Science in Christian Perspective



Sociology: A Defense
Part 11

From: JASA 14 (September 1962):

In a somewhat disparaging comment, a recent Christian publication referred to an article in Newsweek of December 11 which indicated the convergence in the field of social science with Christianity. The main point of attack was that "new" principles were first stated in the Bible and science has merely become of an ex post facto nature. Referring to the "newly" conceptualized scientific view of human nature, the article stated "two propositions have emerged: The first is that nations, like individuals, can go insane. The second is that aggression is innately rooted in human nature."1

It is true, as the article states, that these propositions were originally stated in the Bible. What would seem to be of more significance, however, is the fact that the Biblical image of the sinfulness of man and society can be corroborated by social science. Nor is this an entirely new scientific view. What is needed is confidence that additional convergence will be forthcoming; that the social scientist may find that he is pressed to accept an image of man and society which is compatible with that held by the Christian.

There are hopeful signs that such views are already being accepted. In a challenging article, a highly respected sociologist has recently defended the need of a Christian image of man being used in more accurately interpreting social phenomena .2 In the opening paragraph, Kolb sets the tone for his paper by stating, "It is, I think, a sign of the times that a person who considers himself a professional sociologist and who wants to remain in communication with his colleagues dares write a paper in which he suggests that an image of man rooted in one of the strands of the Judeo-Christian tradition may be better suited to the ordering of sociological data than those models currently in use.' The pivotal significance of such an image for the future indicates the inadequacy of our present naturalistic view of man. Kolb acknowledges this when he states, "Naturalistic humanism and its image of the rational free man who can empirically and scientifically choose his ultimate commitments is still a live option in American thought, although perhaps, not as live as it once was. But it cannot enter in the present discussion of sociological orthodoxy and a Judaic-Christian image of man."4

Unlike the article in The Prairie Overcomer, Kolb reflects the accumulated knowledge which has brought us to this present view which is, indeed, not new. It has a history based upon behavioral psychology and the philosophical views of social contracts. In sociological writings it has taken the form of the individual's motivation and the problem of social control.

The Christian argument for a synthesis of man and society provides a bilateral approach. First, man may use his freedom to resist the molding influence of his environment and, by deviating, bring about change in society. This is the approach recommended by Kolb. Second, man's willfulness causes disruption in society and must be brought under the control of moral precepts. This is the approach used by Parsons in discussing the problem of social integrity and upon which we will center our interest now .5

It was Malinowski who first framed the functional problem of group survival in terms of needs which had to be Met.6 Starting on the individual level, he stressed the biological needs which caused cultural responses. To allow the individual's needs alone to be met, however, would bring about the extinction of society. Hence, the survival of the group results in the formation of derived needs which require the individual to conform.

Parsons' statement develops the essential work of Malinowski, stressing the personality of the individual. Parsons' view of individual motivation is that there is not sufficient desire on his part to do "right." Such a tendency is a threat to the stability of the social system which must find means of defending itself by establishing a system of values to which the individual must conform. The existence of the society is threatened if there is not a minimal performance of this behavior.

Although Parsons' view of the individual's lack of motivation is far removed from the Christian understanding of sin, there is the need in both cases to be socialized to a system of external values. For the Christian, such a system would consist of the principles of the Gospel while the sociologist would view these in terms of moral principles. Whether the present sociological view would approach the Christian view would depend upon the extent to which the society is a totally Christian system.

Present sociological theory, therefore, would rule out a purely biological or psychological determinism of individual behavior. It would indicate the limitation of such a unilateral determinism by stressing cultural needs. Though such a social determinism is not entirely favorable to the Christian, it points in the right direction, for it verifies the inherent weakness of the individual and allows for a convergence of the two views when it is the Christian society which is the determining system of values.

Even such statements of determinism as these are not sufficient to explain social action. It has been stated in the preceding article of this series that the rational determinism expressed in utilitarianism no longer provides an adequate frame of reference. Present theory has conceptualized various "random elements" which interpose themselves into the normal working order of the social system. Although the average sociologist would probably consider such elements to be on the same level as "luck," there is sufficient flexibility to allow for a Christ ian interpretation of God working in the social affairs of men. Hence, the final result of a particular social act cannot be fully predicted with our present knowledge. Since there would probably always be a margin of error in making the prediction, the limitation of empirical social knowledge would be postulated.

If social action is not solely determined by biological or psychological forces, neither does society restrict it to inflexible forms. Not only does society allow the individual to be in error, but it often causes him to follow patterns which are not the most efficient for his needs at that time.

Davis has succinctly summed up the problem of rationality in his statement of the three main sources of error, which are superernpitical ends, haziness of ends, and ignorance.7 As long as people are motivated toward goals which exist beyond life, there is no way in which the society can "prove" that the requisite action needed to achieve those goals is correct. It should be noted here, incidentally, that Davis does not consider superempirical ends to be accidental or random in a society. Rather they are permanent, universal and, in some social interpretations, useful. The ignorance of ends should be apparent in our modern society, especially to the scientist. By haziness of the end, Davis refers to the uncertainty as to whether a casual factor will actually produce the expected result. There is inability to control all of the variable factors which may affect the outcome.

To this point, it would seem that there is no boundary which is imposed on the possibilities of variation. As in the problem of motivation, however, it is morality which is the main limiting factor. Not only must the individual want to do what is best for society, he must be willing to forego some of his desire to experiment with new and diverse forms of action. Davis refers to such limitations as normative restrictions. In practically every society, such restrictions would be referred to as morality, for they control not only ends but means and direct action toward the benefit of others. As indicated previously, there is much room here for a Christian interpretation of society. If "morality" is necessary for the welfare of any society, then the Christian definition becomes one of the many interpretations which would be acceptable.

Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action

Returning to Davis' concept of the "haziness of the end," it could be suggested that any system of cognition which could also minimize the error in a cause and effect relationship would be superior to a system which didn't. Christianity seems to have a strong advantage over purely moral systems in this respect. The ability to trust in God's wisdom as a controlling factor in the outcome of action provides the Christian with the opportunity to minimize the effect of error in achieving ends. When it is realized that in a Christian system superempirical ends are accepted as normal objects of motivation, it can be seen that the problem of rationality is not of great consequence. Motivation toward rational ends is of secondary importance and God's purpose makes error unimportant.

When seen as one form of Thomas' wish for new experience, the haziness of the end develops a more positive character. It was in this light that Merton first conceptualized the term "unanticipated consequences of purposive social action.", The uncertainty of the future provides a source of excitement and adventure. More than that, seeking for the new and unexpected results in change which is often the essence of progress. Such a view of social action is epitomized in the Separatist Movement of England, particularly the Pilgrims, and the development of many sects before and since. Similarly, it would seem to be the basis of individual Christian action today. This motivation for creative deviancy, therefore, affords a significant opportunity for Christianity to fit into patterns of current social action theory.

The earlier statement of Kolb's argument for this point of view indicates an approximate closure of the cycle. The next article in this series will consider his plea for Christian freedom and deviancy in society. By way of summarization of the problem of motivation and morality, however, the following points should be stressed. Contemporary views of social action do not accept deterministic theories based on biology or psychology. Nor is there complete social determinism because of individual weakness of motivation to achieve social goals. The main socially determining factor is in the form of morality which limits variation and provides direction for individual choice of ends. Society, however, not only provides opportunity for individual and social error, but also may cause error. Reliance on superempirical knowledge, therefore, may remove such error and provide for greater efficiency in social action.

1. 'The Prairie Overcomer, Vol. 35, No. 2, Feb. 1962, p. 42.

2Williarn Kolb, "Images of Man and the Sociology of Religion," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 1, No. 1, Oct. 1961, pp. 5-22. A more detailed review of this significant article will be presented in a future column.

31bid. 41bid. 5Talcott Parsons, The Social System, The Free Press, 1951, pp. 26-45.

4. Bronislaw Malinowski, A Scientific Theory of Culture, University of North Carolina Press, 1944.

5. Kingsley Davis, Human Society, Macmillan Company, 1948, pp. 128-133.

6. Robert Merton, "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action," American Sociological Review, Vol. 1, Dec. 1936.