Studying ... The Social Sciences?

A Kikuyu proverb says, “He who does not travel believes his mother to be the world’s best cook.” Clearly the writer of the proverb had never tasted my mother’s cooking! But we understand the writer’s point: that our lack of exposure to other cultures can leave us woefully naïve about reality, including our own place in the world.

In different ways, the family of social science disciplines – particularly sociology, human geography and anthropology – put aspects of human culture under the microscope. They are especially good at revealing things we might otherwise be blind to. Sociology seeks to identify the broad forces that affect cultures and communities, and human geography seeks to locate these forces in specific places. Anthropology tends to examine how aspects of culture developed and emerged in ancient times or in societies less impacted by Western culture.

The social sciences explore the wonder of human culture

‘Culture’ is one of the trickiest words to define in the English language, but a helpful basic definition is provided by Andy Crouch in Culture Making: “Culture is what we make of the world.” Crouch uses the word ‘make’ in two dimensions. We make something of the world as we use what we already have to create something more than was there before – whether a painting, a road, a law, a poem or a cake. But we also ‘make’ something of the world in terms of interpreting it, like when we ask, “What do you make of it?” There seems an irresistible urge in humans to make something of the world in both of these senses.

Christian social scientists can be amongst the most thankful of God’s people

That this is so should not surprise readers of the Bible. Genesis 1 speaks of a God who loves creating. Very obviously, God creates as he speaks and things come into existence. But his heart for creation does not end there. He commands humanity to lovingly steward the creation, bringing out its potential and bringing about new realities (see Genesis 1:28, 2:15). God’s creative passion is seen in the on-going creativity of human beings. As human beings made in the image of God combine mangoes and lemons and sugar to make mango sorbet, using God-given ingredients and their God-given ingenuity, God’s design for flourishing human culture is seen. The poem that Adam composes about his wife Eve, in Genesis 2:23, is an example of this. His God-given creative spark, God-given capacity to use words, and thankfulness for his God-given wife combine to bring about a poem that had never before seen the light of day.

As social scientists examine aspects of human culture, part of what we should experience is a sense of wonder at what humans have made of the world. Much of it is positive. Trade systems allow us to enjoy goods that we would never otherwise have enjoyed. Music and art beautify much of human existence and draw attention to aspects of the world we might otherwise miss. And so on. Christian social scientists can be amongst the most thankful of God’s people, as we are constantly reminded of God’s generosity – both in giving us the creation, and the impulse and ability to make something of it.

The social sciences explore the brokenness of human culture

Tragically, humanity soon fell away from life with God in its original design – and all aspects of human existence bear the symptoms of this fall. And so human sinfulness is also seen the vile things we make of the world. As they examine cultures and societies, the social sciences show the way in which not only individuals but whole communities make things of the world that are ugly. Environmental degradation occurs as humanity’s original calling to steward the creation is forgotten. Prejudice, inequality and discrimination occur as human culture is built upon sinful foundations that fail to value everyone equally as those made in God’s image.

The social sciences show how humans make things of the world that are ugly

At their best, the social sciences draw attention to these abuses, historical and contemporary. We can also be painfully exposed to ways in which the deep structures and biases of our own societies – and the values, actions and behaviours which are formed in us – cause us to be implicitly involved in these very dynamics.

This means that aspects of study of social science can be quite depressing, as we see the depth and scope of human sinfulness. Yet Christians can be armed to better contend for those most likely to be marginalised by cultures and societies, and should also develop a livelier hope that these ugly realities will one day be ended when Jesus returns.

The social sciences themselves reflect the wonder and brokenness of human culture

The social sciences themselves are part of a desire to make something of the world; they are an effort to interpret it rightly. Social scientists are themselves made in the image of God but sinful. This means that there will be much that emerges from the social sciences that is genuinely helpful and truth-revealing – but also that human sinfulness affects the entire endeavour.

Genuinely truth-revealing, yet human sinfulness affects the entire endeavour

In particular, most social scientific thought is built upon a non-biblical understanding of the nature of humanity. Christians can find the social sciences a challenging place to be, as these assumptions affect the methodologies that the social sciences are built upon, and the suggestions that they offer in working towards a healthier society. The assumption of the moral neutrality or goodness of humanity means that mere education is offered as the solution for a society’s woes. An emphasis on ‘social conditioning’ – the idea that a person thinks and feels as they do only because of the forming influence of broader culture – means that personal culpability and guilt are ideas that are eschewed.

There can also be a deep commitment to relevance when it comes to evaluating different cultures, and a strong liberal agenda when it comes to the rights of individual human beings. Christianity is often caricatured as being culturally imperialistic, controlling and a repressive power-play. No doubt this has sometimes been – and, tragically, sometimes still is – true, but the social sciences’ skewed perspective sometimes overlooks the positive contribute that Christianity has made to societies, both in the West and in more traditional cultures.

A vision for Christians in the social sciences

A Christian voice in the social sciences can be powerful

So the social sciences aren’t always an easy place to be as a Christian. And yet a Christian voice in the social sciences can be powerful. We can question whether the popular narratives told about Christianity and Christian mission really are satisfactory and truthful. We can point to our fellow social scientists to the pervasive influence of spirituality in world cultures, now understood to be a ‘non-reducible reality’ by many social science theorists, and ask our course mates why they think this should be. More widely, we can make important contributions to the good of society and to the world by identifying how social structures can be organised and formed to bring genuine human and cultural flourishing. Christians in the social sciences have been at the forefront of many government and charitable initiatives designed to do just this in recent years.

And Christians can use the insights to the social sciences to further the church’s mission too. As we understand cultures better, Christian social scientists can bring a wide range of insights – including to Bible translation, to sensitive cross-cultural mission and to Christians everywhere as we seek to demonstrate the comfort and call of knowing Jesus within the cultures in which He’s placed us.

Further reading

General resources on Christianity and culture

  • Culture Making (Andy Crouch) – a great book on understanding culture, and finding our place in being culture shapers ourselves
  • Every Good Endeavour (Tim Keller) – an introduction to biblical teaching on human culture, placing everyday activities within the cultural mandate
  • Generous Justice (Tim Keller) – a thoughtful book helping Christians think about how we respond to the inequalities we see in society

 More specific resources for the social sciences

  • Sociology through the Eyes of Faith (David Fraser and Tony Campolo) – an introduction to how Christianity and sociology (and social sciences more widely) relate
  • The Slain God (Timothy Larsen) – explores the relationship between Christianity and anthropology, asking why there’s so much hostility toward Christianity, and why so many anthropologists become Christians later in life
  • Translating the Message (Lamin Sanneh) – a scholarly work by a Gambian academic, arguing that in many contexts, Christian mission has actually preserved local cultures (especially by means of Bible translation)
  • For the Glory of God (Rodney Stark) – a balanced sociological work looking at the ways in which Christianity has shaped modern Western culture
  • To Understand the World, to Change the World (Charles Taber) – explores how the social sciences can serve Christian missions in the world today

This resource is based on a teaching session from Forum, UCCF's national training conference for CU leaders.