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Theology meets social science

17 May 2013

Bernice Martin looks at a conversation of two disciplines

Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography
Pete Ward, editor
Eerdmans £32.99
Church Times Bookshop £29.70 (Use code CT632 )

THIS is a collection of essays by theologians from both sides of the Atlantic, alongside empirical researchers from Action Research - Church and Society in Britain. It is the first book of a new initiative to encourage co-operation between theology and the social sciences in the study of the Church, and marks an important turn in contemporary theology.

The theologians are mainly in applied theology, but, with the exception of Luke Bretherton, who is also a political scientist (writing here about the London Citizens initiative), they largely confine themselves to philosophical assessments of the methodologies of social science without having direct experience of them. The abstraction of the viewpoint has drawbacks: the view of social science as predictive, repeated in several of these essays, will astound most sociologists of religion.

Several contributors worry about the Enlightenment perspective of the social sciences and the secular epistemology that it entails, and conclude that Christian theology cannot simply be shoehorned into ethnographic research. John Swinton wryly notes that hospital chaplains must rigidly exclude a theological perspective if they plan to publish their research in peer-reviewed social-science journals. Nor can separate theological reflection on "secular" ethnographies bridge the gulf between their incompatible epistemologies and purposes.

The best of the essays recognise that the positivistic model of pure "objectivity" in the human sciences is no longer the privileged paradigm, not only because observers cannot abstract themselves from the matrix that supplies their subject-matter, but because the human sciences have to tangle with meaning and motivation, and do so crucially through a tool, language, which is not a neutral medium, but part of what it seeks to describe, explain, and re-present.

This chronic dilemma of "scientific method" has the merit of opening up a justification for an explicitly theological stance by ethnographers of the Church as no different in kind from any other "situated" perspective.

From the other side, theologians have become critical of conceptions of "church" and "community" that are derived from dogmatic and textual sources and take no account of how Christians actually worship and congregate. I would add that the ecclesiology of cosmic optimists such as Stanley Hauerwas often sits ill with realist models of social processes, which, as David Martin once remarked, tend to look like "the documentation of original sin".

In common with anthropologists and sociologists of religion, theologians have also become sensitised to the embodied nature of worship and are keen to bring the body into their analyses. The emphasis on place and history - essential to good ethnography - has been independently rediscovered by theologians troubled by a hiatus in their own discourse between ideal and actual "Christian communities".

There is, then, a measure of convergence between the two sides which may provide a slipway into cross-disciplinary conversation. Several contributors, including Alister McGrath and Elizabeth Phillips, point out that there is no technical formula for good observation beyond being clear about the objective of the research, and paying close attention after considering carefully where it should be concentrated.

The most insightful essays here do just that, seamlessly integrating theological and ethnographic purposes - above all, Mary McClintock Fulkerson's subtle and self-aware account of an American multi-racial congregation attended by a large number of disabled worshippers. It can be done.

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the University of London.

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