just an apprentice

the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...

Monday, July 31, 2006

The Sociology of Protestantism

I love hot, sunny summer days. I went for a run in the late morning today with the sun already casting its oppressive rays on the asphalt road. I “bonked” at mile 5. I “cracked”, fell apart, lost the will to keep running. I finished the same route (7 ½ miles) last week without a problem.

Speaking of clergy who blog…Rick Warren now has a blog, although I understand you can’t post comments. Purpose-filled blogging.

I came across an interesting section in the book I am reading—The Sociology of Protestantism. Mehl lays out a rationale for looking at religion from a sociological perspective (the Modernist lens—empirical rationalism…although he acknowledges that there are limits to which sociology as a science can explain the invisible mystery that is the object of faith—God--"What sociology lacks, what every other science also lacks, is the possibility of grasping this revelation as the act of God revealing himself." p. 10). He suggests that the practice and activity of the different Christian confessions are influenced by the various ways in which they conceive of revelation.

In schematic fashion, we can say that for Catholicism this revelation resides in a sacred doctrinal deposit entrusted to a hierarchy which looks after its integrity, its teaching, and its explication; for Protestantism it resides in a living word which resounds from out the holy books of the Old and New Testaments, primarily when it is preached to the assembled community; for Orthodoxy, finally, it resides in a liturgy of the church which, because it is lived drama, abolishes the distance between the events of holy history and the present time, and thus integrates the faithful into sacred time.

From this device the essentially different forms of religious behaviour. The primary concern of the Catholic Church is to assure the continuity of the hierarchy (the foundation of the teaching church and of the validity of the sacramental acts) and the submission of all to the hierarchy (this primary concern has resulted, during certain periods, in a suspicion regarding the free usage of the Bible by the faithful).

The primary concern of the Protestant churches is to assure the preaching of God’s word and the diffusion of the Holy Scriptures; the constitution of these churches gives clear indication of the will to dispose everything with a view to permitting, above all else, an unceasing preaching of Scripture, even more than to assuring the distribution of the sacrament: the translation of the Bible into the common tongues and its intensive diffusion is the point of all missionary activity. The spring of personal piety is to found in the private reading of and meditation on Scripture. This also is the source of a constant preoccupation with elevating the cultural level of the faithful.

The primary concern of the Orthodox Church is to assure the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. This celebration takes the place of catechetical instruction. It is the imprint of the liturgy on the souls of believers which maintains them in the faith. Thus one sees the Russian Orthodox Church accepting with a certain facility the restrictions which the governments impose on its external activities and even on its teaching: the essential is safe as long as the church can celebrate its liturgy.


  • At 11:48 AM , Anonymous dml said...

    What a very succinct and helpful comparison - thank you!

    Of course I wonder about this quote. "What sociology lacks, what every other science also lacks, is the possibility of grasping this revelation as the act of God revealing himself." p. 10).

    It reminds me about what you said about your Spanish students who "believed in science." I was not trying to be philosophical. In fact I see statements like these (both the students and this quote) as having very practical implications to how one not only views faith, but how one lives out life or practices faith in anything.

    But first of all, I guess I make a distinction between the roles of social sciences (socio/anthro/psychology/etc.) and that of physical sciences (chem/bio/physics/etc). They answer basically two different questions which relate to our faith. In the Creation account, for example, the theologians will teach about WHO created, the historians keep account of WHAT happened, the philosophers/soc sciences can give their explanations for WHY things happened, and the physical sciences will try to explain HOW things happened. I think when the church tries to use the Bible to answer anything other than WHAT and WHO and maybe some WHY's, Christianity becomes irrelevant to those who say they trust science. The Bible is NOT to be used as a science text book, but rather reveals history within the framework of a certain faith. People trust science because it (in some ways similar to Orthodox faith, by the way) is based on long-held, tried and trusted practices which are organized, reliable, and predictable and which nurture and maintain a certainty in which humans can feel comfortable and thus thrive.

    The statements "I believe in science" or (taking into account second language explanations) "I TRUST science" or "science lacks the POSSIBILITY of revelation" are actually naive and sometimes arrogant. In my opinion, it's like (forgive me if I step on toes here) an American Protestant saying Catholics are not Christians. The statement is naive, disregarding the possibility that faith can be deeply imbedded behind uniform practice.

    Most often, in my experience, the issues are simply TRUST and RELEVANCE. You can't trust the church to explain the how's in life because nobody agrees with eachother and the theologians and philosophers muddy the waters. PLUS, how many times has the church come down hard on science at the expense of compassion on people's lives? On top of that, the, may I say, erratic and sometimes chaotic methods the Protestant evangelical church uses to seek/process revelation can make it look untrustworthy, turning people off. Thus, church teaching can be seen as irrelevant to the real life of the hurting masses.

    I don't know if any of this makes sense, but it's some of the thoughts I've been toying with. I do enjoy analyzing faith from sociological perspectives, but I hope people understand that the soc sci and phys sci do not necessarily stand opposed to revelation. There are many Christian scientists out there whose voices, unfortunately, are not heard naming their work as God's revelation, but seeing it as that. AND at the risk of sounding contradictary, I must say, I do believe the voice of the church should speak to the morality of scientific work. For me the spiritual and physical cannot be separated. That is why I cannot say God only reveals himself through liturgy, the Bible or a sermon. God's revelation is in ALL of Creation, people, life experience . . .

  • At 2:50 PM , Blogger Brian Miller said...

    Thanks for your comments. Your distinction between the roles played by social and physical sciences is very helpful.

    I think back to my class with Brinton Rutherford this past spring. He traced the philosophical and worldview developments Pre-Enlightenment through the Englightenment and beyond. I am not discounting the possibility that one can embrace both ways of knowing--scientific inquiry and faith/revelation/mystery. My point (and I believe Mehl's also) would be that since the Enlightenment there has been a dramatic shift in epistemology. I reference my note's from Brinton's class.

    Descarte brings to Western civilization total skepticism. This is the beginning of foundationalism--all knowledge is based in reason by studying existence. From this foundation, we build upward the edifice of knowledge.

    From here we moved to John Locke, who said there are three foundations of knowledge. Different things are learned from a different foundation. Experience is the foundation of science. Reason is the foundation of self-evident knowledge. Scripture is the foundation of revelation.

    Hume (a contemporary of Locke) countered with the thesis that Experience is the foundation for ALL knowledge. He said there is no such thing as self-evident knowledge. Hume would say, "Miracles (in Scripture) prove nothing. Experience tells us that people don't rise from the dead."

    Then we move to Kant, who says that Hume is wrong. He says that science is based on the foundation of Pure Reason. Whereas, ethics/religion is based on Practical Reason/Experience. The assumption is that God will right the balances of injustice.

    Then we move to Schleiermacher, who says that Kant has it wrong. He says that science is based on Reason. Experience of God, by contrast, is based on a feeling of Absolute Dependence.

    Then we moved to Thomas Reid and the Scottish Common Sense Realism, which I won't go into.

    Christianity prior to Enlightenment had always been realist. What is...is! So classical theology says, "God exists" (God is the subject). Enlightenment theological methods began to say, "I think God exists ("I"=subject; God=object).

    We then went on to look at the Modernist polarity--Fundamentalism vs. Liberalism that in many ways are both reactions/adaptations to the challenges of Modernity (and the radical shift in paradigm regarding epistemology).

    Which is all historical background for our conversation about science and revelation; faith and reason. Mehl articulates the modernist premise of the scientific method. And when I read his words, I basically hear him affirming the point that you make...that the Bible as revelation does not provide a source for scientific inquiry according to the Modern worldview.

    "Do we therefore deny all limits to the sociology of Christianity? Assuredly not. SOCIOLOGY CAN IN NO WAY ESTABLISH THE TRUTH OF CHRISTIANITY. Is the history to which Christianity refers true history or myth? Sociology will not settle the question. Sociology can consider from its point of view the whole of Christianity, in its social structures as well as in its doctrinal statements. It can apply itself to this whole, INCLUDING REVELATION--but always to the revelation as it is received by the community. What it lacks, what every science also lacks, is the possibility of grasping this revelation as the act of God revealing himself." (Mehl, p. 10)

    He is not saying that the ways of knowing, the sources that Faith looks to as authoritative, are illegitimate or invalid. He is merely saying they lie beyond the sources and methods of science. We talked about various sources that theologians draw from in their theological method--experience, revelation, Scripture, Spirit, reason, tradition, culture, obedience (Augsburger). Some of these sources overlap with science. Some would not be recognized as valid sources for scientific inquiry within the scientific community. For example, the scientific community would not likely accept as valid a formal study that looks to Scripture, the Spirit, and Church Tradition as anchors of knowledge. These sources do not fit with empiricism and the scientific method.

    I hope this is helpful. I am not attempting to bash science. I am merely trying to describe the Modernist lens and how it has led to a separation of faith from pure reason as systems of knowing. I would welcome other contributions to this dialogue.

  • At 10:43 PM , Anonymous dml said...

    Wow - I laughed as my mind raced back through the trail of philosophers you made - very interesting. You could keep going to the post-modernists who would say there is no longer "T" truth ... revelation is considered "local" truth ... where one can study the "sociology of knowledge . . . in other words, there is no longer the modernist subject of "I" because everyone is different, shaped by their personal stories and cultures. So Truth could be different depending on the context. The language used for this is tricky -- can sound right, but is it???

    It is also interesting that you mention Descarte as an existentialist, however, not Kierkegaard, Tillich or Buber who were religious existentialists who rejected the idea of revelation coming through any form of systems or hierarchy or obedience. They would say revelation comes through personal encounters with God, not rituals or formalities. Perhaps you don't agree with them??? I can't help but appreciate their emphasis, however, that we are first Christian, not Lutheran, Mennonite, etc. I like this one quote from my philosophy notes, "There should be no rational quest for objective certainty in religion, Kierkegaard insisted. Rather, faith emerges as individuals recognize the awful tension between subjective certainty and objective uncertainty."

    But getting back to your Mehl quote, I agree that sociology cannot establish the truth of Christianity, but what is the hang-up with the idea of truth/revelation being received by the community (via mystic means or via the gifts of community members)? Are you saying it will be limited by the experiences of the people there? Do we, by virtue of our humanness/limited experiences limit God's ability to reveal himself to us??? Maybe. Or maybe I am not totally comprehending the phrase, "the possibility of grasping this revelation."

    In this case, I would rather look at the thoughts of the existentialist I mentioned to say that I think people can connect to God, through Creation, through science, through experience, through suffering ... how else does Scripture make sense to us if we live in a bubble and never connect it to real life and the real life of others? Is that too post-modernist thinking???

    I like to say that I prefer a holistic approach to faith and reason. God grants both, and I believe that all gifts are important sources not only in nurturing our faith and quest for knowledge, but also in sharing our faith and knowledge of God. Obviously, I am not a purist. I see purist thinking as naive, shallow and sometimes arrogant. I have been so turned off by Christians who insist there is one way to worship, one way to hear from God, one way to evangelize, one way to be baptized, one way to interpret the Bible, etc. The only ONE WAY Jesus spoke of was from Whom we receive Salvation.

    The Bible tells me WHO God is and WHAT He did. It gives us a picture of God's character and some of the ways He connected with His people. And, yes, Jesus is the revelation of WHO God is, but I do not believe the Bible is a comprehensive picture of HOW God works for then we put God in a box and remove the sense of mystery and awe which is foundational to faith.

    As you often point out, life is a journey. Each person's journey will take them along differing paths, but hopefully toward a deeper knowledge and understanding of God. One might say, monastic practice is the best way; others by listening to endless sermons; others through sacraments and rituals; still others by applying reason to empirical exercises which test the things we hear, experience or wonder about. And as you pointed out, others choose sociological or anthropological studies of peoples to understand how God works or or hermaneutics to discern what He is saying to His people. All these experiences are not only interesting/productive applications of human discipline and intellect, but also, I believe are possible avenues of revelation.

  • At 7:09 AM , Blogger Brian Miller said...

    Fascinating! You make so many good (and may I say brilliant) points. Thanks for being such a great contributer to the conversation in this blog!

    I would just make one observation. I like your holistic approach to revelation. I am resonant with the idea that Truth is revealed through many different sources, disciplines and experience. I would just observe, however, that you are using some hierarchical construct/paradigm to interpret what you see and experience. The construct that you have internalized and made a part of your paradigm of interpretation (in as much as I know you and am hearing you correctly) is alluded to in your statement, "the only ONE WAY Jesus spoke of was from Whom we receive Salvation."

    This is a starting point in your interpretive grid that colors how you receive and interpret revelation from sources other than theology. You accept the Bible as a uniquely revealing source of the Truth of Who God is and How he has been involved in history. This is a part of your interpretive schema that orders all other experience. Not in a rigid (fundamentalist) way, but in an overarching framework that guards you from becoming a nihilist, existentialist. Everything is so fragmented, experience is all there is, there is no over-arching meta-narrative (Truth, God) that holds all experience together in some way that gives meaning to life and each persons experience.

    In other words, I believe you,a person open to Truth being revealed through many sources, also limit the possibilities of what you might receive because of the lens of Jesus. Would you agree or not? I believe this is a healthy cataract--Jesus--through which to seek truth. Don't you see this as a distinctive hermeneutical lens that is not shared by others in the disciplines and arenas that you interact with (science for example). This is something you bring to the discipline of science. Not something (faith in Biblical revelation of Jesus, a way of looking at the world) that is resident within the scientific enterprise. You did not arrive at this point of believing in Jesus by using the scientific method, or by reading a scientific study. Even if these things contribute to and undergird your faith perspective, they are not the PRIMARY sources.

    What say you?

  • At 7:27 AM , Blogger Brian Miller said...

    One last question... Since Jesus is such a keystone to your hermeneutical lens...who or what do you look to to understand who Jesus is? What informs and shapes your beliefs about Jesus?

    There are many diverse and mutually exclusive views even within the Christian community (both historical and contemporary) of who Jesus is and what he was about and what his life means for us. How do you sort through all of this and arrive at the point of belief and practice regarding Jesus that is integral to your life?

    You have embraced some narrative, some reading of Jesus, that is authentic and true (would you add the caveat--"for you"). As James Kraybill (and others--McClaren, etc.) express, dare we share the Christian Gospel from a stance of meta-narrative Truth in a pluralistic, post-modern world. I don't think we can back away from the confession that Jesus is the key to understanding and interpreting all experience and human history. Would you agree?

    But again, my question to you is--which Jesus. I hear many different Jesus' shaping the faith and practices of diverse Christians. Is it the Jesus who allows Pat Robertson to call for the assassination of Hugo Chavez? Is it the Jesus who wants to make you healthy and wealthy while the world goes to hell in a handbasket (politically and economically) because of our extravagant consumption? You have a vision of Jesus. What has shaped that view of Jesus? Would you dare say that others should embrace that view because it is the way, the truth and the life?

  • At 4:49 AM , Anonymous dml said...

    I confess, I am not sure how to answer your many questions . . . but I have been thinking. As of late, when I try to engage in philosophical analysis of my own views, I get caught. I recognize I live in two worlds and I frustrate myself because I cannot argue out of both at the same time; I have not yet developed the skill of connecting my acceptance of both and resolving their obvious disparities. But deep down, I know there is a foundational connection.

    So I will start with this, for whatever it is worth, and think more later. You ask about my "hermeneutical lens." I think I would say that philosophically speaking I do not look at the world with just one lens, rather binocular vision. Jesus alluded to our blindness until we can see Him for who He is. I don't think it means we can't see anything, just missing half the picture. Our spiritual lens is blinded (though not completely) until we receive Salvation. And gradually, that lens develops enabling us to see the same picture but with a different perspective. Our lenses each have their own developmental processes and focal abilities, yet they balance each other. Our other lens, for the sake of my illustration, I will call my "worldly" lens. To me my picture on life is incomplete with only one lens; each informs the other and gives deeper meaning and adds beauty to an otherwise single-lens/narrow perspective. This is how I see God continues Redemption of the world, through His people who can now see with binocular vision and are willing to act on that vision.

    Albert Einstein once said, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

    I think we can discover truths about the world and even about God through the knowledge and understanding God grants us in this world, but, yes, as you said, the perspective is balanced (not so much filtered) when you add the spiritual dimensions. And, conversely, my greater knowledge of the world puts perspective on how I see God and Jesus. I know you asked how, but I want to develop that thought more before I give examples.

    So, quite honestly, I could argue meaning of life from many pulpits and philosophical bents, but in the end, yes, my vision resolves to see the human quest for understanding as just an interesting exercise of this part of life . . . meaningless to a certain extent considering that our current understanding will be irrelevant in the next life (yes, I know, you wonder, so what informs me that there is another life to come...).

    I really wonder if God will judge us for our views, for our journeys, for our wondering minds. And though I cannot conceive of a Jesus who is retalitory nor wanting us all to be millionaires, can I say Pat Robertson is going to Hell? Does God say, if you don't see the full picture, if you just don't get it, you're doomed, or does he understand we are immature and never fully understanding. Isn't that where mercy and grace come in?

    I think that working out your Salvation is an essential journey, but in the end, (though I hate to say it sometimes), I wonder if our places on the journey are not so important as our end goal. On that I could be very wrong . . . and I suppose it reveals how simple-minded I actually am!

    By the way, here are some URLs for Christian scientific groups:


    Maybe I'll add them to my blog as actual links.

  • At 7:53 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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