose their religion on everyone else.  The rest will try to examine the issue more rationally.  This three-way split will happen consistently, even in instances in which no opinion is requested, simply a description of a social controversy.

Clearly, neither of the first two groups is handling it correctly.  First, they are not approaching the issue scientifically, at least not employing the tools of the discipline.  They are writing position papers—editorials—outside the context of sociology, rather than carefully thought through academic papers.  Moreover, nothing of what they write will have the slightest impact on those with whom they disagree.

This quick-to-a-conclusion method is especially damaging to the witness of Christian students who wish to reach their non-believing colleagues.  John Calvin encouraged the believer to go to the non-believer where she is.  In other words, make your case in terms she can understand.  Paul made a career of this as he preached to Jews and Gentiles on their turf.  He first understood them before he asked them to understand him.

CHRISTIAN VALUES IN A SECULAR SCIENCE

So what should the Christian student do in instances like these, especially on topics about which she has a strong spiritual stance.  Should she remain quiet, neutral, in-the-spiritual-closet?

She should begin by demonstrating that she understands the matter in question sociologically.  She should use the concepts of the discipline and show evidence that she understands the various sides to the issue.  Without that, her Christian thinking will have no credibility.

There is more she can do from a Christian standpoint within the discipline of sociology.

Believers do not see God’s laws as arbitrary–without reason.  The Bible is not unlike an automobile Owner’s Manual in that it teaches us how to live effectively.  Just as operating one’s vehicle without regard for the Owner’s Manual will likely reduce the efficiency and shorten the life of the vehicle, so also living in violation of God’s directives reduces the quality of life for individuals and cultures.

With this in mind, one can make the case for Christian values on sociological grounds, whether or not one wishes to “go public” as a Christian.  For example, a major social problem is the prevalence and dysfunctional nature of blended families; units consisting of previously divorced spouses each with children from earlier relationships.  The problems afflicting these families are myriad.  Other than in cases of widowhood, these problems would not exist if a divorce–a sin in the eyes of God–had not occurred.  The very existence of the troubled blended family is testimony to the consequences of the sin of divorce.

We can move the dial over to racism.  There is no shortage of verses in scripture that inveigh against being a respecter of persons.  United States’ racism harks back to slavery in the 1600’s, and forever after our nation has been wounded.  The sociological price this nation continues to pay in violence, hatred, and divisiveness for its sin of racism (practiced by believers and non-believers alike) is incalculable.

In the case of both racism and blended families, had the society truly operated by Christian values it would be a much more functional (healthier) society.  Hence, advocating enduring marriages and truly prejudice-free behavior is both Christian and sociologically sound.

There is one more step.  After demonstrating academic mastery, if she wishes to take a Christian position, the student should carefully—and separate from the sociological analysis–identify herself openly as a believer with a Christian worldview and humbly offer a Christian perspective.  There is nothing objectionable about that, provided the student is not using her theological and biblical worldview as a substitute for understanding the issues from a sociological perspective.

Separating the Christian perspective from the academic analysis is important.  It avoids having the students entire analysis dismissed as biased, and it enables her to state her Christian position in an undiluted fashion.

HUMILITY

A note on humility: Christians tend to become very shrill on selected issues, ones that may not directly involve them.  Gay issues get withering attacks, while the blended family gets a pass what with divorce being rife, even among Christians.  Illegal immigration is usually met with far less tolerance than subtle racism common among white students.

They are also selective in scriptural application.  The verses condemning homosexuality come pouring out of the computers but few that condemn divorce, and ever fewer affirming the subordination of women (deemed by many as a leftover from ancient culture), or call for Golden Rule equality of treatment and regard for all people.  Welfare cheating is roundly condemned but there is no mention of the over 400 verses in scripture affirming God’s love for the poor.

There most certainly is a place for a Christian perspective with respect to sociology in general and social problems in particular, but it should come after the matter has been analyzed sociologically, and in a spirit of humility and fairness.

Dr. Claerbaut is a Master Methodologist for doctoral students at Grand Canyon University.

[2] Christian Reflections on Major Social Theories

by Dr. David Claerbaut, Founder, FaithandLearningForum.com

Sociology is the study of human group behavior. Put simply, the difference between sociology and psychology is that the former focuses on the group, while the latter centers on the individual. Both disciplines are preparadigmatic. Despite mounds of empirical sociological research ground out annually, and its ardent claim to scientific status, there is no grand theory of collective functioning subscribed to by a majority, much less a consensus of scholars. Instead, there are a number of social theories, associated with specific theorists in the field.

Below are synopses of five major sociological theories. None are avowedly Christian, but that should not come as a surprise. Few disciplines are as devoid of Christian contributions than sociology. The essence of the discipline is naturalistic, such that every group pattern, from marriage to government, is considered a “social construction” rather than a God-ordained entity. Humans are viewed as no more than the most highly evolved members of the animal world, possessing complex cortical (brain) functions that enable them to develop elaborate group structures and functions. No mainstream theory affirms the existence of God or creation, nor does any adopt a moral view of human nature or assert the existence of universal truth or values.

Despite the naturalistic state of the discipline, there are strands of thought within the discipline that the Christian can embrace and develop.

George Herbert Mead

George Herbert Mead was a social psychologist. Social psychology is a hybrid sub-discipline awkwardly positioned between psychology and sociology. Mead, coming from the sociological symbolic interactionist branch, offers some valuable insights compatible with Christian thinking. A social theorist, Mead contributed heavily to the study of human identity, employing the concepts called the “I and the Me.”1 The I is the essence of who a person truly is in the interior self. It refers to one’s inner soul, that aspect of the self that is always in the present throughout life. In the case of you, the reader, it is the essence of your personhood throughout life. If your name is Rita, it is your inner and ongoing Rita-ness, the core of your self that flows from womb to tomb. It is what a person is experiencing, where she is honestly and truly living life at any given moment. The I is ongoing, never changing. Grammatically speaking, it is the subjective (rather than objective) phase of a person’s identity.

The Me is the collection of facts, experiences, affiliations, and characteristics that are a part of a person’s life history. It is the part of the self that is presented to and viewed by others. Whenever a person offers a self-description in terms of age, race, family background, educational attainment, employment, marital history, interests, even religion, she is describing the Me. The Me is what one projects to others. It is the part of the identity that is polite, fits in, and functions in society. It is the part that says, “Fine,” when asked, “How are you?” even though one’s life may be in shambles.

In excess of 99% of what most people reveal to others is from the Me. Only a person’s most intimate associates are allowed into one’s I, and then only partially. Even one’s parents and siblings may be almost totally ignorant of a family member’s I. In fact, even psychotherapists rarely get to the I. When a person says, “I may be older, heavier, and no longer living in your community, but I am still Rita,” she is distinguishing her I from her Me.

The I is only revealed in high-quality intimacy, not unlike Buber’s I-Thou dyad. S. Kirson Weinberg’s relational typology provides an insight that parallels the I and the Me.2 He claimed that relationships are either personal, impersonal, anti-personal, or non-personal. A personal relationship is one involving intimacy, unlimited approachability, and private personal disclosures, providing a glimpse into the I. Most people have very few of these. Impersonal alliances, no matter how friendly, are utilitarian and instrumental in nature. They are rooted in practicality rather than intimacy. A person’s relationship with a psychiatrist is at base impersonal, in that money is exchanged for private psychological services. Even a relationship with a sexual lover may be impersonal because it is driven more by mutual pleasure than inner emotional sharing. It is an I/It relationship by Buber’s calculation.

Anti-personal relationships are characterized by conflict. Here the participants often attack one another’s self-esteem. Personal relationships gone bad can deteriorate into anti-personal ones, because there is emotional ammunition available to strike painful blows at the now adversary’s psyche. The non-personal alliance refers to how a person relates to the faceless, anonymous masses he or she may encounter in a ticket line or getting on and off a crowded subway. Clearly, the personal relationship is the only one with the potential of involving the I.

A look at the best-seller lists, as well as the seminar and workshop market indicates how much humans long for I/Thou, personal, I-based relationships. The difficulty is that so few ever develop the ego-strength and relational skills necessary to satisfy this thirst. The Johari Window model of intimacy describes this well.3 The Window is divided into four slots or panes. The “open” pane includes all material known to us as well as to others. A second “hidden” slot refers to what his known to us only. It is what is unshared. A third area is “blind.” It houses what is known only by others (about us). Aspects of our reputations are in the blind area. The fourth “locked” pane contains insights not known to either oneself or others.

Ideally, the largest pane for most relationally healthy people would be the open one. Typically, however, it is the smallest. For most people there is much more hidden and blind, and a good deal locked. I have often put this to a test, asking my students, “How many of you have really wanted to tell another person something significant about yourself, but didn’t have the courage to do it?”

Invariably, 90% of the students put a hand in the air.

“Why didn’t you?” I would ask.

“Because I am afraid of what they will think,” one would say.

“I could be rejected,” another would add.

“I just don’t want to make myself that vulnerable,” was another typical comment.

In the last analysis, people do not engage in self-revelation either because they are not comfortable and accepting of themselves, or because they fear others’ rejection.4 This two-sided psychological coin results in people having far less relational nurture than they seek.

It is difficult to take issue with most of Mead’s basic concepts. They are self-evident. We live them each day. In fact, a sociologist could argue that his and Weinberg’s work portray an absolute truth: That healthily functioning human beings need interactive relationships with other humans.

Beyond that, however, their formulations have real potential for spiritual understanding. For example, we could say the psychological importance of the believer’s personal relationship with Christ lies in the reality that human relationships are badly flawed. So many relationships fail entirely. Others are corrupted by selfishness, and involve conditional commitments at best. The grace-driven nature of the personal relationship with God moves beyond these limitations. It is both healthy and real. It is healthy because it is entirely safe and unconditional. It is real in its effect on believers. There is much evidence supporting the claim that intrinsic religiosity brings positive change.5 Metaphorically speaking, we could say that human relationships are a form of bread and water, but they are far from living bread and water–fully satisfying and eternally sustaining.

We could also suggest that the need for a relationship with God affirms the biblical view of human nature. If human nature were without flaw–sin–our relationships with fellow human beings would be regularly fulfilling and largely devoid of pain. Of course they aren’t. Hence, God—to be the fulfilling relational force that he is to so many believers—must be a transcendent rather than a cultural creation.

Emile Durkheim

The concept of alienation has long been a prime focus in the works of major social theorists.6 “Investigations of the ‘unattached,’ the ‘marginal,’ the ‘obsessive,’ the ‘normless,’ and the ‘isolated individual all testify to the central place occupied by the hypothesis of alienation in contemporary social science,” says Robert Nisbet.7 Their work provides grist for Christian thinking. Among the alienation theorists in sociology was one of its true giants, Emile Durkheim who developed the concept of anomie. He defined anomie as a societal rather than individual state. “It characterizes a condition in which individual desires are no longer regulated by common norms (rules of conduct) and where, as a consequence, individuals are left without moral guidance in the pursuit of their goals.”8

Furthermore, Durkheim, in his landmark work, Suicide, wrote of anomie intensifying due to escalating desires during periods of societal prosperity. During economically favorable times, anomie is “further heightened by passions being less disciplined, precisely when they need more disciplining.”9

Sociologist Robert K. Merton built on Durkheim’s concept of anomie, believing it arose “when there is an acute disjunction between the cultural norms and goals and the socially structured capacities…to act in accordance with them.” In other words,anomie occurs when ideals such as wealth and economic security are held out to all members of the society, but the means to reach these ideals are not available to everyone. Merton then described certain responses to anomie. They included innovation (crime and deviant activity); ritualism (deriving satisfaction from compulsively keeping the rules instead of advancing in society); retreatism (withdrawing, exemplified by alcoholism and drug addiction); and rebellion (attempts to overthrow the social structure).10

The material on anomie relates rather well to Christian thought. First, there is an implied assumption that humans often experience an insatiable hunger for material goods. They covet. This can take the form of ingratitude and avarice. The more affluent the larger society becomes, the more elevated the dissatisfaction among those on the outside. Merton’s responses suggest that humans will break rules, become self-destructive, and even engage in revolutionary conduct when faced with conditions in which they want more than they feel they are receiving. At core here is a sense of estrangement from society, a dimension of sin–often defined theologically as alienation or estrangement from God. One could argue that the Fall, as described in Genesis 3, had the quality of anomie. The fruit available was simply not enough for the curious Adam and Eve. So instead of being grateful for what they had, they used a form of innovation (breaking God’s rule) to reduce the anomie.

Durkheim and Merton’s work invites a larger Christian critique. The very notion that humans intensely desire material the rewards in the material realm implies the existence of alienation–a condition of sin–between the creator and his creatures. Humans are God’s eternal children–fashioned in his image. When they participate blindly in a society mindlessly driven by materialism, convenience, and the acquisition of wealth they are abandoning their spiritual natures in quest of the temporal.11 They are in a word, indulging in their flawed, sinful natures. In assessing the spiritual condition of a given society, Blamires says, “No doubt, if exhaustively pursued, the issue would raise such questions as –How far is the widespread use of motor vehicles increasing the slavery of men to machinery and consequently impairing man’s delicately balanced status as a spiritual being in a material world? Are the inventions of modern technology being used for the betterment of human life over our planet as a whole, or are they being used as stimulants to covetousness and self-indulgence in the lives of selfish minority of the world’s inhabitants?”12 In short, are a society’s members living wholly in the temporal domain?

The matter goes deeper. A materialist society does more than venerate wealth, communicating that the good life is defined by the degree to which one can live in ease and affluence. It exacts a cost for this, even among the wealthy. It brings a servitude to materialism that is more than a way of living. It becomes an unexamined way of looking at the world.13 It conditions a temporal, materialist perspective rather than a Christian one. Active thinking is replaced by a static mindset. Technology–the car, television, film–reduce humanity to an almost non-human, responsive functioning. We are mindlessly directed to action rather than encouraged to choose and decide in a purposeful fashion. 13 The price is steep. On one hand, the home becomes the center of humanity’s worship of materialism. On the other, the statistical research indicates that the family inhabiting the home often crumbles as meaning is shifted from familial intimacy to material well-being.15 All of this points to humankind being spiritual at its essence. If humans were merely material, genuine psychological fulfillment would be reached once there was a sufficient accumulation of material goods and status. That, however, is not the case. Increased wealth often brings about increased anxiety and self-destructive behavior.

There is more. The materialist society also suggests that those on the outside in such a society are somehow deficient. Therefore, not only are those on the outside living a disadvantaged existence, they also wear the badge of inferiority–a lowered self-worth. Inherent in the ideology of materialism, then, is the belief in human superiority and inferiority with wealth and prestige the measuring devices. Materialist thinking associates worth with occupation, the means by which one both attains wealth and contributes to society’s wealth. In sociology, occupation is usually the primary variable used in determining one’s socioeconomic status. In Christian terms, having an identity built on the prestige of our occupational status is wrong and unhealthy. We are not what we do. We are the children of God–persons rather than functioning entities.

From an eternal and spiritual perspective, notes Blamires, “The things to be insisted upon when salvation is at issue are things which link you and me with the duke and the tramp, the millionaire and the dustman.”16 A study of anomie, if nothing else, can direct the Christian thinker away from the secular and toward eternal and spiritual values.

Karl Marx

For the atheistic Marx, alienation was associated with powerlessness in the economic sphere. The ultimate materialist, Marx believed industrialization robbed the worker of all individuality and identity. Using a weaver as an example, he stated that the worker “too, is one of the instruments of labour, and being in this respect on a par with the loom, he has no more share in the product (the cloth), or in the price of the product, than the loom itself has.”17 The worker, the loom, and the cloth are mere components of a material process driven by the capitalist in the effort to gain wealth.

Similarly, psychologist Paul Tournier believed “science itself depersonalizes man.” It attempts to “eliminate the individual factor, the personal coefficient, and to repress everything that stirred up his heart.”18 It was Marx’s contention that capitalism separated (alienated) the worker from the product he created. Note how proud a child is when she creates something and receives praise from a parent. The creation and the link to the parent is part of her humanity; part of what makes the child spiritual.19

In Marx and Tournier, again we have estrangement; humans losing their freedom–their very identities–to materialism. Being made as spiritual beings in the image of God, the loss of creativity and meaning due to enslavement to the material (non-spiritual) produces a profound sense of alienation, a form of psychological death. In brief, when capitalistic materialism becomes a society’s god, humans are torn from their spiritual roots and live empty lives.

Marx is anathema to many Christians, owing in large part to his indictments of religion. He claimed religion was used by the power elite to legitimize their authority and as a psychological drug to pacify the masses.20 Nonetheless, he made some salient contributions for Christian scholars. Among them is that a society’s morality is often distorted if not shaped by the interests of its ruling class. For example, capitalists promote private property and laissez-faire economic competition, and so socialize (socially shape) their children to feel strongly about material success and free enterprise itself. Furthermore, those in control of the means of production–wealth–make the rules and enact the laws in the context of their philosophy. They dictate cultural morality.

That philosophy has had theological overtones as expressed in the Protestant Ethic and latter day “health and wealth” advocates. In addition, an unchecked focus on “getting ahead” (in the form of an obsessive commitment to material advancement) can generate the I/It kind of manipulative relationships to the ecological and social environments mentioned by Tillich, as well as alienation of the person from her work cited by Marx.

Foundational to the Protestant Ethic and health and wealth thinking is a high valuation of progress and material success. Progress has often been a permission-giver for the manipulation and exploitation of nature and people. I once took a class of students on a field trip into a Native-American section of Chicago. During our visit to a community center, an elderly but eloquent gentleman, one who was known by a tribal as well as his “Christian” name, addressed the group in Tillich-like tones. “The white man speaks of progress,” I recall him saying in a booming voice. “But the Indian sees the land being raped, the water polluted, and the air dirty. ‘If that is progress,’ says the Indian, ‘then I don’t want progress.’”

Marx was a conflict theorist. He believed that society was forever in outright conflict or in a state of gurgling tension that ultimately becomes conflict. For Marx, nothing is ever static. There is an ongoing thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic present in his work. Once a system is in place, its dysfunctions begin to generate an opposing system (antithesis), and out of this conflict comes yet a new system (antithesis). That conflict–imperfection–inherent in his social theory coheres well with the Christian doctrine of sin in the universe. Nothing here can ever be truly perfect by Christian standards, and Marx’s ideas align well with that belief.

Structure-Functionalism

Another major school of social theory is called structure-functionalism. Having many intellectual fathers, structure-functionalism views a society as similar to a complex organism. As such a society consists of a harmonious set of structures (designs) and functions (activities) that the occupants of the structures perform. Humans then are actors that play roles on society’s stage, and these roles contribute often unselfconsciously to the well-being of the society. If one were to become a teacher, for example, she would be serving in the societal institution of education–one of the society’s major structures. Simply by performing her role, she would be executing the functions of the educational structure, that of imparting skills and knowledge to the society’s youth so that they in turn can also contribute functionally to the society.

Structure-functionalists view religion in terms of how it contributes to social cohesion and order in a society.21 Structure-functionalism, as with every other “school” of sociology, views everything in the human social context. Religion is no more than a social creation that functions as a binding force for members of a society. The structure-functionalist may, for example, regard worship services and funerals in the wake of national tragedies like those of Oklahoma City and September 11, 2001, favorably, not because they bring divine healing and spiritual comfort, but because they a socially unifying effect.

By structure-functionalist standards, major social change occurs only when one of the key structures in the society no longer functions. Provided the functions of a given structure (often an institution such as education, family, economics, etc.) outweigh its dysfunctions the structure will endure. Change does occur in this model, but usually rather cooperatively. A structure may change over time, resulting in a related structure picking up additional functions. The family for example, was once a major educational agent in agrarian America. As the nation grew, however, the public school system arose and expanded to discharge more of what were once family educational functions.

Some structure-functionalists have made it “open season” on the church, claiming it is irrelevant, no longer functional in contemporary society. Christian scholars need to be ready for this. “One has seen it proclaimed that the Church is facing its ‘gravest crisis for centuries,’” notes Blamires. “The press delights in these topics. ’Can the Church Survive?’ ‘Is Religion on the Way Out?’ ‘Is there a Place for the Church in the Modern World?’”22 These attacks all regard the church as a human institution with only temporal, secular value, and therefore able to be judged competently by humans rather than God. This is reductionist thinking in the extreme. It is one thing to look at the church in terms of its current social relevancy. Even church leaders do that. It is another to assume that temporal relevancy is its chief (let alone only) purpose.

“Can the church survive, indeed! Can the world survive?” asks Blamires in a typically exclamatory tone.23 According to Blamires, if a desperate crisis implies the very existence of an institution is in jeopardy, then it is the world, not the church that is most definitely in crisis. “The world is like a great express train hurtling towards disaster—perhaps towards total destruction. And in this truly desperate situation certain passengers are running up and down the corridors announcing to each other that the Church is in great danger!”24 He offers an alternative vision of the church, that of a powerful oceanliner riding through a storm. “Safely on deck, one cannot take seriously the cries of those who, having jumped overboard in to the perilous sea, scorn the proffered life-belts, and use up their last resources of energy before being engulfed to warn those still aboard that they are in a doomed vessel.”25

In reality, the church can never be destroyed. Christ said in Matthew 16:18 that the very gates of hell could not defeat it. His promise has held true. Institutions, nations, and even empires have collapsed yet the church lives on. “It cannot even be gravely damaged,” observes Blamires. “It cannot be decimated numerically: too many of the Church’s members are already beyond the barrier of death; too much of the Church is already safe home.”26 Blamires rightly sees the structure-functionalist criticism of the church for what it is–a critique of God’s creation–when he warns, “Above all, we must not transfer from the secular to the religious sphere the fallacious nineteenth-century doctrine of progress.”27

In general, structure-functionalism is an inherently logical approach to social analysis. It is perhaps more descriptive than analytical in nature. It describes what one can see for oneself, looking at a society. Apart from the foregoing matter regarding the church, the question the structure-functionalist school of thought raises for Christians involves social determinism. The approach is very heavy-handed in suggesting the human behavior is socially prescribed. As such it conceptualizes us as little more than functioning entities in social systems, all but removing choice and human intellectual freedom. This connotes a sub-human level of functioning similar to the critique of Marx. “Purpose is the expression of the living personal will. Function is the activity of the object: purpose the activity of the subject…” says Blamires pointedly.28

There is little doubt that the social environment, no different from the physical environment, has a shaping effect. The question is, how much? To what extent are we responsible for our thoughts, feelings, and actions? To what extent if any is that responsibility mediated by the power of the society of which we are members? It would be easy for Christians quickly to suggest that any attribution of responsibility outside the province of the individual person is a form of blasphemy. Are we not all called as individual souls to account for our lives? Yes, but the bible is replete with examples of nations being righteous or evil, of kings leading their people toward or against God, and Paul refers to principalities and powers that are suggestive of institutional determination. The New Testament epistles regularly inveigh against intense associations with unbelievers, implying that such involvements incur negative influences. One can choose his relationships, so a case for personal responsibility. But what of the case of a society at large, and its influences? That is not the choice of the individual.

The problem is a thorny one. Perhaps we are to yield the floor to the philosophers here. Nevertheless, any attempt at a Christian theory of social functioning needs to make a delineation between individual and societal responsibility. A simply both/and response is not sufficient. The individual and his society may be two sides of the same coin, but they remain distinctly separate sides.

Max Weber

One of Weber’s major contributions to the field was his analysis of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy, with its obsessive focus on technical efficiency has been charged with having a dehumanizing and depersonalizing impact on those within it.29 Characterized by a cold rationality and objectivity, obedience to impersonal authority is a cornerstone of bureaucracy. Weber used the example of the civil servant to illustrate the impersonal nature of authority in a bureaucracy. He pointed out that the punctuality of such an employee may be less a matter of custom or self-interest than “the result of his abiding by office regulations…which he may be loathe to violate, since such conduct would…(be) abhorrent to his ‘sense of duty,’ which to a greater or lesser extent, represents for him an absolute value.”30

Again, owing to the god of efficiency and materialism, bureaucratically-controlled humans mindlessly follow rules and drift ever further away from the spiritually creative beings they were designed to be. This picks up a bit of the alienation of Marx and the unselfconscious activity in structure-functionalism. Weber’s bureaucracy derives from rationalization–a commitment to a rational-scientific explanation of reality and direction of life. It is a part of Enlightenment thinking. Because rationalization by definition excludes from consideration all things spiritual, human life becomes one of pursuing material gain in the absence of spiritual and even emotional satisfaction.

Weber is also addressing the issue of determinism here. He saw rationalization as an irreversible social force, predicting that bureaucracies, with their worship of rationalization, would ultimately prescribe human behavior with such multifaceted impact that humanity would be caged by its own bureaucratic rules.31 And so it seems to have become.

For the Christian, what is at stake in looking at Weber’s ideas is the matter of control. As a tool of efficiency bureaucratic structures have great value. The problem arises when the bureaucracy no longer serves the well-being of its creators, but rather makes those that created it its slaves. No different from wealth and technology, the issue is inherently spiritual. Blind service to an organization, an all-out pursuit of wealth, or a total commitment to technological wonders becomes a form of worship–an ascribing of great value–such that the object of that worship assumes God-like control of its worshippers.A  

FINAL THOUGHT

Some of the major social theorists have unwittingly reinforced some basic Christian doctrines, particularly those aimed at the spiritual nature of humanity, the need for healthy and authentic relationships, and the alienation and brokenness in a material system.

For the Christian teacher this can be helpful in critiquing social theories from a Christian perspective. For Christian scholars trying their hand at building their own theories of collective action, they can do so knowing that some of the cardinal Christian mentioned above have support in the literature.

NOTES

1. Anthonly Campolo, A Reasonable Faith (Waco, Texas: 1983), 124-128; Mead’s lecture notes were published in George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society, ed. by Charles W. Morris (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934).

2. S. Kirson Weinberg, “A Relational Typology, in Claerbaut, Liberation from Loneliness, 46-47.

3. Joseph Luft, Group Processes (Palo Alto, California: National Press Books, 1970), 11-21.

4. David Claerbaut, Liberation from Loneliness (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale, 1984), 89.

5. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr, The Question of God (New York: Free Press, 2002) This is noted Nicholi’s review of research. Nicholi’s insights are summarized in my Faith and Learning on the Edge, 213-223.

6. David Claerbaut, Black Student Alienation: A Study (San Francisco: R&E Research Associates, 1978), 3.

7. Robert Nisbet, The Quest of Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), 15.

8. Black Student Alienation, 3.

9. Emile Durkheim, Suicide, trans. by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson (New York: Free Press, 1951), 253.

10. Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, rev. ed. (New York, Free Press, 1964); inDavid Claerbaut, Social Problems, vol. 1 (Scottsdale, Arizona: Christian Academic Publications, 1976), 108-109.

11. Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant, 1997), 162.

12. Ibid., 145.

13. Ibid., 163.

14. Ibid., 159.

15. Ibid., 162.

16. Ibid., 172.

17. Karl Marx, Wage-Labour and Capital (New York: International Publishers, 1933), 18-19.

18. Paul Tournier, Escape from Loneliness, translated by John S. Gilmour (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977) 35-36.

19. Campolo, 167-168.

20. Antonio Chiareli, “Christian Worldview and the Social Sciences, in Shaping a Christian Worldview, ed., David S. Dockery and Gregory Alan Thornbury (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2002), 253; Chiareli suggests a book entitled, Religion in Society, by Ronald L. Johnstone for thorough yet concise review of the sociological perspective on religion.

21. Chiareli, 253.

22. The Christian Mind, 152.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., 153.

25. Ibid., 154.

26. Ibid., 152.

27. Ibid., 155.

28. Ibid., 167.

29. Max Weber, General Economic History, translated by Frank H. Knight (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1927), 174-175; H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, translators and eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 50.

30. Max Weber, Basic Concepts in Sociology, trans. by S.P. Secher (New York: Philosophical Library, 1962), 71.

31. Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, trans. by A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons (New York: Free Press, 1947) 363-373, in Campolo, 182. Campolo also cites From Max Weber, chapter 8, in addition to an excellent statement on Weber’s concept of rationalization found in Julien Freund, The Sociology of Max Weber, 17-24.

Dr. Claerbaut is the publisher of FaithandLearningForum.com.

[1] Sociology: Issues in Christian Theory Building

by Dr. David Claerbaut, Founder, FaithandLearningForum.com

There is no all-encompassing Christian approach to sociology any more than there is a predominant paradigm within the discipline.  That, however, need not be a reason to move away from Christian critiques and analyses.  To omit sociology from Christian investigation is to leave one of the most rankly secular of disciplines untouched.  The task is daunting, for Christian examinations are, I believe, peculiarly difficult in sociology as compared with some of the other behavioral sciences.

First, there is the focus on human group behavior, which steps back from the personal—one-soul-at-a-time–relationship with God.  Psychology, with its emphasis on the individual, is perhaps more conducive to the personal ethos of the faith.  There is also a virulent anti-Christian bias within the discipline. That, however, is not unique to sociology.  The social or behavior sciences are “disciplines that emerged and developed–quite intentionally so–virtually outside the boundaries of any biblical framework.”1  What Antonio Chiareli calls the “tyranny of scientific rationality” is also widespread.  This demand for empirical support for any absolute claim militates against Christianity, because the latter’s absolutes are grounded in faith and the supernatural.2

Cultural Relativism

A truly major challenge to Christian thinking lies in the commitment within sociology (and other behavioral sciences) to cultural relativism.  This doctrine is among the most pernicious of all.  As such it deserves treatment.  Sociologists treat all worldviews–Christian, gay, feminist, Marxist–as subjectively true.  Each is regarded as true within the context of the subculture of which it is a part, but only within that context.  It is not universally true.  The only alternative to this approach of studying what are considered subjective matters is to reduce all sociological examination to empirical conditions.

There is a cost to this.  Dismissing all “subjective elements” from analysis would impoverish the discipline greatly.  As committed as the discipline is to empiricism, it would remove too much from analyses of culture and human life to make it worthwhile.  The effect of cultural relativism “is not to be understated.  It is the negation of the Christian belief in absolute truth because it is presumed–ironically by faith—that no non-empirical reality exists on its own, but only through the expression of this particular ‘social construction of reality.’”3  The impact of this notion is to remove any grounding of analysis on the “control beliefs” of the Christian faith, because Christianity is regarded as merely one of a number of interpretations of reality.

Cultural relativism is a watershed issue.  It pulls God off the throne, reducing him to a label slapped on one of many often, silly ideologies.  Regrettably, however, cultural relativism is rarely critiqued effectively.  “It is a logical fallacy,” notes Chiareli, “to argue that, because many views of reality exist and because they are therefore considered subjectively true only within their own cultural contexts, that absolute truth does not exist.”4  Indeed, it is logical, but also fallacious.  If we consider the worldviews of the major religions–Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam—not one of them has an “all roads lead to Rome” mentality.  Each religion claims to have an exclusive hold on truth.  Each religion has its own definition of who God is–ranging from pantheistic to non-theistic to monotheistic–and what is the meaning and purpose of life.5  On these and matters of like import, each claims to be the sole dispenser of ultimate truth.

This leaves us with a dilemma.  Either none of these views is correct, or one of them is right and all the others wrong.6  That’s it.  Those are the only reasonable choices.  Robert Clark states that the entire notion of cultural relativism is based on faulty reasoning.  “As Moberg (1962) has pointed out, one cannot legitimately infer from the fact of cultural diversity that there are not any absolute and ultimate values and standards.  A difference of opinion among different peoples as to what is true ‘in no way proves that the object toward which the opinion refers does not exist.’”7  In brief, culturally varying views as to what is true can co-exist with an absolute and ultimate reality that transcends any relativism.8

Upon careful examination, what the secular social sciences are doing is to negate any existence of ultimate truth on an a priori notion as to the subjective nature religious belief.  “To say that all worldviews contribute subjectively and equally to scientific knowledge,” says Chiareli, “is inconsistent with any notion of rationality in the social sciences, which claim to seek objectivity in analysis even when faced with subjective ideas.”9.  Such a claim infers that all religious worldviews contribute essentially nothing to the fund of objective knowledge and truth.  Those who advance this view in the social sciences are engaging in a combination of intellectual laziness and an ideological militance against the notion of God.  It is intellectually lazy simply to categorize all religious views in a post-modern framework of, “If it works for them, good!” without examining the essence of these beliefs more carefully.  Militance is evident in the steadfast refusal to acknowledge even the possibility of a reality grounded in the transcendent.

Some of this militance may be rooted in the historical dominance of Christianity in the university system.  There are traces of this in another obstacle to melding faith and learning, mentioned by Chiareli.  “That is, critics believe that if religious knowledge is ideological, then it must possess a hidden political agenda. Consequently, we must be suspicious of it.”10  Critics who study social movements within the discipline tend to view Christian organizations as attempting to push their views on the society at large with the intent of enjoying political gain.11  Unfortunately, such perversions of the faith do continue to occur, making it all the more difficult for Christians to gain any traction among secular scholars.

Chiareli sums the faith and learning challenge well.  “By all secular accounts, therefore, the notion of a worldview being superior to all others–and a religious one at that–runs counter to basic axioms of the social sciences, at least in the sense that it precludes all other interpretive frames from also contributing to our understanding of reality.”12  Note, this is by secular accounts.  Secularists have their own world-view—naturalism—one that is also not wholly verifiable scientifically, yet precludes all other interpretive frames of reality.

Methodological Challenge

The challenge remains: Despite the non-paradigmatic nature of sociology, how does one integrate faith into a discipline so committed to experimentation and empiricism?  Chiareli begins with the assertion of John Stott: That at a point in human history God chose to take on human flesh and speak to the world.  Few dispute the historicity of Jesus, and there is substantial extra-scriptural evidence for his life, death, and resurrection.  His claims need to be examined.13

But there is more.  It is not possible to prove empirically existence of love, guilt, innocence, and justice.  Yet these, and other non-empirical elements, are presupposed to exist by many in the scientific world, based on wholly circumstantial evidence.  Scripture (special revelation) and creation (natural revelation) are God’s circumstantial evidence for his existence.  It is reasonable that the matter of God be treated in the same way that other non-material elements based in circumstantial evidence are treated.  As noted, the value of genuinely hard evidence is wildly over-rated in the social sciences in general.  In a world supposedly driven entirely by naturalistic laws, words such as right, wrong, fair, just, innocent, love, and moral are much in use.  None of these exist in a completely natural world.  By naturalistic logic, these are social constructions and so devoid of intrinsic meaning.  Again, however, they are assumed to exist.  If that is the case, it would seem that some space might be made to consider the metaphysical.14

The need for Christian insights in sociology is compelling.  In fact, that contemporary social life is lived in ever larger, more powerful, and more complex cultural confines all but mandates that Christian scholars look carefully at the integrating sociology (along with other disciplines) with Christianity.  There is no escaping this mandate.  “It is presently evident, however,” as Chiareli states, “that with growing urgency, even colleges and universities that genuinely seek to embody the rock of God’s truth are faced with the reality of constantly having to assess and ultimately choose between two fundamentally divergent routes in today’s educational landscape.”15  Although these routes–the secular or the Christian–are ideologically irreconcilable, there is no need to abandon the discipline to the turf of the secularists or to be intellectually intimidated by those skeptics that may sneer at attempts at integrations of faith and learning.

Dating back to 1895, attempts at integration have been done, and sharp, committed Christian minds can make continuous progress.16  If nothing else Christian thought at the collective level can alert the believer to the real power of the complex social environment that envelops us.  This illumination heightens consciousness, moving the believer away from a mindless and meaningless actor discharging functions within a social structure.

Sociology, often referred to as social philosophy in its early years, was developed largely to address urban social problems growing out of the French Revolution and the later Industrial Revolution.17  As such, it was value-based despite an early commitment to science and objectivity.  Even today, students of sociology are often predisposed toward social action.  Social change is not possible outside of social consciousness.  Moreover, awareness leads to better decision-making–whether one is making policy at the highest level, educating future generations, or simply voting.  We need, then, a “gospel-embedded” sociology that works toward social justice that is not class or race-based.18  Such a holistic sociology makes us better stewards of the creation God has turned over to us, and through that stewardship we fulfill our earth-bound mission of glorifying God.

References

1.  Antonio Chiareli, “Christian Worldview and the Social Sciences, in Shaping a Christian Worldview, ed., David S. Dockery and Gregory Alan Thornbury (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2002), 249

2.  Ibid., 254.

3.  Chiareli, Shaping a Christian Worldview, 251; Chiareli also directs the reader to the relation of social constructions of reality to religion in Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1967), and Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy.

4.  Chiareli, Shaping a Christian Worldview, 255

5.  Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods (Nashville: Word, 2000), 7.

6.  Meredith B. McGuire, Religion: The Social Context (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1997); Chiareli, Shaping a Christian Worldview, 256.

7.  Robert Clark, “Thinking about Culture: Theirs and Ours, The Sociological Perspective: A Value-Committed Introduction, edited by, Michael R. Leming, Raymond G. De Vries, and Brendan F.J. Furnish (Grand Rapids, Michigan:Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 72; David Moberg, “Cultural Relativity and Christian Faith, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 6: 34-48; Chiareli, Shaping a Christian Worldview, 256.

8.  Ibid.

9.  Chiareli, Shaping a Christian Worldview, 256-257.

10.  Ibid., 251.

11.  David A. Snow and Pamela E. Oliver, “Social Movements and Collective Behavior: Social Psychological Dimensions and Considerations,” Sociological Perspectives on Social Psychology, ed. 36, K. Cook, G. A. Fine, and J. S. House (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995), 571-599; Chiareli, Shaping a Christian Worldview, 251-252.

12.  Chiareli, Shaping a Christian Worldview, 252.

13.  John R. W. Stott, Basic Christianity (Downers Grove, Illinois: 1971), 14; Chiareli, 258.

14.  Chiareli, Shaping a Christian Worldview, 258-259.

15.  Ibid., 246.

16.  Chiareli 242.  Chiareli cites the following efforts at relating Christianity to the discipline.  Charles R. Henderson, “Sociology and Theology,” American Journal of Sociology 1 (1895), 351-383; Shailer Matthews, “Christian Sociology” [series], American Journal of Sociology 1 (1895), 182-194, 359-380, 457-472, 604-617, 771-784; 2 (1896), 108-117, 274-287, 416-432; David Lyon, “The Idea of a Christian Sociology: Some Historical Precedents and Current Concerns,” Sociological Analysis 44, (3), 227-242; Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1967); Ronald J. Burwell, “Sleeping with an Elephant: The Uneasy Alliance between Christian Faith and Sociology,” Christian Scholar’s Review 5: 195-203; Richard Perkins, Looking Both Ways: Exploring the Interface between Christianity and Sociology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1987); William H. Swatos, Jr. ed., Religious Sociology (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1987); Michael R. Lemming, Raymond G. De Vries, and Brendan F. J. Furnish, eds., The Sociological Perspective: A Value-Committed Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1989); and David A. Fraser and Tony Campolo, Sociology through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, 1992).

17.  Chiareli, Shaping a Christian Worldview, 260.

18.  Ibid.

Dr. Claerbaut is a Master Methodologist for doctoral students at Grand Canyon University.

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