John Milbank's Theology & Social Theory is one of the more complex and challenging books on my shelf. It's one of those books that caused a shock when it was written, and now is a key reference text, and de rigueur for anyone doing theology and looking at culture and social theory.
Despite its complex construction Milbank's thesis is very simple and easily adopted. It has been assumed that social theory/sciences (sociology for example) and theology are two separate and self sustaining disciplines. But Milbank alerts us to how that is not the case and how social theory/sciences already contain great amounts of theology and theology contains large amounts of social theory.
Simple, brilliant and obvious (and for a short article explaining Milbank's thesis see this article
by Fergus Kerr). But what does that mean in practice?
Often people explore and make accounts of churches using surveys and other social scientific methods. They then with their map from that process, try to apply theology to that, and make sense of what is happening. Milbank's work shows us how this is problematic and something to avoid. We don't accept the accounts of the world and people from social science, and then seek to make theology conform to those accounts. The accounts we make already have theological contours to them and within them. And this process denigrates theology, making it serve social science/theory.
And this fallacy can be performed the other way, constructing theological accounts that force social science to be in service to them inappropriately.
So more simply perhaps, what might that look like?
How about a popular book that explores how bees, ants, star fish and spiders, pirates etc organise and live. Then we take that theory and say here is a way for church to be. Cell Church, Organic Church, Pirate Christianity etc. We jump from a social scientific story from nature, call it organic and then demand that church must confirm to this story. Usually we are choosing accounts that confirm what we already think and feel about Church when we do this.
For example, if you hate the idea of organisation you'll gravitate towards books about self organising. But you won't like books about the hierarchical nature of how wolves life in the wild, no matter how organic they are. If we stop and explore why we like books about self organising instead of hierachy, it would reveal some of our deepest theological commitments.
For there is theology within stories of star fish and spiders. For example observations of star fish and spiders might tell us what it means to be a spider and not a human being. Then for those who extrapolate that terrorists cells are like star fish, ergo church could operate the same way, is to also miss out that star fish arrangements might make good terrorists. But is that the kind of human being churches should make?
There is a worry and long established trend to take metaphors from the world around us, ants, bees, pirates and fail to read the theological commitments within them already.
But we do need to take social science seriously. It provides us rich and thick accounts of our field of concerns. But how do those of us wanting to engage in theological reflection understand social science and theory? Like me you might not have time to undertake a degree in social science/theory. Instead a primer and good introduction to social science/theory might help.