Interview with Peter Berger
October 11, 2010
(This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)
This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line
theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your
host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mohler: When we speak about current intellectual conversation about front line theological and cultural issues and the people who are shaping them it’s hard to imagine anyone who fits those categories better than Peter Berger. For many years he has been one of the most influential sociologists in America. As a matter of fact he is one of the most significant international intellectuals when it comes to sociology, secularization, and the future of religious conviction in the world. He is now Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology, and Theology at Boston University where for many years he directed the institute on culture, religion, and world affairs. He had previously taught at the new school for social research at Rutgers University and at Boston College. His writings are not only voluminous. They are incredibly influential. In 1992, Professor Berger was awarded the Manes Sperber Prize presented by the Austrian government for significant contributions to culture.
When I look back at my own intellectual pilgrimage and development it’s clear to me that the influence of Peter Berger has intersected with my own thinking at many times. He has influenced me and caused me to think, sometimes I’m sure, what he would not necessarily want me to think. But that’s the way intellectual engagement works. An author writes a book, a reader reads it, a mind is shaped, minds meet , and the conversation continues. My honor today is to invite you to think in public as I have this conversation with Professor Peter Berger.
Peter Berger is one of the best known sociologists and intellectuals in the world today. He has influenced successive generations through his writings, books, and speaking especially on the issue of secularization and what it means. He writes from inside the Christian community and understanding the larger world of sociology. But he’s also able to speak with a particular expertise that has world renown to the questions that so many of us are trying to figure out today having to do with the placement, the intellectual placement, of Christianity in the modern world. Peter Berger welcome to Thinking in Public
Berger: Thank you.
Mohler: For many years you’ve been at Boston University and your books have been so influential. I remember the Sacred Canopy as one of the earliest of your books that I read but had followed through so many others. And your writings also in a journal like First Things when you wrote the article Secularization Falsified. I want to step back for a moment and say that if you’d been known for anything in particular, you know I think most people would immediately come up with the idea of secularization, can you just kind of help us to understand the origins of secularization theory?
Berger: Well it’s a rather heavy term. I don’t know if it’s that much of a theory I mean it’s basically an assumption that’s been around for a long time. That as the world becomes more modern it becomes more secular that is less religious. And when I started out my career as a sociologist, particularly a sociologist of religion, I shared what was a very broad consensus among scholars and historians, social scientists, and many theologians. I mean they didn’t like the idea that the world is becoming more secular, but they thought it was a fact. Well it took me about twenty years or so to realize that this was a mistake. I would say secularization theory has been massively falsified and with one or two interesting exceptions the world today including the United States is very religious, and secularists are a minority in most of the world.
Mohler: Well the whole issue of secularization had really become kind of an absolute orthodoxy amongst the sociologists writing in the field. I tried to follow that literature and in terms of rethinking the whole Secularization Theory, you’ve offered, I think the most incredibly helpful insights especially when you go back to that issue you said with two exceptions and in your writings you suggested that even though the Secularization Theory didn’t quite work out the way that its early originators thought. The pattern has been pretty standard as they indeed expected in two places. One of them geographic, you mentioned Western Europe, and the other one more sociological you mentioned the intellectual elites even in this country. How did that come to happen?
Berger: Well the European situation is extremely interesting. I mean exceptions are always interesting and there are a number of other sociologists of religion who have come to very much the same conclusions. To talk about Europe in a moment I wrote a book together with a very prominent British sociologist Grace Davie who’s also by the way a committed Christian, but that has nothing to do with his sociological analysis of the situation. And we wrote the book that came out a couple years ago called Religious America, Secular Europe? And we tried to answer the question you ask, how did it come about? Well, no important historical event is a single cause but we came up with seven or eight causes which explain I think the situation. I don’t think we want to go into this right now, but it’s not a dark mystery we can understand what happened and why America is different from Europe. As to the international intelligencia these are the children of the Enlightenment in many ways and the Enlightenment mostly was very skeptical of religion. So these are not, you know, strange mysteries. They are subject to research, and analysis, and explanation.
Mohler: Well, when you look to the intellectual elites in the United States you mention that their actually more like Europeans than they are I guess many of their neighbors right in the suburbs.
Berger: Yes and I would say I’m not a historian I don’t know when this began, probably the 1930′s, but certainly since World War II the American intelligencia that has become Europeanized while including the secularity which is part of what I would call the European cultural package. Most of America is not secular at all, it’s strongly religious with probably the evangelical community being the most dynamic part of the religious world in this country.
Mohler: Now the whole idea of secularization basically pointed to the becoming of, the society becoming more secular as a result of industrialization, the Enlightenment, urbanization, and all the rest. Well those things did happen-urbanization, the information revolution and all the rest. So why was it, you think, that for instance the United States as a culture was not so secularized as was expected?
Berger: Well one look, I mean things like urbanization, I mean modernity in general does lead to a change in the role of religious institutions in the sense that certain functions which the churches use to have are no longer performed by the church. Take a very simple example-in the Middle Ages, monasteries were the main places where travelers could spend the night in safety. Well, that is no longer interesting. I mean there’s no one in his right mind who would want the, I don’t know, the Southern Baptist Convention to compete with Sheraton in building hotels all across the country. So that’s a secularization, yes, the division of functions. Churches now do not perform certain functions that they use to. But that doesn’t mean that people become less religious either in belief or practice.
Mohler: But that is exactly what many people had expected so it was something I think you would admit of a surprise to many sociologists that it did not happen here as was expected.
Berger: Yeah and sociologists like other people don’t like to look at things that contradict their assumptions. There’s been a lot of resistance to the kind of position I would now maintain though I’m not the only one there are other people. Grace Davie, for example who I mentioned a moment ago, this British sociologist has been very strong on the falsification of Secularization Theory.
Mohler: It is not often probably that we read a sociological text and find something that’s just on its face humorous but I tell you, your re-telling of this longitudinal study that had been done about the relative religiosity of cultures. And you suggested that it was discovered that the Swedes were the least religious as measured by this particular instrument. And the citizens of the nation of India were the most religious. And then out of the blue you just summarize this by saying that America is a mass of Indians ruled over by an elite of Swedes.
Berger: Yeah well that’s I think the most quoted sentence I ever uttered and it’s a fun way of looking at it. I mean Sweden, other European countries, but Sweden is very secularized. Sort of like minus two percent of Swedes believe in God, I’m obviously exaggerating. And India is an intensely religious country. I mean you take three steps in India, and you stumble across four Hindu gods. So one way of looking at the American situation we have a strongly “Indian” population with a cultural elite very Swedish, and I think much of the history of the United States I would say since 1963 the Supreme Court decision on prayer in the public school, much of that history, including political history has been the Indians becoming increasingly annoyed at the elites, and this has huge political ramifications.
Berger: It’s a fun but useful way of looking at it.
Mohler: Well it’s certainly not only a quotable quote but it’s one of those incisive observations that changes the way people look at a reality. And it gives us a category with which to explain this. Earlier in my life when I first encountered your writings it came at about the same time that many evangelicals were discovering the category of worldview and the understanding of how the mind seizes upon certain structures of thought in order to make sense out of everyday life and from which to be about the business of interpreting the world. You and your writings have used a category that I found every helpful and that’s the category of plausibility structures. Could you play that out a bit for us?
Berger: Yeah, it’s a term I invented, and I’m rather fond of. I think it’s a cute term. Look what I mean actually it’s rather simple-what it means is that beliefs become plausible if they are supported by the people around us. We are all social beings, we were created as social beings and much of what we think about the world depends on support by important people with whom we live. That’s what I call plausibility structure, and religion is no exception to this. So it would be very difficult to be a Catholic in a Tibetan village. It would be difficult to be a Buddhist in a Catholic village in the south of Italy. That’s what I mean by plausibility structure.
Mohler: One of the things you mention about our current environment is that pluralism is now just a fact. And it’s a pluralism of ideologies and worldviews, indeed a pluralism of plausibility structures, and you suggest that one of the issues that is brought with modernity is a lowering of the walls between different worldview and different plausibility structures such that it becomes more and more difficult for communities to isolate themselves from other worldviews.
Berger: Yes and look I mean I would say where we were wrong, we thought modernity leads to secularity. That was a mistake it may, like in Europe, but it doesn’t have to. What modernity I think necessarily leads to is plurality. People live surrounded by other people who live differently believe differently and that’s a big challenge to religious tradition. But it’s a different challenge from what we thought was the challenge of secularity. And that means for the individual since he has all these things around him, different views, different worldviews, he must choose and religious affiliation increasingly ceases to be taken for granted and is dependent on an individual’s decision, his choices. Now I think evangelicals should have very little difficulty with this because I’ve written recently an article where I’m not evangelical, I’m a Christian, I’m a Lutheran, but I have some problems with evangelicals. But what I wrote recently is the most modern religion around because at the very center of the evangelical understanding of the Christian faith is an act of personal decision. You can’t be born a Christian, you have to be born again as a Christian and that’s a matter of decision. That’s very very modern and so I think evangelicals should have very little difficulty with that kind of analysis.
Mohler: I think I came to terms with your analysis of this years ago as a seminarian. When I picked up your book Heretical Imperative, and I assumed it was a book about theological heresy. I then came to understand that you’re using the word heresies, the word for choosing, to suggest that you basically in a modern age must choose your own identity. And that includes your religious conviction as well. So this is something of a continuation of that argument you made decades ago.
Berger: Yes and as you say heretical didn’t mean heresy from the theological sense. It meant you have to make a choice and that’s an imperative very difficult to avoid.
Mohler: Peter Berger has given so much thought to this over the last several decades that if you’re actually reading in the field of sociology, whether it’s religious sociology or in a more secular context, you simply can’t avoid the magnitude and the influence of his thoughts. When I come back I’m going to ask Peter Berger about the book that he’s recently co-authored with Anton Zijderveld In Praise of Doubt. We’ll be right back with Thinking in Public.
You know talking with Peter Berger about Secularization Theory must be what it would have been like to talk with Henry Ford about making cars. This is the man who was present at the beginning as the theory of secularization was really framed in its dominant twentieth century framework. And you know we look back at that and most of us realize that the world didn’t turn out like those theorists thought it would at least not everywhere all at once. Peter Berger has lived long enough and thinks honestly enough to rethink those things and to come back and keep thinking with us. When I come back to this conversation in just a moment, I’m looking forward to talking to Peter Berger about how his mind has changed and how our minds might change as well.
It’s a single human achievement to have written a book, to have had it published and then to the gratitude of any author, to have had it read. Few authors or scholars have had the opportunity that has been enjoyed by Peter Berger to have written so many books that have not only been written, and published, and read but have influenced others and spawned an intellectual industry of sorts. In his new book Peter Berger along with co-author Anton Zijderveld has written In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic. It’s the kind of book that, well, just from the cover I would have to buy it and read it. And then to see Peter Berger’s name on it, that just clinches the deal. In looking at the book I want to draw Peter Berger’s attention, as my guest today, to a statement that he and his co-author make on page twenty-five, “modernity pluralizes, modernity institutionalizes, another way of putting this, modernity relativizes.” Professor Berger this word relativity, or certainly in the context of moral relativity, has become something of a great concern and sometimes even an obsession of American evangelicals. Can you play that out a bit for us?
Berger: Well what I mean by, what we mean, in this book about relativization is that religious and moral beliefs, worldviews in general, are no longer taken for granted. One has to choose as you pointed out a few minutes ago. That is an uncomfortable development but I don’t think it is something that should trouble Christians particularly. Not only evangelicals who I argued are very modern faith, but all Christians. And if you look at take in the book of Acts when the Apostle Paul visited Athens and he saw all these temples to different gods. Our time is not the first time there was pluralism. And I don’t see why we should be troubled by what was the world in which Paul lived and preached.
Mohler: Well, I understand that certainly in terms of mission. But on the preceding page before the text I just read, you point out the fact that in late modernity, moral pluralization is actually a greater source of social discord and of controversy then religious polarization. And you use the issue for instance of abortion and then you ask a question which I think is so absolutely pointed, you say this, “but can I have a friendly cup of coffee with a neighbor who I consider to be a murderer or a pervert or an advocate of murder or perversion?” Now few people would frame our debates over, for instance, abortion or homosexuality quite so poignantly, but I think you really raise the issue that many of us are going to have to be thinking so seriously about in decades to come.
Berger: Well it’s obviously a very difficult issue, and there are very strong opinions on both sides. What Zijderveld and I suggested was you take two extremes. I mean one is relativism which is the embrace of relativization, celebration of relativity which means anything goes. I mean you talk to a cannibal on a television show, and you don’t make any judgments you just want to have a friendly conversation. Well that’s impossible, it would destroy society. On the other hand you have fundamentalism which I would define not in theological terms because there are secular fundamentalisms which is any attempt to restore the taking for granted quality of the worldview, and that’s a very difficult enterprise and I don’t think one should embrace it. And the book that I wrote with Zijderveld came out of an earlier project of the research institute, which until last year I directed at Boston University, and was called between relativism and fundamentalism. And we had a group of Christian thinkers, including I think a couple of evangelicals, Os Guinness, whom you probably know, was one of them. Who from the point of few of different Christian tradition said well one can have Christian convictions without being a fundamentalist in the sense which we defined it. Trying to again have Christianity be the taking for granted faith of the entire society.
Mohler: As you lay out your current understanding as best reflected in this latest book you mentioned this hyper tension over moral pluralization. And then you point to modernity as the fact of all of these plural worldviews. And you point out that the Secularization Theory that you have promoted and helped to formulate earlier now needed to be reformulated, and re-thought such that modernity didn’t necessarily produce secularity but it did produce pluralism.
Mohler: Then you get to a category that as an evangelical theologian I found absolutely invaluable–absolute gold. And you point out that the greatest danger or the threatening reality to communities of faith is what you called cognitive contamination. Can you play that out for us as well?
Berger: Well by that I mean as we talk to people, as people talk to each other they influence each other. And it’s very difficult to have the worldview which is sheltered against, or any kind of conversation with other people. Cognitive contamination, again as you kindly observed I tend to be humorous as a sociologist, it’s a nice term. It’s like catching a cold from somebody. If you kiss somebody with a cold you’re likely to get the cold. If you have a conversation with a Buddhist, you’re likely after a while to say, hmm maybe he’s got a point. That’s what I mean by cognitive contamination. And one can deal with this, I mean it’s not a terrible disaster, but it makes life a little more difficult than if being a Christian is as natural as, I don’t know, being allergic to milk or something.
Mohler: Well as a Christian theologian I would have to say that the issue of cognitive contamination probably cuts both ways. There are many issues in which it is good that one’s world view becomes contaminated, to use your category, with the knowledge that comes from others. We’ve learned a great deal from each other. We’ve learned a great deal about the world, about human cultures and all the rest by contact with the other. But I’m speaking to you as an evangelical Christian, and you have studied us for a long time. And as you would understand one of our concerns is how to maintain very clear convictional truth claims and to pass them down to our children and the generations coming without loss. In your category of cognitive contamination means that our job is actually a lot more difficult than many of had banked on.
Berger: Yes, I mean sure. I mean look if you take American evangelicalism I remember shortly after I came to this country I was drafted, and I served my military career such as it was in Georgia. And at that time there were communities in the deep south where being a Baptist was as natural as, I don’t know, being a man or a woman, or having blond hair-it was taken for granted. That’s very rare now. I mean there may be some such communities but not many. And that means that being an evangelical or being any other kind of faith is in constant conversation with alternatives. Now as I said I think that’s healthy. And I think it helps to understand what faith means. Look, I’m a Lutheran and I like that I’m sola fide in the…of the Romans we are saved by faith. Luther added the word alone which many have criticized him for, by faith alone. But I think when we say faith we immediately mean that it’s not knowledge. We’re not certain of it. We have to, it’s an act of betting, of choosing, and I think that’s very good. And the modernity in a way helps us to understand what that means.
Mohler: This issue of cognitive contamination, let me ask you specifically, do you see it as becoming more acute as generations before? In other words is it likely that our children and grandchildren will face even steeper pressures, greater pressures, toward this kind of cognitive contamination?
Berger: Probably because the media of inter-cultural, inter-religious communication are becoming more and more pervasive. I mean the internet is a celebration of pluralism. And I think the only way to withstand this is to create strong communities which provide plausibility structure for a particular worldview. And that’s not an impossible task.
Mohler: Well indeed it’s not. We, as evangelicals, certainly have to hope that as most Christians must hope that it is not an impossible task. You have had the intellectual honesty and I appreciate that. To go back and look at the writings and theories and point you at propounded and the lessons you had taught in years past and come back and rethink them. Your article in First Things several years ago on Secularization Falsified is one of the most, I think, clear examples of intellectual honesty and also of a mind moving forward. You have seized upon certain ideas and questions and when I have the experience of reading your books I feel like I’m reading your mind at work as you’re looking at a question, and taking it seriously, and taking it apart, and putting it back together. At this point in your life, having written so much, what is the kind of question right now that really captures your imagination?
Berger: I don’t know. I mean I’ve written so many books I’m in the process of writing another one right now. What concerns me is the shape in terms of religion. The shape of the Christian community in the modern world and one, you mentioned one what occupies me, one thing I’m very interested in, is the demographic center of Christianity’s moving from Europe and North America to what we now call the global south. And it’s very different in the global south. Christianity in Africa, and Latin America, in parts of Asia, is very different from North America and Europe and that’s I think a big issue that’s coming towards us. How are we going, we in the north so to speak, how are we going to cope with Christianity in the southern part of the world? Enormous issue, very interesting sociologically, but also interesting theological.
Mohler: Absolutely. I want to ask you one other thing as I have you in this conversation. At various points in your career, in your writings, you have made what would amount to predictions about the future. I’m wondering as you look to the future now, armed with all of the thinking that has brought you to this moment, what do you think will surprise us, I mean as American Christians, in terms of how you see society developing in the years ahead?
Berger: Well I thought about this. People ask about this. I’ve learned that most predictions turn out to be false by social scientists. But look, I mean, as I look at American society and the place of religion in it, if things continue more or less as they are, in other words, no huge catastrophe, economic or military or whatever, I don’t foresee any great changes. I don’t see American society becoming much more secular unless there is some kind of disaster of some sort. And Europe is probably not going to become much more religious, again, unless something dramatic happens. So I don’t see any, being on the brink of any huge change. But you know futurologists love…surprise free future. In other words, if nothing dramatic changes, how do we predict, you know assuming present trends continue. Well that can be a dangerous assumption, and we can think of all kinds of very unpleasant surprises, maybe a few pleasant ones, which would change the game.
Mohler: It is a great honor to speak with you today Professor Berger. And really one of the most important duties of the Christian life is gratitude. And this conversation affords me the opportunity to express gratitude to you and not just for myself but for the many others who have been so influenced by your writings. And as you know as an author, different readers will gain different impressions and collect different intellectual tools. But I want to thank you for your contribution and tell you that my intellectual debt to you is huge as your writings have been so influential in my understanding of trying to grapple with this reality. And so on behalf of, first of all, my own voice and many others, I want to thank you for your contribution. And especially thank you for joining me today Thinking in Public.
Berger: Well thank you, very kind of you.
Mohler: One of life’s greatest privileges is the meeting of minds-the meeting of intellect and rationality, of reason and thinking, the meeting of book and reader, the meeting of, well, a conversation. I’ve enjoyed this conversation with Peter Berger. And even as his books have made me think, helped me think, so has this conversation. And isn’t it interesting to see a mind at work thinking.
I can pretty much remember where I read certain books. Maybe you’re the same way. You can remember when and where you read a book that changed the way you look at the world. Change the way you think about an important doctrine. Change the way you understand a reality. I first started reading Peter Berger when I was a seminary student. And I saw him footnoted in a text and I was hooked. Now as you look at the writings of Peter Berger you look at his theories. You’re looking at a mind in motion. And Peter Berger has been honest enough to even talk with us about how his mind has been in motion. But at every point he has offered a very authoritative voice in terms of his academic field of sociology about the matters of his concern. As I have read Peter Berger, I haven’t read him as a sociologist. I have read him as a theologian very interested in sociology. As a theologian who understands that theology is not done in an ivory tower of isolation, it is done in a social context. And whether we recognize it or not, and if we do not it is to our danger, theology is a social discipline. It takes place in the society and the community first of all the church but also in a larger cultural context that has to be taken into account. Furthermore, I read Peter Berger as a Christian. A Christian concerned with the gospel of Jesus Christ and with wanting persons to come to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. And in a context of well, the modern age, that is a very complex equation.
Now one of the helpful things Peter Berger said in the conversation we just had is that Christianity is really well armed for this situation. After all, he took us back to Acts chapter seventeen and Paul at Mars Hill and said that the experience and reality of pluralism is really nothing new for the Christian church. Now as I look at the intellectual tools I’ve gathered from Peter Berger, I want to tell you that I’ve done so even as I’ve been in well several points of disagreement with him. After all, first of all, there’s some methodological disagreements. He’s a sociologist. I’m a theologian. We don’t necessarily even frame the questions exactly the same way. He’s writing as a confessional Lutheran, and he distances himself from evangelicals. Well, I’m an evangelical. And so we have a meeting of the minds on some issues and yet an engagement of issues that lead to very profitable and catalytic thinking on the other hand. Now when I look at the categories Peter Berger has offered to us, the critique and the structure of Secularization Theory that he’s offered, I go back to those things I ask him about plausibility structures. And I recognize that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ had better give very careful attention to that particular category. We need to make certain that we are aware of the fact that conviction does not exist in a vacuum. That indeed it needs to be reinforced, and the Christian life is made up that way in terms of the devotions of the Christian life. Our dependence upon the means of grace and of the preaching of the word, and the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, and baptism that is all a part of the plausibility structure that helps to maintain and clarify Christian conviction. And of course, remember the social context? Well, for Christians that is the church first and foremost it is the congregation of believers. That congregation had better order itself consciously in order to provide plausibility structures for its own members. And I think most pointedly for its youngest members. Those who are likely to be on the front edges of the intersection of the different worldviews and those who are likely to suffer from the greatest challenge of what Peter Berger has defined in this latest book as cognitive contamination.
Every once in a while, someone gets to coin a term. Few people get to coin terms that enter the intellectual parleys quite so repeatedly as had Peter Berger. The plausibility structure category that is now just a part of our common vocabulary as not only sociologists, but philosophers, and psychologists, and theologians and others, consider the same issues. This is issue of cognitive contamination, you know, I’ll tell you, this one hits me as perhaps one of the most useful intellectual tools evangelicals need to understand and to use in years to come. Had a similar experience reading James Davison Hunter years ago in his book Evangelicalism the Coming Generation when he talked about the process of cognitive bargaining. How it is that younger evangelicals then and by the way, they’re middle age evangelicals now, in the context of the modern age, we’re always bargaining cognitive concepts as they were under their own intellectual pressures, as a young person went from you know a small town in the mid-west to an ivy league university. All of a sudden there were pressures to surrender certain issues, convictions, truths, commitments, and that pressure led to a process of cognitive or mental bargaining. You bargain how much can I give up? How much must I maintain? Well if we don’t understand that evangelicals were then and to an even greater degree, are now involved in that kind of process and in danger. I would have to say as a theologian of surrendering the gospel and a central Christian truths without even sometimes recognizing it, well then we’re going to lose something. We don’t recognize the value of Peter Berger’s category here of cognitive contamination than we will not parent as Christian parents as we ought. We will not teach as Christian teachers must teach. We will not preach as pastors must preach or must help form the Christian mind. And ground the Christian’s faith in the context of understanding that the pressures of this very late, very modern age are leading many, many people in ways that are invisible. And undetected to themselves to bargain away what they otherwise would never surrender. And to have contaminated the worldview that can very quickly become less than Christian without intending that that would be the result.
Cognitive contamination, and I really gained a lot by how Peter Berger in way that was reduced to a very wise quip said it’s kind of like catching a cold. In other words, worldviews get transmitted in ways that are almost as natural and undetected, and frankly, virtually as viral as a cold. Now when Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld in their new book In Praise of Doubt look at how conviction may survive and be changed in the modern world. They talk about the pressures of pluralism and the relativizing that takes place. They talk about the lowering of the walls between worldviews and intellectual communities. They talk about this cognitive contamination, and they suggest that there are basically two polar opposite responses. On the one hand, what they define as fundamentalism. And they define fundamentalism not theologically but sociologically as an effort to reverse this process of relativization to go back to something of a pre-modern commitment and just to deny the reality of different cognitive claims and communities around us different belief systems, different worldviews. Building walls that have been torn down by the modern world, well that rebuilding of the walls, they would define as fundamentalism. That’s their category, and we can understand it. Then they say the other extreme, there is the modernizing extreme that simply accepts and even celebrates this kind of modernization, this kind of relativization and then goes to the extreme of saying you can’t hold to any particular truth claims with any validity or with any cognitive integrity any longer. Unless you’re just going to admit that you are choosing this and that there is no basic correspondence between your truth claims and a larger reality.
So as Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld suggest in this book, you basically have these two polar opposites. Fundamentalism that wants to reclaim a certainty before the modern world and then the modernizers who want to celebrate the loss of everything that the fundamentalist want to hold on to. Now you don’t set up a polarization like that without coming back to offer some middle alternative. That’s exactly what they do. The middle alternative they suggest is a posture of doubt. Now they’re writing specifically to a Christian community suggesting that this mode of doubt means that we should hold to or certain faith commitments, but hold to them somewhat tentatively. We should not over claim.
Now this is where I part company with these two authors. This is where I am informed by Peter Berger but quite frankly as an evangelical theologian, I have to come by and say I am not convinced. To the contrary, even though I do not believe that the fundamentalism that they sociologically define is the right way to go that denies the relativization around us and tries to rebuild an isolated community. I don’t want to go back to an isolated community. I don’t think that’s possible. Our children will not live in an isolated communities they will go to colleges and universities and live in cities and in social context where this plurality of worldview is going to be around them. We cannot rescue our children any more than we can rescue ourselves from this danger of cognitive contamination. But I reject this middle position of doubt as the way to go. As a matter of fact, middle positions theologically almost never work, whether it’s neo-orthodoxy or an attempt to have something between orthodoxy and heterodoxy something between fundamentalism and liberalism or modernism. Well these in between positions seldom hold unless they are very clearly defined in terms of clear, unapologetic truth claims. And that’s where the posture of doubt just doesn’t quite work out. I don’t think that doubt is a helpful response to the modern challenge. I can see where it would be a good posture for negotiation. I can see where it might lead to a lessening of social controversy and pressure. But I can also see that what it means is that eventually the abdication of the kind of truth claims that are absolutely necessary for the Christian gospel, for the Christian faith, for the Christian church, and for the Christian life.
I’m informed by the writings of Peter Berger. My mind has been shaped in so many ways by the intellectual tools that he has offered, not only to me, but to so many around the world. I think that in his reading of the modern age of the intellectual pressures and sociological patters of the modern age, he is literally without peer. I think in terms of his intellectual integrity to rethink the questions, to look at his long productive life span and see where he was wrong and come back to tell us about it, tell us why, and tell us where he thinks things are going now. I’m very thankful for the conversation. I have to tell you it was a real honor for me to be in a conversation with someone who is influenced so much of my thinking. At the same time I want to come back and say. I do not go where he would have us to go. Not in terms of this latest book and not in terms of his theory of how a Christian community can and might survive in late modernity. I think we have to go back to the future. I’m willing to go back in fact. I’m eager to go back to Acts chapter seventeen. But in the midst of that pluralization we’ll note that the Apostle Paul did not suggest a posture of relative doubt. Instead he spoke of the full measure of conviction and based on that apostolic example, that’s what I certainly hope to do. That is what I’m held accountable to do. And that is what I hope generations of evangelicals to come will do or there will be no evangelicals and there will be no evangelicalism.
Wasn’t it interesting to hear as Peter Berger was looking to the future that he suggested the big question was about the shift of the center of gravity to the global South. You know that’s where the conversation is likely to get even more interesting as the global South struggles with some of the same questions that we have struggled with over the last several decades. And in many ways as those Christians in the developing world become the pioneers for what Christianity is going to look like in the twenty-first century. It gives us a lot to think about. A lot to pray about. And that’s something for which we should be thankful. I’m thankful today for the opportunity to have been in conversation with Peter Berger and also with you. Until next time, thanks for listening to Thinking in Public.