Friday, September 14, 2007

Sociologist of the Week...

The sociologist for this week is Max Weber. While Durkheim looked at a particular expression of religion in Australia, Weber tried to take in the entire scope of religious history and through his observations draw out themes. His main concern was to study how religion was a force for change in history. Somewhat more encouraging than Durkheim’s more static view of the world.

The more negative aspect of Weber’s work is his assumption that religion essentially developed out of magic. He believed that magicians essentially worked individually and they were at great risk of losing their clientele if they were not able to continue performing magical feats (magical in the sense of providing food or healing a sick child… not escaping from a block of ice hanging over Times Square or making the Statue of Liberty disappear). In order to protect their “interests” (key Weberian term), they had to come up with some other possible reasons why their magic might not work. One solution… create a god that had to be pleased for magic to work. If the magic didn’t work, perhaps the client had displeased the god. This creation of god (an abstraction) eventually developed into a whole system of beliefs. The magicians became priests of this new religion and dogma and beliefs were part of their way to stay in power.

So, I’ve significantly oversimplified Weber’s thesis… but he does highlight something very important to consider. How our own interests shape what we believe and how we act. Maybe more accurately, how our interpretations of the truth can be influenced by our own interests. Some might argue that white evangelicals, while very sincere in their beliefs, are blind to racism because it serves their best interests. This is not necessarily a conscious decision or an individual one. If it is in the best interest of those in power in a community to preserve certain beliefs, they have a way of influencing interpretations and translations. This is not necessarily always the case, but it is worth considering. What interests are served by a particular interpretation of scripture? How have your ethics or the way you live out your faith been affected by your interests? I know that I have made myself fairly comfortable in a middle class lifestyle in the United States. I don’t have a very radical ethic regarding wealth or poverty. Do these things not concern God? Is it possible that my own interests… and that of our capitalist economy… have had some impact on how I live out my faith in these areas?

Weber also felt that there were moments in life where revolution was possible. In those moments, he saw key ideas form in a society, key leaders arise and key events take place that somehow just fit together. He called it elective affinity. When these things came together, the sum was greater than any one of the parts and the world shifted a little on its axis. Weber’s key example was the Protestant Work Ethic and capitalism. Religion often played a key role in these momentous movements as did something Weber termed “charisma” or “the prophetic.” Interestingly, Weber is using these terms sociologically. Rather than linking them to faith, he links them to how they function in society.

I suppose I choose to believe something different. I believe that these moments when everything comes together are more than just matters of human interest or historical accidents. I think they are moments when God is at work in this world. Having said that, I need to consider if at times they are also caused when some other force was at work for not all these momentous changes have been for the good of humanity or this earth. Weber asked about the role of religion in these great movements of history. I would ask the same question, but from a slightly different perspective. Not simply how did they happen, but why did they take the direction they did? Why do some things that start out so beautiful turn out so destructive? Why do some small movements become great works of good in our world? Does our faith, individually and corporately, shape the world for good or evil? We all want to say for the good, but can we prove that? Would a sociologist observing us agree?

Monday, September 10, 2007

World Relief in Peru....

Just a quick note... I'll be heading to Peru in a few weeks with friends. No, it isn't disaster relief following the earthquakes. We are just going as tourists. But we do want to support the relief efforts in Peru. So here is a link to one organization that is trying to help:

For those interested in a bit more information about the earthquake in Peru, here is a news story with most of the information.

If the link doesn't work, you can also go to the Covenant World Relief website by clicking to the link to the right.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Does Society Equal Religion?

This past week classes started up again. This year I am a student rather than an administrator! I thought I would miss my work, but I have been too busy to really dwell on it. Plus, I am really interested in what I am taking.

This past week I have been reading Emile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. It is a seminal and controversial work in the field of sociology of religion. In a nutshell, Durkheim was searching for the basic fundamental building blocks of religion. To do so, he read the notes of anthropologists and sociologists who had studied what he felt to be one of the most basic and simple forms of religion in the world at the time, the Totemic religions of the tribal groups in Australia. His conclusion, very simplified, was that human beings are fundamentally social people. As they gathered together into social groups, they experienced the force of the collective. You might say they felt “peer pressure.” They had no way to articulate what they were feeling, this pressure that seemed to come out of no where, and so they created symbols to represent what they were feeling. These symbols became attached to certain elements in the world, totems. Over time, these totems that symbolized the force of social pressure were thought to embody that force and became objects of worship. Those objects of worship eventually became gods. Those gods represented, or were equal to, society or the people themselves.

There is one clear issue with this theory. It presumes that there is no God. There is no outside force that acts upon humanity or this world. God is just a manifestation of ourselves collectively, of society. So, I fundamentally disagree with that. But his theories are helpful. While I disagree with his conclusions, Durkheim highlights the nature of social forces in this world. As one who is concerned about issues of racism and sexism in our society, this is a helpful step. Racism and sexism, while embodied in individuals, also has a collective social component. It becomes embodied in our rituals, our structures, our organizations. There is “peer pressure” that seems to perpetuate these sins in society even when we are trying to fight against them. I am not trying to deny individual agency in these particular sins. We still have free will and the ability to make choices. But individual changes are not sufficient.

In thinking of religion as a social force, I was drawn to two parallel theological concepts: the trinity and the body of Christ. Regardless of Durkheim’s presuppositions, he was right. Religion is social. Religion is not social because it is a manifestation of society. Religion is social because God is fundamentally social. Some theologians point us to the relational nature of the trinity. God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is always in relationship with God’s self. God is three in one because God is inherently social. The social aspect of God is manifested in the world in the Church. We are individual created in the image of Christ, but even more fundamentally, together, as believers, we are the body of Christ. God is manifest on earth in society, in the gathering together of believers. Part of Christianity, then, is to preserve this unity of the body of Christ. For Durkheim, ritual was central to this process. As a tribe gathered together for worship, they reestablished connection with one another. In the act of coming together, the power of the society was palpable. The people left feeling stronger, safer, empowered for their life.

The body of Christ needs ritual to exist. Not individual ritual, but collective ritual, the coming together for worship. It is the act of gathering that unites us. And when that gathering is focused in worship, we gather strength as the body of Christ.

I haven’t done justice to Durkheim… or to Christianity for that matter. But perhaps this will stir something for a few of you. For me, it has helped me to understand why I continue to gather in worship each Sunday. Honestly, I feel very little in church these days. I miss the emotional highs of my youth group days or the contemporary worship that has been a part of my past. While emotion serves to form community, it is not central. The very act of gathering is efficacious. While I might not always feel it in my heart, knowing it in my head helps. Sometimes we have to act ourselves into belief.