Still tilting at orthodoxies

Forbidden Revolutions - Reflections on Sociology and Theology
November 14, 1997

In Britain at least, a cloud seems to have descended upon the sociology of religion. Immensely fashionable a few decades ago, a reaction has now set in. Even patristics seems trendier to the current generation of theology students than the sociology of religion. Some of the blame lies with the discipline's own disciples, for sociology lent itself rather easily to the purposes of cultured despisers of religion, both within and without the churches. Those who wished to explain - and explain away - religion from a vantage-point loftier than that of the benighted believer found that sociology offered a suitable platform. Now that platform has been undermined by the exposure of the ideological biases of the social sciences, an exposure given a dramatic and influential rendering within the theological world by John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory. Yet sociologists continue to study religion, and continue to produce illuminating work. One of the most notable is David Martin, whose recent book on Latin American Pentecostalism (Tongues of Fire) has already become something of a classic. No one is better equipped than Martin to defend the sociology of religion, and no two books could offer a more striking demonstration of how the discipline can and should continue to flourish than those reviewed here.

It would be hard to accuse Martin of being voguish. In the 1960s he attacked student revolution and counter-culturalism in the name of discipline, order and self-control. His most famous book, A General Theory of Secularisation, problematised the secularisation thesis at a time when it had assumed the status of dogma in some quarters. He fought for the Prayer Book at a time when liturgical reform was all the rage. And now he can be found defending the sociology of religion in the late 1990s. The essays grouped in the first half of Reflections on Sociology and Theology are all, in one way or another, given over to this defensive task. Yet Martin never sounds defensive. Always out of sympathy with those who made grand claims for sociology and believed that it could offer universal laws to explain and predict religious phenomena, Martin has no difficulty in accepting the criticisms of writers like Milbank. Martin's claims for the sociology of religion are much more modest than those of the sociologists Milbank attacks.

Sociology, in Martin's view, is a useful and complementary companion to theology. Like the theologian, the sociologist must be intimately acquainted with the grammar of belief of the religion he or she writes about, for the sociologist has no meta-language or grand explanatory conceptuality with which to stand aloof. But the sociologist differs from the theologian in being more concerned with relating religious beliefs and practices to their wider social, political and economic contexts. Sometimes the sociologist may be able to spot regularities in the relations between religion and these contexts, and these regularities may give sociology some predictive power, enabling it at least to guess that when such and such social and political circumstances occur, such and such options are opened to religion. This is as much as Martin wishes to claim for his discipline, and in Reflections he demonstrates its validity in relation to a host of examples. Unlike Milbank then, Martin refuses to view sociology and theology as locked into an essentially antagonistic relationship. On Martin's account, theology and sociology can and should exist in constructive dialectical relationship. This is not just a nice idea, it is the fundamental conviction which guides all Martin's work, and of which that work serves as the most powerful demonstration.

The essays which make up the second half of Reflections on Sociology and Theology are a case in point. Martin discusses topics as various as modern ecclesiology, the ecumenical movement, religion and politics, and modern pacifism. Unlike so many sociologists and social theorists, Martin is supremely well informed both theologically and historically, and he rarely if ever caricatures his subject. Martin moves beyond straightforward theological exposition, however, by setting the topics he discusses in wider, sociological, perspective. To take just one example, Martin's essay on ecclesiology (written in 1985), offers a perceptive delineation of an 'ideal type' of contemporary ecclesiology which is constructed around an organicist social terminology in which words such as family, people, participation, sharing, communicating, facilitating, and growing gain privileged status. Martin reveals how the sociological conditions of late modern Europe 'activate' this particular ecclesiology, and shows how it relates both to social differentiation and the diminution in the role of the priest, and to an extension of bureaucratic power within the church - an extension which is effectively masked by the organicist terminology.

Even though Martin is not writing theology, this analysis carries important theological implications - implications which, in this particular case, have a sharply critical edge. By pointing out how particular theological positions are activated by particular social formations, Martin's analyses often have the effect of pricking the self-righteousness of those who believe that their theological stance is undergirded by nothing other than high-mindedness. Yet this same attentiveness to constraining factors also imbues Martin's work with a deep compassion. In Niebuhrian style, his essays combine a sense of how far short individual Christians and churches fall from the impossible ideals towards which they strive with a sociological account of why they can often do no other.

Where Reflections on Sociology and Theology reproduces 14 separate essays and addresses written between 1979 and 1995, Forbidden Revolutions reproduces a set of just three lectures delivered and revised between 1991 and 1995. Forbidden Revolutions brings into relation two of the most dramatic developments in recent Christianity: the Pentecostal upsurge in Latin America, and the political impact of Catholicism in Eastern Europe during and after the fall of the communist regimes in 1989-90. Unusually for a sociologist, Martin writes in a limpid prose which is a joy to read. He does not wholly abandon the specialised terminology of his discipline, but he uses it in a way which draws readers in rather than shutting them out. Martin employs sociological theory in a way which integrates it seamlessly with insightful description. The result is a book which can be read with equal profit by the interested lay person and the professional social scientist.

The strength of Martin's deeply theological approach to sociology is evident on every page of Forbidden Revolutions. His immersion in the language and conceptuality of the religions he studies prevents him from patronising his subjects by transcribing their world into some 'higher' vocabulary. And his sharp awareness of the particular sociological constellations which allow the spirit to break forth (in the Latin American case) or the church to act as carrier of a people's political and moral hopes (in the East European case) never tempts him to reduce spirit and church to mere epiphenomena, or to reduce religion to the veiled encodings of material desires, strategies and compensations. So Martin can describe Pentecostalism in terms like these: "Lives come to be valued through the experience of being personally delivered in the core of your being, which is what is meant by the familiar phrase about responding to a 'personal Saviour'I Evangelical religion provides empowerment through its offering of healing, its demand for responsibility, and its invitation openly to affirm and expressI To those who have never heard their name spoken before, it is like the first touch wakening them from centuries-long sleep."

The theories so unobtrusively developed in Forbidden Revolutions are as powerful as the descriptions. In particular, Martin is concerned to refute the commonly held belief that the stripping of wider social and political functions from religion leads to religious privatisation and marginalisation. Martin demonstrates the contrary - that religion can come from the margins to exercise a most profound influence on the centre and that, even in its most apolitical forms, religion can have the most far-reaching public consequences. It is cheering to see that Martin has not abandoned his habit of tilting at orthodoxies. On the contrary, he is as busy as ever challenging the complacencies of Western European cultural consensus - with his unusual mix of scholarship, urbanity, critical insight, and Christian charity.

Linda Woodhead is lecturer in Christian studies, University of Lancaster.

Forbidden Revolutions: Pentecostalism in Latin America, Catholicism in Eastern Europe

Author - David Martin
ISBN - 0 281 04999 8
Publisher - SPCK
Price - £7.99
Pages - 96

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