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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Theology and social context

One of the debates I keep having is the problem of explaining aspects of Christian origins largely in terms of social context. In the context of the Cold War, I can see why a stress on social context was a problem for Christians. But now I can't fully understand why it has to remain so theologically problematic now, at least that's the impression I get from verbal debates, including some on this blog. Given the usual Christian theological assumptions why should it matter if individual genius or socio-economic context is stressed as key causal factor? If God is in control of history, the world and all that, why should a theology sparked off by social context be problematical? And is there not a theological problem of stressing individual genius? I realise this may all sound very naive and I could be missing something obvious but it has been ages since I did my theology degree so forgive me.

Anything to say on this?

14 Comments:

Anonymous Jim said...

May I reply as a Bultmannian? You are exactly right. There is no problem at all with sociological approaches or the like because they do not, and cannot, impinge upon the theological core of Christian belief. Christianity is about faith, when you boil it all down- and faith is *non-scientific* (in the sense that it is not measurable and cannot be proven or disproven). There's just NO getting around this.

That doesn't mean, in my estimation, that faith is irrational. Rather, if I may, I think it "super-reational" (in spite of dawdling Dawkins and his mental meanderings).

Theology is Metaphysics. Historical research, if it becomes metaphysical, ceases to be historical or research in any meaningful sense of those words.

At least that's how I see it.

January 17, 2007

 
Anonymous Jim said...

Shoot- that was supposed to be "super-rational" instead of the wicked monstrosity it turned out to be. Sorry.

January 17, 2007

 
Anonymous Jim said...

Shoot- that was supposed to be "super-rational" instead of the monstrosity it turned out to be. Sorry.

January 17, 2007

 
Blogger Danny Zacharias said...

James, who exactly are you arguing with? I would like to read an example of the arguments that you come up against.

I must say at the outset that I am somewhat sympathetic to those who get frazzled at sociological studies on Christianity. I remember hitting a bit of a 'dark night of the soul' when I took Sociology of Religion in my undergrad. But I came out of it with a better sense of how life and history operates—and I'm still a bible-thumping Christian!

Part of the problem may be, as will many disciplines, they tend to talk of themselves and their methods as the biggest dog in the yard. If sociology and social context claimed to be the exclusive answer to Christian origins, then it would rattle people. But it is not, I don't think so anyway. But it needs to be taken seriously and added to the mix of it all. These people you argue with need to understand that history is not black and white. I can confidently say that social factors and forces influenced the spread of Christianity and point them to your book and Rodney Stark's book. But I can also confidently say that I believe the original followers of Jesus saw the resurrected Jesus and the Holy Spirit empowered their zeal and mission, and I would point them to Luke-Acts. I don't see a contradiction in believing both of these things. The problem comes when one says it is the exclusive reason and trumps all others. That is a narrow, black and white, view of history and life and is far too limited.

And perhaps I am not Bultmannian enough, but I don't think Christianity is JUST about faith. It is about FAITH IN something. The earliest faith of the disciples was faith in what they believed to be real events and the significance they attributed to it— the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus.

As I said, I would like to hear/read one of these arguments. Danny

January 18, 2007

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Jim, that was the kind of thing I thought might be the answer and why it really shouldn't be a problem these days.

Danny, a few things prompted my thinking on this. Whenever I have given a paper on socio-economic causes of Christianity I consistently get a couple of strong reactions along thelines of 'it just can't be that etc.' while at the same time I've never witnessed the opposite, i.e. 'it just can't be ideas' (and the papers I go to this is the dominant form of explanation). I got wondering further when I gave the equivalent paper on early Judaism to a Jewish audience and they were very up for all the social stuff. I think there are some claer reasons why a big stress on social context would not be a problem (indeed something positive) in a Jewish context but I just couldn't work out why it remained a problem for Christians. the other thing is that the literature on social scientific approaches to Christian origins has repeatedly stressed that it is not explaining everything away and is often heavily criticised of those claimed to do so. Again, it is not something you say when ideas are used as the explanatory force.

As for reading, I would go for the numerous surveys and evaluations of social scientific approaches to the NT/Christian origins.

As for one dominant explanation, yes, I would agree that is a problem and would rattle people. But the dominant explanation has been ideas (and that helps explain my reaction). The idea of a mix is, in the abstract, right, but it remains possible that one could be overwhelmingly more important in different contexts. Case by case I suppose.

But again, like Jim, your answer is what might rationally be expected because as much as I'd like to be a threat, I can't see how the sort of approaches I like are.

On the Bultmann stuff, I want some suggestions on that soon (when I get to posting on it).

January 18, 2007

 
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I'm sympathetic to James' approach, of course. Social-context approaches can start to wear out their welcome when used reductively, but treatments of religion divorced from "dirty" issues like politics and economics are hard for me to take seriously.

January 18, 2007

 
Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

One can scarcely not be in favour of a sociological approach, in the sense that a multi-dimensional approach is by definition best. A further corollary of this is that an approach that is *exclusively* sociological, as opposed to weighing sociological explanations vs psychological, theological and what have you (and/or combining these) is deficient. Among the different branches of study, sociology has in my view greater than average explanatory power. A deficit is that it is more than averagely question-begging because it ignores metaphysics. It is all very well proceeding as though human society were the bottom line, but it is the bottom line neither conceptually nor chronologically.

January 19, 2007

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

James,

From a sociological perspective :-), I don't think there's any significant evidence of a widespread theological problem with social science approaches to NT.

I think you've just ran into some bloggers or even scholars who aren't familiar with it and are reacting strictly to what little skewed exposure they have had and perhaps your specific views on matters. Christians, like myself, who fully embrace this approach, most likely just refrain from commenting. For my part, absolutely *nothing* has helped to enrich both my faith and my understanding of the New Testament moreso than the work of Context Group scholars. I have read every work on Social Science/Anthropology and the NT that I can get my hands on. And I know from personal conversations with the pioneers and luminaries within this body of scholars (particularly Pilch and Malina), that their experience has been similar.

Basically, my feelings are so strong on the matter that I think that Christians who have read a work like the Malina/Rohrbaugh commentary on the Synoptics and rejected the approach, felt threatened, and/or failed to see the usefulness of it are somewhat blind theologically and logically. And for those who have *not* familiarized themselves with this body of work, they are most likely hopelessly under-informed and anachronistic in their interpretations. Its not that theology is *immune* from this work as Jim West would have it (more on this below); its that it needs to be entirely reformed or *restarted* in light of it.

In places that I've had problems with your comments regarding the social sciences, it has been in specific instances where I've felt that you've downplayed or too hastily disregarded religious belief as a predictor and the role of agency - both of which have studies, and indeed entire theories, that revolve around them in the sociology of religion (e.g. the latter being Rational Choice Theory).

So, in short, I'd say, the theological impact is just not that big of a deal. If we sample another group of Christians, for example the evangelical apologists who are all too eager to incorporate (some would say abusively so) the work of the Context Group into their task, we get a very different view on the matter.

I'd also add that, in no way intending to disrespect you, other than some snippets about your book and a brief mention here and there, I haven't even seen much social science on this blog.

Loren Rosson, on the other hand, has not only shed much light on matters historical and theological through his popularization of social scientific perspectives on his blog and crosstalk, but, probably unbeknownst to himself, I would wager that, other than the scholars themselves (and perhaps even moreso than they), he has single-handedly been the most significant facilitator of such perspectives anywhere. That may sound extreme, but I believe it is accurate. His Amazon reviews and Booklists of the major Context Group works have influenced a multitude of readers. I know many, myself included, who were first introduced to the work through his Amazon presence many years ago, which was always extremely prominent anytime you searched for works related to Christianity.

In response to Jim West, here I also do not mean to be rude at all, but I strongly disagree. The equation of Theology (as its practiced today in academia) with Metaphysics I think is entirely wrong. Metaphysics (consisting as it does of the concept of God, ontology, the study of time, identity/change, free will, the mind/body relationship or soul, etc.) is a rigorous and formal discipline that requires extensive philosophical training to engage in, and while some of the contents of theological systems may be accurately described as "metaphysical", to equate Metaphysics in any way with Jim's kind of Bultmannian Theology is IMO to drastically devalue Metaphysics. I have to be honest and say that I have very little regard for this kind of dogmatic theology as a modern academic discipline. I find theology interesting to the degree that it has overlap with real disciplines and methodologies like philosophy, historical studies, and science. But what good there is in sitting around talking about modern concepts like "faith", defined as a special super-duper whatever that can't be touched because it's just too special, is, IMO, not only completely foreign to anything the NT authors and early Christians had in mind, but a poor excuse for an academic exercise.

With all due respect, I suspect that approaches like this are often spawned from an inability on the part of the theologian to properly *integrate* their belief system with disciplines like history, philosophy, and science. From their perspective, "the faith" as they see it, must be moved completely outside of the realm of critical inquiry where it will forever be safe from all evidential harm. If we can just push those goal posts out into Metaphysical Land where no one can get to them because there we've arbitrarily changed the epistemic obligations (the most basic of which - coherence - is even often admittedly disregarded), then we can indulge in all the scientific/critical endeavors we want and avoid the guilt that comes with the necessary denial of the inconsistency or disconfirmation of our beliefs that we'd otherwise have to face. Brilliant solution? Or the academic equivalent of a self-induced dissociative identity disorder? You decide.

But the "New Atheism" as it has been called, consisting of the Unholy Trinity of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the much more philosophically competent Daniel Dennett is specifically targeting this kind of arbitrary insulation of beliefs, and speaking of these folks with disdainful adjectives won't stop the assault or influence. At the least, Dennett in particular needs to be commended for trying to bring about real dialogue and confrontation between this kind of theology and science. What keeps this bubble-theology safe is the widespread public perception that such insulated and unquestioned "faith" is somehow virtuous and worthy of respect. Dennett thinks that it is this very fundamental assumption itself (what he calls "belief in belief") that needs to be questioned and I tend to agree with him. Perhaps this epistemic fragmentation/insulation is not virtuous but ultimately harmful. I tend to agree that it is.

I predict that failure to properly integrate their worldview (mostly IMO the result of lack of education in the truly relevant disciplines) will result in a lot more of this on the part of Christians in the future, and I think we see it rearing its head a bit in the Emergent Church's retreat into postmodernist tendencies.

Obviously my opinion is that this kind of thing isn't super-rational or super-anything, it is just very obviously anti-rational. Dawkins may be a dunce when it comes to theology and philosophy of religion, but he makes some significant points against these kinds of anti-rational approaches embraced by many (if not most) modern Christians. And, though both philosophers and scientists have taken him to task, I doubt you'll see any responses forthcoming from this group of "super-rational" theologians, as they just aren't equipped. The only real theologian who has stepped forward is Alister McGrath and he has a heavily analytic and scientific background which most theologians lack.

Besides that, Dawkins is really a strawman when it comes to challenges to the matters of God and faith. There are brilliant atheistic atheologians/philosophers like Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, Antony Flew, and J H. Sobel, whose thought needs to be wrestled with. These scholars understand the deep philosophical/metaphysical issues involved in discussing God a thousand times better than most bare theologians who will never read their work, or the work of the many brilliant Christian philosophical theologians like Alvin Plantinga, Michael Murray, Daniel Howard-Snyder, or Eleonore Stump who are literally bringing about the obsolescence of bare theology by the sheer fruitfulness of the application of Western analytic philosophy to theological issues.

Perhaps this is all my fault and you need an extensive education in theology to understand theology. Indeed, I have some degreed theologian friends who think guys like Tillich and Moltmann not only make sense, but are some of the most brilliant minds of all time. But with my background in analytic philosophy I find so many unjustified assumptions, errors of reasoning, and *especially* idiosyncratic, vague, and/or undefined terminology in the works of such people, that I wonder if they aren't fooling themselves or just buying in to what are the standard beliefs of seminary professors.

Alex Dalton

January 20, 2007

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In thinking about it last night, I think I've been overly harsh in my criticism of theology (and particularly Jim's theology ) above, despite my repeated caveats ("with all due respect"). I think I've made some good points and I definitely favor a more dynamic, critical, realist, and integrated conception of "faith", but I also think I have an axe to grind with theology, and that, to be fair, I just have not read (and understood) *nearly* enough theology to responsibly make these kinds of arguments.

So I want to apologize for the dogmatic tone without necessarily retracting all of my arguments. I just don't think Jim's brief comments or my brief reading in theology put me in a place at this point to have such certitude on whether or not these systems are so deficient. And a more charitable and reasonable stance (for Dawkins as well) would simply be to ask questions at this point.

Alex

January 20, 2007

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

That's all interesting because I guess that Christopher, Alex and Danny are pretty conservative Christians (am I being fair?) and have no problem here. On the contrary.

Alex, I agree with most of what you say (on the theological side it is near impossible for me to take sides for obvious reasons). I'm sure you are right about ignorance of it all. Even then I'm not sure I understand why it should be a threat. Maybe it has something to do with removing faith from the dirty ordinary world. Reading your stuff on philosophy/theology also reminds me of how long it was since I did theology and some old names I haven't heard for a while! I'm going to post on the kind of theology you mention and, while I don't really see it as my place (largely for reasons of ignorance/forgetting) to comment in any depth on the validity of the theolgians you criticise, we'll see if anyone will come to their defence (I'm sure Jim West will not let us down!).

Just want to comment on a couple of points.

"I think you've just ran into some bloggers or even scholars who aren't familiar with it and are reacting strictly to what little skewed exposure they have had and perhaps your specific views on matters. Christians, like myself, who fully embrace this approach, most likely just refrain from commenting."

Yes, you could be right. When I think about it , sometimes a minority making such comments sticks on my mind. I'm guessing that the overwhelming majority of the scholars in an audience for a paper are Christian (I know this for sure in certain cases) and they have no problem at all with the use of social sciences, or at worse just shrug their shoulders think it is plausible.

"And I know from personal conversations with the pioneers and luminaries within this body of scholars (particularly Pilch and Malina), that their experience has been similar."

I wondered why I haven't heard more about these kinds of stories. Probably because people rarely talk openly in an academic context about such things. Incidentally, I never knew Malina was a believer. I always enjoy second guessing and I just suspected he might not be but presumably (I'm being a bit cheeky here) you are implying he is?

In places that I've had problems with your comments regarding the social sciences, it has been in specific instances where I've felt that you've downplayed or too hastily disregarded religious belief as a predictor and the role of agency - both of which have studies, and indeed entire theories, that revolve around them in the sociology of religion (e.g. the latter being Rational Choice Theory).

I don't think I downplay theological factors in practice. I realise that I stress things but I was just trying to stress (based more on historical methodology) that causal factors in *historical change* need to be less ideas based than they usually are in mainstream explanattions of Christian origins. I often wonder if my stress comes from reacting to a particularly British context which from my experience seems to be more theologically grounded.

"So, in short, I'd say, the theological impact is just not that big of a deal. If we sample another group of Christians, for example the evangelical apologists who are all too eager to incorporate (some would say abusively so) the work of the Context Group into their task, we get a very different view on the matter."

I've noticed that too.

"I'd also add that, in no way intending to disrespect you, other than some snippets about your book and a brief mention here and there, I haven't even seen much social science on this blog."

I think that is fair. I prefer to think of myself as a fairly conventional historian who finds various social scientific approaches very, very useful. I leave the detailed social scientific approaches proper (as it were - you know what I mean) to the NT/Christian origins to those like the Context Group and various others outside them. Although the boundaries between sociology and history are thankfully blurred, I would put myself more on the historical side (and not for any reaons of thinking it is better, I'd add). In fact the book perobably has more fairly conventional historical criticism than social sciences. That would explain the lack of social sciences on this blog (not to mention the non-NT interests).

"Loren Rosson, on the other hand, has not only shed much light on matters historical and theological through his popularization of social scientific perspectives on his blog and crosstalk, but, probably unbeknownst to himself, I would wager that, other than the scholars themselves (and perhaps even moreso than they), he has single-handedly been the most significant facilitator of such perspectives anywhere. That may sound extreme, but I believe it is accurate. His Amazon reviews and Booklists of the major Context Group works have influenced a multitude of readers. I know many, myself included, who were first introduced to the work through his Amazon presence many years ago, which was always extremely prominent anytime you searched for works related to Christianity."

I would endorse that. At least from Loren's blog, I think social-scientific approaches are one of his primary areas of interest. That's an interesting argument concerning influence. Whether it can be proved, I don't know, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me given that I keep finding more and more people reading blogs and web reviews. I think Loren has given it all a very good public press.

January 21, 2007

 
Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

'Christian' - yes most definitely. 'Conservative' - sounds like an ideological tag, and ideology is the enemy of scholarship. If I come to conservative conclusions and/or radical ones and/or moderate ones (and I come to plenty of all of these), it is through the process of truthseeking.

January 22, 2007

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

I;m sure that's true but I was more thinking away from scholarship as it were and the general beliefs you all hold. Now maybe your beliefs are due to critical thinking but I was curious because opposition I have received usually comes from conservative Christians and I just never quite figured why. So what I think is important is that people who might be identified as conservative Christians don't see this social stuff as a threat to theology (and why should they, of course). Do you see what I mean?

January 22, 2007

 
Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

That is interesting.
I think I see what you mean but it is so far from where I am at that it is a question that hadnt occurred to me.
For example, this whole talk of a 'threat' to theology presupposes a world where theology is by definition on the defensive - & I don't know why that should be the case, any more than it should always be on the offensive.
Also, surely it is not a bad thing for theology to be threatened in cases where it *deserves* to be threatened.
So I think the whole framework presupposed here imagines that everyone is out to defend their preferred ideologies rather than to fid the truth.
We agree that this is in fact the case to an alarming degree. But I think the degree to which it is *not* the case is growing.

January 22, 2007

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alex: James, I'm not sure what I am. Liberals tend to think I'm conservative and conservatives tend to think I'm liberal. Does that make me moderate? I think there's definitely mythology in the Bible, but I believe Jesus literally rose from the dead. I think the Bible is inspired but I don't hold to the "detailed inerrancy" view. I doubt I'd last long in a society like the ETS. How do we define "conservative" now? I think that what is happening these days with the internet and the explosion of information is that the lines are getting alot harder to draw. People are really free to sift through the infinity of information on all aspects of theology, biblical studies, etc. and draw their own conclusions, whereas in the past, unless one was a big reader, the upper bound of the complexity and variety of the average Christian's views was probably whatever their pastor or church taught.

James: Incidentally, I never knew Malina was a believer. I always enjoy second guessing and I just suspected he might not be but presumably (I'm being a bit cheeky here) you are implying he is?

Alex: He is. The only (somewhat ambiguous) clue I've seen in his public writings though is his reference to the Bible as "The Word of God" in the preface to the first edition to _The Social World of the New Testament_. And Rohrbaugh is a Christian as well. Incidentally Rohrbaugh also says that the social sciences have strengthened his faith, and that, in studying the social world of the NT and coming to see the lack of universal application in much of what the Bible communicates, it has only reaffirmed his faith in the incarnation and the so-called "scandal of particularity" that it entails.

Alex

January 23, 2007

 

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