Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor


The Person and Sociology
David Lyon
123 Newton St.
Bradford, West Yorks
BD5 7BH England

From: JASA 29 (December 1977): 190.

Jack Balswick and Dawn Ward (Journal ASA 28, 181, 1976) are engaged in a crucially important discussion between sociology and social theology (Mouw, 1976). This is not meant as a critique of their article, but rather some reflections which might contribute constructively to that discussion. Nevertheless, in responding to their work, I do wish to question some of their categories from the viewpoint of both social theology and sociology, and thus throw a slightly different light on the issues.

A technical point first of all. I wonder why, having opposed positivistic and phenomenological outlooks, "conflict" and "symbolic interactionism" are singled out for special attention? While I largely agree with their (albeit brief) comments on those perspectives, their separate treatment is not adequately explained. However, it is common knowledge that there are almost endless variations on how to cut the paradigm cake. Denzin (1969), for example, tries to unite symbolic interactionism with phenomenology and Ritzer (1975) puts conflict sociology in the positivist camp. So this is not a complaint, so much as a question: why?

T his relates to the central problem of the paper, though, which is a Christian evaluation of sociological models, from the point of view of Justice done to the "person." And at one point the word "dialectic" is used, to describe the relationship "where society is a human product, but nevertheless an objective reality, and man is a social product, but not only social" (pI82). While I agree, basically, with this sentiment, I wonder if it does not point, rather, beyond the "dialectic" to a kind of "trialectic." For in the Christian perspective, human sociality is also Godward, and human social-structures are also God-ordained.

May I suggest that it is possible to think of three sociological models, and to subsume Balswick and Ward's categories in them. For the sake of argument, we shall call them (a) "conformism," (b) "conflict," and (c) "action." They overlap considerably, but this does not preclude their use in this context. I would then put Parsons and Mead in (a), Marx and Simmel in (b), and Schutz in (c). Theorists like Weber, and movements like symbolic interactionism, might have feet in (b) and (c), and so on. At first sight, one might conclude that I am substituting one set of arbitrary categories for another. In fact, my tentative idea is that the three models could be seen as complementary, in terms of a Christian view of the person. Thus, some of the inadequacies of each perspective might be counteracted if the modes are considered to be aspects of a more complete picture. This does not, of course, rule out the possibility that other inadequacies might make one or other perspective irredeemably misleading, but it does point the way to a positive use of what may initially seem to be unhelpful perspectives.

So how do these categories relate to a Christian view of persons? To answer this question, we must first consider some aspects of Balswick and Ward's understanding of the person. Again, I concur with the view that constructing a Christian model of society is a dubious pastime-if by that they mean a kind of "grand theory." (I do think that a task of social theology is to try to generalise, from the biblical data, some components of Christian social perspectives.) And in principle, I like their five-fold proposal concerning an adequate model. Still, I would question the notion that we "create" symbolic meaning (No. 1), as things only have meaning in relation to Christ (Olthuis n.d.). We may misunderstand the meaning, or distort the meaning, but can we "create" meaning? There are also potential difficulties with the idea of "selfish interests" (No. 4). We know what Balswick and Ward mean-that selfish interests are sinful, and as such, may motivate persons to sinful action. Without intending to carp, it could be thought that all self-directed interests were sinful, which is not, of course, the case. Christ said that our self-love should be the very measure of our neighbor-love. (Matthew 22:39) And this distinction does, I believe, have sociological implications, but they are outside the scope of this communication.

There are two issues to which I think the "trialectic" speaks: the "ahistorical human nature," and the non-appearance of a sociology which "takes into account the fact that man can be motivated by intrinsic selfish interests." Firstly, the ahistorical nature, which Balswick and Ward seem to suggest is implied when we refer to "the image of God," I question whether Scripture does provide a view of man's nature as "ahistorical." For we are creatures subject to time, and even have "eternity in our hearts" (Ecclesiastes 3:11). 1 wonder whether persons, as images of God, are not answerers (responsible) to God, in an ongoing context which is at once social and historical. If so, then the trialectic would relate to three aspects of life: law (a) to which it is difficult to respond because of the (b) tensions and contradictions of life, and yet which must somehow be responded to in the form of (c) actions.

But, it may be objected, does this not do away with the "absolute" character of God's demands? Leaving aside the question of what is meant by "absolutes" (they are unbiblical abstractions, not dissimilar, in my opinion, from the one of an "ahistorical human nature") I would argue that nothing biblical is jeopardised by thinking of persons as being intrinsically "historical." People are no less subject to God's requirements, in this view, and no less unable to attain salvation through personal merit, because of it, Rather, this view puts the burden of judgment of human activity where it should be, with God. For I doubt whether a sociology ever will be found which copes with evil in the way that I feel Balswick and Ward mean.

But discernment, between rightful and wrongful responses to God's directives, is quite possible via the trialectic. The nonChristian it seems to me, will tend to polarise towards one or two aspects of the trialectic (giving us ... oversocialised concepts of man" and so on), or else, even if all three aspects are recognised in some form, will not be able to live authentically in the light of them. Only the person who is "in Christ" can see not only (God's) law, and the tensions of a fallen world which necessitate a choice of ways of responding to that law, but also act in such situations with a clear conscience. And as far as sociology is concerned, I think this means that the whole perspective, rather than judgments about individual evils, will be that which is faithful to the biblical view of the person as image of God and yet a fallen creature. Balswick himself illustrates what I mean in his own (1971) work, when he discerns not the "fact," but the "tragedy" of the inexpressive American male.

I am working these ideas out further in a paper entitled "Images of the person in theology and sociology."

Balswick, J., 1971 "The Inexpressive Male: A Tragedy of American Society," The Family Co-ordinator, 20.

Deszin N. 1969 "Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnomethodology: A Proposed Synthesis," American Sociological Review, 34,922-934

Mouw R. 1976 Politics and the Biblical Drama, Grand Rapids Eerdmans

Olthuis, J., n.d. "The Reality of Societal Structures," Toronto, Institute for Christian Studies, (mimeo).

Ritzer, G., 1975 "Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science," American Sociologist, 10, 156-167