Thirty years ago in one American university, the study of psychology was confined to a single course taught in the philosophy department. Today a student who wants to pursue psychology at that university can choose from three curricular tracks: clinical, experimental, or educational psychology. Within each there are a host of sub-disciplines, such as learning theory, abnormal development, personality theory, animal psychology, physiological psychology, and social psychology. Similar patterns of “mushrooming,” specialization, and diversification can be seen in the development of other “social sciences,” such as political science and sociology.

The Word of God has much to say about human sociality: it teaches the nature of this sociality, and it provides directives for understanding and structuring the social dimension. As servants of that Word, evangelical Christians must attempt to discover and make known whatever perspectives the Scriptures offer on the “scientific” study of man.

Christians are not the only ones who insist the social sciences need a direction of some sort that they are not getting. Paul Goodman, for instance, has argued that we need a perspective on social problems that goes beyond that of the present-day social sciences, “which limit the discussion to the arrangement, communication, and culture-pattern of people as they currently appear.” Goodman himself pleads for the “indispensable advantage” offered by the perspectives of “history and poetry,” which can point us to “other possible ways of human being, which might have other arrangements, communications, and patterns” (Compulsory Mis-education and the Community of Scholars, p. 164). To this the Christian must add that historical analyses and poetic visions are themselves in need of the illumination provided by God’s address to men in Scripture.

What are some ingredients of a Christian perspective on the social sciences? Of basic importance, surely, is the matter stressed by John Calvin in the opening pages of his Institutes: that central to man’s social relations—indeed, to his very identity—is his relation to God, and that without clearly understanding his inescapable presence before God man cannot properly understand his relations with other created persons and institutions.

The failure to see the centrality of this relation is most obvious when non-Christian social scientists deal directly with religious beliefs and practices. Consider this description, by two sociologists, of the “Jesus people” phenomenon:

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Instead of progressing toward adult ethics, the Jesus person clutches tenaciously to childhood morality, with its simplistic black-and-white, right-and-wrong judgments. Rather than developing behavior oriented toward reality, he flies into ideational, ideological abstractions to numb his awareness of his newly arisen needs [R. L. Adams and R. J. Fox, “Mainlining Jesus: The New Trip,” Society, February, 1972].

Many of us would have our own criticisms of the movement being described here, but that is beside the point. The important point is that some social scientists would apply these remarks to evangelicals in general. Of course, what one views as a “simplistic” morality has a lot to do with whether one accepts or rejects the moral directives presented in Scripture. Also, what one takes to be “behavior oriented toward reality” is intimately linked to whether, for example, one believes prayer is genuine communication with a living God. Accepting the God-man relation as central to human social existence has crucial implications for how one views such phenomena as the Jesus people.

This fundamental point is linked to other important ingredients in the Christian perspective on the social sciences. For one thing, it has a bearing on the question, What is the proper scope of the study of man? Christians must resist the simple reductionisms that characterize so much of twentieth-century social science: the behaviorism that restricts the study of man to overt behavior; the recent emphases on role-playing and “game” models that tend to reduce persons to social and institutional roles or at least to place undue stress on these roles; the suggestion, which pervades much current counseling and therapeutic methodology, that the free, uninhibited flow of feelings is the primary goal of human interaction; the apparent reduction of the purpose of social and political institutions to “conflict-management,” in which the role of the administrator (e.g., the government official, the pastor, the elementary teacher, sometimes even the parent) is seen largely as a matter of providing structured management of the continuing flow of conflicting interests, while taking these interests at face value (i.e., not evaluating them as proper or improper).

I do not mean to suggest, in these generalizations, that we ought not to study or cannot benefit from these various approaches. We have much to learn about, for example, the “games people play.” What we must not do is see people primarily in terms of these “games,” for Christians must view the study of man in the light of the biblical vision of man in his wholeness.

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An important qualification must be placed on all of this. As the Christian studies the social aspect of human life, he must be aware that he is, in large part, studying man in his fallen state. This means, I think, that the reductionistic models and theories often used in the social sciences have at least this much legitimacy: the very people and groups being studied are engaged in a kind of “reductionistic” enterprise. Succumbing to the temptation of the Fall, “Ye shall be as gods,” men wrongly and rebelliously restrict—or vainly attempt to restrict—the scope of their being.

These remarks by a proponent of existentialism suggest a line of thought that can be given some Christian substance:

If a sociologist can successfully predict the proper time and place to market striped toothpaste, this is only because the choice of a dentifrice is a matter of little importance and most persons are quite willing to allow that choice to be made for them. Nonetheless, even here axiological considerations predominate over ontological considerations.… Specifically, this means that although freedom is inalienable, it is still possible for the individual to choose that his behavior be dictated by others, thus permitting himself to become a manipulable and predictable object for the social engineer. This kind of behavior is what the existentialists call “flight from freedom,” an attempt to make life easy which succeeds only in depriving life of existential intensity (Robert Olsen, An Introduction to Existentialism, p. 88).

The Christian must make an analogous point here. Mankind in its fallen state is involved in a “flight from wholeness,” a self-deceptive denial of the fullness of man’s created nature before the living God. While this denial cannot totally succeed, men can “reduce” themselves. Some persons virtually become manipulated sex-objects; others largely succeed in acting like unthinking automatons whose overt behavior is what they are. In this sense the distorted models and theories of human nature often implicit in the work of social scientists are fairly accurate reflections of the distorted condition of sinful human nature.


And so I sing …
Owls in emerald,
Gray house cats, stretching,
Streams in their pebbled beds
Sleepily slurring,
Vixens on velvet feet
Swift through the meadow,
Mice in the corncrib
Too sly for shadow;
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Stars on a scale of sky
Steadily holding
In orbit, and oceans
Faithful tides keeping.
Sing the Lord, wisely.…
Heart, do not worry,
You, too, are destined,
Cease your mad hurry.
You cannot alter
A summer, a spring,
Hold to this wisdom,
Sing the Lord, sing!

Two more extensive examples will help to illustrate the point. In Games People Play Eric Berne outlines the therapeutic techniques of “transactional analysis.” He suggests that the multiple, diverse patterns of human behavior are all associated with three fundamental “ego states,” those of the Parent, the Adult, and the Child, and that at any given moment a person’s behavior reflects one of these three states. About the diagram he presents to illustrate this theory he says: “This represents, from the present viewpoint, a diagram of the complete personality of any individual.”

The Christian might well wonder (ignoring here Thomas Harris’s application of Berne’s theory to religious questions in I’m OKYou’re OK, which may not be consistent with Berne’s intentions) how to conceive of the God-man relation in terms of this theory of the “complete personality of any individual.” The Bible teaches that man’s role as a creature before God, and presumably the “ego state” associated with that role, is distinct from all man’s “horizontal” creaturely relations. This seems to imply that however analogous the relation between, say, the parent and child might be to that between God and man, they are nonetheless different in important ways. Therefore, any attempt to understand man’s sense of his creatureliness, of his total dependence on his Maker, in terms of his relationship with other creatures would seem to be inadequate in the light of the biblical perspective.

On the other hand, the biblical account (cf. Romans 1:21) pictures unregenerate man as denying his relation to God. As Saint Augustine describes this denial in Of True Religion, sinful men thereby invest some creaturely relationship with a value, an intimacy, that rightly belongs to the God-man relationship. This is idolatry. And it may be that Berne’s model is an accurate description of the “ego state” options that are actually open to sinful persons, given the idolatrous, reductionistic enterprise in which they are engaged.

As another example, consider the “interest group” model often used by political scientists and sociologists. Social dynamics are interpreted in terms of conflict between groups that are organized along lines of specific selfish “interests.” For example, Howard R. Smith writes in Democracy and the Public Interest:

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Those who insist on distinguishing between the common good and particular goods are in all probability themselves advancing some spurious common good—regardless of how sincere they are in their belief in the social value of what they are proposing, or how “right” in their analysis of social gains [p. 83].

This kind of thinking leads commentators to analyze the debate over liberalized abortion laws purely as a matter of a “power struggle” between the Roman Catholic Church and “politicized” women.

To interpret social and political advocacy as mere selfish manipulation is to deny man’s created capacity for dispassionate, theoretical reflection on morality and justice. But we must also recognize that men often do ascribe to their own quest for power a significance that virtually prevents them from judging their own strivings in the light of the public interest. So a group-interest model may accurately reflect much existing social interaction.

In the light of all this, what is the task of the Christian social scientist? It is, I suggest, twofold, and the Christian social scientist must feel the tension of this dual task. His use of current models and theories in the social sciences must be critical; he must recognize their potentially distortive implications. At the same time, his analyses of human relations and conditions must be carried on in the agonizing awareness of the actual distortions that characterize the fallen state. He must not be content, then, to carry on his work with a spirit of acceptance of present conditions; his work must reflect, and witness to, the richness and wholeness of God’s creative and redemptive purposes for men.

This is a difficult assignment. It means the Christian social scientist can neither withdraw from nor wholeheartedly accept the frameworks and methodologies of his secular colleagues. But the difficulty of the task is matched by its urgency. The American evangelical community would do well to seek ways of offering encouragement and prayerful support.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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