Sociology as Theology

By White, Thomas Joseph | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, June/July 2013 | Go to article overview

Sociology as Theology


White, Thomas Joseph, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Just when you thought liberal Protestantism was dead, Robert Bellah writes what is arguably the greatest work of liberal Protestant theology ever. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age is about the evolutionary roots of religious behavior. It is a magnificent treatment of ancient human religiosity, with particular focus on the civilizations of Israel, Greece, China, and India. The book begins with the Big Bang and terminates around two hundred years before Jesus of Nazareth, in the period that Karl Jaspers called the "Axial Age," the moment in history when human thought attained a genuinely universal character and a profound ethical maturity. In Bellah's magnum opus, which took thirteen years to write, he seeks to explain how we reached this axial age of universal reason and how religion helped us get there.

So why try to characterize it as a theology? The liberal Protestant tradition was concerned to defend the integrity and value of religion after the Enlightenment rejection of traditional Christianity. It insisted that we should no longer seek to defend religion by appeal to divine revelation and turned instead to the sociological role that religion plays in giving life a sense of ultimate purpose and in instilling ethical attitudes. Jesus teaches us what it means to be human and to love in an authentic way, and in that sense he brings the ethical project of humanity to its completion.

How could one credibly update such a vision today? In obvious ways, Bellah's work is quite different from that of Schleiermacher, Harnack, or Tillich: Nowhere does he treat Jesus or Christianity, nor does he offer explicit theological or apologetic theses. Nonetheless, he does something Schleiermacher, Harnack, and Tillich never could. He sets their now somewhat dated vision of Christian humanism in successful dialogue with the two most important contemporary challenges to religious belief: evolutionary atheism and postmodern pluralism.

The former flatly denies any legitimate basis in human beings for religious behavior: Why should a haphazard, randomly formed bundle of matter be religious? The latter asks why we should privilege Western, Christian canons of rationality and ethics over, say, those of ancient India. What Bellah does in both cases is genuinely intriguing-and theologically significant.

Bellah begins his treatment of evolution with the study of Big Bang cosmology, to which he adds astute sociological insights into the religious and the areligious views of contemporary cosmologists. He then goes on to offer a detailed and eloquent portrait of the evolutionary origins of living things, from the single-celled prokaryotes and eukaryotes, the only living things for perhaps two billion years, to the development of complex mammals, progressing from chimpanzees to homo erectus and eventually to homo sapiens. Following biologists Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, he suggests ways in which living things succeed more or less well owing to their new material adaptations. Consequently, it is the whole organism and not just its collection of genes that evolves through time. In natural selection, living things make use of their genetic alterations to engage their environment more successfully. We are not simply organic media through which genetic mutation makes its merry way. This nonreductive vision of living beings provides an essential basis for Bellah's explanation of the emergence of advanced cognition in complex mammals. We are animals with adapted social features that permit us to pursue better forms of survival. Animals communicate to one another through mimicry, signaling, and even interactive play, and group membership becomes an advantage to the survival of the species. Bellah locates the remote origins of human culture in these communicative adaptations, especially in "play" as a "relaxed state" not ordered immediately toward either nutrition or procreation. Out of animal play come the capacities to mime, narrate, engage in ritual, and, ultimately, theorize. …

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