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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Social Science and Theology

Theology and the Social Sciences by Michael Horace Barnes (Annual Publication of the College Theology Society, Vol 46: Orbis) The New Testament canon is presupposed as a historically‑conditioned construct that participates in all the relativities of history, including the phenomena involved in the history of literature. In presenting a theology of the New Testament there are good grounds to consider going beyond the canonical boundaries and, for example, to include reflection on the theological expressions of the Apostolic Fathers or the early Christian apologists. However, once this approach is adopted, it is difficult to limit the number and amount of material included from extra‑canonical documents contemporary with and later than the New Testament, so that a relative limitation of our study to the canonical documents and their theological presuppositions is to be preferred on practical grounds. The New Testament, in its given extent, is the foundation of the history of Christian dogma and theology. The acceptance of it as the oldest documents of the Christian faith is the presupposition of the Christian life in theory and practice, especially in the church's worship. In this connection the critical function of the New Testament should also become clear. That the New Testament has something to say to our present is not the least important dimension of its claim and demand. In listening to what is said in Scripture, the church understands itself as an "ecclesia semper reformanda," assures itself afresh of its origin, and lets itself be critically asked whether in the concrete form in which it presently appears it is in line with this foundational claim and demand. A biblicist interpretation cannot do justice to this claim and demand, since it does not reflect the tension between the past reference of the text and the present reality of the church. It is absolutely indispensable that the church in its current form and contemporary Christian self‑understanding must allow itself to be measured by this claim and demand and make its journey of faith in a thorough encounter with the New Testament text, a journey that leads from knowledge of the texts through acknowledging them and finally to confession. This is the basic intention of the New Testament writings themselves (cf. John 20:31 ), original essays demonstrate that sociology, history, anthropology, and psychology all leave their mark on theology and open new paths to understanding, and that theology in turn provides significant questions and perspectives for the social sciences.

By providing archeological data, sociological theory, demographics and economic data, psychological insights, and new methods of historical interpretation, the social sciences can open the way for a more sophisticated understanding of the social nature of human existence. Theology challenges the social sciences through moral and transcendental questions as well as informs the social sciences through its larger and deeper perspectives.

The symbiotic nature of this relationship is described in the lead‑off essays by John Coleman and Gregory Baum. The rich conversation between theologians and sociologists that follows moves from Von Balthasar's use of the social sciences and Rahner's approach to ecumenism to the roles of psychology and neuropsychology in understanding religious events.

Excerpt from introduction:

The variety of articles here illustrates well how varied the relations can be between theology and the social sciences. These relations take two major forms. The first invites the social sciences inside the theo­logical tent to work alongside philosophy in a serving role. The sec­ond treats the social sciences less as a servant than as an animal to be domesticated, like goats worth milking once in a while but to be teth­ered outside the tent where their gamey odor will not disturb the finer air of theology. As I will explain, these are, roughly, Rahnerian and Balthasarian approaches. To adequately categorize the many articles in this volume, however, each of these two approaches will be divided further, into weaker and stronger forms.

The goats‑in‑the‑yard approach is understandable. The history of secular social science theorizing has put theologians on guard. From the atheism of Karl Marx and the religious unmusicality of Max We­ber to the "methodological atheism" of the early Peter Berger and the reductionistic claims of E. 0. Wilson, social theorists have treated religion at best as a useful fiction and at worst as a debilitating distrac­tion from reality. Similar thought prevails among many psychologists, historians, and anthropologists. It is no wonder Milbank argues in his book on social theory that Christians must reject all interpretations of life except a singularly Christian metanarrative, or that Hauerwas in his many writings tells Christians to expect that the traditions and val­ues of their Christian community will sometimes stand in harsh con­trast with the secular world. Yet they may both be willing to milk the goats occasionally for practical information. For example, the social sciences can provide demographics relevant for evangelization efforts or economic data important in promoting social justice. But these goats cannot be valid sources for theologizing itself. Both Michael Baxter and Boyd Blundell seek to alert the reader to the danger of letting goats in the tent.

This strong caution toward the social sciences is less typical than the milder approach of, say, von Balthasar, as described expertly by James Voiss. Balthasar looks at the world of secular thought with restrained appreciation (much as Cardinal Ratzinger looks at the major religions of the world). Balthasar says he sees good in this world; some true wisdom and values can be found there. But he also discerns a striking contrast between the grace-­filled church with its revelation-based tradition and the ordinary things of the world. Balthasar reads the scriptures, studies the tradition, learns from the mystics, celebrates the sacraments, and finds in these a divine power and beauty missing from the things of the world. The social sciences know little of this approach. They work deliberately by natural knowledge alone, excluding all those elements of faith and wonder and humility that must ground any truly Christian theology.

Just as there is a mild and stronger style of the goats‑in‑the‑yard approach, a similar difference appears in the servants‑in‑the‑tent interpretation. The ordinary mild approach is not to worry very much about the secular character of the social sciences. Theology has long profited from the spoils of the Egyptians, loading up its tent with foreign ideas that prove useful. The interaction over centuries between Christians and pagan philosophers also set a precedent for learning from worldly sources, a precedent that would bear fruit from the late medieval flourishing of theology to contemporary correlational theologies. Victor Matthews and Carol Dempsey show how to draw upon archeological data and sociological theory to interpret scriptural passages in their historical context. Similarly, in their related presentations, James Davidson and Patricia Wittberg comfortably use sociological data to better understand patterns in American Catholic belief and practice. Judith Merkle explores the various meanings of "social teaching" in different contexts, showing layers of theological possibilities. Mathew Schmalz offers an on‑the‑scene interpretation of some acculturation problems in India with the help of Dan Sperber's anthropological theories. In a rather striking analysis, more difficult to categorize perhaps, Terry Tilley proposes that a sophisticated mode of historical interpretation can rescue belief in the resurrection from the secular implications of the older historical method.

But even the seemingly comfortable cohabitation of theology and the social sciences has raised disturbing challenges from within the tent. The use of secular historical methods for studying scripture and church tradition makes these sources appear rather more secular and less sacred, much more a part of worldly history than of the special order of redemption. Felicidad Oberholzer's comparison of a modem psychological interpretation of the dreams of Perpetua to a traditional hagiographical interpretation nicely illustrates this distinction. So does Peter Phan's use of Granfield's "cybernetic" ecclesiology, which uses social organization theory to analyze church structures and challenge traditional theology on the uses of episcopal and papal authority. Florence Bourg also discerns some potential within the practices of home churches to unsettle aspects of traditional ecclesiology. William Mattison's interpretation of the relation between the emotions and virtuous choices appeals both to Aquinas and neuropsychology, as though neurological studies could correct traditional theology on the operations of the soul. When the social sciences challenge traditional theology in such ways, laying claim to cohabitation in the tent, questions arise about their right to do so. Theology must decide whether there are adequate grounds, including adequate theological grounds, to let the social sciences inside.

The theological issue can be cast in Ramerian terms: are secular human life and thought simply natural, unconnected to the supernatural, or are they already responding in varying ways and degrees to the divine Self­gift? If ordinary life is unconnected to the supernatural, then when social scientists study ordinary life, they are not studying anything with theological content. If, on the contrary, ordinary life is always related in some way to the supernatural offer by God of a relation to God's own Self, then nothing that the social scientists study is theologically irrelevant. Then the social sciences themselves, as human activities carried on as part of ordinary life, are also response in some way to divine grace. While the social sciences follow rules of the secular academy, they are als7o part of what David Tracy once characterized as living by an implicit faith in the ultimate validity of being a knower in the world.

A few concrete examples can illustrate the meaning of these abstract statements. First, consider that Aquinas found Aristotle to be correct that we humans are social animals. This became part of Aquinas's theology of the person. But from earliest Christianity this was not self‑evident to all Christians. The earliest desert fathers, as we call them, went out to be alone with God, apart from the world, including the social world. The earliest collections of monks did not arise from a prior theological conviction that monastic communities rather than a hermitic life were more the will of God. Instead the social reality formed the theology. As is natural to us humans, those seeking a new way of life looked for guides or mentors and attached themselves to famous desert ascetics. This social reality appeared; then theology made sense of it. Religious orders appeared, eventually with

a theology of contemplative life in community to justify it, partly with the help of social and political theories from that old pagan Aristotle.

A striking example of theology adjusting to social science is the reinterpretation of the traditional doctrine of original sin. Augustine himself could never decide just how original sin was passed on from parents to children. Traducianism‑passing on actual soul from parent to child‑would account for it. But to Augustine there were also serious reasons to claim that God created each soul anew. In our own time the historical critical method has made it reasonable to take the stories of the Fall in Genesis less literally, which in turn has opened the way for a more sophisticated understanding of the social nature of human existence. It has also provided a framework for speaking of original sin as an aspect of the socio‑cultural character of life.

Similarly, speculations about the Roman Catholic Church illustrate a possible interplay between the social sciences and theology. The Roman church is organized hierarchically. This organization has two distinguishable aspects. One is the responsibility of the bishops to preserve and proclaim the faith and celebrate it sacramentally in community. The second is the authoritarian nature of the structure of responsibility and power as it has been traditionally practiced. There has been a great deal of social theorizing about community structures of power and responsibility. Marx thought that full economic justice in a world of economic plenty would result finally in a withering away of the state. So far this theory has fared poorly. The data suggest that authoritarian power attracts power‑seekers, that there will always be at least some who strive after it, as part of their human nature, so to speak. If this is a sound psychological and political judgment, it implies that authoritarian modes of assigning political power and responsibility are inferior to more democratic modes. We might thus conclude from sociological and psychological studies of human behavior that it is wiser to build into church practices some of the checks and balances that characterize democracies, such as the local election of bishops, with checks and balances provided by national bishops' councils and the papacy.

This speculation on the church echoes the deeper reflections in Peter Phan's article on cybernetics and the church. That paper can speak for itself. But how a person responds to it depends on the person's approach to the social sciences. If a theology of the church sits alone in its tent, drawing only upon its own inner resources, especially scripture and tradition, then discussions of the social, economic, political, and psychological implications of church organization will seem to be peripheral‑just the bleating of the goats out in the yard. But if theology does depend on the various maids and lads living within the tent, then changing theology's life style to accommodate the ideas from these aides makes excellent theological sense.

Though most of the contributions to this volume keep the social sciences in the tent, only a few explicitly acknowledge and support the theological assumption that these social sciences are also a work built upon grace in some way. In the first article, Gregory Baum, long noted for his outreach to religions and to the social sciences, describes his own story of coming into this theological position. I am grateful that he accepted my invitation to contribute to this volume. In confirmation of Baum's general recommendations, John Coleman provides a detailed review of the on‑going presence of theology in social science and social science in theology, and lays out practical and theological justifications for accepting this interaction as both inevitable and constructive.

This brings us back to the challenges from Baxter and Blundell to such Rahnerian accommodation with the secular. Milbank's way of pressing the charge was to accuse Rahner of naturalizing the supernatural. It is a somewhat surprising charge. One could as easily grant to Rahner what Milbank grants to de Lubac, that he supernaturalizes the natural. Rahner argues that while we can speculate that human beings might have been created as purely natural beings, in fact the actual universe that God has created is not a purely natural universe. Rahner argues that God has made a Self‑gift to the universe from the first, and that in humans this Self‑gift is called supernatural grace, the indwelling of God. Though Milbank does not say it in this way, one can suspect that Rahner's fault in Milbank's eyes is that if nature is thus supernaturalized, the supernatural loses some of its differentiation from what is natural and profane. If everything already has God's gift of Self as its underlying character, then what can the Christian vision and truth and inspiration add? Wherein lies the truly special character of grace as extraordinary gift, if it is found in every ordinary thing? One may read Balthasar in the same way. The special beauty of God's presence that Balthasar seeks is quite distinct from the profanities of life. Signs and wonders must be not be dissolved into the everyday. Similarly, but from a moral rather than ontological direction, Hauerwas insists on the radical distinction between the Christian community and the secular world. What Christians need is not to be found in the social sciences; what Christians should preach and give witness to is a properly Christian moral vision that stands contrary to the ways of the world. The sacred and the secular are not the same and should not be commingled.

This approach stands in contrast to Rahner's. He draws his most significant line not between the sacred and the secular, but between the Uncreated Mystery and creation. All that is not God is part of creation, part of the finite, part of the process of the universe. God made creation to be the recipient of God's gift of Self. Many moments and things and persons in creation have in fact taken a specially sacred role as real‑symbols of the basic redemptive truth of the call to all creation to union with God, a union that can be fully achieved only in the free decision of consciously reflective beings like us humans. But the moments and things are sacred because they represent what is true for the secular also: that all creation is part of the single process of achieving union with God. Rahner perceives the Incarnation not as redemption from the world but redemption of the world, the uniting of the created to the Uncreated, in full unity but without confusion of the two.

The goats‑in‑the‑yard approach builds upon a revered tradition that emphasizes redemption from what is merely and often evilly worldly. The servants‑in‑the‑tent approach builds upon a more recent retrieval of an Irenaean sensibility, as well as upon awareness of the cosmos as an evolutionary process, celebrated by both Rahner and Teilhard. In spite of the frequent opposition between the goats‑in‑the‑yard and the servants‑in‑the‑tent approaches, it may not be necessary to choose between them. Those taking one or another approach can value each other precisely as "other," and be grateful for the added resources that come from this plurality.

Psychologically speaking, it is obvious that there is more than one type of person. Some people will be best served by a theology that provides them with a degree of refuge from the profane, with a sense of the specifically and specially sacred among the ordinary, and with a special religious inspiration to guide and strengthen their lives. For many hundreds of years those who did not find the ordinary world adequate for their needs could take up monastic life, go on pilgrimages, engage in special devotions, and above all live their life in a sacramental community. This is still true. To turn from the world to the sacred, at least at many and special moments, is still an important mode of religiousness. But other people are better served by a theology that allows them to go into the world to find God. The lesson of Matthew 25 is still valid: those who minister to the earthly needs of the hungry and thirsty and sick and imprisoned are ministering to Christ even if they do not know it. The point, then, is mainly to minister to others' human needs rather than to succeed at being religious in some distinct way. The passage from Matthew says that worldly service is religious also.

Dealing with otherness and plurality is a message in two of the articles in the section on cross‑cultural contexts. Reid Locklin uses Victor Turner's anthropological theories to explore similarities between Sankara and Augustine. Here, seemingly quite diverse religious visions turn out to have some common elements. Similarly, perhaps even those who are apparently in disagreement on the relation of the social sciences to theology may share more than they readily perceive. Jeannine Hill Fletcher's use of Ramer likewise carries us toward an appreciation of otherness, and does so for theological reasons. Her message about the value of a plurality of religions could apply also to a plurality of approaches to the relation between theology and the social sciences.

Nonetheless, those who are uneasy with the world and its secular methods will find it difficult to grant to the social sciences any strong influence over theology; they will also find it difficult to understand those who do grant the social sciences an influential role. They will be inclined to argue that Jerusalem must maintain its distance from Athens, and from the Babylon of secular culture, for that matter. Those who cherish the world, however, will find that from the mount of Zion they can look outward to both Athens and Babylon and find grace there, even in the seemingly secular. The question then is how these two groups, sitting side by side on the same mountain top, will look at each other. They are faced with Rodney King's challenging question, "Can't we all just get along?" A combination of both religious inspi­ration and guidance, and‑ironically‑insights and information from the social sciences, might well prove very helpful in this ongoing en­counter. In any case, the work presented in this volume provides spe­cific illustrations of the power of good anthropology, sociology, psy­chology, and historical methods to advance theological understanding.

Michael Horace Barnes holds the Alumni Chair in the Humanities and is a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton. He is author of In the Presence of Mystery: An Introduction to the Story of Human Religiousness (XXIII, 1990) and Stages of Thought: the Co‑Evolution of Religious Thought and Science (Oxford, 2000).


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