The wholly social or the holy social?: recognising theological tensions in sociology

International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 81 (2):174-192 (2020)
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Abstract

While Latour criticises the tautologies of the ‘sociologists of the social’ as an intellectual shortcut, here sociology in the broadest sense is reconsidered as informed by unrecognised theological ideas, inter alia. Durkheim’s classic account of religion, wherein ‘society is God’ is taken as a starting point to explore the intersection of sociology and theology. Thereafter the article examines three social theorists, Elias, Giddens and Boltanski, each of whom attempt a re-casting of sociology, yet rearticulate theological models. In particular, this includes an ontological conception of society, structure or system in terms of over-arching and invisible forces which is derived – inter alia – from religious models of divine will and providential order, which incorporates human choice – or agency in contemporary parlance. Accompanying this ontology is an epistemology of deciphering ‘deeper’ or ‘structural’ or ‘transcendent’ aspects of society by observing trends, cases or culture, akin to divining the providential will by observing its manifestations, which can be conducted in a more critical or forgiving manner. By examining these theological strands which persist in sociology, this aim is not to critically repudiate them, but to recognise the productive contribution of these models of thinking to imagining the ‘social’.

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