Sociology in Theology: Reflexivity and Belief. By Kieranc Flanagan


Pp. x, 189 , London , Palgrave Macmillan , 2007 , $85.00.

It's as well to say what this book is not. It's not a systematic enquiry into the sociology in theology. As has often been said, in every theology there's an implicit sociology (one thinks of de Lubac or Bonhoeffer), and in every sociology (especially those with origins in the Western intellectual tradition) there's a latent theology. But Flanagan doesn't map this in any systematic way; nor is he concerned with methodology, or the complexities of inter-disciplinary work. Anyway, those are dry old topics. Sociology in Theology is much more personal - the author's attempt to forge his own linkage of the two enterprises. That he comes at it (academically, not personally) almost entirely from the sociological side is obvious from the bibliography. I counted no more than about twenty explicitly theological works among the approximately 250 listed. This will strike the theologian as odd - but then Flanagan isn't really talking to today's theologians, most of whom he does not hold in particularly high regard.

The crucial point of contention is the epistemological status of sociology, and what is to be expected of it when a frankly theological worldview is espoused. In the opening chapter Flanagan issues his terms of debate. Sociology is critiqued for its inability to get beyond the recurring dilemmas of the social, while at the same time plundering religion, and Catholicism in particular, for images and resources to sociological advantage, all the while marginalizing religious belief and practice. Theology is similarly indicted, first for marginalizing and then distorting the productions of sociology as dealing with the merely empirical and failing to take due regard of its imaginative grasp of culture; but worse, because then theology – and magisterial teaching too – installs its own hopelessly naïve sociological readings (cf Gaudium et spes). The position Flanagan will defend is that: ‘It is on the ground of culture, and with an ear to it, that sociology picks up resonances that theologians high on the walls of the city of God do not’ (p. 31).

This work follows up his previous Seen and Unseen which explored visual and virtual culture in search of sociological grounding for theological sight. The endeavour now becomes more explicitly theological, but in a highly particular way, an ‘experiment’ even, an exercise in sociological reflexivity to go beyond the given – the seen – and penetrate the unseen by electing, as all seeing does, to gaze in a specific manner. What can the sociologist ‘see’ when matters of theological import are not arbitrarily removed from view under the prescript of methodological atheism, when in fact sociology becomes its own ‘community of imagination’? What capability does it acquire for recovering lost realities? Secularization, for instance, can now appear not as an historical advance, the inevitable consequence of rational empirical thought, but as a peculiarity of ‘blindsight’, seeing but being unable to ‘name’ in the social what it was possible in another culture both to see and to name. But then the question arises: is this not simply to transpose sociology into theology?

The case unfolds in chapters 2 and 3 not as a sequential argument but by allusion. Flanagan exploits a full range of cultural resources in a series of artfully constructed vignettes and reflections allied to personal reminiscence. He calls up significant places (Tintern Abbey, the Aran Islands, Unst), literary figures (Wordsworth, Synge, Friel) and artists (Turner, Velasquez, Caravaggio); and he brings forward in evidence the sociologists (Wright Mills, Simmel, Bourdieu and, especially, Goffman), not so much for their theories but as witnesses to the sociological art, their intellectual history and practice being what is of interest here. Theological (in)sight is sought in this close attention to culture. Reflexivity is the key, understood as imaginative, creative alertness to the hidden realities in the social, which when perceived call forth metanoia, a transformed way of seeing. The author claims Newman's authority for this exercise in (sociology become) ‘imaginative theology’ (p. 114). The tensions and antinomies of sight and blindness, of the sightedness of the blind and the blindness of those with sight, build and make for an intriguing and provocative and at times dazzling tale, even if its eccentricity might puzzle theologian and sociologist alike.

Chapter 4 turns to religion's own culture and the author's principal site for sociological inspection of theology, the ‘rituals of regard’ - liturgical practices, pilgrimages, the veneration of icons and relics, the reverence shown to sacred places and statues and paintings. These ritual objects and practices, or sacramentals, give expression to human agency in accessing the actual Sacraments of the Church and the mysterium fidei which they disclose. The emphasis here on Catholic culture in contrast to Protestantism is resonant of tensions within sociology itself, and how Weber and Simmel in their different ways put a Calvinist imprint on modernity.

How far, then, does Flanagan get with his enterprise? He clearly has a higher ambition for sociology than as the (new) handmaid of (a practical form of) theology. But it is the plight and tragedy of sociology itself that disturbs him most. The sociology of religion, unlike other sociological fields - political or economic – labours under the handicap of not being able to take its subject truly seriously. If it has to bracket religion's truth claims it renders itself silent not only about ultimate realities but also, in the end, about religion's actual sociological significance. Sociology is blinded - and not just theologically. The demise of the secularisation paradigm, which was its central plank, is more than a theoretical turn, and is in fact a devastating loss that has laid bare the discipline's limits. Flanagan knows this and wants to push to, and even beyond, the boundary with theology in a sophisticated deployment of the sociological arts –‘the social can be mobilized to give witness to what lies outside what it frames’ (p. 145). But is what results truly sociology in theology? It's certainly an imaginative, theologically infused sociology of religion, a daring articulation of the deep social reality of religion in the line of Simmel. But it is the author's contention that a reflexive sociology, working ‘as if’ the tones of religious faith sound true, is already transport into the theological realm. Strange, then, that he does not engage with the art of theology itself.

His attempts to do so (for example, discussing Nicholas of Cusa's category of posse and mystical experience in prayer, pp. 123–128) tend to peter out before the risk of ‘moving sociological concerns too far into the realms of mystical theology’; and he is forced to conclude more modestly with the need for ‘some form of regulation of the seen and unseen in forms of cultural expression’. But here is the sticking point. Theology's claim is to be a contributor on this matter, while for Flanagan it is sociology, staying close to the ground, which must arbitrate theology's cultural interventions. And yet, the deep theology of the Sacraments is needed to validate usages of sacramentals (to use the author's terms) rather than vice versa. Flanagan, nevertheless, is definite. He blows a raspberry at theological re-examination of doctrine for tampering with established cultural practice (pp. 35–37). The Sacrament of Penance ought never have been renamed Reconciliation; the attempt to make it easier of access by removing the austere language of ‘confession’ ushered in a steep drop in practice (in fact, this happened well before the name change). So too limbo; its abandonment (even though it was never a doctrine of the Church) would produce a drop in the number of infants brought for baptism. The dictum extra ecclesia nulla salus must be left untouched because to do so would be to devalue, in social capital terms, the currency of salvation.

These views may strike the reader as insignificant and oddly rigid. In fact, they distract from the more important issues of the study, but they do raise the question of theology's task. Flanagan is driven to be a kind of prophet in sociological clothing, a Jeremiah warning of dangers in the culture's unacknowledged blindness. But straining for new sight carries us across a frontier; theology is a new viewing point ‘high on the walls of the city of God’. It has its own role, limited yet creative, certainly more than repetition of established doctrine, although it has no pretension to bring forth anything radically new. Carefully executed, theology recovers that which has been received - the traditio– to restore and renew it in changing historical contexts. And then, not only is new sight achieved but new cultural landscapes come into view under the light of the gospel. Theology (or, more fundamentally, faith itself) engages with culture but also transforms it, and in the process new religious landmarks are constructed. The path is not without its pitfalls, as experience with new liturgical and catechetical ways has shown; but who, for example, would now wish to disavow today's enhanced place of the Scriptures in Catholic culture, even if it has disturbed an identity marker over against Protestantism? In any case, what defeats us is not any theological myopia but the strangeness of our religiously blind culture.

This adventurous enquiry shows the potential of a reflexive sociology for a deep engagement with theology. If in the process, however, sociology is opened up to a more than sociological perspective so that it ceases to be simply sociology, then the sociologist who harbours such ambitions has to rely on theology to structure the task. Theologians need a full appreciation of what sociology provides and sociologists a realistic understanding of how theology works.