A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity.
by Peter L. Berger.
Free Press. 218 pp. $22.95.
Peter Berger’s writings on religion are a rare combination of scholarly detachment and personal engagement. As a leading figure in interpretive sociology, Berger, who teaches at Boston University, has provided a coherent account both of how the elements of the religious world view—what he terms the “sacred canopy”—are constituted and of how they come under challenge. As a believing Lutheran, he has also sought to make the case for religious belief today, defending the life of faith against its contemporary “cultural despisers.” Most remarkably, Berger has employed the tools of sociological analysis itself to establish the groundwork for theological speculation and, by extension, theological affirmation.
Berger’s analysis has been developed in a series of books, including The Sacred Canopy (1967), A Rumor of Angels (1969), The Heretical Imperative (1979), and now A Far Glory. It may be summarized, much too briefly, as follows.
Modern society, Berger observes, has witnessed the progressive removal of whole sectors of life and culture from the domination of religious symbols and institutions. This process has been linked at least in part to the rise of science and technology, which have inculcated “highly rational modes of thinking” and introduced “rational techniques to solve problems which previously rendered human beings helpless.”
Yet Berger does not wholly agree with those who view modernity as leading inexorably to secularization. There are, he writes in his new book,
vast regions today in which modernization has not only failed to result in secularity but has instead led to reaffirmations of religion.
While Europe as an area and intellectuals as a group give evidence of the type of secularization brought about by the impact of scientific rationalization, the “rest of the world,” including the United States, “is as furiously religious as ever, and possibly more so.”
Instead of secularization tout court, Berger points to what he calls “pluralization,” a situation in which a multiplicity of religious groups interact with one another in such a way that “different lifestyles, values, and beliefs begin to mingle.” Given the “sheer massivity” of such pluralization in modern times, Berger argues, the end result can only be “cognitive contamination.” He explains:
First through mass literacy, and then through modern mass communication, people encounter different cultures and world views. . . .
The thought obtrudes that one’s traditional ways of looking at the world may not be the only plausible ones. . . . The world view that until now was taken for granted is opened up, very slightly at first, to a glimmer of doubt. This opening has a way of expanding rapidly. . . . There are few certainties, convictions become mere opinions, and one becomes accustomed to considering just about any different view of things.
Once “contamination” has taken place, Berger sees three basic options open to the individual believer and religious groups. He labels them “cognitive surrender,” “cognitive retrenchment,” and “cognitive bargaining.” In the first, evident among broad sectors of mainline Protestantism today, the modern denial of transcendence is accepted as correct and an attempt is made to reformulate the religious message in, basically, a secular mode. In the second, which is dramatically opposed to the first, and is to be seen among Christian and Jewish fundamentalists, the basic premises of the secular outlook are rejected in toto, while traditional religious teachings are reaffirmed in a wholesale fashion. Finally, in the third, religious and secular viewpoints are brought into dialogue with one another, and an attempt is made to reach a compromise.
Berger’s categories—surrender, retrenchment, bargaining—are meant to be descriptive and analytical, but a strong evaluative element enters as well. Those who have hoisted the “flag of surrender,” he writes, achieve cognitive relief at the price of theological suicide; the wholesale concessions they offer to modernity end up being “self-liquidating,” as
people discover that one can be ethical without Jesus, existentially authentic and mentally healthy without religion, and most emphatically political without the church.
Berger is much more respectful of “retrenchment”—mentioning the Mormons, Hasidim, and the Amish in this context. In particular, he recognizes the heroism involved in attempting to “reaffirm the whole kit-and-caboodle of orthodoxy in the teeth of modern secularity.” Still, retrenchment requires “withdrawing] into a fortress,” and fortresses have a way of proving vulnerable:
Allow one small crack in the wall, and the mighty wind of the surrounding pluralist culture is liable to come roaring in.
Berger’s own sympathies are clearly with cognitive bargaining, and in a very real sense A Far Glory may be said to constitute a how-to manual in that mode. He is aware that the type of religious give-and-take he has in mind will appear to some as half-hearted. More seriously, he knows full weil that the
very first step in the bargaining process lands one on a slippery slope whose foot is on the debris of shattered faith.
Still, in Berger’s view, cognitive bargaining is the “only honest course” for people who try to “reconcile a religious quest with an honest recognition of their contemporary social context.”
A Far Glory is the most upbeat analysis that Berger has produced to date. Clearly sensing that his chief intellectual opponents, the secular intelligentsia who rule academia, are in a less confident mood at present, Berger finds little need to polemicize against them. By and large it is not his adversaries who preoccupy him here but religious believers, and he urges them on, stressing the religious opportunities created by pluralization.
This marks a clear shift in emphasis from Berger’s previous work, which presented religious choice first as an intellectual possibility (A Rumor of Angels) and then as a religious necessity (The Heretical Imperative). In A Far Glory the stress instead is on the “unprecedented freedom” that is a consequence of the modern pluralistic situation, on the welcome fact that the very multiplicity of religious options offers a unique opportunity to the contemporary believer to move from “fate”—the condition into which one is born—to “choice.”
But there are choices and then there are choices. While Berger appears to exult in the sheer variety of religious options available at present, this does not prevent him from indicating his own strong preferences. Treated with cold contempt are not only the “wimps” of mainline Protestantism but also (despite Berger’s mild sympathies for “retrenchment”) the “thugs” inhabiting the “wilder shores” of evangelical Protestantism. Berger also has surprisingly little patience for those who in a Jewish context would be called “returnees,” neo-traditionalist and neo-orthodox types who “in laying claim to certitude, must deny [their] own experience of uncertainty.” As for Roman Catholicism, Berger discusses it at length but comes up with hardly anything positive to say. On the other hand, he shows great respect for the various strands of Buddhism.
Most directly, Berger identifies with the liberal Protestant tradition (growing out of the work of the 19th-century thinker Friedrich Schleiermacher) that focuses inductively on
religious experience rather than religious ideation as the object of theological reflection, rejecting the notion that reason must be abandoned before one enters the realm of faith, and being prepared to examine both one’s experiences and one’s own religious training in the light of the modern empirical disciplines.
In stressing religious experience, Berger is especially interested in the “signals of transcendence”—harbingers of a supernatural reality that emerge out of “prototypical human gestures”:
The recurring urge of human beings to find meaningful order in the world . . . ; the redemptive experiences of play and humor; the ineradicable capacity to hope; the overwhelming conviction that certain deeds of inhumanity merit absolute condemnation, and the contrary conviction as to the absolute goodness of certain actions of humanity; the sometimes searing experience of beauty, be it in nature or the works of man; and many others one could easily enumerate. Each of these, though quite ordinary in many cases and almost never perceived as supernatural, points toward a reality that lies beyond the ordinary. . . .
Berger is the first to acknowledge that the experiences he describes “do not unambiguously or compellingly testify to transcendence,” and can be “amply explained in secular terms.” It is here that faith, in the sense of trust, enters the picture. First, there is “faith in my own experience,” and the daring “to suppose that what this experience intends is not a lie.” Second, there is “faith in the ultimate benignness of the universe,” a sense that the “transcendent reality I have perceived is not only out there, but is there for me.” This combined faith is the hallmark of the inductive approach.
Berger’s chosen path is not without difficulties. One obvious problem is how to distinguish between true and false religious experience, and, indeed, between signals of transcendence and signs of psychosis. Perhaps more compelling, though, is the question of how one moves from an ambiguous encounter with a transcendent realm—the world of hints and signals—to the specific truth claims put forward by the great historic religions.
This problem is neatly illustrated by Berger’s own religious affirmations in A Far Glory. When all is said and done, Berger turns out to be a believing Christian, and, more impressively, a believing Christian of strong traditionalist leanings. The opening chapter contains the most direct statement to date of his Christian affirmations, and they include a belief in the “redemption of men through God’s coming into the world in Christ” and the view that the “ultimate weakness of God [in Christ leads] to the blinding revelation of His omnipotence.”
Berger is entitled to his religious beliefs; but it is just not clear how he came to them via the inductive process. At one point he asserts:
I affirm Christianity because I have been touched by its symbols, because the reality it alleges fits my own experiences of what is real about the world, about the human condition, about my own life.
But what if Berger had been born a Muslim or a Hindu; would he not have embraced those systems with equal conviction? And if so, what has happened to the shift from “fate” to “choice”? Is it not safer to assume that Berger’s Christian affirmations exist independently of the signals of transcendence he has experienced, or at least that the two relate to each other in a more complex way than he acknowledges?
But the theme of A Far Glory is the “quest for faith,” and that quest, Berger repeatedly reminds us, will of necessity be an ongoing process. What is important in his view is that we continue the quest, buoyed by the conviction that the signals of transcendence do not deceive us. Both through his writings and by the personal example of his faith, Peter Berger gives us reason so to believe.