Robin GILL. Theology Shaped by Society: Sociological Theology, Volume 2. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2012. Pp. 219. Np pb. ISBN 978-1-4094-2597-7. Reviewed by James R. KELLY, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458

Here Gill argues that the sociology of knowledge can make an important contribution to theology, construed as a socially constructed reality that, at different times and in different circumstances, can mask inequalities or challenge them. Both shaped and shaper, theology is. The sociology of knowledge take on theology as shaped by society and culture has a long pedigree while theology as a shaper of culture and society is more recent and has become of interest to theologians and ecclesiologists (both lay and clerical), thus inviting a dialogue to which Gill has contributed to in this middle volume, its predecessor, The Social Context of Theology, 1975 and, we can safely expect, will in his already named promised completion of the trilogy, Society Shaped by Theology. Gill tends to conflate theology and churches in his more general statements. But churches don’t always act on what their theologians tell them is the case, and, as we know, the world of theology within even one tradition is multiform and usually competitive. Something to watch for in Volume 3.

In his first chapter he outlines five theses which summarize his lifetime of sociology of knowledge scholarship and structure the ensuing chapters.
1) Theology as Mere Ideology: The prime example, of course, is Marx’s and Engels’ The German Ideology where religion is reductively construed as epiphenomenal, false consciousness, spurious, and classist. Gill adds two reflections: That their thesis within a thesis point that “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” has become increasingly pertinent in sociology and theology; and, less flatteringly, that the great critiquers exempt themselves from their critique as they “appeared reluctant to reflect upon their own social status”.  Marx (and marxists) was excellent on reductionism, poor on reflexivity.
2) Theology as General Ideology: In his Ideology and Utopia (1936) Karl Mannheim advanced the exploration of the connections between consciousness and social structures by exploring their inter-connections and by incorporating Max Weber’s employment ofverstehen Mannheim moved away from a reductionism to a “relationism”; but, unlike Weber, Mannheim broaches  the dimension of reflexivity, through which he means to distinguish his “relationism” – an enveloping contexualism -  from  a universal “relativism” that results from an all pervasive social determinism . 
  3)Theology versus Ideology: This perspective (Max Scheler, Werner Stark, John Milbank, and increasing numbers of theologians) goes further and deeper than Mannheim’s relationism and, at least implicitly, acknowledges this possibility of an ontology which, while accepting its contingency, aspires to the possibility of thought – including theology – being grounded in objective truth. The power of physics need not reduce metaphysics to the dust of the distant past.  In distinguishing between rationalism and reason I think Bernard Lonergan’s  notion of  horizons of thought would make this section even more cogent [See 1].
 4) Theology as Socially Constructed Reality: As Weber did in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, this perspective views theology, like other collective intellectual efforts, as both  social construct and  social force; there’s no sociological law decreeing that a dependent variable can’t grow up to become an independent variable.  However, Gill feels that those working in this vein (G. H. Mead, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, and several contemporaries) have narrowed their focus to the micro level of everyday life, which is fine but insufficient in terms of the intellectual pedigree and the promise of sociology of knowledge.
5) Critical Theory and Power: Here Gill moves the preceding theses that serially develop to the position that religion and theology “once constructed and, particularly, once ‘internalized’ becomes a social ‘reality’ and potentially a socially significant reality” into the expanding contemporary postmodern spaces of Critical Theory, where Michael Foucault’s post-marxist and relativistic linkage of knowledge and power reigns. Gill endorses approaches that explicitly include reflexive efforts to discern the links between biography and thought that, moving beyond a Weberian value-freedom, intends  a sociology of knowledge pervaded by an evolving self-awareness” (p. 28) [See 2].

Thus, Gill’s recommendation for a sociology of knowledge applied to theology is comprised of the suspicions of marxist sociology, the relationism of Mannheim, and the possibility of the critique of ideology endorsed by Scheler, Stark, and Milbank, resulting in a critically reflexive “independent/ dependent”, “both/ and” perspective applied not just to everyday life but to the macro world of politics and culture.  Gill’s core axiom is that the origins of social constructions and their validity can be differentiated and that the method of sociology(ies) of knowledge “should not be exalted into an ontology” (88). He adds, “Indeed, the sociology of knowledge is itself destroyed by its own axioms, since it is not difficult to relate the development of the discipline to particular socio-political factors. It was to avoid this obvious trap that Mannheim chose to use the term relationism…. (to escape) some of the connotations of the terms relativism and ... social reductionisms” (88). 

Gil’s own academic and cultural interests and activities seem to have destined him to write a trilogy on the sociology of knowledge and religion. For him, reflexivity arcs to integrity. He tells us that he served as a theologian on the Medical Research Council’s Stem Cell Bank Steering Committee and wrote A Textbook of Christian Ethics (2006). In his study of the secularization debate in terms of declining attendance he characterizes his research role as “an involved participant” who was invited by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, to discuss his data with bishops and clerics. (114). In his most engaging chapter 8 THEOLOGY EXEMPLIFIED BY MUSIC he employs music as an apt analogy to contrast the limitations of particularism (versus pluralism) in religion,  acknowledging that, while a Bach worshiper,  he wearies of Bach, at least during Bach Week, and eagerly turns to other forms of music, especially jazz. In the contemporary interfaith and interreligious world of multiple and divisive monotheisms and polytheisms,  Gill turns to the  manifold embodiments of music (Gregorian chant, Beethoven, rap, etc.) for a telling analogy to respond to the philosopher  Hillary Putnam’s existential challenge, Why should anyone “concede epistemic authority to any (one) religion”?

In a Chapter 8 subsection entitled OBJECTIVITY IN MUSIC AND FAITH dealing with religions’ central dilemmas of particularism, objectivity, and maleficence (religions’ egregious social consequences, as per the “new atheism” [See 3]),  he engages Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus, Michael Foucault’s gaze, Michael Polyani’s tacit knowledge and argues : “Both music and religious faith need critical evaluation. Yet for both it is notoriously difficult actually to specify the rational criteria for making this evaluation. Some would argue that there is simply no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music, there is just music that we happen to prefer or not; similarly with religious faith, morality and aesthetics. In all of these areas there are philosophers who claim that there never can be any ‘objectivity’. Tempting as this solution is, it finally reduces music, religious faith, morality and aesthetics (almost everything that makes life worthwhile) to personal taste or whimsy. Is a love of Bach or Aquinas really just whimsy; is commitment to social justice…? (200). For his hermeneutical criteria for characterizing a social construct as “better” than its alternatives, Gill suggests three: 1) whether something endures, 2) whether it has ‘depth’, and 3) whether it is multidimensional. But this is on his third to last page. To see how these criteria empirically apply and whether they  enable sociologists and theologians to discern how socially embedded churches and their theologies, especially in their prophetic traditions and their evolution, can shape and challenge their powerful enveloping societies, we must await Volume Three.

[1] Bernard. Lonergan, Insight: A study of human understanding (1957); Method in theology (1972). Also pertinent is Paul Ricoeur’s work on memory, hermeneutics and the achievement of “second naiveté”.  In terms of a social science paradigm it will be interesting to see if Gill’s Vol. 3 is as conceptually sophisticated as Parsons’cybernetic modeling of culture, society, psychology, and behavioral organism.

[2] A recent linking of precisely the interconnection between self-growth, metaphysics, and empirical science is Neil Ormerod, “Bernard Lonergan and the Recovery of a Metaphysical Frame,” Theological Studies, Dec. 2013, Vol.74, No. 4  (2013:960-982).

[3] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason,(2004); Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon(2006; Gill calls Dennett the most sophisticated of the “new” atheists); Christopher Hitchins, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, (2007); Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2008).