Subscribe to Christianity Today
Christian Language and its Mutations: Essays in Sociological Understanding (Theology and Religion in Interdisciplinary Perspective Series)
232 pp., $49.95
Reflections on Sociology and Theology
Clarendon Press, 1997
272 pp., $245.00
By John G. Stackhouse, Jr.
David Martin: Sociologist as Servant of the Church
When I was a kid in northern Ontario, I put up posters of hockey players on my bedroom wall. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. But if I were to put up posters today (that is, if my wife would let me, and she would not), I would put up a poster of David Martin, the Wayne Gretzky of contemporary Christian sociology of religion.
The partnership of sociology and theology has long been associated with the liberal tradition in Christian thought. The giants in the previous century were Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, not known for their evangelical convictions. Then in mid-century, on this side of the Atlantic, the Niebuhr brothers deployed the most influential array of social analysis, theology, and ethics.
North American evangelicals have been wary of this combination of disciplines, as we have been wary of social science more generally. To be sure, we have made our own selective uses of pollsters such as George Barna, scholars such as Reginald Bibby and Robert Wuthnow, and popular theorists such as the gurus of the Church Growth Movement. Indeed, even the Willow Creek model relies on a sort of pop sociology: Find out why people don't go to church by surveying them, and then design a church in response. Still, the linkage of formal sociology and formal theology is worrisome. It smacks too much of founding Christian thought upon human perceptions and concerns, rather than upon divine revelation.
It isn't just evangelicals who worry thus. Barthians—since Barth himself—have cast asperions on this enterprise. And so-called Radical Orthodoxy has repudiated any fruitful linkage between sociology and theology—ever since John Milbank's pioneering Theology and Social Theory.1
This resistance has nonplussed David Martin, former Methodist preacher and later Anglican cleric, better known as professor emeritus of sociology at the London School of Economics: "By direct implication [of Milbank's sort of theorizing] the type of analysis I and others pursue … is illegitimate, ...