Sociology of Religion as an Intellectual Practice

To grasp the way Eastern Orthodoxy is understood as it is, it is necessary to look very briefly at the nature of sociology as a discipline, particularly the role played by the sociology of religion within it. True to its Enlightenment origins within the wider discipline of sociology itself, the sociology of religion seems to promise rational understanding of that which the Enlightenment and its heirs deemed the 'irrational'. However, this background in practice produced a set of difficulties about the relationship between sociology and religion. In the first instance this Enlightenment heritage meant sociology had, at least originally, an element - which now may be latent - that made it hostile to the claims of religion. The key founding figures of nineteenth-century sociology -Weber, Marx and Durkheim - were at best sceptical secularist in spirit. Even in more recent years a sociologist of religion and holder of the Chair in Sociology at Cambridge University can say, 'I was converted to Christianity under the auspices of the Methodist Church. My subsequent interest in the sociology of religion has been an attempt to understand that event and to escape from it' (Turner 1983: vii). The theologian John

Milbank has written an important and necessary book, Theology and Social Theory (1991) which uncovers much of the strongly competitive relationship of social thought with Christian theology. Milbank argues that the secular was not just the 'natural' awakening of understanding that occurred when the forces of secularization had stripped away from society the apparently unnecessary 'religious' element. Instead he argues that the secular had to be imagined into existence via secular philosophies and practices, against the trend of religious understandings. There would seem to be a good deal of plausibility in the view that much social thought is a kind of secular theology -perhaps especially clear in Marxism - in which elements from religion are borrowed for secular purposes (see MacIntyre 1968).

For Milbank, then, much social theory that underpins traditional sociology smuggles in a rather doubtful metaphysics that is, ironically, parasitic on religious thought. But this does not mean that Milbank argues for a rejection of the ongoing significance of social practices and contexts for the shaping of religious understandings and behaviour. Milbank and most contemporary sociologists would agree that atheist or agnostic beliefs and movements are also shaped by social contexts and practices. Intellectual modesty, with no legislative claims about the truth and falsity of beliefs smuggled in, is the best position for the social scientific account of the field of religion. Indeed, sophisticated sociologists of religion are now generally careful to avoid reductive accounts of religion and do not seek to explain away the phenomenon, but sometimes have even been prone to be protective of the religious groups studied, especially if those groups have a controversial public image. However, when dealing with the complex realities of large-scale religious organizations, their international connections and their local, national, even regional variations, the sociology of religion cannot claim to have made great advances over and above the work of the classic nineteenth-century founders. This is even more the case when we add the intractable issues raised by comparative sociology of religion, for here the sociology of religion remains, as Malcolm Hamilton has noted (1998), very much the product of the great German sociologist Max Weber's pioneering work.

Even when we look to Weber's work (1964) we are not given a great deal of guidance in regard to Eastern Orthodoxy. We might note, with the distinguished Weberian scholar W. Schluchter, that in comparison with Islam or Occidental Christianity Weber's 'view of Oriental Christianity and the development of the Eastern Churches is more difficult to grasp' (cited in Arnason 2000: 66 n. 3). Johann Arnason adds, 'This would seem to be a cautious understatement' (ibid.). The lack of treatment of Orthodoxy in Weber's work is not susceptible to a simple empirical remedy, because of some general problems in the nature of his approach to the sociology of Christianity. Despite Weber's undoubted erudition and the vast intellectual significance of his work it does have a general bias against traditional Orthodox liturgical Christianity and towards a highly 'rationalized' version of Christianity as embodied, as he believed, in its Protestant forms. Weber was really interested in finding the roots in the Judaic and Christian faiths of modern rationalized processes in society and economy. In his work, aspects of ancient Judaism are important but most vital is early modern Protestantism; this plays the starring role because of its relatively unusual combination of 'this-worldliness' and 'asceticism' which, he suggests, encourages attitudes supportive of early industrial capitalism (see Schluchter 1981). However, this emphasis can be seen to lead him to misunderstand and neglect other centrally important Christian traditions and doctrines. As the great twentieth-century sociologist of religion, Werner Stark, has pointed out Weber shared with the founder of positivist sociology, Auguste Comte, the quite erroneous and unhistorical belief that monotheism is a rather late development in the history of the great world religions; for Weber, even Christian Trinitarian theology was, Stark suggests, one of the 'early and crude forms of theology, phantasmogoric and not rational in character' (Stark 1968: 203).

It follows of course that if Trinitarian beliefs emerge after Judaism, as they do in Christianity, then this is 'to him a regrettable throwback to outmoded primitive ideas' (ibid.). Weber seems to have had no inkling that such Trinitarian thought could be understood as a development and an intellectual achievement, which provided for believers some understanding of the inner purposes of the deity and clues to the sacral meanings of creation achieved. As Stark puts it:

it was seen that in the Godhead there is a principle of love, the Son, as well as a principle of power, the Father, and that love means a yearning for completion of the One by the many, a going out and making of a world which would tend back towards Him who had given it being - the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, three persons, yet one God. (1968: 203)

It is remarkable that Weber failed to appreciate such ideas, which - aside from their theological significance - were to resonate so deeply in philosophical thought, especially in Germany in the nineteenth century in relation to ideas of immanence and transcendence, which Weber certainly was informed about.

Weber's biases against Catholic and by implication of course Eastern Orthodox versions of Christianity, and for an apparently rationalizing Protestantism, bring into even sharper focus his failure of understanding in regard to ritual and devotional worship. He states in the text we know in English as The Sociology of Religion, 'In practice the Roman Catholic cult of masses and saints actually comes fairly close to polytheism' (cited in Stark 1968: 203), when clearly he should know that the cult of saints (to be found in both the Eastern and Western Church) is clearly a post-monotheistic development that is given clear theological recognition in the idea of the Communion of Saints. To cap this Stark points out that Weber has no real grasp of the nature of sacramental practice, even seeing in the Christian Eucharist some kind of manipulative magic (1968: 204). It is difficult not to see that for all Weber's astonishing scholarship he was unable to escape in his sociology of Christianity the prejudices of late nineteenth-century Protestant and post-Protestant culture. As we note below, such prejudice still limits our understanding of Eastern Christianity - and not just Eastern Christianity. However, it is also the case that, given Weber's enormous significance for comparative and civilizational based sociological analysis, his failure to provide a full and comprehensive understanding of Christianity has stood in the way of comparative civilizational analysis. This area of his work has not led to a genuinely balanced account of the nature of culture in Europe, including eastern Europe.

In practice many western writers and analysts, including able social historians, still start from a set of modern, frequently Protestant, prejudices about what Christianity is and by extension what Eastern Orthodoxy is and perhaps what it ought to be, if purged of backward superstitious mindsets and practices.

A good example of the latter position can be found in the work of one of the most eminent of British historians of Russia and in particular the Russian peasantry, Orlando Figes. In Figes's monumental history of the Russian Revolution, A People's Tragedy (1996), his understanding of Russian peasants is fascinating not least for what it reveals about the author's own assumptions of what Christian religious belief and practice mean. To begin with, Figes tells us that 'the religiosity of the Russian peasant has been one of the most enduring myths . . . in the history of Russia' but that 'in reality the Russian peasant had never more than a semi-detached relation with the Orthodox religion. Only a thin coat of Christianity had been painted over the ancient pagan folk-culture' (p. 66). However, having made this confident assertion he goes on to say:

to be sure, the Russian peasant displayed a great deal of external devotion. He crossed himself continually, pronounced the Lord's name in every sentence, regularly went to church, always observed the Lenten fast, never worked on religious holidays, and was even known to from time to time to go on pilgrimage to holy shrines. (1996: 66)

He even concedes that most peasants thought of themselves as Orthodox and admits that if you had gone into a Russian village in 1900 and asked the inhabitants who they were they would have told you that they were Orthodox. However it seems that the widespread religious practices and clear self-definition are not adequate for our historian, for he seems to believe that he knows what true Christianity is and that these peasants are falling short of the mark. What is this mark that the Russian peasant failed to meet? It seems it was because 'the peasant's religion was far from the bookish Christianity of the clergy' and that the peasant 'mixed pagan cults and superstition' with Orthodox belief and he makes the surprising claim that 'being illiterate the average peasant knew very little of the Gospels' and that they would not know the Lord's Prayer - surely a most unlikely situation given their regular attendance at liturgies where it was regularly repeated.

Basically the model and standard that Figes is using to define real Christianity is a western post-Reformation Protestant one in which Christianity is defined in highly individualized textual and propositional terms. Now, crucially for the Eastern Orthodox tradition and indeed for the western Roman Catholic one, liturgical worship, the participation in the sacraments, Lenten devotion and discipline, religious holidays and feasts were not simply 'external devotion' implicitly to be contrasted with some other and perhaps higher form, but rather the essence of the Christian life. The liturgical year, with its rich and complex pattern of celebration and enactment of the Christian story, was deeply entwined with the whole life of the village community. If the world of the peasant and the natural world surrounding it seemed to be one in which spirits and the supernatural were ever-present then they were, and perhaps are still, closer to the world view of the early Christians than the modern literate and doctrinally well-taught modern western Christian, who spends at least six days out of seven in the bureaucratic and disenchanted world of modernity so distant from the liturgically ordered world of the nineteenth-century Russian village. Nor should we postulate very great distinctions between educated priests and ignorant or illiterate peasants. Figes himself, without realizing it, indicates crucial connections when he points to 'the icon' being 'the focus of the peasant's faith' (1996: 67), central after all to all Orthodox believers and not simply the poorly educated, and this includes the belief in their capacity for miraculous influence.

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