Friday, March 27, 2015

C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination

In 1959, American sociologist C. Wright Mills published his most famous work entitled The Sociological Imagination (Oxford University Press). In that book Mills argued that the sociological imagination is the mental ability “to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world.” Mills desire was to forge a middle ground between structural-functionalist sociology which argued that broader social forces were the key to understanding the individual, if indeed there is such a thing, and psychology which argued that internal mental and emotional dynamics were the key to understanding society, if indeed there is such a thing.

The practical import of Mills’ point of view was that it shed light on personal troubles and societal issues alike by putting both in the context of the other. For instance, suppose a man loses his job. This is a personal trouble because it has to do with one man’s life. But suppose that along with him 10 million other men and women lose their jobs. This is a societal issue because such a high rate of unemployment is undoubtedly due to a failure of the broader social structures that were created to maintain order and stability in society.

Neither the personal trouble nor the societal issue can be properly understood in isolation from the other. The societal issue is the conglomerate of the personal troubles of millions, and the personal trouble of millions is influenced, in large part, by the societal issue. The ability to see the interplay between the two and envision multi-faceted solutions to both personal and social problems is, in short, what Mills called the sociological imagination.

As a student, Pastor, and wanna-be-theologian, Mills has helped me gain the mental capacity to envision everyday problems in light of larger issues and vice versa, and for this I’m thankful. However, I must say that I find his work to be of limited value because he omitted a necessary element from the equation, namely, the existence of God.

Mills was an avowed “pagan agnostic,” although I think he used the term a bit tongue-in-cheek, so I’m neither surprised nor offended by the fact that he ignored the foundational fact of being and society. But in order to get the most out of his work I have begun the process of re-imagining what he imagined and sketched out what might be called “the theological imagination” or the “theocentric imagination.”

Next week I will share my thoughts with you, but for now let me ask this question: in light of Mills’ work, how would you define “the theological imagination”?

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