A man saw the title of the book I was reading with my morning coffee. It was something religious-sounding, so he engaged me about faith. Eventually he asked what I did, and I said I teach at the nearby Christian university. I teach sociology. “Oh, sociology?” he said. “Then you can’t really be a Christian.”
This column has its genesis in that event. That man is not alone in the Christian community in thinking that the social sciences—and the natural sciences and other academic disciplines, for that matter—are a threat to faith. While I don’t think many of us are anti-intellectual, maybe we can think more clearly about some of the issues of our times. The mind is a gift that can benefit the church. My own training as a social scientist was to apply the coolest, most analytical methodologies to the hot issues of the day.
We have hot issues. Climate change is one. (Okay, that was too easy.) But so is settler-Indigenous relations. And church divisions. And political disagreement about how to create that peaceful, just and faithful world that Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”
Then there are capitalism and social inequality. And sexuality. And whether Mennonite Church Canada staff should oppose pipelines, even to the point of getting arrested. (I come from Alberta; that’s a pretty hot issue here!)
Current social science does challenge some traditional positions on some matters. In this column I want to show how it can help us work through those issues. Can one serve in both Athens and Jerusalem? And use the tools of the mind and the life of faith?
Some years ago, I attended an evangelical church. It launched a program of “gift discernment,” asking participants to name their gifts that could benefit the church community. Of course, I knew what was being sought, as the congregation had embarked on a major building project. I didn’t have money to contribute, so I said “my mind.” The pastor approached me, laughed, and said, “We don’t really need that gift around here.” Really. Really?
If we ignore the mind and the different ways of using it, we are a weaker fellowship. After all, Paul wrote in Romans that we will be transformed by the renewing of our mind, not by ignoring or losing it.
Christian social scientists use the research-based tools of their trade to probe the issues of the day, then combine them with theological tools. Only together do they serve the goal of figuring out how to live so that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This is what I mean by “informed ethics.”
Not long ago, I heard a Mennonite pastor preach on caring for the poor. It was disheartening to hear the sermon settle into a call for charity—to “help those who can’t help themselves”—without any attention to the social structures that shape lives. The conditions in which any of us live are not entirely of our own making. An “informed ethics” could help us do faith, commitment, discipleship and shalom-creating better.
I am an immigrant to Canada. I served with Mennonite Central Committee in an Indigenous community 30 years ago and stayed in this amazing country. I’m not a cradle Menno. When I came to faith in Jesus as an adult, I was attracted to the Anabaptist commitments. Once upon a time I was a wilderness guide. I try to cycle to work, watch birds and sit on community organizations that do anti-racism and interfaith work. And I am a social scientist, trying to think coolly and faith-fully about the hot issues of our day. Hopefully you will find that perspective helpful in my upcoming columns.
Randy Haluza-DeLay teaches at The King’s University in Edmonton and attends First Mennonite Church there.