Science in Christian Perspective



R. Heddendorf, M.A.
Sociology: A Defense
Part I

From: JASA 14 (March 1962): 26-27.

The history of science has proven that a branch of learning, in order to have an impact on society, must not be introverted. It must deal with the problems which are relevant to that society at that time. Since the field of sociology deals most directly with the subject matter of society, it would be expected that conflict would early develop concerning its interpretation of society. As a result, people in the field have spent much time defending their views before the various critics.1 Perhaps in the past, the prosecution has had a stronger case than the defense, but the question before us is whether a defense is now valid, particularly for the Christian.

The most common Christian view of sociology, repeated in many contexts over the last 50 years or so is well summed up in a Christian publication of several years ago .2 First, there is complete opposition between Christianity and sociology. "These two approaches (Christianity and sociology) seem to be as opposite as day and night and as mutually exclusive of each other. "3 The author later states that the sociologist "being a naturalist and materialist in his philosophy has no place in his thinking for a divinely inspired, supernatural Bible.' '4 Secondly, there is a definite need on the part of the Christian to deal with the problems of society. -(The minister) must have an intimate, personal knowledge . . . of the colossal human struggles in which all human society is writhing."5 Later, the statement is made that "one of the strongest courses in all schools of Christian training should be that of Christian Sociology."6Thirdly, there is the implication that sociology cannot develop a view of society which is acceptable to the Christian. Instead the Christian must mold the field in terms of his own views.

There are two significant errors which may be assigned to Christians and most laymen on these points. First, there is the lack of awareness of the present disfavor in which such personal and philosophical views are held by most sociologists. Secondly, there is not the understanding that a scientific study of society would indicate, in many circumstances, that a Christian approach to social problems may be more accurate than a secular.

If youth may be characterized as a period in which there is complete confidence in dealing with one's surroundings, then it is the youthfulness of sociology which most Christians would remember. Fortunately, many of the growing pains of sociology have been endured and the social world is observed with a more mature eye.

The period of transition could be best located at the turn of the century. Up to this point, the pioneers had developed the original views which have since been discarded, revised, or supplanted. Yet, the impact which has been made by these principles has continued into the twentieth century. It would seem that these early views stressing evolution, positivism, naturalism, and utilitarianism would be those with which the Christian would have the greatest argument. The superstructure rising upon these early foundations, however, tends to be taking a decidedly different shape.

It should be made clear at this point that this defense is not an attempt to indicate that such early concepts have been entirely removed from the field. The key to our thinking is that these principles no longer exist in their original forms. The changes which have been made and the new developments which have appeared have tended to neutralize the earlier views. In addition, the promise of the future now seems to be tha the Christian will find concepts with which he will be able to deal more comfortably. This is not to say that he will be able to place his sociological views congruently upon his spirtual. Such a privilege has not even been made available to the natural scientist. It does imply, however, that he will be able to find enough material with which to develop limited theories based upon Christian principles.

It would seem that the concept of evolution in sociology is even less alive than it is in biology. Most of the early attacks, however, were not made by sociologists, but by anthropologists. In their field studies, it became quite apparent that not all societies were predestined to progress, a view sometimes held by Herbert Spencer. It was Spencer, more than any other nineteenth-century sociologist, who espoused the principles of the evolution of society as a consequence of applying the prevailing scientific view to all theoretical science.

What has remained of evolutionary views, however, has been significant, though not always easy to trace back to the original ancestor. First, Spencer conceived, of the organic analogy, in which society was identified with a biological organism. Later, the idea of the organic nature of society was developed by Toennies and Durkheirn until it found a new form in present day functional theory. Secondly, Spencer stressed the principle that homogeneous forms developed into heterogeneous. Although such a view is still held today, there is a more clear understanding of the limits imposed upon the possibility of infinite variation of forms. This principle will be considered in more length in the second part.

The earliest statement of the use of a positivistic approach to the study of society was made by August Comte, usually referred to as the "father of sociology." In addition to establishing the basic scientific procedure to be used in studying social phenomena, Comte also described the data with which the new science was to deal and also pleaded for an application of findings to the betterment of society.

The Christian would hardly be justified in attacking the principle of a scientific study of society. Without it, there could only be random philosophizing which has developed some of the views with which the Christian most disagrees. He would perhaps be on more solid ground in opposing the latter two principles. Even contemporary sociologists, however, would not agree with Comte that all subject matter to be observed should be reduced to the "social fact," since they have stressed with greater insistence, the need to include the psychological essence of man. For the Christian, of course, there is also the need to analyze the spiritual, for without it, it must be shown that there is no accurate description of social phenomena.

The weakness inherent in an attempt to use the findings of sociology for the betterment of society is obvious to the sociologist who delegates such responsibility to the "social engineer," whoever he might be. For the Christian, there is only the need to call to mind the fallacy of the Social Gospel to realize that such a view may lead to error.

Inherent in all of the early views of society was the belief that man could understand the laws of nature as they applied to society and then control them. It must be remembered that sociology was born at a time when such beliefs were prevalent.7 Although sociologists still do not conceive of supernatural forces as causative factors in society, they have learned that man does not have complete control of the social environment. In addition, research has shown that a completely naturalistic approach to society is not possible. Since some people are motivated by superempirical ends, their needs must be considered and fitted into a general theory.

In their attempt to be objective, early formulators ruled out the possibility that ethical considerations were valid in studying social phenomena. Although there are some who would still be governed by such a limitation, the tendency is to evaluate the moral implications of findings. This is not to say that a scientific approach is slanted by value judgments or that philosophizing is the basis for making theoretical statements. The implication is that amorality is no longer a dominant criteria for research.

Much of the utilitarian expression found outlets in what is referred to as the social action theory." Though still one of the dominant orientations in contemporary theory, it has had to retreat from its original position. No longer is the individual conceived of as the "economic man" who is entirely rational in his quest for an objective goal. Parsons himself has retreated from some of his earlier statements and leaves more room for the influence of sentiments and emotion in action.9

The earliest cracks in the utilitarian system came about 30 years ago in industrial studies which proved that people were more highly motivated in their action by the emotional frame of reference than by the rational. Hence, man is no longer conceived of as a rational actor who acts within a rigid means-ends system. The principle of economic exchange as a basis for social behavior still is used as a conceptual tool in the analysis of social behavior.10 It is, however, no longer conceived of as a closed rational system. Rather, the individuals in interaction are viewed as being motivated to obtain whatever is of most value to them. There is much provision for the Christian who is motivated by spiritual values in such a system.

Hence, the recurring gaps in current sociological theory seem to offer the most hope for an understanding of society which is more favorable to the Christian view. The emphasis in the next article will be on some of these gaps and the newer theoretical emphasis.


1For a recent and particularly lucid defense see "Now the Case for Sociology" by Robert Merton, The New York Times Magazine, July 16, 1961.

2.Theology and Sociology" by Carl M. Sweazey, Bulletin: Los Angeles Baptist Theological Seminary, Vol. XXX, No. 1, January, 1957.





7Comte died in 1857, the Origin of Species was published in 1859, and The Communist Manifesto in 1848.

The most complete statement of the utilitarian system as used by sociologists may be found in Parsons, The Structure Of Social Action, The Free Press, 1949.

9The classic example of such studies is Roethlisberger and Dickson, Management and the Worker, Harvard University Press, 1949.

10Especially see Homans, Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms, Harcourt-Brace, 1961. The stress here is that the value of an action may not be measured in terms of its usefulness but in terms of its value for the individual.