A CONTENTIOUS THEME
RELATIONS BETWEEN THEOLOGY AND SOCIOLOGY
– selectii –
Abstract. This article is aiming to approach the theme of the meeting between two distinct disciplines, Sociology and Theology, on epistemological grounds, in terms of method and result communication. The selected case is the religious pilgrimage, in the version of the Christian Orthodox cult – less known and studied across the Western academic world, but not less relevant, in our opinion, for the idea of mutual „accommodation‟ between Theology and Sociology of religions, in modernity.
Keywords: pilgrimage, epistemological, popular religion, memory, Orthodox
1. The state of fact
One question often pops up within the Socio-anthropology of religion: what happens when two distinct disciplines (i.e. Theology and Sociology) meet on the ground of Epistemology, in terms of method and result communication, with regard to a given topic (in our case, the study of pilgrimages), and what are the consequences of such a meeting? We granted special attention to the phenomenon of pilgrimage, an essential component of religious anthropology, that has crossed cultures and centuries. Pilgrimage nowadays has found new forms of expression, adapted to the ritual modernity. The society of the pilgrimage is one of the ephemeral and the extraordinary, in which the contaminating sacredness is profoundly articulated, together with the holiday and a kind of liberty pushed beyond the common time, so that it can only be captured on the spot, in location.
Across the Western academic world, both Theology, as an academic discipline, and the Sociology of religions have lived through a difficult period of internal reformulations, of hesitation turned into new directions of study, and new approaches of the studied phenomena. For example, Francois Isambert, a French sociologist mostly focused on the study of popular religiosity , did not hesitate stating – at the end of the 1980s – that the discipline called „the sociology of religions‟ is an „endangered species‟, because of the rarefaction of effective religious practice across France and the Catholic and Protestant Western world. Time has proven him wrong.
Moreover, the Sociology of religions has gained new momentum with its entrance in the new millennium. Where are we now, in Romania? Is there an independent discipline called „the sociology of religions‟, able to function autonomously in Romania? Can we speak about a „competition‟ between Sociology and Theology in the field of the sciences of religion, with the latter (Theology) enjoying the tradition and support of an institution like the Orthodox Church?
2. The pilgrimage: epistemic and methodological challenges
The Sociology of religions has tried a quantitative analysis of the phenomenon, somewhat in opposition with the Anthropology of religions that has mainly focused on material culture and the corporality of the pilgrim‟s gesture . On the other hand, Political economy brings into discussion the economic dimension of the pilgrimage, but loses sight of the symbolic nature of trades operated within. Finally, cultural studies increasingly tend to regard pilgrimage as a form of spiritual journey, typical for the search of an individual sense of existence, a specific trend of the late modernity that we currently live .
Gilles Deleuze used to say that the first degree of any form of knowledge is the ensemble of inadequate ideas. Pilgrimage is, in its turn, a meeting point for all intellectual, psychological, media induced and moral confusion. So how does this „state of confusion‟ have an impact on the explanation and understanding of this phenomenon?
Choosing a vocabulary able to describe „the ontological density‟ of pilgrimage as a phenomenon is yet another major challenge. In the words of Paul Ricoeur, religion is a phenomenon „of great resilience to translation‟, as translating both the religious language and the practical results of research is a real challenge for the academic community, the theological circles and mass-media, with the latter displaying a huge appetite for such topics. Since any pilgrimage into (and from) the Orthodox world is a sum of successive facts and events of an extraordinary density, another challenge for the field observer is to transform the looking into language, inasmuch as pilgrimage means condensed emotion.
The phenomenon places itself along the interpretation line traced at the beginning of the 1990s by British sociology (Grace Davie) , predicting this evolution of the contemporary religious fact towards emotional dramatization and public religions. The resilience to publication, or the ethical dimension of the anthropological research is, on one hand, a constitutive dimension of the „ego‟ of anthropology as a profession, cultivated by all the classics in this field, and on the other hand, a major problem with any research that is sensitive for the whole society.
Socio-anthropology should be “reflexive, interpretative and experimental” in order to reach beyond the tensions that inevitably occur between the studied topics, the “public culture” of religion and the technique to communicate the results .
In an attempt to clarify some of these questions, we shall refer to two landmark works, i.e. David Martin, Sociology and Theology  and John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory. Beyond Secular Reason .
5. Two ways of thinking: the sociological mind vs. the theological mind
David Martin proposes two way of thinking for the study of tensions occurring between Theology and Sociology, as a possible means of mutual enrichment. We have tried to adapt his reasoning to the case of pilgrimages. The sociologist should speak about pilgrimage as a „whole‟, studying its interactions with the political and administrative power, the law enforcement units or the binomial of „popular religion/official religion‟ (of the Church structures, to be more accurate). In their turn, anthropologists can study its functioning, the corporality of the pilgrim, the implementation of „gender studies‟ notions on pilgrimages etc.
However, the theologian shall have to speak in the name of things as a whole – everything involving – on a metaphysical level – concepts such as „redemption‟, „personal sacrifice‟, sin, expiation by waiting etc. Theology does not deconstruct, says Milbank; on the contrary, it states the sublime of social connections between people, an idea that is getting close to the concept of communitas, the universal specific of pilgrimage, as theorized and developed by American anthropologist Victor Turner , in connection with perceiving the whole society as a system based on structures bond together by liminality.
6. Appeal to transcendence
John Milbank reminds us that, because of Emile’s Durkheim‟s heritage in thinking, the appeal to transcendence is currently evicted, suspended from the explanations of the social phenomena. Religion is losing its integrative function to the advantage of the social aspect that, in its turn, achieves the status of an epistemological star, as this has now become the transcendent element. So ever since 1900, religion has been perceived as „a rival on moral basis‟, like Durkheim noted in her capital work, Sociology and Philosophy . The secular world of human sciences has become, according to Milbank, a tacit refusal of the universal categories of religious experiences, with Theology being somewhat „patronized‟ by the Western academic world, and considered as having „frustrated imaginative powers‟.
The role of memory in the study of a religious phenomenon is essential, according to John Milbank. The sociology of memory reminds us – by means of its representative Maurice Halbwachs – that religion has the long term memory that is not the same with the memory of ordinary religious phenomena, as it does not suffer from the same space and time limitations . The worshipping of saints is a classic example of „long term memory‟, as Theology is better positioned to approach that from the memory point of view; the ritual of perpetuating the memory of saints, regulated by the church for their celebration, can be an example.
7. The social context of Theology
David Martin starts from the following observations: it often happens for the theological and sociological description of a religious phenomenon to be identical. How can one explain this? In terms of pilgrimage, for example, this would mean the description of the pilgrim‟s body and the impact of the long waiting on it. What sociological categories could help theologians identify a religious phenomenon? With the pilgrimage, these would be the gender categories, the „feminization‟ of the pilgrimage, defined as the overrepresentation of women in the waiting line – which is obvious. Finally, which would be the basic conditions that would enable a dialogue of the two disciplines? David Martin suggests that a phenomenon should first be „clarified‟ from a theological point of view and only then studied, which further complicates the situation in the case of Orthodox pilgrimages, as they suffer from a large dose of ambiguity with regard to the „theologization‟ of the popular religion or the interpretation of the pietist drifts for which the Church has avoided any concrete explanations until now.
Conflicts shall keep occurring (and being abrasive, in the words of David Martin) between theologians and sociologists, just like the battle for the priority of „voices‟ within the public academic environment. However, an interdisciplinary and creative relation between the two disciplines would be welcome in order to ensure the progress of conjugated knowledge upon what we generically call „the religious person‟. Finally, John Milbank does not hesitate to state that the study of both Theology and Sociology of religions provides its practitioner with a paradoxical state of „wellness‟, which is beneficial both for science and for the individual researcher.
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