A sociologist who turned to God, but never understood faith: Peter Berger

A sociologist who turned to God, but never understood faith: Peter Berger, March 17, 1929-June 27, 2017.

When I was in graduate school many years ago, The Social Construction of Reality, by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, published in 1966, was my bible, and I was not alone.  Berger and Luckmann argued that what we experience as reality is socially constructed by men and women.  Over time, this construction is forgotten and the reality taken as given.  It’s a good argument, but it doesn’t work very well with God.  Berger acknowledged as much in a book written a few years later, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, published in 1970. 

Where Berger was right

Berger seems right that what has failed in modernity is not a belief in God, but belief in “another reality.”  Some theologians seem to have gone along with this.  Paul Tillich understood the task of theology in terms of the “method of correlation,” by which he meant the interpretation of Christianity in the language of philosophical and psychological thought (p 11). 

Rudolf Bultmann exaggerates, but has the right idea when he says that no one who uses electricity and listens to the radio can any longer believe in the miracle world of the New Testament.  His response was to translate the Christian tradition into the contemporary language of existentialism (p. 41).

Bultmann’s definition of the disease has proven useful.  Today many of us are enthralled with the things humans have made, like smart phones.  (Confession: I bought my first smart phone a couple of weeks ago, and something about it is compelling.)  So how should religion respond?

Berger’s answer is that we should not capitulate to modernity, but anchor belief in God in human experience. Good diagnosis, poor remedy.

Anthropology is not the answer

Berger argues we should anchor belief in human experience.

The suggestion that theological thought revert to an anthropological starting point is motivated by the belief that such an anchorage in fundamental human experience might offer some protection against the constantly changing winds of cultural moods. (p 52)

If we begin by assuming that God is an expression of human experience, then God becomes a reflection of human need.  God loses his otherness.  By the way, Berger is not arguing that we make God.  He’s arguing that the best way to know God is through basic human needs, what he calls “signals of transcendence.” 

Good example, poor conclusion

Consider, says Berger, a mother’s consoling gesture to a child, holding him and saying that everything is going to be alright.

This common scene raises a far from ordinary question, which immediately introduces a religious dimension: Is the mother lying to the child? The answer, in the most profound sense, can be “no” only if there is some truth in the religious interpretation of human existence. (p 55)

This isn’t right.  A mother’s reassurance that everything is going to be alright need not be a lie, nor must it rest in a transcendent, and beneficent, reality.  Instead it can be interpreted along the following lines.  ‘You are not old enough to be allowed to see the harshness of reality, and I will protect you from it until you are.’  It’s not a question of truth, but love.

What Jesus Christ adds to this story

Christ adds love, not just for one’s own child, but love for all men and women, especially the lowly, those poor in spirit as well as money.  It’s easy (for most people) to love their own children.  Harder is seeing a beggar on the street and doing something for him, even if it’s just a smile and a few dollars.  Harder still is caring for the children (and adults, for we are all children of God) in Yemen, or Syria, or some other Hell on earth.  But we must try. 

Berger, like so many others, believes that it’s important to prove the existence of God, or transcendent reality.  I think what’s important is to act as Jesus Christ would act, in so far as humans are able to do so.  Jesus tells us how to act toward the poor, as does the Hebrew Bible, which tells us to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:18). 

Mine is not a faith versus works argument.  On the contrary, faith in God is revealed not by “proving”  his existence, but following the teachings of Christ, captured in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere.  Faith leads to works, and it probably acts the other way around too. 

The mystery of the completely other

Put simply, inductive faith moves from human experience to statements about God, deductive faith from statements about God to interpretations of human experience.  (p 57)

Berger is still beholden to sociology.  Inductive faith means we model God on human experience.  This is the last thing we should want to do.  God is the great mystery, the mystery of the absolutely other.  The task of theology is to find ways to talk about God, ways that recognize that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55.8).  “Inductive faith” models God on man. 

Inductive and deductive are sociological (and scientific) terms.  They have nothing to do with faith.  Berger believes that modern life makes God less plausible, and so he would argue for his existence in more practical, down to earth ways.  But proving the existence of God is not nearly so important as following Christ’s teachings.  And faith is a different way of knowing, a subjective experience that is irrelevant to science, as science is irrelevant to faith.

Faith

Faith is an experience independent of reason and logic because it concerns truths that can only be subjectively experienced.  This is what Kierkegaard (1992) meant when the said “the truth is subjectivity,” and “subjectivity is truth.”  Faith is subjective knowledge that cannot be made objective without destroying it.  Faith can be exemplified in a person’s life, but it cannot be known, only experienced.  Not every religious person experiences faith, but all can live as the Bible teaches us to.

Narrative is better than argument

The principle benefit of religion, says Berger, is that it permits a confrontation with the age in which one lives by providing a perspective that transcends history (pp 95-96).  That’s good.  Trouble is, Berger turns religion into a series of abstract claims about how we can and should know.  What makes the Bible so compelling is that it is a series of stories, a narrative about humans in darkness and in light.  Stories are always more compelling than philosophy, especially where faith is concerned. 

References

All unattributed page numbers refer to Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural.  New York: Open Road Media, 1970.

Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript.  Princeton University Press, 1992. [original 1846]

3 thoughts on “A sociologist who turned to God, but never understood faith: Peter Berger”

  1. I found this illuminating as I too read that book by Berger and was puzzled by the story you describe.But as a mathematician, I did not have the language to express what you describe.So that makes it even better.
    I also think that some part of our own self seems completely other.An example is dreaming of dangers we were not aware of.I suppose we are often strangers to ourselves even if we try to know.And would it help to know? It doesn’t help me to know why I used to feel claustrophobic, it helps me that somehow it feels weaker and I am happier.
    I think we learn about ourselves reading great novels and plays.Everyone loves a good story.The Bible is full of them.I feel sad sometimes that we ” stole” the Bible and were anti-Semitic.The Pope only took out certain prayers on Good Friday which criticised the Jews about ten years ago.We seem to forget Jesus had a Jewish mother if not father.

  2. Kathryn, I saw a bumper stick a while back. “My boss is a Jewish carpenter.” JC was a Jew, and held that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24). JC does not practice this view, but the Jewish roots of Christianity are deep and profound, and we should never forget them.

    Sometimes I have this odd feeling or insight or something (with which none of my Jewish or Christian friends agree) that there is not that much difference between Christianity and Judaism as far as their teachings about God and how to treat others is others is concerned. If the two most important commandments are to love God, and love your neighbor (Luke 10:27), then the difference in teachings isn’t fundamental. At this point I don’t expect to convince anybody about this, but that’s ok too. Fred

  3. I feel Christianity has done much harm to the Jews.After all , we are a mere heresy to them.I think as you do and I note from my studies they are not so against the body.I feel the body must be important in relating to God.
    I wonder if our soul is “other” to our ego?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.