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Tale of the unexpected

27 February 2015

David Martin welcomes a cautious sociologist's ideas

Faith as an Option: Possible futures for Christianity
Hans Joas
Alex Skinner, translator
Stanford University Press £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.40 (Use code CT757 )

THIS is the most persuasive book on a really important topic which I have read in decades. If one takes sociology to include in its remit all the phases and paradoxes of Christianity's social incarnations, including the directions that they might be taking today, this is an analysis that covers all the bases with masterful lucidity and comprehensive scholarship.

Hans Joas finds, as I do, that his intellectual interlocutors are often Protestant theologians rather than sociologists, because too many of the sociologists have been busy devising phrases for romantic nostalgias such as Richard Sennett's analysis of The Corrosion of Character or the late Ulrich Beck's Risk Society. Joas subjects these bestsellers to astringent criticism, but they provide a context for his understanding of faith as a contemporary option, not in the sense of a sensible utilitarian preference, but as a choice that is available to someone of intellectual integrity in what Charles Taylor has characterised as A Secular Age.

Joas has focused, as have I, on two problems that between them constitute the dominant narratives enabling contemporaries to dismiss the Christian option as socially deleterious and athwart what is all too vaguely called modernisation. These problems are the theory of secularisation understood as the way things are going in properly modern societies, and the notion that religion is a prime source of violence.

Joas refuses to enter public debate on the latter because he finds, as I do, that the dominant narratives are so taken for granted that rational social-scientific examination is impossible. Secularisation, however, is a different matter. Although the commentariat remains well behind the curve, apart from those who claim that "God is back" because religion is seen as politically problematic, within sociology the thesis has been rolled back. For Joas, it is a culturally Protestant meta-narrative canonised in sociology.

That is not to deny that in Europe, often falsely equated with Christianity but now understood as a special case, there have been several great secularisations, often reactions to the nexus of political power and a monopoly religion: 1792 et seq., 1848, and 1968. But the wider underpinnings have collapsed, in company with the false claim that without God everything is permitted, or that we are anthropologically primed for religion, now perversely revived by "cognitive scientists". East German secularity puts paid to that.

Joas rebuts Peter Berger's contention, renewed in The Many Altars of Modernity, that pluralism weakens faith. As "modernisation" has gone global, secularisation has not followed, as we were led to believe by the remaining detritus of modernisation theory, and Marxism. Islam and Pentecostalism have put paid to that. The consequences supposedly associated with modernisation are contingent: "economisation" in one sphere does not automatically follow in other spheres. Secularising changes, as Christian Smith has argued in the case of American universities, are the product of uncertain political struggles, not structural inevitabilities. We are dealing with contingencies, which is why Joas's own predictions for the futures of Christianity are so properly cautious.

The Revd Dr Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, and NS assistant priest at Guildford Cathedral.

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