Volume 6 - Issue 2

Explaining Social Reality: Some Christian Reflections

By Richard J. Mouw

Sociology, as we have all learned from introductory textbooks, is the attempt to ‘explain social reality’. But sociologists are not the only scholars who investigate this segment of reality. Social psychologists and historians—to cite just two examples—do so as well. Theologians have also become increasingly busy in this area. It is being urged from various quarters that theology draw heavily from sociology in both methodology and focus. These urgings are significant and, I think, legitimate.

What ought to characterize the attempts by theologians and other Christian scholars to explain social reality? How, in these attempts, ought theology and sociology to interact? What are the benefits of this interaction for the larger Christian community?

These are questions which I will discuss here. My discussion will not be exhaustive. For one thing, a fully adequate account of what it means to explain social reality would have to attend, in great detail, to what is meant by both ‘explaining’ and ‘social reality’, matters which will only be touched on briefly here. My main concern is to offer some preliminary observations about why Christians ought to be interested in explaining social reality, and why it is important therefore that there be an intimate relationship between theological and sociological inquiry.


There are some possible reasons for justifying Christian involvement in sociological inquiry which must be rejected at the outset as inadequate in the present context. The considerations I have in mind are very similar to those rejected by Peter Berger in the course of his attempt to articulate a proper ‘invitation’ to sociological pursuits.1 We have not properly understood the sociological enterprise, Berger argues, if we consider the sociologist merely to be someone who likes to ‘help people’, or as someone who provides the theoretical framework for ‘social work’, or as a social reformer, or as a compulsive collector of statistics (‘an aide-to-camp to an IBM machine’), or as a ‘cold manipulator’ of other humans.

There are distinctively Christian analogies to these common misconceptions of the merits and demerits of sociology. Thus, we must insist here that the unique genius of sociology is not merely that it provides ‘a good course of study for youth workers’, or that it can supply us with the ‘hard data dimension’ of ‘saturation evangelism’, or that it can function as a guide to ‘Christian social action’. And, needless to say, if sociology is not to be defended purely in terms of its ‘instrumental’ value to the Christian community, neither can it be criticized for incidental services it might perform on behalf of other communities. The merits of sociology must be considered quite apart from whether it can actually function as either a ‘tool of the Church’ or a ‘tool of the devil’.

Berger locates the central impulse of sociology—as opposed to the various incidental benefits of sociological research—in its attempts at ‘understanding society in a disciplined way’.2 This formulation needs no alteration for our present purposes. The Christian sociologist ought to aim at understanding. ‘And with all thy getting, get understanding.’

The disciplined understanding of society at which sociology aims is an important dimension of the kind of broad understanding of society which the Christian community must seek to attain. That is why, as I view things, it is helpful to see Christian sociological reflection as one component of a larger process of social reflection that must be taking place within the Christian community. Let us call this larger discussion the area of Christian social thought, which is in turn an inter-disciplinary (or cross-disciplinary, or multi-disciplinary—depending on how one spells out such matters) area of discussion which must be fed by the following disciplines and sub-disciplines: political theory, in both its normative and political dimensions; that branch of theology which can be called ‘social-political theology’, where special attention is given to the social-political dimensions of Biblical teaching; economics; social-political philosophy; history, especially social, political and intellectual history; psychology, especially social psychology; and sociology.

One important reason why there should be this area of discussion in the Christian community is that there are indeed topics which are dealt with from many of these disciplinary perspectives, but which are not dealt with adequately from the point of view of any single discipline by itself. Consider the topic which we might call ‘a Christian account of institutions’. An adequate Christian understanding of the nature, purposes, functions, and limitations of human institutions must be informed by a wide variety of empirical studies, theoretical reflections and so on. And no single discipline or subdiscipline permits the range of expertise necessary for the broad discussion required.

Since our present focus is on the nature of Christian sociological inquiry, let us briefly consider what sociologists would have to contribute to this broad area of inter-disciplinary discussion. At the very least, sociologists can inform us concerning the ways in which institutions actually function in the larger network of social interactions. It is worth noting that some sociologists, especially those who belong to the ‘functionalist’ school, believe that the task of describing the actual functionings of institutions constitutes the whole task of sociology. As will be obvious in what follows, this seems to me a rather myopic view of the sociological calling. But if this descriptive task is not all that sociology has to offer, is is certainly the least it can offer. And it is also worth noting that some of the harsher critics of sociological functionalism regularly find it necessary to acknowledge the importance of the descriptive task which the functionalists have stressed. Thus, George Homans qualifies his rather strong attack on functionalism by admitting that ‘institutions are interrelated, and it is certainly one of the jobs of a sociologist to show what the interrelations are’3—‘and it was one of the glories of the school to have pointed out many such interrelations’.4 Similarly, Ernest Nagel, while insisting that so-called ‘functional explanations’ are ‘in the main very dubious’, acknowledges that some of these accounts have been ‘very illuminating’, especially

the great many accounts which exhibit relations of interdependence between patterns of standardized conduct in primitive societies, between economic and legal institutions, between religious, social, and economic ideals, between architectural style, social norm, and philosophical doctrine, between social stratification and type of personality, and much else besides.5

Descriptive accounts of this sort are also indispensable to Christian social thought.

Second, sociologists can help to explain why institutions function in the way they do; they can tell us what larger social needs specific institutions tend to fulfill—with all of the complexities sociologists are dealing with when they write of ‘functional’ institutions, ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘non-functional’ ones, the ‘latent’ versus ‘manifest’ functions of institutions, etc. Of course, it will be necessary to recognize the speculative and ‘theory-laden’ nature of many of these explanations, and Christian sociologists can perform an important service by offering critical evaluations of the ways in which their fellow-sociologists discover that, say, specific institutions contribute to the ‘self-stabilizing’ tendencies of larger ‘social organisms’, and the like.

Third, sociologists can help us to see how their accounts of institutional interrelations relate to accounts offered in other disciplines which study human behaviour. Homans sees this interdisciplinary task as a part of sociology proper—in the sense that sociologists must regularly import data from, say, psychology in order to explain institutional interrelations in a significant manner. As an example, Homans insists6 that it is not enough to note that the process of industrialization is closely correlated with a strengthening of the bonds of the nuclear family. We must ask why this correlation exists. A likely answer, he suggests, is that in agricultural societies ‘extended family’ ties were closely related to mutual help in farming activities. When people began to work in factories, there was less time, and fewer rewards, for maintaining close relationships with the extended family; thus time spent outside of factories tended to be devoted to the smaller family circle rather than the extended family. In this explanation as to why the institutional correlation exists, reference is made to personal motivation—thus, the explanation includes psychological as well as sociological premises. Homans’ defense of offering this kind of explanation is worth quoting, if only to keep his metaphor alive:

If a serious effort is made to construct theories that will even begin to explain social phenomena, it turns out that their general propositions are not about the equilibrium of societies but about the behaviour of men. This is true even of some good functionalists, though they will not admit it. They keep psychological explanations under the table and bring them out furtively like a bottle of whisky, for use when they really need help.7

Fourth, Christian sociologists can make us sensitive to the philosophical and theological dimensions of social reality as they encounter those dimensions in their sociological pursuits. As Berger puts it:

Just because the social is such a crucial dimension of man’s existence, sociology comes time and again on the fundamental question of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a man in a particular situation. This question may often be obscured by the paraphernalia of scientific research and by the bloodless vocabulary that sociology has developed in its desire to legitimate its own scientific status. But sociology’s data are cut so close from the living marrow of human life that this question comes through again and again, at least for those sociologists who are sensitive to the human significance of what they are doing. Such sensitivity … is not just an adiaphoron that a sociologist may possess in addition to his properly professional qualifications (such as a good ear in music or a knowing palate for food), but has direct bearing upon sociological perception itself.8

And Alvin Gouldner:

All social theories, however technical and esoteric, bear the trace marks of some judgment about the social world; all reflect a vision, however dim and indistinct, of a world more desirable than the one the theorist knows. To be a social theorist is not simply to seek out the world that is; it is also to reach for a world that might be, even if this is done with pick-pocket fingers. To be a social theorist is not simply to describe and analyze the world that is; it is also to pronounce a judgment on it, even if this is done in a ventriloquist’s voice.9

Some sociologists would attempt to refuse the task of engaging in philosophical and theological reflection on the matters which they study. But I do not think that this refusal is legitimate. There is an important sense in which every Christian scholar must engage in this sort of reflection on his subject-matter. To be sure, this need not be done to the degree that philosophical and theological reflections replace, say, sociological research. But philosophical and theological reflection cannot be carried on by the philosopher and theologian exclusively, if that kind of reflection is going to be sensitive to the world as it is studied from the other disciplines. Furthermore, what is at stake here is not merely the sensitivity of the philosopher and theologian, but also, as Berger puts it, ‘sociological perception itself’.

Finally, sociologists can contribute to intra-disciplinary honesty by engaging in the larger discussion of Christian social thought. It is a fact that within each of the disciplines mentioned as components of this larger discussion attention is given to at least some of the other disciplines. Let us consider just three of those disciplines: sociology, theology and philosophy. Each has a sub-discipline which pays attention to each of the other two: sociologists engage in what might be called ‘sociology of theology’ (e.g., Weber on Calvin) and ‘sociology of philosophy’ (e.g., Durkheim’s lectures on Rousseau); theologians engage in ‘theology of sociology’ (see Max Stackhouse’s discussion of sociological theories as ‘secularized theologies’10) and ‘theology of philosophy’ (of which Barth and Tillich offer two very different versions); and philosophers engage in ‘philosophy of sociology’ (as in works on the philosophy of the social sciences) and ‘philosophy of theology’ (as in Chapter Six of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic).

Christian scholars in these disciplines cannot but be bothered by the disrespectful tone which often characterizes these intra-disciplinary discussions of other disciplines. Indeed, it is not difficult to find actual examples of each claim in the series of which the following are members: ‘sociology is nothing but bad philosophy’, ‘philosophy is nothing but bad theology’, ‘theology is nothing but bad sociology’, and so on.

Needless to say, the ‘purity’ of each of these disciplines is in turn threatened by encroachment from yet other disciplines—thus the contemporary trends associated with such labels as ‘socio-biology’, ‘psychoanalytic sociology’, and (heaven help us) ‘bio-theology’. The above list of ‘nothing but’ claims, then, can easily be expanded to include such proposals as ‘theology is nothing but bad economics’, ‘sociology is nothing but bad psychology’, and ‘philosophy is nothing but bad linguistics’. In the midst of these confusing currents each discipline has much to gain from joint explorations of legitimate disciplinary boundaries.


Since we are presently concerned with the shape of Christian sociological explanation, we would do well also to note some of the affinities which hold between theology and sociology. We cannot dwell here on all of the dimensions of this relationship. But some important items can be brought to attention by briefly asking what the theologian has in common with the sociologist, quite apart from those common interests that they will share as co-participants in the discussions of Christian social thought.

We will focus here on the work of what I referred to earlier as ‘social theology’, and especially that task of social theology which involves the attempt to clarify the Biblical message concerning social reality. In considering this task and its relationship to sociological study we must, as I see it, firmly reject those viewpoints which attempt to carve out exclusive ‘territories’11 for theology and sociology in such a way that there is no overlap in the two subject-matters. One common version of this sort of territorialism is found in the claim that the theologians’s explanation somehow ‘take over’ where the sociologist’s ‘leave off’. The underlying pattern of thought here is nicely captured by Ernest Gellner: ‘Modern theologians no longer explain strange Revelations about the ordinary world, but tend to seek strange realms in which those Revelations will be ordinary truths.’12

It would be odd—even pathetic—if those Christians who have successfully resisted the creation of ‘strange worlds’ on other fronts would succumb to such machinations in their understanding of the social sciences. The Bible is a book about, among other things, social reality. And it is not merely an account of the social structure of heaven or hell; nor is it merely a set of prescriptions concerning that dimension of human existence which ‘transcends’ earthly reality. It tells us extraordinary things about the ‘ordinary world’.

The Bible, as we should all be ready to admit by now, is not a ‘textbook’ of anything, including theology; thus, it is not a textbook of sociology. But it would be wrong to infer from this that the Bible does not speak to issues which are of concern to sociologists. The Biblical writers regularly engage in something that seems to me to fall under the category of ‘social commentary’, or ‘social criticism’. The Old Testament prophets ‘analyze’ institutional interrelationships. ‘(Jerusalem’s) heads give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for hire, its prophets divine for money’ (Mi. 3:11). The wise sayings of Israel deal with questions of social cohesion: ‘When a land transgresses it has many rulers; but with men of understanding and knowledge its stability will long continue’ (Pro. 28:2). And the Apostles address questions of ‘class distinctions’ and social status: ‘But you have dishonoured the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court?’ (Jas. 2:6).

All of this must be considered grist for the mill of social theology.13 First, the social theologian, functioning as a Biblical theologian with a special focus on social reality, must tell us what these Biblical social commentaries mean in their context. What were Jeremiah and Amos meaning to tell us about the ways in which religious, political and economic patterns interacted in their societies? What was Micah describing when he observed that ‘the priests teach for hire’?

A second level of discussion, still under the rubric of ‘Biblical social theology’, must work at discovering more general patterns of Biblical social commentary. How, in general, does the Bible view the actual and possible patterns of institutional interaction? How are we to understand Biblical prescriptions which contain references to institutional interrelationships? For example, what are the similarities and dissimilarities between the ‘jubilee’ description in Leviticus 25 and the ‘acceptable year’ passage of Isaiah 61? How in turn are we to understand Jesus’ intentions in quoting (and modifying) Isaiah, as recorded in Luke 4? How is the relationship among economic redistribution, the penal system, social stability, and spiritual well-being viewed in these various contexts?

A third level would bring us into the area of systematic social theology. How are we to understand various patterns of Biblical social commentary in the light of the overall patterns of redemptive history? What ‘cross-cultural’ norms may we extrapolate from Scripture for use in contemporary Christian social thought? To what degree are Biblical perspectives on institutional interactions related to the status of institutions in a fallenworld? How ought the redeemed people of God to relate to their surrounding institutional milieu? What ought to be the institutional self-understanding of the disciples of Jesus, who are called to be ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people … aliens and exiles’, yet ‘subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution’ (1 Pet. 2:9–13)? Is an ‘eschatology of institutional life’ possible? What are the institutional manifestations of the ‘mark of the Beast’? What will the lifting of ‘the curse’ (see Rev. 22:3) mean for patterns of corporate behaviour?

I do not see how the social theologian can carry out this task effectively without being on intimate terms with various theoretical perspectives in sociological theory and without the use of sociological categories in the analysis of Biblical data. If the Biblical writers are regularly addressing issues of social change, patterns of institutional interaction, and social cohesion in, say, Old Testament societies, then an awareness of sociological perspectives on these phenomena can only heighten the theologian’s sensitivity to the nuances of Biblical social commentary. Earlier we noted Gouldner’s observation that sociologists inevitably operate with ‘a vision, however dim and indistinct, of a world more desirable than the one the theorist knows’. Theologians are also in the business of dealing with visions. And even at its best, theology’s grasp of those visions will be dim and indistinct—for theologians, too, see through glasses darkly. But there is no excuse for the perpetuation of the sort of dimness that results from reading the Scriptures in a manner undisciplined by sociological sensitivities. Peter Berger tells us, in A Rumour of Angels, that if non-theologians would take ‘signals of transcendence’ more seriously than they have they would gain a new ‘openness in our perception of reality’.14 But it is also true that if theologians would take the categories of social scientific study more seriously they might be able to better discern the ‘signals of transcendence’.

In good part, then, the task of social theology is to reconstruct the patterns of social reality of the Old and New Testament societies by reconstructing the Biblical writers’ perceptions of social reality. The results of this empirical-constructive study, enabled by sociological awareness, must be further ‘sorted’ through systematic theological reflection. The results must then be brought to the discussion in the broader area of Christian social thought in order to be further sifted and coordinated in the context of interdisciplinary discussion.

This is, of course, an oversimplified description of the process of moving from disciplinary to interdisciplinary discussion—it is perhaps an ‘ideal type’ of that process. It is more likely that the discussion will, as a matter of fact, move back and forth between inter-disciplinary and disciplinary study in a rather dynamic fashion. Theologians must begin talking with sociologists, even if they haven’t done their sociological homework; and sociologists must begin talking with theologians in order to gain initial hunches and clues for their own ‘disciplined study of social reality’. And the same holds for the other areas of thought which must contribute to Christian social reflection.


Earlier on I suggested that Christian attempts to explain social reality were not to be justified merely on the grounds of their instrumental value. The word ‘merely’ must be stressed here. Christian attempts to explain social reality have more than instrumental value. But they also have instrumental value. And in a day in which we are being re-sensitized to the Biblical call to liberation and justice it would be wrong to ignore the praxis-oriented dimensions of Christian social thought.

Christian efforts at understanding social reality can be a means, to use Pauline categories, of unmasking the principalities and powers, the rulers in heavenly places. Sociological inquiry has much to contribute to this crucial task.

At the end of his defense of sociology as a ‘humanistic discipline’, Peter Berger suggests that we think of ourselves as puppets on a stage, being manipulated by the ‘subtle strings’ that link us to the forces which control the social milieu. This picture, Berger proposes, has an element of truth in it.

But then we grasp a decisive difference between the puppet theatre and our own drama. Unlike the puppets, we have the possibility of stopping in our movements, looking up and perceiving the machinery by which we have been moved. In this act lies the first step towards freedom. And in this same act we find the conclusive justification of sociology as a humanistic discipline.15

This is an intriguing way of viewing the situation. But Berger’s account has too much of a ‘Sartrean’ flavour: by seeing the strings we move in the direction of freedom. The Christian’s goal is not freedom as such, but obedience to the will of the liberating God. Sociological inquiry can also give us the insights necessary for faithful obedience. By enabling us to discern the ‘subtle strings’ of social manipulation it can prepare us for one important step in the direction of ‘re-socialization’, a step toward an obedient posture from which we can confess ‘that neither … angels, nor principalities, … nor powers, … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God’ (Rom. 8:38–39).

1 Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1963), pp. 1–15.

2 Ibid., p. 16.

3 George C. Homans, ‘Bringing Men Back In,’ reprinted in The Philosophy of Social Explanation (ed.) Alan Ryan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 51.

4 Ibid., p. 58.

5 Ernest Nagel, The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961), p. 535.

6 Homans, op. cit., p. 58.

7 Ibid., p. 64.

8 Berger, op. cit., p. 167.

9 Alvin Gouldner, Enter Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1965), p. 197.

10 Max Stackhouse, Ethics and the Urban Ethos: An Essay in Social Theory and Theological Reconstruction(Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), especially Chapter IV.

11 For an interesting discussion of ‘territorialist’ perspectives on the relationship between Christian commitment and theories in the social sciences, see C. Stephen Evans, ‘Christian Perspectives on the Sciences of Man,’ Christian Scholars Review (1976), Vol. VI, Nos 2 and 3, especially pp. 104–106.

12 Ernest Gellner, Words and Things: A Critical Account of Linguistic Philosophy and A Study in Ideology(London: Victor Gollancz, 1959), p. 234.

13 My account here of the proper scope of ‘social theology’ parallels my discussion of the proper task of ‘political theology’ (which I take to be a branch of social theology) in Politics and the Biblical Drama (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1976), Chapter One.

14 Peter Berger, A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1970), p. 95.

15 Berger, Invitation to Sociology, p. 176.

Richard J. Mouw

Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan