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60The Good of Religious Pluralismhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/04/the-good-of-religious-pluralism
Fri, 01 Apr 2016 00:00:00 -0400Pluralism is often perceived as a threat to faith, associated with relativism and a loss of religious substance. I take a contrary position. It seems to me that pluralism is good for faith. For several years now, my work as a sociologist has circled around the phenomenon of pluralism. The result of this preoccupation is a book I published in 2014,
The Many Altars of Modernity
. It is an exercise in sociological analysis of the contemporary religious situation, necessarily free of theological presuppositions; I could have written this book if I were a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or an atheist. In other words, I wrote wearing the surgical mask of social-scientific objectivity. Behind this mask, however, I am a Christian, specifically with a (not very
orthodox) Lutheran flavor. Now I want to take off the surgical mask and reflect theologically upon what I see as a sociologist.
A Friendly Dissent from Pentecostalismhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/11/a-friendly-dissent-from-pentecostalism
Thu, 01 Nov 2012 00:00:00 -0400 Rudolf Bultmann, the German New Testament scholar whose program for the demythologization of the Gospel provoked a storm of controversy in the years after World War II, wrote in his seminal essay: It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles. This lapidary sentence is not empirically validated in any way. It stands there as an axiomatic assumption.
Bultmann was a very pleasant individual. I met him many years ago and was impressed by his unpretentious and open demeanor (also, by the way, by the discovery that this apostle of modernity was afraid of flying). I am hopeful that he now resides in a heaven that modern man supposedly cannot believe in. But if even in this mythological residence he somehow still holds on to his assumption, I would love to take him on a tour of global Christianity today. He would meet millions of electricity consumers who not only believe in the miracles of the New Testament, but, much more interestingly, in the miracles that supposedly occur in their churches every week.
The contemporary world does not at all show what so-called secularization theory asserts: that modernity leads to a decline of religion. With some exceptions, notably Europeans and an international class of intellectuals, most of our contemporaries are decidedly religious”and not only in the less-modernized parts of the world. There are many large religious movements, only a few of them violent, most of them resulting in significant social, economic, and political developments. Arguably the largest and most influential (and almost entirely nonviolent) of these movements is Pentecostalism.
I first came across Pentecostalism when I was a graduate student and by mere happenstance wrote my masters thesis on religion among Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City. Since my work took me increasingly to the developing world”Latin America first, then Africa and Asia”I became more and more aware of the explosive growth of Pentecostalism. When I started a research center at Boston University in 1985, I was able to support a series of studies of Pentecostalism in different countries, with the earlier ones conducted by David Martin, the British sociologist who has since become something like a dean of Pentecostal studies. (I should mention that the terminology is confusing, in part because Pentecostalism has affected the mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches. Different terms have been used in addition to plain Pentecostal”neo-Pentecostal, charismatic, renewalist”but the phenomenon is the same everywhere. For simplicitys sake, I just use Pentecostal here.)
Pentecostalism has never had the slightest religious appeal for me (I am, it seems, incurably Lutheran). But as a sociologist I have been fascinated by it, and as someone concerned with improving peoples lives I have come to see Pentecostalism as a force for good. It provides comfort and community for people going through disorienting social change, especially among the poor and marginalized. It preaches a morality that encourages sobriety, discipline, and devotion to family, and that emancipates women. Needless to say, not all Pentecostals heed the sermons they hear. (They are not alone in this.) Those who do, begin to experience social mobility and will indeed improve their lives. I came to the conclusion that, contrary to widespread prejudice, Pentecostalism is itself a
movement in the developing world.
In all likelihood, Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing movement in history. Its defining characteristics have always been around: ecstatic worship, speaking in tongues, grassroots leadership, and, most important, miraculous healing. But contemporary Pentecostalism is usually dated from the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1906, William Seymour, an African-American Holiness preacher, came from Houston to Los Angeles and started a congregation in an abandoned stable on Azusa Street. Very soon, all the Pentecostal characteristics appeared. The Azusa Street revival was highly infectious. Its missionaries and publications fanned out, first across the United States, then overseas. By the 1930s Pentecostalism had become a sizable international denomination. The most explosive growth occurred after World War II in countries of the Global South.
This is a religion based on spontaneity, and much of it is sparsely organized, while in some places it has been forced underground (as in China, where it is mostly illegal, and in Muslim-majority countries). Thus it is difficult to give precise numbers. The most reliable estimates put the number at about 600 million Pentecostals worldwide. The phenomenon is huge.
The challenge of Pentecostalism comes not only from its size but also from its geographical distribution. The demographic center of Christianity has shifted to the Global South, where there are now more Christians than in Europe and North America. There are some Pentecostals in the Global North, some non-Pentecostal Christians in the Global South. Christians in the latter part of the world tend to be, if not outright Pentecostal, robustly supernaturalist. The majority of Christians in the world are now supernaturalist”and in that respect much closer to the world of the New Testament than are their northern coreligionists. Through immigration rather than conversion, this version of the faith is now spilling over into the North. It constitutes a great theological challenge to those of us, Catholic as well as Protestant, whose faith is of a more sedate variety.
For Pentecostals, miracles, especially miracles of healing, are very real. The spiritual world is close at hand. The empirical world is constantly penetrated by spiritual beings both good and evil: the Holy Spirit and the angels, demons and even Satan himself. What is more, human beings who have been baptized in the Holy Spirit may acquire the gifts of the Spirit (the
of the New Testament), including the laying on of hands to heal the sick, exorcism of demons, prophecy, and even, on occasion, the raising of the dead. Non-Pentecostal Christians react to all this on a scale ranging from skepticism to condemnation: These miracles, they say, are probably illusory, explicable in naturalist terms”for example, spiritual healing can be explained as a psychosomatic process”or a form of magic, an illicit attempt to force Gods hand.
In Western Christendom, there have been sharp differences between Catholic and Protestant attitudes toward miracles. Officially, the Catholic Church has been supernaturalist in principle, but cautious in practice: Saints are expected to perform miracles, but these are juridically investigated and bureaucratically regulated; miracles outside these procedures are frowned upon. Bureaucrats are always suspicious of free enterprise. But the Church has made many concessions to popular Catholicism practicing a much more spontaneous supernaturalism.
Protestants have been much more wary of the supernatural: God speaks to us through the
, the proclamation of the Word, and the sacraments; to seek him elsewhere, as through miracles, shows a lack of faith. Calvinism has been most radical in stripping Christianity of its supernatural trappings”compare a Baroque Catholic cathedral, full of relics and multiple depictions of saints, with the plain, white-washed churches of Puritan New England. American Evangelical theologians (very non-Pentecostal ones) have developed a doctrine called cessationism: Miracles have ceased because they are no longer needed, either after Jesus earthly ministry came to an end or after the canon of the New Testament was completed. Mainline Protestants, I think, just prefer not to think about such matters too much.
Pentecostals challenge all of these attitudes as deviations from the full gospel, deplorable concessions to the naturalist zeitgeist. The challenge is always there as Pentecostals come to the attention of other Christians, regardless of the challengers level of sophistication. Partly because of their social mobility, which leads to higher education, the Pentecostal challenge has become more sophisticated”though, at this point, without losing its passionate quality. A very good example of this is a book by Francis MacNutt (a Catholic involved in the charismatic renewal movement in that church), who along with his wife conducts a healing ministry based in Florida. The 2005 book is a bill of indictment against non-charismatic Christians, as is already wonderfully expressed by its title,
The Nearly Perfect Crime: How the Church Almost Killed the Ministry of Healing
More subtle but no less passionate is a recent book by James K. A. Smith,
Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy
. Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an institution that used to be a bastion of stern Dutch Reformed theology. Smith, a convert to Pentecostalism (though he now describes himself as a charismatic, or small-p Pentecostal and is a member of the Christian Reformed Church), sharply criticizes contemporary Christian thinkers for making basic concessions to naturalism
etsi Deus non daretur
, as if God did not exist. Against this, Smith insists that Christian thought should base itself precisely on the presupposition that God does indeed exist, with all the implications from this drawn by Pentecostalism. The books introduction has the nice title What Hath Athens to Do with Azusa Street?”paraphrasing Tertullian, who wanted to free Christian theology from the hegemony of Greek philosophy.
Since I have no academic credentials as a theologian, there is a degree of chutzpah in my tackling the subject of Pentecostalism. I will admit that in my table of virtues, chutzpah has an honorable place (at least if exercised with some discrimination). I will also admit to a lack of deference to academic credentials, many of which are fraudulent. But I have a more respectable explanation: I think that the priesthood of all believers also has a cognitive dimension. If the Reformation has given lay people access to the Scriptures, it has given them a warrant to reflect on them as well.
In what I have said above, it should be clear that I am a friendly observer of the Pentecostal phenomenon. Of course I respect Pentecostals as fellow believers, but I also value their contribution to what David Martin has called betterment in the lives of people. But 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
as to say
I will now say
to the Pentecostal project of placing supernatural
at the center of the Christian faith. This in no way diminishes my appreciation of what Pentecostalism has to offer otherwise to the Christian community and to society at large.
In formulating my friendly dissent, I will (inevitably, I guess) use certain Lutheran categories. I think, though, that others, at least this side of radical Calvinism, can translate these categories into terms of their own traditions. It so happens that Lutheranism has a long history with proto-Pentecostals. Luther himself had serious disagreements with the spiritualists (
) of his time, who evinced many of the characteristics associated with Pentecostalism. While Luther was hiding from the imperial ban in the Wartburg, some preachers from the town of Zwickau came to Wittenberg, where they agitated for a more spiritual form of the burgeoning Protestant movement. They were inspired by the teachings of Thomas Müntzer, who was a pastor in Zwickau for a while and later became much more radical theologically and politically; he became involved in the Peasants Revolt and was executed in the course of its suppression. Luthers colleagues begged him to return to Wittenberg to deal with the agitation. He did, despite danger to himself, and preached a series of sermons against the Zwickau prophets.
Thus official Lutheranism positioned itself in an anti-Pentecostal stance from early on. As Carter Lindberg showed in his thorough study,
The Third Reformation?: Charismatic Movements and the Lutheran Tradition
, Zwickau-type spiritualism kept flaring up throughout Lutheran history, notably in seventeenth-century Pietism (the continental analogue to Anglo-American Methodism). As is not surprising, mainline Lutheran authorities kept rejecting these upstarts. Perhaps the most curious episode began in 1841, when Johann Christoph Blumhardt was pastor of a small town in Württemberg, a region in southwest Germany steeped in Pietism. A woman in his congregation showed symptoms that he came to interpret as demon possession. Contrary to his training and the tradition of his church, he felt moved by compassion for the woman to perform an exorcism. The woman was healed. Blumhardts fame spread, and for a while he conducted a healing ministry, which attracted people from near and far who came to be healed from various ailments. The church authorities finally put a stop to it, but Blumhardt gave up his pastorate and continued his ministry. Whatever one may think about such events, it is clear that supernaturalism has had an enduring attraction.
It seems to me that, perhaps surprisingly, it is the Lutheran view of the Eucharist that provides a useful clue to the problem of spirituality, from the ecstasies of Zwickau to those of Pentecostalism today. The surprise comes from the fact that this particular view came, not from the contestation with the
of the sixteenth century, but from a different contestation. The clue may be found in one phrase in Article 10 of the Augsburg Confession, the document that the Protestant party submitted to the Imperial Diet of 1530 and that has become the founding statement of Lutheran theology. The phrase refers to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist: Christ is present
in, with, and under
the elements of bread and wine.
The contestation here was not between Luther and Thomas Müntzer, but with both the Catholic Church and the early version of the Swiss Reformation represented by Zwingli. The Lutherans tried to position themselves between Rome and Zurich. On the one hand, there was what was popularly called the miracle of the Mass, celebrated at the altar by the priest empowered to do this by virtue of his ordination, signaled by the ringing of the little bell at the precise moment when the transubstantiation was supposed to occur. (I am not concerned here with the question of whether this miraculous understanding accurately reflected official Catholic doctrine, then or now.) On the other hand, there was the Swiss view that the Eucharist was a simple memorial, literally following Jesus words at the Last Supper, Do this in remembrance of me. (I am also not concerned here with the fact that a more complex understanding of the Eucharist developed later in the Calvinist phase of the Swiss Reformation.) The polemical intent of the phrase is clear. Christ is present
in, with, and under
the elements of bread and wine: What occurs here is neither transubstantiation nor a simple memorial”that is, neither a miracle nor a mundane event.
I think that the understanding expressed in the phrase can be usefully applied to issues other than the Eucharist: namely, to the Bible and the Church. Many Evangelicals hold that the Bible was directly inspired by God and is therefore inerrant. Catholics believe that the Church possesses divine authority bestowed by Jesus on the apostle Peter and his successors and is therefore empowered to issue infallible statements in matters of faith and morals. Not so the 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. (It is no accident, by the way, that modern critical scholarship of the Bible first flourished in Lutheran theological faculties in Germany.)
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. Gods revelation is communicated
in, with, and under
an all too fallible institution. Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession simply defines the Church as the locale where the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are offered, with no need for any further legitimations, such as apostolic succession or papal governance.)
We can now apply the same understanding to the issue of healing that is so central to the Pentecostal experience. All Christians, along with believers in other religious traditions, pray for deliverance from the perils of life, including illness. If God exists, he can do anything; he can heal my illness or that of my neighbors child. But when non-Pentecostal Christians pray for healing, they do not specifically ask God to perform a miracle”certainly not every week in a service featuring a charismatic healer or prayer group. They typically expect God to act through natural processes: the skill of the surgeon, the efficacy of medication, or just the process of remission. This is well expressed in the healing service regularly performed in many Episcopal churches, which does ask God to heal a sick individual, but leaves open the means by which God may do so and assumes no charismatic authority of the officiating priest.
Typically, however, God is expected to act without the supernatural intervention mediated by Pentecostal healing. No miracle is expected to occur. In other words,
God heals in, with, and under
natural processes. One may still be open to the possibility that God intervenes miraculously on some occasions, as Johann Christoph Blumhardt was when he felt called to perform an exorcism. But such miracles are not the result of widely diffused gifts of the spirit, are not part of regular worship, and are not proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church (or, for that matter, evidence of sainthood, as in the Catholic process of canonization).
The Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist implies a view of creation itself being a sacrament. All of nature, the world as perceived in ordinary experience and in empirical science, is sacramental”in the words of the
Book of Common Prayer
, displays outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. In one of my earlier ventures into unauthorized theologizing, I adumbrated this proposition by the phrase signals of transcendence: God, as it were, hides in the universe, but here and there we can find signs of his presence. In their understanding of the Eucharist, Lutherans used the phrase
finitum capax infiniti
”the finite can contain the infinite. The finite, perishable elements of bread and wine can, invisibly, contain the infinite, eternal presence of the risen Christ. But so can the finite, perishable reality of the empirical universe. George Forell, one of the best American interpreters of the Reformation, opined that the phrase
finitum capax infiniti
expressed the very core of Lutheran faith.
I think that the Lutheran view of creation is expressed most powerfully not in dogmatic statements but in hymnody. (The late German bishop Hanns Lilje wrote a beautiful little book about Johann Sebastian Bach with the title
Prelude to Eternity .
) Put differently: There is no need for additional miracles; the universe itself is the primary miracle. Modern physics, with its quota of astounding mysteries, seems to support this idea. In recent years the idea has been eloquently expressed in the works of the physicist John Polkinghorne, who, not so incidentally, is also an Anglican theologian.
In fidelity to the ecumenical thrust of this argument, let me refer to my favorite Catholic mystic, the medieval anchoress Julian of Norwich. In one of her showings, she reports a vision in which she saw God holding in his hand something about the size of a hazelnut. When she asks what it is, God tells her that it is all that is made. The vision implies that God not only created the world, but that its ongoing existence depends on Gods decision not to let it fall out of his hand. The relation between creator and creation is as close as my hand and an object I hold in my hand. Even if my fist is closed, I can see the outline of the hand as I look at the object it holds.
Yet the Pentecostal critics of Christians holding views like the Lutheran one accuse the latter of succumbing to the naturalism of the secular worldview by operating on the terms of the enemy: Christian philosophers operate within the conceptual framework of academic philosophy, which excludes supernatural assumptions, and Christian biblical scholars work with the methods of academic history, which exclude miracles as causal factors. Yet in a curious way, the Pentecostal worldview itself is naturalist: Nature is perceived as a closed system of causal processes, with supernatural forces intervening in this system from the outside. What is left out of this worldview is the possibility that the supernatural is already working within nature, only rarely coming into it from the outside.
It is undoubtedly correct that modern science and technology have brought about a secular discourse that brackets, even if it does not reject, supernatural definitions of reality. This is an official discourse, propagated by the educational system, the media, and the law, and it also functions as a default discourse: When in doubt, believers too fall back upon it. Even if an individual believes in the power of intercessory prayer, his first response to illness will be to call a doctor. Indeed, most Pentecostals in the contemporary world employ this naturalist discourse some of the time, while they have recourse to a supernaturalist discourse at other times. In this they are much like other religious believers. The difference for Pentecostals is in the privileged status and the routine use of this supernaturalist discourse.
Thus, if I say
to Pentecostalism, it is a friendly
”very far indeed from the anathemas Christians used to hurl at each other for even minor differences in doctrine or practice. I respect Pentecostals as fellow believers and appreciate the good they do, especially among poor and marginalized people, but there is also a properly religious reason for my favorable attitude toward Pentecostals. Whatever else I may think about many of their beliefs, they have not lost the central affirmation of the Gospel: that the coming of Christ into our world heralds a tectonic shift in the structure of reality, a cosmic event in the process of restoring the universe to the glory for which the creator intended it. In this, Pentecostals, along with the wider Evangelical community to which most of them belong, are greatly superior to mainline Protestants, many of whom have lost this cosmic dimension of the Gospel. Instead, much of mainline Protestantism has translated Christianity into three secular agendas: moralistic, therapeutic, or political. All three are profoundly distortive.
Max Weber has, correctly up to a point, ascribed to Protestantism an important role in what he called the disenchantment of the world. Much of what goes on in the world today could be called re-enchantment (or counter-secularization). Pentecostalism is a very loud version of this development. Those of us who prefer a more quiet version”if you will, the still, small voice”need not apologize.
Peter L. Berger
is senior research fellow of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston Univerity.
]]>America’s Smiling Godhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/04/americas-smiling-god
Sun, 01 Apr 2012 00:00:00 -0400 When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God
?by T. M. Luhrmann
Knopf, 464 pages, $28.95
]]>We’re Gonna Turn This Aroundhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/04/003-were-gonna-turn-this-around
Wed, 01 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0400 Richard used to put up cartoons in his bathroom. One, which stayed there for some time, showed a Viking ship arriving on a beach where people were dancing and waving in welcome. The caption read: They think that we are still sailing with Olaf the Good. Little do they know that we are now with Sven, the homicidal maniac.
I met Richard Neuhaus in New York in 1967, and I moved to Boston in 1979. The intervening years saw our most intensive interaction. We both lived in Brooklyn, about a fifteen-minute drive from each other. My wife Brigitte and our two young sons had just moved into a rather dilapidated brownstone in the Cobble Hill section, while Richard lived in Williamsburg, where he was the pastor of a predominantly black Lutheran church. Brigitte was then, as she is now, a sophisticated conversationalist as well as a superb cook; Richard came over for supper at least once a week. We spent many evenings talking about every subject under the sun, sometimes just the three of us, sometimes with other guests. We were in our thirties, the world seemed wide open, and we were quite sure that we were indeed sailing with Olaf the Good.
Our first meeting took place after Richard had called to ask me to do a book review for a small ecumenical journal,
, that he was editing. I was teaching at the New School for Social Research, he picked me up at my office there, and we had lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant, Enrico & Paglieri. It was a very long lunch. We discovered that we had both religious and political interests in common, as well as a propensity to tell many jokes. Our subsequent joint ventures spanned both religion and politics, though the latter topic was more salient for a while. The joke-telling remained a constant.
We were both opposed to the Vietnam War, though Richard was much more active in the antiwar movement. Also, we both resided in the Fourteenth Congressional District, where Richard, briefly and unsuccessfully, tried to run for Congress. In 1968 he was a delegate to the Democratic convention in Chicago and was arrested in the ensuing disorders. My family and I were spending the summer in Montauk, and Richard came directly from Chicago to stay with us, shook up by the experience. He already had behind him an impressive history in the civil rights movement (he knew Martin Luther King Jr. and had been to Selma). There was then a certain plausibility to his self-identification as a radical, while I had come to call myself a conservative. In retrospect both designations are quite dubious. But at the time they served to define our respective political stances”both our broad sympathy with some of the aims of what was called The Movement, and an increasingly critical distance from it.
Richard had been one of the founders of an antiwar group called Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. He induced me to join its national steering committee. It was in meetings of this committee that both of us (along with Michael Novak, another member) became increasingly appalled by the anti-American and quasi-Marxist direction of the group and of The Movement in general. We stated our position on this in a little book published in 1970,
Movement and Revolution
, billed as a conversation between a conservative and a radical. The book was not exactly a bestseller, but it defined our distance from the left. This was much more upsetting for Richard than for me. Some of his old friends called him a fascist, and this hurt him. In one conversation about this he characteristically shrugged off the insult with a joke: Okay. So I’ll be a fascist. But I’ll be a
One aspect of the jolliness was the journal
, which we launched at the Council on Religion and World Affairs. I think that, for the few years of its existence, it was a good publication. We had offices on the East Side of Manhattan. The editorial group usually went for lunch at a nearby restaurant, P.J. Moriarty’s, and some of the conversations there were memorable. This was before the pall was cast over social life by the dreary antismoking orthodoxy, and I’m convinced that the enveloping smoke had much to do with the liveliness of these conversations.
Brigitte and I did a lot of summer travel in those years, and Richard joined us a number of times, notably in Mexico, where for three summers I was associated with Ivan Illich’s idiosyncratic think tank in Cuernavaca. This time was intellectually important for me, as I first plunged into the whole question of modernization and development. I vividly recall those sun-filled days, with many conversations taking place on the terrace of our rented villa. Richard was a significant interlocutor for me, as I tried to orient myself on what were new topics for me (though he did not get along with Illich).
The most dramatic journey we took together was to Africa. We flew to Dakar, where we were to spend a few days together, after which he was to go on to South Africa while I was to conduct some rather nebulous research in Senegal. We arrived before dawn and were taken at breakneck speed to our hotel. I had just settled down in my room and was shaving when Richard knocked on the door and announced (in a sentence with which I teased him for years): I have bad news for you. He had a violent case of swelling in a delicate part of his anatomy.
By then we had been, at most, a couple of hours in Africa, and it seemed unlikely that a tropical disease would manifest itself that rapidly. We spent an anxious time until, some two hours later, the French-speaking manager arrived at the hotel (the night clerk spoke only Wolof, a language in which both Richard and I were lamentably inarticulate). When we finally got to see a doctor at an emergency clinic, it turned out that Richard had a quite common allergic reaction to one of the shots he had taken before the trip, and the condition was almost instantaneously cured by an injection. But our first daytime impression of Africa, early on a Sunday morning, was speeding in a taxi through the empty quasi-Parisian boulevards of Dakar toward what we thought might be a fatal diagnosis.
In 1975 Richard and I convened a remarkably ecumenical group of theologians to issue what we called the Hartford Appeal, which was a strongly worded repudiation of the political misappropriation of the gospel. This aroused considerable controversy and even provoked a countermanifesto spearheaded by Harvey Cox. Our document (which was published, with some essays by members of the group, in a volume entitled
Against the World, for the World
) was misinterpreted as simply an attack on the left; it was just as much directed against any politicization of the faith by the right.
But an overtly political publication of ours was
To Empower People
, the book published in 1977 by the American Enterprise Institute. It is still in print and has become a minor classic. It argued for the importance for public policy of what we called
”institutions standing between the individual and the large institutions of society. The concept has been influential in policy debates ever since, pretty much across the ideological spectrum.
In recent years both our political and religious paths diverged. Ironically, given our earlier self-identifications, Richard traveled politically farther than I to the right. He became a Roman Catholic, a move in which I could not join him. We remained friends. Most important, for both of us the bedrock of our lives remained the Christian faith we continued to share.
One of Richard’s most characteristic traits was his optimism. He once joked that the inscription on his tombstone should read We’re gonna turn this around yet! Come to think of it, this sentence contains the core promise of the gospel: Christ is risen!”This
been turned around!
Peter L. Berger, a member of the First Things editorial board at the journal’s founding in 1990, is director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture and professor of sociology at Boston University.
Fri, 01 Feb 2008 00:00:00 -0500 It has been more than a century since Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God. The prophecy was widely accepted as referring to an alleged fact about increasing disbelief in religion, both by those who rejoiced in it and those who deplored it. As the twentieth century proceeded, however, the alleged fact became increasingly dubious. And it is very dubious indeed as a description of our point in time at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Religion has not been declining. On the contrary, in much of the world there has been a veritable explosion of religious faith.
Ever since the Enlightenment, intellectuals of every stripe have believed that the inevitable consequence of modernity is the decline of religion. The reason was supposed to be the progress of science and its concomitant rationality, replacing the irrationality and superstition of religion. Not only Nietzsche but other seminal modern thinkers thought so”notably Marx (religion as opiate of the masses) and Freud (religion as illusion).
So did the two great figures of classical sociology. Emile Durkheim explained religion as nothing but a metaphor of social order. Max Weber believed that what he called rationalization”the increasing dominance of a scientific mindset”would destroy the magical garden of premodern worldviews. To be sure, the two had different attitudes toward this alleged insight. Durkheim, an Enlightened atheist, saw modern secularity as progress. Weber was not happy about what he saw”ostensibly the imprisonment of modern man in the iron cage of rationality. But, happily or nostalgically, both agreed on what was supposedly happening.
Not to put too fine a point on it, they were mistaken. Modernity is
intrinsically secularizing, though it has been so in particular cases (one of which, as I will argue in a moment, is very relevant for the phenomenon of secularism).
The mistake, I think, can be described as a confusion of categories: Modernity is not necessarily secularizing; it is necessarily
. Modernity is characterized by an increasing plurality, within the same society, of different beliefs, values, and worldviews. Plurality does indeed pose a challenge to all religious traditions”each one must cope with the fact that there are all these others, not just in a faraway country but right next door. This challenge, however, is
the one assumed by secularization theory.
Looked at globally, there are two particularly powerful religious explosions”resurgent Islam and dynamic evangelical Protestantism. Passionate Islamic movements are on the rise throughout the Muslim world, from the Atlantic Ocean to the China Sea, and in the Muslim diaspora in the West. The rise of evangelical Protestantism has been less noticed by intellectuals, the media, and the general public in Western countries, partly because nowhere is it associated with violence and partly because it more directly challenges the assumptions of established elite opinion: David Martin, a leading British sociologist of religion, has called it a revolution that was not supposed to happen. Yet it has spread more rapidly and over a larger geographical area than resurgent Islam. What is more, the Islamic growth has occurred mostly in populations that were already Muslim”a revitalization rather than a conversion. By contrast, evangelical Protestantism has been penetrating parts of the world in which this form of religion was hitherto unknown. And it has done so by means of mass conversions.
By far the most numerous and dynamic segment of what I am calling this evangelical diffusion has been Pentecostalism. It began almost exactly one hundred years ago in a number of locations in the United States, as small groups of people began to speak in tongues and experience miraculous healing. From its beginning, Pentecostalism was actively proselytizing, mostly in America (though there were early outposts abroad”even, curiously enough, in Sweden). But the big Pentecostal explosion began in the 1950s, especially in the developing countries, and it has been intensifying ever since. The boundaries of Pentecostalism are somewhat vague: It is a multidimensional phenomenon, with explicitly Pentecostal denominations, local Pentecostal congregations with no denominational affiliations, and Pentecostal-like eruptions within mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. If one subsumes these groups under the general heading of
, there are four hundred million of them, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.
Religious dynamism is not confined to Islam and Pentecostalism. The Catholic Church, in trouble in Europe, has been doing well in the Global South. There is a revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Orthodox Judaism has been rapidly growing in America and in Israel. Both Hinduism and Buddhism have experienced revivals, and the latter has had some successes in proselytizing in America and Europe.
Simply put: Modernity is not characterized by the absence of God but by the presence of many gods”with two exceptions to this picture of a furiously religious world. One is geographical: Western and Central Europe. The causes and present shape of what one may call Eurosecularity constitute one of the most interesting problems in the sociology of contemporary religion. The other exception is perhaps even more relevant to the question of secularization, for it is constituted by an international cultural elite, essentially a globalization of the Enlightened intelligentsia of Europe. It is everywhere a minority of the population”but a very influential one.
Secularism thus finds itself in a global context of dynamic religiosity, which means that it faces some serious challenges. We might distinguish three versions of secularism.
First, the term may refer to accepting the consequences for religion of the institutional differentiation that is a crucial feature of modernity. Social activities that were undertaken in premodern societies within a unified institutional context are now dispersed among several institutions.
The education of children, for example, used to occur within the family or tribe, but it is now handled by specialized institutions. Educational personnel, who used to be family members with no special training, must now be specially trained to undertake their task in teacher-training institutions, which in turn spout further institutions, such as state certification agencies and teachers’ unions.
Religion has gone through a comparable process of differentiation”what used to be an activity of the entire community is now organized in specialized institutions. The Christian Church, long before the advent of modernity, provided a prototype of religious specialization”the realm of Caesar separated from that of God. What modernity does is to make the differentiation much more ample and diffused.
One path for this development is the denominational system typical of American religion, with a plurality of separate religious institutions available on a free market. The American case makes clear that secularism, as an ideology that accepts the institutional specialization of religion, need not imply an antireligious animus. This moderate attitude toward religion is then expressed in a moderate understanding of the separation of church and state. The state is not hostile to religion but draws back from direct involvement in religious matters and recognizes the autonomy of religious institutions.
The second type of secularism, however, is characterized precisely by antireligious animus, at least as far as the public role of religion is concerned. The French understanding of the state originated in the anti-Christian animus of the continental Enlightenment and was politically established by the French Revolution.
This second type of secularism, with religion considered a strictly private matter, can be relatively benign, as it is in contemporary France. Religious symbols or actions are rigorously barred from political life, but privatized religion is protected by law.
The third type of secularism is anything but benign, as in the practice of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes. But what characterizes both the benign and the malevolent versions of
is that religion is evicted from public life and confined to private space. There have been tendencies in America toward a French version of secularism, located in such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union or Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. What may be called the ACLU viewpoint is pithily captured in an old Jewish joke: A man tries to enter a synagogue during the High Holidays. The usher stops the man and says that only people with reserved seats may enter. But it is a matter of life and death, says the man. I must speak to Mr. Shapiro”his wife has been taken to the hospital. All right, says the usher, you can go in.
But don’t let me catch you praying
. The punch line accurately describes the ACLU’s position on any provision of public services (from school buses to medical facilities) to faith-based institutions.
All typologies oversimplify social reality, but it is useful to think here of a spectrum of secularisms: There is the moderate version, typified by the traditional American view of church-state separation. Then there is the more radical version, typified by French
and more recently by the ACLU, in which religion is both confined to the private sphere
protected by legally enforced freedom of religion. And then there is, as in the Soviet case, a secularism that privatizes religion
seeks to repress it. Its adherents can be as fanatical as any religious fundamentalists.
All these types of secularism are being vigorously challenged. Even the moderate version of secularism, as institutionalized in an American-style separation of church and state, is being challenged by the contemporary religious movements that reject the differentiation between religious institutions and the rest of society. Their alternative is the dominance of religion over every sphere of human life.
For obvious reasons, most attention is now focused on the radical Islamic challenge. This challenge is represented by the ideal of a Shari’a state”that is, of a society in which every aspect of public and private life is subjected to Islamic law. Muslims differ as to whether this view is essential to the faith as proclaimed in the Qur’an or whether it is a later accretion that could be modified. Regardless, the call for an all-embracing Islamic state resonates strongly among contemporary Muslims. It is by no means limited to Jihadists, who want to establish such a state by violent means. Many Muslims who have no inclination toward terrorism or holy war have similar views.
Nor is such a view of religion dominating all of society peculiar to Muslims. The ideal of a Shari’a state has strong similarity with the ideal of a halakhic state propagated by some Orthodox Jewish groups in Israel. In India, the ideology of
has similar ambitions, as have powerful groups within Russian Orthodoxy calling for a monolithic unity of church and state (a phrase used recently by a high official of the Moscow Patriarchate). In all these cases, the term
In progressive circles in America, comparable ambitions are frequently attributed to evangelical Protestants and Catholics. The attribution is empirically untenable. Only a very small minority of evangelicals, in the United States and elsewhere, want to set up a Christian state.
As to the Catholic Church, the last time it sought to establish a Catholic state was when it supported the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War. Since the Second Vatican Council, such a stance is unthinkable. Indeed, as Samuel Huntington has pointed out, the Catholic Church has become an important factor in democratization, notably in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Philippines.
One must make an important distinction between movements animated by genuinely religious motives and movements where religious labels are attached to agendas that are nonreligious.
Admittedly it is difficult to decide which motives are genuinely religious and which are not. There are, however, fairly clear instances of both. A suicide bomber in the Middle East may be trusted when he says that he is doing so to witness to the greatness of God. Social scientists (most of whom are quite secular in outlook) tend to believe that religious motives are suspect, that they are used to legitimate the root causes underlying a conflict. This is a bias that fails to understand the motivating power of religious faith.
And yet there are also clear instances of religious labels stuck on agendas rooted in very material interests. One such case is the Bosnian conflict, where religious markers were attached to clashes of political and ethnic interests. As P.J. O’Rourke once put it: There are three groups in the Bosnian conflict. They look alike, and they speak the same language. They are divided only by religion, which none of them believe in. Another case is Northern Ireland. And this case is again nicely illustrated by a joke: A gunman jumps out of a doorway, holds a gun to a man’s head and asks, Are you Catholic or Protestant? Actually, says the man, I’m an atheist. Ah, yes, replies the gunman, but are you a Catholic or a Protestant atheist?
A country in which the challenge to secularism is politically prominent right now is Turkey. The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 by Atatürk, who was decidedly anti-Islamic and probably antireligious in general. He wanted to civilize Turkey, and civilization for him meant the secular culture of Europe. His political model was the French one”public life made, as it were, antiseptically free of religious symbols and behavior. Thus Atatürk proscribed the traditional fez as male headgear, insisting that Turkish men don European-style hats or caps. (This, by the way, had a very visible anti-Islamic implication: It is difficult wearing headgear with a visor in front to touch one’s forehead to the ground in the mandatory obeisance of Muslim prayer.)
This secularist ideology was firmly established in large sectors of Turkey’s society, particularly in the Kemalist political and military elite. It was dominant in urban, middle-class populations. Back in the Anatolian hinterland, a deeply Muslim culture continued to prevail, with people paying lip service to the Kemalist ideology but at the same time passively resisting it in family and community life.
In recent years, this resistance turned politically active. A series of avowedly Islamic parties entered the political process, challenging the Kemalist orthodoxy. For a while, the military intervened to stop such parties from taking power. But this has become progressively more difficult. One reason is that masses of Anatolians migrated to the urban centers, bringing their Muslim culture with them. Another is that Turkey (partly motivated by the elite’s desire to have the country admitted to the European Union) has become more democratic, and, as a result, all those unenlightened people are actually voting. And yet another reason is that some in the elite have come to doubt the old secularist orthodoxy and become lukewarm in their resistance to political Islam.
At present, an Islamist party is in power. Its leaders say they have no desire to overthrow the secular republic or to establish a Shari’a state. So far the military has not intervened, limiting itself to muttering threats. The most visible challenge from the religious side has been the insistence by many Muslim women on their right to wear the headscarf, the symbol of Islamic modesty, in public institutions”a practice still prohibited. (It is interesting how often headgear has become a flashpoint for conflict between secularists and pious Muslims”from the male fez to the
The outcome of these Turkish debates has importance far beyond Turkey. The Pahlavi regime in Iran consciously tried to emulate Atatürk’s secular state. Again there was passive resistance by a strongly religious populace. And again the latter finally attained power. But the difference between the two paths to power clearly shows that the challenge to secularism can take very different forms: In Iran, an Islamic state has been set up by revolution and is marked by an oppressive dictatorship in which the Shi’ite clergy exercise hegemony. In Turkey, the Islamic party came to power through democratic elections, and thus far (though the Kemalists continue to have dark suspicions) it has not only observed the rules of the secular state but has actually made it more democratic.
What the two cases have in common was the blindness of the Enlightened intelligentsia to see what was coming. My only visit to Iran occurred in 1976, two years before the Islamic revolution. With one exception, all the intellectuals I met were opposed to the shah, and most of them expected a revolution. None of them expected the revolution that actually occurred, however, and I never heard mention of the Ayatollah Khomeini. About the same time, my wife was lecturing in Turkey. On her way through Istanbul, she noticed green flags (symbols of Islam) flying from houses and storefronts. She asked her host (an Enlightened university professor) whether these flags signified a resurgence of Islam. Not at all, replied the professor, they are just put up by migrants from the provinces, ignorant people, who will never have much of an influence.
On a much more recent visit to Turkey, I had an experience that may serve as a metaphor for the religious challenge to secularism, not only in Turkey but everywhere: A main tourist attraction in Ankara (indeed, just about the only tourist attraction) is the mausoleum of Kemal Atatürk. It is an imposing building, on a hill from which one gets a panoramic view of the city. At the time of my visit, in the center of the city one can see only one big mosque (built quite recently by the Saudis). Thus the city center, Atatürk’s capital, was quite literally a public space cleansed of all religious symbolism. But Ankara has expanded enormously since the 1920s, and the center is ringed by a great number of newer urban areas. As far as one can see, every one of these has a mosque. Thus Islam is besieging the capital of Kemalist secularism not only politically but physically.
Two instructive additional cases of a secular elite facing a popular religious challenge are India and Israel. When India became independent in 1947”and Nehru gave his famous speech celebrating India’s tryst with destiny”the new state was explicitly defined as a secular republic. No hostility to religion, Hindu or other, was implied by that phrase. After all, Gandhi served (and still serves) as a national icon. Mainly it was to set India off against Pakistan, which became independent at the same time, defined as a state for Muslims. By contrast, India was understood as a state in which all religious communities were to feel at home”Hindus as well as Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, and Christians.
India today is still defined in its constitution as a secular republic, in the sense of neutrality with regard to all religious communities. But, as a matter of fact, India is one of the most religious countries in the world, and more than 80 percent of its population is Hindu. Inevitably, this has political repercussions. In recent decades, the Congress party, which had presided over the founding tryst, has continued to uphold the secularist ideal (which is why Muslims mostly vote for it). But the major opposition comes from a party rooted in a vigorous affirmation of Hinduism as the core of Indian civilization. And the party, now called the BJP, has periodically held power both in several states and in the Union government.
Israel is remarkably similar in its secular and religious dynamic. The state proclaimed its independence a year after India. It did identify itself as a Jewish state, but this identity in no way implied that it would be a state with Judaism as the established religion. Like India, Israel has been a democracy from its beginning, and its non-Jewish minorities of Muslims and Christians were supposed to be full citizens.
As it turned out, there have been tensions between the dual identity of Israel as a democratic and a Jewish state, especially since the acquisition of the Palestinian territories after the l967 war. It is not surprising that Arab citizens of Israel have been uncomfortable as a result of these tensions. But what is directly relevant to the present topic is that many religious Jews have been uncomfortable by the secular, religiously neutral character of the state.
For a long time the political and cultural elite was strongly secular. There is no precise equivalent to India’s BJP in Israel, but the major opposition party, the Likud, has drawn much of its strength from Jewish voters who resent the secular elite (to be sure, for many reasons, not just because of its secularity). Again not surprisingly, many Arab citizens have been voting for Labor.
Yet another instructive case is the United States. The religious challenge to secularism has been an important fact of American culture and politics for the past forty years or so. Unlike modern Turkey, India, and Israel, the American republic was not created under a secularist banner. The American Enlightenment was very different from the French, and the Founding Fathers, though some were not particularly pious Christians, were certainly not antireligious. Nor did the First Amendment have a secularist intention but rather was intended to preserve peace between the different denominations of what was then a mainly Protestant nation.
This arrangement worked very well for a long time. And the circle of tolerance has expanded steadily”from the different Protestant denominations, to Catholics and Jews, and finally to just about any religious community that does not engage in illegal or clearly outrageous behavior.
What has changed in more recent times (I suspect, beginning in the 1930s) was what could be called a Europeanization of the cultural elite. This elite was increasingly secular, and its politics became increasingly secularist (a sort of Kemalization, if you will). All along, though, the general population continued to be stubbornly religious.
This religiosity, especially in its evangelical version, was looked down on by the elite. H.L. Mencken’s contemptuous treatment of evangelicals in his writings (notably in his account of the so-called Dayton Monkey Trial) ably represented this elite perception”and still does. To be progressive came to mean secular. The United States continues, by any measure, to be the most religious society in the Western world. Sooner or later, this situation had to lead to a political clash. Just as in Turkey, India, and Israel, the nonprogressive populace was going to rebel against the elite”and it was going to use the mechanisms of democracy to do so.
There were two clear flashpoints sparking the rebellion. Both involved the Supreme Court, the least democratic of the three arms of government: the 1963 prohibition of prayer in the public schools and the 1973 prohibition of laws against abortion. And, as a result, in a curious reversal of the earlier relation to class by the two major parties, Republicans won the allegiance of the religious rebels and Democrats reflected the secularist biases of the elite. In recent elections, it turns out, degree of religious commitment”Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish”was the single best predictor of how people were going to vote.
I think the positioning of the two parties was accidental; it might just as well have been the other way around. But once the dichotomous identification became established, secularists and strongly religious voters both became important elements of the two parties. They supply the activists”the people who write checks, who volunteer in campaigns, who ring doorbells, and who address envelopes.
All this is fascinating for any social scientist trying to understand contemporary cultural and political developments. Should it matter to anyone else? The answer is yes, if one is concerned for the future of democracy in the contemporary world.
There is the general view that fundamentalism is bad for democracy because it hinders the moderation and willingness to compromise that make democracy possible. Fair enough. But it is very important to understand that there are secularist as well as religious fundamentalists”both unwilling to question their assumptions, militant, aggressive, contemptuous of anyone who differs from them. H.L. Mencken was just as much a fundamentalist as William Jennings Bryan (though Mencken was wittier). There are fundamentalists of one stripe who think that religious tyranny is around the corner if a Christmas tree is erected on public property. There are fundamentalists of the other stripe who believe that the nation is about to sink into moral anarchy if the Ten Commandments are removed from a courtroom.
In plain language, fundamentalists are fanatics. And fanatics have a built-in advantage over more moderate people:
Fanatics have nothing else to do”
they have no life beyond their cause. The rest of us have other interests: family, work, hobbies, vices. Yet we too must be militant in defense of certain core values of our civilization and our political system. It seems to me that a very important task in our time (and probably in any time) is to be militant in defense of moderation”a difficult task but not an impossible one.
]]>Remembering Ivan Illichhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2003/03/remembering-ivan-illich
Sat, 01 Mar 2003 00:00:00 -0500 Ivan Illich died in Bremen on December 2, 2002 at the age of seventy-six. As a German friend of his put it: “God gave him a beautiful death.” Illich suddenly collapsed while at work in his study and died immediately. The
New York Times
obituary noted, quite correctly, that Illich’s influence was long past. A young colleague to whom I mentioned his passing, for example, had never heard of him. But the stature of a man must not be measured by the shifting winds of fashion. At one time Illich had been an important figure in the intellectual world—no less than in my life.
]]>Whatever Happened to Sociology?https://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/10/whatever-happened-to-sociology
Tue, 01 Oct 2002 00:00:00 -0400 The title question has been asked frequently in recent years, both within and outside the field. I think that it can be answered rather easily: sociology has fallen victim to two severe deformations. The first began in the 1950s; I would label it as methodological fetishism. The second was part of the cultural revolution that started in the late 1960s; it sought to transform sociology from a science into an instrument of ideological advocacy. As a wider public became increasingly aware of these changes, sociology lost the prestigious status it once occupied in American cultural life, lost its attraction to the brightest students, and, not so incidentally, lost a lot of its funding.
I am not a disinterested observer of these developments. As a young sociologist, still full of enthusiasm for my chosen discipline, I wrote
Invitation to Sociology
. It was published in 1963, before the second deformation began and while the first one still seemed containable. The little book is still in print and still gets students interested in sociology. My own view of the discipline has not changed fundamentally since then, and I do not regret what I wrote at the time. But whenever I am asked about the book (especially by students), I have to say that the picture I painted of the discipline bears little relation to what goes on in it today. The relation is a bit like that of the Marxian utopia to what used to be called real existing socialism.
The 1950s were a sort of golden age for sociology, even as the first deformation was beginning to develop. There were three powerful academic centers from which eager young teachers fanned out across the provincial hinterlands. At Harvard there was the imposing figure of Talcott Parsons, putting together, book by book, the theoretical system known as structural functionalism and producing a growing body of active disciples. Parsons wrote terrible prose (it read like a bad translation from German), but he dealt with the big questions that had been the subject matter of sociology from its beginnings: What holds a society together? What is the relation between beliefs and institutions? How does change come about? What is modernity? At Columbia University there were two other figures, almost as impressive-Robert Merton, who taught what could be called a more moderate version of structural functionalism, and Paul Lazarsfeld, who helped develop increasingly sophisticated quantitative methods but who never forgot the big questions that these methods were supposed to help answer. And at the University of Chicago there was still the lively presence of two distinctively American traditions of sociology-the blend of sociology with social psychology, called symbolic interactionism, which began with the work of George Herbert Mead (who had taught at Chicago most of his life), and the so-called Chicago school of urban sociology, which had produced a whole library of insightful empirical studies of many aspects of American life. Columbia and Chicago also sent out their young graduates across the country and, increasingly, to foreign universities; Europeans came to study sociology in America and European sociology for a while had the character of an American missionary enterprise.
What I mean by methodological fetishism is the dominance of methods over content. In principle this could happen with any method in the human sciences; in fact the methods have been invariably quantitative. Statistics became the mother science for sociologists. Now, there can be no question but that statistical analysis has been a useful tool in many areas. We live in a society comprising millions of people and statistics is designed precisely to make sense of such a society without having to interview every one of its members. To say this, however, is a long way from assenting to the widespread implication that nothing is worth studying that cannot be analyzed quantitatively.
In order for data to be analyzed statistically, they must be produced by means of a standardized questionnaire. This means, inevitably, that people are asked to reply to a limited number of typically simple questions. Sometimes this works; sometimes it does not. Take the example of the sociology of religion. One can get useful data by asking people how often they have gone to church in the last four weeks (leave aside the fact that, as has been shown, they sometimes lie about this). But then such questionnaires try to cover beliefs as well as behavior, and there the meaning of the replies is much less clear. Even such a seemingly simple question as Do you believe in God? will be interpreted by respondents in so many different ways that their replies are hard to analyze, let alone capable of helping a researcher construct something like, say, an index of orthodoxy. This does not mean that the intentions behind these replies could not be clarified; it only means that survey research is not a good way of doing so.
The reasons for this worship of quantitative methods are probably twofold. As often happens in intellectual history, there is a mix of ideal and material factors (the sociology of knowledge is the attempt to sort out such mixes). On the level of ideas, there is the enormous prestige of the natural sciences, in which quantitative methods are indispensable, and little sociologists want to be as much as possible like their big brothers in physics. On the level of material interests, many of those who fund social research (such as government agencies) want results that are within very small margins of error and can therefore be presented as unassailably scientific arguments for this or that course of action. This too pushes toward quantitative methods. In sociology as in many other areas of endeavor, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Methodological fetishism has resulted in many sociologists using increasingly sophisticated methods to study increasingly trivial topics. It has also meant that sociological studies have become increasingly expensive. Earlier sociologists (such as those of the Chicago school) would go into a community, check into a cheap hotel, and spend the next months observing and talking to their neighbors. Latter-day sociologists, as a joke has it, need a million-dollar grant to find their way to the nearest house of ill repute. Inevitably, the big questions tend to get lost in this version of sociology. Its results can still be useful to this or that institution (say, a government agency that wants to find out how many people are making use of one of its programs, and perhaps even what those people think about it), but they are unlikely to be of interest to a wider public.
The ideologization of sociology has been even more devastating. However trivial or simplistic have been the results of methodological fetishism, at least they have been produced by objective investigations that merit the name of science. The ideologues who have been in the ascendancy for the last thirty years have deformed science into an instrument of agitation and propaganda (the Communists used to call this agitprop), invariably for causes on the left of the ideological spectrum. The core scientific principle of objectivity has been ignored in practice and denied validity in theory. Thus a large number of sociologists have become active combatants in the culture wars, almost always on one side of the battle lines. And this, of course. has alienated everyone who does not share the beliefs and values of this ideological camp.
The ideological amalgam that is transported by this propaganda campaign is, broadly speaking, of Marxist provenance. But the adherents of Marxism proper have considerably shrunk in numbers. (In the wake of the demise of real existing socialism, those who remain have a certain heroic quality, like adherents of flat-earth theory in the wake of the Copernican revolution.) The ideology is not so much Marxist as
-in its antagonism to capitalism and to bourgeois culture, in its denial of scientific objectivity, in its view of the combatant role of intellectuals, and, last but not least, in its fanaticism. In recent years this version of sociology has intoned the mantra of class, race, and gender.
The first term of the mantra is still the most visibly
, except for its substitution of the working class by other categories of alleged victims, such as, notably, the people of developing societies as described by theories of neo-imperialism. The anticapitalism of the ideology is also expressed by way of environmental concerns and, most recently, in opposition to globalization. Race and gender, of course, refer to a variety of victimological categories-racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays and lesbians (recently expanded to include transvestites and transsexuals-one wonders whether there are enough of those to make up a credible group of victims). The ideological amalgam here draws from the theorists of multiculturism and feminism. Unlike the doctrines of orthodox Marxism, some elements in the amalgam are in tension with each other. For instance, how do multiculturalists and feminists negotiate a topic like Islamic modesty? But logical inconsistency has only rarely been an obstacle to ideological dominance (the Leninists were an exception in their insistence on relentless conformity). And, as has been amply documented, this particular ideology, with its stultifying mantra, has become dominant not only in much of sociology but in many of the other human sciences. Along with methodological fetishism, this ideological propaganda has been a crucial factor in the decline of sociology, and not only in America.
I don’t want to exaggerate. Here and there one can still find sociologists doing excellent work. Since I mentioned the sociology of religion, let me refer here to the work of Nancy Ammerman, Jose Casanova, James Davison Hunter, and Robert Wuthnow. And there are still sociologists who, in one way or another, address the big questions, such as Irving Louis Horowitz and Orlando Patterson in America, or Anthony Giddens and the recently deceased Niklas Luhmann in Europe. But the contributions of these sociologists, none of whom have created anything resembling a school of thought, only serve to underline the overall depressing condition of this discipline. It would take an enormous and sustained effort to reverse this condition. I’m relieved to observe that I am both too old and too occupied elsewhere to participate in such an effort.
Sociology originated in the attempt to understand the profound transformations brought about by the processes of modernity. Its basic question, to paraphrase the question asked in the Passover ritual, was Why does this age differ from every other age? In its classical period, roughly between 1890 and 1930, sociology flourished principally in three countries-France, Germany, and the United States. In each country the basic question took somewhat different forms, due to differing intellectual and political milieus. Sociology produced such intellectual giants as Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, and powerful schools of thought derived from their work. Given the structure of modern academic life, sociology became a distinct discipline and a profession. However, one could argue that, unlike other disciplines (such as political science or economics), sociology does not concern itself with a delineated field of human life. It is a perspective rather than a field (a perspective which, incidentally, I tried to describe in
Invitation to Sociology
). This perspective (sometimes misunderstood, often correctly applied) has greatly influenced virtually all of the other social sciences as well as the humanities. Perhaps, then, sociology has fulfilled its purpose and its eventual demise should be seen as less than an intellectual catastrophe.
Peter L. Berger is Director of the recently founded Institute on Religion and World Affairs at Boston University.
]]> Two Cheers for Classhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1996/06/005-two-cheers-for-class
Sat, 01 Jun 1996 00:00:00 -0400The human sciences in America are in a state of advanced and seemingly irreversible decay. One look at the programs for the annual meetings at which the practitioners of these disciplines gather suffices to convince one of this diagnosis. There are exceptions, of course. Here and there one finds people doing honest scholarly work, but most of them are in a position of “inner emigration” within their professions.
]]> Trusting Laws, Trusting Othershttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1996/04/005-trusting-laws-trusting-others
Mon, 01 Apr 1996 00:00:00 -0500Much of social life is explained and justified with clichesthose little capsules of folk wisdom that suggest some fact of life is normal or even morally just. It could not be otherwise. If we had to figure out from scratch what each situation in our life means, we would all go crazy. The fully reflected-upon life may be a philosopher’s ideal; for most of us it would be a prescription for madness. The effectiveness of a cliche generally depends on its not being reflected upon: some cliches may survive reflectionsome folk wisdom is truly wisebut many cliches crumble as soon as one starts to think about them.
]]> At Stake in the Enlightenmenthttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1996/03/005-at-stake-in-the-enlightenment
Fri, 01 Mar 1996 00:00:00 -0500 Christian conservatives generally subscribe to two strongly held propositions: that a return to Christian values is necessary if the moral confusion of our time is to be overcome, and that the Enlightenment is to blame for much of the confusion.