Social Constructionism

I’ve been intrigued by ideas that impact our world and therefore our faith, and yet remain relatively unknown by most people (outside of academics). Often the concepts shape a lot of peoples’ perspective, but those same people don’t know where it came from or understand the implications.

One of these theories is found in Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s book, The Social Construction of Reality, which is considered one of the most influential sociology books of the past century. I believe it is important to understand the concept because of its impact on our world. The book is one of many contributing to the topic and provides a concise (though academic) treatment of the subject.

The basic premise is that human interaction creates a system, or construct, that defines reality for further human interaction. What we consider to be common sense or universal facts are actually the by-product of a social construction. Over time, language, systems, and cultural symbols reinforce this created reality to such an extent it would be virtually impossible for us to see the world differently.

Social constructionism’s premise is often filtered through a secular lens. When interpreted this way, then there is no absolute truth nor universal morals. This is the basis of post-modernism and is especially present in the humanities. Though vogue in academia, I don’t think most people are prepared to live with the full implications of this perspective. Most people intuitively believe in universal morality and some form of absolute truth. I’d argue this is actually increasing within our culture. This creates an interesting paradox for secular America: People reject the implications of the core idea currently shaping our culture. Something is missing and we’re headed toward a crisis of intellect, but that’s another article for another time.

To be clear, the sociology of knowledge does not “prove” truth is relative. In fact, the limits of the theory are very much in dispute. I believe it’s most accurate to say absolute truth exists, but our social environment causes us to interpret some basic facts in accordance with our worldview. This creates a challenge: How do we know something to be true?

I believe in objective truth. I believe some of it can be discerned through human reason alone and is objectively seen by must cultures through most of history. I also believe that we have a difficult time separating our “social constructions” from this objective truth. Unfortunately, this calls everything else into question. If some aspects of reality are instead a social construct, then how can I know anything to be true? Herein lies the problem.

The sociology of knowledge reveals humanity’s inability to grasp and articulate pure objective truth through the sole power of human reason. The question then becomes, is there a God (or other form of truth) beyond the power of human constructs? And does that God reveal Himself to us? How can that truth be discovered?

This is the realm of faith. Faith is no less real than reason, in fact, at the heart of any rational foundation is some assumption of faith—whether spiritual or naturalistic or something else. Reason is important, but it necessarily flows from faith. Contrary to post-modernism, I believe in human reason. Contrary to modernism, I believe human reason is dependent upon faith. None of this should be new for a believer.  

Things look quite different when filtered through a Christian perspective. In fact, I believe it fits neatly within an orthodox view of Christianity and human nature. I also believe the Christian perspective makes much better sense of the human condition than its secular counterpart. The human ability to socially construct part of our reality does not limit God from having the authority over ultimate reality.

We are limited to seeing through the social construction of reality, but God is not. As believers, we understand God’s reality through divine revelation. I wholeheartedly agree that we cannot claim ultimate truth through human reason alone. We cannot know God through our own power. We may grasp certain truths, but this knowledge will be hopelessly distorted through our various social constructs. We are reliant on God revealing Himself to us and only then can we use reason to make sense of the world.

The biblical narrative teaches us that God created humanity in His image, blessed us, and gave us a vocation to name the animals and take dominion over the earth. In other words, God gave humanity creative power to construct society on earth. This is an awesome privilege. And one tragically distorted through sin.

This power was never intended to be wielded apart from Him, the true Creator. Sin is our choice to worship another authority, namely ourselves and the images we create (or socially construct). We started to construct society independently from God, and in doing so, injected destruction and death into God’s good creation. Our reality disconnected from truth. We literally live a lie. We were meant to partner with Him to extend the Garden, but because of sin, we turned it into wilderness and ruptured the relationship between God and man, between men and women, and between humanity and nature.

This all highlights the significance of the Incarnation of Christ—He became man. God gave mankind the power to construct part of our reality, so God became man to undo the mess we made through our flagrant misuse of our authority. God never abandoned His plan for humanity. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, He inaugurated a new way of living, found within His Kingdom. In Christ, we’re restored to the Creator and once again under His authority and empowered by His Spirit. The restoration project will consummate with His bodily return, when the Kingdom is fully established, and all other human constructions will be burned up forever.

Absolute truth absolutely exists. Our humanity will distort our ability to recognize it, but God, in His mercy, continues to reveal it to us. To live within truth, we are necessarily dependent. The great mistake of the last few centuries was to elevate human reason above divine revelation, as though human thought was more dependable than God’s. Reason is important and reinforces faith but must never detach from it. It’s taken far too long to realize this road dead-ends in nihilistic relativism. I’d suggest it’s time to turn the car around.  

Unfortunately, the concept of social constructionism is being increasingly filtered through secularism. We see this in many modern theorists, everyone from Marx to Nietzche to Foucalt, each with a different angle but all essentially exploring the implications of a world where truth is a tool for power rather than an absolute upon which to build.

One popular approach to these theories is to interpret all hierarchy and tradition as tools of oppression. Therefore, the thinking goes, if we eliminate hierarchy and tradition (including Christian teaching) then we will achieve social justice. A vague, non-historical idea of Jesus is okay, but a church which defines reality according to the Scripture is not.

The approach holds major internal contractions but let’s set those aside. I agree that hierarchy structures are certainly the source of much injustice and should be critically evaluated. I agree that reality has often been constructed as a tool of oppression, for example in caste systems, structural racism, and their descendants. Despite all that, blaming hierarchy is naïve; in fact, I don’t think humanity is capable of functioning without hierarchy. Authority is not the problem. Sin is the problem. We can change the constructs all we want, but we’ll find sin alive and active in whatever “just” system we create.

These ideas, once sitting on the fringe of society, have been adapted and pushed to the mainstream in an attempt to transform our society. If religion, culture, and traditional morality are merely social constructions, then they can be changed. All it takes is power. It’s the choice to double-down on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And it’s not going to end well.

America is changing, and those of us upholding the authority of the Christian faith will need to learn how to navigate the new terrain. As our society changes, we will struggle to live under God’s authority and reality defined by the Scriptures while surrounded by a culture seeking to construct a very different world. I’m not sure we’re prepared for it. 

I already see the signs. Some cultural hostility toward the church is the well-earned wages of hypocrisy, and for that we should repent. But I increasingly hear the faint clash of a deeper conflict raging just out of view. I believe authentically living our faith will lead us into more tension with our world, not less. We claim a different Kingdom and an alternative reality. This is necessarily a threat to a culture trying to construct something different. Their reality cannot be fully realized as long as we refuse to join.

It will be difficult and yet it is also the legacy of the Church. Believers have been building a new culture from the very beginning. Christians first cared for the poor in a world that placed little dignity on human life. Ditto for the fight against slavery, which Christians continue to lead. Much of what society takes from granted first originated in the Church. This is the power entrusted to us as Christ’s Body, and it’s time to do it again.

I’m completely unwilling to allow secular culture to define reality, and as a result, I’m all the more committed to anchoring my worldview in the Scripture, to pressing into the power of God, and to living this out within the church.

Modern sociology is a new perspective on an ancient conflict. Fortunately, the fight was already been won. Let’s live accordingly.

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