📙 A Rumor of Angels
Author: Peter L. Berger
Full Title: A Rumor of Angels
Instead, let us look at the ordinary world, which some philosophers have called the Lebenswelt, or “life-world,” within which we carry on our “normal” activities in collaboration with other men. This is the arena of most of our projects in life, whose reality is strongest and thus the most “natural” in our consciousness. This, in the words of the social philosopher Alfred Schutz, is “the world of daily life which the wide-awake, grown-up man who acts in it and upon it amidst his fellow-man experiences within the natural attitude as a reality.” It is to this domain of taken-for-granted, “natural” experience (not necessarily to “nNature in the sense of, say, the eighteenth-century rationalists) that religion posits a “Supernatural” reality.
Someone once remarked that most present-day Anglo-American philosophers have the same conception of reality as that held by a slightly drowsy, middle-aged businessman right after lunch.
Whatever the situation may have been in the past, today the Supernatural as a meaningful reality is absent or remote from the horizons of everyday life of large numbers, very probably of the majority, of people in modern societies, who seem to manage to get along without it quite well. This means that those to whom the Supernatural is still, or again, a meaningful reality find themselves in the status of a minority, more precisely, a cognitive minority—a very important consequence with very far-reaching implications.
By a cognitive minority I mean a group of people whose view of the world differs significantly from the one generally taken for granted in their society. Put differently, a cognitive minority is a group formed around a body of deviant “knowledge.”
The theologian more and more resembles a witch doctor stranded among logical positivists—or, of course, a logical positivist stranded among witch doctors. Willy-nilly he is exposed to the exorcisms of his cognitive antagonists. Sooner or later these exorcisms will have their effect in undermining the old certainties in his own mind.
There continue to be religious and theological milieux in which the crisis is, at the most, dimly sensed as an external threat in the distance. In other milieux the crisis is beginning to be felt, but is “still on its way.” In yet other milieux the crisis is in full eruption as a threat deep inside the fabric of religious practice, faith, and thought. And in some places it is as if the believer or theologian were standing in a landscape of smoldering ruins.
Increasingly, Protestant theology has oriented itself by changing coteries of “cultured despisers” of religion, that is, by shifting groups of secularized intellectuals whose respect it solicited and whose cognitive presuppositions it accepted as binding. In other words, Protestant theologians have been increasingly engaged in playing a game whose rules have been dictated by their cognitive antagonists.
More or less intact milieux of Protestant conservatism still exist, of course. These are typically located on the fringes of urban, middle-class society. They are like besieged fortresses, and their mood tends toward a militancy that only superficially covers an underlying sense of panic.
The theological novelties that have dominated the Protestant scene in the last two decades all seem basically to take up where the older liberalism left off. This is certainly, and in these cases biographically, the case with Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. Tillich understood the task of theology as one of “correlation,” by which he meant the intellectual adjustment of the Christian tradition with philosophical truth. Bultmann proposed a program of what he called “demythologization,” a restatement of the biblical message in language free from the supernaturalist notions of ancient man.
The Catholic situation is different, at least in part because Catholicism has viewed the modern world with much more suspicion from the beginning and, as a result, has managed to keep up its cognitive defenses against Modernity more effectively and until a much more recent date.
Throughout the nineteenth century, while Protestant liberalism carried on its great love affair with the spirit of the age, the basic temper of Catholicism can be described as a magnificent defiance.
As we have seen, the crisis is refracted in different ways through the several prisms of religious traditions, but no tradition within the orbit of modern Western societies is exempt from it.
Sometimes the larger society may be so unattractive that the sectarian underworld has an appeal over and beyond its particular message.
Whatever the differences in method, the result is very similar in all these cases: The Supernatural elements of the religious traditions are more or less completely liquidated, and the traditional language is transferred from other-worldly to this-worldly referents. The traditional lore, and in most cases the religious institution in charge of this lore as well, can then be presented as still or again “relevant” to modern man.
Dean Inge once remarked that a man who marries the spirit of the age soon finds himself a widower.
The organization of our cultural life creates a fragility. Relevance and timeliness are defined for the society at large, primarily by the media of mass communication. These are afflicted with an incurable hunger for novelty.
Intellectuals are notoriously haunted by boredom (they like to call this “alienation” nowadays). Our intellectual maharajas are no exception, if only because they mainly talk to each other. There is no telling what outlandish religiosity, even one dripping with savage Supernaturalism, may yet arise in these groups, which will once more leave our theologian where he started, on the outside of the cocktail party, looking in.
There is scattered evidence that secularization may not be as all-embracing as some have thought, that the Supernatural, banished from cognitive respectability by the intellectual authorities, may survive in hidden nooks and crannies of the culture.
It is a fairly reasonable prognosis that in a “surprise-free” world the global trend of secularization will continue. An impressive rediscovery of the Supernatural, in the dimensions of a mass phenomenon, is not in the books.
We can be moved to ecstasy by Shakespeare, and the Elizabethans could be so moved by Aeschylus, but it is very doubtful that the ecstatic insights of Balzac or Dostoyevsky could have been grasped in the sixteenth century. Conversely, modern Western man appears to have practically lost the capacity to comprehend, let alone to replicate, the ecstatic condition that the practices of various religious cults provided for their members throughout most of previous human history.
joke, if anything, is on us. In that case, it is a grim joke. There is really nothing very funny about finding oneself stranded, alone, in a remote corner of a universe bereft of human meaning—nor about the idea that this fate is the outcome of the mindless massacre that Darwin, rather euphemistically, called natural selection.
Contrary to the popular assumptions, I would, however, argue that the physical sciences’ challenges to the theology have been relatively mild.
Put simply, historical scholarship led to a perspective in which even the most sacrosanct elements of religious tradition came to be seen as human products.
Thus history and psychology together plunged theology into a veritable vortex of relativizations. The resulting crisis in credibility has engulfed the theological enterprise in toto, not merely this or that detail of interpretation.
The sociology of knowledge, a subdiscipline of sociology that began in Germany in the 1920s and was made familiar to English-speaking sociologists through the writings of Karl Mannheim, is concerned with studying the relationship between human thought and the social conditions under which it occurs.
One of the fundamental propositions of the sociology of knowledge is that the plausibility, in the sense of what people actually find credible, of views of reality depends upon the social support these receive.
If my purpose here were to upset theologians, this point could be elaborated at great length. Since my purpose is to comfort them, I will simply hope that the point has been made sufficiently clear, that enough has been said to justify the suspicion that sociology is the dismal science par excellence of our time, an intrinsically debunking discipline that should be most congenial to nihilists, cynics, and other fit subjects for police surveillance.
When everything has been subsumed under the relativizing categories in question (those of history, of the sociology of knowledge, or what-have-you), the question of truth reasserts itself in almost pristine simplicity. Once we know that all human affirmations are subject to scientifically graspable socio-historical processes, which affirmations are true and which are false?
We may agree, say, that contemporary consciousness is incapable of conceiving of either angels or demons. We are still left with the question of whether, possibly, both angels and demons go on existing despite this incapacity of our contemporaries to conceive of them.
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.
It is relatively easy, sociologically speaking, to be a Catholic in a social situation where one can readily limit one’s significant others to fellow Catholics, where indeed one has little Choice in the matter, and where all the major institutional forces are geared to support and confirm a Catholic world.
The pluralistic situation not only allows the individual a Choice, it forces him to choose. By the same token, it makes religious certainty very hard to come by.
Once we grasp our own situation in sociological terms, it ceases to impress us as an inexorable fate.
A good case could be made that not only Marx’s and Freud’s treatment of religion, but the entire historical-psychological-sociological analysis of religious phenomena since Feuerbach has been primarily a vast elaboration of the same conception and the same procedure.
A mathematician can be totally isolated from any contact with nature and still go on about his business of constructing mathematical universes, which spring from his mind as pure creations of human intellect. Yet the most astounding result of modern natural science is the reiterated discovery (quite apart from this or that mathematical formulation of natural processes) that nature, too, is in its essence a fabric of mathematical relations.
The theological decision will have to be that, “in, with, and under” the immense array of human projections, there are indicators of a reality that is truly “other” and that the religious imagination of man ultimately reflects.
If the religious projections of man correspond to a reality that is superhuman and Supernatural, then it seems logical to look for traces of this reality in the projector himself.
For a while it seemed that the necessary counterpoint of the Christian proclamation was an anthropology of desperation—man, the object of the proclamation, was a murderous, incestuous figure, sunk in utter misery, without any hope except the hope of grace offered by God’s revelation.
The suggestion that theological thought revert to an anthropological starting point is motivated by the belief that such an anchorage in fundamental human experience might offer some protection against the constantly changing winds of cultural moods.
By signals of transcendence I mean phenomena that are to be found within the domain of our “natural” reality but that appear to point beyond that reality.
By prototypical human gestures I mean certain reiterated acts and experiences that appear to express essential aspects of man’s being, of the human animal as such.
One fundamental human trait, which is of crucial importance in understanding man’s religious enterprise, is his propensity for order.
This is the human faith in order as such, a faith closely related to man’s fundamental trust in reality.
In this fundamental sense, every ordering gesture is a signal of transcendence.
She will take the child and cradle him in the timeless gesture of the Magna Mater who became our Madonna. She will turn on a lamp, perhaps, which will encircle the scene with a warm glow of reassuring light. She will speak or sing to the child, and the content of this communication will invariably be the same—“Don’t be afraid—everything is in order, everything is all right.”
To become a parent is to take on the role of world-builder and world-protector.
The role that a parent takes on represents not only the order of this or that society, but order as such, the underlying order of the universe that it makes sense to trust.
In the observable human propensity to order reality there is an intrinsic impulse to give cosmic scope to this order, an impulse that implies not only that human order in some way corresponds to an order that transcends it, but that this transcendent order is of such a character that man can trust himself and his destiny to it.
Thus man’s ordering propensity implies a transcendent order, and each ordering gesture is a signal of this transcendence. The parental role is not based on a loving lie. On the contrary, it is a witness to the Ultimate Truth of man’s situation in reality.
Joy is play’s intention. When this intention is actually realized, in joyful play, the time structure of the playful universe takes on a very specific quality—namely, it becomes eternity.
The logic of the argument from play is very similar to that of the argument from order. The experience of joyful play is not something that must be sought on some mystical margin of existence. It can be readily found in the reality of ordinary life. Yet within this experienced reality it constitutes a signal of transcendence, because its intrinsic intention points beyond itself and beyond man’s “nature” to a “Supernatural” justification.
Another essential element of the human situation is hope, and there is an argument from hope within the same logic of inductive faith.
It would seem, then, that both psychologically (in the failure to imagine his own death) and morally (in his violent denial of the death of others) a “no!” to death is profoundly rooted in the very being of man.
It is tempting to think here of a kind of Cartesian reduction, in which one finally arrives at a root fact of consciousness that says “no!” to death and “yes!” to hope.
A somewhat different sort of reasoning is involved in what I will call the argument from damnation. This refers to experiences in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the offense as well as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions.
Just as religion vindicates the gesture of protective reassurance, even when it is performed in the face of death, so it also vindicates the ultimate condemnation of the countergesture of inhumanity, precisely because religion provides a context for damnation.
Finally, there is an argument from humor.
The comic reflects the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world. This is why, as has been pointed out over and over since classical antiquity, comedy and tragedy are at root closely related.
Power is ultimately an illusion because it cannot transcend the limits of the empirical world. Laughter can—and does every time it relativizes the seemingly rocklike necessities of this world.
Let us return once more to the juxtaposition of the “natural” and the “Supernatural,” as these terms were used earlier. I maintain that there is a dichotomy in the human situation between a middle ground, which is the realm of ordinary, everyday life in society, and various marginal realms in which the taken-for-granted assumptions of the former realm are threatened or put in question.
Human life has always had a day-side and a night-side, and, inevitably, because of the practical requirements of man’s being in the world, it has always been the day-side that has received the strongest “accent of reality.” But the night-side, even if exorcised, was rarely denied. One of the most astonishing consequences of secularization has been just this denial. Modern society has banished the night from consciousness, as far as this is possible.
Conservative theology, however rational it may be in its method, tends to deduce from the tradition. Liberal theology, however much it may emphasize the necessity of faith, tends to induce from generally accessible experience.
It seems rather a waste of time to spend, say, five years working out a position, only to find that it has already been done by a Syrian monk in the fifth century. The very least that a knowledge of religious traditions has to offer is a catalogue of heresies for possible home use.
Ecumenical consciousness should be more than a response to practical necessities or an accommodation to intercultural good manners as practiced in the United Nations delegates’ lounge. It is not a question of becoming sophisticated about or polite to people who, say, worship cows or are worried about swatting flies. It is a question of seriously attempting an inductive approach to the theological enterprise.
The search for signals of transcendence within human experience will hardly be able to afford to overlook such data as derive from, for instance, the creations of Bach or Mozart, of Gothic cathedral builders, or of Chagall, Hölderlin, or Blake (to mention names at random). As yet, we can barely conceive of the procedures by which this particular confrontation might be realized.
“Dialogue” can be an alibi for charlatanism, in which everybody talks to everybody and nobody has anything to say. The so-called dynamics of communication can never be a substitute for the hard labor of intellectual effort.
The fundamental religious impulse is not to theorize about transcendence but to worship it.
The practice may take different forms (conceivably political forms as well), but one form that will inevitably reappear, because of the intrinsic nature of man’s religion, is worship. It is in worship that the prototypical gesture of religion is realized again and again. This is the gesture in which man reaches out in hope toward transcendence.
Mysticism, broadly speaking, is any religious practice or doctrine that asserts the ultimate unity of man and the divine.
The God of the biblical tradition is the polar antithesis of the great identity proclaimed by the mystics, and of any possible variation on this theme.
We must begin in the situation in which we find ourselves, but we must not submit to it as to an irresistible tyranny. If the signals of transcendence have become rumors in our time, then we can set out to explore these rumors—and perhaps to follow them up to their source.
A rediscovery of the Supernatural will be, above all, a regaining of openness in our perception of reality.
The principal moral benefit of religion is that it permits a confrontation with the age in which one lives in a perspective that transcends the age and thus puts it in proportion.
Instead, let us look at the ordinary world, which some philosophers have called the Lebenswelt, or “life-world,” within which we carry on our “normal” activities in collaboration with other men. This is the arena of most of our projects in life, whose reality is strongest and thus the most “natural” in our consciousness.
It is to this domain of taken-for-granted, “natural” experience (not necessarily to “Nature” in the sense of, say, the eighteenth-century rationalists) that religion posits a “Supernatural” reality.
Very probably slightly drowsy, middle-aged tribal warriors and ancient Greeks held very similar conceptions right after their lunches.
We are, whether we like it or not, in a situation in which transcendence has been reduced to a rumor.
In openness to the signals of transcendence the true proportions of our experience are rediscovered.
In the observable human propensity to order reality there is an intrinsic impulse to give cosmic scope to this order [...] *
— Peter Berger, 📙 A Rumor of Angels
I am reminded of the book 📙 A Rumor of Angels. Its author, Peter Berger, is a sociologist and a founding figure of the concept “social construction.” He is attuned to how “the plausibility […] of views of reality depends upon the social support these receive.” This book is an attempt to conceive of the supernatural within our world where religion can no longer be taken for granted in the choiceless premodern way.