Science in Christian Perspective



A Christian Sociology?a
George W. Barger
Department of Sociology University of Nebraska at Omaha Omaha, 
Nebraska 68182

From: JASA 34 (June 1982): 100-104

Is there a Christian Sociology? Can there be a Christian Sociology?

Until recently, and within the discipline of Sociology itself, the most likely response to such questions would have been an emphatic, No! On the face of it, No! There can no more be a Christian Sociology than there can be a Christian Physics, or a Christian Engineering, or what not. Those assertions might be made at a certain level of annoyance (What kind of question is that for anyone of sense to ask?) or with a measure of condescension (My dear fellow, don't be absurd!) but the response would surely be to that effect. No, a Christian Sociology is not possible.

The questions, however, are not impertinent. That's the first point to be made. It is not absurd to ask. Is there a Christian Sociology; can there be a Christian Sociology? Recently, there has appeared A Reader in Sociology: Christian Perspectives (DeSanto, Redekop and Smith-Hinds, 1980), a collection of articles focusing on some of the major dimensions of sociological interest. Thirtyeight different writers are represented in the book's contents. Some of them explicity claim to be writing in a Christian sociological perspective; all of them were willing to have their papers included in a book bearing the subtitle, "Christian Perspectives. " It is the case, of course, that "fifty million Frenchmen may be wrong," and that "what we say" and "what we do" are not necessary identities. Still, it is at least cause for notice (if not alarm) that so many persons, coming as they do frm at least three different cultures, were willing to associate themselves in such n undertaking.

The notion of a Christian Sociology immediately raises the question of sociological study and its relationship to values. Ever since Max Weber's writings became generally available to sociologists in the United States, it has been virtually axiomatic to maintain that the formal study of Sociology is and must be value-neutral, wertfrei. Scientific analysis of any phenomenon must be objective, non-advocative. In so far as Sociology is scientific, there can be no "oughtness" implied by its content. These words of Weber's, taken from his essay, "The meaning of 'Ethical Neutrality' in Sociology and Economics," may be regarded as typical of the general stance.

it may be asserted without the possibility of doubt that as soon as one seeks to derive concrete directions from practical political (particularly economic and socio-political) evaluations, (1) the indispensible means, and (2) the inevitable repercussions, and (3) the thus conditioned competition of numerous possible evaluations in their practical consequences, are all that an empirical discipline can demonstrate with the means at its disposal. (Weber, 1949:18; italics in the original.)

While not questioning a single word of Weber's claim, it is difficult today to understand how those sentences could have been read as "proof text" demonstrating sociological science (or indeed any science) as necessarily value-free.

The take-for-granted understanding that lies behind such a position, and behind the responses suggested in the first paragraph of this essay, is by no means as self-evident as it appears once to have been. The determined value-free stance of Sociology in the United States has somewhat eroded. It has been attacked as pretentious (Gouldner, 1961), as specious (Hoult, 1967) and simply as untrue (Becker, 1966). The general tone of the arguments can be summarized as follows. Whatever may be meant by "value-neutral," it cannot mean that sociological study is pursued in a manner completely divorced from the contingent means-ends contexts in which human life necessarily is located. Unless we assume human behavior to be completely non-voluntaristic (and that is itself a non-value-free assumption) we must take into account the notion of choice; choice entails some principle of selection, some value(s). Sociologists study this and not that. What is studied has ethical implications since, to oversimplify the point, the questions function either to question or to support the status quo. Moreover, and quite apart from the foregoing, the results of sociological inquiry are not emptied into a vacuum. People learn of them; they become a part of the residuum of understanding by which groups inform their behaviors. The findings and theories have consequences, and those consequences take their places in the line of causal variables which eventuate in behavior.

There is more. Facts do not "speak for themselves," as the popular folk wisdom maintains. A fact derives its meaning from a theoretical context in which it is anchored. All theories are not equally attractive. Some are more general than others; some are more parsimonious, more seminal and perhaps more productive of serendipity. They are better theories. But, what is this "better" if not the flag of a value judgement, a judgement that one makes in order to pursue science? Finally, it is quite clear that science is practiced by people, and people are inveterate pursuers of values, even as scientists. Peer standing is not simply a question of "time in grade," nor is the search for truth nearly as cool and dispassionate as scientific reporting and mythology would suggest (Watson, 1968).

It is against this kind of background that we should understand the question proposed at the opening of this essay. Some persons who identify themselves both as Sociologists and as Christians have~ associated the two words into a "Christian Sociology." Without at this point granting legitimacy to the term, we can say that their proposal cannot be dismissed a priori. It is not just they, but sociologists in general, and more generally still the scientific endeavor itself (Kuhn, 1970), which has come to be seen as intersecting decisions of value at various points (Friedrichs, 1970: 111 f f).

Christian Sociology? Why not? After all, we have spoken for some time of a Humanistic Sociology. The term has occasioned some criticism from time to time, but its general usage is indisputable (Glass and Staude, 1972). "Christian" is no more improbable than any other adjective- Humanistic, Marxist, whatever-as modifier of the noun, Sociology. This conclusion, however, serves only to return us to the questions: Is there a Christian 'Sociology? Can there be a Christian Sociology? The two questions form the major structure of the remainder of this paper. Because of basic difficulties experienced in reaching consensus as to meaning, we do not yet have a Christian Sociology. Those same problems of consensus make it unlikely that a fully developed Christian Sociology can be anticipated. If, however, we are willing to explore the subject within a context that remains open-and it surely is normative to science and to Christianity that we do so-the term "Christian Sociology" is by no means inappropriate for those who engage in sociological study and also are Christian..

Is There A Christian Sociology?

Is there a Christian Sociology? The question must be answered unambiguously, No, not at this time. If by Christian Sociology we mean something like "Sociology used in the service of the Church," then it could be granted that such a Sociology does exist. It is an unusual denomination that completely ignores social data in its planning procedures, or in its programs of service to others. That could be called Christian Sociology. For some time it has been European practice to distinguish between Religious Sociology and Sociology of Religion. The former term is understood as a subdiscipline of the latter, and Religious Sociology is seen as sociological theory and methodology applied to denominational programs (Boulard, 1960). Christian Sociology is an equivalent term to Religious Sociology.

Christian Sociology has also been used in the past as indicative of something like critique of the social order from the standpoint of selected theological principles ("The National Church and the Social Order," 1956). Again, it seems European Sociology has been more willing to explore the boundary between social theology/philosophy and social science than has Sociology in the United States, in the process producing some first-rate studies (cf. Wickham, 1957; Symanowski, 1964; World Council of Churches, 1967). Some of the monographs included in the H. Paul Douglass collection (Kraft, no date) could be included under this rubric. At the turn of the century, the first issues of the American Journal of Sociology included a nine-part essay, "Christian Sociology," by Shailer Mathews. Mathews was then Professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago (Mathews, 1895). The series was soon reprinted, "to a considerable extent rewritten," under the title, The Social Teachings of Jesus (Mathews, 1897). The altered title fairly reflects the actual contents of the essays, for they are social philosophy and not formally Sociology.

It is time for a definition. Christian Sociology is the systematic study of the social order that, in its theory, methodology and reporting is explicitly related to the framework of understanding that is identifiably Christian. Discussion of that definition will argue that while such a Sociology does not yet appear, its possibility is both practical and desirable.

Christian Sociology is not social criticism, although, like any other Sociology, it may produce materials which could be used in such a critique. A Christian Sociology is not necessarily more (or less) critical than any other kind of Sociology (cf. Berger, 1963; 38f: Sociology as a 'debunking' activity). It probably would be a serious mistake for a Christian Sociologist to seek too carefully to distinguish himself from his non-Christian colleagues; it surely would be a waste of time. There are no facts that are "Christian" as opposed to facts that are "non-Christian."

It is rather the framework of meaning within which the Christian sociologist works qua sociologist that identifies the person as such. A Christian may be a sociologist, and not necessarily engage in Christian Sociology. The practice of Christian Sociology is not something that just happens, any more than the Christian life consists solely in refraining from deliberate evil. Christian Sociology begins in the values which guide the sociologist in her work. From the moment a research problem is selected, the major context of one's identity, Christian, will inform the undertaking. In planning the methodology, in interpretation of results, in proposals for intervention on the basis of the findings: each of these steps in process are engaged within the framework of sociological and Christian understanding. This is done deliberately, intentionally, accountably.

It is necessary at this point to introduce a caveat. The formal definition of Christian Sociology proposed above is in a sense misleading, for it assumes that its major terms are unambiguous. The "framework of understanding that is identifiably Christian" is a pretentious phrase to the extent that agreement on its meaning is debated amongst the various denominations of the Church. In this context, sociologists are no better arbiters than their nonsociologically trained fellow Christians. Christian is an "ideal type;" it does not directly correspond to an empirical referrent, and is useful for heuristic purposes. Disagreement on criteria for this "type" constitute a limitation on its usefulness; and it does not advance that usefulness to qualify the word with such limiting words as "real ... .. genuine," or even "Christian" as opposed to Christian. (cf. DeSanto, et al, 1980: passim).

It is possible to make a kind of virtue of this lack of consensus. Not only inter-denominationally, but intra-denominationally, differences in belief and behavior patterns are commonly reported. (Marty, ef al, 1968). Perhaps this variation serves as a spur to all, honing the edges of belief to sharper point that might be expected in a more sanguine, because more consensual, system.

In whatever way we understand denominationalism, however, it constitutes a fundamental caveat to the development of a Christian Sociology. It would be comforting to believe that churches "really" believe the same thing; it is a fact of experience that they do not. In so far as disagreement impinges on the basic framework of the meaning of "Christian," it remains a question limiting any attempt to erect a Christian Sociology. Attempts to present a I I mere Christianity," (Lewis, 1954) lack the precision of definition required for the word to pass muster as the first term in the pair, Christian Sociology. It is for this reason, as much as any other, that we conclude this section by repeating the assertion, there is not a Christian Sociology, not at this time.

Can There Be A Christian Sociology?

The recent rethinking of the integral relationship between values and scientific study has allowed for raising the issue of a Christian Sociology. Ambiguity of terminology, rather than inherent value orientation, constitutes a major barrier to emergence of such a perspective.

Is the barrier impermeable? Can there be a Christian Sociology? Let us now argue that the question is capable of answer, "Yes, it is possible." It will, however, be a Sociology that is both Christian and scientific; to say it another way, it will be a Sociology that conforms to both the contingent nature of religious and of scientific understanding.

A scientific discipline may be internally distinguished among three separate issues: the theoretical, the methodological and the empirical. In terms of these units we can apprehend something of the nature of a developing Christian Sociology.

(At this point it may be noted that ours is not the first attempt to develop a prolegomena to Christian Sociology. In the early 1950's, Jones (1951) proposed to examine "Some Presuppositions of a Christian Sociology," His essay, however, was written in the tradition of what has been previously characterized as the "European" approach, and is more properly seen in the light of principles of social criticism, hence, as social philosophy. An essay of the same title by Heddendorf (1972) is more clearly directed to the kind of orientation that informs this paper: developing a rationale which can lead to Christian Sociology as previously defined.)

Theory, like any other tool of the sociologist, is neither Christian nor non-Christian. It can be a greater or lesser utility, parsimony, generality, or whatever other criteria one may choose for evaluation of competing theoretical stances. Some of its possible implications may be non-Christian; but the theory itself cannot be dismissed in that fashion. For example, it surely is non-Christian to conceive of humanity as homo oeconornicus, if by that term one intends to define the essence of the genus, horno. It is, on the other hand, equally sure that there are certain utilities in conceiving man as such under certain conditions. For theoretical purposes, humans may be thought of in such a way. The Christian cannot fail to be aware that man is so much more as well.

The illustration may serve to alert us to an important axiom of Christian Sociology. Christian sociological theorizing would be self-consciously aware of the selective, partial nature of its propositions. Its formulations would be stated in such a way as to imply the question: How far can our understanding of the social order be advanced if we conceive of mankind in only the following dimensions? Of course he is more; but within the limitations of this set of propositions, is our understanding advanced? That would be the limiting, the narrowest approach to the interrelationship between social theory and Christian belief.

On the other hand, the Christian can critique theory in the positive sense of seeing it is too narrow or horizonless to do full justice to man as a child of God. A theory, for example, which reduces human activity to mere response sets, whether biological, psychological or social, is inadequate to human nature, Theory in a Christian Sociology would always be oriented towards the outer borders ("it doth not yet appear what we shall be...")

There is an irreducible tensionality between the experienced and the anticipated. The "nothing but" limitations of some theory may be useful for temporary exploration, but their partial and limited framework will always be dissolving as further questions are asked. For the Christian, there must always be more to life than meets the eye, or is encompassed within the regions of theory. The Christian is aware of this double dimension: a person saved and being saved; a saint who is a justified sinner; a, citizen of two worlds, of a Kingdom which has come and is coming; the,60-atwo of grace: that all is of God, yet man must do his part. In these and many other ways Christians are anchored in the dialectic of life. This experience of incompleteness, the transcendent and immanent dimensions of the experience of God: these become axiomatic in, formulating social theory, and are an important aspect of what a Christian Sociology would include.

Would Christian sociological theory offer categories of explana tion that are not available to the non-Christian sociologist? It would not seem so, not in any direct sense. For example, it some times is suggested that a category such as "sin" could be employed by Christians in their understanding of some social facts. It would
seem that to do so would constitute an illegimate translation of a theological category into non-theological contexts. We can't "know" sin, for we cannot know the human heart. What we can know is that things don't work out, that expectations and per formances are contingent, that what people say and what they do
differ, and that -,man is devious in his ideologies and destructive towards others and towards himself. Christians are probably able to take a more unapologetic view of the human condition (Hed dendorf, 1972), for we have no "need" to preserve any hidden assumptions of self-sufficiency. Rather, Christians can face the
fulness of the human condition (Dooyeweerd, 1980); man errs by intention as well as through ignorance. Important as these consid erations are to Christian understanding, they do not figure directly in social theory, but are related to it more in the nature of axioms.

Methodologically, the situation is somewhat different. Some methods of research would appear closed to the Christian sociologist. Deception, experimental conditions that are demeaning to the subject, or which violate personhood, are not options.

Perhaps, one could see in this a necessity that could make a Christian sociological methodology a major source of innovation. Lacking some of the-more common data gathering contexts (e.g. deception), a search for reliable alternatives could be productive, and valuable to the discipline.

Other than these considerations, there seems to be no reason why Christian sociological methodology would differ from sociological methodology in general. There is no a priori need to exclude certain areas from possibilities for research. Whatever is of human activity or of human institutions is of concern to God; therefore to His people. Indeed, there is some reason to believe that Christian Sociology could offer expanded horizons in social research that has tended to be narrowly confined in its interests. More than one writer has noted that sociological investigations have focused on "problems" in the negative sense of the word, and have only occasionally sought to understand more positive aspects of human behaviors. Conflict rather than altruism, Machiavellianism rather than liking and loving, disorganization rather than consensus, seem to have attracted the more excited (and exciting) studies. Only recently has it been proposed that such an area of human behavior as "spiritual well-being" could be a focus for research, and that only in a tentative way (Moberg, 1967, a, 1967b, 1971, 1979).

The relationship of Christian Sociology to the empirical occasions two or three sentences. It is hard to see how data can be other than they are, for Christian and non-Christian. Cell percentages, chi-squares and other quantitative measures would not differ. On the other hand, qualitative analyses of human behavior, since they are more directly related to the notions of value, bring us full circle, and we are once again at a point where scientific study and value commitments intersect. It also is the point where we must candidly face some of the possible dangers in a Christian Sociology.

Christianity is a value commitment. In this it does not differ from the value commitments of humanism, scientism, Marxism, or any other -ism available for human commitment. Life does not explain itself, and there is no certain point outside the life processes where we might stand in order to have an overview of the whole. As a Christian sociologist, one does not escape this "givenness" of axioms. One may be certain "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself;- but that claim can have no epistemological status superior to other claims. In the final analysis, does Christianity provide the sole perspective in terms of which reality may be understood? That is a faith statement, and the Christian sociologist must be certain of the relationship between such faith and the practice of the discipline.

Answering the Question.

Can there be a Christian Sociology? Indeed, Yes. What would it be like?

A promising beginning has been made by Alan Storkey (1979) in a book that surveys the major institutions of a society, examining each from the standpoint of what Storkey has previously developed as a Christian perspective. The book is exciting; it both disappoints and delights. Strokey's analysis of the Family is especially insightful, but it also provokes doubt, for while not formally enjoined, the traditional patriarchal family appears to be considered normative. There are, in addition, serious failures in definitional precision and consistency (for instance, his "free institutions" distinction appears to this writer as both unclear and inconsistent). The criticism is not academic, but neither is it intended as indicating fundamental disagreement. Storkey has made a fine beginning in a very complex area.

In some sense, it is easier to delimit a non-Christian than a Christian Sociology. Of course! A Christian Sociology inevitably is partial, emergent, just as science is emergent and partial. Whether or not there can be a Christian Sociology depends on the work of this generation of sociologists who are Christian. It also will depend on the next generation.

The current openness of Sociology to questions of value is probably a reflection of the changed normative context of today. Reading again through Gouldner's article (1962) one is impressed not so much by the cogency of its reasoning: Gouldner was often strident and assertive. He did, however, sense quite early the currents of change and it was those that he proclaimed. Other changes may occur, and willingness to investigate value commitments in science may fade.

But, the issue of Christian Sociology will remain. It is one of the alternate realities (LeShan, 1976) which can inform human behavior, and can be a legitimate perspective from which to interpret that behavior. For the Christian it is much more; but for now, in theory and practice, it can be an important sensitizer (Friedrichs, 1970:129) to social understanding. It is out of such commitment that a Christian Sociology may emerge.

aIn memoriam: R WB.


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