Many Christian sociologists have experienced the juxtaposition of those two identities as casting them into a socially prophetic role. Sociology often places the Christian sociologist as one who speaks to the established Christian community rather than for it. Dennis W. Hiebert traces the development of the classic distinction between the sociological concepts of priest and prophet from its early formulations by Max Weber, to its refinement by Peter Berger, to its recent application by Robert Woods and Paul Patton to Christian media criticism. The goal is to ascertain whether sociology practiced by Christians can reasonably and fruitfully be understood as having a prophetic function for culture in general, but Christian sub-cultures in particular, and if so, how best to serve that function. Mr. Hiebert is Professor of Sociology at Providence University College, Canada.

I admit to being one of Neil Postman’s technophobes,1 who nevertheless manages to live securely and happily cell-phone-free. Yet for baffling reasons I also teach a course on Media and Society. Recently I invited an Anglican priest to present a guest lecture on texts created by Christian artists. He selected as his examples the lyrics of Johnny Cash’s “Delia’s Gone,” the prose of Flannery O’Connor’s The Enduring Chill, and the lyrics of Sufjan Stevens’ “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” What these texts had in common were traumatizing tales of cruel, mindless brutes, and grotesque, unrepentant murderers. What my guest found most profoundly Christian about them was the absence of any independent, omniscient, moral voice narrating any kind of judgment of the violence. The point, he insisted, was simply to depict the most horrific manifestations of original sin, while disallowing any abstracted moral high ground for the observer, thereby creating a space for true Christian grace.

Like most sociologists, I faithfully tell my first-year students that as a science, sociology is the description of what is, not the prescription of what ought to be. I then admit shortly that it is not quite that simple. German sociologist Jürgen Habermas originally delineated three different knowledge systems and their corresponding interests that are applicable to sociology.2 First, there is an analytic sociology built on a Durkheimian commitment to systematic observation, which has interest in prediction and control of human behavior. It is critiqued as being reductionistic and naïve, and can be oppressive. Second, there is an interpretive sociology built on a Weberian focus on the meanings people attach to their social world, which has interest in understanding human social action. It is critiqued as being non-scientific and subjective, and is neither oppressive nor liberating. And third, there is a critical sociology built on a Marxian dedication to social change, which has interest in human emancipation. It is critiqued as being political and moralistic, but can be liberating.3 The description of my media course in our university’s academic calendar explicitly states that it is “an interpretive and critical examination of media.” Postman has regarded all social science to be moral theology,4 and I am not shy about the implicit moral voice in my course, though I eschew a merely moralizing voice. Oddly, I as a sociologist take a critical and moral approach to media texts, while my guest Anglican priest deemed as deeply Christian those texts that were uncritical and amoral. Some might say that we each have confused and reversed our vocations.

In a commentary on the eminent contemporary sociologist Robert Bellah’s career entitled “Prophetic Habits of a Sociologist’s Heart,” John Stackhouse observed that

Sociologists have often offered themselves as secular prophets – as alternatives, in fact, to the church’s preachers. Indeed, sociologists and prophets offer the same potent combination: a presentation of the way things are, a prediction of the way things will be, and a prescription of what we should therefore do. Sociologists have claimed the authority of scientific observation and inference. Preachers have claimed the authority of scriptural exegesis and application. Thus sociology has often stood as rival, not companion, to Christian teaching. True prophets, however, can combine the best of both traditions.5

Prophetic habits among sociologists in general are most evident in the third tradition of critical sociology described above. From the nineteenth-century thunderings of Karl Marx himself, to the neo-Marxists of the early twentieth century (Karl Kautsky, Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci), to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School at mid-century (Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse), to contemporary theorists influenced by the Marxian tradition (Jurgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, Immanuel Wallerstein), the prophetic voice has reverberated throughout sociology.6 Perhaps the most prophetic voice in twentieth-century American sociology was C. Wright Mills, though he only read Marx late in his career. In today’s globalized world, the postmodern Marxists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have had their nigh-biblical concepts of empire and multitude engaged directly by evangelicals.7 Among Christian sociologists, Robert Wuthnow, James Davison Hunter, and Christian Smith have spoken emphatically both for and to Christians.8

At the 2011 annual conference of the Association of Christians Teaching Sociology (ACTS) on the theme of “The Prophetic Imagination: Sociological Narratives in the Tradition of Peter L. Berger,” Berger entitled his keynote address “A Non-Prophetic Approach to Sociology as Christian Vocation.” I wish to explore a more conventional prophetic approach to sociology as Christian vocation. Without conflating the moral and the prophetic, I want to articulate the common notion that, while the Christian sociologist is not a prophet in the biblical sense, the discipline of sociology performs a prophetic function for persons of faith, and for Christians in particular.

We must begin by revisiting the classic sociological distinction between prophet and priest. Max Weber’s early explication of the distinction is associated with a broader continuum between contrasting religious elites he termed the religious virtuoso and the cleric.9 The virtuoso is a purely-motivated, pneumatically-connected, charismatic elite. The “religiously unmusical” cleric is more of an official elite who, by self-interest in a position within a religious organization or community, is more vulnerable to what

Thomas O’Dea elaborated as the dilemma of mixed motivation.10 Virtuosos reach for the highest spiritual growth, while clerics reach for that plus the highest level of organizational strata, and tend to be more integrated into the economic and political structure than virtuosos.11 Perhaps in this sense I, the sociologist, was actually more of a cleric, while my guest lecturer priest was more of a virtuoso. Though both types are gatekeepers of sacred goods, virtuosos frequently come into conflict with clerics.

Sharper, more applicable distinctions emerge when Weber unpacks the difference between the prophet and the priest. Prophets are characterized by tensions in both their inner lives and in their relations with the external world. Priests, in contrast, are products of routinization, and are more concerned with status and prestige than with charisma. Table 1 is a summary of the salient differences.12 In short, according to Donald Swenson, “the focus of the priest is to secure some permanency of the message of the prophet, to insure the economic existence of the enterprise, and to control the authority of the collective.”13 This explains the proclivity toward mixed motivations in priests, compared to the purer motivations of prophets who are free of organizational entanglements.

Berger later argued that Weber had overdrawn the binary opposition of priest and prophet as “ritual against free proclamation, rigidity against free-flowing spirituality, professionalism against independence.”14 He therefore found it necessary to modify the conceptual dichotomy, especially regarding the social location of the prophet relative to the religious tradition. Old Testament scholarship after Weber’s time established that priests were in fact occasionally capable of inspiration and possessed of charisma, while prophets did in fact have some official status within the religious tradition. The prophets in ancient Israel were not, as Weber had claimed, necessarily socially detached individuals more interested in ethics than in the religious tradition. So “charismatic innovation need not necessarily originate in social marginality.”15 For example, Michael Walzer contended that membership in the group they addressed was the defining difference between Amos and Jonah.16 “Amos’s prophecy is social criticism because it challenges … a particular society, and because it does so in the name of values recognized and shared in that same society,” writes Walzer.17 Jonah, however, is “an alien voice, a mere messenger” of doom to Nineveh, precisely because he is foreign to their tradition.18 Furthermore, priests may, because of their message, be driven out of their office to become a prophet instead. Indeed, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther was a Catholic monk, a priest turned prophet reluctantly. Nevertheless, these modifications to Weber’s constructs do not invalidate the ideal-typical charismatic authority of the prophet as against the traditional or rational-legal authority of the priest.

Several types of prophets can be identified from Weber’s work, most notably the exemplary prophets of Hinduism and Buddhism who challenged the status quo by living out dramatically different values, in contrast to the emissary prophets of Israel and Islam who challenged the status quo by proclaiming a message.19 But subsequent scholarship has also inevitably expanded and refined the categories. Donald Swenson’s composite typology and examples serve well.20

  1. An ethical-exemplary prophet, such as Gautama Siddhartha Buddha (c.563-483 BC), models the path toward spiritual goodness. Buddha never claimed divine revelation, as his was a self-liberation through renunciation and enlightenment.
  2. A founding prophet, such as Abraham (c.2000-1650 BC), brings a new teaching and revelation. Abraham founded three monotheistic world religions that now encompass half the world’s population.
  3. A reforming prophet, such as John Calvin (1509-1564), charismatically offers new life to a highly routinized institutional tradition. Calvin was actually more interested in reforming the Catholic Church than dividing it or separating from it.
  4. A renewing prophet, such as Benedict of Nursia (c.480-c.547 AD), calls for a return to the original purity of a faith that is institutionally compromised and complacent.
  5. A revolutionary prophet, such as Muhammad (c.570-c.632 AD), radically alters a religious tradition according to a new revelation, the way Muhammad broke from the mythological traditions of both Judaism and Christianity on several fronts.

The question is whether the social scientific discipline of sociology functions prophetically for Christian sub-cultures. Does transposing the concept of prophet from a noun to an adjective, or from a person to a process, illuminate anything true and useful to those committed to both Christian faith and sociology? Does the outsider status of a Christian sociologist qua sociologist create any problems in addressing Christian sub-cultures, compared to the insider status of a Christian sociologist qua Christian? Does disciplinary distance offer any possibilities in addressing Christian sub-cultures that could benefit dedicated discipleship? In some superficial and misleading aspects, sociology could be construed as more priestly than prophetic. After all, we sociologists undergo extensive training, derive our authority from a scholarly tradition, hold office by our credentials, are paid for our services, and promulgate mostly second-hand knowledge. Indeed, in the Comtean vision of social science as the new nineteenth-century religion, sociologists were supposedly destined to be the priests of society. But this is to confuse the academy and the cathedral, Athens and Jerusalem.

Though prophets and priests remain religious functionaries, clearly sociologists are not priests, who speak for the religious establishment from within it. They are more like prophets, who speak to the religious establishment from its margins. Sociologists are not the conservative majority of religious functionaries who faithfully repeat sacred messages and carry out sacred rituals. They are the radical minority who critique those messages and rituals, the change agents calling the faithful to a higher plane. Sociologists are not what Karl Mannheim termed “ideological thinkers” working within the existing religious authority system to perpetuate its practices and ethos.21 They are what Mannheim termed “utopian thinkers” claiming outside authority that challenges the system’s recurrent social practices, those actions which, according to Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu, simultaneously and dialectically create both the consciousness of the actors and the structural conditions that make those practices possible. Sociologists are not like the choir that renders sacred choral music. They are like the truth-telling, forth-telling voices of Bob Dylan, Bruce Cockburn, and U2’s Bono.

As for the type of prophecy sociologists practice, of Swenson’s five types, a case could be made for the reformational character of their message, as they debunk institutionalized religious traditions and routinized personal faith. But perhaps the function of the Christian sociologist is more a call for renewal, a return to the original essence and purity of an institutionally compromised and complacent faith. In some sense of theologian Karl Barth’s famous phrase that “the revelation of God is the sublimation of religion,”22 the Christian sociologist faithfully unmasks the religion of Christianity, the polity of Christendom, and the ideology of what some have called “Christianism.”23

In their recent book, Prophetically Incorrect: A Christian Introduction to Media Criticism (2010), Robert H. Woods and Paul D. Patton first explore the role of both popular and Christian media in North America as being what Jacques Ellul called “priestly propaganda.” Then they describe prophets as social critics “connected to a tradition of criticism rather than acting like freewheeling, socially disconnected elitists … [who] create moral literacy that is rooted in biblical values.”24 Prophets “stimulate the moral imagination about both what is, and what if.”25

[T]he prophetic vocation today … is an overarching directive as part of the “prophethood of all believers”26 to demonstrate resistance thinking27 – that is, thinking that resists the dominant forces of our culture while simultaneously helping others imagine alternative, hope-filled ways of thinking and being.28

Is this not also in part the vocation of sociology?

From Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann’s now-classic work, The Prophetic Imagination,29 Woods and Patton draw concepts such as dominant consciousness, alternative consciousness, achievable satiation, and the religion of optimism. From Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s monumental two-volume work, The Prophets,30 they draw the profile of a prophet as one who

(1) becomes inconsolably burdened by humanity’s greed and arrogance, (2) is consumed by humanity’s fallen plight and the alienating effects of greed and arrogance on individuals and institutions, (3) rejects a spirit of acceptance among individuals and institutions toward the dominant cultural order, and (4) emotionally burns with critical images that shock the complacent out of their numbness toward the effects of the dominant cultural order.31

Ironically, in light of my aforementioned guest lecturer, they cite Flannery O’Connor as a premier practitioner of prophetic shock therapy.

In their conclusion, Woods and Patton discuss several hazards associated with cultivating a prophetic voice: (1) the depression and despair that drowns out hope, (2) the arrogance that assumes superior insight, (3) the ruthless truthfulness that fails to speak the truth in love, (4) the harmful images that, though permissible, are not beneficial, and (5) the tunnel vision that becomes consumed with a single issue.32 These hazards are minimized by maintaining accountability to the community, realizing that not everything said is prophetic, and truly loving both neighbor and enemy. In each dimension and challenge, Christian media criticism mirrors Christian critical sociology.

It may be too bold to suggest the substantive content of sociology that functions most prophetically for society in general and Christians in particular, but three related themes suggest themselves as starting points. First, and primarily, coming to comprehend the social construction of reality may initially be most unsettling, then liberating, and finally terrifying. From Plato’s ancient cave to Neo’s postmodern matrix, no one has spelled it out more convincingly than Peter Berger. “Society is a human product (externalization); society is an objective reality (objectivation); and man is a social product (internalization).”33 What Christian, having taught the sociology of religion to other Christians, has not been empathetically torn by their students’ turmoil upon apprehending the “sacred canopy?”34 Yet the process of grasping the very humanly constructed aspects of Christianity previously taken as supernatural serves to purify personal faith of its illusions.

Then again, in a show of Christian sociological self-critique, Robert Clark and S. D. Gaede exposed the self-referential fallacy, the genetic fallacy, the fallacy of relativistic inferences, and the fallacy of sociological materialism implicit in Berger’s social construction thesis.35 More recently, Christian Smith has thoroughly critiqued the strong interdisciplinary version of social constructionism which asserts that all knowledge about reality is entirely socially constructed.36 Smith defended the weak, or what he terms “the critical realist version of social constructionism,” which affirms that social institutional knowledge, such as religion, is socially constructed, but denies that all the facts of the universe, such as mountains, are so constructed. Furthermore, it is most reasonable to hold that our beliefs about reality are socially constructed, but not reality itself. God may as readily be a mind-independent, objective, brute fact of reality, as a human, institutional, social construction. The only ultimate concern for the Christian student of sociology is whether our social constructions have led us to truth or error; that is, whether God exists (ontology), not how we came to believe that God exists (epistemology).

Second, coming to comprehend structural evil through sociological analysis exposes the inadequacy of private piety alone. Sin is not just located in individual human hearts, but is equally located in the social systems and institutions we together construct and sustain, that then oppress and exploit. Denying this is, in truth, one way that Christians attempt to distance themselves from their sin, and supposedly absolve themselves of personal culpability. The effect is to make sin more insidious and odious. In Isaiah 58:1-10, God’s people are rebuilding the temple, worshipping, fasting, and observing the Sabbath, yet God tells the prophet Isaiah to “declare to my people their rebellion.” Their empty piety and self-indulgent spirituality is an affront to God, for whom sharing bread with the hungry while maintaining the yoke that oppresses them is being complicit in their oppression. God calls his people to go beyond acts of compassion and charity and instead reform their social systems, because there is little humanitarian virtue in sponsoring soup kitchens when the economic ideologies and structures we advocate and enact are what drive people to soup kitchens in the first place.

Third, coming to comprehend social injustice calls Christians far beyond merely inviting Jesus into their hearts and forging a personal relationship with him, whatever that means. Moreover, it makes social science unavoidably moral, as the third tradition of critical sociology has always maintained. It subverts the Weberian edict of value-free science, because as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, “[I]f you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”37 I recently served as the lead speaker in a series on social justice in my home church. The series was arranged by a small core of activists within the membership. The series was the logical extension of book discussions I had been leading in my church for several years, and was by attendance and energy one of the most successful adult Sunday School electives in recent memory. But the next year, when the organizing group sought continuation and expansion of the theme, we were gently but firmly shut down by our ministerial. Apparently my critique of capitalism, and my argument that the biblical call for social justice was equal to that for personal righteousness, had gone too far.

My contention is that Peter Berger has himself spoken with the voice of a prophet. Indeed, he set out to do so quite self-consciously in his first book, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies,38 though he has since moved away from the theological position he took at the time.39 The first half of the book is devoted to describing “The Nature of the Religious Establishment,” essentially a sociological assessment of North American Protestantism. The second half is dedicated to delineating “The Task of Disestablishment,” essentially a call for “a renewal of Christian faith in the modern social context that would entail a fairly radical break with the taken-for-grantedness of bourgeois culture.”40 Sociology, Berger insisted, would have a vital role to play in this process, unmasking the forces of modern life that militate against the imperatives of Christian faith. In the best tradition of critical theory, sociology would function as a renewing prophet, speaking to the religious establishment, not for it, and exposing its complicity with social construction, structural evil, and social injustice.

Whether the social location of the Christian sociologist is the more ideal-typical Weberian notion of speaking to a religious tradition from its margins, or the more Bergerian notion of speaking to the tradition from within it, is in the end a sociological technicality. The Christian sociologist has dual citizenship in two separate traditions that each in its own way resists the dominant forces of culture, while stimulating the moral imagination about “what if.” In my professional life as a sociologist, I take a critical approach to media studies with a moral voice informed by my Christian values. In my private life as a member of a Christian faith community, I advocate for social justice with a moral voice informed by my sociological imagination. Though I claim no divine revelation and am bereft of personal charisma, in both roles I sense I am experienced as more prophetic than priestly.41

The theme of the conference was “The Prophetic Imagination: Sociological Narratives in the Tradition of Peter L. Berger.” I would like to thank my colleague Valerie Hiebert (no relation) and two anonymous reviewers from Christian Scholar’s Review for their constructive comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I am also grateful for Peter Berger’s gracious interaction with it at the Association of Christians Teaching Sociology conference held in his honor.

Cite this article
Dennis Hiebert, “Problems and Possibilities of Sociology as Prophetic”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:1 , 11-20

Footnotes

  1. Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993).
  2. Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests (Boston: Beacon, 1971).
  3. David Ashley and David Michael Orenstein, Sociological Theory: Classical Statements, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2008).
  4. Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble about Language, Technology, and Education (New York: Vintage, 1988).
  5. John G. Stackhouse, “Prophetic Habits of a Sociologist’s Heart,” Christianity Today, July 8, 2002, 55-56, <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/july8/6.54.html>
  6. For a theological discussion of how the critical theory of the Frankfurt School can assist Christian theology to retrieve the prophetic imagination for a new era of Christian life in North America, see Gary M. Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
  7. Ellis Benson and Peter Goodwin Heltzel, eds., Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).
  8. Both Hunter and Smith have recently written most prophetically to Christians in both a critical and constructive manner. See James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011).
  9. Max Weber, Economy and Society, vols. 1-2 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, [1894] 1978).
  10. Thomas O’Dea, The Sociology of Religion (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966).
  11. Stephen Sharot, A Comparative Sociology of World Religions: Virtuosos, Priests, and Popular Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
  12. The table is adapted from Weber, Economy and Society, 439-442.
  13. Donald S. Swenson, Society, Spirituality, and the Sacred: A Social Scientific Introduction, 2nd ed. (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 117.
  14. Peter Berger, “Charisma and Religious Innovation: The Social Location of Israelite Prophecy,” American Sociological Review 28.6 (1963): 944.
  15. Ibid., 950.
  16. Michael Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).
  17. Ibid., 89.
  18. Ibid., 77.
  19. Weber, Economy and Society.
  20. Swenson, Society, Spirituality, and the Sacred.
  21. Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, trans. L. Wirth and E. Shils (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1936).
  22. Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion (New York: T&T Clark, 2006).
  23. Andrew Sullivan, “My Problem with Christianism,” Time, May 15, 2006, 48 <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1191826,00.html>
  24. Woods and Patton, Prophetically Incorrect, 22.
  25. Ibid., 33.
  26. Tracey Mark Stout, “Would that All Were Prophets,” in Prophetic Ethics, ed. Robert B. Kruschwitz (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2003), 15.
  27. C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).

  28. Prophetically Incorrect, xxxii-iii.
  29. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978).
  30. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets, vols. 1-2 (New York: Harper, 1962).
  31. Prophetically Incorrect, xlii.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1967), 61.
  34. Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1969).
  35. Robert Clark and S.D. Gaede, “Knowing Together: Reflections on a Wholistic Sociology of Knowledge,” in The Reality of Christian Learning, edited by Harold Heie and David Wolfe (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987).
  36. Christian Smith, What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  37. Quoted in William P. Quigley, Ending Poverty As We Know It: Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), 8.
  38. eter L. Berger, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies: Christian Commitment and the Religious Establishment in America (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961).
  39. Peter L. Berger, personal communication with the author.
  40. Paul J. Fitzgerald, “Faithful Sociology: Peter Berger’s Religious Project,” Religious Studies Review 27.1 (2001): 12.
  41. A version of this essay was originally presented at the 35th annual conference of the Association of Christians Teaching Sociology (ACTS), June 11, 2011, at St. Olaf College, Minnesota.

Dennis Hiebert

Providence University College
Dennis Hiebert is Professor of Sociology at Providence University College, Canada.