Hermeneutic Views of Theology and Social Theory

If all social action basically has a hermeneutic character in which phronesis and verstehen come together, what distinguishes Christian theology from social theory? Both would be seen as types of practical understanding. But their difference would be this: theology is a view of social action that explicitly finds its classics (its norms and ideals) in what it considers to be the revelatory power of the story of creation, fall, and redemption recorded in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Social theory as an exercise in verstehen also would need some way of locating its classics, but it might not necessarily use the Christian classics. Nonetheless, because of the pervasive presence and influence of Christian classics in Western culture, various social theories may implicitly use them in the horizon of their conceptuality as unacknowledged sources of norms and ideals.

Examples of either Judaism or Christianity - or both - functioning to shape the normative horizon or background assumptions of various social theories are not difficult to find. Some commentators have argued that even though Marx saw religion as a source of ideology often justifying capitalist exploitation, from another perspective Jewish utopian visions of the kingdom of God in this world indirectly animated his vision of the just society (Miranda 19 74:229-49). It can be argued that Freud's view of the importance of the restraints of the superego - although he held that they should now become conscious and rational rather than unconscious and blind - stemmed from his continuing appreciation of Moses as a law-giver to the Jews (Rieff 1979:281-3). Max Weber's theory of how Protestantism - specifically his interpretation of Luther's concept of vocation (Beruf) and Calvin's doctrine of predestination -shaped an economic ethic for Western societies, was probably more than a value-

neutral explanatory conception (Weber 1958:181-3). It may, as well, have reflected his unconscious appreciation for his own Protestant heritage mediated through his mother (Gerth and Wright Mills 1958:5-7, 28-31). And finally, the neoclassical economics of Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, which holds all social action to be motivated by calculations of costs and benefits to individual satisfactions, may have deeper background beliefs than the theory itself acknowledges. Economist Donald McCloskey has argued that neoclassical economics is actually fed by an implicit narrative about the meaning of life that builds on the Protestant ethic of hard work, rational action, and saving for the future (McCloskey 1990:135-40).

If many examples of contemporary social theory contain background beliefs that are open to Christian and Jewish theological visions or narratives, what does that say about the relation of social theory to theology? Does this, for example, make social theory a kind of theology? Not quite. But it does suggest that a categorical distinction between social theory and theology may be difficult to argue for convincingly. Theology selfconsciously and explicitly interprets and defends Judeo-Christian visions and narratives about life and society. If prominent examples of social theory hazily and vaguely make use of these same visions and narratives, it does not mean that social theory is theology, but it does suggest that it is difficult for social theory to orient itself to accounts of social action without itself implicitly relying on some kind of vision of the ultimate context of human experience. Furthermore, it points to a non-scientific aspect of much of contemporary social theory over which it does not have full control, partially because it may not even fully acknowledge its presence. On this point, theology appears more honest and forthright than much of social theory. Theology openly acknowledges, interprets, and defends its ultimate vision and the narratives that convey it.

Secular social theory may fail to make explicit these visions and fail to advance any kind of ordered defense of them. Yet they influence and tilt the views of individual and social action nonetheless. John Milbank in his Theology and Social Theory (1990) analyzes the horizon and hidden assumptions of several kinds of social theory -Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Parsons as well as the entire field of postmodernism - and finds, not so much an implicit Christian vision or ontology, but an ancient pagan ontology of violence and power (Milbank 1990:278-325). In Religious Thought and the Modern Psychologies (1987), I made a similar analysis of the major schools of contemporary psychology - Freud, Skinner, Jung, the humanistic psychologies, Erikson, Kohut - and found that they all contained deep metaphors about the nature of the ultimate context of experience, metaphors that function analogously to religious visions (Browning 1987). Metaphors of life and death (Freud), of ultimate harmony (Jung and humanistic psychology), of care (Erikson and, strangely enough, Skinner), or of purposeful design (the later Kohut) all pointed to visions of the way the world at its heart really is. These visions shaped the deep existential attitudes of these respective psychologies toward either trust, joy, solicitude, distrust, or despair. Yet, these psychologies give no account of these deep quasi-religious assumptions. Sociologist Peter Berger, in his popular A Rumor of Angels, argued that officially the social sciences relativize if not completely undercut all religious claims; implicitly, however, "signals of transcendence" (rumors of angels) shine through these disciplines and practical thought time and again (Berger 1969:61-94). If we were to take Milbank seriously, the signals of transcendence in the secular social sciences are more likely to be rumors of devils or forces of violence.

The difficulty social theory has in gaining autonomy from implicit or explicit religious visions may not be a shortcoming. They may be inevitable and therefore should be handled positively. Rather than fighting against them, denying them, and failing to acknowledge the various ways they are detectable in the background beliefs of various social theories, some scholars argue that social theory should acknowledge and use these religious visions directly in its work. This might be the implication of Gadamer in his admonition to use the pre-judgments of one's effective history in the process of understanding as dialog. Since religion was so significantly a part of the traditions that shape us, pre-judgments about the nature and value of the ultimate context of experience plausibly would make up a great deal of our effective history. Hence, it might follow that to understand something necessarily occurs against the background of our inherited religious visions of the good and true.

In light of this insight, some social theorists have tried to develop accounts of human action large enough to incorporate directly many of the insights of Gadamer. The British social theorist Anthony Giddens is certainly a leading example of one who both absorbs and critiques Gadamer (Giddens 19 77).7 But Giddens has not gone as far in this direction as the American sociologist Robert Bellah and his team in their successful Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Bellah et al. 1985). In this book, the Bellah team tried to assess the status of individualism and commitment in contemporary North American life. They concluded that individualism, especially in the middle classes, had the upper hand and that the struggle to develop a language of commitment was itself impoverished. These authors argued that it was impossible for sociologists to investigate individualism and commitment in the United States without interpreting contemporary life there in light of the classics that shaped the American vision in the first place. These formative influences were the biblical tradition with its emphasis on covenant, and the republican tradition with its stress on representative democracy. In the beginning, these two traditions kept the balance between individualism and commitment, but in subsequent generations, the demise of the biblical tradition has allowed individualism - both utilitarian and expressive individualism - to gain ground and go increasingly unchecked (1985:27, 32-5).

A complete review of their position is not the purpose of this discussion. I mention it to illustrate their indebtedness to Gadamer and their explicit use of religion within social theory. In an appendix to the book titled "Social Science as Public Philosophy," Bellah makes the following Gadamerian statement:

It is precisely the boundary between the social sciences and the humanities that social science as public philosophy most wants to open up. Social science is not a disembodied cognitive enterprise. It is a tradition, or set of traditions, deeply rooted in the philosophical and humanistic (and, to more than a small extent, the religious) history of the West. Social science makes assumptions about the nature of persons, the nature of society, and the relation between persons and society. It also, whether it admits it or not, makes assumptions about good persons and a good society and considers how far these conceptions are embodied in our actual society. Becoming conscious of the cultural roots of these assumptions would remind the social scientist that these assumptions are contestable and that the choice of assumptions involves controversies that lie deep in the history of Western thought. Social science as public philosophy would make the philosophical conversation concerning these matters its own. (Bellah et al. 1985:301)

Gadamer's concepts of tradition, classics, effective history, and understanding as dialog are implicit in this quote. Tradition constitutes the source of our effective history, even the effective history of the social theorist. Philosophical, humanistic, and even religious sources - classics - give that tradition its special shape. This constitutes Bellah's justification for using the classic covenant and republican traditions as frameworks for understanding the tensions between individualism and commitment in American life. Finally, the entire inquiry is a historically situated dialog. In one place these authors specifically acknowledge the influence of Gadamer when they write:

Hans-Georg Gadamer has provided us with valuable guidance in our understanding of our work as always involving a dialog with the tradition out of which we come. He reminds us also that our conversation with contemporaries or predecessors is never closed on itself but is always about something. (Bellah et al. 1985:330)

Several observations about Bellah's position are relevant. First, social theory, in this view, becomes a somewhat more systematic and disciplined version of good common sense; both are expressions of phronesis. Second, the distinction between theology and social theory all but collapses. Since social theory needs a positive place for classics, both religious and philosophical, Western religious ideals have a rightful role to play directly in the understanding process that constitutes social science and social theory. Third, Bellah's position gets close to grounding social theory in an explicitly religious beginning point. The covenant tradition, for example, is simply assumed; it is a beginning point, indeed a confessional beginning point; but now in Bellah's work it is inserted into social theory, not just Christian theology.

In making this move, Bellah gets close to doing in sociology and social theory what John Milbank calls for when he seems to suggest that Western social science should ground itself in the view of society that Augustine set forth in his City of God (Milbank 1990:380-434). He argues that Augustine developed a theory of society based on ecclesiology. But to call it theory, he insists, would do violence to its narrative and performative character. First of all, Augustine narrated a description of the practices and rituals of the early ecclesia as a community of peace. As a community of peace, it told a counter-history and counter-narrative to the vision of life as honor, excellence, domination, and control characteristic of pagan life. The peaceful practices of the Church were founded on a vision of a peaceful and loving God revealed through Christ; peace in the pagan context was grounded on political control and violence perpetrated by the Civitas terra (the earthly city) (1990:380-5). When theology reflects on this performative narrative of ecclesial practice, it gives rise to a speculative ontology of peace -one that can provide a framework for a "Christian sociology" (1990:380). Milbank continues:

Talk of a "Christian sociology" or of "theology as a social science" is not, therefore, as silly as talk of Christian mathematics (I suspend judgement here) precisely because there can be no sociology in the sense of a universal "rational" account of the "social" character of all societies, and Christian sociology is distinctive simply because it explicates, and adopts the vantage point of, a distinct society, the church. (Milbank 1990:380-1)

The idea of a Christian sociology based on a narrative and reflective ontology of peace is close, as I indicated above, to Bellah's belief that sociology must actively employ cultural classics in its interpretative process, including the classics of faith. However, both points of view contain fresh insights that beg for clarification. Should all of sociology become explicitly religious, perhaps even Christian, because of the prominence of Christian effective history in the cultural narrative of the West?

I don't think either Milbank or Bellah go that far. I read Milbank's message as one addressed primarily to the Church and to theology in its confessional mode. Christian theology, he is arguing, has implications for sociology and social theory; it should be willing to review and critique all allegedly secular perspectives to expose their illusory claims to a value-free rationality and to uncover their implicit deep narratives and ontologies, many of which contradict Christian ontologies and do so arbitrarily and uncritically. Bellah is more ambitious; he wants sociology and other aspects of social theory to expand and take responsibility for reason's dependence on the religious dimensions of its effective history.

Both views, however, fail to realize fully the complexities of their proposals. Both are correct in showing that the social sciences to not rest on a foundation of universal reason. Both are helpful in showing the importance of history and tradition for the exercise of reason, even in the social sciences. However, to be convincing in its critical dialog with the so-called secular social sciences, theology would have to go beyond Milbank's belief that it can do this by simply "re-narrating" the Christian story and thereby make manifest its ontology of peace. Theology would have to go beyond confession or witness in ways that Milbank resists.

Without this additional move, Habermas's criticism of Gadamer's defense of tradition would also apply to a Christian sociology (Giddens 1977).8 Tradition, although certainly the source of effective history and the assumptive background of all practical thought, can also be a conveyor of ideology, distortions in power, and inequality. Indeed, even classics that are full of wisdom may still be embedded (because of the eras or circumstances in which they were conceived) in distortions that need identification, criticism, and some cleansing. In order to understand the classics and take them seriously and introduce them into public discourse, their insights must be tested by various additional moral and metaphysical analyses. The Milbankian would have to show, to use a phrase of Richard Bernstein's, that there are "good reasons" to think that a Christian ontology of peace enjoys more plausibility than alternative narratives and ontologies about the ultimate context of experience (Bernstein 1983:223-31).

In other words, theology as Christian sociology would have to gain some degree of "distanciation" - to borrow a term from Paul Ricoeur - from its own narrative matrix (Ricoeur 1981c:131-44). This would be no naive positivistic flight into objectivity; but it would need to go beyond speculation as a second-order elaboration of the Christian narrative. A Christian sociology must be willing to enter into dialog with alternative perspectives, hear criticisms, and make public replies. It would entail developing some brand of metaphysics. It would have to become apologetic if it were to enter into critical dialog with the culture and sustain this dialog.

If Milbank's proposal for theology as Christian sociology is aimed primarily at the Church, then it at least has plausibility. But to be truly effective it would need to go beyond a strictly confessional approach. To meet criticism from others, especially at the metaphysical level, is no small matter, and one I will not address directly in this chapter. But I will recommend the writings of Schubert Ogden, John Cobb, David Tracy, and Franklin Gamwell as examples of theologians who are trying to accomplish a critical conversation between theology and social theory, even going so far as to address basic metaphysical questions (Cobb 1965, Ogden 1966, Tracy 1975, Gamwell 1990).

In the case of Bellah, it is hard to interpret the full implications of his proposal. When Bellah suggests that "social science as public philosophy would make the philosophical conversation" concerning its effective history and its deep assumptions "its own," he seems to be suggesting a new superdiscipline that would subsume the explanatory social sciences to moral philosophy and even theology. But the idea that social science would make this conversation "its own" suggests that any such superdiscipline would not only confess its basic religio-cultural assumptions, narratives, and ontologies, it would try to critically defend its choices. This is precisely what Bellah and his team do not do in Habits of the Heart and their follow-up book, The Good Society (1991). Bellah and company never try to defend critically why covenant theology is superior to other perspectives for grounding the relation between individualism and commitment; they simply show it was a classic resource in American history. Some of the same metaphysical and moral philosophical tasks that Milbank faces would also need to be confronted by Bellah were such a superdiscipline to be attempted.

In conclusion, both Milbank and Bellah develop interesting proposals about the relation of theology to social theory. They are addressed, as I read them, to slightly different audiences. Both have merit. But both entail more demanding interdisciplinary and critical programs than either fully acknowledges. In the meantime, it is better to acknowledge that no clear boundary between social theory and Christian theology can be easily drawn. This means that dialog and mutual critique between their respective implicit and explicit deep narratives and ontologies should be fruitful and entirely justified. This is true for a variety of reasons, but most especially to keep social theory and the discrete social sciences from becoming the new crypto-theologies of our day.

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