A Jewish Reflection on Peter Berger’s theology (Part I)

I always admired the works of the sociologist Peter Berger as a formulation of religious commitment under the conditions of modernity.  Berger died two months ago and deserves a Jewish retrospective. I wavered if I should write the respective, hoping that someone else would write it first.

However, one morning, a few years ago, I woke up to discover that Peter Berger, someone whom I only knew from afar, quoted one of my articles approvingly as a springboard to discuss contemporary issues. This compliment was the momentum that resolved my indecision.

Berger praised my article for its noting the greater Jewish openness to Christianity today and how the thinkers in the 1960’s “era of dialogue” did not actually know anything about Christianity. This is unlike today where there are Jews deeply knowledgeable about Christianity, and vice-versa.  Berger singles out my statement that differences internally between certain Jewish theological positions may be greater than between Jews and Christians of like mind.

However, Berger always elided the differences between Judaism and Christianity.  I always wondered about that. I knew that he came from a Jewish family that converted to Lutheranism in 1938 when he was nine years old. However, my big surprise discovered while writing this blog post is that his family survived the Holocaust by fleeing to British-mandate Palestine until 1946. How did he spend the years?  I wonder what occurred during those years. . Berger came of age as a Jewish refugee in mandate Palestine, meaning he certainly knew basic Jewish life and practices. Surprisingly, I have not found any popular or scholarly article discussing this aspect of his life.

UPDATE: I was notified by a colleague of Peter Berger’s who saw this post that he wrote an autobiography, which was only published in German Im Morgenlicht der Erinnerung: Eine Kindheit in turbulenter Zeit (2008)  There are only 8 libraries in US that have a copy of this rare volume, yet a full copy is available online. It has not been distributed and has not made it into the secondary literature. In the volume, Berger describes how his family converted to Anglicanism for potential visa and immigration opportunities They then fled to Haifa where they assumed they would quickly get a visa to the Americas, instead they were there for eight years. When he first arrived he went to a Jewish school that used Hebrew and uncomfortably wanted to call him Yakov. Berger claims his remembers little of this Hebrew. Originally, people did not know that his family was Christian, but when people found out they shunned the family. The family was aided by other Christian Jews who found his father a job and found schools for the young Peter. He went to a Swiss mission school that instructed in German and socialized the students in traditional Lutheranism including pious visits to the Christian sites in Jerusalem. There Berger adopted their German Lutheran piety as his own. Berger was later rejected from Haifa Reali High School because of his faith and instead attended an Anglican Secondary school.  Haifa is where he first encountered Bahai, the topic of his Ph.D. thesis. The book also describes his encounter with Zionism and with American Jewish congregations upon arrival in the US.

Berger correctly credited me with bringing the gap between “intellectual religion of the books and the lived religion of the pews,” as reflected in the Saadyah dyad in the title of this blog (intellectual beliefs and lived opinions). His reading of my article shows his insight into authors he never met. However, the attempt to hold both aspects at the same time is the hallmark of Berger’s own thought. In this review, I will deal only with his theology and not his sociology; his religious vision moving from critique of suburban religion to explaining the existential value in religion, to developing his own deeply committed religious humanism.

(This is a first draft of some first thoughts on his theology growing out of decades of teaching his work. The post is subject to change. If anyone has any further Jewish applications of his thought, then let me know. maybe I should do one of these for Derrida, Zygmunt Bauman, or Tzvetan Todorov)


Peter Berger was born in Vienna on March 17, 1929, arriving in the United States shortly after World War II ended. In 1950, he produced a thesis on Puerto Rican Protestants in East Harlem; for his doctorate four years later, he focused on the Bahai movement in Iran. Berger served in the Army for two years in the mid-1950s and taught at schools including Rutgers University and Boston College before landing at Boston University in 1981. Four years later, he founded that university’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, where he served as director until 2009.

The Noise of Solemn Assemblies

Berger finished his PhD in 1954. Before he embarked on his steady stream of sociological works. He produced a youthful work in 1961 of his struggle between his committed belief in Lutheranism based on the philosophic works of Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, which demanded full commitment to a higher revelation and the lightness of the typical suburban congregation. This 1961 jeremiad, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies: Christian Commitment and the Religious Establishment in America is the work I think of most often when looking at Modern Orthodoxy.

Taking his cue from Amos 5:21 “I hate all your show and pretense–the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies, “Berger finds suburban religion as entirely this-worldly and social without a sense of the transcendental, more concerned with political and social identity, a hypocritical solemn assembly.

Berger saw religious institutions as dedicated to American culture, sensible, tolerant, far removed from the fierce piety of Kierkegaard. Years later, Berger himself admits: “It is hardly surprising that I had difficulties coming to terms with it.” The suburban congregation was not a locale for desperate leaps of faith, rather it was the worship of the goodness of America. He “was not prepared to worship it or to equate its morality with Christian faith.” Berger quotes his contemporary colleague John Murray Cuddihy who called it the “Protestant smile.” Put sociologically, he declared the principal function of these churches was to legitimate the middle-class culture of America, to certify that the latter was indeed “OK.” They condemned or sought to explain the deviants such as the divorced, the socially rebellious, or those who left the faith, but they avoided commenting on the religious nature of marriage, community, and faith.

This analysis is of the same cloth as that of his contemporary Rav Soloveitchik, who from 1956 -1970 also worked on the tension between the happy unreflective materialism of Adam I and the Kierkegaardian faith of Adam II, especially in his Lonely Man of Faith. Soloveitchik, like Berger, coming from his study of Buber, Barth, Brunner, had abstract ideas of the covenantal community, the covenetal nature of marriage, and of faith, but these ideas hit the wall of the actual suburban Jewish congregation. However, Soloveitchik ideally envisioned repentance (teshuva) and halakhic observance as overcoming this cultural religion bringing one to the transcendental, yet empirically most of those who followed him only produced a world of Adam I, happy congregations of the communal. Followers of Soloveitchik, not Soloveitchik himself, saw the very act of joining the solemn assembly of a modern Orthodox congregation and following its norms as somehow overcoming the lightness of modern religion. Berger, in contrast, provided the sharp and personally pained observations that transcendence was missing in the life of most congregants..

Berger encouraged us to look for “signals of transcendence,” moments that pointed to an “otherness which lurks behind the fragile structures of everyday life.” A Rumor of Angels 1969. Heschel, Soloveitchik, Buber, and most religious Existentialists offered similar advice.

In 1963, Berger published his classic Invitation to Sociology  presenting sociology as a form of humanism able to teach tolerance and compassion as well as an ethic of responsibility. Social thought sharpens our religious and theological thinking. Among Jewish thinkers, there were few that fit this plan except for   Will Herberg who was already creating a sociological theology in the 1950’s and Arnold Eisen in the 1990’s. Are there others?


The Sacred Canopy

His most famous work was The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967), a classic assigned in many university religion classes and which offers important insights into modern religion, especially the ideas of worldview, sacred canopy, plausibly structure. If you never read this work, then you should immediately do so.

For Berger, in the modern age we are constantly forced to choose how to interact with the world and shape it. We want our choices to be stable, but since society is always in a state of change, it does allow the stability. Religion’s main project is to create this sense of stable predictable order and to make all of us believe in it, although in fact it is always an illusion. More importantly, society wants us to believe that those choices are not really choices. Society wants us to act as if they are necessary and inevitable; as if they are an objective reality beyond our ability to change.

Religion is the means of objectifying a stable nomos based on a fixed pattern of the cosmos, society, or in the contemporary orthodox Jewish case, the halakhah. Berger calls the interaction by the term “externalization” and the creation of stable products as “objectivating,” which means teaching us (especially when we are children) to make the same choices repeatedly as we externalize ourselves.

The ultimate threat for the religious person, however, is to lose the nomos altogether and be plunged into the chaos of anomy. Therefore, whatever we practice today as Jews is generally presented as in continuity with the past, as outside of the rapid changes of history and society, and as inviolable. Religion denies reality beyond the nomos of the community. A group of people who maintain a body of knowledge, along with the institutions they have created, is called a “plausibility structure,” which according to Berger offers a sacred canopy for understanding our lives. The nomos will seem plausible as long as it is supported by a strong plausibility structure. Since society wants to maintain its nomos, it will try to exclude or destroy every alternative nomos. Hence, Jewish ideas such as tradition, peoplehood, and mesorah are essential to maintain the stability.

Three take-away ideas from Berger’s thought. The issue of plausibility structure and reason, the disbelief in the sacred canopy, and the nature of the structure itself.

The first is that according to Peter Berger people do not decide if a religious system is logical or if the dogmas make sense or if they can be defended. Rather, they decide if it offers a working sacred canopy providing a safe worldview that makes sense of their life. People become Evangelical or Orthodox because it offers a sacred canopy, a worldview to live within its system. Religious claims are not about whether its tenets are true or false, rather people adopt an entire sacred canopy, an entire system, if it makes sense and grounds the world they live within. Peter Berger discusses how Eastern European Jews who came to the United States lost their sacred canopy. The supernatural world of the shtetl made little sense in scientific and educated America. The American forms of Judaism had to create new sacred canopies with new plausibility structures.

By extension, when people leave Orthodoxy today, it is not because of a specific doctrine; rather the sacred canopy no longer corresponds to reality. It is not an issue of defending a specific doctrine or belief, nor is it a minor repair to an idea or practice. Rather, the entire canopy no longer works since it lost its plausibility. However, as long as it still works, then no specific problem necessary matters. Answering up questions on small points or defenses on a given topic of belief do not work since people choose an entire sacred canopy. As long as it works, then minor issues don’t matter and when it cracks then the entire canopy gets replaced.

Conversely, when someone does become orthodox, it is because the sacred canopy of the family values and Shabbat observant lifestyle makes sense as a way to create an ordered reality, not because of cogent doctrine.

Second, the moral qualities of a sacred canopy are deeply important. If clergy turn out to be involved in scandal and corruption, logically, that should not tell us anything about the truth or falsity of religious truth claims. However, emotionally most of us do judge a nomos by its plausibility structure, for they are the people who represent the nomos to the public. When the plausibility structure is called into question, this can lead to both denial and changes in the nomos. Nevertheless, for many in an open society, it leads to them finding a new nomos, a new sacred canopy- leaving their denomination. The similar moral issues of politics, child abuse, or economics can also lead to the shattering of the sacred canopy.

Third, despite  widespread  acceptance  of  Peter  Berger’s   cultural  framework,  theories  of Torah  u-Madda continue  to  use  nineteenth  century  understandings in which Judaism and the world around it are separate cultures.. For  example, many modern Orthodox authors assumes  culture is produced by the surrounding non-Jewish society, in that the cultural elements of philosophy, medicine, literature, or entertainment are outside Judaism. Modern Orthodox Jews can decide to accept  or  reject these eleemnts. In Peter  Berger’s  terms, we live  in  a  single  cultural worldview and create as much “sacred canopy” as needed to maintain the plausibility structure, the coherent nomos. The encounter with “western secular  culture”  is from  Berger’s  perspective  not  an encounter  with  an  outside body of knowledge, rather a  Jewish  plausibility  structure of Torah uMadda or Shadal’s Jewish humanism, or Israeli Religious Zionism. The acceptance of   secular studies , professional life, and  popular culture by Modern Orthodoxy is part of the construction of their sacred canopy of  Judaism. Berger  discusses explicitly the  Jewish  encounter  with  modernity  as  the  breaking  of the  Eastern  European  Jewish sacred  canopy  in  the  move  to America, and the subsequent need to reformulate a new Jewish sacred  canopy.  Hence, the secular studies in Modern Orthodox was itself part of its formulation.The current lack of a need for secular studies above a high school level or for career purposes is itself part of the construction of today’s Orthodoxy.

Berger’s view of religion is existential in that we each construct our own plausibility structure, our own sacred canopy and if we choose not to then it is an act of Existential bad faith, a lack of authenticity and not taking responsibility for choices. Even though he is a sociologist, he has little tolerance for those who just go with the flow of their friends and community.  Berger’s thought opens up the abyss between ideals and community, or between modern Orthodox (or any other movement’s) theology and the lightness of the community members.


The Heretical Imperative

The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (1980) was his theology of humanism in an age of pluralism and choice. The book made a lasting impression on many as a clear theological definition of the modern believer as educated humanist.

The main thrust of the book is that we now live in an age of pluralism, in which modern people naturally question ideas and their sacred canopies and do not just accept them by fate. Today, we choose our sacred canopy. Berger reminds us that the original etymology of the heretical (hareisis) is “to choose.“ the taking of a choice. For Berger, the necessity of choice becomes the virtue of choice. Hence, the title means the imperative to choose. By “the heretical imperative”, Berger means this radical necessity to choose.

Berger discusses three possible responses to the modern religious crisis:

The first of these involves the reaffirmation of embattled tradition, or in other words neo-orthodoxy, especially the path of Karl Barth. One reaffirms the tradition as the one true tradition avoided the new condition. This approach is higher influential in Jewish Orthodoxy. Berger points out that neo-orthodoxy can never have the pristine innocence of simple orthodoxy.

The second possible response to the modern situation is “reductive,” best exemplified by Rudolf Bultmann. This approach allows one to create naturalistic and reforming versions of religion acquiescing to the modern condition, which for Berger entails excessive concessions to it. Many rabbis who turn Judaism into pop-psych, pop-culture, or social utility fall into this category even if they are observant.

The third and final possible response discussed by Berger, and for him the only valid one, is to be open to the human experience of faith. A religion that is open to the changes in society and knowledge and to the fact that we are choosing this affiliation. In many ways, it is a new form of humanistic religion.  Whereas, Shadal said nothing Jewish is foreign to me, implying that there is a fixed body of humanistic knowledge. For Berger, this need to be modified in that we are ever needing to confront the changes of society and ever widening circles of knowledge

Berger advocates a “mellow certainty,” a moderate position. A historically oriented approach within a tradition, with the understanding that one cannot simply swallow the tradition but has to enter into a reasonable dialogue with it.  We can associate this position with William James or Charles Taylor.

Elsewhere, he quotes his colleague Adam Seligman who uses the term “epistemological modesty.” Epistemological modesty means that you believe certain things, but you’re modest about these claims. You can be a believer and yet say, I’m not really sure. I think that is a fundamental fault line. For him this is the greater dividing line than between faiths, rather it is between those who pretend we are not making choices and those who are.

For Berger, the basic fault lines today are not between people with different beliefs but between people who hold these beliefs with an element of uncertainty and people who hold these beliefs with a pretense of certitude.  However, for him, it is not a pluralism as much as I make a decision based on what is known to me. Berger stated that modern individuals are, or ought to be free and are responsible for their own. An individual’s subjective experience of the world is “real” by definition and they possess certain rights over and against collectives.  (In contrast, postmodernists do not have individual subjectivity as much as a self that is constructed by situation and society.)

Berger’s stress on individual experience of choice is reflective of modern consciousness, which turns religion into a private act, essentially individualistic and experiential. Berger welcomes the pluralism of perspectives resulting from secularization. Since all thought, including modernity itself, is shaped by plausibility structures, no thought has a cognitive privilege with reference to any other thought. The theologian Van A. Harvey (1973) in an widely-read important review of Berger pointed out: “Berger’s own attempts at theology are a reflection of this crisis rather than a cure for it because his own theology itself has no norms or criteria that govern his statements. It simply is a reflection of his own personal sensibility.”

Berger emphasizes a middle approach that balances religious submission with an awareness of the modern condition, historicism, and contingency. He represents the modernist religious situation, especially the strategy of collective bargaining in which an “internal dialogue goes on within the believer, or within the community of believers.” The believer says to himself, “There is no way of holding on to the miracles, but we won’t give up on the revelation.”

Personably, Berger rejects the notion of a decisive revelation in Christianity but retain the notion of the Biblical God. He needed to maintain this pluralistic condition and found the negotiation that worked for him.   Or the observant Jew who may accept the State of Israel as messianic but not Chabad messianism, or she accepts the efficacy of prayer but not the Breslover conversation with God. It is a constant mediation and bargaining between the modernity and the belief.  (if one is actually interested in the Hasidut, then see my follow-up post on Berger and mysticism.)

Several modern Orthodox authors in the 1980’s and 1990’s used Berger’s qualities of the modern condition -autonomy, independence, and self-aware choice as their definition of Modern Orthodoxy. One author even directly associated the ideas of Peter Berger with Rav Soloveitchik. However, Berger’s approach is much more dynamic, individualistic, and accepting of the historical and social sciences. While, in my opinion, Rav Soloveithcik and Modern Orthodoxy was more Barthian, tradition bound, and collective. Even now, there is still a core of intellectual Modern Orthodoxy who understand Rav Soloveitchik’s Existentialism in Peter Berger terms, even acknowledging the influence of Berger’s definitions of modernity, autonomy, and pluralism on their Torah uMadda thinking, yet not seeing Berger’s differences from their perspective.

For example, as an existentialist, Berger places the legitimation of the community’s practices in personal choice, not denomination, gedolim, community, or tradition. If there is a tension between the tradition and the personal choice, then one must personally resolve the tension. However, a modern Orthodox author who finds a place for personal choice is their Orthodoxy is not the same as the fundamental sociological question of legitimization.

The tension of autonomy and tradition was a widely used phrase of 1990’s Modern Orthodoxy. The first Orthodox Forum was actually on personal autonomy and rabbinic tradition as a way of staking out a modernist claim. In the volume, Lawrence Kaplan advocated for greater autonomy and a virtue of individual decision-making. (Already a harbinger of things to come, one of the papers claimed that autonomy and creativity was to be limited to Roshei Yeshiva and Torah study). A similar question was asked in an Israeli volume  Between Authority and Autonomy in Jewish Tradition, eds. Avi Sagi & Zeev Safrai [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1997) Twenty years later, a different Orthodox Forum returned to ask a new generation about autonomy.  Yet, individual autonomy and acting according to the dictates of their conscience is still used by older observers to discuss Modern Orthodoxy in recent discussions.

The question is who is observant and Orthodox with a vision closest to Berger’s vision. Are Shadal, Levinas, Benamozegh, Hartman, or Boyarin closer to Berger’s vision? The question today is if one were to follow Peter Berger, then can Torah be open in the same way to new horizons of knowledge, of secularism and of society? Can one combine Torah with the pluralistic condition including the critiques of history and sociology? If one is already a furnished soul possessing all of the answers via the tradition, then Berger would see it as a retreat from the modern condition. Or maybe there does not have a Jewish equivalent to Peter Berger. There are enough educated lay people in the Jewish congregations who feel close to Berger’s existentialism and his heretical imperative who just use his thought by which to process and conceptualize their Torah.

I was recently at a wedding in which the person sitting next to me, an educated committed open Modern Orthodox person, pondered how the modern Orthodox world wants their children open to the world but not too open. In terms of Peter Berger, we can see that statement as  showing simultaneously that education is the key to being socialized into a community with its given plausibility structure. Nevertheless, the education should only be pluralistic enough to function in the world and attain professional success, but it should not be too open so as to break the current plausibility structure.  The education should not remove the taken-for-granted certainty provided through socialization in school.  Hence, Jewish day schools have a crucial function to both give a plausibility structure and at the same time to prevent Berger’s pluralism.

Some fault Berger for not depicting Judaism correct in his books. However, it is less accurate to fault Berger for not doing justice to Judaism because he also he does not do full justice to Islam, Catholicism, or Asian religions. He does focus at all on institutions, tradition, ritual,  authority, or study; today he would be read in conjunction with Talal Asad and others who see religion as law and authority

Later Essays

His later essays fill out many other aspects of the theological positions make up Berger’s worldview, which combined both liberal and conservative elements.  He became one of the main intellectual figures in the neoconservative movement along with his friend and First Things founder Richard J. Neuhaus.

Among the many notable points of Berger’s later work is a sustained rejection of the sociological thesis of secularization; most recent obituaries mentioned this point. His earlier works followed the majority of sociologists and assumed that religion was in decline before secularism. By the 1990’s, Berger firmly rejected that position and believed that religion was not declining or dissolving into obscurity in an increasingly secular world. Rather, religion was holding fast and even growing in some places, offering an increasing number of ways for human beings to find solace in a frightening world.  Nevertheless, rather than a reaffirmation of tradition, for Berger “Modernity is not characterized by the absence of God,” he wrote in a 2008 essay for the journal First Things, “but by the presence of many gods.”He critiqued the Fundamentalist project of the University of Chicago and even the use of the word fundamentalist as created by people who have no sense of the actual beliefs of the people.

For Berger, religion is an enduring quality and is ever returning. He often repeated that he expected a great revival in secular Scandinavia since transcendence always returns. He noted often, that the more colorful eruptions of transcendence have occurred in those places where secularization has been most aggressively enforced.  The children of the most orthodox secularists and enlightened modern homes have children who become members of Iskcon or returnees to orthodoxy (baalei teshuva).

On the other hand, the formerly pious world of rural America, which were once a bastion of religious commitment, are now in decline as portrayed in the book Hillbilly Elegy. They are now a main group of the growing number of “Nones”, without religion. Their sacred canopy was lost, in that it no longer sheltered them in their current decline and hence they gave up religion. However, for Berger they are a group that is likely to return once there is a new religious configuration speaking to them.

Second, he rejected the widespread concern about a supposed rampant individualism in the U.S., or the prevalence of an “autonomous” self.  For him, “The assumption made by Robert Bellah and Putnam that community in America has been falling apart is empirically questionable. It’s amazing to what extent Americans do in fact participate in every kind of community you can imagine–and give money and time and so on.  I don’t think Americans are all that individualistic.”

Third, he thinks that the problem with liberal Protestantism in America is not that it has not been orthodox enough, but that it has lost a lot of religious substance through the psychologizing of religion, as a therapeutic agency, and through the politicizing of religion. From his point of view, those who make their religion about culture will eventually lose their members because do not need the congregation if it lacks religious substance.

Fourth already in the 1990’s, Berger noted that the United Sates was breaking into two middle classes, a bourgeoisie, centered in the business community and a new middle class, based on the production and distribution of symbolic knowledge, whose members are the increasingly large number of people occupied with education, media, therapy and social justice.  Many of these people are on payroll, employed in bureaucracies or dependent on state subsidies. The new middle-class culture understood itself as “emancipatory” or “liberating” as against the traditional bourgeois virtues, most visible in the areas of sexual .and gender behavior. For Berger, this creates two conflicting middle class approaches to religion. Many of the issues dividing Modern Orthodoxy can be linked to this distinction of two cultures.

A Weak Skeptical Pluralistic Faith

If Berger advocates a pluralistic softer faith, then how can one build institutions on such a fragile basis? According to his own theories, there is a sociological need for institutions to preserve the faith. Viable institutions require a strong foundation of taken-for-granted verities, which exude an air of self-assured certainty that the pluralistic lack. If one constructs institutions on the basis of skepticism will these institutions not be extraordinarily weak, associations of individuals with no deep commitment? Can such institutions survive?

According to Berger: Yes, such institutions may be “weak”; the commitment of their members may be rather unreliable; but, yes, they can survive—and sometimes they show a surprising vitality.

Can permanent reflection be institutionalized?” By “permanent reflection”, he meant precisely the sort of skepticism and self-questioning that is created when the world is no longer taken for granted. Yes, such institutions are possible, but they differ from the older institutions built on the foundation of taken-for-granted verities. Such institutions are, by definition, voluntary associations. The same voluntariness by which people choose to join them may later allow them to leave. In this sense, these institutions are “weak.”

According to Berger, one  can convey values to children without pretending a fanatical certitude about them. There is a viable middle ground between fanaticism and relativism, in which one can build a community of people who are neither fanatics nor relativists.

The reason for his conclusion as to why a moderate faith will survive is his personal theological belief that at the core of his Christian tradition is truth, and this truth will reassert itself in every conceivable contestation. To be sure, he acknowledges, that no one who honestly enters into such a contestation emerges the way one entered; if one did, the confrontation was probably less than honest. In the act of reflection, every honest individual must be totally open, and this also means open-ended. Berger’s faith allows him to affirm that the church will survive until the Lord returns.  Jews, on the popular level, usually dont have such confidence and predict the downfall and death of Torah unless one capitulates to ignoring the modern condition.

Seeking Certainty

Does everyone have this pluralism? Can people retreat back into the position of certainty? Berger acknowledges that some seek refuge in the certainty of institutions and the tradition. Others, seek for certainty on the basis of an absolute understanding of the biblical text.  And third, one can seek certainty on the basis of one’s own religious experience, especially in the ever present the American revival movements.

Nevertheless, Berger always assumed that pluralism was our modern condition. For Berger, to pretend that one has certainty, in most cases, is a self-delusion. He never fuller appreciated the return of Christian Evangelicals and Orthodox Judaism in the 1990’s and first decade of 21st century who sought certainty, eternal values, textual and institutional absolutes.  (I posted a few years ago about how he was just discovering the paranoid style of contemporary Judaism, which focuses on the Holocaust.)

Some Centrist modern Orthodoxy authors decry the contemporary condition of pluralism and choice, a key feature of 20th century modernism from Virginia Wolf and William James onward to the existentialists as what they polemically and pejoratively mislabel as post-modernism relativism.

When looking at 21st century congregations, Berger saw that the face of suburban congregants “now has a set and sour mien, an expression of permanent outrage,” in which a Protestant scowl has replaced the Protestant smile. Feminism more than anything else has set this tone in recent years for the displeasure among believers. According to Berger, this grimly humorless ideology has established itself as an unquestioned orthodoxy throughout the mainline churches. They still do not have transcendence or a serious relationship with God, but they have replaced their pleasantness with disdain for others, especially on gender issues.

Berger’s student James Davison Hunter wrote the classic Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991), showing how the United States divided into conservatives and progressives, in which Evangelicals and Orthodox Jews are on one side and Liberal Christians and Jews are on another. In 1991, this was a new alliance limited to a few hot issues such as abortion. A quarter of a century later, a large plurality of Modern Orthodox has taken on much of the politics, values, theology, and style of the Evangelicals proving Hunter’s thesis.

In sum, Berger always held both his ideal belief in faith, piety, and personal commitment as a benchmark by which to judge sociological patterns. He was both a believing theologian and descriptive sociologist. As noted by many, 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. Many faulted his sociology for having an implicit theology and conversely many faulted his theology for its sociological orientation.  Yet, this was the attraction of combining Existential theology with the lived religion of the pews useful for many clergy and religious thinkers to  make sense of the tensions of their religious communities.

To be continued with a follow-up post covering Peter Berger on Eastern Religions and Mysticism


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