A Fractured Gift to God

“The color of water is that of its container.” — Al-Junayd (14th c. Sufi)

Photo: Luca Baggio, Unsplash

Our ability to both experience and examine religion is the cause of both inspiration and disillusionment. Entering college in the early Seventies, I wavered between a major in English or a double major of Religion and Communication, with a minor in Sociology. I had a vague notion that communication studies and sociology would fit together well, and it wouldn’t hurt to know how people acted in groups. I have a wariness of crowds and crowd behavior, and I thought knowing more about it might give me some insights into religion and help me as a writer.

I knew I wasn’t made in the pastor mold, but I couldn’t shake religion. It fascinated, irritated, and inspired me—and still does—and I wanted to know why it was there and how it worked. My tradition regarded religion as something handed down to us and recommended by God—acting as our loving Father—rather in the way that implicit suggestions from your father are actually veiled commands. Even then, I had a half-formed view that religion ran the other way—from the downside up—that it was a human construct that appeared in all times and in all places. I wondered why.

The English Department chair, a personal friend, talked me out of majoring in English. “If you love books,” he said, “the process of dissecting them might not be for you.” In the event, I stayed with Religion and Communication, and kept my interest in sociology strictly amateur.

A complete neophyte, I started with Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, and then jumped to C. Wright Mills and Erving Goffman, with an ongoing trek through Gustave LeBon’s, The Crowd. But for the most part, my mentor in this has been Peter Berger, an Austrian-born American professor, one of the premier sociologists of our time, and a Protestant theologian. He spent a good share of his life (1929-2017) working over ideas in the sociology of religion that could be understood by laypeople in books such as A Far Glory, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies, A Rumor of Angels, The Heretical Imperative, and In Praise of Doubt.

His most famous work was The Social Construction of Reality, written with Thomas Luckmann, in which they examined how society builds up the layers of what it terms “reality.” “Society,” says Berger, “not only controls our movements, but shapes our identity, our thought and our emotions.”1

Berger’s book, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, helped me understand how religion could be a human construct, while not excluding the possibility that this longing pointed to a transcendent being we call God. Or as Berger put it, “the projected meanings may have an ultimate status independent of man.”2

In graduate school I read Ludwig Feuerbach, who reduced theology to anthropology—God as a proportionate magnification of our own fathers. Berger casually offered up the idea that “man projects ultimate meanings into reality because that reality is, indeed, ultimately meaningful, and because his own being . . . Contains and intends these same ultimate meanings.”3 Anthropology, then, could be reconstructed as theology. Berger playfully called this “an intellectual man-bites-dog feat,” and begged off pursuing it further while wanting “to at least suggest the possibility to the theologian.”4

Every society, says Berger, is in the business of world-building. Religion is a part of that. We make our societies and, in turn, our societies mold us. This is not a contradiction, says Berger, it is rather how this dialectical process works. We find ourselves in an open world, one that must be fashioned by our own activity. It does not come to us as an Ikea kit, ready for assembly with one simple tool. We must establish a relationship to the world, and because we are finite and tend to slip on the one banana peel within range of our feet, that relationship has a built-in instability. We are always out of balance with ourselves and with our world, and so we constantly strive for the ultimate while living the penultimate. As Tillich warned, we often substitute the penultimate for the ultimate.

What we produce is culture, something that has to be continuously produced, repaired, maintained, and reproduced. Religion is a part of culture and that tremendously complicates life for any person of faith. As Berger notes rather drily, “suffice it to say that, while it is necessary that worlds be built, it is quite difficult to keep them going.”5

To put this spiritually, we yearn for ultimate meaning and that yearning picks up the faint signals of the memory of Jesus, God-become-human, transmitted to us by the Holy Spirit. As incomplete and as wobbly as we are, if we listen to our deeper self that self is straining to hear the music and the rhythm of God, despite the booms, tweets, whistles, pops, and thuds from the culture around us.

Somewhere, C. S. Lewis encourages us in the face of our frustrations with the forms and outcomes of our religions. Standing for the hymn during Evensong, he winces at the braying of an old woman next to him, but clings to the notion that God rejoices to hear such praise offered up.

Religion is the locus of some of the most heinous acts of human beings, but it also gives us humans at their most sublime. If we regard it not as something handed down to us by God and subsequently bent out of all recognition, but rather as our fractured, misshapen, but well-intentioned gift to a loving and bemused God, we’ll all be better off.

***

Berger led me, via his footnotes and bibliography, to Georg Simmel, who was born in Berlin in 1858 and spent most of his professional life there lecturing at the University of Berlin.

Although Simmel was a sociologist, his interests and influence spanned ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, and intellectual history—in addition to blazing new trails in sociology. He refused to stay rigidly within his discipline, however, and as a result was viciously excluded by his colleagues in philosophy and the social sciences at Berlin, although he counted as friends such luminaries as Max Weber, Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, Martin Buber, Albert Schweitzer, and Ernst Troeltsch.

An expressed anti-Semitism and a bias against sociology kept Simmel from getting a regular faculty appointment for most of his career. It probably didn’t help that he was extraordinarily original in his thinking and did not quote his predecessors or contemporaries.6 He was less interested in creating a full-blown system of thought as he was in following his interests where they led him for the intellectual and practical cultivation of individuals.

Although his publishing career was haphazard, he wrote over two dozen books and more than two hundred articles. He was considered one of the most brilliant lecturers of his generation, and he constantly led his students to think for themselves, rather than to push forward a narrow set of his own thoughts at the expense of discussion. He was a multi-disciplinary adjunct teacher, who cared more for his students than for scholarly advancement, God bless him.

I keep dropping in on him from time to time because he always stimulates thought. And since I’m not constrained either to master his sprawling fields of interest nor to fit them all into a system, I feel free to take what interests me at the moment and come back later for more.

He describes the difference between the young person and the old in an essay entitled “The Adventurer.” Comparing an adventure to the danger and attraction of love, Simmel says the decisive point is that an adventure is “a form of experiencing. The content of the experience does not make the adventure (author’s emphasis).”7 He goes on to say that the color, ardor, and zest for life which we bring to love decisively transform a mere experience into an adventure.

Attitude and perspective make all the difference. “Such a principle of accentuation,” says Simmel, “is alien to old age. In general, only youth knows this predominance of the processes of life over its substance; whereas in old age, when the process begins to slow up and coagulate . . . it then proceeds . . . in a certain timeless manner, indifferent to the tempo and passion of its being experienced.”8

Lord preserve us from such rigor mortis.

There is the world “out there” and there are the worlds we carry inside us. Each shapes the other, each one influences us in ways we may feel more than understand. There are days when, as Christian Wiman says, I can wake up a believer and go to bed an atheist. On those days a certain distance toward religion may be an act of self-preservation. A sociological perspective which regards religion as a human construct offered up to God restores our equilibrium and good humor on those grey days when our adventure of faith slows, coagulates, and loses its passion.

Here, we draw inspiration so we may exhale religion as adventure, one that both entices and extends us, even as we are both immersed in it and observe it from a distance, a kind of wave and particle theory of divine and human interaction.

  1. Berger, Peter. Invitation to Sociology. New York: Random House, 1963, p. 121.
  2. Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Random House, 1967, p. 180.
  3. Berger, 180.
  4. Berger, 181.
  5. Berger, 6.
  6. Simmel, Georg. On Individuality and Social Forms. Edited and with an Introduction by Donald N. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971, p. X.
  7. Simmel, Georg. “The Adventurer,” in On Individuality and Social Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971, p. 197.
  8. Simmel, 198.

The Faith of a Heretic

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In the matter of religion, as indeed in other areas of human life and thought . . . the modern individual is faced not just with the opportunity but with the necessity to make choices as to his beliefs. This fact constitutes the heretical imperative in the contemporary situation. —Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative

The English word ‘heresy’ comes from a Greek verb, hairein, which meant ‘to choose.’ Hairesis, then, simply meant ‘to make a choice.’

To be a heretic is to be a person who makes choices.

Within the Christian tradition, however, it holds a much more negative meaning. The apostle Paul warns in Galatians 5:20 against those who engage in a ‘party spirit’ (hairesis)—akin to partisan politics, but not to be confused with a keg-draining frat party. Those with a party spirit divide and fracture the community. In the theological and legal history of the early Christian church heretics were identified as those who promoted deviant views over against the authority and teachings of the Church. To be tagged with the term meant to carry a target on one’s back, to suffer denunciation, a quick trial, and sometimes a grisly death. In his The Heretical Imperative , sociologist of religion Peter Berger writes of heresy with straight-faced understatement: “Its etymology remains sharply illuminating.”

One of the major themes that Berger explored throughout his long career as a sociologist of religion who was also a practicing Christian, was the impact that modernity has had on religion and people of faith—not just in Christianity, but in all major religions.

In a premodern society religion had the quality of objective certainty for most people. The society supported this certainty and enforced it, to a degree, by making it difficult to question the social structures that undergirded its reality. Modern society, in contrast, undermines that certainty by collapsing the assumptions that allow us to take our social reality for granted. It relativizes knowledge and subjectivizes religion.

“If the typical condition of premodern man is one of religious certainty,” says Berger, “it follows that that of modern man is one of religious doubt.” If the background of premodern people was this religious consensus, then that authoritative consensus for modern society has vanished. Heresy—choosing a different religious path—was a rarity in societies in which the questions were settled, the religious and political authority was secure, and the penalties for deviance were dire. Yet, it’s very difficult to follow a consensus that is no longer available. “In other words,” says Berger, “individuals now must pick and choose. Having done so, it is very difficult to forget the fact.”

Berger makes the point that the orthodox person defines him or herself as living within a tradition. Traditions, by their very nature, are taken for granted, but this state of taken-for-grantedness is no longer possible in today’s society. “Every tradition consists of frozen memories,” says Berger, “And every questioning of tradition is likely to lead to an effort at unfreezing the memories.” The unfreezing of memories means that every generation questions why the tradition exists and where it came from. On the principle, however vaguely sensed in one’s life, that we cannot inherit our grandparent’s religion, we question in order to understand. It’s a natural and essential process. Through the asking of questions and the testing of traditions we may come full circle back to our starting point, but now we know what we believe and who we put our trust in.

Where the social and religious consensus breaks down, pluralism rises. Modernity opens up choices and narrows down what was considered destiny. In any given city across America, the religious traveler has a choice to attend the services of not only most of the major world religions but also scores of Christian denominations and sects. American religion is a buffet of choices.

But beyond the choices to be made between religions, there are choices to be made within a religion. It’s interesting how ‘heresy’ transmogrified from ‘choice’ to anathema—as if the true disciple would never ask questions, never see differences, never compare, and never step over the lines drawn by authority. In fact, faith requires choice, otherwise, it would not be faith but a cramped and reluctant obedience to authority. When the integrity of religious authority collapses, the inward turning to reflection on one’s religious experience is both inevitable and necessary for one’s faith. That is, after all, where the exhortation to develop a “personal relationship with Christ” will lead.

Christ asks for our free choice in faith. The rich young ruler is dismayed because he must choose between identifying with his wealth or following Jesus. The man born blind chooses Jesus over his rigid tradition—and risks the sullen plotting of the religious authorities in retaliation.

What we call heresy may be viewed as making a choice out of what was previously thought to be closed, over and done with. Faith, then, is the continual act of choosing the way we should go. There is less certainty here. But while modernity alienates and isolates us from each other, we are saying that community can be found with others who also choose. Because we are social beings and because we make our ethical and moral decisions to a great extent according to what is affirmed by our communities, we need each other. Because our worship is both solitary and communal our fellowship of faith is a fellowship of heretics, people who continue to make their choices every day about Jesus as they live within the world. To be faithful is to exercise choice and thus to be a heretic.

Berger gives us three ways that people live within their religions. The first is what he calls the deductive approach, familiar to orthodoxy, in which we go on believing as if nothing had changed in the world. The behaviors are prescribed according to law, the rewards are contractually-based, and knowledge of traditions and rules is paramount. Certainty is high because our unquestioning trust is in religious authorities.

At the other extreme is the reductionist approach, typical of liberal theology, in which accommodation to the secularizing force of society is almost total. Religion is reduced to a political agenda and there is little sense of a personal religious experience. Jesus is seen as the great ethicist and the New Testament a compendium of motifs of justice and responses to the oppression of others. What makes religion palatable to a secular person, then, is its emphasis on psychological, political, and ethical analyses of our current unjust society.

Berger’s choice is the third option, the inductive approach, in which we turn from external authorities, both religious and political, and from tradition, to our own experience of God. This is the heretical imperative in which our faith is constantly making choices and our trust in Christ is the experience that lifts us daily. It is not an easy path and uncertainty is high because we are not following well-worn paths of tradition nor are we simply swept along with the crowd. We reason, we “test the spirits,” we recall that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” we revel in Scripture and in the many avenues to the Spirit that we find. We pray and we decide; we seek in order to realize our foundness.

There is much that is good in tradition and the assurance it bears. Tradition gives us stability and it reminds us of the mountains and valleys in the experiences of our forebears; it can be a bright line of consistency when everything else is murky and chaotic. But it may too easily slide from authority into authoritarianism and from guidance into coercion. It substitutes response to God with reaction to religious power.

We must be clear that other people’s experience of God, crystallized into tradition and dogma, will never be enough for those of us on the road to Emmaus. We need to see Christ’s hands for ourselves.

The heresy that is faithfulness relies on thinking for oneself, praying for guidance, looking to counsel from those we trust, and finally, choosing our path. It is a path of humility; there is no glory to be gained in side-stepping religious authority that is exercised just to keep one in line.

In the original sense of the word, we may all aspire to be heretics, people who choose daily, with eyes wide open, to follow Christ.

Photo: Thomas Young, Unsplash.com