Monday, August 18, 2008

The Contribution of the Social and Human Sciences to Spirituality

An earlier post argued that theological reflection is an insufficient basis for living a Christian life. Detached from a connection with not only the life or prayer, on the one hand, and a connection with daily life on the other, theology risks becoming a self-indulgent fantasy. We need the contributions and insights of the social and the human sciences. The best way to see that is to simply apply the insights of the empirical studies to a pastoral problem in the Church.

Think of the number of adults who join, and then, leave the Orthodox Church. If better than 50% of those who enter the Church as adult will eventually leave it would seem that we are overlooking something in our catechesis and reception of these people. What we are missing is not in the strict sense a theological but empirical question. Indeed theology as such, does not have the resources to even uncover the fact that many of our converts will later defect from the Church. This is an insight that we owe to the work sociologists.

I think it was James Fowler, who studies the psychology of faith development, who said somewhere that social scientists are professional gossips. What is meant by this is that the social scientist specializes in those sources of information that are not necessarily officially sanctioned, but which nevertheless "everybody" knows, but that they don't necessarily know that they know. Especially in matters of Church life, because we value unity of faith, we sometimes overlook or leave unspoken those things which would contradict our desire to appear as one.

And this then is the second epistemological element of the social and human sciences. Whether quantitative or qualitative in content, empirical work is often subversive in character. Owing to this subversive tendency, the social and human sciences are often allies of different political or moral ideologies such as feminism or gay rights. But this tendency toward what in American would be considered a more leftist or liberal agenda is not inherent to empirical work as such. It reflects as much the character and interest of the researcher as it does his or her science.

At its best, empirical work helps us call into question our own preconceptions and prejudices about the world of persons, events and things that make up our everyday life. For example, there is interesting research being done at George Mason University in the economic study of religion. Some of this research suggests that "strict" religions tend to grow while "non-strict" or "liberal" religions do not. Examining the research a little more closely and we see that "strict" doesn't mean authoritarian, much less abusive, but rather refers to those religious traditions that have relatively high expectations for who their members will behave. "Liberal" religions, on the other hand, tend to have minimal expectations for their members. Further, when we look at questions of ministry, "strict" religions tend to encourage members to be actively involved in some aspect of the form of service valued by their tradition. On the other hand, "liberal" religions tend to see themselves as providing services for their members.

In other words, a growing parish is likely to encourage young mothers to work together to meet their own, and other people's child care needs. A declining parish would simply establish a day care with paid staff. Or, to take another example, a growing church is growing because it expects, and makes possible, people's commitment to serve others both inside and outside the their tradition while declining churches tend to see themselves as there to take of their own members.

Interestingly enough, none of this is linked to whether or not the community is theologically conservative or progressive. Rather, and this is worth reflecting on at another time, it seems to be that growing communities are outward looking in their service and are so because they view God as actively engaged in creation. In other words, if we preach a God Who is actively engage with humanity, and then actively encourage and support each other in imitating that God in our personal and communal lives, we are likely to grow. And again, this has very little to do with the usual typology of "liberal" and "conservative" as those terms get taken over into religion from politics.

If over 50% of our converts leave, we might at least wonder if it is because we have no ministerial opportunities for them after we receive them. Interestingly, a large number of male converts who stay, go on to take holy orders (even as, I suspect, a large number of female converts marry to, or will be married to, men who are later ordained). But for the majority of converts, there is simply no place for them to use their own unique gifts and talents.

Compare this to say the situation in a large Greek ethnic parish. The annual Greek food festival, to take but one example, provides an opportunity for a large number of lay people to share in a project that offers a valued service to those outside not only the parish but also outside the community's ethic and theological tradition. Often (in my experience at least) while the majority of those who participate in the food festival are Greek, a fair number are also non-Greek parishioners (whether converts or cradle Orthodox Christians). This helps me at least answer a question that I, and many have had for a while. Why is it, and contrary to what seems to be a general preference for English and a less "ethnic" (i.e., Greek, Russian or Arab) feel even among cradle Orthodox themselves, that ethnic parishes continue to exist and even grow numerically? I suspect that the parish institution of the food festivals are a significant factor in why even intentionally and heavily ethnic Greek parishes are successful (and they are, often fostering not only converts, but also vocations to seminary and monastic life).

My pastoral problem I have with food festivals is not with the festival as such. It is rather with the relative lack of other, equally valued and socially supported opportunities, for service by parishioners to those outside the parish. (If anyone is interested in working with me to generate ideas in how to build on the food festival and use it to expand the ministry of the Church, please feel free to email me privately.)

I hasten to add, that this is not universally the case by any means. There are, for example in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, several standout communities (for example, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mount Lebanon, PA works extensively with the Orthodox Christian Mission Center providing both financial support and missionaries. Another stand out program is Camp Axios for inner city children sponsored by Saint Sophia's Greek Orthodox Church in Los Angles). But even in those parish that more oriented to outward service, there is a tendency to be more concerned with serving "our people" rather than in encouraging "our people" to serve. And again, it is important to emphasize that the specific content of service is less important than the fact that service, ministry, by the parishioners themselves and for others (especially, though not exclusively, outside the parish) is not only expected, but fostered, encouraged, and supported.

Theological scholarship can, and certainly does, support the findings of the social and human sciences. But left to itself, Orthodox theology does not necessarily have the resources to translate faith into action. This is not, I should add, to say that the social and human sciences should replace theology. Just as we aspire to a syndiakonia between clergy and the laity, likewise scholars in theology and the empirical sciences should work together for the sake of the building up of the Church.

Some of this work is already being started.

For example, Alexei D. Krindatch, who administers the "Parish Life Project" at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, CA, has done several empirical studies meant to examine "the inner realities of Orthodox parish life in the United States and to investigate major problems facing American Orthodox Churches." While this work is valuable, more needs to be done. Sociological studies such as those done by Krindatch need to be extended up and complimented by studies that help us understand the experience of the faithful in the parish.

In my next post, I will examine how the findings of the social and human sciences can help the Church meet the need for the spiritual formation of both laity and clergy in the parish.

As always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, but encouraged.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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