The More Specific Contributions of Social Theory

Even though social theory relies on deep narratives and ontologies that bring it close to theology, theology's interest in social theory has more to do with its capacity to explain certain social processes. By this I mean social theory's ability to locate certain psychological, social-systemic, economic, and cultural conditions that shape, although seldom completely determine, individual and social action. Some social scientists present these conditions as irresistible. They develop what I would call "hard" theories of explanation; the forces and processes they identify are presented in deterministic terms. This was certainly the case with Marx's theory of the determining power of the practices of material production. These practices of production doubtless shape thought and feeling, and give rise to ideologies that defend those who most profit from these practices. As useful as his theory is, it is widely conceded that Marx overstated his case. Much of social theory informed by the model of phronesis, as presented above, depicts individuals and communities as coping with such forces with degrees of freedom, and sometimes quite creatively.

Nonetheless, the material and social-systemic conditions shaping social action need to be understood by any socially responsible theology. Hermeneutic theorist Paul Ricoeur has gone beyond Gadamer in locating explanation, and the cognitive distancing that it requires, as a submoment within a larger view of understanding as dialog and conversation (Ricoeur 1981d:145-64). Hence, the search for causal patterns need not totally undermine a fuller view of social action and social theory based on phronesis, understanding, and the role of both freedom and tradition that these concepts entail.

There are two sets of explanatory concepts of particular importance to contemporary practical or public theologies: (1) modernization and globalization and (2) differentiation and division of labor. There are certainly other important concepts, but these will serve to illustrate how theology is using social theory.

The idea of modernization is closely related to the concept of technical reason discussed at the beginning of the chapter. Since Max Weber, modernization has been seen by social theorists as the application of technical reason to progressively wider aspects of life. It is a social process that first emerged in the industrial West but gradually spread to other parts of the world, thereby suggesting a kind of world dominance by Western countries and their values. Jürgen Habermas distinguishes between technical rationality, or "purposive rationality" (his preferred term), applied to markets, and technical reason, applied to bureaucratic control (Habermas 1987:209, 332-42). Capitalism is the primary example of the first and socialism, especially Soviet-style communism, was the primary example of the second. Both forms of technical reason disrupt what Habermas calls the "lifeworld" - the immediate face-to-face practical dialog of individuals and small communities in their exercise of phronesis (1987:121-6).

The spread of bureaucratic forms of technical reason in socialist countries creates dependency of individuals on governments and leads them to turn away from family and neighbor and sources of help and creative dialog. The spread of market forms of technical reason absorbs more and more people into the cost-benefit and efficiency-dominated logics of the business world. Notice the move of men from farms and crafts to the wage economy in the nineteenth century, followed in Western countries by a similar move of most women from home to paid employment in the twentieth century. Now most adults in Western market-driven countries are in the competitive, efficiency-driven systems of the market economy. Theorists as different as Habermas, the sociologist Alan Wolfe, and the rational-choice economist Gary Becker believe that, increasingly, individuals are thinking about intimate relations, marriage, and parenting in cost-benefit terms (Wolfe 1989:51-60; Becker 1991). And increasingly they are wondering if the costs exceed the benefits, hence the decline in birth and marriage rates and the increase of divorce in most Western societies.

If this is so, modernization has enormous implications for any practical or public theology wishing to address the modern world. Should Christian theology be for or against the modernization process? Many theorists believe that modernization will be destructive of communities and, finally, the democratic process itself unless strong pockets of voluntary organizations or civil society can emerge to resist its spread. Religion - especially churches - is one of the major sources of civil society; hence, theology's task is not so much a matter of suppressing technical reason and its benefits as developing strong counter-ideologies and counter-communities where a more religiously based phronesis can work to limit and confine its expansion. This would entail developing powerful theological grounds for asserting that persons must be treated as ends and never as means, in spite of technical reason's tendency to reduce all of life to means. Various theological strategies are at work to do just this - some rooted in the Reformed covenant theology such as the work of Max Stackhouse, Mary Stewart van Leeuwen, and John Witte, Jr., some in liberation theology and its theory of base communities, and some in the classic Catholic theory of subsidiarity and its idea that governments and market should support, and not override, the agency and initiative of individuals, families, and local groups (Van Leeuwen 1990, Carr and Van Leeuwen 1997, Stackhouse 1997, Witte 1997).

There is much discussion today in the social sciences about the phenomenon of globalization. It is closely associated with modernization but also distinguished from it.9 For instance, modernization, even in older social science discussions, was depicted as a kind of globalizing process. It was depicted as spreading from northern European countries and the US to the rest of the world; sooner or later the entire globe would be industrial, technically educated, and democratic in the Western style. More recent definitions of globalization absorb but recontextualize modernization theory. Electronic communication has made it possible for technical rationality, information, and cultural images to flow from east to west, south to north. In addition, certain features of modernization seem to work as well in more authoritarian governments like the People's Republic of China or Singapore as they do in the democratic West, thereby suggesting a possible decoupling of modernization from democracy and from the political polities of Europe and the US.

However this discussion might go, globalization presents a new challenge to theology. Theology, often thought of as addressing certain specific national and cultural contexts, may now need to address, critique, and help guide abstract globalizing systemic processes that cut across national and cultural boundaries.

Differentiation and division of labor are distinguishable yet closely related additional concepts relevant to a practical and public theology. The concept of division of labor is ancient but became quite central in the writings of Marx. The concept hypothesizes an archaic simple society where most individuals and families were deeply involved in all the tasks of life required to survive - cooking, building, hunting and growing, exchange, religious ritual, and the political ordering of the group, however elemental that might have been. Gradually, the theory goes, societies discovered the efficiency that comes with specialization; this was the social strategy of allowing some people to concentrate on one activity while depending on diverse specialists for other important functions. As societies matured, these specializations became hardened, autonomous from one another, and even alienated. Specializations can compete and dominate each other; those specializations producing private property and capital can, for instance, dominate workers (Marx 1978:160-1). Specialists themselves can become separated from the rest of life. Marx believed that the classless society following the world communist revolution would lessen the division of labor and the alienation and domination that it had brought (1978:197).

Division of labor leads to the differentiation of social institutions. Before the division of labor became highly developed, some social theorists believe, religion and family (in the sense of clan or tribe) controlled much of the social order. As the division of labor increased, specialists organized themselves institutionally; law, medicine, business, education, government, and religious institutions became relatively autonomous from one another, developed their own logics and power bases, and were more and more independent of older centers of control and guidance such as religion and family. The reverse was also true: religion, and family, became less and less influential in these increasingly autonomous sectors of society, leading some commentators to proclaim their increasing irrelevance.10 This is one way to explain the so-called secularization process.

This description of contemporary social processes has credibility even if certain details are still a matter of dispute. However, religion is not necessarily disappearing in all Western societies where this differentiation process, and its associated secularizing tendencies, are quite advanced. Institutional religion is under siege in many countries of Western Europe but not all modern societies. Individual religious interest (the concern with "spirituality") and even religious institutions are relatively important in the US, Spain, Italy, Northern Ireland and Eire, and much of Central and South America. But the issue is, do religious institutions in even these countries have a sustained influence on other parts of society - law, education, business, politics? If they don't, then religion has lost much of its power even where it is still fairly visible.

Practical and political theologies in confronting this state of affairs have gravitated toward dialogical models of social influence. There is today no Constantinian synthesis between church and state as once existed in medieval Europe, where religion could easily dictate to the rest of society. Cultural Protestantism has lost much of its power in the United States. Established churches such as the Church of England still exist and enjoy some privileges, but their actual social influence must be earned and not taken for granted.

This has given rise to a variety of practical strategies on the part of theology. The one I have been implicitly pointing to in this chapter is often called the "critical correlational" view of theology, and in addition to Tracy, Ogden, and Gamwell, this perspective is also associated with the names of William Schweiker, Thomas Groome, James Fowler, myself and others (Groome 1980, Fowler 1983, 1987, Browning 1983, 1991, Schweiker 1995). This view locates theology firmly in the hermeneutic process as described above. In its more practical manifestations, this perspective brings questions stemming from contemporary experience and our effective histories to the classics of the Christian faith and then returns to address specific arenas of life. This view believes that all theology, as does all thought, begins with confession, i.e., begins with how the theologian has been shaped by tradition prior to the beginning of critical reflection.

But the critical correlational view also believes that the Christian faith contains within it hints of metaphysical and moral truths which, although always first presented wrapped in a confessional narrative, can be given sufficient philosophical clarity to enter into dialog and mutual criticism with the different spheres of society. Hence, this view of the relation of theology to social theory goes beyond the confessionalism of both Bellah and Milbank. If theology is to avoid the two-fold pitfall of either subordinating social theory to theology through confessional fiat or becoming a mere tool of social theory, it must be willing to take on a critical and apologetic agenda.


1 For a basic discussion of the process of differentiation, see Talcott Parsons (1968:318).

2 For a discussion about the use and revision of Marx in liberation theology, see Gutiérrez (1990:214-25). See also Gutiérrez (19 73) and Segundo (19 76).

3 For an application of Wittgenstein's ordinary language analysis to the philosophy of the social sciences, see Winch (1958), Habermas (1990), and Rorty (19 79).

4 For two important critiques of foundationalism, see Rorty (19 79) and Bernstein (1983).

5 For a discussion of Hume's view of practical reason see its similarity to this first Aristotelian view; see Dahl (1984:26-9).

6 For a discussion of social science as technical reason in Hume's sense, see Bellah (1983). For a rational-choice view of social action, see Becker (1976).

7 For a secondary discussion of Giddens's use and critique of Gadamer, see Craib (1992:25).

8 Since Habermas's critiques of Gadamer's traditionalism and potential for ideological distortion is strewn throughout his early writings, I refer the reader to an excellent secondary resource. See Paul Ricoeur, "Hermeneutics and the Critique of Ideology," in Ricoeur 1981a:63-100.

9 The leading theorist of globalization is Roland Robertson (1992). Other important works are Peter Beyer (1994), and Saskia Sassen (1998).

10 For symposia that investigate the embattled character of both religion and family in modern societies, see D'Antonio and Aldous (1983) and Thomas (1988).


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