Some Social Theory for your Theo-thoughts

Taking a subject matter as dense as theology and combining it with a section of society so complex as political theory is going to uncover the need discourse about many other subject matters pertaining to the human condition. It is my intention to try and form a basis for these discussions by presenting different stakeholders in political theology and flushing them out in basic terms so they can be reincorporated into later discussions.

So today I want to talk about social theory. One of the things I deeply respect about the social sciences is that there is a basic understanding throughout the fields that nothing is beyond discussion. Its a discipline based on discussion. All theories are constantly being updated and modified as more and more research is conducted, there are very few disciplines that have such openness to differing opinions let alone the expectation that there will be differences. In the beginning of the tradition, Christian theologians were all about social integration, so why, as I mentioned in my last post, have Christians stepped away from social and political involvement and theory?

In his 2007 article titled Theology and Social Theory Kwok Pui-Lan uses the emergence of Liberation Theology from South America to discuss postcolonial critique and how it allows theologians to overlook “…how Christianity has colluded with colonial interests and camouflages contradictions in the postmodern world.”  The thing about Christian Theology that we often forget is that it is historical and subject to same pitfalls of other historical texts. Namely, Christian theology has been written by, for, and interpreted by white, heterosexual, and wealthy male citizens for most of it’s existence. So when Catholic priests in Latin America were living in poverty, they began to realize that poor read the Bible differently than the rich do. And then we discover that women read the Bible differently, as does every other people group and culture that the biblical texts are translated into. So what does that mean for theology?

It means theology needs social theory. For centuries the Bible has been interpreted by one sect of humanity on behalf of all of it! Not only has this limited our interpretation of the text, but its excluding entire races of people from fully engaging with God’s special revelation to humanity. The mystic worldview of middle eastern cultures could contribute so much more to Christianity as could black spirituals, the experiences and history of Latin America and so many others. Not that there are not hard truths to be found in Christian teachings, the core beliefs are very simple and everything else is, I believe, up for discussion. And with so many translations, historical contexts, the Old Testament in light of the New, there is so much to discuss! If only Christians were as willing as sociologists to discuss their differences.

There is one little catch Pui-Lan employs in this essay as a safeguard and minor complication to re-thinking theology. This is a sentiment shared by many liberation theologists, that no one can presume to speak on behalf of those whose lives we have not experienced and consequently cannot know. The wealthy cannot speak on behalf of the poor for the wealthy don’t know what it is to be poor. While I agree with this sentiment, I also believe that we must speak on behalf of those who cannot. The marginalized do not yet have a voice, they require those that do to speak on their behalf and then hand over the microphone. If the privileged do not give the subaltern a way to speak, how will they be heard? This has been the strategy behind Emma Watson’s HeforShe campaign, and now needs to be employed by activists bringing attention to the plight of and racism against Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.

The analogy of churches being “spoon-fed” by there pastors is a cliche that is tragically true. In my experience, the average Christian is pretty sure what they believe but would be hard pressed to formulate a rationale behind most faith statements. We rely on the “learned” leaders to tell us how to interpret the Bible and live our lives. In light of this discussion, what is just one problem with this way of “practicing” faith? That would be that until very recently, only straight white men have been allowed to be church leaders. Christians, stop excusing yourselves from conversations because you’re not a theologian. Read, discover, discuss. The answers are there for you to discover for yourself.

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One thought on “Some Social Theory for your Theo-thoughts

  1. Good stuff, though I would be careful to say that most Christians are not engaging in this stuff – they’re just doing it in ways that differ from ours, and often lack critical thought. Fundamentalist Christians, for example, are often deeply steeped in the Scriptures, even though they do not engage with theologians or critically examine the text. And they are also often very socially active, and believe themselves to be living out their faith, in the so-called “culture wars”. As such, we should be very cautious to suggest that people simply aren’t doing these things.

    I totally get it though. Coming from a conservative church background, even going to a conservative Bible college I felt as though most Christians I knew weren’t engaging with these things at a level they ought to be. As I learned more about how to engage with the Bible and theology in a careful, critical, and thoughtful way, it was even easier to write off the social and biblical engagement of my fundamentalist roots. I must always remind myself that I don’t care more than others, or engage more than others, I just do it differently (and hopefully, more thoroughly).

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