Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Rumor of Angels by Peter L. Berger

A Rumor of Angels Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural by Peter L Berger reminds me of the classic cartoon:

The book has nothing to do with angels. He has some interesting insights and some contradictory foolishness bound up the same volume. He critiques modernist critiques of religion, and notices the contradiction in the sociologist’s presumption that his reference frame is the pinnacle of knowledge.

He takes a whack at explaining why one finds so much detachment in the modern viewpoint. The disciplined detachment of someone trying to analyze impartially is difficult and rare; he sees a more culturally driven detachment:

As I have tried to show, world view remain firmly anchored in subjective certainty to the degree that they are supported by consistent and continuous plausibility structures. In the case of optimal consistency and continuity they attain the character of unquestioned and unquestionable certitudes. Societies vary greatly in their capacity to provide such firm plausibility structures. As a general rule of thumb, one can say that the capacity steadily diminishes as one gets closer to modern industrial societies. A primitive tribe does much better than an ancient city. The latter, however, is still far better equipped to produce certitudes than our own social formations. Modern societies are, by their very nature, highly differentiated and segmented, while at the same time allowing for a high degree of communication between their segmented subsocieties.

The reasons for this, while complex, are not at all mysterious. They result from the division of labor brought about by industrial forms of production, and from the patterns of settlement, social stratification, and communications engendered by industrialism. The individual experiences these patterns in terms of differentiated and segmented processes of socialization, which in most cases begin in early childhood. As he grows older he finds he must play many different roles, sometimes quite discrepant ones, and must segregate some of these roles from each other, since they are not all equally appropriate to the different parts of his social life. And, as a result of all this, he comes to maintain an inner detachment or distance with regard to some of these roles—that is, he plays some of them tongue in cheek. … If he identifies his “real” self with his family, he will “only superficially” conform to the mores of his contemporaries; if, as is more likely, he more fully identifies with the latter, he will “only play along” with his family. In either case there will be some roles that are performed tongue in cheek, “insincerely,” “superficially”—that is, with inner detachment.

Most individuals in primitive or archaic societies lived in social institutions (such as tribe, clan, or even polis) that embraced just about all the significant relationships they had with other people. The modern individual exists in a plurality of worlds, migrating back and forth between competing and often contradictory plausibility structures, each of which is weakened by the simple fact of its involuntary coexistence with other plausibility structures. In addition to the reality-confirming significant others, there are always and everywhere “those others,” annoying discomfirmers, disbelievers—perhaps the modern nuisance par excellence.

And there are some nice snippets: “Intellectuals are notoriously haunted by boredom (they call this “alienation” nowadays).” “The denial of metaphysics may here be identified with the triumph of triviality.” “Dialogue can be an alibi for charlatanism, in which everybody talks to everybody and nobody has anything to say.”

The most interesting chapter is the third, in which he looks for signs of the transcendent in human behavior—not in the ecstatics and mystics, but in the common humanity. The first is the belief in order, as exemplified in a mother comforting her child who has had a nightmare. “It’s all right.” You may say that this isn’t true—the world isn’t all right—but this is a universal testimony that we act as though, in the end, it is. In play we make new rules, transcending the here and now, with the goal of joy. Though the guns may shake the building, people still find ways to play. Hope is another universal—even when everything seems to be coming to an end (including one’s own life), we are still oriented to the future—and a better future. Someone who is, for a time, hopeless, is someone we feel sorry for. He invokes damnation rather than justice to avoid the extensive complications of the latter concept—the testimony being that there are some things that, no matter what the excuse, are without excuse, and for which no punishment seems adequate. In a purely materialist universe there can be no such thing—in affirming it we deny that the universe is only matter. And, of course, we have humor; our reaction to discrepancy, and in his view most dramatically our discrepancy with the universe.

Berger wrote that this was an incomplete selection. If I may quote Chesterton, in The Secret of the Train:

"Excuse me, sir," said the stoker, "but I think, perhaps--well, perhaps you ought to know-- there's a dead man in this train."
. . . . .
Had I been a true artist, a person of exquisite susceptibilities and nothing else, I should have been bound, no doubt, to be finally overwhelmed with this sensational touch, and to have insisted on getting out and walking. As it was, I regret to say, I expressed myself politely, but firmly, to the effect that I didn't care particularly if the train took me to Paddington. But when the train had started with its unknown burden I did do one thing, and do it quite instinctively, without stopping to think, or to think more than a flash. I threw away my cigar. Something that is as old as man and has to do with all mourning and ceremonial told me to do it. There was something unnecessarily horrible, it seemed to me, in the idea of there being only two men in that train, and one of them dead and the other smoking a cigar. And as the red and gold of the butt end of it faded like a funeral torch trampled out at some symbolic moment of a procession, I realised how immortal ritual is. I realised (what is the origin and essence of all ritual) that in the presence of those sacred riddles about which we can say nothing it is more decent merely to do something. And I realised that ritual will always mean throwing away something; DESTROYING our corn or wine upon the altar of our gods.

Unfortunately, Berger’s plan involves a kind of ecumenical analysis which, though he professed to admire the incarnational aspects of Christian life, explicitly denies any incarnational aspect to Christ himself. He, in the same deference to modern sociology that he mocks earlier in the book, expects to reject testimony about revelation in a religion based on revelation, and still find important truth in the residuum.

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