The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, L / l

The Sociology of Dogmatics: Niklas Luhmann's Challenge to Theology
Garrett Green
emands that theology take seriously its social and cultural context have been voiced repeatedly in recent years, both by theologians themselves and by their interpreters and critics in other fields. It has long been apparent that insights into the sociology of knowledge have important implications for theology as for all areas of human inquiry. The growth of religious studies as a field—and increasingly as the intellectual and institutional environment for theologians in the English-speaking world—has intensified pressures to take account of the external social world in which theology is done. Though these pressures have led theologians to pay more attention to sociology, social anthropology, and social history, the only concrete result seems to have been a proliferation of methodological proposals and programmatic essays. Another demand frequently heard in the midst of the disciplinary identity crisis through which theology has been struggling since the passing of the great systematicians who dominated the 1930s, 40s, and 50s is for an alternative to theologies based on metaphysical presuppositions or ontological principles. This appeal was sounded earlier by Karl Barth, but neither his alternative nor any other has achieved widespread acceptance by contemporary theologians, who continue to insist on the need for a new kind of fundamental or foundational theology. For the most part, of course, these theological frustrations have remained an in-house affair, attracting little attention from other disciplines. Hecently, however, a notable exception has appeared on the scholarly horizon: a comprehensive theory of religion, by a thoroughly "secular" sociologist,


^arrett Green (Ph.D., Yale) is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Connecticut College and has recently spent two years as an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fel'(nv at the University of Tübingen. He has translated and written the introduction to '' 'elites Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (Cambridge University Press, 1978).

if at all. more abstract. sociologist at the University of Bielefeld in West Germany. The dialogue with theologians that Luhmann expressly invites has begun to take shape in G e r m a n y . For Luhmann makes the bold claim. But theologians (and church leaders) should also beware of being flattered into accepting too quickly a definition of their own enterprise which offers answers to fundamental questions that they have been unable to answer for themselves. merely as an epiphenomenal superstructure obscuring the underlying economic. that sociological analysis can explain not only the "externar' actions of religious individuals and institutions but also the "inner" realm of faith and religious experience that has been so jealously guarded by modern theology as its exclusive preserve. Luhmann himself warns that "the relations that could be established between sociological theory and religious dogmatics are closer. in which his theory of religion—including an attempt to provide a sociological grounding of theology—appears in its most developed formulation. followed by an attempt to recount the broad outlines of his theory of religion (II) and the special role of "religious dogmatics" (III). and cultural realities of religious behavior. .20 Garrett Green which assigns a major social function not just to religion generally but to dogmatic theology in particular. The opportunity for intensive dialogue between sociology and theology at a sophisticated theoretical level is to be welcomed. From the prolific pen of Niklas Luhmann. because it speaks directly to the two issues mentioned at the outset. and theologians should be appreciative of a social-scientific theory that takes the theological enterprise seriously enough to enter into its problems and procedures in detail. ascribes to "religious dogmatics" a crucial role in the guidance of religion./2/ the first step must be a brief description of the nature and aim of his theory as a whole (I). Ecclesiastical interest in Luhmann has also spread beyond the theological faculties to leaders of the West German Protestant churches. political. / l / especially since the publication of Funktion der Religion. in contrast to most of the tradition of sociology. comes a theory that restores religion to a central position in sociology. In view of the exceptional linguistic and conceptual demands that Luhmann makes on his readers. who have engaged his services as a consultant. which* continue both to fascinate and to frustrate the work of theology: the social location and significance of the theological enterprise itself. Luhmann's thought is of particular relevance to theologians. more fruitful. and more dangerous than one commonly assumes" (1977:73). Luhmann offers a refreshing change from sociological theories that treat theology. and the need for a new kind of theory independent of metaphysical and ontological presuppositions. Then on the basis of this account I want to highlight the challenges posed by the theory for Christian theology and to suggest the direction that an adequate theological response should take (IV). and the nearly total absence of English translations of his work. and even enables a detailed sociological analysis and critique of specific Christian doctrines.

1974:196-97). a comprehensive framework for all special scientific endeavors. e.g.). he proposes not simply a particular sociological theory but rather a complex and multifacted "Supertheorie" (1978:927). 1951. frankly relativistic. for which his favorite pejorative is alteuropäisch (e. evolutionary theory and communications theory (1975:193-203). Luhmann's works are sprinkled with anglicized German and sociological English—"adaptive upgrading. For Luhmann makes some bold—even audacious—claims on behalf of his theory that put him in competition not only with the theories of other sociologists but also with the main traditions of Western philosophy.The Sociology of Dogmatics: Niklas Luhmann's Challenge to Theology 1 21 Luhmann emerged as a social theorist to be reckoned with in a published debate with Jürgen Habermas which attracted the attention of German academics beyond the ranks of professional sociologists. and characterized by the ability to combine high degrees of both choice (Beliebigkeit) and specification (1975:200-201). He repeatedly contrasts this type of theory to old-style metaphysical and ontological theories. (In a reversal of the German-laden English prose familiar to theologians. "The goal of knowledge. openly announcing his intention to "resolve epistemology into an instance of the application of systems theory" (1977:17). After a late start in academic life—he first studied law and had a career in public administration—Luhmann has been making up for lost time at a breathtaking pace in a series of essays and books covering most of the main areas of modern society. lacking any fixed points of reference.. Luhmann normally refers to his program as functional systems theory. To make matters even more complex (not a drawback according to Luhmann's criteria). is his attempt to solve philosophical problems by sociological means (Hondrich:89ff." he claims. Luhmann. but control over alternatives" (1974. self-identical substance in its essence. These various theory elements cannot he reduced to a unified base. is quite explicit about his designs on territory traditionally occupied by philosophy. But to consider Luhmann's theory simply from the point of view of sociology as that field has usually been understood would be to risk seriously misconstruing both its content and its significance for theology." . To achieve this goal. for his part. "is no longer the establishment of unchangeable." "loose coupling. and he draws many of his key concepts from Talcott Parsons (cf.g. he links up systems theory with two other recent theoretical enterprises.. His work is tied together by a general theory of society both comprehensive in scope and grounded in a conceptually in sharp contrast to other European sociology. 1968). He sees himself as the proponent of a qualitatively new kind of theory.") This Parsonian base has been developed further by the use of concepts derived from Husserlian phenomenology.36). and its chief weakness. yet they "mutually presuppose one another. One critic maintains that the motive underlying all of Luhmann's work..

which can be combined with elements from the others in a process of "relationizing" to achieve new and more sophisticated means for analyzing particular social phenomena. In analyzing social experience and behavior. which it does by selectivity. an order for defining and maintaining a boundary" (1975:211." Complexity means that the world "has no limits". . The basic concepts of systems theory. Such a theoretical point of reference can be fixed by locating a particular problem for which the social system seeks a solution. Luhmann calls this kind of theory functional-structural. he thus endeavors to establish not unchanging entities or structures of being but rather abstract reference-points from which apparently diverse social phenomena can be fruitfully compared. He characterizes the resulting mode of argumentation as "neither linear. "the ultimate attainable material reference-problem of functional inquiry. "a system is its difference from the environment. system and environment. In the latter theory. emphasis added). the environment is defined relatively as everything lying beyond the boundaries of the system. One further way in which Luhmann seeks to overcome the limitations of the old European tradition is especially important for his theory of religion.22 Garreit Green Each of them is a "self-referential" complex of concepts. The function of the system is to maintain a complexitydifferential between itself and its environment. he replaces unitary concepts with relations. or even recognized (1973:35). the structure of the system is presupposed as the basis for investigating the functional achievements required to maintain the system." he acknowledges that the results are extremely complicated. nor circular. II The point of departure for Luhmann's theory of religion is the problem of complexity. Stated most simply. Although Luhmann affirms the goal of combining these independent elements into "a coherent theory." "different possibilities of behavior [and] social circumstances that appear externally to be quite diverse can be treated as functionally equivalent" (1974:35). Luhmann argues that functional-structural systems theory has the major advantage of being able to treat the systematic structure itself as a question and to investigate the meaning and function of system-building in general (1974:113-14). but labyrinthine"—and few of his readers are likely to disagree. In order to avoid fixed ontological presuppositions. are directed to this problem: systems are structured arrangements for reducing complexity by limiting and controlling contacts with the environment. When viewed from the perspective of such a "referenceproblem. in contrast to the structural-functional systems theory advocated by Parsons and others. it always contains more possibilities than can be realized. he likens them to the patterns created by the intersecting concentric waves produced by three stones thrown simultaneously into the water.

it becomes the "catalyst" for the development of religion (1977:20). The definitive problem for religion—its reference-problem—is the transformation of indeterminate into determinate complexity. But all selection entails the risk of omission and error. religion must itself venture to give representational form to indeterminate appresentation. the world forever eludes definitive formulation. Religion fulfills this function by "sacralizing" the realm of the indeterminate through a process of "ciphering. since their purpose is not to point to something different. Their simultaneous presence in all human life is the fundamental fact to which religion responds. the surprising. calls the first experience representation and the second appresentation. "more is continually appresented than can be represented" (1977:22). In order to carry out this task. unlike signs. "In all meaningful experience and action. the inaccessible environment beyond." Luhmann explains. or determinate complexity. since they disguise and replace their origin." Ciphers are not simply symbols." They replace the indeterminate. human individuals and societies. adapting terms from Husserl's phenomenology. For this reason the function of religion in transforming indeterminate into determinate complexity remains . are not substitutable. the environment is necessarily twofold: it consists of what has been selected systematically. The social system is therefore subjected to a continuous pressure to give shape to the elusive transcendence beyond the accessible environment. experienced as the unexpected. and also hide it. one which can compensate for the inevitable risk of selection and protect against the threat of arbitrary change in the relationship of system and environment. an accessible environment of ordered and familiar things and events subject to normal expectations and probabilities. indeterminate complexity. This extremely abstract description can be rendered somewhat more specific by concentrating on those systems of special concern to the sociologist: what Luhmann calls "meaning-constitutive psychic and social systems"—in other words. leaving it a mere "empty horizon" without reality (1977:33). on the other hand. the disappointing ("intangible like a bang behind one's back" [1977:17]). thereby "generating knowledge by reductive determination" (1977:84-85). "But over the course of a long history. Here the selection necessary for meaningful experience and action precipitates the following twofold environment: on the one hand. Precisely because the problem is insoluble.The Sociology of Dogmatics: Niklas Luhmann's Challenge to Theology 23 by strictly limiting the quantity and nature of contacts with the environment. but because representation always takes place in a context of further appresentation. they correspond to what in traditional terms would be called reality and possibility. "it specializes its particular efforts on representations that absorb the risk of representation" (1977:27). and also of what has not been selected. "they have their meaning not in any relation to something else but are it themselves. to represent and formulate it." Luhmann writes. Luhmann. Religion performs the social function of transforming this indeterminable world into a determinable one. As a result of the process of selection. Ciphers.

and die out." He also finds it superior to monofunctional definitions of religion solely on the basis of its integrating function. and negatively. to which we will return below. Luhmann's concept also contains an evolutionary dimension. and experienced as the sense that anything actual might also be otherwise: why is the world like this instead of any number of other possible ways? The function of religion is to deal with this problem. which function to determine the indeterminate in the specific case of individual statustransformations. The continuous pressure of the reference-problem "catalyzes" the development of a wide range of religious forms. are exposed to ceaseless evolutionary influences. The basic problem posed by the twofold environment and the need to transform complexity or contingency does not simply produce a stable functional structure but rather initiates a developmental process. "to transform indeterminable into determinable contingency" (1977:189). which vary according to cultural and historical conditions. Although the functional aspect of religion is thereby given. as the problem of contingency. in relation to a particular problem. and burial. Luhmann discusses two examples (1977:114ff. Religious institutions." both for religious experience and for dogmatics. This situation poses the problem of contingency. Luhmann analyzes it. In simplest terms. in contrast to solutions offered by functionally equivalent forms. undergo change. logically defined as the negation of both necessity and impossibility. But even the reference-problem does not remain unchanged but splits apart into relatively more concrete and soluble special problems. which is contradicted by the facts. as in the Christian rites of baptism. An example of religious ciphering—the most important one in Western culture—is the formula Gód. But Luhmann's concept of religion is not sufficiently defined by describing the reference-problem. he is saying that social choices always take place in a context of further unrealized possibilities. confirmation.). His aim is to replace two-term functional relations with three-term relations that can determine the function of religion both positively. He claims that this "detached conceptuality" is precisely the advantage of functional analysis over "a definitory-categorizing procedure. or its interpretive function. in a way analogous to biological evolution. producing a long history in which various forms are generated. The first is the so-called rites of passage.24 Garrett Green "latent. using the concepts of modal logic. Luhmann's theory makes it impossible to define religion either solely by its reference-problem or solely in terms of the functions it develops in response to this problem. A second example is the religious function of explaining and absorbing disappointments. which "short-circuits" analysis by simply presupposing the need to interpret as an unexamined given (1977:10-12). His concept of religion thus tries to account . Indeterminate complexity thus serves as the general reference-problem for which religion assumes special responsibility in the social system. marriage. which are experienced either as anxiety in anticipation of future possibilities or as insecurity occasioned by past disappointments.

(2) the relation to other subsystems within society is performance. three types of relations are internally differentiated: (1) the relation of the subsystem to the total social system takes the form of function. etc. to do justice to its diverse forms in such a way that "one can nevertheless also say that they 'always mean the same thing'" (1977:20). The religious system retains a connection to the total society but specializes in fulfilling a particular function. sociologists who have produced general theories of religion (Marx and Durkheim. and theology (1977:54-59). Ill Luhmann's sociology of theology is a further development of his general theory of religion but one that plays a particularly crucial role and constitutes the most original feature of the theory. respectively. socially by encounters with other re ugious systems. As in all self-referential systems. Luhmann lays claim to a theoretical perspective from which he can not only explain religious dogmatics generally but also analyze the social functions of particular doctrines. even to the extent of proposing explicit theological reforms. First. and (3) its relation to itself is differentiated as reflection. Theology. In the religious system of the modern West (Luhmann apparently has only the Christianity of Europe and North America in view) these three appear. A second kind of differentiation is meanwhile occurring within the subsystem in response to its increased autonomy and to obstacles encountered in performing its function. Traditionally. for example) have had little to say about the specific contents of theology. the social system develops in such a way that the religious function comes to be differentiated as a special subsystem enjoying considerable independence from the total system as well as from other subsystems. Theology accordingly emerges in social evolution in response to threats to religious identity. science. Modern global society has largely moved beyond the earlier stages of segmentary and stratified organization. social service. or "religious dogmatics"—Luhmann uses the terms almost interchangeably—emerges in the course of the religious evolution of Western Christendom. Two sorts of differentiation that occur in social evolution must be distinguished. as church. religion. and temporally by increasing distance from its historical . both of which play a role in the emergence of theology. Assigning to theology responsibility for the reflection of the religious system means that its primary subject matter is the identity of the system itself. which may be occasioned practically by the »ailure of religious intentions in reality. becoming highly differentiated into autonomous functional subsystems for politics. while those who have produced sociological analyses of particular doctrines (such as Max Weber's work on capitalism and Protestantism) have not provided a comprehensive account of the sociological meaning of theology as such.The Sociology of Dogmatics: Niklas Luhmann's Challenge to Theology 25 for both the unity and variety of religion. economy.

If the function were to become explicitly thematic." the theological function has become more rather than less important in the modern era. religion would be exposed to comparison and possible replacement. The religious formula God has traditionally reduced the complexity of the world by grounding its contingency in a supreme principle conceived a¡ both perfect and personal. Undoubtedly the most important of these doctrinal excursuses is Luhmann's interpretation of the concept God as the "contingency formula" of Western religion. experienced in the religious system as "secularization. One wonders whether Luhmann might revise thil judgment if he were aware of recent process theology. thus increasing the interest and potential fruitiulness of a dialogue between sociologists and theologians. As religion becomes increasingly free of specific situations in the course of social evolution. The task performed by ritual at an earlier stage of religious evolution is transformed by "adaptive upgrading" into dogmatic interpretation. These analyses include some of his most interesting and original observations. Dogmatics does not treat its social function as an explicit theme but reflects on religious themes and symbols. h theology that responds to contingency today with a concept of a perfect Goq thus comes into conflict with an evolution-oriented science. Religious dogmatics can be defined as the "verbal and conceptual equipment for this interpretive function" at any given cultural and historical point in its development. which reduces to calculable proportions the arbitrary possibilities expressed in the wish to have more or to have something else. Contingency formulas are defined as "symbols or groups of symbols that serve to translate the indeterminate contingency of a particular functional sphere into determinable contingency" (1977:201). Dogmatics therefore grows up as a kind of ersatz for the latent function. which in turn are related to experience. Luhmann believes that theology has encountered difficulty since the eighteenth century because perfection has been replaced by the principle of development as the highest ideal of bourgeois society. But the deepest roots of reli-J gious dogmatics are embedded in the original ciphering of the religious function. Under the impact of the functional differentiation of society.26 Garrett Green origin and source of revelation (1977:59-61). An example from another social sphere is the formula scarcity in the economic system. In this regard theology can be most fruitfully compared not with science but with jurisprudence (1977:85-88). it develops a need for interpretation. a replacement for the missing functional consciousness of religion. including sociology (1977:133). Particularly significant in contrast to other sociological theories of religion is the central function that Luhmann assigns to theology for the coordination of the whole religious system. . Luhmann argues both that religion performs the task of transforming indeterminate into determinate complexity and that it remains unconscious of this function. \ The seriousness with which Luhmann takes theology is most evident in the detailed analysis he devotes to a wide range of particular Christian doc-$ trines.

. however." analogous to truth. but it also offers constructive possibilities by provoking theologians to rethink their own enterprise. it must guard against both "inflation" and "deflation" of faith by holding it in balance between the extremes of inflexible fixation and vapid neutralization. to employ the analytical tools of systems theory as a basis for its guidance of the religious system (1977:271). subject matter. it is by definition the self-reflection of religion. Even a theory which theology dare not accept uncritically or on its own terms may nevertheless contain useful insights and suggest theoretical models which theologians can put to work for their own purposes and according to their own proper criteria. theology would be acquiescing in a definition of its own work that would fundamentally alter its nature and betray its basic commitments. and by demonstrating new conceptual resources. "Communications media. most theologians seem either to have ignored the issue or quietly acquiesced to a consensus that their work serves the enterprise called religion. love. The persistent problem of relating theology to its social environment would seem to be the point at which functional systems theory could make its greatest contribution to the work of theology." The issue of the theological significance of religion was raised by Karl Barth's theological critique of religion and debated vigorously for a time in response to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's poignant but elliptical rejection of religion in his prison letters. "are symbolic codes that establish the rules for the possible combination of symbols and are thereby able simultaneously to insure a transfer of selective achievements" (1977:91). or raison d'être than religion./3/ If Luhmann is right. however. Dogmatics has the task of overseeing the communications medium—for example. Luhmann explicitly offers the aid of his theory in the diagnosis of social structures in their interaction with religion. the immediacy of religious experience requires some means of regulation and control as soon as it becomes the content of communication among individuals. In the case of religion. theology in fact has no other ground. money." according to his definition. Luhmann cites "civil religion" as an example of religious inflation.The Sociology of Dogmatics: Niklas Luhmann's Challenge to Theology 27 A second doctrinal issue particularly important in Luhmann's theory of religion is his thesis that faith functions as the religious "communications medium. The crucial issue is posed by Luhmann's identification of Christian theology with "religious dogmatics. The church as the arena of "spiritual communication" provides the institutional structure. IV Luhmann's theory presents a challenge to theology in the double sense of the word: it contains dangers to which theology must not fall prey. art. In accepting this invitation. More recently. by throwing fresh light on old issues. and power in other functional spheres. in its role as the reflective sphere of religion. fundamentalism as an example of deflation (1977:124). He invites theology.

Luhmann—who of course makes no pretense to being a theologian—quite obviously chooses the first option. is. The crucial point is the error of making religion the criterion for theology. He by no means denies revelation. By misstating the theological alternative as "the separation of biblical revelation from the religious life of humanity" (1978:99). if theologians like Rahner. he forfeits the basis for an effective critique of Luhmann's account of the theological task. had managed "to exchange its own birthright for the concept of religion" (KD 1/2:320. CD 1/2:283). CD 1/2:284). Luhmann wants to assist theologians in carrying out their task by offering them a theoretical instrument designed to lay bare the functional structures underlying their own "media-code. avoiding either a loss of identity or disruptive conflicts with other systems such as politics or the economy. A half-century ago Barth argued that modern Protestant theology. or vice versa" (KD 1/2:309. Lonergan. with which it has significant continuities. too. on the contrary. in a process that began as far back as the orthodox schools of the seventeenth century and reached its zenith in the liberalism of his own theological teachers. and it is just this point that Luhmann's sociology of dogmatics brings clearly into focus. God's revelation in Christ was. The dependence of theology on a nontheological concept of religion seems hardly to have lessened in the meantime. It is to be judged by its success in enabling religion to perform its social function smoothly and efficiently. or they might follow Luhmann's advice to abandon the "supplementary myth of the resurrection" in favor of a concept of divine self-negation without a "happy end" as a more promising means for mediating the duality of suffering and salvation (cf. They might choose. cf. The real issue raised by Luhmann for theology is contained in Barth's question whether "that which we think we know about the essence and phenomenon of religion is to serve as the standard and explanatory principle for God's revelation. misses this central issue. one would now have to include Roman Catholics. In fact. Pannenberg.28 Garrett Green the instrument by which the religious subsystem maintains its identity and regulates its intercourse with the whole social system and with its sister subsystems." They will then be in a position to achieve greater "structural compatibility" with modern functionallydifferentiated society. indeed. cf. for instance. who dismisses the theological critftiue of religion at the outset of his reply to Luhmann as "a self-destructive impulse" in the theology of the recent past. CD 1/2:294). and will remain bound to the Christian religion as one religion among others. 1977:198-200). the point of Barth's critique of religion was never to deny that Christianity is a religion/4/ or to suggest that theology has nothing to do with religious studies. Barth argues that to deny that revelation can be understood as religion is to deny revelation itself (KD 1/2:308. he treats it as the key . to exchange their contingency formula God for one more in keeping with a developmentoriented culture. Contrary to a common assumption. and Tracy are representative.

which has so often been the case with social-scientific theories of religion. he does not even try but simply assumes that sociological theory is an adequate groundwork for dogmatics.The Sociology of Dogmatics: Niklas Luhmann's Challenge to Theology 29 concept of dogmatics. it becomes clear why theologians must decline his offer of assistance with this problem. left to itself. However justified Luhmann may be in seeking to ferret out the social function of dogmatics. Here the danger is not reductionism. according to Luhmann. The implication. even if he cannot tell theologians what they ought to be doing. Luhmann appears to be proposing that theologians abandon dogmatics in favor of functional systems theory. Even his sociology of dogmatics succeeds at least in showing the intimate and intricate ways in which all religious experience and action. though Luhmann never advances the claim. having learned the dangers of disciplinary imperialism the hard way. is an instrument for dealing with social problems. Indeed. seen in this light. but imperialism. For Luhmann belongs to that select group of thinkers whose failures can be more interesting and instructive than the successes of less gifted and more timid minds. and it is subject to the criterion not of truth but of success in problem-solving. for his claim that dogmatics takes the place of functional consciousness in religion implies that it is incompatible with a sociological analysis of its function. including the "inner" world of faith and dogma. is ini plicated in the functioning of society. Indeed. he can at least do them the service of shedding new light on religion. For Luhmann the criterion of theology is its social function. The difficulty is inherent in his concept of theory and the claims he advances on behalf of it. This uncritical assumption is finally self-contradictory. Once the normative consequences implicit in Luhmann's account of the relationship between theology and society have been uncovered. In the first place. and of religion as one of its aspects. is surely one of the most original." able to ground the concept of dogma itself as the self-revelation of revelation. The very modesty of this concept of theory becomes the basis for Luhmann's immodest claim to present a super-theory (Messner: 1). theology included. The very real danger represented by Luhmann's transformation of social function into dogmatic norm ought not to frighten off theologians too quickly. Such a theory is fixed in none of its terms. which can be understood only with the help of functionalistic sociology. But its importance is precisely its role as "the most functional dogma. And theology. he is unable to show why this function ought to be taken as the norm for theology. a sociology conceived as the queen—a more fitting title would be manager—of the sciences. A theory. "religious dogmatics" is only the fig leaf covering the functional nakedness of religion. Luhmann's vision of the social w orld. should be especially wary of becoming anyone else's handmaid. seems to be that his social theory is the functional equivalent of dogmatics. He can then add: "Theology formulates this self-reference as God's identity" (1977:173). any one of which can be modified if the need should arise. however. .

. Luhmann contributes to this task more implicitly than explicitly. CD 1/2:861). Systems theory as defined by Luhmann is quite obviously not 3L "system" in this sense. Might theologians use Luhmann's thought heuristically to construct a truly theological systems theory? Such a program would mean taking Luhmann's description of the ideal modern theory more seriously and consistently than he does himself. He maintains that there are no rules governing the selection of reference-problems to be explored and consequently no absolute basis for determining what is to be taken as a system in the first place. Luhmann himself makes such a commitment on behalf of sociology." he says. For example. more by analogy than by design. and conceptually powerful theories to come along for some time. these choices spring from an original theory-commitment (Theorieentscheidung." resisting every temptation to fill it with some kind of presupposition or first principle (such as "religion").30 Garrett Green sophisticated. Luhmann's rejection of "foundational security" (Grundlagensicherheit) sounds very much like Karl Barth's refusal on principle to offer any philosophical or methodological grounding for dogmatics (e. it has already succeeded in undermining the unquestioned preeminence of the Frankfurt School in German social thought. on the contrary. to conceive all systems as the comprehension and . Messner:2). CD I/2:853ff.. and able to bring otherwise unrelated phenomena into comparative relationships based on their relations to a common problem. one free of any prior commitment to a metaphysics or to ontological first principles. But the main potential of Luhmann's theory for contributing positively to Christian theology lies in that other perennial concern of modern dogmatics. Such parallels between sociological systems theory and a nonsystematic theological method—all the more remarkable in view of their virtually total divergence in content—invite further comparative exploration. Now such a manner of thinking bears a striking formal resemblance to much of the theological tradition. In brief. he presents in his own social theory an example of a relativistic or relational thinking that aims at illuminating its subject in a manner that is coherent yet never systematically complete." understood as "a closed and complete interconnection of principles and corollaries constructed under the presupposition of a certain basic intuition (Grundanschauung) by the use of certain sources of knowledge and certain axioms" (KD 1/2:963. mentioned at the outset: the quest for a qualitatively new kind of foundational theory.). KD I/2:954ff. "is in fact scientifically dispensable" (1975:201). cf. whose theme he takes to be human activity. "Foundational security. admittedly circular.g. The result is a conceptual arrangement that is flexible and adaptable. Rather. "is to choose the problem of complexity itself as the ultimate reference-point of functional analyses. cf. it has formal similarities to Barth's own procedure. theology must always retain an "open center. Barth eschews the notion that theology should be a "system." he claims. "My proposal.

This "relationizing" of the concept of God was followed by a "relationizing" of Christology in the formula of Chalcedon. God. whose individual members are not parts of a whole but are constituted by their interrelations: "they mutually presuppose one another" (Luhmann. 21 above). understood as a theoretical undertaking in which the problem of God's activity is explored in relation to Jesus Christ. What emerges is a way of conceiving sociological systems theory as indeed the . theory-commitment. can be paraphrased (in terms parallel to Luhmann's sociological program) as divine activity. Formally. cf. though it serves as the personal precondition for the theologian. the ultimate source of theology in personal faith is equivalent to the preliminary but "ungroundable" decisions necessary for any theoretical enterprise. Let me conclude with a brief sketch of how such a program might look. does not function as a metaphysical presupposition for theology. involved a relational issue: "Is the Divine which appeared on the earth and has made its presence actively felt [in Jesus Christ] identical with the supreme Divine that rules heaven and earth?" (Harnack. For example. The theme of theology.l). Christian dogmatics has chosen to pursue this theme in relation to the ultimate reference-point of Jesus Christ. permits a "relationizing" (Relationierung. such as the relationship between Christian faith and other religions? Such a view of theology employs Luhmann's own theoretical tools on behalf of a dialogue between sociological and theological theory. The Protestant doctrine of justification replaces the Roman Catholic metaphysical concept of faith as an infused habitus with a relational definition: from the perspective of Jesus Christ as the ultimate point of reference. notwithstanding the fact that it is existentially of a different order. Theology. the first great controversy in the history of dogma. From this perspective faith appears as the functional equivalent of works. The central doctrines of the Reformation allow a similar analysis. Luhmann's cumbersome but important concept) of dogmatic issues. but formally comparable. with which it can then be fruitfully compared. Faith. This "theory-commitment" is formally comparable to that of the sociologist. The theological attempt to conceive God in relation to Jesus Christ led to a relational (nonmetaphysical) concept of God as a Trinity. A theological program is conceivable on the basis of a different. 1975:201. faith is conceived as the relation between two other relations— that of the believer to Christ. since the theological theory-commitment is only one aspect of a Christian faith-commitment. Might not a corresponding method be of help in resolving characteristically modern dogmatic issues. p.The Sociology of Dogmatics: Niklas Luhmann's Challenge to Theology 31 reduction of complexity. in which the identity of the incarnate Logos is understood to be constituted by the relation of his relations to divinity and humanity. and to assess them in this extremely abstract perspective as comparable and exchangeable" (1974:260). which culminated in the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity. and that of Christ to the Father.

The context makes unmistakably clear that Barth uses the term in the deliberately ambiguous sense first introduced by Hegel to signify the crucial dialectical transition in his philosophy ("the negation of the negative"): Aufhebung in this sense means both "annulment" and "preservation" or "elevation. To make matters worse. 325). 1974:32ff. It is a risky business. 356. /2/ The Edwin Mellen Press of Toronto has announced plans to publish the second chapter of Luhmann's book on religion (1977) as a separate volume. CD 1/2:280)."* Luhmann can even be cited in support of such a theological appropriation of his theory. it will not be the first time they have confronted a theory that proposes an Aufhebung of their own enterprise. /3/ A notable exception to this trend is the work of Jürgen Moltmann (see. as "abolition" and "abrogation" (KD 1/2:324. NOTES /!/ The most notable examples to have appeared so far are Rendtorff and the exchange between Luhmann and Pannenberg. translated with an introduction by Peter Beyer. Michael Welker.g. but heuristically" (1973:2)." on various working papers and discussions of the theological study group on Luhmann's theory in Tübingen under the leadership of Dr.. to be entitled Religious Dogmatics and the Evolution of Societies." The title of the third subsection of §17 ("True Religion") should remove any doubts about Barth's intention to use Aufhebung in both its senses.. 321ff. Luhmann deserves the dialogue with theology that he has requested.). In the title of §17 of the Church Dogmatics ("Gottes Offenbarung als Aufhebung der Religion"). The present article depends.32 Garrett Green functional equivalent of Christian dogmatics—but in a radically different sense from Luhmann's own account of theology as "religious dogmatics. . for he claims that functional analysis proceeds "neither deductively nor inductively. but one that might offer a worthwhile alternative to sterile in-house discussions of the nature of theology. and to unbecoming chasing after the skirts of cultural fads. CD 1/2:297. the translator has rendered Aufhebung with "Abolition" (KD 1/2:304. in addition to the items listed explicitly as "Works Consulted. e. the key occurrences of the same term in the final sentences of both the first and second subsections have been translated differently each time. If theologians are bold enough to accept the challenge. I would also like to thank the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for travel and fellowship support that enabled me to participate in the Tübingen group. /4/ This common misinterpretation in the English-speaking world is due in part to one of the most egregious translation errors in modern theology.

Vol. 4. pp. Luhmann. 1. 8-116. Eds. G. W. Soziologische Aufklärung: Aufsätze zur Theorie der Gesellschaft. Thomson and Harold Knight. & T." In Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie: Beiträge zur Habermas-Luhmann-Diskussion (TheorieDiskussion Supplement 1). 1956. Vol. Zurich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich." In Theorietechnik und Moral. pt. T. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag. Torrance. 4th ed. The Doctrine of the Word of God. 2. and Luhmann. G. Adolf 1961 Hondrich. F. Vol. edited by Niklas Luhmann and Stephan H. Soziologische Aufklärung: Aufsätze zur Theorie sozialer Systeme. Funktion der Religion. KD 1/2 Habermas. . 6th ed. Vol. 1." Evangelische Kommentare 11:350. Die Lehre vom Wort Gottes. Bromiley and T. Trans. Niklas 1971 Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie—Was leistet die Systemforschung? Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag. 2. Jürgen. pt. "Systemtheorie als Instrument der Gesellschaftsanalyse: Forschungsbezogene Kritik eines Theorieansatzes. Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke Verlag. Trans. Niklas 1973 1974 1975 1977 1978 Luhmann. Harnack. Niklas. Karl Otto 1973 History of Dogma. and Pannenberg. Neil Buchanan.The Sociology of Dogmatics: Niklas Luhmann's Challenge to Theology 33 WORKS CONSULTED Barth. 88-114. Karl CD 1/2 Church Dogmatics. Pfürtner. pp. Reprint ed. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag. Clark. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag. edited by Franz Maciejewski. 2nd ed. 2.355-57. Wolfhart 1978 "Die Allgemeingültigkeit der Religion: Diskussion über Luhmanns Religionssoziologie. Vertrauen: Ein Mechanismus der Reduktion sozialer Komplexität. 1975. Edinburgh: T. "Soziologie der Moral. Vol. New York: Dover. 1. Die kirchliche Dogmatik.

IL: Free Press. N." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 15:458-73. Trutz 1975 . Gesellschaft ohne Religion? Theologische Aspekte einer sozialtheoretischen Kontroverse (Luhmann/Habermas). "Systems Analysis II: Social Systems. David L." Evangelische Kommentare 11:99-103. Munich: R." Unpublished working paper for the theological study group on Luhmann's theory. Wilson and John Bowden. Brigitta 1980 Garrett Green "Der Anspruch der Theorie Niklas Luhmanns.34 Messner. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. Talcott 1951 1968 Rendtorff. Tübingen. A. New York: Harper & Row. R. Piper & Co. Ed.p.: Macmillan. "Religion in der säkularen Gesellschaft: Niklas Luhmanns Religionssoziologie. The Social System. Sills. Wolfhart 1978 Parsons. and Free Press. Trans. Glencoe. Moltmann. Jürgen 1974 Pannenberg.

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