Vern Sheridan Poythress | Interview by: John Starke
When I think of sociology, I think of studies, statistics, and trajectories. But you base your project on "relationships". Can you give us a good definition of sociology and how it concerns "relationships"?
What is sociology? John Macionis's introductory textbook, with the title Sociology, defines sociology as "the systematic study of human society." The textbook goes on to claim that there is a distinctive "sociological perspective" (p. 2). But there are difficulties concerning this definition. For one thing, as Macionis himself acknowledges, in the mainstream there are at least three major approaches to doing sociology ("scientific sociology," "interpretive sociology," and "critical sociology"). "Scientific sociology" is the kind of sociology that concentrates on statistics. But there are two other kinds. Sociologists themselves have not reached agreement as to which is right or whether they can be harmonized into a larger whole.
"Society" involves multiple human beings, and so encompasses relationships among persons. But as a Christian I believe that human beings and their relationships and the larger social groupings and institutions that we observe cannot be understood apart from God's control, his meanings, his purposes, his presence, and the ways in which human beings as persons reflect on a finite plane the infinite personhood of God. Mainstream modern sociological analysis, by contrast, attempts to leave God out. Human society is then considered as merely human, and personal relationships can only be purely human relationships, excluding our relationship with (or rebellion against) God. I start with personal relationships, rather than with abstract institutions like "the military" or "a business" or "the economy," because I can then make clearer the tie between our relationships with fellow humans, our relationship with God, and the personal relationships among the persons of the Trinity. Relationships are vital to all of us, not merely to professional sociologists. Social institutions then can find their place, as products of God's universal control, which includes control over all societies of the world.
What's wrong with our current understanding of sociology that it needs redeeming?
I already mentioned the issue of leaving God out. The suppression of God's presence is the most basic difficulty in most mainstream sociology. Sociology tends to think that it can dispense with God. Some sociologists may doubt whether God exists. Even if he does exist, they think that God is silent and inactive and irrelevant. So human relationships and human social structures are considered autonomous, virtually independent of God. And that leaves human beings free to proceed to seeing meanings and evaluations of humanity in which man takes the place of God. According to this view, for practical purposes we are virtually on our own. Sociology of religion is really no different, because religion is viewed as merely a human institution, not a response to God that God either approves or condemns.
In the definition of sociology, the phrase "human society" may look unproblematic. But when we ask fundamental questions, the difficulties multiply. What is "human"? The three sociologies differ on what they think is most fundamental. And what is "society"? Is it a stable structure or a scene of conflicts or a human "construction" of meaning? Different sociological theories have advocated each of these answers. Modern sociology, it turns out, needs critical inspection of its foundational assumptions about the very nature of "society." The foundational assumptions make a difference not only in the questions that are asked, but in the kind of answers that are offered. Because of the assumption that God is absent and irrelevant, the questions leave God out. And so the answers will also leave him out. The irrelevance of God that has been presupposed at the foundation will be reflected in the implied irrelevance of God in the conclusions. By thinking through some of the ways in which God shows his presence, I hope to offer a positive alternative.
The issues surface with painful intensity when we contemplate human suffering and dysfunctional relationships. Human suffering in its global scope is enormous. It cries out for a remedy. And so people ask what can be done by way of relief or remedy. If God is left out, then sin also is left out, because sin means rebellion against God and violation of his commandments. So, instead of talking about sin, sociological analysis will find other labels. The remedy that will be proposed on the basis of such analysis cannot be divine redemption through Christ. It must be something else. That something else will inevitably take the form of an alternate means of redemption. Such an alternate "redemption" is at its root a form of false religion, anti-God religion, though it conceals its character by not being labeled "religion." It is secular redemption, redemption by man, not by God, that will be urged upon us.
When David Wells started writing books reflecting on the affect post-modernism has had on the church, many theologians accused him of just doing sociology. I can imagine many sociologists reading your book and accusing you of just doing theology. How would you respond to that?
I think your question is a good one, because most modern sociologists approach their field with a very different mindset than what I have. It is precisely for this reason that I have written my book. I want to shake up the foundations of the whole field. In addition, I want ordinary Christians to resist the secularizing, God-ignoring mindset of modern culture in their own thinking. All of us, not merely professional sociologists, have to interact with other people in our relationships and with social institutions. How do we go about it? As consistent Christians, or as if God were irrelevant?
My book does address questions that sociologists may have, beginning with a brief discussion of the origin of sociology with Auguste Comte. Comte invented the term "sociology." He self-consciously rejected a theological approach to human living in favor of an alleged "scientific" approach. And such thinking about sociology has been with us ever since. But this kind of thinking does not provide a foundation for justifying one kind of sociology over against another, nor does it provide any foundation for why theology is being rejected, other than the alleged (and ungrounded) assumption that "modernity" means "progress": the new is allegedly necessarily "better." Unexamined assumptions at the foundation of sociology undermine claims to be either "scientific" or "critical" or "authoritative." When we start asking foundational questions about assumptions, sociology loses critical justification for itself.
In fact theology, rightly understood rather than caricatured, is not inimical to examining secondary causes. It provides the foundation that modern sociology lacks. The Book of Proverbs includes remarks both about the Lord's sovereignty over human relationships and the secondary causes that link human relationships. The Book of Proverbs is inspired by God, while our own modern analyses are not. But Proverbs still provides us with an example of richness, because it acknowledges both the sovereignty of God and the realities of human action. Within this picture we can incorporate statistical analyses, human surveys, sociological questionnaires, case studies, critical analysis of human oppression, and, in fact, all the concerns that are typical of sociological analysis in any of its modern forms. The difference with a God-centered approach is a difference in framework. Any social analysis should include God and sin rather than distorting the nature of humanity by reducing the analysis to one dimension.
For those of us who have read a number of your books, we often see the three aspects of God's lordship (authority, control, presence) show up in your work. Can you explain this concept and how you relate it sociology?
God's character is fundamental to understanding humanity, because we are under God's control and authority, we live in his presence, and we are made in his image. The three aspects that you mention derive from John Frame's discussion of God's Lordship in his books. I have freely appropriated ideas like these from Frame, because Frame in turn has appropriated them from the Bible. The Bible does teach about God's authority, control, and presence. Its teaching should be our most basic source of orientation when we consider our own lives and our interaction with other persons. I use other aspects of biblical teaching as well. All of the Bible is relevant, once we understand how the Bible, as special revelation, is designed by God not only to give fundamental saving knowledge of God through Christ, but to transform our thinking as we submit to Christ's Lordship over every area of life. I need hardly say that one such area is the area of personal relationships.
When we consider our relationship with God, what insightful questions might get asked that secular sociologists might not consider?
What is our responsibility to God? How may we receive forgiveness for our sin and rebellion? What does it mean to believe in Christ and trust in him and him alone for salvation? How may we follow Christ our Redeemer through the power of the Holy Spirit? These are vital questions for human living.
But then beyond the most basic questions, we may consider how the relationships among the persons of the Trinity offer an ultimate original, an archetype, that in their mystery and infinity provide a foundation for the significance of human relationships. We may consider the multitude of ways in which sin has penetrated and corrupted human relationships, and how Christ's redemption touches on the multitude of aspects of these corruptions and brings a comprehensive remedy. The book attempts to take beginning steps in considering these questions. We may consider the diversity of societies, the diversity of human beings, the nature of authorities, the nature of social institutions, the nature of political power, and the divine power and presence in simple human transactions like buying apples at a grocery store or giving a birthday gift. There is much food for thought and prayer.
How are you hoping readers will use your book?
I hope that Christians will be able to profit from reconsidering the nature of their personhood and their personal relationships. The book should encourage them to grow in ability to give glory to God, who is the source of relationships. Though the book is written mostly with Christians in mind, I hope that non-Christians who read will be challenged by the fact that Christian life is a whole way of life, and includes distinctive thinking about all of modern life. We do not accept the typical assumptions of modern secularism. In his providence may the Lord use what I say not only to challenge non-Christians, but to turn them to acknowledge their suppression of the truth and to come God through Christ for redemption. I hope also that any readers who are professional sociologists will be challenged to reconsider the foundations of their discipline. And for those sociologists who are Christians, I hope they will be encouraged to be Christian in their discipline, and not merely in the rest of their lives.