Commitment, Community, Cooperation

Intimate Strangers: Theory and Practice

In Gregory Leffel on September 15, 2017 at 6:01 pm

One Horizon Working Essay

by Gregory Leffel, Ph.D.


Public life is a confusion of ideas, master theories, practices — and conflict over the cultural authority of long-accepted visions of the world and emerging successors. Social practices including social activism, politics, legal advocacy, economic reforms, and so on, are contested on every side. Where does one begin to construct ideas and proposals that can support broadly shared ideas and new practices that can contribute to the flourishing of public life? This extended essay examines the perennial tension between theory and practice, describing both how difficult it is to gain a clear picture of public life, and the many tensions we face in acting for the common good. The essay is in four parts, reflecting these four questions:

  • Where have all the public “big ideas” — and their cultural authority — gone today? And what have we lost?
  • How may I break free from my social conditioning to became an authentically free social agent — and thus practice in public as a trustworthy participant in public life?
  • How does a “public” create meaning and interpret public life, creating a working picture of the world from everyday experience instead of from philosophical sytems?
  • What does it mean to be a “cosmopolitan disciple” (a term created here), able to connect theory and practice for authentic service to the wider public?


One Horizon working essays are just that: preliminary works in progress to frame new and developing thoughts and proposals — and then to examine them for strengths and weaknesses. None have been published, and are provided here to solicit comment, critique, suggestions for revision. Since they are works in progress, please to not circulate or cite them without permission of the author. The material is copyrighted by a Creative Commons license.


Part One: The Exile of Big Ideas


John Williams, in his acclaimed historical novel Augustus, voices the erudite Julia, Caesar’s daughter, remembering her philosophical mentor:

Later, when we became friends, Athenodorus and I used to talk about the Roman distaste for any learning that did not lead to a practical end; and he told me that once, more than a hundred years before my birth, all teachers of literature and philosophy were, by a decree of the Senate, expelled from Rome, though it was a decree that could not be enforced. (Williams 2015: 165)

There used to be in the West a fungible public market for learned, comprehensive philosophical and theoretical systems that explain how the world works. Hegel’s Absolute Spirit is an example, or Marx’s materialist dialectic, or Talcott Parsons’s general theory of social systems. Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand is a rare survival, valued mostly for the license it grants to free market apologists. Grand political and utopian ideologies, too, were once currencies of the day.

Nowadays we know better. Such totalizing metatheory has been expelled by the Senate of enlightened public opinion for reasons of its generality and lack of practical ends, or on suspicion that its ends are, in the end, nefarious.

By consensus we accept that the drift away from grand theory is a sign of our Western society come of age. We know, after centuries of  experimentation with democracy, capitalism and pluralism, that we can get along quite well without abstraction. Forget metaphysical analysis. Why risk revolutionary visions when it’s much safer and predictable to fine-tune the world we actually have?

We are Romans at heart. Or at least we imagine ourselves a society of practical “engineers” and “MBAs” tinkering with our social mechanisms. We trust in evidence-based best practices, and big data. We value the analytical report over the interpretive essay, the policy wonk over the public intellectual. Utopian horizons fade into the material here and now. Praxis prevails — realist and pragmatic.

Our incredulity toward universal grand abstractions and their claims upon us is understandable, and dates back to at least the 1960s’ postmodern shift in social consciousness. The takeaway of the decade’s radicalism, whether one’s vantage point was U.C. Berkeley or East Berlin, is simply the indictment of vast, systematic accounts of the world given to us by theoretical experts — accounts of Marxist or nationalist utopias, central planning, liberal politics, capitalist economic doctrines, scientific progress, Christian civilization — that never delivered on their promises and can no longer be trusted.[1] Nor can the massive institutions that sustained them. We came to believe that no person, party, visionary idea, intellectual system, or institutional arrangement is omniscient or coherent enough to organize society from above, a lesson we learned the hard way in the ideological brutality of the twentieth century.

What insight did we draw from this lesson, now that we’ve had a half-century or so to sit with it?

We concluded that it is wiser, or certainly safer, to build our societies from below. Another World is Possible! the Alterglobalist street chant goes, and it starts from the bottom. It’s easy to read this picture from the radical Left, but it reads just as well from the self-described radical “anarcho-capitalist” Right.[2] Either way, we prefer to build from a foundation of individual freedom and self-determination, our freedoms reinforced by participatory democratic practices, artisanal markets, entrepreneurialism, and social justice, while we dream of an egalitarian cooperative commonwealth. Let’s begin with the local and the small, with personal identity and community, and with the ethics of equality, personal initiative, and rootedness in the land. These alone create the warm tidal pools from which authentic social life evolves.

But having learned that abstraction is, even at its best, an unreliable guide to progress, what in turn have we learned from our “practical” modesty? The picture here is mixed.

By giving up big-picture thinking, that is, by turning away from theological, philosophical, political, and cultural universalisms, and the arrogance that went along with them, we made space for local, particular ways of life to thrive, and for those on the margins to be recognized. Suppressed voices can finally be heard, alternative ways of life have been liberated from the shadows, our consciousness opens toward the Other. This acknowledgement of difference, and the diversity it encourages, is to be celebrated as an enormous advance in our modern consciousness — full stop.

On the other hand — in the absence of a unifying world picture or set of universalizing ideas and enabling institutions, we have — quite inadvertently, I think — generated a new problem that offsets our positive gains. In our quite proper pursuit of diversity, we also constructed a culture of conflict wherein, by default, individualism, pluralism, and competition thrive at the expense of public cooperation.

A new mood — call it a new structure of feeling and new habits of reasoning about public life — overtakes us. Nothing feels more natural to us now than to fight for our personal liberation from entrenched regimes of state power, social tradition, patriarchy, and racial oppression. “Disruption” no longer is a term of art, but badge of honor. We want (justifiably, in many cases) to be free to behave as we like. More importantly, we demand (most often rightly) recognition, freedom, justice, and rights for our identity communities. We have learned to feel more at home with micro-narratives to describe our individual lives, set within tribal micro-publics, contented by the pragmatics of small virtues and communal pieties.

In the West we hold liberty dear, and we should. Liberty virtually defines what it means to be a Westerner in the first place. It becomes a problem when, in the absence of a unifying world picture, we radicalize it in individualist terms. Then we become functional libertarians — creating by default, as Columbia University philosopher Mark Lilla (2014) describes it, a “libertarian age,” consumed with our identities, rights, interests, and personal liberties as if no other values are worth considering. Or, as English philosopher John Gray (2000) explains, no higher value than modus vivendi — live-and-let-live tolerance and diversity — constrains us. Seldom do we give more than lip service to thinking from the position of the whole — from putting the common good first — and only then working our way back down in the direction of our private lives to see what good our lives may contribute to the greater commonwealth.

This narrowing of our line of sight, even if an unintended consequence of our suspicion of big ideas, leaves our public practices blind to the bigger picture that grand abstraction once pointed us to. Nowhere do we find compelling, unifying, publicly-shared ideas to illuminate the problems mounting on a global scale, or to direct our actions. Not since the seventeenth century’s political settlement at Westphalia and England’s Glorious Revolution has the West faced such a loss of vision.

Perhaps Lilla worries too much about the “big picture” (you decide), but we might take him to heart when he says:

Never since the end of World War II . . . has political thinking in the West been so shallow and clueless. We all sense that ominous changes are taking place in our societies . . . . Yet we lack concepts or even a vocabulary for describing the world we find ourselves in. The connection between words and things has snapped. The end of ideology has not meant the lifting of clouds. It has brought a fog so thick that we can no longer read what is right before us. We find ourselves in an illegible age. (Lilla 2014:1-2)

“The world we are making with our hands,” Lilla concludes, “is as remote from our minds as the farthest black hole” (2014:10).[3]


Intimate Strangers: Theory and Practice


We used to be confident that theory — the description and interpretation of reality and the explanation of its operating processes — and practice — instrumental action toward meaningful ends — gave reciprocal sense to each other. In many interconnected fields, such as science (theory) and engineering (application), they still do and in doing so remain on intimate terms.

But in fields that touch deeply on public life and human flourishing — on faith, politics, culture, identity, solidarity, meaning — theory and practice, once bound in solidarity, have become intimate strangers. As a society we talk a lot about getting along, we agree on very little. Perhaps this is why we, like the Romans, seem to prefer the exile of big ideas in favor of grudging, small, piecemeal outcomes. It’s easier this way if we remove debates about the common whole and focus on the details. But it’s a risky strategy to pursue.

Considering how strange this estrangement can get should give us pause. And it doesn’t get much stranger than when we turn our attention to a singular example, our own churches in the United States. Merely to take note of the well-respected sociologist and cultural theorist James D. Hunter’s dismal assessment of their collective public witness is to wonder if we are watching in real time a case of “mission failure.” Just a sampling of comments from his To Change the World ought to be enough to scare us, and he’s a Christian partisan. “I contend that the dominant ways of thinking [about Christian public engagement] are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology. “In our day, Christians have not only embraced strategies that are incapable of bringing about the ends to which they aspire, they have also embraced strategies that are deeply problematic, shortsighted, and at times, deeply corrupted. “Were Christians to be in a position to exert enduring cultural influence, the results would likely be disastrous or perhaps mostly so” (Hunter 2010: 5, 193,  274).

We fall into bad habits. One commonly hears trash-talk between theorists and practitioners. They bicker back and forth about “Gnosticism disconnected from life,” on one side, “pragmatism detached from ideas,” on the other. To the degree it happens among my own tribe of missioners and missiologists, I find it disheartening. This is bad form in its own right, but unless one actually does bias naked pragmatism over reflection, or “orthopraxy” to the exclusion of “orthodoxy” (as some claim to do), or the other way around, it often amounts to little more than sibling rivalry. But attitudes themselves have consequences.

Rather, what really is serious is how such attitudes degrade the condition of our public thinking, including Christian public thinking, and the condition that results when our predilection with practice — already an oversubscribed Western trait — combines with the decline of the cultural authority of well-examined, publicly-produced and publicly-debated, comprehensive ideas. We appear to have lost faith almost entirely in the possibility of publicly-shared, authoritative ideas to guide our practices at all — and this is a longstanding trend.

We might pause for a moment and look at a couple of reasons why this loss of faith in big ideas continues to grow, and more importantly, what the consequences of it are for us today.


Creative Destruction in the Marketplace of Ideas


Part of the problem is structural, intuitively obvious, and related to changes in the way in which we have come in recent times to process public ideas. The contemporary worm may one day turn, but these structural changes challenge our public discourse in the present. In his recent The Ideas Industry, Daniel Drezner (2017) traces the disruption of well-considered explanations of public life to fundamental transformations in the marketplace for ideas. These include changes in financial incentives for those who produce ideas, changes in organizational structures through which ideas are advanced, and the transformation of the technology of communicative discourse itself. Drezner argues that three decisive factors are at work.

First, the classic approach of public intellectuals — long-form articles, extended criticism and debate between schools of thought, aired out in literary and scholarly journals, salons and research institutes — is slow, expensive, and dependent upon erudite patronage. Access to the “conversation” requires sophistication, is limited by professional gatekeepers, and easily resented as elitist. But emerging media technology has changed the financial incentives toward a short-form, quick-paced, commercially-supported immediacy, an environment better suited to single-issue “evangelists.” As these new “thought leaders,” as Drezner calls them, gain influence, public intellectuals’ cultural authority wanes — long-established literary journals decline, TED-Talks blossom.

Second, political polarization drove public policy discussion away from the academy and expert consultancies into partisan think-tanks. Policy — the critical connection between ideas and application in public life — was split into warring camps where intellectuals, as idea-generators, self-selected (0r were pressured by a declining job market) to direct their work toward narrow, partisan and propagandist ends.

Third, economic inequality produces fantastically wealthy elites who direct their fortunes toward whatever causes they find meaningful. Such self-selecting philanthropy channelizes support for intellectual work in narrow directions, even in the academy. Some of it is entirely private and proprietary rather than presented for public debate. It also replaces traditional, disinterested philanthropic support for public academic institutions with their slow-paced, but careful research. Since much of this wealth was created by industry, industrial performance norms — such as philanthro-capitalism, for-profit think-tanks, and a predilection with disruption, quantified performance results, and Just Do It! activism — rather than academic critical norms became the new standards for evaluating and applying ideas.

As a result of these three trends that Drezner calls to our attention, ideas now come from everywhere, through many different media platforms, and represent disconnected points of view ranging from those of concerned scientists to demagogues. The pedigrees of these ideas, not to mention their biases, even their intentional subterfuge, can no longer be easily verified. Understandably, a hearty trust in publicly promoted ideas has evaporated.


The Metaphysics of Modus Vivendi


The other part of the problem of lost faith in public ideas is a deeper, conceptual one — a problem of metaphysics. Here we encounter an old problem that has bedeviled us since the Romantic philosophers split from the Rationalists two centuries ago. It is a deep ocean current below the surface chatter of public discourse, and remains salient today as subtext to our public consciousness and broadly shared structures of reason. Our dilemma is this: How do we reconcile a universal vision for human society and human flourishing with the particulars of local beliefs, practices, and interests, and the natural desire to protect them?

To put this dilemma another way: Is it even possible to conceive the world as a single epistemological community — and thus to produce a single, holistic account of a singular human consciousness and single human species acting out its existence on one planet? Or, conversely, must we conceive the world only in its parts, only that is, from particular points of view that can only generate separate, diverse epistemic communities without a center?

Ultimately, the question is, On what ground shall we stand — the universal or the particular — to perceive the Real? This question has never been settled successfully in public discourse — indeed it can’t readily be settled from within the perplexities of human experience. We find ourselves on the fence as we try to decide which metaphysical starting point to choose. In the end, it comes down to a matter of faith in which “common sense” orientation to the world we are willing to trust.

Nevertheless, we have tried through the years to look at the world from one side or the other. The Enlightenment, like the modernity that unfolded from it, placed its thumb on the scale toward universalism. The Post-Enlightenment — from the Romantics to the postmodernists — did just the opposite. But this is far from an academic exercise. Much hangs in the balance. Wars — both imperialist and liberationist — are fought over this dilemma, and it is one which plagues global development in general. Nationalism, race prejudice, genocide, religious conflict, and ethnocentric arrogance arise from it as well. Either we “read” the world as a single set of individuals sharing a common consciousness and institutions and impose this imperial view on all — which has been the West’s controversial legacy. Or, we protest for the sake of our diversity and conceive the world as a set of communities that may be entirely incommensurable to each other — and focus on difference and the competition between communities of identity.

Or else, we might attempt to look for a way to somehow function in-between the poles of universalism and particularism.

Perhaps the most practical product that Western thought has ever produced is liberalism. Liberalism, as a political, economic and cultural philosophy, was advanced as the Enlightenment’s Big Idea to square the circle of the universal-particular dilemma. Liberalism’s architects claimed to provide a vision for a single, rationally understood world. But they also claimed to be neutral about human differences and thus encouraged a culture of tolerance, freedom of conscience, and a political framework to represent competing forms of life. For 400 years liberalism has been the West’s Big Idea. Now it has lost the public’s confidence.

As John Gray explains in his Two Faces of Liberalism: Liberalism’s great quest — peaceful tolerance among competing visions of the good life — has itself split into competing factions. One faction still seeks universal, consensus-based agreement on the universal Real as the basis for such things as shared values, a common human consciousness, human rights, and global institutions. The other seeks only a live-and-let-live pluralism — a modus vivendi without a common consensus to be imposed at all on particular values or ways of life. Since the 1960s, the latter perspective has come to dominate the public mind. Gray notes that:

Liberal toleration sought to temper rival universal claims about the good with an ideal of reasonable disagreement; but it never gave up on the hope of rational consensus on the best way of life for humankind. Modus vivendi continues the liberal search for peaceful coexistence; but it does so by giving up the belief that one way of life, or a single type of regime, could be best for all. (Gray 2000:139)

If we regret the one-size-fits-all liberalism the West imposed on itself and on the world at large, we might welcome the freedom of a tolerant modus vivendi. But pluralism brings its own problems. Without confidence in universal values, rights, and social order, diversity itself breeds competition over norms, values, even truth itself, and inevitable conflict. Contests between one Other and another Other become trials of strength to assert particular claims.

Here then is the warning to which we must attend: Reducing liberalism to mere modus vivendi sunders “big” public ideas into fragments, rendering them mute. It reduces practices to mere advocacy for fragmented, competing public interests and claims.

Now, on to the point of what follows in the balance of this essay. All of this raises conundrums for missioners and missiologists in the Western context, if not in many other places as well. How may Christians collectively present public ideas with any cultural authority at all outside of their own epistemic communities, i.e., their own faith traditions? Are we just one more identity community, simply an Other, contesting trials of strength against other Others?

But a more problematic question must also be faced. Given the breakdown of the cultural authority of “big ideas,” is it even possible for us to be gracious witnesses to the Reign of God without falling into the same partisan rancor, the general ideological confusion, and the self-serving activism we find all around us in this “illegible” age?

At the end, I will conclude with a modest apologetic for “big ideas” — and as well suggest we get over a false and careless dichotomy of theory and practice in our approach to mission and missiology. It’s time to overturn the Senate’s decree and bring the “teachers of literature and philosophy” back from exile. Not everything that is important leads to a “practical end.” We still need ideas. All that to say, we are in need of a concept to help us reconnect our “minds” and “hands” — I will suggest one under the cover “cosmopolitan discipleship.”

Along the way to this conclusion, however, I want to confront at some length the possibility that we might get stuck, perhaps permanently, in the public rancor of “illegibility.” Accordingly, first (in the next section), I want to consider “practice” and the difference between authentic practice and mere participation in society in order to understand how our practices might be trapped by existing structures of social consciousness. What, we might ask, constitutes true social freedom? Such is prerequisite to honest practice and authentic discipleship. In the section after that, a consideration of “theory” and the overlooked process through which social ideas emerge in public life from inside of it, and not from above it, in order to clarify the vast diversity of public ideas and their various frameworks of meaning. To treat this diversity fairly requires a cosmopolitan perspective. And then on to cosmopolitan discipleship.


Part Two: Authentic Practice and Social Freedom


In regard to mission — that is, to the church’s public engagement with the wider world — the word “practice” must be taken in two senses. First, it describes the Christian way of living as it unfolds before the watching world. How is Christian living expressed in public as a particular witness to grace, reconciliation, holiness, justice, and so on? “We are Christians, these are our practices!” Second, more narrowly, it describes the work of missioners (missionaries, clergy, service workers, activists, etc.): What we do, how we do it. Practice is in this sense, instrumental action toward meaningful ends. Either way — whether we are just Christians “practicing our faith” in public, or missioners “practicing our professions” — we are practitioners, whose actions may be judged as, or as not, faithful, just, effective, holy, or most importantly, meaningful.

All practice occurs in a context, and its meaning can only be interpreted within a context that supplies a larger framework of meanings of its own. In any complex society meanings emerge from all sorts of practices and ways of life — personal, ethnic, professional, artistic, political, economic, and on — Christian ones among them. Can we tell these diverse practices and their meanings apart? Not very easily. It might be said that we “practice our society” itself as much as we more narrowly “practice our faith.” Even our instrumental missional practices are colored by other common social practices — to the point, for example, that missiologist Samuel Escobar once complained that business logics have penetrated mission so deeply as to threaten to reduce our practices to mere “managerial missiology” (Escobar 2000: 109-112).

We should ask ourselves from time to time if our practices are really unique at all — if somehow we are only mirroring a wider field of social practices. Keep in mind that it is more than possible to live mostly as participants in society, rather than practitioners critically engaging society — and not even to be aware of it.

This is to say, we live and move and find our existence embedded in pre-existing social groupings, each with its own shape of consciousness and intuitive sensibility. This is natural enough — we are born into them. And naturally, in our groups, we form our primary sensibilities as human persons. But because it is primary, our “en-grouping,” as we might call it, clouds our sensibilities far beyond our immediate perception. Again, this is quite natural; there is nothing wrong with being embedded in a particular way of life. In fact, we owe to our “group” an enormous psychic debt for shaping us into persons and for orienting us to the world. But it is also true that failing to recognize the power of our embeddedness leaves us blind to the biases, prejudices, habits, and customs of our group that may not be Christian at all.

This is to raise the question of agency. To what extent are we — or can we be — free enough from the constraints of our group — from its rationality, its logics, its structure of consciousness — to function as self-aware, disinterested practitioners who are able to operate in social freedom more-or-less independently from our group? Mature discipleship requires such well-developed independent agency.

Human agency is the major theme running throughout a substantial body of work by Margaret Archer, the acclaimed British sociologist and president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (Archer 1995, 1996, 2000).[4] It will be helpful here to trace the outlines of it in order to understand an essential point: What it is that we are up against if we desire to be independent social agents, and thus clear-sighted practitioners. Becoming free from our group’s constraints, free enough at least to practice reasonably independently in social freedom, is possible, but it is also quite difficult. It requires us to emerge through a life process of self-reflection. Archer describes this as a sequence of consciousness transformations, taking place in three steps: primary agency, corporate agency, and individual agency (cf. 2000: 253-305).[5] We will follow this sequence below.


Primary Agency


Archer’s account of group embeddedness and our emergence from it begins at birth. Even though we are born with a will to act — that is, we are born with a natural drive to become agents of our own lives — we are not born with a social identity to structure our actions. Our identity, rather, emerges from our parents and from the community of identity of which they are a part (our “group”) and its own unique structure of consciousness. We are, Archer explains, involuntarily “pre-grouped” by accident of birth in a particular subset of society with its own particular set of sensibilities.

We acculturate to our group. Within it we absorb a set of ideational assumptions and beliefs as well as a defined pattern of relating to others. Upon acquiring these resources in childhood, we learn to function in the “correct” way, value the “right” things, pursue “approved” interests. The critical process operating here is that we internalize our group’s life-way through practice — through our daily activities and conversations, and through the stories we tell each other about why the world is as it is — even if we are, at first, entirely uncritical of the practices we follow and the stories we tell.

We will never be entirely free from our group. Indeed, we would have to be reborn in another group to experience the world differently. Well into adolescence we assume continuity with our group, seldom thinking about it, conforming unless given a reason not to. Every group has its own vested interests and ways of doing things. At this primary level of social consciousness we each act more or less blindly according to our group’s vested interests and established practices. This unreflective participation in group action — our natural default to group interest as it operates behind our backs — makes us part of a set. We drift with our group as it itself drifts through the social order.

Social action, or agency, in this sense amounts to group-think rather than independent action. Archer refers to it as “primary agency.” Meaning: Our group functions, more-or-less unconsciously as a bloc, as a collective social actor in the wider society. Regardless who “we” might be — blacks, whites . . . men, women . . . classes . . . members of a group from a particular place with a particular history . . . — we operate en masse according to little noticed or seldom questioned inner logics, perceptions of the world, and vested interests. Our individual actions are derivative from our group. Our sensibilities are circumscribed by it. We act as one of many. Our group is the principal social agent, not we ourselves. Our agency is thus “passive.”

Our group shapes our primitive, or primal, entry into social life. We are all natural ethnocentrists. And so it is for others born into other groups. Groups different from ours may intrigue a certain exoticism when we encounter them. But group differences also generate inter-group threats as contact between them unsettles the settled ways of life to which we have become accustomed. Intergroup contact as such generates culture shock. Unexpected shocks — usually, but not always — generate some measure of resentment, fear, anxiety, rivalry, envy, and anger among us — visceral reactions easily leading to stereotyping, scapegoating, and discrimination. Primal violence against the “other,” in thought at least, if not in action, simmers in the background as groups of unreflective individuals confront each other.[6]


Corporate Agency


The primal situation is dangerous on its own terms. But hopefully, most of us (while acknowledging the many others who don’t) slowly outgrow our automatic primary orientation to social life. Most members of any group, as they mature and are exposed to the world, are not entirely unconscious participants in social processes. We all struggle to understand the changing social circumstances that affect us, and to grasp the natural competition between our group and the others. Still, we remain deeply attached to our group — invested in its vested interests, the stable identity it provides, and the sensibilities we inherit from it. We still depend on it to orient us to a world that we otherwise experience as confusing. Escaping our embeddedness remains the stickiest of sticky situations. We emerge only by degrees.

Little by little we enter a second phase of consciousness about the world, our place in it, and the meaning of our actions. We become aware that as it opens to us, the world presents opportunities to advance our group’s interests. It presents threats to them as well. How will we make sense of these opportunities and constraints?

In our natural discourse, we and our fellow group members put a lot of effort into articulating, or “framing,” these experiences in order to explain them to ourselves. We tell ourselves stories about how the world works; we propose explanations for why things happen as they do; we assign blame for what happens to the collective Us — and share our thoughts among ourselves. We may theorize our world naively, offering naïf explanations that exceed our understanding. But we theorize our world, as naturally as we are born into it, in the everyday give and take of life and language.

But, in this second state, even as we tell ourselves stories about the world, we remain defensive about our group. This is still a dangerous situation. Collectively, few of us are willing simply to let things happen to Us. Changing circumstances may not always awaken a public reaction in us; we may long live in denial. But when awakened to threat, we will, at some point, do more than just tell ourselves stories. We will also organize actions to protect our group’s threatened vested interests, even to the point of open conflict, if not violence, with other groups.

Archer calls this sharpened consciousness about our actions in the world — what amounts to a second step of reflexive consciousness emerging from its first, primary form — “corporate agency.” It is an active state — “active agency” — wherein our group creates ideologies and organizes strategic actions to protect group interests. We engage in self defense from outside forces, real or imagined. Or, positively, we engage in offensive actions to realize our claims on rights and freedoms, material resources, or dignity and self-respect. To these actions, we as individuals naturally rise in solidarity with our group.

Groups engage the wider public to defend or advance their interests in a variety of ways. It depends on their situation. Marginalized minority communities, to take an example, may employ subversive strategies to protect their identities and forms of life from the dominant society: Chief Oceola leading the Seminoles into the Everglades to escape white contact; African slaves encoding insurrection in Bible verses and hymns, are historical examples. Anthropologist James Scott (2009) traces the very concept of “ethnicity” to the self-protective actions of minorities to protect themselves from absorption into totalizing political control, economic production, and enforced identities of the State and its dominant culture.

Minority corporate action may also be progressive and liberating in defense of suppressed rights, social inclusion, and advocacy for social welfare and poverty relief. The mid-century Civil Rights movement for liberty and recognition is the archetype; similar struggles for women, Native Americans, Latino/as, Asians, and the LBGTQ community; labor, agrarian, and welfare rights movements, and so on.

On the other hand, corporate action among dominant groups may turn defensive, even reactionary, to protect their interests and social advantages. Jim Crow segregation, anti-Semitism easily come to mind; but also “blue laws” and private schools to protect Protestant culture; likewise, concerted political movements to defend racially-privileged business elites — whom legal scholar Amy Chua (2003) has called “market-dominant minorities” — from “threats” from regulation, taxes, labor and equal employment rights, environmental controls, and wealth redistribution.

In any and all of these cases, the primary concerns of the group find articulation within the public space — both ideologically and organizationally.

In order to sustain their competitive efforts over time, groups, as corporate social agents, mobilize whatever resources are available to them to assert their interests and the status of their claims. Such resources, Archer explains, exist in two registers. First, the cultural register (the ideas, or “intelligibilia,” existing in a society). Then, the social-structural register (the institutional arrangement and control of power, and forms of instrumental social action) (cf. Archer 1996: xvi-xxiv).[7]

Corporate agents exploit cultural resources to define their identities and justify their claims. These include public narratives that locate them in society, proprietary claims on history, or mobilization of identity markers such as race, elite status, and when advantageous, religious identity. These identity markers may seek to isolate a “pure” type. More often they are invented or hybridized to protect emerging group interests. For example, as historian Gerald Horne (2014) has demonstrated, “whiteness” as an ethnic marker was invented in colonial history to generate solidarity among polyglot Europeans — English, Celtic, Germanic, Frankish, Latin, Slavic, Nordic settlers who once regarded each other suspiciously as separate races — in order to amass sufficient numbers of united settlers to defend themselves from their black slaves.

Social resources are also mobilized to generate structural advantages for one group over another. Groups contend with each other over policy making and law enforcement, control of institutions, and funding. Or they may create entirely new organizations and social movement structures; and when advantageous, they enlist churches for support.

Much of what goes on in public — in politics, the “public square,” civil society, movements of social protest, voting blocs — is framed by the collective, vested self-interests of corporate agents and the contentious practices they develop to defend themselves. Their collective actions are, in turn, rooted deeply in primary identities which groups defend and whose interests they promote. At this second stage of consciousness, the group still holds power over the individual.


Individual Agency


In uncountable ways we all are embedded in self-interested corporate action. No one lives an entirely disinterested life. There remains at the root of our corporate actions an element of disguised, aggrandizing collective self-interest, with, inevitably, individual self-interest tied to it. How do we know if, or to what extent, even our religious activism is not rooted in the vested interests of majority or minority racial claims, or other markers of identity? Even the affluent might use religious activism simply to reinforce their self-image as social elites.

The holiest of corporate actions — the unquestionably righteous struggle for liberation by African and Native Americans from oppression (. . . and the list goes on . . .) — still are embedded in the particular interests of the members of their primary group. But these interests are difficult to articulate clearly, or to maintain in stable form. Often enough they remain inchoate, their claims unclear, and their claim on identity ambiguous.

This introduces personal struggle into the mix, for one has to interpret one’s own relationship to the group and its grievances. Who are we, really? What do we really want? Are we reacting out of fear? Or clear-minded strategy? How much of our identity have we ourselves manufactured in order to locate ourselves in the public order? Why do we demand some things and not others? Shall we integrate with the dominant group? Assimilate? Or separate?

Individuals face dangers of course in not struggling in solidarity for one’s group — i.e., they remain oppressed or threatened. But there are dangers inside the struggle as well from the group culture that arises from it. Individuals become ensnared in conflicts that typically arise over who gets to lead, fair representation for dissenting voices, policing of boundaries, division of resources, coerced (or perceived social pressure for) conformity — and the tortuous (traitorous?) journey of the soul for someone who makes the fateful decision to leave the group behind.

The lesson drawn here — from primary and corporate agency, and our group embeddedness — is that we are always on the side of something. To the extent we are tied to this something, we are tied to the inner logic of its vested interests, its claims on the general public, and its claims on our identity — that is, until our personal development brings it into question. Is it possible to rise above our group? To become a clear-headed, independent social actor, able to confront the problems noted above? To possess our own agency apart from the group? To achieve social freedom? Yes. But our independence from our group is always relative, never absolute.

Archer reserves the term “social actor” — one, that is, who achieves relative social free agency — for a third stage of social consciousness, for individuals who, merely, but through reflexive struggle, learn to create at least an arm’s length distance from their own groups. Such distance must be sufficient to allow one to see one’s own primary group as “other” — thus as able to judge its vested interests and its pull on one’s identity. Distance allows a cosmopolitan vision to overcome the parochial, the ability to see one’s own group interests fairly within the context of the wider sets of interests and identities that make up the public as a whole. On the other hand, an individual may never at all (or may never very far) emerge from group consciousness and will remain trapped in its social practices. None emerge from it fully.

A mature person thus progresses through a sequence of growth in social consciousness. We all begin, first, from an original undifferentiated, primary sense of self. That is, one begins life as a “Me” — interpreting life merely as an unthinking participant in the primary agency of one’s group as it reacts to sleights and threats from the outer world. But second, as we grow, our consciousness expands to include an active sense of the identity and interests we share with our group and our desire to protect them. In this sense, one becomes a “We” — an active participant in the self-interested public corporate agency of one’s group, forming new theories about the world and practices to advance our group.

Finally then, third, if one works at it, one’s consciousness may (potentially) blossom into an independent sense of selfhood. At this point, one thus becomes an “I” — an individuated, (relatively) free social actor, able to rise above one’s group embeddedness sufficiently to take an independent view. Only such a person, individuated through reflection and experience, can enter anew into public social action with clarity of vision and mature commitment.

Most of us assume ourselves to be such social actors. But the respect we extend to ourselves, and may extend to at least some others, must be set on a sliding scale. What distinguishes one social actor from another, the sophisticated from the naïve, is the amount of unacknowledged baggage they bring into their actions. Even the most spotless social actor must admit one’s spots are not entirely gone.

To conclude here, most Christians are aware of the double-sided meaning of “practice” — i.e., practicing our faith before the public by the way we live, and creating specific diaconal practices to advance Christian witness. Most, we hope — but tragically many certainly do not — entertain notions that we must be respectful of the outer world in order to be heard, to lend a constructive helping hand, and to graciously advance the vested interests of Christian faith. Commonly enough we speak of acculturating to the Other, of “incarnating” ourselves in “foreign” social spaces, of “contextualizing” our faith and practices. Lest this be a one-way street, we also need to hear a very un-common word about de-contextualizing out from our own context — to apply a dietary image, to detoxify ourselves from forms of consciousness and self-interested collective practices rooted in biases, prejudices, presumptive judgments, and self-protective defenses.

The ministry of discipleship, the work of Christian formation, is to bring to the field of public play, a congregation of maturely individuated practitioners. These must understand that social freedom requires the ability to hold themselves at arm’s length from themselves — neither as deniers of the social forms that originally bequeathed to them social life, because this would mean losing the inner sense of who they are — nor as the willing agents of group interests, because these prejudice their actions toward others — but as honest persons pursuing open solidarity with others. We must be free from ourselves before being trusted to “practice” on someone else.[8]


Part Three: Meaning-Making and the Existential Function of Social


To turn, then, away from practice toward the theoretical. The first words I heard from a systematic theologian in my first course were, “All language about God is ultimately metaphorical, analogical and referential.” Not that conceptual language can be reduced to an aphorism, but point taken: God will not be captured in language. Symbol, sign and sacrament break open a space inexpressible in words. We Christians live in a language of metaphor — Father (Parent?), logos, kairos, light, blood, bread, vine and branches, slavery and redemption, body of Christ . . .  — and through it nourish our lives together in the Spirit. But we must be careful with our metaphors.

Our Kingdom of God metaphor, to take an example — although imprecise because it is a metaphor; shall we prefer the less gendered Reign of God?; and, as good egalitarian liberals, what do we make of its scent of monarchy? — finds particular resonance in public life even among non-Christians. But what does it mean when we think about it in concrete terms? Has the Kingdom of God, we might ask, actually been realized in history, in, for instance, the medieval Church, or in the Protestant society envisioned by 19C liberal theologians,[9] or in William James’s and John Dewey’s secularized religious vision of democratic society?[10] Or, we might ask, is the Kingdom of God only future, an age yet to appear as apocalypse, a view shared by premillennialists, Marxists, and anarchists alike?[11] Or, do we conceive the Kingdom of God as an emergent teleology wherein the future by degrees irrupts the present in kairos moments, as liberation theologians and leftist Continental philosophers[12] — and perhaps most missiologists — prefer to see it?

That one metaphor can maintain its grip on the public imagination for centuries, inspire sweeping visions for public life, even command political commitment, and yet take such diverse meanings, speaks both to its power to open a conceptual landscape to frame public thought, and to the difficulty of operationalizing its contents as a framework for public practice. However essential our metaphor may be to us in order to grasp history and our place in it, it remains a heuristic, not a defined social theory.

As William James once said about babies coming to consciousness, we come to social awareness experiencing daily life as a “blooming, buzzing confusion.” We spend considerable energy sorting it all out, proposing to ourselves concepts, narratives, and ideas to grasp it all, and we seldom grasp it in more than pieces. We are hungry, always hungry, hungry enough to strike the bait of big ideas dangled before us — whether these be biblical metaphors, or political ideologies, or something else — to explain the world. Our problem remains, however, to relate these ideas practically to our daily lives, to test their veracity, and to close the gap between lived experience and abstraction.

What we need to connect the grassroots with the stratosphere, we might call middle axioms — or theories and mechanisms of the middle range, or meso-theory.[13] Society is a buzzing beehive of meaning-making production and of practices looking for rationales. If we wish to describe and interpret how the world is working, and what that working means, we need to look first in this middle range at the processes through which meaning is regularly created and the social order is formed. This is where the living process of connecting the concrete to the abstract takes place.

Here I want to call attention to two sociologists, one a specialist in organizational studies, Neil Fligstein, the other a social movement theorist, Doug McAdam, who advance a substantive meso-theoretical account of the social order in their joint A Theory of Fields (2012). In it they make a provocative argument about how the social order itself is formed, proposing the theory of fields as an alternative to (or even proposing to overturn entirely) traditional theories of social organization such as systems, structuralist, network, and institutionalist theory.

Their theory presents the social order as forming from, or emerging from — and then variously transformed by or stabilized by — the formation and interaction of social groups. These groups they call “strategic action fields” (SAFs). On their account, myriad SAFs exist in a society. Indeed, the entire social order consists as a multitude of discrete fields added up together. Like cells in a body, SAFs are the essential building blocks of a society’s political and economic life and its civil society — as well as our sources of social identity and meaning. We live our lives in and amongst strategic action fields.

What animates their account of fields — and what makes it applicable to our discussion — is their emphasis on field dynamics: On what people do within the social order as they make sense of life. To live is to act, they argue. People are as much human “doings” as human “beings.” Fligstein and McAdam assume that all people possess “social skill,” some obviously more than others, and that they will act strategically according to their purposes and to the limits of their skill to satisfy their purposes. They would agree with Margaret Archer that the upward growth of one’s social maturity is toward effective individual social agency (which they call social skill), though all attain it only to degrees. But, on their view, the ultimate social skill is three-fold: to produce meaning (“theory”); to act in meaningful ways (“practice”); and to secure active membership in a meaning-producing community — a field — and thus to pursue self-expression through the field’s meaningful practices.


Strategic Action Fields


The “groups” in society are not loose aggregates of individuals. They are interactive fields of social and cultural organization, ideology, and meaning-generating behavior. Nor are they static institutions. They are, rather, fields of purposeful action — this is what makes them strategic action fields, as Fligstein and McAdam describe them — where social actors employ competitive strategies toward purposeful ends.

A strategic action field is a social space populated both by individual social actors (people), and by collective social actors (institutions, organizations, and movements), who share some particular interest in common. At its simplest, a SAF is created when two or more social actors (individual and/or collective) come to believe that something is at stake between them. And once becoming aware of what is at stake between them, they come to share a consensus about what is going on among them. SAFs may be voluntary associations — a regular weekly small group Bible study, for instance, or a church congregation. They may be large and complex, such as entire church denominations, or political parties, industrial markets, or academic disciplines. They may be formal organizations, such as business corporations, or not formally organized at all, like a field of race relations or an ideological movement.

The question is always, What is at stake between us?

It is whatever it is that is at stake among two or more actors that defines a SAF. For example, if the production and commercialization of steel is at stake, steel producers will form a consensus about their practices, governing rules, and forms of competition; their field emerges as the steel industry. The same can be said for rare butterfly collectors emerging as a subdiscipline of entomology; or for those who gather because Christ is at stake among them, emerging as the church (Matthew 18:20).

Beyond this, and more formally, a strategic action field is established — or “settled” — around four lines of consensus. These lines of consensus include: (1) A shared understanding of what is at stake; (2) The mutual recognition of a relatively stable group of actors populating the field whose interrelationships can be defined; (3) The establishment of rules that determine legitimate and illegitimate behavior among actors in the field; and (4) An interpretive framework that describes the field’s boundaries, defines its meaning, explains its significance, and gives sense to its members about what goes on within it.

So, for instance, actors in a stable, well-established SAF will share a high degree of consensus across these four lines of the field’s settlement. The good of the whole, they agree, is indeed what is best for each part. Actors form stable relationships, the field’s identity is clearly defined, and its rules are followed.

Under empirical observation, however, the word “consensus” obscures what most often happens in a field. In reality, a field is a zone of strategic competition for the goods at stake and for control of the meaning and interpretation of the field and its rules of participation. Each actor occupies a particular status within the field. Some are powerful, others relatively disadvantaged. Incumbents monopolize resources and mobilize them to protect their interests. Challengers compete against them to achieve their own. Competition between actors is constant. Each actor employs strategies to advance his/hers, or its (when collective actors are involved), interests and contends for power and resources.

Strategic action fields must be thought of then not as benign aggregates of social actors, but as zones of intentional and collectively organized contention. Again, they are zones of social action; not just “fields” of common interest, but strategic action fields. Ever and always, people act according to their purposes. A strategic action field channels the natural, creative, purposeful drive for human action in directions that are strategic, understandable and meaningful — even if the consensus its members share is stretched (sometimes beyond its limits) by competition and conflict.

Why are there so many fields within a society? Because so many things, or anything at all, can be at stake between people. Who knows what groups of people will discover that is at stake between them — much less how they will frame their interpretation of it, what purposes they will find in it, and how they will organize themselves around it? Fields emerge for all sorts of reasons. Their formation is nothing anyone can control or even predict. Diversity generates itself.


The Existential Function of the Social


But what goods do social actors in a field actually compete for? What is at stake, really? Superficially, we might think that actors may have only material and instrumental interests in mind. A steel producer’s interest simply may be to advance market share.

On the other hand, Fligstein and McAdam argue that what ultimately is at stake in any field is the meaning one takes from it for one’s life. Strategic action is about more than material needs and instrumental action to satisfy them. Yes, we need material resources to survive, and we work to procure them; once procured, however, these are secondary. More importantly, we take meaning from our membership in and from our performance within a field. Participation provides existential rewards: We experience a sense of membership in a community of meaningful goods and relationships, feelings of prestige and usefulness, an outlet for our creativity, a sensible identity.

Shared meaning and membership in a community of others are fundamental to social life itself. Without them our lives have no social content. That is, without meaning and membership our personal and collective existence becomes ambiguous. Our identities, even reality itself and our ability to interpret it, become uncertain. We lose our human sense of our uniqueness in the world, as well as our sense of who we are among others. Alienation, the loss of meaning and membership, reduces us to a thing of nature, to a bare fact of existence, without a sufficient consciousness to orient ourselves to the world. Life without meaning and membership is nihilism and the abyss — think, for instance, of the many aboriginal societies whose members simply died off in anomic despair after their cultures — their processes of meaning-making — were disrupted by European contact. Thus, meaning-making itself — and perhaps even more than this, the fear of losing meaning — is the powerful human motivator from which a social order is built.

The production of meaning and identity is a necessary condition of a society’s survival. Producing it lies at the core of human action. It is the primary thing we do together in society. Producing meaning is prerequisite to social existence. Accordingly, Fligstein and McAdam refer to such meaning-producing activities — literally: existence-creating activities — in the establishing of social orders as the existence-giving, existential function of the social.

The very definition of what is at stake in a SAF, let alone the identity a field provides its members, and its rules of engagement, must be shrouded in a framework of existential meaning in order to give it sense. This interpretive framework establishes and explains the reason for a field’s existence and the importance of participating in it. Creating, elaborating, interpreting, and preserving this interpretive framework is the existential function that founds and defends the existence of the field itself.

The power to participate in a field’s meaning-making function is something most of us find worth struggling for, alone or collectively. Who gets to define our framework of meaning? Who gets to interpret it? Or to criticize it? These questions dominate the contention for power within the field, because these also define membership (or exclusion), individual identities and status, the rules of engagement, and the justice (or injustice) of the distribution of goods. Competition to claim the power to identify the field and to define its meaning underscores the strategic contention between social actors. In particular, it defines the conflict between incumbents — the establishment that dominates the field’s identity and resources — and challengers who want to change the field’s existing legitimizing conceptual order, the social order of power relationships, and access to resources.

SAFs are ever-evolving social orders. They progress through cycles of strategic action. A field is endlessly disrupted from conflict among competitors. Every conflict is settled in an eventual resettlement of a new consensual order. Change within the field occurs through struggles over meaning, membership, power, and resources.


The Social Latticework


So, how do individual SAFs fit into the larger social picture? It is common these days to think in terms of a “network” — of the Internet, or of a “networked” society — as a metaphor for social organization. Networks with their lines and nodes do a good job of diagramming communications or relationships between individuals. This image is useful to describe the relationships of SAFs to each other — but only to a point. Instead, Fligstein and McAdam would like us to think about SAFs as the open spaces in the nets — as fields, not as lines and nodes. Rather than trying to visualize networks of SAFs, they would have us think of the social order as a latticework of contiguous SAFs. Like looking at the countries on a map, each colored in with its own shade, we are to adjust our eyes to the latticework of the entities inside the boundary lines, not to the network of boundary lines enclosing them.

The latticework of SAFs stretches right across the social space. The location of a particular SAF is set within a distribution of many other fields. Some fields may have little or no relationship to the many others. These are distant, or “distal,” relationships. Members of the exotic butterfly entomology SAF may have little interest in or influence on a SAF created by the congregations that form a church denomination.

But closely related — or “proximate” — fields have direct influence upon each other. Changes in one may contribute to changes in the others. Work by missiologists in our own field, say, will be picked up later in the systematic theologians’ field, and vice versa. And one or both will affect the fields of practical theology or biblical studies — and then around again in the academy. The same may be said about the various industrial and service fields making up an economy.

If we wish to study a particular SAF, however, we must be careful not to lose sight of it within a wider grouping or pattern of proximate fields. Meaning, that if we look too broadly — to see the patterns rather than the pieces — we will pass over the discrete systems of meanings organized by the individual SAFs, the ones that most of us, as individuals, find meaningful to our lives. That is, for example, if all we wish to see is the theological academy only (an SAF in its own right), we will not grasp the wonders that animate the lives of our missiologists in their missiological SAF. We need to stay as close as we can to the lived experiences of the members of a SAF in order to interpret the meaning of the field.

Having said this, we cannot help but also be interested in the bigger picture of how SAFs are arranged in society. Some level of abstraction from the concreteness of individual SAFs is necessary to think about how society is organized as a whole. What kinds of patterns of social organization emerge from the proximate relations among SAFs?

There are two ways to picture this. One way is look for patterns in the horizontal relationships between SAFs. This can be done where SAFs share related interests, but still operate independently. I live in a city, for example, surrounded by Thoroughbred horse farms. “Farms” is a bit of a misnomer; each is an elaborate, self-contained business and cultural operation in its own right, and a personal expression of the pride of its owner. Together, hundreds of them bring billions of dollars to the local community, not to mention the glamour of international races and equestrian events. But each farm is a world unto itself, and in the aggregate, the farms can only loosely be called a local Thoroughbred Industry.

The other way to picture this is to look at the vertical relationships between SAFs. Here, the question is one of dependence in some sort of hierarchy. Church congregations are SAFs in and of themselves. Many are proud to be fully independent with only horizontal relations to other congregations within the “religious” space. But many more congregations are interconnected by denominational ties. Denominations are also SAFs in their own right, but it is important to distinguish denominations from congregations as separate SAFs. What is at stake in a congregation — its parish life that makes it a unique SAF — is not the same as what is at stake for a denomination with wider, institutional concerns. But at some point the congregation must take direction from the denomination, or access the resources it provides. This is a vertical relationship wherein the larger unit provides an umbrella of supervision, control, or resources over the smaller. Some organizations, like international business corporations are literally stacks of vertically-integrated SAFs. However, even organizations like the military with a defined chain of command, depend on the independent strategic action of their subsidiary parts to function.

Why are these distinctions important? Because we have fallen into conceptual bad habits to describe how our social order actually operates. For example, we often describe society as an organic “system” of integrated parts, a structural-functionalist approach. When we do, we assume that systemic changes, operating on their own “over our heads” as it were, force the parts into new configurations in a mechanical, impersonal way. But the social order is hardly impersonal at all — it is in fact made up of people. To think in terms of “systems” is to miss the fact that a society of SAPs operates at such a granular level of active independency that there is really no system at all to speak of, only a kaleidoscope of ever-changing patterns and orders of influence.

The same may be said for “institutions.” These are, again, not fixed entities. They are zones of proximate SAFs related to each other, but also operating independently of each other. The State, to take the biggest of institutions, is not a thing in itself, but a constellation of dispersed, local and federal governmental and public service SAFs, formed at different levels in the hierarchy, for particular purposes, at times working in harmony, but often not, both subject to authority and resisting it. This diversity of executive, legislative and juridical functions; self-interested constituencies; conflicting mandates; and organizational forms and purposes is what makes governance so difficult.

And the same can be said for social “structures.” Though we can detect set patterns of social relationships persisting through time in incumbent orders of power, these are always malleable because of the independent actions of individual SAFs. We have more control over them than we think — that is, we can structure our structures as much as they can structure us.

Society is far too diverse to describe under the cover of a single, or even a handful of concepts, even the concept “society” itself. We will certainly find patterns in the social latticework of SAFs, and it is certainly crucial to describe, interpret and understand them. But it is the SAFs themselves to which we must attend and not to the “systems” or “institutions” or “structures.” We must learn to “see” SAFs and how they interact with one another. Then we may begin to grasp how they arrange themselves in the social space, horizontally and vertically, in order to trace out patterns of influence and relationship. Otherwise, if we don’t learn to see SAFs first, we will misdirect our vision toward artificially hardened and inflexible, reified, concepts. We will be misdirected to outworn conceptual formulations such as “state,” “religion,” “economy,” “politics,” “civil society,” the “press,” or other “institutions” — or to ascriptive “structures” like “class,” or “race” — concepts with insubstantial purchase or explanatory power on our imaginations, and thus miss the living action of daily life as well as emerging forms of social order.

In summary, a few notes can be taken from this discussion of strategic action fields. No human individual can stand alone as a raw, “bare fact” and grasp the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of public life. Nor does anyone have direct conceptual access to the Real without the mediation of concepts, ideas, theories, metaphors, paradigms, and cosmologies. These are available to us only in communities — fields — of meaning-making, purposeful human action. We must participate to know anything at all.

Similarly, no one of us can possibly participate in all strategic action fields, or even in very many of them at a time. Which means that we participate in proximate orders of meaning. Our knowing is real, but partial, enclosed in the strategic interchange of social actors. Our minds close around what we believe to be at stake, sharing this with those who claim the same stake we do. And then we commence to make sense of it together. We may find a field and seek to join it — to go to church, or to study architecture, or to fight for social justice — and become members of a community of shared meaning. The meanings we find there center us in life, give us identity, feed our thoughts, give us sensible channels to shape our work. More often, perhaps, fields “find” us. We can’t avoid them when we discover something new at stake. We are drawn in because we cannot live without meaning.

This existential function of the social operates in the middle of living — meaning: We do not with much success deduce meaning from a general concept, and then apply it to our practices. We are dealing with middle axioms here, the co-generation of proximate meanings within the strategic purposes we pursue. We are tied by two desires — first, for intimacy, because genuine meaning-making requires us to sensitively function in a field with others, bound in fellowship, to grasp nuance and difference — and then for ultimacy, because we cannot be authentic in our practices without fully exploring what is at stake.

From this middle — from what we experience intuitively and authentically — we may, as we become confident in our emerging social skill, begin to branch out from the known to the unknown, asking how widely our intimacy can be shared with others, and what wider purposes may be at stake. Our search is, in the end, for absolute Intimacy — for full human solidarity — and for the Ultimacy of the Real. Once prepared by experience we are ready for metaphors to connect us with the ineffable and to interpret what is at Stake for us all. But we start out in a heaving sea of diversity — in a profusion of SAFs churning our minds in all directions. At sea in life we join in contests over meanings and rationales about what we think and what we do. We surrender to consensus when it suits us, take contentious action against it when it doesn’t, join campaigns to control it when we can. How do we build this into something meaningful?


Part Four: Cosmopolitan Discipleship


In the previous two sections attention was drawn, at length, to related but somewhat separate issues. One is the sobering reality of our deep embeddedness in pre-existing social and cultural formations, and the difficulty in achieving social freedom from them in order to act as independent practitioners. The other, the rooting of our meaning-making activities in the middle of life — on the meso-level of theoretical complexity — as we seek to attain a grasp of higher levels of meaning and intimacy. It is time to bring these discussions together in this concluding section — and to ask how we might begin to heal the estrangement of theory and practice.


Social Freedom and Discipleship


We shall be grateful not to have entered life as raw, “bare” individuals, as mere social facts of nature. Allowing for stray cases of feral children reported from time to time by public social services to psychologists, we all have our embeddeness in primary groups to thank for orienting us to life. Even where the social order is degraded nearly to subsistence levels — as J.D. Vance in his Hillbilly Elegy (2016) portrays the lives of poor, precariously (un)employed workers in post-industrial Ohio and Kentucky — family, culture, religion, historical narrative, place, and collective pride continue to root individuals in communities of identity.

Like the Big Bang’s background radiation still hanging in the Cosmos explains its unfolding, our primary identity shadows our lives to interpret our deepest structures of consciousness and sensibilities. Herein lies the struggle of a lifetime: To recognize the prejudice, bias, and uncritical self-assurance into which we are born, and to overcome it (substantially, perhaps, but never completely) in the name of hard-earned social freedom. Social agency (Archer), or social skill (Fligstein and McAdam), however we wish to name it, requires an ongoing transformation of consciousness in order to create space between ourselves and our pasts, enough space such that we can “practice” on others without unintentionally using practice merely to advance the vested interests of our primary community. In public life, honest brokers are hard to come by.

To the point we emerge into public space beyond primary and corporate agency we will recognize a world where many, many things are at stake. Some of what is at stake is familiar to us: it is tied to the identity and to the vested interests of our own primary community — our SAF of birth — and to our natural desire to defend them. These will always be at stake for us, even as we begin to treat fairly what else is at stake for others.

But we must always respect where we came from because we cannot annihilate our own social formation. Even though we might thoughtfully and forcefully campaign against the incumbents in our own SAF to “re-settle” our SAF’s framework of meaning in progressive directions, we cannot afford to repudiate entirely the only form of life we know since it reliably frames our relationship to the world. Not only would such repudiation diminish us as human beings in substantial degrees, it would also allow convenient escape from responsibility for damage our SAF has inflicted on others. It is one thing, an important thing, to embrace the Other. It is another thing to suspend one’s sense of self in the process. To live free in public life, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Cultivating a social self is a life project of reflection, reinterpretation, and critical engagement with others in the search for true social freedom. It is the inescapable moral requirement for authentic discipleship if one wishes to carry the teachings and traditions of Jesus into public life. Our self-cultivation, however, is further complicated by a constantly changing social order that threatens to overwhelm us — leaving us frustrated by feelings of ambivalence and tempted to withdraw from public life altogether. These feelings, too, must be confronted and overcome if we are to experience something more than a self-limiting life.


Struggling with the Ambiguity of Public Life


Many different things, and many different forms of life, are at stake in complex societies. These are not easily reconciled. Indeed, many different ways of life, each with its own unique shape of consciousness and sensibility, have co-evolved in histories of fear, misunderstanding, open conflict, oppression, naked discrimination, and intentional injustice. Modus vivendi for the marginalized is a defense mechanism, not just a proposal for liberal tolerance.

Likewise, fundamental values — claims made about what is at stake in the broadest of terms — are multiple, plural, some rationally contradicting another. We live in a world of conflicting values, competing among ourselves to stake a claim on the priority of one value over another. Which will it be? Equality for all or individual liberty regardless the consequences to others? The priority of private property or of a shared commonwealth of the common good? Diversity of identity or civic uniformity? Public order or private autonomy? Individualism or solidarity? Local custom or universal law? Pragmatism or idealism? War or peace? Or even the license we grant to our predispositions to love our fellow humans or to loathe the unwashed masses?

Value-pluralism, Gray notes (2000: 34-68), confounds any discussion of a bigger, broadly-shared picture of what human flourishing might even be. Not that we haven’t tried to create theoretical systems to reduce the plural to the singular. But our attempts to define an inner unity by reducing such multiplicity to a single set of ends or ideal values always carry with them the threat of social monism — a one-size-fits-all vision beneath which we all chafe, because we all have life experiences that seem to be exceptions to the rule.

To force-fit the diversity of human social experience into a single theory amounts to what Isaiah Berlin once described as throwing “a metaphysical blanket over either self-deceit or deliberate hypocrisy.” For this reason, pluralism, he suggested, “is more humane because it does not (as the system-builders do) deprive men [sic], in the name of some remote, or incoherent, ideal, of much they have found to be indispensible to their life as unpredictably self-transforming human beings” (Berlin 2002: 216-217).

This manifest diversity of forms of life; of contrasting values; of attempts to house them all together under one roof; and of then in turn resisting the uniformity this imposes on us, puts us on the spot. We stand in ambiguity. But we have to find a way to balance in our minds the familiarity of everyday life with a larger accommodation of others, even if we find this threatening. On one hand, we want to be free to be left alone in the middle range of things so to speak, looking for meaning not in abstract ideas, but on the “meso-level,” within the concrete sets of practices, orders of meaning, rules of engagement, and shared stakes that are immediate to us from participating in SAFs. Within our SAFs we achieve expertise, find comfort in numbers, consensus on ends and values — a predictable life. Our own familiar world may be one of many, but it is ours: safe, predicable, comprehendible.

Yet, on the other hand, our “worlds” are also threatened by competitors. So we also long for a wider set of rules to organize the social game — while at the same time we fear being jammed into a form of life over which we feel no control or that represents unfairly our own complexity. We want to emerge into wider orders of meaning, but we’re gun-shy. Our sense of the world begins from what we confidently know — from professional, vocational, educational, and everyday social experience. Beyond this, we fear the abstract complexity that shapes wider accounts of the world — the opinions and “big ideas” of experts: of preachers, politicians, policy experts, philosophers, theologians, visionaries — afraid that their accounts of the world might be merely empty and misleading speculation. None of us wish to be manipulated.


Embracing (or Avoiding) Conflict in a Changing World


But beyond these ambiguous feelings that trouble us, what troubles us even more is that, while we remain agnostic about the bigger picture, an ever-changing and unaccountable social order continuously emerges around us, naturally and unintentionally, in spite of us, in thick matrixes of integrated strategic action fields. How do we make an account of our constantly changing, and re-changing world? If we are attentive to the independency of SAFs, we will of course eschew easy talk about transformative politics, economics, and social structures, because we know these are limited, reified concepts that restrict our perceptions of public life. But even so, or perhaps even more because of our sharper insight, we remain anxious to explain the new formations of public life that are continuously emerging and transforming us in ways that appear to threaten our interests, unstick our identities, and confuse our time-worn ways of life. Can we find firm footing, a place to stand at least to interpret the unfolding, larger picture of public life?

As we look for anchorage in a stormy sea, we will find, I believe, a few reference points to locate us in public life. Our ever-widening perceptions of what is at stake, not just for us but for everyone else too, will inevitably come into focus around three poles of attraction in the social order — or, to change metaphors, poles like separate suns drawing clouds of SAFs into orbit around them.[14] Regardless our starting points in the social order, eventually we will train our attention on them, because sooner or later all of us will have to address them.

These poles that attract our attention are: the Polity (our formal public participation in the shaping of our social order), the Economy (the patterns of the distribution of limited resources to sustain our lives), and the Social Community (our interconnections of community relationships, voluntary associations, and identities). And to each of these poles, we attach meaning. To the extent that representation, distribution, and community are at stake, we will frame our ideas about public life — and then frame our strategic practices — to take advantage of them on the larger public stage.

The influence of these three poles that capture our attention has no edges or real boundaries. Their influence touches all of us in every part of our lives. The real question we are concerned with is, What is at stake at the center(s)? This is not an easy question to answer. Where, exactly, what is at stake in the polity, say, blends into what is at stake in the economy cannot easily be traced. It may be a categorical mistake, in fact, to refer to the polity and the economy as altogether two separate concepts — that “political economy,” PE, might better conceptually describe their interactions. Or, to stretch the idea, maybe we can refer to the whole thing as “political-economy-social community,” PESC, a convenient shorthand for sure — but such is a prime example of how easy it is to create a cover term that completely obscures what is going on underneath it.

The point is that the strategic action of the many economic SAFs go straight to the heart of governance through lobbying or self-interested political influence peddling, for instance; on the other hand, regulation for the public good interrupts the economic function. The actions of political SAFs — from taxation to law enforcement to social entitlements — penetrate the social community and its array of SAFs; so too do business decisions to leave a community in limbo. Labor unrest, patterns of consumption, voting blocs, struggles for liberation, arising from the social community affect the polity and the economy — and back and forth from one end of the social latticework of strategic action fields to the other. What is at stake at each of the poles is interpreted variously by the vast variety of SAFs.

Are there patterns in all of this. Yes. What we find, actually, are concatenations, or “chains,” of meaning linking up together around the most important poles in the social order, organized around our perceptions about what we, and our myriad SAFs, collectively find in them to be at stake. We all converge at the poles, blending our systems of meaning as we can, resisting those we find repugnant.

But it is here, in the interpretation of what happens in and around the poles, where value-pluralism finds its greatest confusion. In the absence of consensus, the major poles of the social order — the polity, the economy, and the social community — become fields of contentious struggle, stakes to fight for. Incumbents from one SAF or another struggle to retain historical regimes of power and ideology, just as challengers fight to reshape the order of meaning to their advantage.

Around these poles, public life becomes a stage for conflict, for trials of strength, wherein, in the absence of consensus, and in the presence of the will to power, one power seeks to supplant another. Wherein, zero-sum tribalism destroys what little consensus there may once have been. We have little choice but to participate and try to make sense of what is happening. We can’t afford to evade conflict. The search for meaning demands working through it toward a higher reconciliation. To evade it, or to close our eyes and wish it to go away, to lose confidence in a meaningful public world, is surrender to nihilism, the destroyer of worlds.

We may be sorely tempted to escape from the struggle into the spirituality of “pure” communities of like mind — ranging from localist cultural “scenes” to homogeneous suburbs to monasteries — and withdraw from the fray. This withdrawal philosopher and occasional New York Times philosophy columnist Simon Crtichley calls “passive nihilism” and he asks us, rather, to stay in the game. Or, we may prefer, as many seem to these days, to tear down the “system” altogether and hope, perhaps wistfully, that something better spontaneously grows back its place. Thus, a penchant for deconstruction that Critchley calls “active nihilism” and warns us that it is a road to our own destruction (2012: 1-8).[15]


The Trap of Embedded Practices


I want to circle back to practices for a moment to connect them with the struggle for meaning. What is true of our struggles to understand public life also goes for our practices to confront it. While we struggle together to articulate and to find some measure of control over the chains of meanings forming around the central poles of public life, we also discover that chains of meaning are accompanied by similar chains of practices attached to the same centers of public life.

Pause to remember that meanings and practices emerge together as self-reinforcing strategies from within the middle of life experience — from the meso-level of the social order. Meaning, that concrete public practices — such as protests, demonstrations, boycotts, or strikes in the social community; or the mobilization of think-tanks and lobbies to protect economic interests; or voter registration drives, party building and campaigns — all emerge from particular SAFs, with particular conceptions of what is at stake, and with particular strategies in mind. There are no practices disconnected from the fields of meaning that gave them birth.

What we find in the “library” of past social experiences are established patterns, or tropes, of public practices. Social movement theorists refer to these as “action repertoires.”[16] They represent a tool kit of time-tested forms of social action. We might think of them as “plug-and-play” modules and adapt them “off the shelf” as it were to whatever strategic ends we have in mind. But this is to take them out of context, to strip them of the historical conditioning that originally gave them meaning.

Their indiscriminant application leaves us vulnerable to advancing unseen strategies tied to unknown stakes. For example, we might be at least cautiously self-critical about applying business development practices to mission (Escobar’s “managerial missiology”), recognizing that this introduces capitalist strategic action paradigms into forms of community life that may derive only marginal benefit from business logics — if not enmesh them entirely in the global “culture of economism” that missiologist-economist team Jane Collier and Rafael Esteban (1998) warn is the most significant meaning-making competitor to the mission of the global Christian ecumene.

Another example: Our most powerful social action repertoires come from the mid-century Civil Rights movement. These are strategies of conflict, an “over-against” stance toward incumbent state and cultural actors in seeking to liberate the marginalized. But as important as they are — and they certainly produced crucial, world-historical outcomes in the liberation of racial, ethnic, and gender identities, not to mention providing a workable template for other movements — they may not have as much to do with other questions we may also ask, such as, How do we work toward holistic, integrative consensus on identities, values, and social orders?

The point here is that in reproducing and reiterating tropes of social action, we risk enclosing our imaginations in past practices. And we fail to grasp that new movements, forming around new perceptions of what is at stake, will engender — they will indeed require — new repertoires of action. Activism gets stuck in “tradition” as easily as churches do in their earnestness to just do something.


Achieving the Big Picture — and its Limitations


Authentic discipleship requires significant personal inner work to come to the point of social freedom in order to participate fairly in the public conversation about the meaning of the world we see. It also requires personal courage to confront the ambiguities we feel toward our social world, the claims and counterclaims of its competitors, and the sometimes vicious contentions over power and values — even courage to confront our own sloth that tempts us to take the easy road away from thoughtful confrontation and into easy habits of tired and overwrought social practices.

If we wish to attempt the work of creating a Big Picture of the world we share with the wider public, we can start with the three poles of the social order that most concern us all — the polity, the economy, the social community. We find these wrapped in chains of meanings and practices, each link representing the strategic interests of some SAF, whose members wonder aloud among themselves about what is at stake in the crucial centers of the social order. Numerous chains exist, forged by SAFs converging from Left, Right, and Center, or from the fringes of Radicalism. But they all converge at the poles around the peaks of hierarchies of meaning and practice. How do we, among these peaks, catch a glimpse of the whole that makes up public life?

Our task is singly, despite the complexity involved, to construct in our minds, piece by piece, an overall picture of what we are collectively experiencing in public. Our pursuit is a working description that makes the complexities of public life as legible as we can make them. We desire a set of ideas that interprets the world clearly, explains its processes fairly, and exploits its possibilities sensibly. What we are after is, in the end, a working world picture that reliably, or as reliably as we can make it, connects the world we hold in our minds with the world we are constructing with our hands.

But all we have to start with are pieces and parts — the actually-existing fragments of proximate meanings constructed in the latticework of social action fields. These are the partial and fragmented existing conditions from which we build. If we wish to emerge above the fog bank of illegibility, we must begin from the insights we gather in the middle range of life, and build from there. All we can do is climb the chains of meaning wrapped around the poles of the social order, as it were, one link at a time, exploring the growing combinations of meaning that naturally form around the poles of the social order.

This is a gradual process — a process of extending our minds upward from our daily experiences in the familiar middle-range of public life — climbing as far as our social skill can take us in framing together, link by link, the references and connections of the claims and counter-claims of what is at stake in each piece of public experience. In fits and starts we may climb high enough to achieve at least limited vision from the top of the heap.

What we are after is a cosmopolitan perspective, taking on an ecumenical practice whereby we look at each set of parochial claims and chains of claims about what is at stake, as fairly and dispassionately as we can, and then ask about what we see from the perspective of the whole. What we find are irreconcilable rational contradictions between claims, lines of fracture between opposing forms of consciousness, and competing traditions of practice based on competing conceptions about what is at stake. To make a Big Picture is to tell a story about what we see as honestly as we can, and delineate as clearly as we can the various points of contention. Only then can we begin to imagine how it might be that these contradictions, fractures, and contentions can be reconciled.

We begin to paint our picture of the world, in effect, by adding up and synthesizing proximate sets of meaning. Our picture forms from particles of human experience. But a cosmopolitan perspective refuses to draw a picture of only pieces and parts. It pushes beyond to describe our perceptions of the Ultimate — What in the end is really at stake for us all? — and also our perceptions of the Intimate — What truly defines human solidarity?

Our reach will always exceed our grasp. On a distant utopian horizon, perhaps an eschatological one, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful will no doubt split the sky and be reconciled in a single beatific vision. In the meanwhile, our vision is only partial, seen in the biblical dark glass. All we can do is to “middle out,” as it were, from our lived experience toward higher unities of vision. With patience we may learn a great deal, though never the full story. If this is our melancholy human condition, so be it.


Cosmopolitan Discipleship


To conclude. I once heard the great world-systems theorist and social activist Emmanuel Wallerstein, a “big picture” thinker if there ever was one, asked a provocative question by someone personally struggling with mixed emotions about her own suffering of racial injustice. Her question was, to the effect, “When we feel the pain of injustice, what, if anything possibly can, turns anger into love and compassion?” His answer: “Cold, hard analysis.”[17]

If we wish to explain the higher reaches of public consciousness, we have no alternative to throwing the chains of meanings and practices that accumulate around the public mind onto the anvil, hammer the links apart, and examine the cold, hard steel of their claims. Hierarchies of meaning must be disaggregated into fields of meaning created by specific SAFs in their own specific circumstances, with their own claims connected to the stakes they find meaningful. And once exposed they may be evaluated on their own terms. Who? — which collective group of people? — is saying What? — about what is at stake? — and How does this affect the claims of others, whether leading toward consensus or toward conflict?

Our analytical tool is a simple one. A question: What is at stake? Every claim advanced by every strategic action field can be opened up with it.

The stakes that preoccupy us are serious ones: liberty, justice, solidarity, equality; independence, pride, honor; reconciliation, revenge; insight or subterfuge; self-interest or self-giving; and on . . . . To the extent that these can be exposed among the SAFs that shape the social order, we might be able to begin a conversation to sort them out and search for higher levels of reconciliation.

We can do this if we will. But will we? Taking the time, spending the energy, and risking the opprobrium of others to articulate Big Ideas is hardly the mood of the moment. We wish to remain “practical” Romans, banishing hard thinking from the empire. Mark Lilla’s lament about our “illegible” age still stands. We can let him have another word:

Today we seem to have renounced trying to understand as much as we can. We suffer from a new kind of hubris unlike that of the old master thinkers. Our hubris is to think that we no longer have to think hard or pay attention or look for connections, that all we have to do is stick to our “democratic values” and economic models and faith in the individual and all will be well. The end of the cold war destroyed whatever confidence in the great modern ideologies still remained in the West. But it also left us incurious and self-absorbed. We have abdicated. (Lilla 2016a: 226-227)

The purpose of the social sciences, social philosophy, history, legal theory, or at least the center of their concerns, is to discern what each collective voice in the social order — or each SAF, to put it in Fligstein and McAdam’s terms — is saying about what is meaningful, what is at stake for all of us, what a meaningful world might look like, how social orders grow from this existential function of the social, and how human beings fit into them. Their work is descriptive and interpretive, though they may arm the others of us with insights we might use to constructively influence the public conversation, and construct practices toward further cooperation.

So too, does missiology with one important addition. The purpose of missiology is to arm us with insight to constructively influence the public conversation — and to connect this with practice. The ideas and practices of mission which it informs are prescriptive and socially engaged for the sake of promoting human flourishing. Mission and missiology fit together within the framework of the church to mobilize its actions toward the world. We are promoters of the Christian project — the point, as Marx pointed out, is not to interpret the world, but to change it. But woe to anyone who does not believe this is dangerous work. If we fail to grasp the Big Picture, if we are lazy and sloppy in our thinking, we will mislead the Christian project; our practices will be deranged.

How can we be trusted with our own influence? By becoming cosmopolitan disciples — people who do the work of trying to understand the parochial pieces of our social order in the light of universal solidarity; people who do the hard work of freeing themselves from their pasts, their embedded identities, and vested interests to engage the world authentically in freedom. Taking a cosmopolitan stance is to do the hard, cold work of grasping and coordinating competing stakes. The cosmopolitan mind is constantly analyzing, synthesizing — theorizing the world from amidst its particulars, making meaning from what human beings find at stake in the world. The authentic disciple acts in the world, practicing in word, deed, and lifestyle the Christian way for the good of the world, rooted in the deepest understanding of the world we can muster.

What humanizes all of this is our attitude. To be cosmopolitan is to be ecumenical, to seek the good of the ecumene — believing that, “An injury to one is an injury to all” (Harvey 2005: 187). To be a cosmopolitan disciple is to seek solidarity with all others — “an experience of willed affiliation . . . . a special claim that individuals have on each others’ energies and compassion” (Hollinger 2006: xi). A claim that keeps us looking toward one another as we sort out our explanations of the world.

If we learn anything from a theory of strategic action fields it is that meaning and action are fused together as simultaneous expressions of our human purposes. This is what I am trying to convey through the term cosmopolitan discipleship. We do not live unless we act, we theorize our action as naturally as we breathe, as we consider the Big Picture of what is at stake for us and our other human fellows.

So it might not come as a surprise that I end here with a modest proposal: That we call a moratorium on use of the terms of art, “theory” and “practice.” Maybe, just for a while, it would be better to think only about meaning and action in tandem, as two facets of the same experience of life, as simply the natural way in which we humans process our lives. As we gain experience in living them out simultaneously and together, we, as cosmopolitan disciples, might one day overcome the strange estrangement of theory and practice.

                [1] For a historical survey of the intellectual background of the present impasse, see Lilla (2016a, 2016b); on the social history of 1960s activism and its claims, Gitlin (1993).

                [2] From the World Social Forum left, see Sen, et al. ( 2004); from the anarcho-capitalist right, Chartier and Johnson (n.d.).

                [3] For a wider background to Lilla’s comment, see Lilla (2016a: 219-227). “This [individualist] dogma is at once anti-political and anti-intellectual. It cultivates no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. It has no use for sociology or psychology or history, not to mention political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary and productive tension between individual and collective purposes. It is simplicity itself” (:225).

                [4] Her trilogy, “The Archers,” is a formidable exploration of the perennial question of structure and agency that reformulates the question around morphogenesis (the process of social change) and morphostasis (preservation of the social order). In it, drawing on the work of social philosopher Roy Baskhar, she lays the groundwork for what has come to be called critical realism, or realist social theory, which in turn has influenced other Christian sociologists such as Christian Smith (Notre Dame) and Margarita Mooney (Princeton Theological Seminary).

                [5] The following discussion is based on Chapters 8 and 9 of Archer’s Being Human: The Problem of Agency (2000) and represents only a fraction of her wider work on the question of agency that threads its way through the other volumes.

                [6] Such reactions are well illustrated in Arlie Hochschild’s recent ethnography of the struggling white working class in Louisiana’s industrial zones, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016), and their feelings of abandonment by liberal elites and resentment toward “line cutters,” emerging non-white “others” who are “ditching us” in line and “leaving us out.”

                [7] The interplay of “cultural system integration” and “socio-cultural integration” in the processes of morphogenesis are discussed at length in Culture and Agency: The Place of Culture in Social Theory (1996).

                [8] As an aside, it is interesting to look at the process of personal transformation from another angle, such as Mark Lilla’s observation of the work of Karl Jaspers: “the conviction that philosophy was a means of wresting one’s existence from the grip of the commonplace and assuming responsibility for it” (2016:46).

                [9] An ethical kingdom of God coming about through social reform (e.g., Olson 2013: 147-167).

                [10] Rorty (1998:18); the “religion of democracy” as Amy Kittlestrom (2015) has called it.

                [11] Lilla (2016a: 79-112, 200f).

                [12] Gutierrez (1988: 91-97); Agamben (2012).

                [13] Merton (2007); Tilly (2007); Fligstein and McAdam (2012).

                [14] My construction of “poles” in the social order is my own, but draws from Cohen (1998); Cohen and Arato (1992).

                [15] Also see, Mishra (2017).

                [16] Tarrow (1994).

                [17] June 2010 Detroit, MI meeting of the United States Social Forum. Breakout panel discussion with Emmanuel Wallerstein and Grace Lee Boggs.




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