How might positive psychology and positive sociology benefit from greater engagement with theological views of suffering?

At a the 2015 meetings of the American Sociological Association (ASA), I explained why I think positive psychology, and the nascent field of positive sociology, needs to engage with tragic sociology. For my book Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora, I began studying Haitian Catholic religious communities as a site of resistance to oppression but learned that religion is also an important source of resilience. In my current project, I set out to compare resilient people with those who fall into chronic dysfunction, but learned that the most resilient people are profoundly aware of their continuing vulnerability. Rather than seeing vulnerability only as a weakness to be overcome, I learned that acknowledging our own vulnerability leads to a sense of moral responsibility for others that fuels resistance. My work has thus come full circle: to understand the possibility of social change, we have to understand resilience and vulnerability as not just a means of personal growth, but as sources of a social ethic.

Pursuing questions about vulnerability can fuel a social ethic led me to examine some of the presuppositions of the social sciences. For example, positive psychologists often simply define happiness as the freedom to pursue whatever ends we choose. But then is our dependence on others for our well-being in opposition to freedom? If suffering limits our autonomy, then is suffering an obstacle to freedom?

Having found so few resources in contemporary social science to understand vulnerability and dependence, I looked further afield, specifically to moral philosophy and practical theology and learned that social science would benefit from:

1) greater engagement with moral philosophy—in particular virtue ethics and phenomenology;

2) greater engagement with practical theology—in particular to better understand how suffering as a call to serve others;

3) combining humanistic methods (i.e., interviews and ethnography, which are usually limited in scope but deep in complexity) with larger-scale studies (such as surveys or experimental data, which are usually broad in scope but narrow in focus) to better understand the interaction of causal powers of both persons social structures.

To listen to my talk, click below.

Since returning from the ASA, I have taken my own advice and read theological views on suffering. In Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped and the Church, the poignant social critic and contemporary theologian Stanley Hauerwas asks: “what kind of a community should we be to be capable of the task to be a community that refuses to let suffering alienate us from one another?” (pp. 7-8). Applying this question to the medical profession, Hauerwas argues that we can’t ground the practice of medicine in freedom, or controlling nature. Rather, medicine is about “the wisdom of the body, through which we learn to negotiate the limits and possibilities of this existence in a just and caring fashion.” (pp. 13).

In caring for the ill, there is a constant temptation to want to eliminate suffering. But Hauerwas reminds us that our bodies are finite. Our finitude may cause us suffering, but our response to suffering cannot only be to develop more advanced technologies aimed at vanquishing our finitude. Rather, our finitude is sign of our dependence on others, and should lead us to reflect on our own moral commitments as persons and as a society.

Hauerwas cautions that we can’t always look for growth that comes from suffering—our suffering sometimes is not a path to growth but a path to alienation. But even when confronted with un-curable forms of suffering, we must still care for the sufferer. Suffering calls us to a moral project of caring for others.

One might be tempted to think that theologians just ruminate on abstract concepts and social scientists deal with data. But some theologians—especially those like Hauerwas who work on ethics or practical theology—conduct case studies. And most social scientists would say they don’t just describe the world using data, but they also interpret their data through new concepts and theories. So perhaps the boundary between theology and social science shouldn’t be so rigid.

Let me be clear—I am NOT saying that sociology should become theology or philosophy. I am not saying sociology should abandon its desire to be considered a science. Nor am I saying that there is only one superior theoretical or methodological approach that generates knowledge.

It’s precisely because human persons and the social world are complex that we need multiple approaches. Case studies—often favored by humanistic approaches to society such as those found in theology, philosophy, history, and qualitative sociology—reveal causal powers that exist in reality and have produced empirical phenomena we observe. Large data mostly show trends in the associations among variables generated by researchers to shed light on some aspect of reality. Both approaches are scientific because both reveal causal powers, powers that may express themselves in a small number, or even a single case, or powers that operate across many cases (though rarely if ever do causal powers work the same in all cases).

What I’m arguing is that theology and moral philosophy can help remedy some of the shortcomings of the social sciences—namely in its understanding of human vulnerability. Suffering isn’t only something to be prevented or overcome, but can give rise to a social ethic and responsibility for others. Because we are finite beings, suffering can’t be eliminated, which then raises moral questions about our responses to suffering. If human persons are moral, and social systems contain moral codes, then social science is inescapably moral. But in the last few decades, few social scientists have wanted to ask explicitly moral questions. Hence, just as Hauerwas argues that the medical profession has largely abandoned its moral purpose in favor of a technological approach to the illness, social science has distanced itself from moral questions.

Regardless of whether we are in the field of medicine, social science or humanities, we need to answer questions like: What are the capacities a human person must develop in order to flourish? What social structures respond to human dependence? What are the moral ends of a good life?

To answer those questions requires breaking from some very cherished ways of thinking about social science, such as rhetorical adherence to the fact-value distinction and an aversion to normative questions and arguments. But as human persons are moral, biological and social beings, social science should also be moral, biological and social.

My ongoing work delves into critical realism as a metatheory for the social sciences that better captures the complexity, contingency causality and moral nature of human persons and societies. Stay tuned.