Reading Notes on Theology and Social Theory by John Milbank (part 3)

Milbank moves on to lay out a genealogy of sociology, tracing its origins from Malenbranche to Durkheim.

Secular social science faces a great connundrum: do humans construct society or does society construct humanity?

A theological answer would be that both individuals and society are part of a created order and the order and our place within it is discovered via revelation.

The classical liberal solution is to emphasize that individuals construct the social world they inhabit. We abstract generalities from the particularities of our social arrangements and thus create and recreate our conception of the social.

The alternative – which Milbrank traces to Durkheim – is to see the social as prior to the individual and providing the prior cultural and linguistic framework in which an individual identity is constructed. This is what Milbank calls sociology.

For sociology, social arrangements are a given, and all other human activities, especially religion, serve the end of reinforcing these arrangements. For sociology, the social is pre-political, natural and governed by laws which the sociologist seeks to uncover and elucidate. The social thus supplants religion as providing a pre-political myth which explains all other human endeavors.

By positing “the social” as basic, sociology claims to explain religious mythos as metaphysical masks placed over the deeper structures of the social. Theology, on the other hand, holds that the mythos explains the social, that is, there is a certain social order ordained by God in which individuals find their place. Sociology thus isn’t merely secular and scientific, but is actually provides an alternative theological superstructure on which to base all reflections on reality, one that replaces God with the social and thus all religion is really just a mask for pre-existing, naturally occurring, structuralist social arrangements.

Thus sacrifice points not to attempts to appease or manipulate a deity, but instead reflect the fact that all social relations are governed by the threat of violence (i.e. death) and so societies must find a way of dealing the anxiety caused by the threat of death by ritualistically acting it out upon a sacrificial victim who temporarily alleviates this anxiety and allows the social order to continue to function.

All religion has to fit into the box of the social and all religious discourse is translatable into sociology, religion is never really talking about what it says it is, and so sociology never allows it to speak on its own terms. This is always really about that.

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