Peter Berger, who died on June 27 at age eighty-eight, ranked among the most distinguished sociological thinkers and public intellectuals of the past half century. His contributions to his discipline were impressively varied: the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of religion, sociological theory, and the cultural effects of modernization. In 1998 the International Sociological Association voted the book he coauthored with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), one of the five most influential works in the field in the twentieth century. That volume, along with four other notable books written in a burst of creative energy while he was still in his thirties—The Noise of Solemn Assemblies (1961), Invitation to Sociology (1963), The Sacred Canopy (1967), A Rumor of Angels (1969)—made him the best-known sociologist of his era.
Peter played an outsize role in the founding and early history of First Things. In the planning stages, he made two suggestions critical to the journal’s initial impact: that it publish monthly, not quarterly, and that it incorporate the separate musings of Richard John Neuhaus on developments in the public square. He proceeded to serve on its editorial board and contribute regularly to its pages.
This was no surprise. By the time First Things began in 1990, the Berger/Neuhaus collaboration was decades old. It began in common involvement in the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War protests of the 1960s. In 1970 they coauthored Movement and Revolution (RJN’s first book), an exchange on the possibilities of radical transformation in American society. Five years later, they jointly organized the Hartford Appeal, which called for the recapture of a sense of transcendence in Protestant thought—and also served as an early sign that the two were moving in a conservative direction. That drift was confirmed in 1977 in their essay To Empower People, a Tocquevillean proposal that the renewal of civil society through the “mediating structures” of family, church, and neighborhood offered a more promising route to social improvement than did the distant commanding hand of the federal government.
In their collaboration a deep friendship formed. Years later, Richard would recount with pleasure their regular Sunday evenings together enjoying Brigitte Berger’s gourmet cooking—she was herself an accomplished sociologist—and then repairing to the TV for the British soap opera Upstairs, Downstairs.
The disruption of their friendship was an occasion of deep regret for Richard and, I’m sure, for Peter, though we never spoke of it. It began with Richard’s decision in 1990 to become a Catholic priest. Peter was disappointed with the decision itself—he had, deep down, a Protestant soul—and even more disappointed with Richard’s failure to consult, or even inform, him about it before his public declaration.
The friendship wobbled a bit over that, but recovered and remained mostly as it had been until the fateful “End of Democracy?” issue of First Things in November 1996. That issue had its origins in the annual spring meeting of the journal’s Institute Council, which included the members of the editorial board and selected members of the larger editorial advisory board. Discussion at the May 23 meeting focused heavily on a recent decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declaring a constitutional right to assisted suicide. That decision (later overturned by the Supreme Court) seemed to most of those at the meeting an ominous further intrusion by the modern judiciary—an intrusion earlier indicated by the discovery of a right to abortion—into matters previously reserved for democratic resolution.
We had entered the territory of, in the subtitle of the November issue, “the judicial usurpation of politics.” As the meeting wore on, dire imaginings multiplied and expanded. By the end of the day, much to my dismay, reasonable concern over jurisprudential overreach had somehow escalated into doubts as to the legitimacy of the American political order.
There were two notable absences at the meeting: Neither Midge Decter nor Peter Berger was able to attend. I remain certain to this day that had they been there, the session would have lost its edge of hysteria, and the November issue would never have become a reality. The calming force of their reputations and personalities would have made Richard, and most of the others as well, pause and reconsider. As it was, my lone protestations proved ineffectual—as they did in the months of editorial planning that followed.
When the November issue appeared, Peter promptly resigned from the journal. (Midge did not, but only out of abiding friendship.) Nothing that Richard could say changed his mind, and their relationship was never afterward the same. Peter told me he thought abortion had been at the heart of the whole episode, and he attributed what he took to be Richard’s obsession over the issue to his Catholicism. (On that he was mistaken: Richard while still a Lutheran held fervently pro-life views.) They did not cut off relations entirely. Every year Richard made sure to call Peter on his birthday, and on rare occasions Peter would call the office and they would have a pleasant, if somewhat distant, conversation. But that was all, and as Richard said to me more than once, “It is a sadness.”
Peter’s disagreement with Richard over the “End of Democracy?” episode reflected his Burkean view of politics and public life. His essay in Movement and Revolution displayed a sense of the limited possibilities for social reconstruction. He was a reformer in the 1960s—a reviewer of the book called him “a socially conscious conservative”—but a reformer who scorned ideologues and who never in his life experienced a utopian temptation. He grasped the fragility of the social order. To the injunction of the youth culture to “let it all hang out,” he responded typically, “Tuck it all back in.” All in all, America worked reasonably well, and the suggestion to the contrary in “End of Democracy?” struck him as unconsidered and irresponsible. His later neoconservatism fit him well, while Richard, who moved to the political right over the years, retained a basically restless temperament.
Peter was, in some ways, an unconventional sociologist. He avoided statistical analysis, and he was clearly out of step with the left-wing proclivities of his colleagues. (In one uncharacteristic public outburst, he referred to his discipline as “an ideological sewer.”) Yet he was comfortable in the role of dispassionate social scientist dedicated to rigorous application of the scientific method to the study of social behavior, always under the guise of “value-free analysis.” He regularly prefaced comments on topics at hand with “Speaking as a sociologist . . .”
But it was the humanist in him, not the social scientist, who had the last word. Peter understood the oddity and irony of life; he was tolerant of human frailty, a sympathetic observer of the human comedy. He was an avid connoisseur of jokes, and he considered laughter a recognition of—and a triumph over—the absurdity of things. He often directed his own wry sense of humor at intellectual pretension. I remember his quip about the propensity of academics to drone on in public at tedious length. “There are three universal social lies: ‘The check is in the mail’; ‘It’s only until the divorce’; and ‘I will be brief.’”
Peter’s ironic temperament marked his complicated and unsettled religious views. He was born in Vienna in 1929 to Jewish parents who converted to Christianity when he was a child. (The family immigrated to America, by way of Palestine, when Peter was seventeen.) At our first meeting in the early 1980s, he described himself as a liberal Protestant, but while he shared that heritage—he was an admirer of Friedrich Schleiermacher—he had little in common with most of those who currently go by the name. His bourgeois mentality and his conservative politics made him a stranger to the adversary culture that prevails in the precincts of the National Council of Churches.
He preferred Evangelicals to mainline Protestants—in his view they had not, like the mainline, sacrificed the “cosmic redefinition of reality” that is the Gospel for a pastiche of politics, psychology, and morality—though he could not share in the intense personal piety of the Evangelical community. His low regard for mainline churches was most memorably expressed in his dismissal of ecumenical discussions among them as “border negotiations between nonexistent nations.”
It is fair to describe Peter as a Lutheran—he often said of himself that he was “incurably Lutheran”—but his Lutheranism was of a special sort. He spent a year in seminary preparing for the ministry, but decided that he could not subscribe to the full theological particulars of the Lutheran Confessions. His Lutheranism sat awkwardly somewhere between the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the conservative Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Members of the ELCA, he slyly remarked, were “Methodists who drink beer,” while those in the LCMS were “Southern Baptists with better music.” He worshipped regularly, though if he could not find a congenial Lutheran parish, he was happy to participate in Episcopal or Orthodox liturgies. Toward the end of his life, he confessed that he alternated in his religious identity between “agnostic” and “relatively conservative Lutheran.”
Early in his career, Peter was convinced that modernization was an inevitable carrier of secularity. But over time the evidence changed his mind. Most of the modern world, he concluded, is decidedly unsecular: The principal exceptions are Western Europe and the non-geographical category of intellectuals. What modernization decrees is not secularity but pluralism. Our modern problem, he concluded, is not the absence of God, but the presence of many gods. There is no available route back to a world taken for granted. We might choose to quarrel with modernity, but we cannot pretend it does not exist.
Peter Berger lived, apparently content, with the ambiguity he thought implicit in the modern condition. He could affirm the Gospel’s “cosmic redefinition of reality,” but he was for the most part suspicious of doctrinal elaborations of that new reality. I once said of him that his was a “minimalist Christian proposition.” But he had one big thing right. He knew, in a phrase he liked to quote from the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, that “beyond the Law, there is a vast ocean of mercy.”
James Nuechterlein is editor at large of First Things and a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.