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Friday, November 16, 2018

A Franciscan Approach to Science


Some years ago I attempted to write a textbook in sociology from a Franciscan perspective. Some of the writing still seems pretty good to me, so I decided to put pieces of it here on this blog.

The first section is my attempt to describe "science."


Science

The Enlightenment proposed science and intellectualism as replacements for the institutions of monarchy and religion. There was a strong moral content to the proposal: kings and priests had failed to do good. They had stood by idly while people suffered, and refused to allow good things to happen that might free others in body and in spirit from centuries-old shackles. It was this moral passion that gave the Enlightenment much of its force, and it is the loss of this moral passion that has undercut the Enlightenment metanarrative in the last decades.

And in fact the Enlightenment did do much good. It helped to facilitate the industrial revolution, and certainly opened the way for the democratic revolution that gave birth to our own nation. On balance most people would say that the development of industry and of democracy have been good things.

The postmodern attack on science faults science because it has become evil: it tyrannizes and degrades people. Science has become a tool of those in power that facilitates their oppression of the rest of us. It has lost its right to guide.

As I suggested above, the Enlightenment contained the seeds of its own delegitimation because it promised to eliminate evil, and failed to account for the human frailty of its own backers. Any number of religious metanarratives have the potential to ground a scientific quest in a more solid human context. The Franciscan story is one such metanarrative.

A Franciscan approach to science says that science is meant to be part of the kingdom of God preached by Jesus. It is a human activity, as flawed as any other human activity, but just as open to grace any other human action. The goal of science, just as the goal of everything else in life, is to give glory to God. It does this by helping human beings to become more fully human. The goal is salvation, a word with the same Indo-European root as the Latin word sanus (healthy), and even sacer (sacred).

There are two other Latin words that underlie a Franciscan approach to sociology: scientia and sapientia.

Scientia, which becomes the English word “science,” comes from the Latin verb scire, to know, or to understand. Sapientia has its root in the Latin sapio, which means to taste or to savor. We translate sapientia as “wisdom,” in Greek, sophia.

We need one more Latin word to situate sociology in a Franciscan context: speculatio, which can be transliterated as speculation. The word comes from the Latin word for mirror, speculum, and has the connotation of peering intently at something. Michel Foucault, one of the key writers in the movement known as postmodernism, sees the action of gazing or peering as the key to the modern approach to the world.

Scientia, sapientia, and speculatio were important words in the university world that was just beginning in the years after Francis’s death. The first universities, Paris, Oxford, and Bologna, were just coming into being. Some of their students and faculty found themselves drawn to the new Franciscan movement, where they ran head first into the radical poverty and simplicity of Francis.

How could one reconcile a university life of reading and intellectual searching with a Franciscan ideal of living without property and influence, especially at a time when books had to be copied by hand and were therefore tremendously expensive and rare?

The earliest indication of the tension comes from a 43-word message sent by Francis to an Augustinian religious who had become a follower of Francis shortly before Francis’s death, Anthony of Padua. Anthony, who had been educated earlier in his life, had been asked to teach theology to the brothers, but did not wish to do that without the approval of Francis. Francis wrote him: “I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers providing that, as is contained in the Rule, you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ during study of this kind.”

“Do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion.” That is the phrase, found in the Franciscan rule as the norm for all work, which is the key to understanding a Franciscan approach to science and wisdom. There would be tensions between the use of books and Franciscan poverty, but the central value was to be the “Spirit of prayer and devotion.”

Both scientia and sapientia were legitimate projects for a Franciscan. Speculatio was permissible as long as it was not vana speculatio, “vain” or “empty” speculation. Vana speculatio was doing intellectual work for the sake of idle curiosity (another catch phrase of the time), or for the sake of one’s own human glory. Scientia and sapientia are to be good for something, good for something greater than mere intellectual amusement or personal pride. They were to be tools for doing something good, for others and for God.

And that is the central contribution that a Franciscan approach to sociology has to offer to the crisis in metanarratives we have today. Science is to do good. Otherwise it is empty and possibly harmful.

I will examine the concept of “good” later, when I talk about cultural diversity. For now I will argue simply that most people do science, and have always done science, because they see science as a way of doing something good in the world.


Some early Science

The story of Galileo shows how science sometimes challenges accepted ideas. However, his story does not show how science benefits ordinary human beings.

Galileo observed carefully, using a new tool, the telescope. The tool allowed him to see things that people had not been able to see previously. He used his observations as evidence in favor of a theory that showed the earth as moving around the sun. The theory is “counter-intuitive,” in that our first observations would lead us to say that the sun goes around the earth.

Theologians, people who speculate on the intellectual meaning of religious beliefs, were attracted to the theory that the sun goes around the earth because they believed that Jesus Christ was the center of the universe. If Jesus was the center of the universe, the earth must be the center of it, because the earth is where Jesus became incarnate. As further proof, they cited statements in Scripture that implied that the sun goes around the earth.

Aside from those theological issues, it is hard to see how theories of sun and earth had much effect on human affairs. The only possible benefit I can see from Galileo’s new theory is that it might have improved navigation by providing better mathematical models of the movement of sun and stars. The older mathematical models had worked, but they were more complicated. Historians say that navigation was helped more by the invention of the compass, which freed sailors from dependence on observing the sun and stars.

Later scientific discoveries had more practical effects. The discovery of the circulation of the blood in the body was an important step forward in coping with accidents. The harnessing of water power to cloth-making equipment did not depend on any innovative scientific discoveries, but it led to mass production and the factory system for manufacturing.

Even though the 1700s did not see scientific breakthroughs that changed the world dramatically, thinkers of the time could see what was coming. The French thinkers called the Encyclopedists presented a vision of human life guided by reason and guaranteed to bring prosperity and freedom to all humankind. The movement they led, which we call the Enlightenment, was optimistic and self-assured.

In a much-reprinted article that has had great influence on my own thinking, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz contrasts four styles of thinking: the common-sense, the scientific, the artistic, and the religious. For the purpose of this contrast, he describes the scientific attitude as essentially questioning. It of course is more than questioning, but I like to push the questioning aspect to its limits, as follows.

Nothing in science is sure; everything is open to question. This is why scientists need some kind of religious faith and religious community. If you try to live your life as a pure scientist, you never get to breakfast. You question whether the coffee really exists, or whether the fire on the stove will be as hot this time as it was last night. You go crazy.

Since most of us don’t want to go crazy, we put aside our questions while we eat breakfast. For those brief moments we are not scientific. But of course, breakfast is not enough. We put aside our questions while we drive to work, while we enjoy a play or a game, while we praise God, while we marry a spouse, while we raise children. But during the moments when we are being scientific, we question everything. We question our own and others’ research, and our own and others’ theories.

Research means observing something closely and, if possible, counting something.

We question our research because observing is not a totally objective activity. What you see may not be what I see. We need to look at the factors that make us see things differently. Our goal is to arrive at descriptions of reality that most people will agree fit what is “out there.”

But observing reality is not enough. Pure observation creates what C. Wright Mills called “abstracted empiricism.” Observation without theory is usually a hodge-podge of trivia. The trivia may be fascinating or it may be boring, depending on your frame of mind, but trivia goes nowhere. We have to know what it means. We have to have theory.

Theory is a story about what causes something.

Scientific theory is story. Let me give an example.

In 1854 there was a terrible epidemic of cholera in London. A doctor named John Snow decided to do some careful observation (= research). He made a map of London and put x’s on the map at the address of every cholera victim. He noticed that the x’s clustered at a certain point on Broad Street. There was a pump on Broad Street from which the neighborhood got its drinking water. On a hunch, Snow ordered the city to take the handle off the pump. The epidemic stopped.

Thus far Snow had done nothing except observe what we call a correlation. A correlation means “when one thing happens, another thing also happens.” Cholera cases go with having a pump. No pump, no cholera. He was doing what we today call “epidemiology”--mapping where events occur. As happens in most epidemiology, the correlation was enough to suggest a solution: take the handle off the pump. It worked.

From one standpoint, Snow had accomplished his objective. The epidemic stopped. But no scientist would quit there. Scientists have to know why the epidemic stopped. They have to have a story of what is going on. What causes cholera, and why did taking the handle off the pump cause the epidemic to stop?

Maybe the stopping had nothing to do with the pump handle. Maybe the epidemic stopped for some other reason altogether. That possibility raises the issue of what we call “spurious correlations” and “spurious variables.” When two things correlate, one may not be the cause of the other, but there may be some third cause out there somewhere that we can’t see at the moment.

Eventually scientists did develop a theory. The theory went like this: there is a little bug that causes cholera. If you drink water with this bug in it, you get the disease. The bug lives in polluted water. The Broad Street pump water was polluted. When Snow took the handle off the pump, the neighbors could no longer drink the polluted water, the bugs could not get to the people, and the epidemic stopped.

However, creative scientists can spin a hundred theories out of every little bit of evidence. That’s why we need people to evaluate our theories as well as our research.


Science as seen by a Franciscan

St. Bonaventure wrote a small book that he called De reductione artium ad theologiam, which I would paraphrase as “How all the arts and sciences lead to God.” The Latin word ars, art, has the meaning of “something one does skillfully.” It refers to action, while science refers to understanding. People have always linked the arts with the sciences because they realize that what we want to achieve is skillful practice guided by good understanding.

In the book Bonaventure lists all the arts of his day, including such obsolete ones as hunting and armor-making, but including also some modern ones such as medicine and agriculture. There are four levels of art, he says: art that deals with physical objects, art that deals with our sense experiences, art that goes beyond experience to reach intellectual understanding of reality, and finally, art that helps us respond to God’s grace and influence, starting with God’s Word in Sacred Scripture. All of the arts come from God--“every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” is the quotation from James (1:17) that he uses as the opening words of his book.

The book works its way systematically through all four kinds of art, with the goal of showing how all of them lead to God. Here is the concluding paragraph of his book:

“And so it is evident how the manifold wisdom of God, which is clearly revealed in sacred Scripture, lies hidden in all knowledge and in all nature. It is clear also how all divisions of knowledge are servants of theology, and it is for this reason that theology makes use of illustrations and terms pertaining to every branch of knowledge. It is likewise clear how wide the illuminative way may be, and how the divine reality itself lies hidden within everything which is perceived or known. God may be honored, character may be formed, and consolation may be derived from union of the Spouse with the beloved, a union which takes place through charity: a charity in which the whole purpose of sacred Scripture, and thus of every illumination descending from above, comes to rest--a charity without which all knowledge is vain (vana) because no one comes to the Son except through the Holy Spirit who teaches us all the truth, who is blessed forever. Amen.”

That is how a Franciscan approach to science should start, and end.




Saturday, October 13, 2018

A letter to the Quincy Herald-Whig

(printed around October 29, 2018)


The earth is God's gift to us and we want to pass it down to those after us in better shape than we received it. We should also not ruin other people's lives when we use it. Some people have fewer resources than we do to protect themselves from dangers. Such people usually bear the brunt of environmental disasters.


An international scientific report recently predicted that the weather disasters we have seen so far will be nothing compared to what will happen if we do not reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Massive droughts will occur. The refugee flows that we now see will multiply all around the world. For example, as the Sahara Desert expands southward in Africa each year, more people are forced to leave what had been productive land. Where are they supposed to go?


The Clean Power Plan is a federal effort to put limits on carbon pollution from power plants. The current federal administration is planning to roll back many of its rules. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that such a rollback would cause thousands of premature deaths and asthma attacks in our country, not to mention what it would do to weather patterns that cause droughts and hurricanes.


We take extraordinary precautions to make sure that a child will not accidentally open something harmful. Opening pill containers becomes a challenge. Yet we ignore the probability that millions of children and adults will die of starvation and disease if we do not take precautions reasonably recommended by the scientific community.


We must not allow politics to trump science.


The EPA is taking comments during this month of October through its website: www.regulations.gov. Refer to Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2017-0355. If enough people tell the EPA that the rollback is not a good idea, they will listen.


I'm a Franciscan priest, but I am writing this as a citizen with a degree in a scientific field. I don't preach this from a pulpit. I write it here so you can answer if you agree or disagree. Please do that. Thanks.


Joseph Zimmerman

Monday, September 24, 2018

Governors


A lot of cars I ride in have a gauge on the dashboard called a "tachometer." It tells how fast the engine is running, using "rpm" (revolutions per minute) as the unit of measurement. My car seems to operate in the 1000 to 2000 range most of the time. The engine can run a lot faster than that. Toward the end of the gauge the scale turns red--DANGER. If your engine is running fast enough to get into that range, the engine might destroy itself.

I suppose any piece of moving machinery is in danger of running out of control and destroying itself. Some people used to install a gadget called a "governor" on their cars--a device that would keep the engine from running past a certain limit.

Our economy is a runaway engine. We do not seem to be able to slow it down enough to keep it from destroying our environment. Every person in the economy is under pressure to produce more and more, faster and faster. That is how we measure "productivity." Productivity is supposed to make all of us wealthier. So we pile up material things. Our landfills get bigger and bigger. We waste more and more on packaging, and these days, we spend more and more on moving stuff from one place to another. It is becoming possible for every meal we eat to be delivered to our door.

That is capitalism. It baptizes greed.

"Greed" is a moral term, not pleasant to hear. We prefer words like "incentive." Capitalism incentivizes everything. But the more we incentivize, the more we are digging our own graves--in our landfills. We need a governor.

I think I have a candidate for such a governor. The governor that could slow down our overly-incentivized economy is a rule that everything we do should take account of what it does to other people.

We already do a lot of that. We do not let people pave over wetlands, because we know that wetlands are necessary to keep biological diversity intact. The norm against paving over, which is challenged by capitalist enthusiasts, is broadly supported, which means that we have a moral agreement about its value. We just need to extend our thinking further, and pay attention to the costs of our behavior that we are making other people pay instead of ourselves.

Another way to look at this is to say that we need principles of accounting that take account of the costs of what we do for everybody in the human community.

If every economic decision were to take account of the effects that decision will have on every person in the world, capitalism would slow down--it would be governed. Our environment might be saved. As it is, if the engine does not slow down, it will damage the environment so much that the whole structure will come crashing down, and then capitalism will no longer be salvific but demonic. It is already demonic for a large proportion of the world's population. It will just be demonic for everybody. In the worst case scenario, the human race will become extinct. We will not be the first species to disappear from the earth.

We don't need socialism. We need capitalism under control.




Saturday, September 15, 2018

Letter to the Quincy Herald Whig


printed September 13, 2018

Why is it that the first thing politicians promise when they seek office is "jobs"? This is strange, because the next thing they say is that the government cannot provide jobs, only the private sector can do that. And politicians are the government.

Last Sunday's paper featured an article describing how Madison Park Christian Church packs meals for children so they will have something to eat over the weekends. That is a blessed program, and I pray that it will grow and grow. But does the need for such a program have anything to do with jobs?

Contrary to the popular stereotype, all those hungry children do not have parents who are free-loading. Many of those parents either cannot find jobs or have jobs that are not paying them enough to live a respectable life. By respectable life I mean a life that allows them to have time with their children, time to observe the "Sabbath," time to go on vacation with their families, even time and money to enjoy the theater, the symphony, occasional trips to other places besides Quincy.

I am a member of a religious order that provides for its members without compelling them to work. We have free-loaders in our group. The Rev. Francis Jerome, one of my legendary former QC colleagues, used to say "Father So-and so should be buried upside down, so as to give his backside a rest.” Yet our Franciscan freeloaders are few and far between. They are part of the cost of living together as human beings.

We Franciscans do our best to take care of our own. Our problem in this country is that we do not see every man, woman, and child in this country as "our own." Too many of our neighbors are “the other.”  

No, they are not the other. They are our own.

That is a problem, and we Americans are proud of our ability to solve problems. Our country can solve this problem if it wants to.

The Rev. Joseph Zimmerman
Quincy


[I sign my letters "Joseph Zimmerman, O.F.M." The paper always corrects that to "The Rev. Joseph Zimmerman" with no "O.F.M."]

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Law isn't saving us



The Law isn’t saving us.

Once again, as so often in the past, I found  myself this morning praying the psalms, in this case, Psalm 5 (ICEL translation):

Hear my words, my groans,
my cries for help,
O God, my king.
I pray to you, Lord,
my prayer rises with the sun.
At dawn I plead my case and wait.

I plead my case and wait. I can do nothing right now. I just have to wait for the Lord to act.

You never welcome evil, God,
never let it stay.
You hate arrogance
and abhor scoundrels,
you detest violence
and destroy the traitor.

When I prayed the verse, “you hate arrogance,” I thought of Donald Trump.

Then, verse 4:

In the face of my enemies
clear the way,
bring me your justice.

Once again I am waiting for the Lord to act. The Lord will bring justice.

Their charges are groundless,
they breathe destruction;
their tongues are smooth,
their throat an open grave.

I am reading a biography of Ulysses Grant. Recently I was reading how vigilante groups in Mississippi in the 1870s were systematically re-enslaving their former slaves, by roaming the countryside, killing Blacks, and terrorizing any Black person who dared to try to vote. Grant saw the entire effort of the Civil War, with all of its bloodshed and horror, going for nothing. Slavery was being re-imposed. He was powerless, because northern political sentiment had turned against any further effort to use force to insure the rights of former slaves in the South.

God, pronounce them guilty,
catch them in their own plots,
expel them for their sins;
they have betrayed you.

A plea to God to act. “Expel them”--expel them from what? Presumably from the Jewish community. The psalmist is praying about evil within his or her own people. It is neighbors who are sinning.

But let those who trust you 
be glad and celebrate forever.
Protect those who love your name,
then they will delight in you.

For you bless the just, O God, 
your grace surrounds them like a shield. 

Grace was not surrounding the former slaves in Mississippi like a shield. Should they have revolted with violence? The story of the civil war in Syria shows what can happen when violent revolution fails. The psalmist is praying from a position of helplessness. Only God can remedy the situation.

My entire life has been dedicated to building a society where, to use one slogan, it will “be easier for people to be good.” Functionalist sociology imagined a society where the “structures” of a society would function as smoothly as a machine or a healthy organism.

But “structures” are laws. The vision promised that the right system of laws would produce the good society.

What has happened instead is that the effort to construct the perfect system of laws has imprisoned us. Every time we turn around there is a new law restricting what we used to do. We spend a lot of our resources defending ourselves against the possibility of lawsuits. Think of what schools spend for security against “active shooters.” The law is really hog-tying us into a prison of our own making.

This is what Paul was arguing against when he said that the Law kills.

We need to accept the reality that our neighbors--and that means the people “like us”--are as sinful as we are, and they can do  bad things to us. The effort to restrict them by law is only making us less free. We would be better off accepting the existence of evil in ourselves and our loved ones, and ask the Lord to help us overcome the evil. The Gospel would say that the only way to overcome evil is by uniting ourselves to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Things are even worse when we decide that the evils we suffer are caused by people not like us--by immigrants, or minorities. Then we set ourselves up for war. We are already far along that path. The money we spend on dealing with active shooters is nothing compared to the money we spend on a nuclear arsenal that we will never be able to use, against potential enemies that we are creating by our own foolish policies.

Law is not saving us.








Monday, July 30, 2018

Second Thoughts



Last March I put a short essay on this blog with the title “religion is fun.” Ever since then I have had second thoughts. I wonder if I took religion seriously enough. Or better, if I took love seriously enough.

When I re-read the piece, it seems satisfactory. But it does need to be supplemented.

My basic point in that essay was that people do not continue to do things if they find no reward in doing them. So if people keep “doing religion,” they must be getting some kind of reward.

Philosophically, that is pure utilitarianism, and it is not enough to describe how we human beings behave. There are many examples of people who keep doing things that are very costly to themselves. A philosopher could say “Well, yes, but they must be getting some reward out of it when they do it.” But that does not take into account how the people themselves would tell the story of what they are doing.

Even more importantly, the philosopher’s statement does not take into account the example that Jesus used: “There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.” It is hard to see how my giving up my life is going to result in a reward for me.

The purist will say “But the giver experiences a reward in the few moments before he or she gives up life for someone else,” but I don’t think that is what is going on. People who give up their lives for others are acting in the moment, without thinking, and especially without thinking of themselves or their reward. I suspect that if there is any story line going through their heads, it is, “God will take care of me. I need to do what this other person needs, even if I lose my life doing it.”

In other words, in such life and death situations, religion is deadly serious, literally. It is definitely not “fun.” It is love, pure and simple. I think of the statement in the Song of Songs: “For Love is strong as Death, . . . Its arrows are arrows of fire, flames of the divine.” (8:6)

Religion is not only fun, but it is also deadly serious. It tells stories about ultimate issues, and those stories help us to go on living, and even to quit going on living because we love someone else.

I recently read a book by two priests, Michael White and Tom Corcoran, who argued that the biggest failure of the Catholic Church, and probably of other Christian churches, is that we have come to see parishioners as consumers rather than as fellow disciples of Jesus. Consumers act on the basis of rewards, on the basis of what is “fun.” Disciples make their story the story of Jesus.

People need more than fun. They need love, and love is even stronger than fun.













Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Talcott Parsons


  
Probably nobody today knows the name of Talcott Parsons.

But in 1960 he was one of the best-known figures in sociology. He was at Harvard, head of a combination of academic programs that he called the “Department of Social Relations.” The department included Sociology, Cultural Anthropology, Clinical Psychology, Social Psychology, and Political Science. He would have liked to include Experimental Psychology, but B.F. Skinner was in charge of that and would not go along with his project. Neither would the Physical Anthropologists, the people who went around the world measuring skulls.

I knew none of this. When my Franciscan superiors told me to study sociology, they told me to have Fr. Gabriel Brinkman advise me where to go. Gabriel said “Go to Harvard.” He had just finished his own doctorate in sociology at Catholic University.

Being the docile religious, I packed up my stuff and arrived in Boston in June of 1964. I was advised to stay with the friars of New York Province in their house in Brookline, a Boston suburb. I asked one of the friars there how to get to the Harvard campus. He said, “Take the trolley downtown to Pock Square and transfer to the subway going to Cambridge.” I said, “How do you spell “Pock Square”? He replied “P-A-R-K.” My first introduction to the Boston Irish accent.

I had enrolled in the Harvard summer school by mail. During the summer, through contacts at the “Catholic Student Center” (Harvard’s version of a Newman Club), I met a Dutch friar named Theodore (“Theo”) Steeman. He advised me to sign up in the fall as a “resident graduate” at the Harvard Divinity School. I could take half my courses in theology there and the other half in sociology in the “Yard,” the Arts and Sciences division. For my Yard courses, he advised, “Take Parsons. He is an easy grader.”

So I took my first course with Talcott Parsons. He had a reputation as a horrible writer. One of his books outlining his theory was labeled by his students “the pink peril,” because it had a pink cover. Everybody kept asking, why can’t this man write intelligibly? But in class he was clear. Probably my background in neo-scholastic philosophy helped me. Because Parsons was not so different from Thomas Aquinas in his approach to understanding social reality. In class he developed his thought slowly, with pauses that allowed me to catch up with his thought. His classes were small--twenty or thirty students at most.

Here was his basic idea: all knowledge is related, so the sciences studying human behavior are basically one science. They just approach their study by focusing on one aspect of that behavior. So why not unite the academic departments focusing on those aspects into one department? And why not create one academic theory covering all social behavior? That’s what he did. He called it the “theory of social action.” Social action is human behavior that is guided by goals or motivation.

Theo advised me, “Take Tiryakian. He likes Franciscans.”

Edward Tiryakian taught courses linking sociology to phenomenology and existentialism. But he had been a teaching assistant to Pitirim Sorokin, and always tried to get people to take Sorokin more seriously.

Pitirim Sorokin had been born in Russia and got his degree there before the Russian revolution of 1917. He had been part of the first 1917 revolution that drove the Czar from power, but as often happens, a more radical group, the Bolsheviks, took over and Sorokin ended up being exiled. He was at the University of Minnesota in 1931 when Harvard decided that it was time to create a Department of Sociology and got him to come to Harvard to start it. At that time Parsons was an instructor in economics.

Sorokin  was widely known--his works were translated into multiple languages. He saw human history as a series of cycles. At one time, society focuses on ideas and spiritual things, and then it swings to more materialistic things in a period of decadence, which he saw happening in the twentieth century. Eventually the pendulum will swing back away from materialism.

I recall visiting Sorokin’s home, no doubt through Tiryakian’s invitation. He had a huge painting of a Moscow scene above his fireplace. He was convinced that eventually Russia and the U.S. would reach a convergence of cultures.

During the 1930s Parsons rose in influence and succeeded eventually in driving Sorokin out of his position and replacing sociology with social relations.

What I did not realize when I was taking courses from Parsons was that his star was setting. A revolution was taking place in sociology against Parsons’ theory, which was usually labeled “structural-functionalism.” The over-arching theory Parsons was developing was based on the metaphor of a physical organism (Parsons had majored in biology as an undergrad). Every structure in an organism has a function. In social life, the structures are norms. Each norm has a function. Society is an organic structure designed to carry out a universal set of functions such as reproduction, governance, material sustenance, etc.

All of this is not too different from medieval scholasticism and the concept of natural law. God has designed the world with structures that we can use to deduce moral norms. The human body has a design that requires that we behave certain ways if we wish to live. Contraception is against natural law, because conception is a physical process that should not be messed with.

The thinking that was developing in sociology was that human social behavior is better understood not as an organism but as a game. As people interact, they develop rules, but the rules can change, and people cheat. Things can appear pretty chaotic--when I watch basketball or soccer, all I see is chaos, but the players are following play books. There are rules and patterns. The game metaphor does not imply chaos, which is what natural law theorists would argue. When people interact, they usually develop rules that lead to peace. When the rules do not do that, they change the rules.

The game metaphor seems to describe human behavior better than the natural law organic metaphor. We are learning that nature plays tricks with what we thought were universal patterns. The experiences of gay men and women are being taken into account. Now we have expanded to transgender people. I would prefer to let such people speak for themselves. A political strategy of respecting people’s own definition of their sexuality seems to be more conducive to living together in peace than a strategy of judging them morally failing and worthy of punishment. We are changing the rules, but the game is not being destroyed.

Structural-functionalism was criticized as being too static, and indeed it was. It was the kind of thinking that guided Robert McNamara as he dealt with the conflict in Vietnam.

I come at this theorizing from a Franciscan approach shaped by Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Ockham’s name is linked to the term “voluntarism,” which I interpret as meaning that he stressed free will and the openness of rational beings, including God, to surprise and innovation. This does not throw everything up for grabs. Ockham said we deduce ideas from experience. There are no universal ideas out there like Plato thought. We are free human beings, flawed, unfinished, hopefully open to grace and repentance. None of us, including the Pope, has an inside track on understanding what is good or bad in human behavior.

Parsons is no longer remembered. Why should Aquinas, or Scotus, or Ockham, be any different?