A Jewish Reflection on Peter Berger’s Theology   Part II – Mysticism and Interfaith

I will continue with my tribute to the work of Peter Berger as a theologian from a Jewish perspective. I dealt with question of theology and the sacred canopy in the first part- here. read that post first for the basic insight into his value for Judaism.  This second part deals with mysticism, interfaith miracles, and the return of non-pluralistic religion.

However, before I do that, a few topics came up in the FB discussion that are worth dealing with. First, someone asked, if he is a sociologist, then does he agree with Feuerbach’s reduction of religion to human projection? The answer is no. In fact, he is explicit in his rejection of Feuerbach, claiming the converse that the  world is a projection of God. The “World is a fragmented face of God.” He has been called a Christian humanist and a Lutheran Rabbi, reflecting about himself that  “I’ve always had a weakness for divinity”

Many sociologists, such as Bryan Wilson did not approve of Berger’s theology and sociology mix. Berger considered the functional sociology of the Chicago school as the human condition, while theology is outside of human condition. Berger sought faith, transcendence, hope and seeking a confrontation with God, he nevertheless considered institutional houses of worship as social in orientation, as following Durkheim. He considered most houses of worship and their followers as inauthentic and self-serving. At points, he even considers organized religion and socialization as Weber’s iron cage or as original sin.

Berger’s goal is to relativize the relativizers and show that atheism of Western sociological functionalism was itself a product of a narrow plausibility structure.  He rejected the late 1990’s Fundamentalism project thinking that the only people who don’t know that the ordinary public take their religion seriously are the sociologists.

Another thread thought that Peter Berger’s ideas were just Mordecai Kaplan’s sociological naturalism, but that misses Berger’s original ideas of the sacred canopy of existential meaning, his quest for transcendence, his thinking naturalism is reductionism, and his thinking that Jewish Centers are iron cages.  Berger’s writings have been positively used in the full spectrum of rabbinic seminaries, and as one FB commenter noted: to account for the changes in thought since the 1930’s someone else in the 1970’s should have updated Mordecai Kaplan’s ideas.

other side God Berger

Mysticism

Berger’s views on India and mysticism were the parts that I felt the need to respond in a blog post. To understand his views on mysticism, we need to return to the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s, when a new series of books appeared- The Classics of Western Spirituality, which produced nicely edited translations of Western mysticism. The series included for the first time as part of the same set works by Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Native American authors. The idea was partly an outgrowth of the counter-cultural turn to mysticism of the 1960’s, but more importantly for its conceptual frame and the frame of the volumes of World Spirituality was a rejection of Peter Berger’s denial of mysticism in Western culture.

Berger, in his early writings present a sharp divide between two types of religion, the religion of Jerusalem or the religion of Banaras.  Western religion based on Jerusalem is a religion of divine confrontation. Eastern religion based on Indian culture is a religion of interiority.

Berger’s chapter in The Heretical Imperative “Between Jerusalem and Benares: The Coming Contestation of Religions,” posits two major forms of Divine encounter. A confrontation with the divine (epitomized in the West with the monotheistic tradition, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam); and the interiority of the divine, exemplified in the East with such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. For Berger, these two forms of divine encounter are antagonistic to each other. Western monotheism has a transcendent God, while Eastern interiority have a merger into divine immanence in which human consciousness dissolves into a greater oneness.

Berger was not concerned with empirical studies of mysticism or religious experience, rather with theology. The Protestant theologians of the 20th century dialectic movement such as Karl Barth rejected “every form of mysticism as unbelief, it was converting God into an object. They considered it self-serving and not based on God’s demand.

Berger follows this theological trend in general, and in particular relies on the Protestant theologian Freidrich Heiler whose work Prayer A Study In The History And Psychology Of Religion. The latter work made a sharp distinction between prophecy and mysticism, or more specifically between Biblical prophetic prayer of confronting God and/or petition to God, as opposed to mystical prayer of enthusiasm and absorption into God. Heiler’s two groups are the proper Lutheran prayer as opposed to pagan and enthusiastic prayer such as German spiritualists or Shakers. Berger included in Western prayer two aspects -confrontation and personalist identity- corresponding to prayer in Soloveitchik and Heschel respectively.

It is important to note that this same distinction about prayer used by Freidrich Heiler was eagerly adopted by Jewish studies. Jospeh Heinemann in his Prayer in the Period of the Tannaim and the Amoraim, & Prayer in the Talmud  presented rabbinic prayer as prophetic and confrontational as opposed to the mythic-mystical prayer at the margins of the rabbinic world. Moshe Greenberg presented Biblical prayer as prophetic without myth or mysticism.

Actually, Jewish prayer may be neither of these categories, or at least has more than these two, in that it is also adoration, doxology, magic, theurgy, contemplation, and chant. There are many Jewish educators, and even Talmudists, who because of their lack of interest in theology are still stuck using only Heiler’s Protestant categories.

Berger accepted this dichotomy and globalized it as the West as prophetic and East as mysticism. Nevertheless, Berger does concede that there are Western mystics but says that we have to distinguish mode from content. There is a mystical mode in the West but Western mystics do not have oneness of reality, while Eastern religion can be faith without any mystical experience but their essence is oneness of reality even without the experience.

The Other Side of God

In order to investigate the divide between the religion of the East and of the West, Peter Berger hosted a series of seminars for several years, starting in 1978, called “Monotheism and the World Religions.”   The papers were published in 1981 as The Other side of God: A polarity in world religions.

Berger asked: how can we reconcile these mystical traditions with our firm monotheistic confrontation. Berger’s fellow-scholars criticize this theological dyad of confrontation and mysticism in the light of their own phenomenological research.  Among those invited to attend included Ewert Cousins, the general editor of the new Classics of Western Spirituality (and my doctorate advisor), as well as the quite young Jewish representations, Michael Fishbane and Arthur Green.

Michael Fishbane adapted this distinction to the Bible as similar the distinction of the nature worship of Baal and the goddess as opposed to the worship of the Biblical God.  He supports Berger in showing that the vision of Ezekiel was transcendent and not one of merger. Yet, he then boldly reversed the dichotomy by saying that the Bible exaggerates the battle of God and Baal. On the popular level, the people mixed the cults and practices. Nevertheless, the mythic element comes back, as a return of the repressed, in Midrash and Kabbalah. In the kabbalah, once again god-man- world become one. Kabbalah has the mythic and mystical aspects.

Arthur Green presented Hasidism as a mysticism outgrowth of Judaism in which there is indeed an interiority and absorption into God. Green presented Hasidism as beyond the strictures and institutions of Judaism. A direct outgrowth of their experiencing oneness with God in their minds and within the natural order. Green cites Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Epstein of Homel who clearly expressed their pantheistic view that “all is God” (als iz Got).

Parenthetically, Berger repeatedly misquoted this in the name of Rav Nachman and credits him with Chabad organizational zeal. “The famous Kabbalist Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810), corresponded with kindred individuals all over the Jewish world from his obscure locale in Ukraine.” Berger’s version compared Hasidism to the pantheistic heresy of the Islamic mystic al-Hallaj, in which, “that “everything is God”, an idea obviously blasphemous in Jewish law.” Nachman  of Bratzlav “wrote this sentence in one of his letters, but he did not dare to write it in Hebrew, the sacred language of Torah—so he wrote that one sentence in Yiddish.”

Fishbane established the approach of treating the Bible and Rabbis as mythic and both Fishbane and Green gave an emphasis to experiential God consciousness and mysticism to their studies of Kabbalah.

Ewert Cousins in his response to Berger used the medieval Neo-platonic tradition to show that a mainstream Western mystic such as Francis of Assisi had a unified vision with natural realm, a nature mysticism without pantheism or absorption into God. Cousins showed how Francis saw a divine plenitum in the world as a unity in the difference. For Cousins, the Neoplatonism tradition, long buried finds mysticism in the plurality of this world.. After the series of seminars, Cousins was the major drive behind the Classics of Western Spirituality and World Spirituality volumes. Only recently, have Jewish scholars such as Adam Afterman returned the study of Jewish mysticism to Neoplatonic concerns

Yet, Berger continued to treat Neo-Platonism as mythological more than Western, the way Protestant theologians such as Barth did in some of their writings. Berger understands Rudolph Otto’s sense of mysterium tremendum”/”ganz andere” as supporting the Western idea of confrontation and not the concept of mysticism.

Turning to Hinduism and my intest in Banares, there was a nice article by John Carmen on Hinduism as a theistic interiority and showing that the Bhagavad Gita presents a confrontation with God. Nevertheless, Berger never retracted his position to see Hinduism as devotion to a theistic God in which one seeks God help in prayer and to attain merit.  (See my forthcoming book for more on this.)

In his introduction to the volume, and in later essays, Berger treated Gershom Scholem as the reappearance of mythological forms in Judaism despite Judaism as being the most anti-mythological. He concludes that myth is a primordial human experience.  He places Eliade in the same group. Berger acknowledges that his own idea of a sacred canopy bears commonality with the mythic vision of Scholem and Eliade, but thinks the sacred canopy is meaning and plausibility, not myth.

Gershom Scholem saw mysticism as just a symbolic understanding of an ultimate reality, a universal phenomena that plays itself out in non-reducible languages and systems. However, in this case Peter Berger’s phenomenology, based on Alfred Schutz, can be more useful to explain diversity. Berger is willing to consider the various phenomena of mysticism, psychoanalysis, demonic possession, magic, ascents of the soul, meditation, as different plausibility structures. There are different and non-reducible ways to experience reality. Berger acknowledge the diversity of actual people. However, he speaks as an advocate for Western confrontational religion.

Unlike Scholem, Berger does not think that relgion should be reduced to its mystical core or “what William James called the “mysticism of infinity” in which self, world, and divinity merge in ecstasy.” For Berger, mysticism is only a relatively small area within the vast array of human religion.

Finally, as recently as this decade, Berger questioned the compatibility of Yoga with Western religion because they share different views of human destiny. Yoga is self-liberation and Berger’s reading of Western culture is a need for revelation and redemption outside the self. He acknowledges that many just do Yoga as an exercise but he asks “Could one say the Lord’s Prayer while sitting in the lotus position? Conversely, could one seek “emptiness” while receiving communion? The short answer is: One could, but it would be awkward.” Once again, Berger lacks a sense of Yogic Kabbalaists like Abulafia or Hindu theist yoga.

Interfaith to Seek Truth

Berger advocated a non-pragmatic motive for engaging in interfaith activity, which is, quite simply, to engage in a renewed search for truth. For him, “Obviously, such a statement contains an implicit theological assumption, one that is, broadly speaking, liberal. Which is to say, it will make no sense to any orthodoxy holding to the belief that, short of the eschaton , everything has been revealed that is going to be and therefore there is nothing new to be learned of religiously relevant truth.”

For Berger, this is the dialogue between Jerusalem and Benares, between the faiths that descend from the biblical tradition and the faiths of South and East Asia, which to him is the most promising and most challenging questions intellectually.

Nevertheless, Berger cautioned about interfaith and intergroup activities  that harmony will always come from a better understanding of each other. Intergroup tensions and conflicts are based on hard vested interests, on ancient and newly invented hatreds, and on emotional and ideological needs. However, he was in favor of pragmatic purpose in helping to reduce tensions through mutual understanding and empathy. But bearing in mind that it will not effect  the more determined bigots.

Despite being a sociologist and advocating that we have to acknowledge that, we live in an age of pluralism. Berger thinks that the pluralistic situation forces us to choose our religious belief, and every religious affirmation we then make is the result of choice, even if we choose this or that orthodoxy. It becomes very difficult to say innocently, “we believe”; even if we use such words, what we are really saying is, “ have chosen to identify with this we .” At the same time, I must remain faithful to my own experience, even though I know this experience to be relativized by my historical and social location.

According to Berger, the first insight makes it impossible for him to be “exclusivist,” thinking his religious views are the only way. The second insight make it impossible to be a “pluralist.” Because relgious truths are contradictory or some of them are. They cannot readily be put together into a better picture like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; some of them belong to different pictures.

Berger sees three broad interfaith challenges. The first challenge to Western monotheism is the experience of the mythological matrix . Anywhere in the world, if one goes back far enough, one comes upon a worldview that can be described quite adequately as mythological, characterized by fluid, permeable boundaries between the realms of men, of nature, and of the gods. The radical rupture of this world that took place in ancient Israel and is at the root of the biblical tradition almost certainly served to reinforce these boundaries. He never did accept Michael Fishbane’s ideas.

The second challenge of the religions of South and East Asia is their experience of Buddhist emptiness of nirvana, an-atta, shunyata, satori .  Here he learned something from his seminars from Ewert Cousins and Arthur Green, acknowledging those who “tried to reconcile the insights coming out of this experience with the monotheistic affirmations of biblical faith”such as Isaac Luria, the principal theorist of the Safad school of the Kabbalah…or Bonaventure, who sought to retain the speculations of radical Franciscanism within the fold of Catholic orthodoxy…”

Finally, Berger thinks there is the third challenge: the experience of other particular revelations because of the particularistic and historicized character of Israel’s understanding of God’s revelation. “ If God chose Israel, could He have chosen any other people and if so, how are these two elections related to each other?”  Speaking in a Judeo-Christian voice, Berger asks: “Is there any way in which a Jew or a Christian could understand God as speaking in the Quran?” He was the issue with Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s Dignity of Difference, the award winning first edition said yes. While the revised safer second edition removed those lines.

In conclusion, Berger writes about maintaining religious differences: “I am convinced that interfaith dialogue, while acknowledging areas of agreement, must also be frank in stating disagreements. In other words, it is as important to say no as to say yes .”

Lutheranism, and the Heretical Imperative

In my prior blog post, I noted that in his book The Heretical Imperative, he distinguished between the Orthodox deductive position and liberal reductive position, between the positions of a return to certainty despite modernity and the position of accepting the rationalism of modernity. Instead he advocates, a theological pluralism of always seeking to balance the extremes using social science.

However, in some of his later works, he surprises us by crediting his pluralism scheme directly to Lutheranism. On the orthodox side, Catholics have “the miracle of the Mass,” where the “transubstantiation” was supposed to occur.  On the other hand, there was the Swiss view of Zwingli  that the Eucharist was a simple memorial. These are the extremes of reductionism and deductionism, while only the Lutherans understand that the Eucharist, Christ is present in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine: neither transubstantiation nor a simple memorial, rather a balance.

Returning to our opening about Berger’s mixture of theology and sociology, for him the Church is a thoroughly human institution, with all the vices and follies of such an entity, possessing no intrinsic authority and certainly not the power of infallibility. God’s revelation is communicated in, with, and under an all too fallible institution.

In many ways this also fits, the middle range of contemporary Jews who treat mizvot not as supernatural nor as merely a symbol. Rather, they are the ways we come to God. Modern Orthodoxy is in its classic mid-20th century form approached Berger’s Lutheran middle position. Moreover, even now when it leans more to the deductive side, it still rejects the miraculous for a Weber sense of rationality, or even Lutheran balance. Therefore, until the recent influx of magical ideas in Modern Orthodoxy, it avoided the miraculous in daily life.

Two years ago, I gave my talk on the “Varieties of Modern Orthodoxy” at a major University. They arranged for a Catholic professor to respond to my talk. She responded that modern Catholics share many of the issues of Modern Orthodoxy Jews, including that both combine their faith and secular studies. However, she added that Catholics have a third element besides the modern and the Orthodox, that of the miraculous.  For her, one must always balance faith with both modernity and with the miraculous. The Catholic Church has been supernaturalist in principle, but cautious in practice: Saints are expected to perform miracles, but these are juridical investigated and bureaucratically regulated; miracles outside these procedures are frowned upon.

This struck me because it was never a Jewish perspective. However, with the return of Neo-Chassidus and magical thinking to Modern Orthodoxy, it may play a bigger role in future thinkers.

However, what is noticeable is that in some issues like the origins of the BIble, Modern Orthodoxy is unlike Lutheran middle  rather closer to the Evangelical deductive. Right wing Conservative is closer to Berger. According to Berger’s “Lutheran view, in which the Bible is a collection of texts produced by human beings under specific historical circumstances, neither directly inspired nor inerrant. God revealed himself in, with, and under these contingencies of history.

Modern Orthodoxy has traditionally been closer to the Protestants who have been more wary of the supernatural: God speaks to us through the kerygma , the proclamation of the Word, yet keeps the miracles  of the past open. Modern Orthodoxy, in some ways, has a similarity to American Evangelical theologians (very non-Pentecostal ones) who have developed a doctrine called “cessationism”: Miracles have ceased because they are no longer needed, or after the canon was completed.

Pentecostals, New Age, and the turn to Ultra-Orthodoxy

Berger writing from a personal biographical perspective of Lutheranism has never been attracted to  Pentecostalism. But as a sociologist he have been fascinated by it. And furthermore, he sees that it improves people’s lives by providing comfort and community for people. It preaches a morality that encourages sobriety, discipline, and devotion to family. Those who do, begin to experience social mobility and will indeed improve their lives. Pentecostalism is itself a modernizing movement in the developing world.  This is an important point for those Modern Orthodox authors who have an animus against the more right wing Yeshivish or Chabad and do not see their value in modernizing, in social mobility, and in producing a disciplined life.

On the other hand, Berger originally supported the need to bring religion into the public sphere as part of conservative trend of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, founded in 1989 by Richard John Neuhaus. Yet, he subsequently broke with them over their obsessions with abortion and same sex relations.

On the other hand, Paul Heelas, one of the leading scholars of the new age movement, points out how Berger never really understood the turn to spirituality. scholars of 21st century religion, note that Berger is not useful for dealing with the new age, therapeutic, and the immanence of religion in our lives. And Berger certainly has fewer insight to apply to the return to non-pluralist religion. Berger understood interiority- the lonely man of faith-  but not how people find God in social activities of helping other, of therapeutically helping themselves, in use of Asian religious ideas, in small groups, and in the arts. He could not see the current immanent form of religious humanism, in which the homeless religious mind found a new home in the immanence of daily life. Berger had too sharp of a sacred and profane distinction. He would not be helpful in understanding the plethora of new age and therapeutic forms of Chabad and yeshivish.

Modern Orthodoxy

Gerald Blidstein  notably compared Rav Soloveitchik’s constructivist  approach of  “world-building and world-perceiving” to “certain  facets  of  the  work of people like [Peter] Berger, [Clifford] Geertz, [Charles] Taylor,  [Michael]  Walzer,  and  others..”  An important point.

But by the time, Blidstein wrote those words, Modern Orthodoxy stopped caring and in an undereducated and frightened but belligerent way thought  Peter Berger was post-modern, and therefore oppose to religion. However, Berger himself had to clarify occasionally his own positon before the misreading of his pluralism and constructivism. Berger’s pluralism is a form of realism in which the modern believer has to have discernment to choose between the options and  not rely on dogmatic deductivism or reductionism. However, the word pluralism twenty years later by other thinkers meant that we have no truth or that all truth is just a subjective construct.

A different distortion seemingly common among Modern Orthodox is to misread Berger’s pluralism and heretical imperative as if he was the first to discuss the voluntary nature of religion after the Enlightenment and Emancipation, as if he is a liberal affirmer of individual conscience. (Get ready for a short screed.)

There is an Orthodox interpretation of Peter Berger, almost a meme, crediting him with the Enlightenment saying that we are all freethinkers today and not locked into a socially imposed religion, as were the pre-moderns. Therefore, these modern Orthodox think he is similar to the Hazon Ish’s statement that there is no heresy today because the social-religious framework cannot the taken as a given. The Hazon Ish notes that in Jewish modern life after the Emancipation if one chooses a non-observant life, it is not an act of deep rebellion. There also seems to be some sense in which these meme users think this misreading distinguishes themselves from Haredim.

However, the Hazon Ish is just responding to the 19th century. Almost any thinker from Locke, Lessing, Hume, Jefferson, Mendelssohn, or Kant says we no longer have an established religion and follow our own conscience. Jews after the Enlightenment and Emancipation can choose to remain Jewish or to leave. Many 20th century books on the modern Jew make a statement to that effect in the first chapter.

In contrast, Berger’s pluralistic choice is about the believer needing to forever be mediating and negotiating using current academic study. Berger was a firm conservative believer against freethinkers since they are giving up the needed pluralist negotiation and seeking of transcendence. For Berger the need to choose is not the decision to be religious or not. It is a philosophic position of a need to create a sophisticated faith- choice means sophistication and the need to apply critical methods, especially of sociology.  Think of his position as the need to affirm Torah Umadda or Tradition and Modernity, or a critical modern faith. Berger is not about autonomy and finding one’s “religious preference”. He is not Rabbi Eugene Borowitz and is against such liberalism. As noted above in the interfaith section, Berger simultaneously affirms that all choices are personal, but we then fully accept them as our Existential choose. Those who follow the meme comparing the Hazon Ish and Peter Berger are themselves guilty of not have a heretical faith informed by social science.

Conclusion

In conclusion, what was the attraction of Berger’s writings for Jews? In a Jewish context, his ideas were generally formulated his ideas as a tension to be negotiated, a hallmark late 20th century of Jewish religious thought. Among the specific Jewish tensions are autonomy and rabbinic authority, between legitimation by personal choice or by Rabbinic tradition, between identity and status in a Jewish community, and critical studies and rabbinic tradition. Different Jewish denominations resolved the tension in different ways.

There were, however, Jewish critics of Peter Berger who bristled against his definition of Judaism as a religion and faith commitment, when they instead defined Judaism Jewish peoplehood or the Jewish historical experience, especially the Holocaust. Yet, the Reform movement even consulted Berger when they considered a campaign of outreach to non-Jews. (I did not deal with these aspects in this essay.)

Nevertheless, Berger remains the model for attaining clarity about a certain form of 1960-1985 form of middle point religion. Jews used Berger’s socio-theological faith as a way to show how to negotiate religious options in tension with each other.

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