Peter Berger and the Possibilities of Faith

On June 27, 2017, Peter Berger died. In its obituary, the New York Times described him as “an influential, and contrarian, Protestant theologian and sociologist who…argued that faith can indeed flourish in modern society if people learn to recognize the transcendent and supernatural in ordinary experiences” (published June 30, 2017).

Two of Berger’s books have influenced my theological reflections significantly: The Heretical Imperative, Contemporary possibilities of Religious Affirmation (1979, 1980) and Questions of Faith, A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity (2004). These two monographs are discussed in an unpublished paper I wrote in 2008, entitled “Fluid Retraditioning.” The first paragraphs and a link to the paper appear below.

 

Classically Christian and at the Same Time Liberal

As I grow older, the biblical character with whom I most closely identify is the man in the ninth chapter of Mark who blurted out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” This conflicted declaration of faith came forth when the man’s adolescent son, who suffered from a seizure syndrome, was brought to Jesus to be healed. When Jesus stated that healing depended upon faith and prayer, the father confessed his own divided heart: faith was intermingled with unfaith. His ardent hope that miracle-worker Jesus could heal his son was compromised by years of disappointment as he had watched the child’s malady grow ever more troublesome.

My conflicts concerning faith are sometimes caused by immediate experiences, but more often by a broader conflict in the mind, by the tension between classic Christian beliefs concerning God, who made the world and called all things good, and the “terror of history,” to use Mircea Eliade’s telling phrase, which is the context in which all people dwell. A second reason for my cognitive dissonance is that the classic language of faith, as used in the church’s liturgical practice, the Bible, and theological tradition, is couched in the “picture language” of heaven and earth, principalities and powers, angels and demons, mighty works and wonders. Yet the world in which my head and body live is determined by the double axis of history and science. How can I, an intelligent man of our time, affirm a vision of life that is expressed in language that is so contrary to what I know to be true?

Peter Berger, who is a credentialed sociologist and active lay theologian, expresses the challenge succinctly: it is “to have faith in the redemption of which the Bible is the principal witness, without necessarily accepting the cognitive structure within which this witness is communicated” (Questions, 113). Read more Fluid Retraditioning

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