Theology in Relation to Other Disciplines

So I’ve been concerned, as my thesis approaches, that I’ve been drifting too close to sociology in my possible topics; but I can’t seem to help it.  Theology is not just theory, it must be enacted and lived, not only in the regular rehearsal of the Church but in every aspect of life.  As Bonhoeffer would say, the universe is itself already reconciled to God through Christ Jesus, and it is the essence of Christian Ethics to live in accordance with that reality – that is, to live as human beings before God, acknowledging the reality of our own reconciliation with God.

So if theology inevitably leads to ethics, where does ethics lead?  If I acknowledge that God cares for the widow and the orphan, that God is upset with systemic evil in the world, then how can I ignore the injustices of our society?  Thus, ethics leads inevitably to responding to social problems – a subject studied in-depth by the field of sociology.  It seems that no matter which topic I try to choose for my systematic theology thesis, it turns inevitably to a sociology paper!  Which has me thinking…what’s the relationship between these disciplines?  Do they interact, overlap, or oppose each other?

I’ve never read any John Milbank, but it was mentioned in one of my classes that he disagrees with even having sociology as a discipline.  To his mind, sociology is a competing metanarrative (metanarrative meaning “grand story” – i.e. a story of everything) to Christianity, and any valid insights that it can offer are already covered by systematic theology.  Therefore, in his mind, it shouldn’t even exist.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s a (relatively) large sociology program at the Christian University I live at that sees no problem with sociology describing the way human beings interact with each other, the world, and even God.

One of the sociology profs here wrote a very good essay about the interaction between disciplines.  Typically, he notes, practitioners of different disciplines tend to give their own discipline priority over others, and treat interaction between the disciplines as either appropriating relevant insights from other fields, colonizing them by projecting their own field upon the other, or outright opposition.  In order for there to be dialogue, he notes, there must be a recognition of both parties equally; as long as each field gives themselves priority or sees themselves as superior, true dialogue cannot occur.

Thinking more about this, I started to draw.  Sometimes I find it helpful to make diagrams to see relationships.  The first diagram helped me get my ideas out, but having run it by the sociology prof and philosophy prof here, as well as my friend Joel, I’ve made a few changes.  Then I broke it down into stages (which I poorly drew in Paint) so I can show it to you:

If it’s too small to see properly, here’s the description:  The large circle represents God, and for the sake of this diagram we’ll say that this is also reality.  I don’t have the space to get into a philosophical discussion about whether and how God differs from reality; for now let’s just say that “in Him we live and move and have our being.”  God and reality are inseparable because reality is within God and held in a state of being by God.  The smaller circle represents “what we know” – the accumulation of human knowledge of reality and God.  Everything human beings have ever known is in the tiny little circle, which is much smaller than everything there is to know about God and reality – after all, we really don’t know very much compared to all there is to know.  The actual proportions are probably much, much different; I bet we know a lot less than we think we do, and even most of the stuff we think we know is probably wrong (and thus not pictured here).  Even so, we have our two circles: reality, and the little tiny bit that we really know about it.  Next picture:

Now, the little circle of “what we know” is now surrounded by four different disciplines.  For the sake of this diagram I chose Natural Sciences, Philosophy, Social Sciences, and Biblical Theology, but it’s really just to show different disciplines that often seem to butt heads or overlap.  Each of the disciplines here are contributing to the little circle of “what we know”, and each of them can do so equally from their own unique perspectives.  In my original diagram I was able to show that each of these disciplines describes reality (and God) as they see it through either the World (the natural world) or the Word (the Bible) – and thus Biblical Studies/Theology is equally important to the conversation.  Unfortunately, World and Word don’t fit as well in this diagram, but think of them as the ways in which we see reality and God – almost like a filter between us and what is real.  The little circle of “what we know” has been renamed “Metanarrative”, which is a “grand story” of everything: the way we understand the world as we know it.  All of the knowledge we have of the world fits into our metanarrative somehow.

Here in diagram 3 I’ve renamed our metanarrative “Christianity”, because I believe that all descriptions of reality are actually just describing what God has made and done, and of course everything we learn from the Word and World points to Him.  If I were an atheist, I’d have a different metanarrative – and Biblical Theology probably wouldn’t contribute much to it at all.  I’ve also added arrows to show that while the disciplines all contribute to what we know (which in turn has been systematized into our worldview, Christianity), what we know also contributes to the individual disciplines.  For example, there may be direct dialogue between two disciplines, but all of the disciplines tend to dialogue with each other indirectly, through what we already know; it is up to each scholar to be aware of this when it happens, and try to understand our own presuppositions so that they do not unknowingly affect our studies too much.  And out last diagram:

Here, all I’ve really added is that Christianity is both “embodied by the Church” and “described by Systematic Theology.”  This brings us back to the beginning: how does systematic theology relate to the social sciences (and every other discipline)?  By incorporating them.  All of the disciplines theoretically have equal opportunity to contribute to what we know, because they all study reality from a distinct viewpoint or approach.  We then systematize that knowledge into a worldview or metanarrative, which since we are Christian we call Christianity.  We of course must keep in mind that we don’t even know the half of it, and half of what we do know is wrong; even so, we can say that we do know something of reality and God, and hope that this is reflected in Christianity.  Christianity is then lived out by Christians – i.e. the Church – and described by Systematic Theology.

If we had a different metanarrative, the diagram would look rather different.  Many times, disciplines give themselves priority.  For example, a natural scientist with a “naturalist” or atheistic viewpoint (think Richard Dawkins or someone like that) would probably have “natural sciences” at or near the centre of the circle, and Biblical Theology probably wouldn’t be on the list at all; that worldview doesn’t have much room for anything else (see the previous post about postmodern suspicion of metanarratives for a critique of science as a metanarrative).  For many sociologists, sociology is at the centre of the circle – it can be a metanarrative too.  But here’s the point: it need not be.

So Milbank thinks that we shouldn’t have sociology because it is only a competing metanarrative to Christianity, and any insights it has to offer are already covered by systematic theology.  But if we see Systematic Theology as a descriptive enterprise, existing only to describe what we know about God and reality, then we need sociology to inform systematic theology even as systematic theology in turn informs our sociology.  In this model, systematic theology is a second-level discipline that incorporates all of the truth described by every other field (and hopefully weeds out the untruth at the same time).  Each of the disciplines is equally valid so long as they are presenting truth, because all truth describes God and his reality – the reality in which we are free to live as human beings before God, the reality of Jesus Christ.


3 thoughts on “Theology in Relation to Other Disciplines

  1. Nice post Jeff – this makes sense to me. Reading Bonhoeffer’s earliest work, it’s clear that he thought of philosophy or the social sciences as appropriate lenses through which to understand reality, which for him was the reality of God. Reading Sanctorum Communio, it’s pretty remarkable the way his understanding of sociology informed his theological anthropology as well as his ecclesiology.

    I think it’s hard not to get caught up in your own discipline, treating it as the most important and developing a rather lopsided worldview. (In my experience, it’s actually sociologists who do this most readily; I don’t know if their discipline is more prone to this than others or if our school just happens to produce fundamentalist sociologists.) Do you think theologians can do this too? How might we develop an imbalanced worldview if systematic theology is our primary discipline? Or is systematic theology as an academic discipline different from systematic theology as represented in your model?

    • Good point Joel. I think that theologians may actually have slightly more claim to a central position than other disciplines, but we can’t let it go to our heads any more than anyone else because our central position depends upon their input – that is, systematic theology without sociology and natural sciences and philosophy and biblical theology and anything else is incomplete. It might not affect the balance of our worldview as much as become easily prideful.

      Where it affects the balance of our worldview is when systematic theologians set their discipline up against other disciplines. This necessarily means they do not see it as a second-order discipline to which the other disciplines all contribute, or else they see other disciplines as inherently false and claiming the central role. This is where we must make the distinction between all of the claims that a discipline makes and the TRUE claims that a discipline makes. If, for example, a sociologist sees sociology as a metanarrative, then it is indeed in conflict with systematic theology; but this need not be true about the discipline as a whole, but only of this one person’s claim about it.

      Another point to be made here is that sociology, like systematic theology, can be used to describe Christianity – but it does so from a different perspective, and cannot do so completely (i.e. Sociology cannot tell us about God, but it can certainly be used to describe the functions and relationships of the Church). We could then say, like Milbank, that systematic theology already covers this issue; however, I’d say that systematic theology can only cover it adequately if it takes sociology into account in the first place. Thus, sociology contributes to our ecclesiology and describes our ecclesiology, yet all the while can refrain from claiming any central status as a metanarrative or even as a second-order discipline.

  2. Pingback: On My Approach to Theology | Stumbling Through Theology

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