Religion & Modernity

The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation.
by Peter L. Berger.
Anchor Press/Doubleday. 220 pp. $9.95.

Peter L. Berger is a sociologist of unusual depth and range who has written lucidly on a variety of subjects, including epistemology and developmental problems of the Third World. He is, however, best-known, and justly so, for his work on the sociology of religion, a topic to which he now returns, as he tells us, after a decade of other labors.

Thoughtful readers will welcome him back. Almost everyone—from President Carter to Solzhenitsyn to the proverbial man in the street—agrees that in one way or another our deepest problems are spiritual, which is to say religious. Since so much that is written in this area is pop theology, sentimental treacle, apocalyptic prattle, or empty sermonizing, we are much in need of the reflections of serious men even if they happen to be sociologists and even if we suspect that sociology as a discipline is bound to be a little weak on matters such as piety and God.

One must hasten to add that Berger is both an extraordinary sociologist and more than one. He confesses almost at once to being “unambiguously (and, I daresay, irrevocably) Christian.” What is more, he forthrightly aligns himself with “Protestant theological liberalism” and insists that Protestantism is the paradigm for studying “contemporary possibilities of religious affirmation.”

The various positions Berger assumes and identifies are not always in perfect harmony with each other and sometimes they seem to operate at cross-purposes. Berger the sociologist is content—or forced—to limit himself to outlining the situation of contemporary religion in what turns out to be an overly abstract and methodological treatise. He also employs terms that must go against the grain of the writer’s predilection for good prose: “plausibility structures” instead of “credibility” and “truth claims” where just plain “truth” would do very well.

If Berger the sociologist has taken a kind of oath to do no more than draw a map of the territory, Berger the Christian necessarily feels compelled to hint at where we ought to go, even as the liberal Protestant in him necessarily talks about the best way to get there. The rather empty generalizations of the social scientist coexist uneasily with a set of prescriptions that are insufficiently universal in spite of Berger’s best intentions. The resulting tension sometimes enhances the argument, sometimes flaws it, but always makes it worthwhile following.

The main thrust of that argument is that “modernity has plunged religion into a very specific crisis” characterized above all by pluralism. It has done so primarily by forcing men to choose beliefs to which they had previously been consigned by fate. Less and less is dictated by necessity; more and more becomes a matter for questioning. In terms of belief, this means that the faith of one’s fathers must yield to one’s “religious preference.” At the same time, the traditional reasons for choosing one religion over another—or any religion at all—are gravely undermined. By “the heretical imperative” Berger means this radical necessity to choose. “A hareisis originally meant, quite simply, the taking of a choice.” He tries to transfigure the necessity of choice into the virtue of choice as well as to articulate the various possible ways of choosing.

At this point difficulties begin to appear. One does not choose religion as such but a particular religion. Furthermore, it is not clear what the relation is between the utility—if any—of a religion and its truth—if any. Finally, it is not even all that clear what a religion is since everything from Communism to commercialism has been called one. Berger attempts to circumvent such complications by having recourse to the empirical evidence of human experience. He is thus led to define religion as the “human attitude that conceives of the cosmos (including the supernatural) as a sacred order.” So far so good, but he goes on to speak of the embodiment of religious experiences in traditions which routinize them. Here he is not only influenced by Weber (“the routinization of charisma”) but doing less than full justice to Catholicism and Judaism, which place more emphasis on tradition and confer greater dignity on it than does Protestantism. The same Protestant bias can be seen when Berger assigns to Protestantism the birth of modern biblical scholarship, without so much as mentioning Spinoza, and when he rather persistently limits his inquiries to religious faith without reflecting on religious law.



Having described the modern religious crisis, Berger proceeds to discuss three possible responses to it. The first of these is “deductive” and involves the reaffirmation of embattled tradition, or in other words neo-orthodoxy. Its greatest Protestant advocate is unquestionably Karl Barth. Berger is generous in his tribute to the man who so intransigently insisted that the “word of God” be taken on its own terms and buttressed his case with a “majestic” opus. But he is also critical of Barth and up to a point his criticism is irrefutable: neo-orthodoxy (emphasis mine) can never have the pristine innocence of simple orthodoxy; Barth was forced to defend fundamentalist views in Hegelian accents. On some points, though, Barth seems immune to the strictures of Berger, who tries to saddle him with the advocacy of a Kierkegaardian leap into faith. It is true that there are weighty arguments against leaping, but Berger himself has previously referred to Barth’s view that faith is not a human possibility but rather something that happens “if and when God wants it to happen,” Doesn’t that deny the very existence of a leap into faith?

The second possible response to the modern situation is “reductive” and is best exemplified, in Protestantism, by Rudolf Bultmann and his project of “demythologization.” This is the possibility least congenial to Berger, and one can see why. Demythologization involves a continued bargaining with modernity that entails excessive concessions to it. Moreover, it is a process easier to begin than to end; it is hard to see what that is specifically religious can survive such a consecration of modernity. Berger is also quite perceptive in discerning the Heideggerian (and essentially pagan) underpinnings of Bultmann’s thought. Nevertheless, he may at the same time underestimate its intransigent strength. For example, he is given to citing Karl Jaspers against Bultmann without considering the fact that many observers of their debate are convinced that Jaspers was trounced in the encounter.

The third and final possible response discussed by Berger, and for him the only valid one, is the “inductive” one articulated first by Friedrich Schleiermacher, the hero of the present volume (a crucial section is entitled “Back to Schleiermacher”). Berger calls the true option “inductive” because Schleiermacher sought to reformulate “Christian theology in terms of the human experience of faith.” He begins his exposition with Schleiermacher’s characterization of the essence of religion as an “experience of absolute dependence.” One regrets his failure to discuss Hegel’s scathing comment that this would make dogs the best Christians—an unfair comment, perhaps, but one that contains the seeds of a very serious critique of this kind of theology.

Berger is all in favor of the kind of phenomenological approach developed by Schleiermacher, so much so that he tends to minimize its pitfalls. First of all, Schleiermacher’s legacy leads much more to the modern emasculation of religion Berger opposes than to the Barthian rigor he admires (without subscribing to it). Then, too, Schleiermacher’s theology has great difficulty in distinguishing between genuine and spurious religious experiences, between the choice of one religion as against another, and between the truth or falsity of any given conviction.

Berger acknowledges all these problems but they do not bother him as much as perhaps they should. At a certain point the sociologist in him joins hands with the opponent of religious fanaticism in order to condone what many readers of Schleiermacher are unable to accept. For example, Berger has no particular hesitation in placing the quotation marks of relativism around the words “true” and “false” and thus makes light of the subjectivism with which Schleiermacher has justly been charged. He does so in the interests of a “mellow certainty,” a substitute for the absolute conviction of absolute truth. Thereby he reveals himself as a moderate, but moderation is a moral rather than an intellectual virtue.



It is his detestation of the extreme, already evident in his treatment of Bultmann, that may be at the core of Berger’s premature dismissal of modernity, even though books such as the one he has written are indisputably suffused—or infected—by typically modern assumptions. In any event, Berger seriously thinks that we have now passed beyond the confrontation between religion and modernity. The next stage is a religious “contestation”—between East and West, between Jerusalem and Benares, between religious experience as confrontation of the divine and religious experience of the “inferiority of the divine.”

One can only hope that this contestation will be as peaceful as Berger envisages it. After all, religious contestations of this kind may end up as religious wars, and Machiavelli may well have been right in thinking of pious cruelty as the worst of all possible cruelty. But even if contestations are necessary, a Jew like this reviewer may doubt whether this is the right contest for Christianity at this time. Has Christianity done all it could have done in coming to terms with its parent religion, Judaism? Has it come to terms with the past of Auschwitz and the present of the state of Israel? It has not—and these are prior orders on the agenda. But it is to the credit of this volume that one wants to argue such matters with Berger and that the tone of the work makes one confident that the contestation with him, at least, would be benevolent.

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