God Beats Up on People Who Ask Useless Questions
by Wayne C. Lusvardi
Wayne C. Lusvardi holds a B.A. in Sociology from Aurora University, an MS in Social Service and Public Administration from the University of Southern California, and completed extensive graduate work in Sociology at Pepperdine University. Several of his reviews of books by sociologist Peter Berger are posted online at Amazon.com. This essay is used by permission of the author.
"Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity."
George Bernard Shaw
Peter L. Berger, the most eminent sociologist of religion in the world today, many of whose sociological works as Berger says "read like a treatise on atheism," has written a mature and skeptical affirmation of Christianity in his new book Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity. Berger calls his book an exercise in "lay theology." By questioning the theology produced by professional theologians Berger realizes that theological bureaucrats will hold any activity of "free enterprise," such as his book, with suspicion. He disavows being a professional theologian and intends the book for similarly "unaccredited" people. Taking the role of an open-minded skeptic, Berger asks probative questions about religion without being bound by tradition, church, scripture, or personal experience.
It is difficult to predict how history may judge this iconoclastic book. But it may well end up a religious classic in the genre of, on one hand:
On the other hand, it is oddly in the same league with:
In fact, Berger integrates the insights of all of the above seemingly disparate writers in his book. Questions of Faith wonít likely be attractive to what Berger calls "Golden Rule" Christians who embrace the images of "gentle Jesus," the exemplar and teacher contained in so much Protestant Christian literature. Nor will it probably appeal to those "New Age" religious seekers of what Berger calls "The Mythic Matrix," defined as a childlike belief in the one-ness of God, nature, and man. Neither would it resonate with those academics and so-called liberals who reduce religion to mere ethics or diversity, to some inner psychoanalytic conversation, or some Marxist egalitarian view of heaven on earth.
This is a well-written work that, nonetheless in parts, is not for the unserious reader. One may need to look up words not used in ordinary conversation to understand what Berger means when he writes: "the problem of theodicy was solved in terms of eschatology" or "one should not confuse epistemology (i.e., knowledge) with historical gratitude." Conversely, at points Berger flashes a riveting summary of a complex theological issue with an illuminating one-sentence proposition or even a joke. For example, when Berger points out that the puzzles of historical scholarship often lead Biblical theologians to crises of faith he expresses it this way: "I have sometimes asked myself how a gynecologist could manage to have sexual intercourse; by the same token, one could ask how a New Testament scholar could be a Christian."
Questions of Faith is a commentary structured around the Christian Apostleís Creed as its scaffold. Berger tells us the Creed was formulated in the early days of Christianity, probably in cosmopolitan Rome. From the table of contents and the chapter subheadings the book appears like another dull commentary not meant to disturb the Christian cognoscenti or the average believer from their faith. However, underneath this superstructure Berger poses a number of probing questions to taken-for-granted Christianity.
Berger is not content to engage in what he calls a "salvage operation" of Christianity. Nor is he content to single out Christianity. He puts into question all forms of taken-for-granted religion whether it is Buddhism, Hinduism, mysticism, or secular "eschatologies" such as Marxism that claims there is a deterministic linear redemptive course to history. Likewise, he finds the machinations of professional theologians about the Christian Trinity (God, Son, Holy Spirit), and the historical Christian controversies over the heresies of Arianism, Adoptionism, Marcionism, and Marianism to be a dull and unimportant.
Put differently, Berger not only "kills the Buddha," but also finds the "quest for the historical Jesus," in both its religious and secular manifestations, to be futile. He finds the religious portrayals of Jesus as an exorcist (Graham Twelftree), a Jewish peasant cynic (John Dominic Crossan), a prophet of social change (Gerd Thiessen), as a Gnostic teacher (Elaine Pagels), or as an eschatological prophet (E.P. Sanders) as exasperating to the befuddled layperson. He is equally unimpressed by secularized versions of this quest with the image of Jesus as a deluded figure (psychoanalytic), a member of the proletariat (Marxist), or as personifying machismo or femininity (feminist). Here Berger states what many a layperson already knows beyond the views of the so-called professional experts: it is impossible to know whom Jesus was absent some incredible sort of time travel machine to help us find out. To those theologians who contend that the life and resurrection of Jesus is one of the most documented events in ancient history, both in scripture and recorded history, Berger asks them to produce "one single police report" from a nonpartisan source that wasnít inserted into the text far after the fact! Thus, because we cannot know the historical Jesus, faith must be independent of the results of historical scholarship. Berger doesnít necessarily doubt that Jesus existed, but says that this is a statement of very strong probability rather than certainty. Or letting Berger speak in his own inimitable way: "Let us put it this way: If CNN had existed in ancient times, most of the history of Israel and all of Jesusí life would have been invisible on the radar screen."
Most of all Berger finds highly problematic the assertion by John Hick, the famed scholar of world religions, that the baseline criteria of all religion is whether it reduces selfishness and promotes altruism. To the uninitiated reader this may seem as perplexing. How can religion only be indirectly related with morality or ethics? Bergerís answer is that religion has no monopoly on morality, as morality is grounded in human perception rather than norms (i.e., good and bad). He however does not deny that all sorts of commandments and normative prescriptions can be deduced from an accurate perception of a situation. But Berger, the sociologist-turned -lay-theologian, curiously doesnít don his sociologist hat to tell us how to separate out the false from the true prophets of perception in a world of often distorting mass communications.
As a social scientist Berger avoids taking the position that religion is an irreducible reality sui generis (i.e., in a class all its own), as does someone like Ninian Smart, the popular professor of comparative religions, in his book The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge (1973). Conversely Berger does not believe that religion can be reduced to psychology, sociology, or economics or merely some system of ethics. Bergerís interpretive brand of sociology, following sociologist Max Weber, leads him to carve out an area for faith, defined as that which one does not know. Unbelief is defined as the unwillingness to step beyond what one is reasonably certain about. Religion is utmost an attempt to explain and come to grips with ultimate reality. And as Berger has written in his famous work, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966), what one knows often depends on what society one lives in, where one resides in that society, and how one "chooses" his parents or occupation. As religion is a social enterprise, neither belief nor unbelief is a moral failing. The step of faith is not a delusion or an act of cowardice from the harshness of the realities of life, a la Karl Marxís view of religion as an "opiate," or Sigmund Freudís notion of religion as a neurotic delusion. Rather, Berger writes that the act of religious faith compels one to be able to explain why one is willing to take a step beyond certainty. Moreover, since to Berger certainty is a "social construction," all of life is a religious enterprise of sorts beyond the confines of institutionalized religion. Modern society makes this step of faith, or doubt, almost unavoidable in that it creates a high degree of heterogeneous and interpenetrating worldviews (i.e., pluralism). This makes religious, or irreligious, certainty a scarce commodity in the marketplace of ideas. Every religiously reflective person needs to become his or her own theologian so to speak. Or as Berger aptly puts it, theology should not be left to professional theologians alone.
This reviewer should point out that Berger acknowledges that the book was written over a period of two years "in moments snatched from other busy activities as a social scientist." Thus, the book has a number of central propositions scattered throughout that the reader may be left trying to cobweb together. The bibliography doesnít account for all the written works cited in the text. And there are a few glaring typographical errors. Nonetheless, for those wanting to explore their own religious beliefs (or non-belief) by reading an honest and skeptical affirmation of the Christian faith by one of the worldís best thinkers and social scientists, this book recommends itself.
Near the end of Questions of Faith, Peter Berger relates the story of Martin Lutherís reply to a young man who asked him how God occupied himself in eternity. Luther replied, "God sits under a tree and cuts branches and rods, to beat up people who ask useless questions." Scattered throughout the book Questions of Faith are what Berger finds to be humanly unacceptable notions about the Christian religion that he believes need to be pummeled (i.e., "beat up") mainly because of their acceptance of suffering, death, and evil. He counters these propositions with those that he believes are humanly acceptable and yet square with the Christian faith and resonate with the human experience. The prototypical human experience for Berger that becomes the acid test for religion is the suffering of innocent children. Berger returns again and again throughout the chapters of his book to this prototypical relationship between a parent and child and finds the unnecessary suffering and death of children, and all innocents, to be humanly unacceptable. To Berger no theodicy (i.e., religious explanation of suffering, death, or evil) is tolerable if it cannot be recited face-to-face to suffering children and their parents.
Bergerís theological method is reminiscent of the ancient pseudonymous writer Dionysius the Areopagite who asked the question "what are the affirmative theologies and what are the negative?" Below I have excerpted some of the taken-for-granted negative theological notions discussed by Berger, followed by the reasons they ingratiate him.
In sum, Berger the sociologist playing the role of "theologian-for-a-day," proves himself not to be an imposter. Put differently, the theological thought police and the totalitarian brainwashers didnít have to "beat him up" to get him to answer often-useless theological questions with programmed answers. Perhaps it is fitting to close this review with one of Bergerís characteristic jokes:
"A Russian legend has it that there were three holy men who lived on an island, engaged in constant prayer and works of compassion. The bishop under whose jurisdiction the island fell was informed that these men were completely ignorant of the doctrines and rituals of the Church. He found this fact scandalous. He visited the island and spent some time teaching these men the basic creeds and prayers of the Church. He then left the island. As his boat was getting away from the island he noticed, to his amazement, that the three holy men were following the boat, walking on the water. They reached the boat and explained that they had forgotten the words of the Lordís Prayer. The bishop told them that they should not worry about this Ė they did not need these words" (Questions of Faith, page 113).
For further reading:
Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967).
Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966).
Peter L. Berger, Pyramids of Sacrifice: Political Ethics and Social Change (1974).
Peter L. Berger and Hansfried Kellner, The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness (1974).
Peter L. Berger, Facing Up To Modernity: Excursions in Society, Politics and Religion (1977).
Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (1970).
Peter L. Berger, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies (1961).
Peter L. Berger, The Heretical Imperative (1979).
Peter L. Berger, The Other Side of God: Polarity in World Religions (1981).
Peter L. Berger, A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity (1992).
Peter L. Berger, Against The World-For The World: The Hartford Appeal and the Future of American Religion (1976).
Linda Woodhead, Peter Berger and the Study of Religion (2001).
Wayne C. Lusvardi, is a lay sociologist, Pasadena, California