As I began to read Everything Must Change, I already knew that Brian McLaren was a gifted pastor, speaker, and author. But as I read the opening chapters of the book I discovered that McLaren is morphing into somewhat of a sociologist. (Surely he is not far from the Kingdom of God. :) ) As we will see in coming posts, McLaren presents his view of how society works at the most macro level. He then uses this model to articulate his solutions to the biggest problems we face. But before we go there, I want to make a few observations related to macro-sociological theories.
Most macro-sociology models can be grouped into one of two broad categories: structural-functional and conflict theory.
Structural-functional models see society as a complex web of interrelated institutions and values that work together organically. The tendency of society is toward a state of social equilibrium with people and institutions coming to consensus. Changes to the environment or innovations from within society create disturbances, but the system is always evolving and adapting in an effort to restore equilibrium. Evolution and adaptation often lead to further specialization of functions and every increasing complexity.
Conflict theory models see society as a power struggle between competing factions over scarce resources (like wealth or status.). Inequalities are inherent. The advantaged population controls the societal institutions and the narratives used to explain social realities. The system is structured around getting the less advantaged to internalize the legitimacy of power held by the dominate group. Change is more revolutionary than evolutionary.
The two theories are virtually incompatible. If society truly is a complex organic entity, ever seeking equilibrium, then it can not at the same time be a power play by one segment of society over another. Either equilibrium is merely an illusion created by those with power or the inequalities are a reflection of a complex system seeking equilibrium.
Now as I went through grad school, reading scholars and listening to professors make their cases for which of these schools had greater merit, I was also processing this material through the lens of the biblical narrative. Both schools of thought have considerable merit and provide useful avenues for conceptualizing research but neither alone captures a biblical anthropology. What dawned on me is that the two combined are twin reflections of the human condition as presented in the biblical narrative.
Genesis teaches that we were made for community with God and with each other. We do not exist except in relation to “the other.” There is indeed an organic integration of human beings, living and functioning as one in community. This seems to be parallel to the structural-functional view.
But the Genesis narrative continues on with the fall from grace and its consequences. Brother turns on brother. Chaos ensues. God starts over with the remnant of Noah’s family. At Babel, people attempt to write their own narrative and assert themselves but God confuses that project. From that point forward in the biblical narrative, there is a continuous stream of one empire or another seeking dominance, as well as endless stories of domination and conflict among the people of Israel. This all seems to be parallel to the conflict theory view.
It was been my experience that conservative Christians who engage sociology have gravitated toward the structural-functional theoretical model. The model has great value in explaining how various institutions and values interrelate to keep society functioning. It shows why theses institutions and values must be “conserved.” However, the epistemological problem is that we are ultimately pushed toward the conclusion that what “is,” is what should be. If there were some more optimal state, then society would have evolved it. On what basis do we offer a critique of what is?
One profound evidence of this structural-functional mindset is the declaration by some conservative Christians that men and women are “Equal in being, unequal in function/role.” Altering gender roles will harm societal function. According to theologian Kevin Giles, the language of “roles” and “functions” entered the debate in the late 1970s, just when the embrace of this type of sociology became in vogue with conservative Christians.
Meanwhile, progressive Christians gravitate toward conflict theory. This model has great value in offering critique of existing relationships and unmasking how power is used. It offers legitimization for social transformation from what is. However, the epistemological problem here is that whatever “is,” is oppression. Even after a transformation, the new order is still a result of some group’s dominance of another. Any state of affairs exists can be rationalized as less than optimal if a dissident group can make their will prevail. With no sense of legitimate functioning apart from dominance, there truly is no way of evaluating optimal justice between competing values.
Liberationists, social progressives, and Anabaptists gravitate toward conflict models, though they may differ in their responses to specific injustices. Many would claim to have surmounted the inherent circularity of replacing oppression with oppression. God has revealed to us what justice is and we can institute justice in the place of oppression. But this too is an illusion because each person claiming to have the mind of God on these matters, whether they have power or are from the margins of society, has been shaped by a particular context through which they interpret and distort justice. Their vision of justice just becomes another expression of domination. According to the biblical narrative there is no perfect shalom until the New Creation. Given that, on what basis does one conclude that a present reality is not the optimal that can be realized relative to other achievable alternatives?
My conviction, as a Christian trying to make sense of macro issues in the world, is that we are compelled to live in a tension between these two paradigms. Each paradigm is a separate lens in a pair of glasses that generates binocular 3D vision. We must resolutely use both lenses. Over reliance on one lens may lead us to legitimize injustices and not seek God’s best. Over reliance on the other lens can lead us to destructive unintended consequences and imprudent declarations that everything must change.