Religion, Theology, and the Human Sciences

By Richard H. Roberts | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Theology and the social sciences

INTRODUCTION

At first sight, as observed from the standpoint of the social scientist, the relation of theology to the social sciences looks somewhat unpromising.1 The history of social science presents itself as a narrative of divergence from, and the surpassing of, both religion as such and the idea of there being a revealed core to Western culture. Modernity (Neuzeit) has witnessed the long and sometimes tortuous relinquishment of the central role of theology in culture and society. Indeed, sociology understood in terms of 'grand theory' may plausibly be viewed in a certain sense as the successor to theology as 'queen of the sciences'. There is something of a natural progression from the mentalité of the once all-knowing theologian to that of the ambitious contemporary social scientist who aims not merely at comprehensive interpretation of human life-worlds, but also to promote the emancipatory role of social science as itself the agent of enlightened modernity. By contrast, the theologian would now seem to occupy a shrunken and marginalised residual territory confronted by a hostile secularised reality; such theology lives on in reduced circumstances. This is, of course, a simplification, not least because the theologies of main-line religion now face pluriform postmodern and New Age recompositions of the religious field.

From the early seventeenth century, as scholastic philosophy was confronted by early natural science and philosophy moved in Cartesian and empiricist directions, so the theological residuum was gradually whittled away. Correspondingly, from the early nineteenth century onwards, disciplines in the social and human sciences differentiated themselves and this

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1
This chapter is a lightly revised version of 'Theology and Social Science', in David Ford (ed.), The Modern Theologians, 2nd rev. edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), pp. 700–19. As such, it represents a stage in the evolution of my reflection on the relation between religion, theology and the human sciences when the question concerning the capacity for reconstruing the tradition from, as it were, within was a paramount issue.

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