As a basic description, Christianity is the religious faith grounded on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Beyond this point, the scholarly understanding of that concept has been the object of much discussion in modern times, particularly in the realm of the social sciences. In an attempt to put some order into the social, religious, historical, and ideological reality that corresponds to the term ‘‘Christianity,’’ a synthetic account may be offered, covering its history and the main dimensions.
Christianity was, at its inception, a religious movement of messianic apocalyptic character, born from the preaching and destiny of Jesus, deemed by his disciples to be ‘‘the Christ’’ (Messiah or Redeemer), in the context of the anxieties and expectations of the Jewish religious milieu of the first century. The experiences of his followers after the death of their master and, particularly, their purported encounter with him as a resurrected person triggered the first expansion of this movement, which was perceived at the time as just another apocalyptic sect within Judaism.
Gradually, the Christian teaching reached ever more people outside the Jewish boundaries. It finally appeared as a new religious faith oriented to a broader public inside the Roman Empire, and achieved stability as a more institutional and salvific religion. The new faith expanded despite the persecutions suffered throughout the first three centuries of its existence, and finally acquired the status of the official religion of the empire. During that time, the new religion struggled to better define its own beliefs, among many contrasting interpretations, in order to organize its aggregations at all levels, and to discipline its followers.
All of this endeavor in pursuit of order was unable to prevent successive splits among different groups and ideological orientations, the most remarkable being the schism between the eastern and western branches of the church during the Middle Ages, followed by the various Reformations of the sixteenth century.
Over the centuries, Christianity has shown a particular ability to adapt to the changing social and cultural conditions within which it finds itself. It was nurtured by the waning classical paradigm of Greco-Roman society, later adapted to the new structures of feudalism in the traumatic early medieval period, and flowered during the High Middle Ages, when the faith, supported by the church, was a central element of the social and cultural configuration of society. Modern times have raised new challenges for Christianity, now impelled to search for a new balance within highly pluralistic societies and (in the western world) a less religious cultural milieu. Christianity, however, has always suffered from considerable stress caused by a polarization between two tendencies, one centripetal, seeking the establishment of a common realm, a unity that is not only religious but also cultural and political, and the other centrifugal, as some historians have shown, which is the ability of a religion to render self conscious and empower the identity of different peoples and social entities, nourishing their own self affirmation and providing the space for a more pluralistic society (Brown 1996).
At the present, Christianity is acknowledged as a ‘‘global faith’’ that numbers, according to the latest estimates, around 2 billion nominal members, spread through nearly the entire world, which assumes a multiplicity of confessional forms, Catholicism being the largest (around 1 billion members).
Sociological Dimensions Of Christianity
Christianity is basically a faith, canonically established and regulated through a system of ‘‘dogmas’’ or ‘‘mandatory beliefs’’ concerning the understanding of God and the way he saves or benefits humans. A significant feature of this faith has been its ability to engage with reason since its first appearance within Greco Roman classical culture. Indeed, for some authors, the cognitive form of the Christian religion is the synthesis between a positive, revealed religion of Semitic origin and the rational framework provided by ancient Greek philosophy. However, this synthetic encounter has not always been peaceful and is far from simple, and sometimes contrasts blatantly with the dogmatic – i. e., not open to rational enquiry – nature of its principles. It would seem that this cognitive framework is rather based on a permanent tension and dialectic between faith and reason, a tension that continually arises in the ongoing struggle to cope with new standards of rationality in the long history of Christianity. The permanent struggle with reason has been deemed a sign of vitality for a religion called to actualize permanently its core beliefs through innovation and dialogue. Furthermore, a symptom of the ‘‘rational incompleteness’’ of Christian faith is the irresolvable dialectic between its apophatic and cataphatic aspects – mysterious/ mystic and affirmative/rational. As a result, the Christian faith experiences a polarization of cognitive expressions, along the dualistic schema, which distinguishes faith as an experience of the mystery or the limits of human intelligence and faith as a way of understanding and deepening human knowledge. Even if the first seems to give rise to a ‘‘religion of mystics’’ and the second to a ‘‘religion of intellectuals,’’ Christianity has kept both ways as legitimate expressions of the same faith.
Christianity has a plurality of religious practices along its confessional lines. The tension arises this time between a more sacramental communitarian trend and a more introspective personal one. Most mainline Christian communities express their faith through a double ritual schema: the public reading and comment (preaching) of the canonical scriptures (the Bible) and the celebration of sacraments or rituals of mediation of divine force (grace). The second way of religious expression is through personal prayer, which has multiple expressions. A good deal of Christianity looks for a complementarity and balance of both dimensions, the ritual and the spiritual, but the achievement of balance varies among different Christian confessions and even within the same confession, allowing for different spiritual traditions.
Since its first days, Christian faith has been seen as a religion presided over by a quite strict moral code, struggling with an environment of more lax standards. However, Christianity has adapted its moral code to several different cultures, and has shown a certain degree of flexibility in the process. In this respect, a moral tension has been kept alive, among successive apocalyptic waves, reform movements, and the permanence of groups of ‘‘religious virtuosi,’’ more prone to strictness and to stress the difference between Christian fellow ship and a worldly way of life. Christian morality has tended to be more communitarian, emphasizing engagement for others or ‘‘love of neighbor.’’ These ethics of mutual dependence and responsibility, however, are grounded on a strong call to self awareness and the personal divine call to mission. It seems that only with this sense of individuality and personal freedom before God and his norms is it able to provide for a moral schema of social responsibility.
Christianity has been from its very beginning organized in communities of hierarchical structure, which constitute the ‘‘church.’’ The term is applied to all Christian people – at least those belonging to the same confession – and, in a more limited fashion, to any community of believers led by a pastor or priest that gathers periodically for ritual, instruction, and exchange, and offers different services to the community at large. The communitarian emphasis is not taken for granted in any part of this large religious spectrum. Indeed, some forms of Christianity have adopted a more individualistic stance. Conversely, church activity has evolved in many areas into a kind of ‘‘agency’’ providing rituals and other services to a broad public, changing significantly its meaning and becoming less personal. A second organizational trait concerns the balance between ‘‘church’’ – as institution – and ‘‘sect.’’ Christianity has lived the normal process, typified by every religious movement, of evolution from a more sectarian reality to a more institutional, open form: the ‘‘church.’’ It is not easy to know how long the process lasted, even if it appears that quite early Christianity took on an institutional, less apocalyptically oriented, form. Thus, a dual schema has persisted within the Christian organization, predominantly as an institutional church but leaving room for sectarian expressions, which historically harbored minorities of greater religious intensity. At the moment Christianity has a multiplicity of organizational forms, ranging between both extremes of the spectrum: church, denominations, cults, and sects.
Also in this case a plural panorama is noted, as Christianity has developed many models of relationship with its social environment. Many scholars, from inside and outside the Christian field, have tried to objectify this plurality, which ranges from the extreme of total integration and cooperation to the opposite, of distinction and sharp contrast. This configuration has given rise to several political systems as well (Niebuhr 1951). Even if historically Christian churches have tried to ‘‘Christianize’’ their respective societies, raising moral standards, promoting their own agenda, or implementing ‘‘Christian policies,’’ more frequently they have looked for accommodation within the social conditions of their context, adapting to successive changes. This, however, does not exclude moments of confrontation and resistance, or of unrest and social criticism, very often nourished by apocalyptic expectations. Yet, almost always, these tendencies have been those of the minority, and have represented only factions of a particular intensity, searching for social change or inspired by radical interpretations of biblical texts. Mainline Christianity has adopted a more ‘‘realistic stance’’ in its relationship with constituted powers, often serving even as a legitimizing agency, and has reacted only when the conditions for its survival have been threatened. In this respect, it is difficult to conclude whether Christian faith favors any kind of political or social agenda, as some authors have suggested. A kind of flexibility presides over its influence, which perhaps is to be seen at a different level: that of providing moral commitment and ideological empowerment to any cause deemed worthy of fighting for.
Christianity As A Sociological Question
The sociological understanding of Christianity has dealt with several problems, which sometimes have challenged, and still do, the scientific enterprise. A very short list would include: the historic question on the origins and rise of Christian faith, the paradoxical relationship between Christian religion and modernity, and the enigma of secularization or the possible end of religion.
(1) From a sociological point of view, Christian origins seem to offer a ‘‘case study’’ on the ‘‘probability of the improbable,’’ to use Luhmann’s expression. The rational reasons which might explain the success of a religious movement fail in this respect. Almost everything conspired for the failure of this project: the disastrous end of its founder, the persecutions suffered from the beginning by his followers, the hostile environment encountered among Jews and pagans. Modern times have seen several attempts to rationalize the rise of Christianity and to supply an answer to the question of its unexpected success. Liberal understandings of biblical criticism have pointed to the eschatological strength of the new religion, able to convey the anxieties of a segment of the population at that time. Marxism has shown the ability of that faith to inspire an expectation of fulfillment for masses living in the midst of miserable conditions. Nietzsche has denounced the Christian maneuver of inverting values in order to satisfy the resentment of the weakest. The list may be enriched with many other kinds of arguments. Recently, more sophisticated sociological analysis has endeavored to decipher some of the clues of Christianity’s success, in a close alliance with insights offered by modern biblical scholarship. It seems, according to this point of view, that the growth rate, through conversion, in early Christianity is not much higher than that observed in other processes of religious conversion (Stark 1996). Class, gender, and social structure are some of the factors contributing to the positive trend, and engagement with the needy, especially in times of crisis, convinced ever greater numbers of people of the advantages – rationally speaking – inherent in such a religion. It must be said, however, that aside from the fruitful engagement of biblical studies with sociology, the explanations provided by a more rational stance do not exclude, or, for that matter, require the presence of what can be called the ‘‘religious factor’’ or some measure of ‘‘religious capital.’’
(2) The problematic relationship between Christianity and modern society has been shown, perhaps better than anybody else, by Max Weber. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1906) and later works, the German sociologist struggled with the foundational role of this faith as a necessary element for the configuration of the modern western world, social differentiation, and the development of science. Weber was concerned with the historical data which showed the lack of modern forms outside of the Christian matrix, and researched the positive role played by Protestant ethics and subsequent strictness in the development of capitalist societies, even if the causal relationship was minimized as a mere ‘‘elective affinity.’’ The relationship could be broadened, as Christianity is discovered as a factor of greater rationalization in diverse fields, theoretical and practical, anticipating a modern trend. Furthermore, Christianity is perceived as a key driver in the rationalization process, either in the theoretical or in the practical dimension, and as contributing to modern development. For Weber, the dialectics between Christianity and modernity are, nevertheless, more complex. Modernity may be seen as a result of mature Christian expression, but at the same time as a factor resulting in religious crisis. Indeed, the faith that helped give birth to the modern world later suffers the pressure of modern differentiation and disenchantment (Entzauberung), which deprives it of its ideological and practical basis. In a further step, Weber has conjoined religious crisis and personal disruptions brought on by the lack of a framework where certain values and senstivities find their support. Other sociologists have tried to better understand this complex relationship, which very often appears as paradoxical: it seems that modern society can go on neither with nor without Christian faith. Functional analysis has demonstrated the needed contribution of this religion for social processes in advanced societies. That ‘‘function’’ may be construed in many ways, from the classically attributed or acknowledged capacity of social integration and moral enforcement to the more abstract views of Luhmann: the ‘‘management of contingency,’’ the ‘‘semantic openness that allows evolution,’’ and the ‘‘blocking of reflexivity’’ needed to avoid an unmanageable number of paradoxes (Luhmann 1977, 2000). At the same time, sociologists may be concerned with the negative effects that may unleash an ‘‘excess of religious faith,’’ undermining the proper functioning of a society intended as a system. There is currently a lack of empirical proof regarding the possibility of a modern society without – at least some measure of – Christian religious presence.
(3) The last observations point to the third question: ‘‘secularization’’ as a dynamic affecting the essence of Christian faith, threatening its existence and giving rise to dark expectations. Even if the discussion around the so called ‘‘secularization thesis’’ remains active, some agreement has been reached on the study pertaining to the Christian origins of the secularization process, intended as a byproduct of modernization. Many see the secularization question as a ‘‘Christian question,’’ i.e., as a problem arising from the constituency of the Christian faith, which has conceded great autonomy in many spheres of action and long acknowledged the special dignity of rational inquiry. In that sense Christianity creates the conditions for the possibility of its own historical demise, as social differentiation makes that faith more dispensable and scientific progress seems to make it more irrelevant. In other words, it would seem that the Christian faith may be more vulnerable to practical dissolution than others, being too prone to accommodation to social realities, which in the end leave no space for religious affirmation. The question refers to the Weberian perception of a kind of ‘‘social incompleteness’’ which requires in some ways the presence of the religious element that helped to implement such a society. Thus, the more a society becomes secularized, the more it needs a Christian reference. The situation is perceived as very problematic, from both a theoretical and empirical point of view: first, because, as Lo¨with (1949) has demonstrated, many ideas and values of modernity are the outcome of a secularized process of Christian ideas and values, and no one knows if these values can survive completely outside of a religious matrix; second, because the survival of a society without religion is still an open question, and a greater question is posed as to whether ‘‘modern social configuration’’ might find a firmer foundation by means of other secular or religious forms once the ‘‘Christian capital’’ has been exhausted.
Christian Faith And Sociology: An Open Question
At a deeper level, Christianity may be seen as a kind of ‘‘competing instance’’ with social science, and sociology as a renewed attempt to accomplish the enlightened tendency to ‘‘religion’s Aufhebung,’’ or its suppression and replacement by rational means. Since August Comte, sociological endeavor has been suspected of presupposing the dissolution of religion, and the sociological understanding of society has been perceived as being incompatible with the religious one. This applies particularly to western Christianity, because it has kept its own ‘‘theory of society,’’ its own view of the goals, limits, and means of social action, which have been challenged by a more enlightened or rational program (Hervieu Leger 1986). Recent theological approaches have radicalized the perceived tension and denounced the aporetic character of the attempt to provide a secular program for social development, because of the violent and nihilistic basis of such a voluntaristic enterprise (Milbank 1990). The relationship between sociology and Christianity has been marked by conflict and signed by warfare until very recently. As any other social science, sociology has been suspected of applying a ‘‘reductive stance’’ to Christian realities, hiding any element which could not be completely rationalized. The suspicion has at times reached empirical sociology, deemed as unable to ‘‘observe’’ what is, by definition, an inside and mysterious unobservable reality.
This, however, is only a part of the story. There is yet a tradition of collaboration between Christian faith and social studies. Surely there is no other religion so able to integrate and to make good use of sociological research, as this faith has, more often than not, accepted the challenge of rational inquiry, even when applied to itself. Furthermore, it is important to consider the fact of the existence of sociologists working often for church agencies and, more interestingly, recent trends in sociological research which have stressed a less reductive approach and a disposition to acknowledge a place, even a ‘‘rational weight,’’ to the ‘‘religious factor,’’ though they may apply an economic method for better understanding it (Iannaccone 1998; Stark & Finke 2000).
- Brown, R. L. (1996) The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200 1000. Black- well, Oxford.
- Hervieu-Leger, (1986) Versun nouveau christianisme? Introduction a la sociologie du christianisme occidental. Cerf, Paris.
- Iannaccone, R. (1998) Introduction to the Economics of Religion. Journal of Economic Literature 36: 1465 96.
- Lo¨with, (1949) Meaning in History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Luhmann, (1977) Funktion der Religion. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main.
- Luhmann, (2000) Die Religion der Gesellschaft. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main.
- Milbank, (1990) Theology and Social Theory. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Niebuhr, R. (1951) Christ and Culture. Harper & Row, New York.
- Stark, (1996) The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
- Stark, & Finke, R. (2000) Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Weber, (1958 ) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.
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