Sociology and the Human Image

Written by D. Lyon Reviewed By John W. Gladwin

This book will benefit many different groups of readers. Among the more obvious are sociology students and researchers both Christian and non-Christian. It will also appeal to the thoughtful Christian person who wants both to understand sociology as a lay-person and to have some balanced Christian insights into it.

The book begins with a justification for doing sociology. Dr Lyon believes that sociology, through its explanations, can help us to a fuller understanding of our social life and of the nature of the choices that are ours to make. That is surely the first task of a Christian involved in a particular discipline—to help the reader to understand the boundaries of the discipline and the nature of the skills and the field contained within them. If sociology can offer us these then we need to encourage Christians to participate in it.

Is there a Christian contribution to be made to sociology? Dr Lyon believes that there are important Christian perspectives which help believers engage critically with the discipline. In his second chapter he sets out the biblical shape of Christian faith about humanness which offers theological boundaries to serious Christian contribution. The engagement of Christian perspectives and sociological disciplines have a potential for expanding our understanding of the ‘image of God’ in human life. This helps us to see the real task of theological reflection which is to bring the themes of Christian faith founded in the biblical tradition into dialogue with human experience and knowledge. If sociology might be helped by the Christian shape of understanding human life, theology might be helped by a sympathetic understanding of what is being offered to our understanding by responsible sociology.

There then follows a long section where we are given insight into contemporary sociology—its background, its range of debate and the range of its theoretical understanding. Here different traditions are allowed to speak for themselves and are critically and sympathetically evaluated from a Christian perspective. Those who do not know much about sociology will find these chapters full of help and written in such a manner that might encourage direct encounter in the writings examined. (There is a very good and full bibliography at the end.) Those who know a lot about sociology will find help in understanding how Christians might address the subject and reflect on it. The chapter on social structures gives a good insight into the need to take structural questions seriously. I found its theological comments too easily dismissed ‘structural sin’ and too wedded to an individualistic understanding of salvation. I wanted to hear a little more. Dr Lyon then helps us look at two particular issues—Marxism and feminism. We have heard him often on the former and found him a sympathetic but radical critic of Marxism. It is good to have something from him on the important but still unresolved issue of feminism. This is a painful subject for the church and I found his contribution here constructive. Clearly a lot more work is needed here and that cannot be done without the help of good sociology. It is clear that a hierarchical understanding of male and female relationships not only does serious damage to Christian theology but also provides about the worst possible environment in which to consider the diversities of our male/female human life.

The book finishes first with a reflection on the possibility of a Christian sociology and, in spite of considerable sympathies with the endeavour, sees limitations on this approach, and second with some critical insight into question of ‘praxis’—practical living in the real world.

This is a very fine and delightful book which will serve the Christian community well over a long period to come.

John W. Gladwin

John W. Gladwin is Secretary of the Church of England’s Board for Social Responsibility, and is also Associate Editor of Themelios in Social Ethics.