Whenever I tell people I teach sociology and theology, I get a puzzled look. For people who know little about either field, I often get questions like: What is that exactly? What kinds of courses do you teach? Who takes your courses?
For those who know more about the historical separation between sociology and theology, I get questions like: How do those two fields go together? How did you end up doing working in those two disciplines?
As I explained to someone over Easter brunch at the Yale Club, I got my Ph.D. in Sociology at Princeton. I love the way sociology encourages people to immerse themselves in the world through fieldwork, interviews, and writing and administering surveys. But I increasingly found myself reading theology as a theoretical framework both to understand what I was observing in the world and develop practical applications from my observations. As I dared to cross disciplinary boundaries—something often discouraged in academia—I found my whole approach to knowledge was transformed. How so?
I used to think that the end point of my research was something we might call in sociology findings or outcomes that get published in a scholarly journal or a book. Our job as sociologists is to explain our outcomes through the interaction of various independent variables across many cases (as in quantitative research like surveys) or interpret our findings the through the thick description of meaning-making and social interactions in a small number of cases (as in qualitative research like ethnographies). But it seemed to me that without pondering moral and normative questions, questions of what it means to live a good, well-ordered life, the findings or outcomes of sociological studies lacked practical applications. Hence, I read deeply in theology, primarily Catholic social doctrine and Catholic moral theology.
As I was still hungry for not just well-explained, coherent doctrine but how to practice those teachings, I turned to writings about or biographies of spiritual exemplars like Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, and Pope John Paul II—all of whom I think of like 20th century social justice warriors firmly rooted in Catholicism. If they had figured out how to integrate theology and advocacy for the poor and vulnerable, maybe I could too? Their example inspired me not just to fight to change social structures, but to practice my faith more seriously—going on yearly retreats, practicing daily silent prayer, and deepening my devotion to the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary.
I also read scholars like Robert Schreiter, a Catholic priest and theologian who has worked extensively on suffering and resilience, in particular in post-conflict situations in Africa and Asia.
Slowly, I came to see that drawing on both sociology and theology gave me a much better approach to thinking about the questions that came up again and again in my research on suffering and resilience, questions like: What gives my life meaning if I don’t have power? What does it mean to forgive people who have hurt me? Is there a purpose to suffering that can’t be cured?
I’ve come to see how important it is to listen to how people from a variety of backgrounds answer these questions that all humans ask. Listening to people ponder these questions requires a vocabulary that goes beyond what I learned about in sociology: we need to be able to talk about transcendent experiences of something other that breaks into our lives; we need to ponder the movements of our heart when our conscience is moved, telling us we’ve made the wrong choices; we need to recall those moments of peace that give us courage to keep struggling even when our efforts seem in vain; and we need to think about how to use our freedom to choose the good. Reading from fields other than sociology that ponder the big questions of human existence helped me enormously to develop a vocabulary to talk about the people I encountered through my sociological research.
In this series of blog posts, I’ll will continue sharing with you the insights I’ve learned from teaching sociology and theology and from my research on suffering and resilience.
My research and reflections have shown me some of the reasons we have such a hard time even talking about the deepest longings of our hearts and our final ends. Theology, which used to be seen as the field capable of uniting human knowledge towards the human good, was practically expelled from the modern secular research university. This led to a split between theology and the social sciences, a split that put people whose main concerns are the well-being of the human person—fields like sociology, psychology and anthropology—out of touch with the long history of reflection on the human person coming theology.
Through these blogs, I hope to persuade you that the kind of work I do represents a humanistic synthesis, that is, knowledge that is wisdom capable of directing man in the light of his first beginnings and final ends. (Pope Benedict XVI Caritas in Veritate) To get at this humanistic synthesis I desire, I do not think one field needs to claim superiority over another. Because I dare to talk about theology in relationship to sociology, I’ve been told I’m no longer doing sociology. I reject that claim—my questions and methods are firmly within the bounds of the discipline of sociology past and present. I simply acknowledge that a discipline like theology can be relevant to our work in sociology.
Hence in my work, all paths of inquiry about the human person are welcome—but synthesizing insights from those fields is not easy. Fortunately, we have the examples of real spiritual exemplars, as well as many ordinary people who live lives of virtue. My “big data” are precisely the lives of real people, from which we have so much to learn. By keeping our feet on the ground, thinking about what our findings, outcomes and interpretations say about real people in real contexts, our reflections constantly are brought back to the reality of being human in the world.
I’ve also learned what it means to be a contemplative in the academic life, which I’ll share more about in the next blog post.