Systems Theory in Religious Studies: A Methodological Critique

Dissertation, Boston University (1986)
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Since the nineteen fifties many social theorists, religion specialists, and theologians have turned to general systems theory for insight into the nature of religion and its expressions. As an interdisciplinary perspective introduced by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy and developed by the philosopher Ervin Laszlo and others, systems theory seeks common patterns of organization throughout the natural and cultural worlds. Because of its high level of generality, expressed in the relational principles of integration, adaptation, emergence, and hierarchy, systems theory attempts to transcend artificial boundaries separating the sciences and the humanities. Advocates have claimed its value in interpreting a broad range of religious phenomena, including Christian theology and ethics, and Buddhist metaphysics and meditation. ;Religious studies has long struggled to integrate the competing contributions of the social sciences and phenomenology. A mediating proposal came in 1968 with Robert Bellah's cybernetic-systems theory of religion . An account of the common origins of systems theory and religious studies in nineteenth century thought , and a survey of representative literature between 1950 and 1985 , introduce a critique if specific methodological issues. ;The problem of functionalism is reinterpreted in terms of the adaptive self-regulation of open systems, and illustrated by three cybernetic theories of religion . The problem of historicism is reinterpreted in terms of the emergent self-organization of open systems, and illustrated by Talcott Parsons' action theory of religion and the theories of religious evolution of Bellah and D. T. Campbell . Reductionism is reconceived as the heuristic relationship of theoretical constructs in a hierarchy of open systems, and illustrated by theological conceptions of nature and meaning . ;In conclusion, the systems principle of integration is applied to the problems of personalism and pluralism, and illustrated in the personality theories of Bertalanffy, Koestler, Laszlo, and others. A systems theory of religious consciousness is shown to encompass the findings of religious studies broadly conceived: phenomenology and hermeneutics, social scientific theory, history of religions, philosophy of religion, and systematic theology



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