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A Constructed Dialogue Between a Christian
Graduate Student and His Nonbelieving Professor
Timothy D. Stabelt

Editor's Note:

The following article is written in the form of a dialogue between a Christian graduate student and his nonbelieving professor. It k an imaginary dialogue although it is based upon actual conversations that occurred between the author and a noted historical sociologist during the time the author was completing a M.A. degree in sociology at the New School for Social Research in New York City. The general topic of the various conversations which the present article attempts to reconstruct was whether the author really belonged in sociology. Subsequent to these conversations and the completion of his sociology degree the author transferred to the Westminster Theological Seminary where he completed an M.A. degree in theology. The author is presently affiliated with the African lnland Mission headed for Zaire. To facilitate the sense of dialogue the professor will be referred to as Dr. Smith This is not his true name.

Stabell: Dr. Smith, I made this appointment with you in order to discuss some of my reactions to the courses that I have had from you and some of my own thinking about the problems of doing sociology. I've been very excited by much in your particular approach to the discipline and many of your emphases involve things that I would want to incorporate in my own efforts. At the same time, however, in some ways it seems to me that the whole orientation and direction of sociology is wrong, presenting a false, distorted and destructive view of man in society and in the course of history.

Smith: I'm glad you came by. To begin with let me say that I've sensed some progress in your thinking, judging from the papers you've given me. I think you are becoming more aware of the necessity of approaching sociology with an eye to historical process and detail.

Stabell: Yes, I hope so, I agree that it is important to look at what happens in societies through time in coming to understand them, and to look closely into the details of life as these express more general historical processes.

Smith: I have also sensed, however, that what you really want to do is not in fact sociology. I wonder if you shouldn't be in a theological school rather than here. Your concerns seem to be fundamentally different than ours. I see nothing inherently wrong with a "spiritual concern" per Se. Some people are naturally more troubled by questions of the ultimate meaning of life than are others, and they should probably pursue those questions. But an interest of this kind leads away from sociology in our sense from the purely historical study of social institutions.

Stabell: It seems to me that you brought up this objection after the first paper that I did for you. As a result of that criticism and of the valuable things that I saw in your approach I began to try to adapt my perspective to yours. I began increasingly to use your language and, more importantly. to ask your questions. But as I have given the whole matter more thought, I've begun to see that there is a real danger for me of compromising the commitment that I have to Jesus Christ and to his word. It has also become increasingly clear to me that, from this point of view, sociology and history simply cannot be done truly apart from biblical categories from which to interpret the data.

Smith: It sounds to me like you don't really understand what it is that we are trying to do here. We want to understand social history on its own terms. When you introduce religious language like this you inevitably end up with a kind of "uniformitarianism" that destroys a real interest in the particulars of any given social situation. What you are looking for are the "spiritual realities" behind history. The diversity of different histories of different peoples is flattened out into an eternal struggle between faith and unbelief, between the darkness and the light.

Stabell: Perhaps we ought to start by looking at your perspective on history and sociological methodology. I think I can show that in fact it is your approach that flattens history and that a Biblical point of view is essential if historical particulars are to retain their true individuality. But again, there are aspects of your method that I find very exciting. For example, you have a lot to say about the importance, in doing sociology, of looking closely at religious belief, or, more broadly speaking, "structures of consciousness." From your point of view it is necessary to understand the fundamental stance toward and definition of the cosmos that characterizes a particular culture or civilization.

Smith: Yes indeed. What a man believes the world around him to be, what he feels is appropriate action in that world, what he thinks he must do in order to be "saved," and the nature of the salvation that he seeks will largely determine the character of his life. This is true collectively perhaps even more than individually. The direction of the development of whole cultures is in part set by their cosmologies, ontologies, ethics, anthropologies and theologies. But all this needs to be seen from a wider perspective. As you know, I see myself as continuing in the tradition of Max Weber's analysis of civilizations.

Stabell: Your understanding of Weber I have also found very helpful indeed. You argue cogently that his best known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is largely underestimated because it is not seen in the perspective of the rest of the things that he did. He was not simply out to show that capitalism grew out of the Protestant Reformation. Rather, he wanted to contrast the uniquenesses of Western culture with development in other civilizations. He could not help but see that "world-view" was a very significant variable in the course of a culture's history.

Smith: You seem to be headed in the right direction, but I suspect we will still end up coming out at different points. Weber's interest was to understand the uniqueness of the social institutions of Western culture. I suspect you are looking for something else. It is true that he had a more substantial interest in religion than did Marx, with whom he is usually contrasted. But they both were after sociological understanding of the world in which they lived. The diffference between them is that Marx seemed to feel capitalism was the natural outcome of dialectical history. Weber, on the other hand was impressed by the fact that only the West came to be the locus of highly rationalized forms of capitalism and entrepreneurship, yes, but also science, law, technology, individualism and practically every area of life. He saw "ideas" as well as material reality as playing a significant role in the evolution of the differences among civilizations.

Stabell: I certainly agree that we end up coming out at very different points; radically different. And I want to explore that difference. But in so doing I don't want to give up the implicit claim that the Bible makes with regard to the interpretation of socio-historical reality as well as "spiritual" reality. In tact, I don't believe the two can be separated. You would agree, would you not, that every fact must be seen in its whole context in order to be understood properly?

Smith: Yes. So called sociologists and historians have said a lot of things that simply are not true because they don't take into account wide historical and cultural realities. They don't know history, they make assumptions about the nature of change or evolution that don't fit the facts. "Man" or "Society" are seen as having an essential "Nature" throughout all time and in all places and individuality is not really understood. Psychologists assume that the Western "individual" is "Man" per se.

Stabell: OK, what I'm arguing is that part of the whole context within which social facts need to be interpreted if they are to be understood truly is their relation to what the Bible says about what life should be like; what a man's rights and responsibilities are before God and other men. Part of the question that lam raising here is "How does a sociologist determine what is significant in the culture or society he is examining?" How do you see Weber answering that question, and how would you answer it?

Smith: That is a very important question. To answer it I think we need again to look at the overall thrust of Weber's work. His concern, finally, was with universal world history. He began, perhaps, seeking to understand Western capitalism, but as he looked at comparative histories of the major world civilizations, he saw that the uniqueness of the West extended beyond its economic system. He began increasingly to focus on the characteristically Western forms of rationalism and rationality which seemed to have a universal significance and value as examples universal science; a certain formal individual equality before the law; and perhaps most significantly, a fact that I have focused on in particular, a move in the West away from tribal loyalties that set group against group and clan against clan. Instead there has been a move toward a universal individualism.

Stabell: And you are suggesting that this perspective is how one should go about determining what is significant in a given social situation?

Smith: Yes, and we can do that in at least two ways. First, we can look for the causal chain leading up to these results in the West. We can see some of this as coming out of Greek philosophy, some of it out of Christianity and its peculiar emphases, some out of Roman law, other aspects out of specific political and economic situations and developments. As Weber argues, the Protestant Reformation was crucial. But so was the specifically Western form of the City, if you look at his essay by that title. Secondly, we need to took at what in other cultures has prevented this kind of pattern from developing. Why did not China, where science was far ahead of the West in Marco Polo's day, develop the powerful technology and scientific know-how that we have? What in its world-view and/or social structure stood in the way?

Stabell: I believe that here you have hit on a method that a Christian could use with real benefit. I'm convinced that we could learn an awful lot by looking at the specific historical processes that have brought various cultures to where they are today. I think that where we would differ, however, is in how we go about determining what in a culture is significant and what that significance is. You have said something about how Weber, and you following him, would go about determining what to look for. If I understand you correctly, you would look for those aspects of culture that either inhibit or promote "universal individualism".

Smith: Essentially, yes. I would contend, though, that this must be done in continual close contact with actual historical data, the actual histories of actual peoples. We need to see how these developments are fleshed out in detail.

Stabell: I think I understand your procedure. What you propose is that we examine all kinds of historical situations the Reformation in Europe, the great Awakening in New England, the Basuku tribe in Zaire looking at the "structures of consciousness" that characterize each setting, trying to find the specific ways in which various people have either been moved toward or blocked from developing what you have referred to as "universal frames of discourse," or what I called "universal individualism".

Smith: I am suggesting that this is what will be found to be significant by those who take the trouble to do careful historiography with an eye to worldhistorical developments.

Stabell: What I'd like to do at this point i s to throw out an alternative point of view or approach to the study of society, one which admittedly borrows from some of the methods you suggest, but which I hope is controlled by a Biblical world-view and a commitment to Jesus Christ. Then we can come back and look more closely at how our approaches differ.

Smith: Good. I'm interested in why you are so insistent on doing sociology at all. If your interest is in the nature and expression of faith then you should pursue that. But it seems to me that that kind of concern is different from an investigation of the sociological consequences even of religious experience. On the one hand, are you not being distracted from your real concerns when you try to do social history? On the other hand, your spiritualizing perspective very quickly begins to destroy your historical sociological analysis. You have to be continually reminded to do sociology, not a "history of the spirit !"

Stabell: I'm often tempted to agree with you that after all, my Christian faith doesn't really have anything to do with sociology! My tendency has been to see the antithesis between the practice of sociology and the Biblical world-view as so great as to demand my giving up the endeavor of doing sociology altogether. And under some definitions of the word "sociology" I suppose that would indeed be necessary. If that term implies all or most of your basic assumptions then, yes, I would have to give it up I would gladly give it up, because it would have nothing to do with what I want to doBut several considerations prevent me from doing that. In the first place, I am continually impressed by the tact that the Bible has an awful lot to say about social reality. I find it defining very carefully what things ought to be considered as the significant variables in any given social situation. It is very clear from the Bible what things are relevant, what one should look for, how one should measure social institutions, "structures of consciousness," historical developments and decisions. It gives us a pretty clear picture of what makes for a good society and what things are destructive of that goodness.

Smith: Already you are leaving the fold. Ethics is an important subject, but again, this is not sociology. As sociologists what we want to look at are the facts the historical particulars and specifically, social facts and processes. But we are not out to make ethical judgments.

Stabell: Yes, lam talking about ethics, but I'm talking about something else, too. What I'm trying to focus on is how we go about determining what in a culture should be considered relevant and significant. We can't look at everything. We also have to have some scheme for determining what that significance is; how ii is to be measured. Now it seems to me that this process is inevitably ethical at least in part When Weber, or you for that matter, focus on particular questions as the important questions to ask in coming to understand what is really significant about a particular situation, is that not because you have an idea of what society should and should not be? Is this not why you choose to look at some things and not others? Now I'm not saying that either you or Weber have a clear utopian vision or anything like that. But it does seem to me that the process by which we come to judge the significance of a social phenomenon involves our ethical reactions to the world around us. It appears to me anyway that you approve the move away from tribal particularism toward more "universal frames of discourse."

Smith: Whether or not I approve is irrelevant. The question is whether or not this has in fact taken place. The difference between our approaches is that the framework advocated by men like Weber and myself has emerged out of vast, extensive and intensive historical research. What we are describing is the course of world history. We are seeking to account for social reality as it is in terms of what Weber called "universal history;" what I have referred to as comparative historical sociology. On the other hand, what you are suggesting seems to come "from above."

Stabell: Are you advocating a kind of empiricism then? Don't you as a sociologist believe that all human thought, including the sociologists, is necessarily governed by social and cultural conditioning? Don't we already have to have categories with which to analyze data before we can even begin in see it? How can you claim that your point of view arises "out of" the data?

Smith: No, that's not exactly what I'm saying. I grant that we all of course come at the world with culturally governed norms. But being in the West gives a certain advantage. Our own civilization is increasingly in contact with other world-views, forcing us to a wider perspective than in the past. We are increasingly part of a shrinking "global village." Then too, as sociologists we must be careful to continually expose our theories to the data. In fact, the best cure that I know for your kind of skepticism is a good hard look at some history; in other words, actually doing what lam talking about, trying to get close to the details of the lives of men and women in their world, their cultures, and the changes through which they move at significant historical moments.

Stabell: That is in fact the direction I'd like for us to move in now. Could we discuss one of the papers that I did for you a while back? One in which I actually tried to utilize your method and point of view pretty closely. Reflecting on that effort has given me, I think, a better grasp of the problems in an approach like yours, and a clearer understanding of howl think sociology needs to be done. The particular paper lam referring to was entitled "Martin Luther in Civilizational Perspective."

Smith: As I recall, you were particularly interested in investigating the interplay of Greek and Hebrew views in Luther's thought, experience and preaching. You were, I believe, trying to demonstrate the particular ways in which Hebrewthought forms, with which he had come in contact through the Scriptures, reacted against hierarchical, Aristotelian Greek structures of consciousness in which the Catholic Church was steeped. You saw here one ofthe things I have often emphasized; the significance of "civilizational encounters at important historical moments. Such clashes have frequently provided a radical prophetic element, a new understanding of reality and of appropriate action, bringing men to break away from older structures and social patterns.

Stabell: I very much enjoyed doing that paper. It was fascinating to observe the various influences that bore on Luther's life. But I also experienced certain frustrations both in doing the paper and then after in thinking over what I had written. To begin with, as I read and studied about his life, I was very quickly overwhelmed by the vast amount of material that would have to be taken into account if one was to say that he really understood Luther in his sociological significance. One would have to know the exact import of each of the separate streams of thought that fed into his culture and experience Occamism, Thomism, mysticism and Augustinianism, to mention only a few "categories." Then there is the economic and political situation in all its detail, to be taken into consideration, plus the tact that none of these things can be understood as an isolated phenomenon but must be seen as continually interacting with each of the others. One could even legitimately raise the question as to whether or not these are in fact defendable categories. Are there, for example, different kinds of mysticism with very different kinds of influence in history, and in our situation here, on Martin Luther? Then, if one is truly interested in Luther's relevance for comparative world history, one has to compare him But that means knowing other situations equally well! I began to realize the truth of the statement that in order to know anything, one really has to know everything.

Smith: But in your study you did seem to reach some seemingly valid conclusions. You had the help, of course, of other historians and their judgments and evaluations. Plus you had a perspective from Weber and from my own lectures suggesting a framework into which he might fit.

Stabell: Yes, I was quite aware of that, and I used that framework very significantly. Nor do I want to deny entirely the validity of Weber's assessment of the Reformation in terms of its economic and social consequences. I think it could be of value to look at that kind of question, though I'm not sure I agree with all his conclusions. But I was also aware of the fact (and became more aware of this later in thinking back) that I was using another framework and set of categories as I sifted through what I read. I was putting the data through two siftings, as it were. One, sociological in your sense, the other more Biblicaily controlled. As a result I don't think I was true to either point of view entirely.

Smith: Then why not give up one or the other, if this isa source of conflict? You don't have to do sociology. Go to seminary! It is inevitable thai we each have our own personal concerns. The only question is whether or not that personal perspective can be brought into line with the wider concerns of world history.

Stabell: That brings me to another of the frustrations I experienced while doing and since having done that paper. The separation you are suggesting is an impossible one. It destroys both "halves." On the one hand, a "spiritual" concern separated from actual history is not Biblical spirituality. You know this from your study of the Hebrews and, too, of the Reformation. In both of those cases men saw God's word as dealing very significantly with their lives/n the world. Moreover they saw their God as acting in the world. But more importantly for our discussion here is that any sociology trying to operate out of a perspective other than that of the Bible and its categories its definitions of what are the relevant or significant questions is going to be false sociology. I saw this happening in my own work and that of other historians as we analyzed what was going on in Luther's life and times.

Smith: I'm not at all sure I see what you are saying. I think you are going to have to illustrate just what you mean. There is always going to be more than one interpretation of an event or situation. It is not necessarily the case that only one will be true.

Stabell: OK. One of the biographies of Luther's life that I read was Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther. That is a book that you have some trouble with isn't it?

Smith: Erikson's problem is that he doesn't know cultural history. He puts Luther in the wrong context. He tries to see Luther as a modern man. He seeks to understand Luther's psychological problems without reference to the unique culture and society in which the man lived. He imposes categories out of modern culture, believing these will be adequate.

Stabell: And why do you think this happens? Why does he do it that way?

Smith: Well, his questions are inadequate. He thinks he can understand a man in purely "psychological" terms. He doesn't seem to see that the very interest in the "psychological" is a modern phenomenon.

Stabell: Would you say that the picture he gives us of Luther's life is false in any sense?

Smith: Yes, I don't believe you can really understand a man in terms of modern psychology without references to the culture around him. You are inevitably going to distort the facts of his life. But it sounds to me like this is a set up. I'm being framed.

Stabell: You caught me! But let me flesh out how I think it works in our situation here. When you look at Luther's Germany you go at it with a particular set of questions questions derived from the modern world and your experience in that world. you want to understand why we are the way we are. Besides that you have a particular understanding of "the way we are. You define that in terms of economic rationality, individual political freedom and equality before the law, and the "cult of the individual" that pervades our structures of consciousness, our rationales of action. So when you look at a man like Luther you inevitably define his experience in the light of its significance for yours Take, as a specific example, your understanding of the category "faith." It is true that you see that category as a very significant one in history. But because you tend to measure its significance in terms of "the way we are now," it seems to me that your understanding of faith is very different from mine. What you look for is that state of mind that has certain historical consequences. Faith is that hope and confidence which allows a man to break with accepted definitions of the world and thus brings in the opportunities for new social and economic patterns to develop. The content of that faith, the objects or subjects of that faith, are relatively insignificant. And so you tend to confuse what I would call true faith trust in the God of Scripture with a vague mysticism and supra-rational experiences of many kinds.

Smith: But again you seem to misunderstand what it is we are trying to do in sociology. We aren't after a sharp definition of faith. We are trying to understand "the way we are now." It could be that some of our definitions need sharpening. But that is a matter of degree and precision, not the radical thing you seem to want to make it.

Stabell: It isn't just a matter of the particulars, though. My objection is not simply that individual experiences are misinterpreted. The whole view of history is wrong. You simply cannot understand world history the way you want to, in terms of the emergence of universalizing individualism. From a Christian point of view, what history is about is the responses of men to God's self-revelation responses of obedience and disobedience, of faith in or disregard for God's word. It has to do with man's rebellion against God and turning from His light, with the darkness that ensues, and with God's plan to save His own from that darkness.

Smith: With this kind of view of history, well, you don't really have history at all You used the terms yourself: what you have is a battle between darkness and light, faith and unbelief. There is not room here for a real concern with historical detail and particularity. What you have is, as said before, a kind of "history of the spirit." How can you say that this is sociology? Where is your interest in social institutions and cultural process?

Stabell: On the contrary. I'm convinced that it is only the Biblical perspective that is truly concerned with particularity and individuality. When you look at Martin Luther, or better yet, Luther's barber, are you really interested in the man himself? Or are you rather concerned with his relevance in and for your scheme? I dare say you would hardly even think about Luther's barber except in a tangential sense. Weber, in fact, makes the statement that it is not particular historical figures for their own sake that a sociologist should look at, but rather their relevance for understanding the Western Culture-situation. On the other hand, one of the things I find exciting about the potential of a Biblically controlled sociology is precisely this question. In Scripture, every man, woman and child has a significance before God as His creature and as the bearer of rights and responsibilities from Him. In terms of cultures, the West is not more significant than any other. It does not in itself set the standards for determining what is or is not to be considered relevant data. Significance is not measured on its terms. The only standard is the kingdom of God and the commands of God's word. Every human society is judged by these criteria.

Smith: Well, this has been interesting. I'm afraid you'll have to leave me in unbelief! I must say that I don't see how you can hold this kind of dogmatic position when there are so many faiths in the world. But! do find it intriguing as a sociologist how it is that commitments like yours develop and are maintained even in our own secular culture.! suppose in part it is a reaction to the loss of mystery. You have obviously had some sort of religious experience that is denied to most of us. Not all of us are "of the elect."! must say, though, that you have yet to convince me that you are really going to be able to do sociology.

Stabell: To be honest, I often feel exactly that way myself. But I think that is because I tend to accept your definition of the discipline. When I read the Bible, though, and when I look at history from that point of view lam again and again struck by the inadequacy of most sociological categories, and the possibilities of, or better, the absolute necessity of doing sociology Biblically. Every other perspective ends up distorting the real situation, obscuring the fact that men everywhere have access to, but turn away from, God's kindness in showing Himself. What you have called "structures of consciousness" are culturally embodied and maintained ways of reconstructing or reinterpreting reality and the clear testimony of that reality to the existence and character of the God of the Bible. All this is the result of an enmity against the Creator, and its consequences in real history are horrible! But no matter how horrible,! think it is important for those of us who are Christian to be able to look at various kinds of cultures and understand them Biblically. Do you understand better now what I'm trying to do?

Smith: I think so. But I certainly don't think it will begin to be an adequate approach. Your question is much too narrow, for one thing. Nothing really interests you except religion. and that from a very biased point of view! Even as a theological method your perspective denies the validity of most men's experience of the divine. How then can you hope to deal with sociological phenomena on their own terms?

Stabell: But Dr. Smith, do you deal with "sociological phenomena on their own terms" or in terms of their relevance for a particular culturally and historically conditioned sociological structure of consciousness? How is your framework not religious in a broad sense? You do, after all, offer answers to religious questions, even it the answers are almost entirely skeptical and agnostic. But that, too, is a commitment. And in order to do sociology you have also had to make positive commitments. You have had to assume a particular ontology and epistemology. You have had to assume that societies and cultures are in fact real things and that they are knowable in a significant sense. Not all sociologists, even, are willing to do that. That leaves them merely playing games, quite literally, with the data, but they have despaired of anything else! Then there are others that are convinced that Marxist economic determinism is the only way to understand the realities of social existence.

Smith: My response to these colleagues, as to you, is that they are not sufficiently aware of world history in a comparative perspective. Mv advice to you, if you really want to stay with sociology, is Simply that you do more history. Compare cultures, look closely at the details of the experiences of various peoples and how they express their existence. If you do that, with a real sociological interest, I think you will eventually have to see the narrowness of your point of view.

Stabell: In many ways I would very much like to do the kind of historical and sociological work you are suggesting, although I am convinced that, far from lessening my commitment to Scripture, such exposure to the facts can only confirm and deepen my appreciation for the ultimate truth of its interpretations. Even from my relative ignorance of any scope or breadth of history at this point I think I can see how Jesus Christ will be glorified, ultimately, in each and every fact.

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