A Dialectic Engagement with the Social Sciences in an Ecclesiological Context

By Ormerod, Neil | Theological Studies, December 2005 | Go to article overview

A Dialectic Engagement with the Social Sciences in an Ecclesiological Context


Ormerod, Neil, Theological Studies


WITH FEW EXCEPTIONS, attempts to engage with the social sciences have not been prominent among ecclesiologists. At the methodological level, Joseph Komonchak has consistently argued that the social sciences have a foundational role in the study of the Church. (1) A number of his essays have both urged and illustrated this foundational role. Still it is not a call that has been widely accepted, at least in practice. Patrick Granfield has attempted a rather adventurous use of cybernetic theory in his work Ecclesial Cybernetics. (2) Carl Starkloff has used notions of structure and communitas drawn from the works of Victor Turner to analyze elements in the Church. (3) Schillebeeckx has used conflict-based critical theory in his analysis of the emergence of ministerial offices in the early Church. (4) But strikingly the methodological article written by Pedro Rodriguez in the collection of essays edited by Peter Phan, The Gift of the Church, makes no mention of the role of the social sciences in ecclesiology, despite the citation of the seminal work by Komonchak in his bibliography. (5) In general, the engagement with social sciences by ecclesiologists has been eclectic, sporadic, intermittent, and secondary to what they view as their primary task. (6)

One could posit three major reasons for this. The first is the understandable reluctance of theologians to enter into another major field of discourse such as sociology. It is a vast discipline that requires persistence and determination on the part of the theologian to gain some mastery of it. Who are the substantial authors and schools of thought? Does one need to master the whole before one can advance the ecclesiological task? As a result, most ecclesiologists either focus on one particular approach, such as Granfield's use of cybernetic theory, or Starkloff's application of Turner's insights, or they appeal to sociology "in general" as a source of insights that can be drawn upon eclectically. (7)

A second reason is the difficulty identified by Gregory Baum, namely that sociology is a methodologically divided discipline. Thus the first question one should ask is which sociology should one use? Baum identifies four distinct approaches: positivist, functionalist, conflictualist, and symbolic interactionist. (8) To these might be added the structurationist approach of Anthony Giddens (9) and the critical realist approach of Roy Bhaskar. (10) Along with liberation theologians, Baum tends to opt for conflictualist readings but the theological grounds given for this option raise serious issues about the interrelationship between theology and the social sciences.

The third and most serious issue facing the potential engagement with the social sciences after one has "opted" for a form of the social sciences--if that is what one must do--is to decide how one relates these two disciplines? Clodovis Boff has identified five different strategies for their interrelationship:

(1) Empiricism or absence of mediation. This approach assumes some direct access to social reality unmediated by social theory. It simply lets the social facts "speak for themselves." In place of a critical reading that social theory might provide, it substitutes its own naive and uncritical stance which is adopted as normative.

(2) Methodological purism or exclusion of mediation. This position holds to the self-sufficiency of faith and revelation for all theorizing. It has no need to use other disciplines. Boff notes that such purism does not work in classical areas such as Christology and Trinity. One adopts either critical philosophical assumptions or uncritical ones. The same is true in theologies that engage social and historical realities. Perhaps the clearest exponent of methodological purism is Karl Barth. (11)

(3) Theologize or substitution for mediation. This strategy pushes purism further by arguing that theology is itself mediation, so that "theology pretends to find everything it needs to express the political in its own walls" (26). …

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