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Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore
by Peter L. Berger
Prometheus, 264 pages, $26

From Austria to America, from aspiring Lutheran pastor to eminent sociologist, from liberal to neoconservative, Peter Berger has had a remarkable and peculiar career. Much of it, he tells us in his witty and wry intellectual autobiography, was pure accident.

The first accident led to Berger’s discovery of his vocation. Having emigrated from Vienna to New York just after World War II at age eighteen, and having completed college planning to become a Lutheran pastor, Berger decided to spend 1949 taking sociology courses at the New School for Social Research in New York City. The idea was to acquaint himself with his new home before going on to seminary, but the seminars had very little to do with American society, or, for that matter, with American sociology.

Berger’s émigre professors were more interested in Balzac than Parsons. At the end of the semester, Berger recalls, “I had become quite familiar with nineteenth-century French society. I knew as little about twentieth-century American society as I had known before. He acquired, however, a sense of the sociologist’s perspective: an endless curiosity about every aspect of human behavior.

Another misunderstanding in 1953 led to the education in America Berger had been looking for. After spending a year at seminary in Philadelphia, and three more back at the New School completing his Ph.D., Berger was drafted and sent to Fort Benning, Georgia. When asked by his superior about his civilian occupation, Berger replied that he was a sociologist. The sergeant determined that sociology could not be that different from psychology. And so Berger spent the next two years listening to troubled soldiers from all walks of life and all parts of the country.

Having served his country, the young Berger embarked on his academic career. After a brief stint at Woman’s College in North Carolina and a few years teaching “social ethics” at the Hartford Seminary, the relentless clacking of Berger’s typewriter earned him a return ticket to the New School in 1963. By this time, his Invitation to Sociology was well on the way to commercial success (by 1981, it had sold one million copies). And his next two books, The Social Construction of Reality (1966, with Thomas Luckmann) and The Sacred Canopy (1967), would soon cement his intellectual reputation.

At this point in the story, one anticipates lucrative appointments to named chairs at yet more prestigious universities. But they failed to materialize. Why? Although he insists he was never persecuted and eschews the label of “victim,” Berger suggests that it was his rightward drift in political outlook”a drift away from the zeitgeist of the intellectual culture”that effectively exiled him from the elite institutions.

Although he sympathized with the civil rights movement and actively opposed the Vietnam War”he was (with Richard John Neuhaus) a member of the steering committee of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam”he felt increasingly alarmed at the radicalism of the Movement, which reminded him of the street violence he had witnessed as a child in Nazi Germany. He could not support the “mob psychology, the mystique of the street, the rage against all institutions of liberal democracy, and . . . the militant antireason of the Movement.

He was not alone. A number of other prominent social scientists, including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Bell, also began to identify themselves with the nascent neoconservative movement during the 1970s, as did Neuhaus, one of his close friends. Berger was drawn to the neoconservative movement because of its liberal democratic principles but never fully embraced the neoconservative moniker, perhaps because his own theological convictions, unlike Neuhaus’, remained avowedly liberal.

If the personal events of 1949 had made him into an accidental sociologist, the political events of 1969 helped make him into an accidental public intellectual. While Berger’s rightward drift isolated him from a left-leaning academic establishment, it also connected him to a new and wider world beyond the ivory tower, a world of D.C. think tanks and private foundations, of government officials and Texas billionaires. It also led to new assignments throughout the world studying economic development and religious movements.

Thus begins Berger’s second career in sociological tourism. It eventually led him to revise his thinking on two issues. Sojourns in East Asia, Eastern Europe, and the global South convinced him that free markets are the only viable mechanism of economic development, as he explained in The Capitalist Revolution . At the same time, encounters with people of faith throughout the world led him to question and then, in The Desecularization of the World , to abandon a central tenet of secularization theory”that the future of religion is extinction”he had advanced in The Sacred Canopy .

Beneath all the twists and turns in Berger’s professional career, however, lies a fundamental continuity in his sociological perspective. The red thread that runs through all of his work is the influence of Max Weber. Like Weber, Berger adopts an interpretive approach to social life, emphasizing the meaningful character of human activity. Society is not governed by impersonal, universal laws that science simply discovers. Rather, society is a never-ending work-in-progress constructed through the ongoing strivings of living and breathing human beings whose motives are psychologically complex and culturally specific. This means that the social scientist can only ever really explain social phenomena if and to the degree that he understands such strivings. French novels and sociology, it seems, are not so far apart after all.

But the idea that has perhaps most influenced Berger”one might even call it his Leitidee ”and certainly the one whose implications he has reflected most deeply upon, is Weber’s thesis that Western modernity is essentially polytheistic in its ultimate values. In modern societies, Weber argued, the biblical God must compete with worldly gods such as aesthetic experience, material success, nationalistic fervor, erotic pleasure, and the many other forms of self-transcendence and this-worldly immortality that call out to our inner demons. From The Sacred Canopy through The Heretical Imperative (1979) to In Praise of Doubt (2009), much of Berger’s career has been dedicated to understanding the causes of this condition and teasing out its implication.

Still, Berger’s account does differ from Weber’s in several important respects. The modern world, he contends, is polytheistic not just in the figurative sense suggested by Weber but also in a more literal sense as well: There are multiple and competing visions of the biblical God as well as nonbiblical gods, nontheistic spiritualities, fully secular ethical systems, and so on, agents and powers far too numerous and too diverse to be assembled into any coherent pantheon.”

As Berger points out in The Heretical Imperative, this means that one’s ethical stance is always a choice, even when that choice is to hold fast to what we know. In an ever-shrinking world of instant communication and information overload, we cannot avoid being exposed to other ways of life, and they will have their effect on us.

His political ethic is also quite different from Weber’s. As the martial metaphor of the warring gods suggests, Weber’s was combative. He regarded cultural conflict as a basically salutary means of clarifying differences, if not necessarily of resolving them. As the titles of two of his recent works suggest” Between Relativism and Fundamentalism and In Praise of Doubt ”Berger’s ethic is more restrained. Wary of the dangers that radical subjectivism and moral fanaticism pose for social solidarity and cultural coexistence, he urges us to practice humility, civility, and humor in our political dealings while holding fast to core principles such as individual freedom and human rights. In other words, we should seek a liberal democratic middle way between relativism and fundamentalism.

He also parts company with Weber in his views on faith and reason. For Weber, there was, finally, an irreconcilable conflict between religion and science. In his view, the life of faith necessarily involved a sacrifice of the intellect. This did not mean that religion would disappear; some would always be too weak to face up to the demands of the day, and for them the arms of the church will always be open.” But Weber himself was sworn to the god of scientific truth and a life without illusion.

Berger does not advance a strong argument for the rationality of faith, premised, say, on an account of natural law or cosmic purpose. He is persuaded by Kant’s argument that we cannot infer divine designs or moral principles from empirical observation. Rather, in Questions of Faith, he advances a more modest and more Protestant argument for the reasonableness of faith grounded in the persistent hunger that human beings feel for some knowledge of and connection to an ultimate and transcendent reality and in the occasional intimations of it that they may experience in their everyday lives.

Christianity, he argues, can still this hunger without thereby deadening the intellect. Berger’s own life, characterized by abiding faith, insatiable curiosity, and exemplary scholarship, might be regarded as a sort of empirical demonstration of this claim.

Philip S. Gorski is professor of sociology at Yale University.