Theology & Society: How Theology Matters (Pt. 2 of 2)
October 13, 2014 richardstevenpark

Theology & Society: How Theology Matters (Pt. 2 of 2)

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In the previous post, I argued that theology is inherently society-making, i.e., theology is not only relevant but transformative. I also suggested that, if this is true, then it would behoove us as Christians to think sociologically about where we are in our historical moment, and that there may be some who could help us in this regard.

According to Os Guinness, author and social critic, three global menaces seem to confront humanity: namely, Islamism, illiberalism, and ideological consumerism (Os Guinness, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2014), p. 19). Guinness also describes what he sees as three crucial factors most likely to shape the human future: globalization, the Christian faith in the context of advanced modernity, and the sovereignty of God (25-26). To note, Guinness is very quick to add that no one but God knows the future, how it may or may not be drastically different from what our best analysis suggests – doing so by discussing the importance of the sovereignty of God. What I want us to see is that these three factors are not ideas which impact individuals who in turn impact the world; rather, they are conditions we find in the world – globalization, modernity, and God’s sovereignty – already present and active, conditions to which humans are responding. They are bottom-up, not top-down. They have to do with what is called the “sociology of knowledge” or “world-setting” rather than the strict “history of ideas”: that is, the conditions and constraints of a given society which influence how individuals and groups within that society think, act, speak, and interact with one another. Allow me to further explain what I mean.

According to Guinness (26.1-2), modernity plays an indispensible and inestimable part in shaping society. Guinness tends to focus on the “sociology of knowledge” whereby the “spirit, systems and structures” of modern life impact the way we think and the ideas that help make up the plausibility structure (to borrow a term from Peter Berger) of a given society. The current of culture conditions the construction of worldviews.

Thus, not only is theology inherently impactful on society; society impacts theology. What do I mean? Well, it is almost an immediately apparent fact that all theology is done within the context of a given social-political culture. Whether it’s Karl Barth, the giant early twentieth-century theologian and principal author of the Barmen Declaration, writing profoundly on the singular Lordship of Christ in response to the false lord of Nazi Germany’s Hitler; or the liberation theologies coming out of the social-political context of an economically embattled South America; or contemporary theologians responding to climate change, sex-trafficking, global poverty, and interreligious conflict – whatever the contexts, that they had and always will have an impact on the theologies which emerge out of them is undeniable. These examples suggest the reverse direction in which the relationship between theology and society flows: the theology-society interplay is dialectical.

A Biblical basis for the interconnection between theology and society. By the way, we know that this strong view of the relationship between theology and society is also biblical. We find from the very beginning, God calls humanity to: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1.28). This divine injunction given to humanity is what theologians often refer to as “the cultural mandate”; so called because here Yahweh is charging humanity with the task of creating, sustaining, caring for, and even naming all that is around us. In short, in response to God (theology), humanity is tasked with culture-shaping (society). Theology is originally designed to be transformative. This is how theology matters.

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