Every church is a sociological reality. As such it is subject to the laws which determine the life of social groups with all their ambiguities.

Paul Tillich [1]

As far back as I can remember, I’ve had “sociological imagination.”

One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting in our backyard thinking about my cousins, who lived in a different part of California. It’s one of those warm, dry Southern California days, and I’m sitting in the shade, in my bare feet, as usual. I’m thinking how strange it must be to grow up without books in every room. Then I realize that my cousins probably think OUR life is the strange one, growing up without orchards and cane breaks to play in.

I was so astounded by my personal discovery of social conditioning that I remembered to tell my mom about it.

Later, I learned that Aristotle had already been there a couple of millennia before me.

Oh, well. It’s still totally fascinating. Society is everywhere, the basic infrastructure of human life.

So naturally, it’s in churches.

It’s carried, if “carried” is the right word, by all the assumptions we make about “how the world works.” Assumptions like what’s normal, what’s not quite right, and what’s downright messed up. Like what “the rules” are, especially the ones no one talks about but everyone “just knows.” Like what “must be” going through people’s minds, and what to expect from them, and how it makes sense to react when they surprise us, in good ways or bad.

But, like all “causality,” social causes are invisible. The basic premise of sociology – that similar people do similar things in similar ways at similar times for similar reasons – is one of those things people like David Hume would say we believe without ever actually seeing.

Although, as with many invisible and powerful forces, not everyone does believe it.

Like a billiard ball, maybe, I’ve been spun off on this line of thought after reading what struck me as an interesting, and slightly funny, article by Kevin DeYoung about the churches and church people he knows. He has noticed that those people are having trouble agreeing about things like race and gender and politics these days. When they used to agree on everything, or so it seemed.

What struck me as most interesting is that the article is descriptive without being analytical or explanatory. It’s as if DeYoung has cataloged and categorized a bunch of raw data, the kind that could give rise to sociological reflection, if a person thought that way about things. And then has stopped short of actually thinking about it that way.

He’s made tables. The tables suggest that there are different kinds of people, even in a group that once seemed homogeneous. Different kinds of people seem to share something important with one another, and don’t share it with everyone else.

But he doesn’t suggest that whatever is going on here might possibly be systematic or predictable. He doesn’t come out and use words like “social structure” or “social conditioning.” He does make a vague gesture in that direction, starting off social and trailing off into inexplicable individual random variation, noting that “[b]y virtue of our upbringing, our experiences, our hurts, our personalities, our gifts, and our fears, we gravitate toward certain explanations and often think in familiar patterns.”

Someone with sociological imagination would be asking “OK, so, what basic assumptions about how the world works lie behind these “familiar patterns”? And what lies behind those? Are they predictably associated with, for instance, certain demographic categories, because those demographic categories are also associated with consequential social structural realities? Associated how? What explains these observations?” Because they look suspiciously like patterns of similarity and difference that point to basic assumptions that run deeper than DeYoung’s collection of surface symptoms.

Assumptions like that “experts are usually right and have good ideas” vs. “experts often get things wrong and lack basic common sense.” Like that “social forces are always at work, and affect how people think and act even when people aren’t ‘aware’ of them” vs. “so-called ‘social forces’ are never what finally determines people’s choices, but they’re often invoked to excuse those choices when they turn out badly.” Like that “most of the problems that face us are complex and require equally complex solutions” vs. “most of the problems that face us are simple and could be solved already if people wouldn’t make things more complicated than they need to be.” Like who “we” are.

Like “that’s obvious” vs. “that’s not obvious at all.”

Just like society.

Or any other invisible, powerful, causal force.

red line embellished

[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume III, University of Chicago Press, 1963, 165.

red line embellished

red line embellished

Image: “Gesellschaft vor Kappelle,” Marie Sandholt, 1922, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons