This recent speech given by Bishop Robert Barron at a “Knights of Malta Conference” provoked me to give further thought to the whole notion of social constructs. I rarely have push-back for the good Bishop (or fully realize that any disagreement I may have is usually my own peril), but he spoke of “social constructs” as having a rather Marxist origin, and as such then, he held them up to suspicious lights at best.
Here is my current turmoil around this. Yes - I recognize from many knowledgeable voices around here that social constructs are very much a real thing. I fully accept that “Race” is entirely a social construct. There are no such things as “pure races” distinct from each other - we are all human beings from a great many different varieties of families and a great many different physical characteristics; but we are all one human race. There is no such thing as any race of “lighter skinned people” as distinct from “darker skinned people” any more than there could be a “race of tall people” and a “race of short people”. Such attempted distinctions are (or should be) embarrassing relics of past eugenics movements happily left in the dustbin of disturbing history. Scriptural theology agrees. Science agrees. Some of society still needs to catch up. So there that is.
Where this is still interesting for me, though, is around gender. Some have claimed that gender too, in its now apparent fluidity, is also nothing more than a social construct. And here it seems to me that science and theology (again?) both find themselves in alignment, but this time against the presently faddish societal notion of mere social construction. My question is this: between objective biological realities and socially built constructs, isn’t it a fairly obvious conclusion that there must be elements of both? It seems to me that nobody in their right mind would deny that we have, for better and for worse, significant accretions of social construction built up all around the traditional two genders. How could anybody but the blindest person possibly deny that? And at the same time, there is a substrate of biological reality there too. How could anybody but the most ideologically motivated deny such a reality as that?
Those are two current hot-button examples. But as they alone will probably send this thread off in hopeless political directions; let me hastily insist that my question about this is actually a more general one: What is the relationship between “social construct” and “objective reality”? Because they are often presented as opponents, and I’m suspecting it can’t always be so. The Bishop in his speech states at the end that the believer sees in God the ultimate and primal essence that precedes and indeed makes our very existence. I am here likening ‘essence’ to ‘social construct’ - only in this case it is God’s ‘social construct’, which in the believer’s view makes it our objective reality. The existentialists turned that on its head and said that existence precedes any such thing as essence, which in atheistic lights, puts the responsibility on us for our own social constructs entirely of our own making.
That all still sounds like a rather stark, either / or. A clear cut case where the believers have one side they should claim as their hill to defend. But it actually doesn’t sound so scripturally clear cut to me. For one thing, I’m not convinced that human-sourced social construction must necessarily be an anti-scriptural thing, nor even (more to the Bishop’s talk) must it always be a Marxist thing.
I think there are passages to be found which give implicit sanction to such human cultural activity as the manufacture of social constructs. Granted, what we produce is many times for evil, but not always. And it seems to me that the Marxist motivation to foment violent revolution is not the only motivator in town behind every “You need to do right by us” activist agenda or “Black Lives Matter” sign. There may be some of that Marxist element present in various activists or leaders - sure; it’s a big world that does include some scheming and violent people. But there is also a theological call for justice that calls for repentance, reconciliation, and redemption (and decidedly stands against violent revolution) that is also very much present (very much in the spirit of the too-often-forgotten MLK Jr.). And those who wish to see a revolutionary Marxist behind every door risk denying an essential thing they are scripturally compelled to do. That is one area I would love to engage the good bishop about if I had the chance.
I realize this may admittedly have too much political content to be a very long-lasting thread; but I do welcome for myself, the theological / scientific / social education on tap here, to bring me to better lights about how social constructs (such as gender) and science perhaps work together, or perhaps are at odds. How does that work?