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Carl Perkins
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Pablo Picasso
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Michael J. Kirwan
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John Milbank
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Karl Rahner
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James Sweeney
At the meeting of an association dedicated to the scientific study of religion which I
attended not so long ago the president in her welcome address announced the different
disciplines represented, all in their various stripes of sociology, anthropology,
psychology, history, etc , and she ended by asking ‘have I left anyone out?’. ‘Yes’, I
spoke up, ‘theology!’ Thus is the erstwhile ‘Queen of the Sciences’ overlooked – even by
a religiously sympathetic president, who seemed quite surprised that she had not
thought to include theology.
It is easy to be wrong-footed in these circumstances when ‘scientific’ is allowed to define
the scope of academic legitimacy. What is meant by science here is, in fact, empirical
methodology, not broader scientific enquiry. But sociology just as much as theology is
affected by this narrowed definition; its claim to be scientific, while rightful in itself,
cannot compete with that of the natural sciences – ‘real’ science. Sociology’s scientific
claims lie closer to those of theology. Theology is the considered, theoretical elaboration,
or science, of religion and faith - just as sociology is of society; both are fundamentally
interpretative sciences.
There are many possible ways of tackling the relationship of sociology and theology: as
an instance of the working of reason and faith in human affairs, and their (perhaps)
mutually corrective roles; or from the point of view of an interdisciplinary link-up
between them, and the epistemological factors implied; or their different ways of
framing religion itself; or by examining the actual use that theology makes of sociology
and vice versa; or even to see them as mutually exclusive, as in fact many do. 1
I will proceed by examining first of all the underlying assumptions of theology and
sociology, and put forward a view of how the two disciplines stand in relation to each
other. In the second section I will discuss the actual forms of engagement between them.
But I need to say something about the perspective from which I approach the task. One
could try to be an objective arbiter between the two disciplines, but that is an awkward
position. The alternative is to take one’s stance in one or other discipline. My approach
will be in terms of theology evaluating its engagement with sociology. The other way
round is also valid, of course, and is appropriate if personal theological commitment is
not involved. As will become clear, there are implications for how the issue is handled
whichever stance is taken.
It would not be realistic to attempt to cover the whole range of theological traditions and
sociological schools and the multiple possibilities of their interconnection. The internal
diversifications within sociology and theology - the several different sociological
paradigms; the different theological schools and theologies springing from different
religions and faith traditions – mean that generalizations about them and their
relationship have to be handled with care. In what follows I am thinking of the mainline
theological tradition of Western Christianity on the one hand and general sociology on
the other, in particular the sociology of religion.
Part 1
Status questionis
Where theology and sociology rub against each other is above all in the field of practice.
Both, in the end, are practical disciplines in the sense that, however theoretical their
formulation, they are ultimately in service of ‘real life’ issues and identifiable
constituencies. Social scientists engage with the various trades of the politician and civil
servant, business leaders and financiers, trade unionists and social workers. Theologians
engage with bishops and priests and ministers, chaplains and catechists and pastoral
workers and the person in the pew. But all is not neat and tidy. These fields overlap;
theologians (and bishops) will want to say something to the politician and the
industrialist, while the sociologist casts a cold eye on the religious education teacher in
the faith school or how the bishop exercises authority.
The distinctions should be kept between religion and theology and society and sociology
- the second in both cases being reflection on the first. Sociology is in (critical and
constructive) service of socio-economic-political-cultural life while theology serves the
life of faith and the institutions of the religious traditions – again, hopefully, critically
and constructively. The sociology of religion takes up an external-outsider stance on
religious faith whereas theology is an insider perspective, and practical or pastoral
theology relies on the social sciences to analyse issues of religious practice.
The ways that religion and society, and therefore theology and sociology, are implicated
in each other are historically and contextually determinate. Care must be taken about the
particularity of religious life and practice. Religion has distinctive characteristics in the
United States different from those in Europe; and more strikingly different again is
religion in Latin America, Africa and Asia. How Judeo-Christian religion relates to
society differs from Islam, and their approaches are markedly different from the
philosophies of the Eastern religions. The implications of the ‘secular society’ in Britain
are different from French laïcité; Islamic Turkey’s secularism is not the same as Hindu
Theology and sociology both have concern for what occurs in the diverse societal
spheres of politics, economics, family and kinship, work, education, etc; but this is not
simply common ground. They both have their own fundamental ways of perceiving
human-social reality which derive from their originating assumptions. The City of God
grasped in religious faith and the earthly city open to sociological inspection are
overlapping perceptions of reality. The basic categories of faith and reason, the sacred
and the profane, religion and the secular are conceptualized within sociology and
theology according to their own frames of reference; the ideas may overlap but they are
not identical.
Dialogue between sociology and theology is undertaken quite regularly, but it tends to
get bogged down. There is a historical legacy here. Sociology came into being to explain
the changes in society that flowed from the Enlightenment and the rise of science and
the industrial revolution, changes which were seen precisely as ending the dominance of
the religious world view. As religion came to be considered passé, theology was no
longer seen as valid knowledge; its subject matters could be subsumed within
philosophy and anthropology and it would give way to a sociological take on reality.
Religion’s social and world-sustaining forces would in time transfer to a proper scientific
base; Comte and Marx had different views of what that involved.
Theology today, however, has taken new heart from the re-emergence of religion in the
public square, even to the point of some theologians such as John Milbank mounting a
counter-attack on sociological ambitions. The expectation of a wholesale and inevitable
secularization is now widely recognized as naïve and religion seems set fair to continue
in a multiplicity of expressions. In this context Radical Orthodoxy’s critical appraisal of
sociology has been of intense, if often skeptical interest to other theologians.
Not many
sociologists have taken notice, however, except those who specialize in religion, and
only those among them, such as David Martin, who are sympathetic to theology; and
they, in fact, mostly react against Milbank’s full frontal attack.
These are the latest skirmishes in a long running battle. What is interesting is that the
dividing line here is not between sociologists and theologians but between believers
across the two academic camps. Previously the forces of modernity and religion were
pitted against each other with the heavy artillery of philosophy and theology deployed
in passionate debate. While today’s science versus religion debate, stoked by the ‘new
atheists’, can be just as passionate the intellectual standard often disappoints. Although
one should not underestimate continuing public skepticism and aversion to religion, the
critical questions about religion and society today, and the locus of dispute between
theology and sociology, no longer concern belief versus non-belief, but how the
perspectives of faith and the secular manage to co-exist. 3 The main battleground now is
cultural rather than epistemological or institutional.
There are, nevertheless, deep tensions between sociology and theology. They both have
their own inherent fragilities and they face battles about their public credibility. The root
and branch critique both of them face arises from the privileging of ‘science’ as the only
real knowledge. For those who portray religion as simple superstition allied to a magical
world view, theology as its committed intellectual investigation can be nothing more than
gobbledygook; clever and even interesting gobbledygook may be, but gobbledygook
nonetheless. It is now common to use ‘theological’ to denote the obscure and arcane.
Sociology too is often dismissed as no more than common sense dressed up in
obfuscating language; or as thinly disguised political ideology, usually left leaning; or as
unable to meet scientific standards of generalization and falsifiability. These critiques
leave both disciplines vulnerable, so that bringing them together is a fraught exercise.
One assumption we can leave aside is that religious faith and theology are totally
lacking in validity. This is pervasive in the culture today and the default position of
many if not most people, and has serious consequences for theology’s ability to operate
as public knowledge. It is, of course, an assumption, for it is impossible to prove the
negative that God does not exist; but once it is made, which is a perfectly reasonable
thing to do for which reasonable arguments can be adduced, there is nothing more to be
said about the relation of sociology and theology other than determining how to cope
with the persistence of an illusion.
Theology, however, proceeds on the assumption that God does indeed exist. This
assumption, while it is argued for reasonably in apologetics, is more than an element of
theory or a preliminary at the basis of a theoretical scheme. The assumption of the
existence of God and what follows from it arises from the living traditions of religious
faith in which it is embedded; it is a matter of socio-religious praxis rather than just
abstract theory.
Sociology too, as structured human enquiry, operates on fundamental assumptions of its
own; for example, that human social conduct is ordered in some fashion that can be
demonstrated rather than being simply random and chance occurrence. This too derives
from social praxis for it is how people usually perceive their lives; and it is
fundamentally the same assumption that the natural sciences make about the
intelligibility of the universe, that the universe has regularities, or laws, that can be
understood and that it is not simply absurd.
The usual stance in sociology about religion’s assumptions and the truth claims that
flow from them is agnostic. Of course some social science traditions such as Marxism are
openly atheistic and proceed on that basis and treat religion as ‘the opium of the people’.
In general, however, sociology quite properly disavows any competency to pronounce
on whether there is a God or not or whether religious doctrines have any basis in the
truth about things; it is committed to methodological agnosticism. 4 Thereafter sociology
treats religion and theology as social data to be inspected in the same way as any other
data. Whether ‘agnostic’ is truly agnostic is, of course, debatable since human
perception is never neutral nor social science value free. It can even be that atheistic
assumptions, deriving from the life praxis of individual sociologists or sociological
schools, are smuggled into sociological analysis. The historic theory of secularization has
been open to criticism on that basis.
These theological and sociological assumptions frame social reality in quite different
ways and manifest different underlying ontologies. A basic theological starting point for
defining the reality of the human, and therefore how faith relates to society, is the
doctrine of nature and grace – the understanding of a created order which is graced or
penetrated by the active presence of God. The theology of grace has been transformed in
recent decades, especially in Roman Catholic circles, in a marked move away from any
deist conception of God as has been prevalent in much philosophy of religion and was
reflected also in a theology which made a radical disjunction of the realm of grace from
that of nature. That theological understanding has given way to an integrated view
whereby all reality, and especially humanity, is understood as shot through with the
divine presence or grace. This does not mean that grace is one empirical reality
alongside other empirical realities, and therefore open to direct inspection, but rather
that the ‘whole’, understood in terms of its ultimate significance, is constituted, and
therefore has to be defined, by what lies in a depth or transcendent dimension that is not
directly observable. 5
This notion of grace is at the heart of the ontology or metaphysics which articulates in
theological terms what is fundamentally constitutive of the reality of the human and the
wider social arena within which human life is carried on. It is an ontology which derives
from a religious perception and assumption, not something that can be empirically
established. As a view of the world it arises within a historical religious tradition, and it
is kept in function by virtue of the regular continued experience of believers who, in a
great variety of ways, live out this world view and are thereby enabled to find the
existential meaning of their lives.
The sociological view of reality, on the other hand, is determined by the fundamental
purposes of the discipline and the historical origins from which these are derived. These
purposes are, in a word, to explain societal change, and specifically the profound
structural changes that culminate in what we know as modernity; sociology is
modernity’s child. Its prior assumptions about the nature of social reality are a
philosophical matter; but as there is no one philosophy or philosophical consensus on
which to depend, sociology’s reality assumptions are inevitably guided by the historical
context in which the discipline emerged and the societal processes and dynamics which
it identifies as driving social change. This context was quite specific: the profound
cultural and social shift in which the theological portrayal of society as a given was
rejected and in its place a vision was enshrined of society as produced in an ongoing and
ever more extensive process of rationalization, the goal of which (most strongly
expressed in modernity’s early phase) is ‘progress’.
The ontology or metaphysics underlying sociology which derive from this history is
clearly of a different order from the religious ontology of grace. Its social constructivist
view (which is bolstered by evolutionary thinking) recasts the way all social ontologies,
including religious ontology, are framed; for (pace the fundamentalists) it is no longer
possible to see the world-as-is coming directly and without intermediate causality from
the hand of God. At the same time, being agnostic about any ultimate causality,
sociology expounds a resolutely secular vision of the world in which human-social
reality is what is observable, what can be described and analysed in the categories of
reason. If there is a realm of reality beyond the observable, sociology has no knowledge
of it and it cannot enter into the scope and definition of the real as that is framed
Sociologists, of course, are real people who may not be at all agnostic or atheist in their
personal lives, and who carry out their professional work with care and in tandem with
their religious and life commitments. Anyway, most people do not dwell overlong on
their ontological assumptions. Nevertheless, the ontologies in the background of
sociology and theology have their effect in structuring minds and imaginations. The two
ontologies do not simply sit alongside one another. The perceptions of reality as the
simply observable and of reality as graced, while not necessarily totally divergent, work
Herein lies the deep tension between a sociological and a theological perspective. The
ontology of grace is not simply another step on a continuum beginning with the
observable, an optional step, as it were, that the religious believer takes; it is rather a
perception that changes everything. And the secular ontology of the observable, since it
is constrained to leave the realm of grace as an open possibility, places limits on what
sociology can say about the human and social world. If there is more than what the eye
can see, then what the eye can see is in some measure deficient.
What the eye cannot see is grace. Divine grace is the touch of God on the human, and
God is beyond all human knowing and perceiving; but the touch is humanly real. Karl
Rahner describes it as ‘a dark loving contact’ or, following St Bonaventure, a ‘spiritual
touch’. Grace, although not directly observable, is understood as a dynamic element in
human existence and a reality to be appropriated. It can enter conscious awareness in a
certain measure, an event that Rahner calls ‘transcendence becoming thematic’. Within
this perspective all human experience, because it touches on transcendence, is
understood as having the capacity to be and become religious experience or experience
of grace. This happens when the grace that interpenetrates regular human experience
rises to – an always opaque – consciousness, a way of knowing ‘as in a glass darkly’
(1Cor. 13: 12).
This coming to awareness of grace, however, does not occur in a simple movement of
human consciousness itself. What ‘graced existence’ refers to is a matter of gift. While, in
Rahner’s perspective, a non-graced humanness does not in fact exist, the distinction of
nature and grace is necessary to preserve the primordial giftedness of divine grace;
grace is always a gift given in divine freedom. The human appropriation of grace,
therefore, is a matter of receptivity, a willingness to receive. Appropriation happens in a
moment of openness, a moral act, a movement of will and of spirit which itself remains
dependent on the grace appropriated; and the religious knowing that results – that is to
say, belief - is a different kind of knowing from the simply rational, while not being
simply irrational. What is observable here sociologically is the human moral act of
believing, and it can be the subject of empirical exploration, although care is needed to
respect it in its full intentionality rather than reductively.
Terms of Engagement
These observations about underlying assumptions and ontologies lead to a conclusion
about the relationship between the two disciplines. Given its ontology of reality as the
observable and its methodological agnosticism, sociology in any dealings with theology
cannot deliver a final perspective on social reality. Agnosticism by definition leaves an
open question, and a social world view premised on an open question is somehow
incomplete. As one scholar puts it:
Not knowing how the universe really is organized – not knowing if it is
organized at all – the scholar of religion seeks not to establish a position in
response to this question but to describe, analyse, and compare the positions
taken by others. (McCutcheon 1999, pp. 216-17) 6
This opens up a certain sociological dystopia, which is closely connected to the demise
of the secularization paradigm which has for long been central to the sociology of
The assumption of an inevitable, progressive, wholescale secularization of society is now
largely, although not universally, agreed to be a faulty historical reading. In fact, it was
(and is) an ideological reading, not a sociological finding nor even a properly
sociological theory. While a more moderate secularization thesis can be defended, 7 in its
thoroughgoing form it arises from a prior reading of the nature of social reality in which
religion is epiphenomenal and without substance of its own; that is to say, it reflects an
atheist ontology.
The fundamental issue here – about the nature of social reality - is a philosophical and
theological matter rather than sociology as such; but the philosophical position taken has
a direct bearing on the interpretative tasks of sociology. The prior, non-sociological
commitment taken - in favour of an atheistic view of reality or reality as graced – will
influence how the issue of faith and the secular and their co-existence is posed and how
it is handled both theoretically and in day to day practice. The sociology of religion,
remaining methodologically agnostic, operates in the tension between these two visions
of human social reality. This puts limits on sociology, especially in terms of its predictive
capacity; and this is a significant loss since sociology has long asserted an ability not
only to decipher historical patterns of change but also to point to social futures, with
secularization prominent in the social destiny. In fact, of course, sociologists have never
been much noted for an ability to predict social change; the collapse of Communism was
almost totally unforeseen within the sociological community, while some within the
Church intuited the vulnerability of a system that stripped out human values and left a
hollowed-out society. This is a fundamental quandary for sociology: operating within a
secular horizon of human social life but unable to justify it as definitive, and not having
the capacity to adjudicate in the matter, sociology is left without teleological signposts.
The issue then arises of the parameters within which sociology works and how to situate
theology in relation to the whole sociological enterprise. Classical Christian theology has
always been open to the resources of reason; the application of reason to matters of faith
is central to theology - evident in, for example, the formulation of the Creed. Reason is
also acknowledged for its capacity to purify faith and save it from the excesses of
fundamentalism and fanaticism. 8 Sociology, then, as the rational exploration of social
structure is a legitimate interlocutor of theology, even if historically the exchange has
often been difficult. On the other hand, it is less obvious that sociology can acknowledge
theology - as distinct from the more neutral discipline of religious studies - as a
legitimate dialogue partner.
In the political field thinkers such as Habermas 9 and Rawls 10 have been willing to admit
the validity of a religious contribution to public debate, so long as rational ground rules
are respected. They may even see this as useful, recognising that secular political
rationality suffers from a certain value and motivational deficit, and that reason and the
secular can be degraded to mere ideology. Reason, in this respect, depends on
something more than reason - on some primordial ‘human-faith grounding’. Religious
traditions and their ‘comprehensive views’ and characteristic ways of engaging with
public issues ought not to be denied public hearing. Indeed, according to Habermas, it is
valid to put forward in public debate the religious-faith inspiration of a political view as
long as it is communicated in a way that is accessible to, even if not adhered to by, the
general public. In the political sphere, then, the religious dimension can be, and often is
acknowledged; but the theoretical social science disciplines cannot admit any intrinsic
need of religion or theology. They cannot draw on the transcendent perspective of
religious faith in the way that, in the reverse direction, theology draws on reason.
Part 2:
The structure of the religious-secular dialogue, then, is asymmetrical. Whereas faith can
and does integrate reason in its operations, reason can at best accommodate but cannot
integrate faith. This leads to the question of precisely how theology relates to or
incorporates sociology. What kind of inter-disciplinary relationship, if any, is possible?
Can their individual disciplinary integrity be maintained without collapsing the one into
the other? Two contemporary theologians and two sociologists can be used to illustrate
the main positions, and how the debate today cuts across sociology and theology more
than between them.
Theology vis-à-vis Sociology and vice versa
The asymmetry between theology and sociology is taken up by Timothy Radcliffe who
makes a daring proposal about their potential for relationship. 11 He distinguishes
sociological ‘explanation’ – the understanding of an event in terms of social dynamics from theological ‘recognition of the event as revelatory of God and his purposes’ (p.
166). Theology does not bring any competing, or even complementary, theoretical
‘perspective’ of its own to a conversation with sociology. Its task is a creative one; not a
matter of simply repeating or explicating religious visions of the world, nor aligning
them with social scientific accounts, but ‘the establishment of an illuminating
relationship’ between the two.
Theology, says Radcliffe drawing on Cornelius Ernst, is ‘an encounter of Church and
world in which the meaning of the gospel becomes articulate as an illumination of the
world’ and in which ‘the meaning that men succeed in making of themselves and their
experience is transformed to become a disclosure of that meaning of meaning that we
call God’ (pp. 169-70). He proposes that sociology, as one of the ways of making sense of
experience, can be ‘a locus for the encounter of gospel and world’. This happens,
however, not by ‘importing a particular “theological perspective”, but rather by the
internal transformation of sociology itself’ (p. 177). Radcliffe recognises the internal
validity of the sociological enterprise but wants to push further into the realm of belief.
Although he does not explain precisely how ‘transformation’ may come about, when
thus transformed or subsumed sociology becomes an inner moment within theology.
This might, of course, be seen as a simple theological takeover.
John Milbank is less accommodating and makes a more trenchant critique, particularly
of the sociology of religion. His charge is that, as part of the Enlightenment project,
sociology usurps the place of theology and becomes itself a kind of theology or ‘antitheology’, with at its origins an ontology of violence which underpins the modern nation
state. Milbank, seeking to rehabilitate metaphysics as essential for framing the reality of
the social, derives from the Christian narrative a socially and politically oriented
ontology of peace. He is critical not only of sociology but of liberal theology, which has
sought to
borrow from elsewhere a fundamental account of society or history, and then to
see what theological insights will cohere with it. But it has been shown that no
such fundamental account, in the sense of something neutral, rational and
universal, is really available. It is theology itself that will have to provide its own
account of the final causes at work in human history, on the basis of its own
particular and historically specific faith. 12
In Fergus Kerr’s words, ‘theology is already social theory, and social theory is already
theology’. 13 Milbank warns that if theology does not frame or position the secular, the
secular will position it. It is an apposite caution in view of the sociological dystopia
analyzed above, even if one may not wish to follow Milbank to his more extreme
It is hardly surprising that Milbank’s views grate on sociologists, especially those with
theological interests. For David Martin, Milbank’s theological project is an attempt to
‘out-narrate’ its opponents. Martin takes a more measured view, describing his
intellectual purpose as ‘to make sense of Christianity, not as a set of propositions but as
a repertoire of transforming signs in historic engagement with the deep structures of
power and violence’. 14 Such a project criss-crosses the borders of sociology and
theology, but Martin is circumspect in the competence he attributes to sociology:
we enter a conversation with others on the basis of certain criteria of logic,
evidence, coherence and comparison … putting forward tentative hypotheses
which are ordered by controlling paradigms and assumptions. The material of
our scientific scrutiny comprises worlds of meaning and symbol and these are
part of a narrative of personal motives and social projects that takes unexpected
turns … (it is) possible to pursue the sociology of religion in a spirit of
sympathetic understanding rather than see faith as an alienated delusion
destined to disappear in the process of rationalization and the dialectics of
history. 15
Martin’s ‘conversational’ sociology is probing and tentative and he approaches the
border with theology not in an agnostic spirit but with open questions.
Kieran Flanagan is a sociologist who pushes further into the theological realm. He gives
short shrift to much contemporary theology for reducing sociology to number crunching
and failing to appreciate its imaginative and interpretative characteristics, and for the
naïve way ‘liberal’ theology uses sociological materials and methodologies. The crucial
point for Flanagan is that sociology commands the ground of culture on which theology
operates; neglect of this has led theology (and much official Church teaching) astray. ‘It
is on the ground of culture, and with an ear to it, that sociology picks up resonances that
theologians high on the walls of the city of God do not’. 16 Sociology is not simply to be
subsumed within theology, as Milbank would have it, but has the role of critical
‘watchman’ for the religious to whom theologians should attend.
Flanagan is also critical of sociology for its handling of the realm of the religious. Its task
is to analyse the social dynamics of identity and cohesion – which it sees expressed in,
for example, civic religion and new age spirituality – and it is also expected to maintain
and refurbish these dynamics; but here sociology is irredeemably partial and fatally
flawed. In a surprising and non-sociological jump Flanagan avers that only Christianity,
and specifically Catholicism, is fit for the task. This leads to an imaginative, theologically
infused sociology of religion, a daring articulation of the deep social reality of religion,
but it risks importing normative theological judgements directly into sociology, and on
the other hand subsuming theology within sociology.
Theology engaging with Sociology
These positions (all of religious believers) do not so much pit theology and sociology
against one another as relate them quite differently. The point to make is that any inter-
disciplinary engagement requires a reflexive awareness of a discipline’s limits. Theology
has to be alert to how it is using sociology or, in other words, to the underlying
philosophy of social science. The essential theological shift has been the recognition of
the practical nature of theology. What Vatican II did for Catholic theology was, as John
McDade says, to relocate it ‘in the middle of human history and experience’. 17 To
deliver on this requires an appropriate methodology.
The basic theological approach here has been reading the signs of the times. 18 This starts
with a social analysis of current realities and then, in a further step, ‘discerns’ them; that
is to say, theology seeks to explicate these realities in their inner meaning. This is
theology’s creative move; and sociology in this exercise becomes an inner moment
within theology - but without losing anything of its own specificity.
Of course reading the signs of the times is a theological act. 19 It depends upon the prior
assumption of the reality of God. Research collaboration between theologian and
sociologist in this task is certainly eased if on a personal level they see eye to eye on this.
Even so, cooperation between open-minded persons with radically different ontologies
is also possible. Findings of the social sciences with an atheistic provenance may also
contribute to theological insight - the use of Marxist analysis in some liberation
theologies being a (controversial) case in point.
The two disciplines are not competing ways of providing theoretical knowledge. Their
epistemological ‘raw data’ are different. The primordial form of knowing that theology
works with is belief, whereas sociology works with our regular, ordinary, ‘common
sense’ knowledge of the world. The task, in both cases, is to systematise and thematise
and refine the raw data as theory – sociological and theological. In the case of theological
theory – or doctrine - its epistemological status derives from the specific nature of
religious belief as a fundamentally moral act which derives from openness to the
operation of grace. 20 Sociology, on the other hand, handles reality and articulates truth
by its various procedures of objectification and interpretation. Theology has to take such
findings seriously in their own right. This goes beyond the traditional idea in Catholic
studies of the ‘handmaid of theology’ (ancilla theologiae) – traditionally philosophy with the implication of it having subsidiary status. Such a way of theorizing the
relationship would undervalue the human sciences as distinct academic disciplines and
merely instrumentalise them; it would not do justice to the specificity of sociology – nor
indeed of theology. 21
“Sites” of Theology in Sociology
What, then does theology actually do? How does it relate to the reality laid out in the
sociological account? One could only satisfactorily answer this question by extensive
reference to actual examples of theological enquiry. There is ready cooperation at the
technical level, and practical or pastoral theology routinely uses sociological surveys,
questionnaires, interview procedures and data analysis to acquire a grasp of social and
ecclesial practices. But there is also an epistemological level interchange. Here we can
make a brief visit to a couple of standard sociological ‘sites’.
‘Spirituality’ is a much discussed feature of contemporary culture and an obvious place
to look for sociological-theological convergence. As an emergent sociological construct
spirituality is commonly seen in disjunction from ‘religion’. The concept has a long
history. It migrated from the world of faith, first into theological obscurity, and then into
postmodern culture. The sociology of the shift has been well charted. 22 Attempts to
reclaim this ground by religious groups often proceed by conceding that floating free
from institutional religion is valid in itself 23, and that spirituality is rooted in and
constituted from personal experience, sometimes communal experience but more
typically the ‘deep experiences of the self’. 24 The tension here with traditional Christian
disciplines such as obedience and embracing the Cross is obvious.
While theology may contest the disjunction from religion, it should be able to see
further. It expects to find the presence of grace. Evidence of this would be if the
practices of ‘spirituality’ succeed in engendering receptivity in practitioners, deeper
awareness of giftedness, a real movement of will and spirit in an openness that flowers
in generous regard of ‘the other’. An adequate sociological and psychological account is
a pre-requisite here because it could be that actual practices of ‘spirituality’ camouflage
one or other form of oppression or alienation, quite the opposite of grace. What theology
would do would be to encourage the spiritual ‘seeker’ not to rest in deep experiences
but to transcend them in openness to the greater reality. An instance of this came up in
research with one person’s comment about an ‘all-inclusive and non-demanding’
Church congregation: ‘it’s so non-expectational that it’s magnetic’. 25 The deep attraction
of the Gospel shone through an under-stated proclamation, such that people felt free.
So, sociology can lead into theology, and theological truth be uncovered within a
sociological account of spirituality. But theology may be the one providing assistance,
with sociological explanation reached via theological insight. The revision of
secularisation theory might be seen this way. José Casanova’s work bears the hallmark
of an implicit theological sense clarifying sociological analysis. His subtle disentangling
of secularisation theory’s various strands enables him to argue that religion’s public role
is not simply undermined in modernity but sustained in a new way. The argument is
rigorously analytic, but its persuasiveness is heightened by an unmistakeable theological
hinterland which comes out in the insightful way he presents his religious case studies
and his theologically attuned historical understanding of the realms of the sacred and
the secular. 26
The same can be noted in Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s analysis of secularisation. She frames
the issue as one of change and continuity in modernity, and explains this in terms of the
dynamics of beliefs and believing. Traditional Christian beliefs may lose ground but the
dynamic of believing, in secular as well as religious contexts, is a constant. Modernity
both undermines religious believing and reconstitutes it, but now within a more diverse
field of believing. Her effort to pin down the specific form that religious believing now
takes on an unmistakeable, even if unacknowledged, theological character. She comes to
a definition from research into apocalyptic communities living an alternative lifestyle;
they were driven to reclaim older traditions such as monasticism for the purpose of selflegitimation; they laid claim to some ancient line, a ‘cloud of witnesses’, to validate their
lifestyle. On this basis Hervieu-Léger defines religion as a ‘chain of memory’; this is the
specificity of religious believing among the diversity of modern forms of believing. 27
There is, however, something arbitrary here; religious groups are not unique in
conserving memory. Trade unions, army regiments, university colleges all derive
legitimacy from historical events and long standing traditions. It is not clear sociologically
why this is the specific character of religious believing, but it is very apt theologically. The
central act of Christian worship derives from what has been handed down, ‘what I
received from the Lord … do this in memory of me’ (I Cor. 11: 23-24). Anamnesis is at the
heart of Christian life and theology. 28
This chapter has concentrated on theology evaluating its relationship with sociology. It
would, of course, be illuminating to have a parallel discussion of sociology considering
its relation to theology. The chapter has laid out foundational features of theology and
sociology, the assumptions on which they operate and underlying ontologies. The
argument is that sociology, having to be agnostic on religious truth, finds itself located
in the tension between underlying atheist/secular ontology and the ontology of grace.
The resulting asymmetry is such that while theology can adopt the critical resources of
reason on which sociology relies, sociology may be alert to but is unable to adopt the
perspectives of religious faith. This sets intrinsic limits to sociology and limits in its
dealings with theology. Nevertheless, there is an essential contribution of sociology to
enable theology to be an effective practical discipline. Conversely, theology can bring
enlightenment to sociology. 29
Sociology’s interest not just in religion but in theology is foundational. Weber’s The Protestant
Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London: Allen & Unwin, 1930) is a classic example; as is the work
of his friend the theologian Ernst Troeltsch (The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, London:
Allen & Unwin, 1931).
2 John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward Radical Orthodoxy: a new theology (London:
Routledge, 1999)
3 Charles Taylor A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,
4 Peter Berger originally called it ‘methodological atheism’; see The Sacred Canopy (Garden City,
NY: Doubleday, 1967); also Douglas V. Porpora ‘Methodological Atheism, Methodological
Agnosticism and Religious Experience’ in Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 36 (1) (2006):
5 Karl Rahner, ‘Supernatural Existential’ in Karl Rahner (editor) and Cumming J. (executive
editor) Encyclopedia of Theology: A Concise Sacramentum Mundi, (London: Burns & Oates, 1975);
Philip Endean, Karl Rahner and Ignatian Spirituality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) pp.
46-48 and 233-234.
6 Russell McCutcheon (ed.) The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion (London and New
York: Cassell, 1999)
7 José Casanova Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)
8 This was the theme of Pope Benedict’s speech in Westminster Hall, 17 th September 2010,
9 Jürgen Habermas ‘Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?’ in Jürgen
Habermas & Joseph Ratzinger The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (San
Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), pp. 19-52
10 John Rawls A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: with “On My Religion” edited by
Thomas Nagel (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); see also Joshua Cohen and
Thomas Nagel ‘John Rawls: On My Religion. How Rawls's political philosophy was influenced
by his religion’ in Times Literary Supplement, March 18, 2009
11 Timothy Radcliffe ‘Relativizing the Relativizers: a theologian’s assessment of the role of
sociological explanation of religious phenomena and theology today’ in D. Martin, J. O. Mills and
W.S.F. Pickering (eds) Sociology and Theology: Alliance and Conflict (Leiden: Brill. 2004) pp. 165-177.
Originally published in 1980, this is still one of the best discussions of the topic.
12 John Milbank Religion and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990) p. 382.
13 Fergus Kerr, ‘Simplicity Itself: Milbank’s Thesis’, New Blackfriars 73 (June 1992), pp. 306–10.
14 David Martin, ‘Personal Reflections’ in Fenn, R. K. (ed.) The Blackwell Companion to Sociology of
Religion, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001) pp. 23-38; p. 23.
15 David Martin Towards a Revised Theory of Secularization (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005) p. 25.
16 Kieran Flanagan Sociology in Theology: Reflexivity and Belief (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007),
p. 31.
17 John McDade, ‘Catholic Theology in the Post-Conciliar Period’ in A. Hastings, (ed.) Modern
Catholicism (London: SPCK, 1991) p. 423.
18 Michael Kirwan ‘Reading the Signs of the Times’ in James Sweeney with Gemma Simmonds
and David Lonsdale (eds) Keeping Faith in Practice: Aspects of Catholic Pastoral Theology, (London:
SCM, 2010) pp. 49-63.
19 Henri-Jérôme Gagey ‘Pastoral Theology as a Theological Project’ in James Sweeney with
Gemma Simmonds and David Lonsdale (eds) Keeping Faith in Practice: Aspects of Catholic Pastoral
Theology, (London: SCM, 2010), pp. 80-98.
20 For a full discussion of this see George Lindbeck The Nature of Doctrine: religion and theology in a
post-liberal age (London: SPCK, 1984)
On inter-disciplinary challenges, see Louis-Marie Chauvet ‘When the Theologian Turns
Anthropologist’ in James Sweeney with Gemma Simmonds and David Lonsdale (eds) Keeping
Faith in Practice: Aspects of Catholic Pastoral Theology, (London: SCM, 2010) pp. 148-162.
22 Guiseppe Giordan ‘Spirituality: From a Religious concept to a Sociological Theory’ in Kieran
Flanagan and Peter C. Jupp A Sociology of Spirituality (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007) pp. 161-180
23 André Droogers ‘Beyond Secularisation and Sacralisation: Lessons from Study of the Dutch
Case’ in Kieran Flanagan and Peter C. Jupp A Sociology of Spirituality (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007)
pp. 81-100.
24 Paul Heelas, Linda Woodhead et al The Spiritual Revolution; why religion is giving way to
spirituality (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005)
25 Helen Cameron, Deborah Bhatti, Catherine Duce, James Sweeney and Clare Watkins Talking
about God in Practice: Theological Action Research and Practical Theology (London: SCM, 2010), p. 115.
26 José Casanova Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)
27 Danièle Hervieu-Léger Religion as a Chain of Memory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).
28 On defining religion in religious studies using Hervieu-Léger’s thesis see James L. Cox
‘Religion without God: Methodological Agnosticism and the Future of Religious Studies’ The
Hibbert Lecture, Herriot-Watt University, 2003. Available at:
29 For a discussion of this in relation to anthropology, see Deborah Bhatti The Rite of Christian
Initiation of Adults and Liminal Experience: a Theological Anthropological Interpretation (unpublished
PhD thesis, Heythrop College, University of London, 2011).

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