Monday, August 20, 2007

Faith and Sociology

Last week I was honoured with an invitation to speak at the Johns Hopkins Graduate Christian Fellowship (it was very special for me to be invited back into the midst of JHU students, even if grad students are a slightly different breed from what I was as an undergrad there). Over the summer they have been doing a series on the intersection of faith and the various academic disciplines. As a sociologist of religion, this is something I have certainly thought about a lot, so it was great getting a chance to think through that in such a way that I could explain it to others. I was given 9 questions to address, and now I'm sharing my answers with you...

1. What is your academic discipline and sub-discipline? Sociology: specifically, of religion, focus on Middle Eastern community and religious identity

2. What are the related academic disciplines? This varies depending on the specific type of sociology; for me: Anthropology, Psychology, Policy Studies, Law, Theology.
I made a list of themes that sociology has most frequently addressed as a discipline, to give an idea of how everyday, wide-reaching, and controversial it is: gender, feminism, globalisation, modernisation, religion, social control, governance, social exclusion, mental health, education, urbanisation, geography, crime, social class, inequality, poverty, institutions, migration, race and ethnicity, aging, motherhood, other life transitions, policy and government, national identity, religious identity, ethnic identity, other types of identity, work and employment, and sexuality.

3. What tenets, theories and models of the subject matter enjoy widespread adoption by practitioners of this discipline? (oops - when I got to this question, I panicked! I couldn't think of anything - so am I a real sociologist? I went to university bookstore, found the intro to sociology textbooks, and re-read them.) I chose to focus on the themes that most affected my own research.
First, the "founding fathers" of sociology spent a disproportionate amount of time and energy analysing religion. Basically, I'd say that they were trying to answer the question, "Why would people be so stupid as to follow a religion?" Yes, that's how Sociology as an academic discipline got started.
The first big name that comes to mind is Karl Marx. One of sociology's finest, famous for saying religion is the opiate of the people. What he was actually arguing was that religion is a big and powerful institution which provides those in power with the means to control the rest of the population. (Think Catholic church before the Reformation, and you must admit he made a good point.)
The second big name is Emile Durkheim. He liked religion, but only because he saw it as an important part of society, what brings and keeps us together, provides "social cohesion." In fact, Durkheim, who spent much of his time studying what he hoped was the most "primitive" of religions, concluded that religion's role in providing social cohesion is so important that what people are worshiping is actually society, not God. He liked religion, but not because he was a believer!
Max Weber was also more sympathetic to religion because it could be a powerful force for change in society. The book he wrote that most influenced me was The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he explains how Christian Protestant beliefs, especially Calvinism, brought about the competitive spirit of capitalism. The doctrine that we can't earn God's favour is paired with the idea that we should work to please God for more intangible reasons, so we end up glorifying hard work, puritanism and competition. A stimulating argument, but still leaving little room for the idea that God actually does exist and care.
There are other widespread theories of sociology that were important to my research. Among these were theories of social control and stigma and deviance (the idea that society sets up sanctions against groups such as homosexuals, drug users, handicapped or religious converts); minority representation (giving the socially disadvantaged groups a voice, pointing out all the flaws in colonialism; this accusation also applies to anthropologists and missionaries); the structuralist debate (do we make society or does society make us?) resolved by symbolic interactionism (it's a bit of both).
Finally, Sociology is all about empiricism and deconstruction - breaking down a situation to find what's really at the core. And then explaining why what we've found still isn't really, really the core. Empiricism is all about needing to find something data-based and provable at that core - leaving little room for the supernatural. But now sociology is increasingly postmodern. A lot of Christians are scared of postmodernism, but the truth is that postmodern thinking has opened up the social sciences to acknowledging that there might be something supernatural out there, that we will never be able to explain everything fully, and that faith can be real.

4. What about the underlying tenets, models and theories of your discipline could find easy acceptance by those holding a distinctly Christian world view? My first reaction was nothing. But that's not really true. I think that one very important value held by both sociologists and Christians is that of community: community is seen as essential for developing identity and affiliations; relationships are foundational to a person's sense of being and essential to understanding a person.

5. What about the underlying tenets, models and theories of your discipline could find cautious or non-acceptance by those holding a distinctly Christian world view? (See number 3 - many of the same answers apply)
I highlight the following four theoretical perspectives: the assumption that religion plays primarily a social role (instead of an existential role); social control theories that criticise any institution, especially the "church"; relativisation of values and reality (the idea that one perspective is never really quite right and that reality is something that is more likely socially constructed than really true); and positivism, that idea that anything can be empirically proved and if it can't, it's obviously wrong (fortunately, this is not very popular in the more recent generation of sociologists).

6. What would a prophetic Christian voice want to say to uncritical practitioners of your discipline? The following are themes that I've developed in my own career as a Christian sociologist.
- It's very easy, and important, to question assumptions. In some ways, that's what Sociology is all about. But, I'd say to most sociologists I know, remember to be aware of your underlying assumptions. For example, in my research many participants told me of supernatural experiences, especially dreams and visions. I've been told that I can't take those accounts at face value; I need to find the sociological context in which they happened. I reply by saying that we also can't assume that those things did not happen! (For example, one woman I interviewed told me she had a dream of a person being healed; she'd never met or heard of the person, but a few days later she met him and learned of his healing. I was later told that she must have heard of him before and forgotten, because we can't assume that her dream was true. I replied that I would acknowledge that her dream may have been based in a past experience - if my counterpart would acknowledge that the dream also might have been supernatural!) It's easier to question other people's assumptions than our own, but to be true to our discipline and also true to seeking the truth, we need to do that.
- When we deconstruct situations in the world around us, we are left with nothing to stand on. If I explain how my faith is necessary for relationships, having influence in society, and for social cohesion, I may find myself rejecting that faith. It's hard to believe something that you have explained away. But if we do that, we're left with nothing. So we need faith. Many of my coworkers either are workaholics and never stop to live life (they can't live with themselves in their deconstructed worlds), or they spend way too much time as drunk as possible so they don't have to think about it. I'd suggest they try faith in something bigger than them that is so big they can't possibly try to explain it.

7. What insights into God's world are available from your discipline?
First, the second point in #6, is key to my understanding of God and his creation. By tearing down all my assumptions and picking apart society, I've been left with nothing but God, and the realisation that he really is incomprehensible and enormous and therefore worthy of my devotion. In some ways Sociology does for faith what fire does for a precious stone - it burns away the junk and leaves only the beautiful, valuable core.
Second, it turns a mirror on religion. When we realise that the institution of the church can be used for terrible things like subduing people, hopefully we will work harder to avoid that tendency. It definitely helps us understand how we, as Christians, are often misunderstood. It also can help us see how human nature gets in the way of what God is doing. My research has focused on discovering how religious converts interact with their families and culture, and how they form communities. My hope is that this understanding will help similar people to have an easier transition to life in their new faith than their predecessors have had.

8. On a related note, what heed should Christians take to the scholarly results/progress/perspectives of your discipline? Because sociologists spend a lot of energy, time, money and effort researching things that are of interest to Christians and to churches, I'd say don't invent the wheel. If you want to know about racial issues in your church's neighbourhood, chances are that a sociologist has already been studying them and can provide some good insights. If you are interested in cultural misunderstandings for explaining the message of Christ, or the concerns of manual laborers who go to your church, or anything in between, sociological research can be a very useful ministry tool. It's just a question of looking it up.

9. How can a Christian sociologist glorify God? This question was the most personal for me, because I felt like it was asking me how I, as a Christian sociologist, seek to glorify God in my discipline. So here are the things I try to do:
- Remain true to the essence of my faith. Willingly question those things that aren't essential to Christianity, but hold on even tighter to my relationship with Jesus and the implications that has.
- Avoid general academic pitfalls - like living to publish and have a name that is respected. My situation is a bit different in that I don't expect to stay in academic sociology long-term, but I have definitely struggled with the question of presenting and publishing for the sake of my reputation and not because my research was of benefit to those hearing or reading what I'd say.
- Learn to build up, not tear down with criticism. Sociologists are social critics, and when we do that all day in our work, it's hard not to keep doing it all the time. I'm definitely still working on this one, but trying to only criticise in constructive ways and focus on encouraging. Analyse but not if it's only to offend someone else.
- "Advocacy Research" - use my research to actually help people. I can't let that get in the way of the integrity of my research (a researcher can't say, "I'm out to prove that ___"; s/he has to say, "I'm out to find out if ____", or "I want to answer this question: ___?"), but the findings can still be used to help people, not just fill libraries. That's what I really want to do.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Book Review: Safely Home

Safely Home is the story of two men who were best friends and roommates during their years of undergraduate and graduate school at Harvard. Twenty years later, one man is a very successful businessman who has rejected everything else in his life (marriage, family, religion) in his pursuit of the successful image. The other man returned to his native China with high prospects for a career as a history professor in a university there, but twenty years later he has given up his dreams for a career in his pursuit of Christ, Christianity, and loyalty to his family.

The story takes place at a point when the first man (Ben) is heading up his business's China partnerships and is therefore commissioned by his company's president to spend six weeks living in a Chinese home getting to know Chinese culture from the inside. So he calls up his old roommate (Quan) and invites himself to spend six weeks in Quan's home. Ben arrives expecting to find a successful professor and is shocked by Quan's simple life. Quan expects to receive a Christian family man and is disappointed by the fact that Ben's marriage has failed and that he has rejected religion.

Throughout the book, Quan is presented as clearly the one with the answers and Ben as the one who has lost his way. Whenever Quan questions Ben's values, he receives a stubborn and embittered response. Whenever Ben questions Quan's choices, he is told that earthly values pale in the face of heavenly reward.

One of the purposes of this book was to present to the West a portrait of the suffering of Chinese Christian churches, especially the housechurch movement. Quan is a member and leader of this movement, and we learn he's been imprisoned several times, had his house raided repeatedly, lost his career dreams, etc. We meet Quan at a raid on his housechurch, and find out that Quan asks himself every morning when he wakes up, "Is this the day I die?" Ben the businessman is at first incredulous, and later convicted, when he learns of this suffering (he had been told by business-minded Chinese that persecution of Christians had ended and that China's human rights record was improving). The Chinese government went to great pains to expose him to the good, and his entire outlook is changed when he sees the bad.

As I read the description of the persecution of Chinese Christians, I felt the account was exaggerated. I have heard horrible tales of torture and death and mistreatment of Christians in China, but hadn't understood it to be as commonplace as presented in the book. The book gave the impression that all Christians in China suffer mercilessly at the hands of the government. My understanding is that there are too many Christians in China for the government to abuse them all, if in fact that is what the government wants. (Not to mention, that if a prominent American businessman were visiting, they'd probably tone down the abuse until he was gone!)

I know very little about China, but in other parts of the world where I know a bit about the persecuted church, I've learned it's mostly visible leaders and very outspoken believers who bear the brunt of government oppression. So my first reaction to the book was that it is a bit sensationalist, exaggerating real problems a bit out of proportion - fiction can make a great argument but can also subtly exaggerate things (I had a similar feeling of "wow... huh?" as I did when reading the Davinci Code.)

But as I neared the end of the book, I decided it was talking about something a bit different than that. It was talking about the contrast between this life and that life. The author seemed to be making the situation of the Chinese church look particularly horrific not because he wanted to raise awareness and garner human rights activism; instead he seemed to be arguing that all the poverty and physical abuse in the world is meaningless in eternal perspective.

So toward the end of the book, businessman Ben, newly sympathised to the plight of the Chinese church, starts madly advocating and using his networks to try to help relieve human suffering. Meanwhile Christian leader Quan keeps telling him that God is using these circumstances, God's perspective isn't man's and God is allowing all of this to happen, so maybe Ben should pray more and advocate less.

At one point they agree that both are right to some extent. And so here is my takeaway question:

The Bible is clear that God dwells in eternity and his timing and vision are miles above our own. I love the verse where God points out, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

But God also talks a lot of weeping when he sees injustice and suffering on the earth. And he tells us, his people, to feed the poor and to speak up for the destitute and to help others as if we were helping God himself.

So should I, or, say, a Christian who is suffering imprisonment and torture, or unemployment, or scorn from family... Should we do as Quan did and say, let's not worry, let's just pray and seek to do the best we can in the present situation? or to what extent should we seek to change the world around us?

There's a story Jesus told about a wealthy man who went on a long trip and left his possessions divided up in the hands of his employees. They apparently had no idea when he was coming back, what he expected out of the money, or even if he would deal with them honestly upon his return. The ones who invested well what they were given were honoured, and the boss said, "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!" In the same way, I firmly believe that we need to do invest in the world where we live, to make it look the most like Jesus's vision of perfection: joy, justice and mercy abounding. But at the same time, the story really is about what happens next, isn't it?