Don Browning

Why should Christian theology be interested in social theory? To answer this question, some definitions need to be advanced.

Theology is often defined as systematic reflection on the truth and relevance of the Christian faith. The Christian faith not only claims to speak a truth decisive for one's ultimate salvation, it also holds that it contains definitive insights into the nature of ethical living and the good society. For this reason, Christian theology is concerned not only about doctrine or true belief but also about the practical ordering of individual and group life. Edward Farley believes that theology is fundamentally a habitus in which the search for knowledge of God and an existential way of life are one and the same (Farley 1983).

Such claims suggest that the Christian faith contains assumptions about the nature and possibilities of individual and social action. Early Christianity, generally thought to be the normative source of Christian theology, did not systematically elaborate these assumptions, but succeeding generations of theologians often tried to do this. The notable illustrations would be the theories of action and society found in the Platonism of Augustine and the Aristotelianism of Thomas Aquinas. The differentiation of institutions in modern societies from control by religion has made it impossible for Christian theology to regulate directly secular social life.1 Nonetheless, theology still has the obligation of relating its view of life to the processes and events of contemporary society, even if this must now be done persuasively and dialogically and not by the force of tradition alone. To do this, theology itself must make use of implicit or explicit theories about the nature of individual action and social processes in modern societies.

On the other hand, modern societies have generated a variety of theories in the academic disciplines of sociology, political science, economics, and psychology that have claimed to be more or less comprehensive accounts of how modern societies function. Marx, Freud, Weber, Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, J├╝rgen Habermas, Niklas Luhmann, Anthony Giddens, and economic theorists such as Gary Becker and Richard Posner have developed such relatively complete theories. Theology, especially in its more practical forms, has in recent years both used and critiqued these various theories. Latin American liberation theology employed, although generally revised, insights from both Weber and Marx but tended to reject structural-functionalist views represented by social theorists such as Talcott Parsons.2 Political theologians Johann Baptist Metz and Helmut Peukert both rely on, yet critique, the thought of Habermas as do American theologians Francis Fiorenza, Paul Lakeland, and Gary Simpson (Metz 1980, Peukert 1984, Lakeland 1990, Fiorenza 1992 a, b, Simpson 2002). German theologian Michael Welker turns to the thought of sociologist Niklas Luhmann, as does his American co-author William Schweiker (Schweiker and Welker forthcoming).

But how are decisions made as to which style of social theory constitutes a fruitful partner for theology? The answer goes something like this: the best social theory from the standpoint of theology is one that seems to account for the nature of social processes and social change but is complete enough to also provide for the possibility of religion, especially the kind of religion Christianity appears to be. Theologians should not, and on the whole do not, turn to social theory to prove Christianity. Furthermore, theologians do not derive their core normative ideas from social theory. They primarily gain an understanding of certain features of contemporary life that helps them communicate (or mediate) their theological ideas more accurately and practically to present-day society.

But this is not the only motivation. In using social theory, theologians almost always enter into dialog with it, interpret it, critique it, pick and choose from its various insights, and often show that a particular theory has limitations or contradictions that it cannot solve without turning to theology. The dialogical use of social theory by theology is often quite complex; at the same time as the theologian gains insights from a particular theory, she or he may also realize that this same theory puts hard questions to Christianity and its role in human life. In using the theory, theology may at the same time have to defend itself from the theory's criticism of Christianity, as theologians using Marx and Freud have done repeatedly. Finally, the use of social theory by theologians sometimes has apologetic functions; it strengthens theology's capacity to communicate and answer the tough questions that social theory often puts to theology.

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