To follow my previous foray (See Much Ado About Theories Part 1) into how I approach a controversial theorist such as Marx, I’d like to briefly outline a teaching approach I inherited from my late mentor sociologist Russell Heddendorf. In Hidden Threads: A Christian Critique of Sociological Theory, he contrasted the approach taken by Karl Marx with that of Christian social philosopher Jacques Ellul on the matter of revolution. Marx’s work centered on the necessity and desirability of revolution in achieving a just and humane society. Ellul wrote that the Christian accepts the principle of revolution, but with a different source of power, and a different end in mind than that envisioned by Marx. Ellul offered the concept of “Permanent Revolution,” observing that the concept of revolution is desirable because Christians are not called to simply sustain, benefit from, and preserve human-built structures. Permanent revolution
continues with the abiding presence of God’s kingdom in the world. This means that God’s order will be preserved in the world and his Word will be available to others. But it will be a revolution because of its conflict with the world and all that it stands for. By resisting the basic assumptions of our society and challenging its claims over people, this revolution attacks the basic elements of the world’s order. In short, it supports God’s work by attacking man’s work.1
A revolution of this sort is permanent, or ongoing, because it continues until Christ returns. During this interim, as God’s people resist the basic assumptions of society and challenge its claims over people, we do so as salt and light—salt which preserves (and is tasty), and light which reveals to the world (including ourselves) the truth about its condition. Of course, if we have invested too much in worldly structures, whether communist, capitalist, or a host of other “things of this world,” we are unlikely to challenge the world’s assumptions because our temporal commitments prevent it. No socio-economic scheme—communist, capitalist, or otherwise—can deliver the righteousness God requires. Rather, a new order can emerge as we repent, take the place of lesser honor, relax our grasp on the things of this world, and learn to embrace the upside-down world of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.2
The following chart illustrates differences between Marx’s and Ellul’s approaches to revolution:
|Directed against social power||Directed against spiritual power|
|Violent means are employed to accomplish desired ends.||Peaceful means are employed to accomplish desired ends. Revolution consists of the ongoing challenging of the world’s assumptions. Violence is unacceptable as a means to solving problems. The Christian must use God’s means to work toward God’s ends.|
|Sudden and in response to crisis. A new and correct form of social organization offers the redemption that humans need.||Permanent. Continues with the abiding presence of God’s kingdom in the world. Ongoing until Christ returns and accomplishes the redemption that schemes of social organization cannot produce.|
As I study the work of Karl Marx with my senior sociology students, we almost never reject Marx’s ideas outright, nor do we uncritically accept them. We use them as one uses tools. The longer I teach, the more I find myself counseling students to avoid the words “I agree” or “I disagree” in their written work. Whether we agree or disagree with a theorist or idea is of little value in our analytical task. In fact, dismissing an idea because “I disagree” may be little more than a way of avoiding something that broadens my perspective or challenges my thinking. Rather, I advise them—and remind myself—to try and simply debate the merits of various positions, and as they do so, to remain somewhat open to alternative explanations that may challenge and unsettle them. Avoiding the ideologically charged language of “disagreement” can help us think and write in more nuanced ways and avoid simplistic pronouncements of particular theorists and theories as all evil, all good, all right, or all wrong. No axis of evil is permitted in theory class; it’s just not helpful.
What a shame it would be to emerge from a Christian college or university unchanged, having rarely let oneself be challenged by uncomfortable ideas or thinkers with reputations for promoting questionable views. College is a place to struggle, to, as Bruce Cockburn sang, “kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.”3 And, as my students engage with various thinkers, ideas, ideologies, and positions, they are not alone. The college years are one of the few times in life when one has the opportunity to struggle with unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable ideas alongside their professors. And professors are at their best when they help students learn how to think, rather than what to think. Of course, it’s always a mix of both, but there’s more risk in remaining ignorant of theorists and theories that have reputations for conflicting with one’s “normal,” than there is in sifting through, and sorting them into one’s toolbox, under the guidance of someone—perhaps someone like me—who has spent his or her adult life sorting theories.
To conclude, I offer an example that illustrates ways in which testing theories offers a better approach to weeding out error than condemning them does. In a short book entitled, Observing Ourselves: Essays in Social Research, Earl Babbie4 included a chapter called “Scientific Closed-Mindedness.” In it he recalled how in 1975, and in the face of a host of other far more compelling social problems like global starvation or nuclear holocaust, a group of “186 Nobel laureates took the time and trouble to sponsor a national media campaign to condemn astrology.”5 In questioning the wisdom of such action, Babbie recounted how he was once asked to review an article that scientifically assessed predictions made by astrologers for a scientific journal. He assessed the article, found it had merit, and recommended publication. The other two peer reviewers examining it recommended rejection, not on the article’s merits, but because they felt that pieces on astrology had no place in a scientific journal. Babbie explained that he had no particular knowledge about astrology and no ideological leanings about it one way or the other. He wondered why scientists would spend so much time and energy condemning and rejecting something like astrology when they could simply test its claims, and draw conclusions accordingly. He wrote:
What interests me most about astrology is the resistance to it, especially among scientists. The resistance is particularly ironic, since it would be so easy to conduct a rigorous test of what astrologers purport to know. We could settle the matter once and for all, and those 186 Nobel laureates could then turn their attention to other matters.6
To drive home his point, Babbie also recalled that at a national convention, the American Anthropological Association voted to condemn sociobiology. Rather than simply test the theory—something they were well equipped to do—they condemned it. Where’s the science in that?
The title of this essay is open to critique. Upon reading, the critic might—quite justifiably—object that the author trivializes theories and their impact, and that raising “much ado” about theories is far from the “nothing” the title implies. After all, don’t the communist regimes of Soviet Russia, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, and Venezuela, among others, trace their intellectual origins to some variant of Marxist theory? Is that really so benign? The critic makes an excellent point. In response, I think it is useful to distinguish between the application of a given theory, and employing one in critical analysis. Marx’s theory (broadly stated), which is part of a normative (what “ought” to be) branch of theory, can be—and has been— employed as ideology, which can be at odds with the goals of scientific sociological analysis. Theorizing by early sociologists had as its objective, the elimination (or at least tempering) of ideology as the basis for social organization, replacing it with positivism—an empirical, scientific approach to understanding the world. From this perspective, theories are not to be believed, but rather to be tested. And while positivism has more than its share of shortcomings (for example, it offers a mechanistic view of the world), the principle of testing over believing, remains one of the best instruments in the sociologist’s toolbox. The casual questions, “Has that been proven?” or “Where are you getting your data?” derive from this principle. For example, Max Weber used historical data to contest Marx’s idea that conflict and stratification derive solely from social class, and he offered a theoretical refinement which envisioned stratification as the product of three related factors: class, status, and party (political power). This more complex explanation helps us understand, among other things, why revolution never happened in the way Marx expected. As a result of Weber’s argument with the “ghost of Karl Marx,” we come to reject part of Marx’s theory as inadequate, without dismissing some of its other illuminating ideas and concepts. Accordingly, when we examine a given theory or theorist in a sociological theory class, we do so not as an exercise in ideology, but rather in dialogue with other theorists who offer critique and additional perspective about the approach that particular thinker represents.
And so, the “much ado” to which I refer is primarily directed at the kind of dialogue around theories and theorists that dismisses them on ideological grounds, rather than reading them, contextualizing them, testing them against the data of history and the insights of other theorists. Perhaps we should have more “ado” about theories—but of the critical analysis variety. Not reading Marx, or CRT, or… or… is not likely to refine our thinking, or offer insight into our complex global society. And while reading a given theorist is not without its dangers, those dangers are not lessened by looking the other way. Ironically, to condemn some theory or idea for ideological reasons tends to draw attention to it and give it more recognition and clout. Maybe it’s a good theory, maybe not. Maybe it’s outrageous and explains little but contains a few ideas that offer unparalleled insight. Condemn it without critical analysis and we may never know. But read it, test it, refine it, reject it where it fails and embrace it where it succeeds, and—over time—your theory toolbox will be much better equipped to address the myriad problems confronting us in late modernity.
(A version of these posts originally appeared in: Matthew Vos, “Much Ado About Theories: Teaching Marx and Other Suspicious Types in Christian Higher Education,” Journal of Sociology and Christianity, 13, no. 1 (2023): 80-86. Used by permission).
- Russell Heddendorf and Matthew Vos, Hidden Threads: A Christian Critique of Sociological Theory (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2010) 89.
- Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom: Anniversary Edition (Harrisonburg, VA: Menno Media, 2018).
- “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” Spotify, track 1 on Bruce Cockburn, Stealing Fire, True North Records, 1984.
- Earl R. Babbie, Observing Ourselves: Essays in Social Research (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2015).
- Babbie, Observing Ourselves, 143.
- Babbie, Observing Ourselves, 144.
Matthew, so appreciated your thoughtful approach to potentially divisive theories. Last year, I taught a class on engaging diverse perspectives and had students read wide-ranging books including one on CRT. The reactions I received from fellow educators were varied with some deeply concerned and wanting me to demonize rather than analyze CRT. That section of the class was electric with us seeking to first understand CRT and then judging it against biblical truth. I was pleased how my students approached this sensitive topic. I was drawn to your conclusion:
“Maybe it’s a good theory, maybe not. Maybe it’s outrageous and explains little but contains a few ideas that offer unparalleled insight. Condemn it without critical analysis and we may never know. But read it, test it, refine it, reject it where it fails and embrace it where it succeeds, and—over time—your theory toolbox will be much better equipped to address the myriad problems confronting us in late modernity.”
As educators, let us be wise in helping to create a complex theory toolbox fill with outlooks that prod us as we seek to minister to others.
Thanks for your reply to my posting Tim. My recent work has focused on the problem of the stranger. We identify, not as individuals, but as group members, and we do so in contrast with relevant “out” groups. Accordingly, we divide the world into “us” and “them” and our identities hinge on keeping these lines clearly demarcated. This makes it so very difficult to engage with good ideas from perceived “other” camps. Interestingly, I’ve found my colleagues to be very much in consonance with my views on these matters, but have found students (some, not all) to have difficulty examining theories that “conflict with our normal.” I suspect this is because they’ve been socialized in “us and them” environments (which is pretty normal) and taking ideas from perceived “other” camps erodes the relative simplicity of a right/wrong, good/bad, us/them world. I’ve sometimes found the bifurcation “Christian/Non-Christian” to be an impediment to thinking deeply about some matters (as in “the” Christian view versus the “non” Christian view). Additionally, we can have difficulty taking a critical stance toward some ideas coming from theorists (or theologians) who are in “our” wheelhouse.
Thanks for your thoughts, and the work you are doing.
Hi Matthew, thank you for these interesting posts. In my theology of culture graduate seminars on theory (especially now what is called “critical theory”) I emphasize that in fact our theology, when understood properly, is our theory. Ellul I think illustrates this quite well (although my “reformed” creation based theory would differ slightly from his).
Thanks for your helpful comment here Bill. I very much like the idea that “our theology, when understood properly, is our theory.” Well said. This idea should also spur us on to take a critical stance toward the theologies that animate our institutions and teaching, rather than simply “defending” them. To do so is to take those theologies more seriously, not less so.
Blessings to you.
Thank you, Matthew, for your thoughtful suggestions and illustrations. I think that one of the key questions we fail to ask is, Why? Why was Das Capital written, for example, or why the rise of CRT, etc. Unlike 21st century academics sitting in our comfortable campuses, with all the advantages technology and affluence, Marx (with Engels’ assistance), writing in industrialising England in the1860s, would have been surrounded by the absolute horrors of poverty and utterly appalling living conditions of the majority of London’s city dwellers. Not being “believers” and having much access to godly wisdom, I would imagine that some form of violent revolution was the only way they could see any improvement taking place.
Greetings Geoff. Thanks for your insightful comment here. You’re absolutely right. We so easily forget or omit the historical circumstances that gave rise to particular theories and ideas in the first place. Even if we have problems with some particular theoretical explanation of a given social problem, we would do well to ask what it was that gave rise to this theory in the first place. It seems to me that when we ideologically dismiss writers and work from a particular theoretical camp, we may fail to “enter in,” to take them seriously, and to really understand whatever it is they feel must be addressed.
At the college where I teach, I’ve long enjoyed having my office right next to our faculty lounge where, on a good day, I can have lunch with colleagues in history, philosophy, art, English, Biblical studies, and so on. Having casual cross-disciplinary discussions about various matters has been so helpful to me in providing greater context for the work I do. This is why I think that the faculty lounge is the heartbeat of the Christian liberal arts college or university.