9/28/2005

Peter Berger's 'Heretical Imperative'

OK, I’ve finished Peter Berger’s Heretical Imperative, and though he makes some great points, it was generally unsatisfying. Probably because he reduces ‘religion’ to ‘belief’ and sees conflicting or untenable beliefs as the crux of modern religious ‘heresy’. This shouldn’t be too shocking from a person writing out of a Protestant milieu, but it’s a bit of a disappointment nonetheless.
     I was also disappointed in his description of the three ways for modern religion to engage modernity – what he calls the deductive, reductive, and inductive approaches. Respectively, and in a nutshell, the possibilities are reaffirming authority of tradition in defiance of challenges to it, secularizing tradition, and retrieving the experienced embodied in the tradition. I think there’s a fourth and even a fifth approach, and that there are crucial divisions within the approaches he outlines.
     He looks to 20th Century Protestantism as the original religious confrontation with modernity. He missed out on some great 19th century religious thinkers and responders to modernity, both Jewish and Catholic.
     Finally, I was kind of disturbed by his likening of the Protestant faith to the ‘Suffering Servant’ of Isaiah 53 for its willingness to be the first to confront religious dilemmas. Speaking as a Jew, I find it insulting that he suggests that the Protestants who were sitting in their seminaries in Germany working out responses to modern religious crises while Jews were being slaughtered by the millions are somehow ‘Suffering Servants’. Those poor theologians.
     In any event, any ‘overview’ book will be oversimplified, and he certainly provides some context for evaluating modern religious thought. For example, in his chapter on the deductive possibility, he describes the religious attitude of Karl Barth at length. I had never been exposed to Barth, so I couldn’t have known the degree to which R’ Y. B. Soloveitchik employs Barth’s religious categories.
     There are a number of great observations and ideas that Berger suggests, and some great one-liners, too. Here goes:
  • On his venture from sociology to theology (xiii): What the “professional theologians” have done of late is not so inspiring that we unaccredited types must feel constrained to stand watching in awed silence.

  • On man’s ability to transcend his situation(8): There are a thousand dull conformists for every Socrates…Of course modern man tends to think of himself and of his thoughts as the climax of evolution to date. In this he is no different from just about any preceding variety of the species.

  • Plurality of alternatives is the core of the modern experience. If there are no option, then what is can be interpreted as what must be; in the modern condition, there’s less and less of what must be. Fate becomes choice. Destiny becomes decision.

  • Religion begins as religious experience, which is not equally distributed. Therefore, the experience must become embodied by traditions, and by doing so brings the experience which braches ordinary life into ordinary life, which tends to distort. His predicament is that of the poet amongst bureaucrats.

  • A fundamental distinction must be made between religious experience itself, and later reflection upon and attempts to understand that religious experience.

  • On the danger of overcontextualizing and psychologizing religious experience (p.123): The final point is not that Marco Polo was an Italian – and, who knows, an Italian with all sorts of class resentments and with an unresolved Oedipus complex – but that he visited China.
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