Monday, November 30, 2009

Theology of Sociology

Mead claims that the self can only emerge through interaction, that without language and socialization the self would never come to be. This prompts interesting questions: could we conceive of a person without language and who is never socialized? Would they, then, not have a self? What does that mean ontologically?

From a Christian perspective, this creates an interesting problem for it is hard to imagine the self in a way that seperates it from the Christian concept of the soul. One might even posit that the two are one and the same. Extending Mead’s argument, then, would raise the question, “If one has no language and is never socialized (ie. if they never interact with other people) would they then not have a soul? Is a soul something that develops in this way?” Good questions.

This becomes a problem only if we maintain that it is only inter-human interaction that leads to the development of the self (read: the soul). If that is not the case, then a rather remakable truth emerges. The existence and development of the soul (seperating those two functions so as not to claim that one could exist and yet not have a soul) depends on the fact that all souls interact, in their creation, with God. In the same way that the being of the Trinity is enhanced* and defined by its relational quality, so our being is enhanced and defined by our relationship with God. No one can avoid at least a minimal amount of relating to God – otherwise we could not exist.

This line of thinking does have interesting implications for conceptions of our need for and the working out of the Gospel. For example, though all people have at least that minimal required interaction with God necessary for our existence (perhaps common grace also figures into this concept as well), we all sever that connection and thus lost the source of interaction most crucial for the development and health of our soul. Salvation, then, could be conceived of as the reestablisment of that connection by which our souls can yet again develop as they ought, heaven becomes the fullest form of that interaction and thus the full blossoming of our self – our souls – through our interaction with God, hell is the punishment of eternal banishment from that presence through which our selves regress into near nothing – the death of the soul.

This all, mind you, is merely the consideration of a question and not meant to imply a definite understanding of a theology of sociology. However, it does raise the question as to whether such a venture might be, in some way, worthwhile.

*This is not to imply that God, in trinitarian form, is some how “better” than God in some other form, as if such a form were plausable option. God is by his nature both good and in trinity thus implying a completeness and absoluteness that could not be otherwise (ie. if God is good and is in trinity then any other form would neither be good nor would it be God). I use the term primarily to bridge the relational aspects of God and man.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Durkheim and Religious Belief

Sociology, as a discipline, is not particularly friendly to religious faith. The framework of 'methodological atheism' makes it impossible to address the question of whether the things people believe in are actually true. In keeping with the desire to be a "science," sociologists admit that the reality of the objects of belief are beyond what we can measure and analyze. Or, it should be that we merely admit that and move one, whereas many are those who take the exclusion of the supernatural from the debate as a fitting opening to cut it out of our universe of possible realities. As students of the social, we look to root everything in the social.

Please remember that. It is a crucial fact. It is not that sociology is an unbiased discipline; it is a particularly biased one. Similar to how historians must conceive of the world leaving the role of God to the side, sociologist only bring in the supernatural to the extent that they are silent about it, omit it, or confuse it.

Take, for example, Durkheim's theories on the origins and functions of religion. Theorizing with the role of society in the place of supremacy, Durkheim doesn't try to overturn the ideas that notions of "the something greater than the individual" and divisions between the sacred/holy and the profane are not common to nearly all people; rather he re-roots them. The concept of God/the divine, he notes, is certainly rooted in a belief that there is something outside of the individual that is more powerful, more imposing, than he is, but that something is not the grandeur of nature, the stars, universe, or creation in general. Those views were common to evolutionary concepts of religion -man observes the "greater than himself" and conceives of the idea of deity. Durkheim changes the foundation point. The origin of that feeling is actually something greater than the individual: it is the social. As society wields some intangible power over the individual and his actions, often in ways imperceptible even to the most astute of observers, the individual absorbs the sensation of that power and thus is led to project the idea of deity. This is a clever little theoretical coup.

Durkheim's vision of the sacred is similarly intriguing. He again notes that there is a universal presence of concepts of the sacred - that all cultures and societies make separations between what is mundane and what is set apart as special, other, and revered. The otherness of the thing revered is reflected in the actions of separation and otherness that become ritualized parts of community religious life (and of social life in general).

On the surface, these are both quite intelligent arguments that make a lot of sense. But remember that, when approaching such arguments from a theistic, and in my case Christian, perspective, you don't accept the conclusions because you know you are playing with more cards than the scholar you are reading. What does that mean, practically? It means that, though Durkheim's mechanism may be quite useful, his premise makes this argument unconvincing. I can believe that the ritual action is crucial in the expression of sacredness in society or that society is the primary means through which divinity is expressed, but i am not bound to believe that sacredness and divinity are the products of society. For, if the first premise is that sacredness and divinity exist independent of either society or the individual, then both mechanisms become and expression of a built in compulsion. All cultures have concepts of the divine and sacredness not because they all have societies, but because they are common to all societies (which also helps explain why we sacrilize the things that aren't even sacred).

That is a little flip, but it does to things: (1) it maintains, or might even improve, the argument for the origins and function of religious belief, and (2) it brings sociological theory into a place where it is not directly contesting with faith. It works with, and not against, the faith structures that are valuable to those being theorized about. And that certainly makes me happier.

What this doesn't do is also two-fold: (1) it doesn't adhere to methodological atheism (which is why you will never see something like this in a work of sociology or an academic journal), and (2) it doesn't violate the bound of the data. There is nothing in Durkheim that proves he is right (which is why, at the end of the day, this is all just theory).

So, dear readers, read critically. Use what is useful; discard what is not.

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