Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Christian Sociology? On Oppenheimer on the Regnerus Affair

Mark Oppenheimer can't fathom what a "Christian sociology" would be, as evidenced by his odd piece on the recent controversy swirling around Mark Regnerus' study of the children of gay & lesbian parents. Published in today's New York Times, Oppenheimer raises questions about "the role of faith in scholarship."  Oppenheimer clearly approaches the matter with a secularist confidence in the supposed "neutrality" and "objectivity" of scholarship.  So the very notion of a "Christian scholar" would be an oxymoron on that account.  So, at best, the "role of faith in scholarship" would seem to be reduced to three closing options that Oppenheimer countenances:

[I]f there is not really a Christian method in sociology, but there is a role for a self-described Christian in sociology, as Dr. Regnerus once averred, then what is that role? One can imagine several answers. 
First, the religious — or atheist, for that matter — sociologist might have a set of topics that she finds particularly relevant to her beliefs. Given their traditions’ emphasis on traditional family, for example, a conservative Catholic or evangelical Protestant could reasonably gravitate toward the study of family structure. 
Second, a scholar might have faith that good research ultimately brings people to God or furthers his plans. A Christian historian might trust that even a modest study of the Spanish-American War, or of Rhode Island history, would do a small part to reveal the providential nature of all history. 
Finally, a scholar might be a “Christian scholar” by virtue of the pride he takes in his faith, especially in the secular academy. Dr. Regnerus was a proud Christian witness, once upon a time. But these days he won’t discuss his faith, even with a Christian magazine. Two weeks ago, Christianity Today ran a lengthy interview with Dr. Regnerus in which he said nothing about his religious beliefs.
I suppose what's odd about it is the fact that Christian Smith, a renowned sociologist from the University of Notre Dame, and Regnerus himself (a recent convert to Roman Catholicism), seem to largely concede Oppenheimer's skepticism.  As Oppenheimer reports,

Christian Smith, one of Dr. Regnerus’s advisers at the University of North Carolina and now at Notre Dame agrees that a sociologist’s religion should affect only his choice of topics, not his methodology. 
“I believe there is sociology that is practiced in perhaps somewhat different ways by people with different backgrounds of all sorts — racial, socioeconomic, gender and religious, among others,” Dr. Smith said. But every sociologist “operates with the same basic disciplinary approach, methods and standards of evidence.” Dr. Smith said that while he had not talked with his former student “about any possible connection of faith to topic/design,” he was “quite sure his faith did not influence the design.” But he said he could “only speculate” whether Dr. Regnerus’s faith led to his interest in the topic.

Now in a way this doesn't surprise me, and I think it's partly Smith's rendition of Catholicism that contributes to this model.  As I pointed out in our recent exchange in the Christian Scholar's Review (with regard to my review of his book, What is a Person?), Smith carves up the world in a classic version of "manual" Thomism--with a "natural" world that can be known by objective, unbiased reason, though one that needs to be supplemented by a supernatural faith.  (This is just the sort of picture that was challenged by Henri de Lubac and le nouvelle th√©ologie.)  On that account, (supernatural) faith would simply and only direct the Christian scholar to select certain aspects of "nature" to consider--but s/he would then consider them with the same supposedly unbiased "methods" that all other "rational" scholars do.  

But I think it is just this ruse of "unbiased" and "objective" scholarship and rationality that has been rightly called into question over the past 25 years--and not just by crazy Frenchmen.  You'll get the same critique of supposedly "neutral" rationality from Alasdair MacIntyre and Jeffrey Stout.  You can see it in action in Nicholas Wolterstorff's critiques of Robert Audi and Richard Rorty, which caused Rorty to back down from his more rabid secularism.  And as I argue in my exchange with Smith, I think his earlier book, Moral, Believing Animals, is actually solidly in line with this Wolterstorffian take on matters.  But that book--which I like a lot--is also predates his conversion to Catholicism.

The upshot, that Oppenheimer can't consider (nor can Smith & Regnerus, apparently), is that there are no "neutral" or "unbiased" scholars.  So it's not a question of whether faith informs scholarship, but which.   Let's just take the example of sociology: maybe there isn't a "Christian way to crunch numbers," but the number-crunching is only an instrumental slice of sociological scholarship.  Social scientific research is governed by deep notions of flourishing that are not "objective" or universal but rather emerge from stories and narratives and mythologies that are believed.  (Here I'm just repeating Smith's own argument in Moral, Believing Animals!)  

This means every social scientific instrument is already freighted with a thick, normative, albeit implicit, vision of what it is to be human and what human community ought to look like.  Those deep commitments don't make it into the data in any explicit way, but they frame every question that is asked, every bit of data that is selected as significant, etc.  There isn't a single social scientific scholar (or journalist) who doesn't believe some fundamental story about the world.  We're all confessional scholars.