In Praise of Peter Berger

Published August 31, 2011

The Catholic Difference

At the end of his new intellectual memoir, Adventures of an Accidental Sociology: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore (Prometheus Books), Peter L. Berger recounts a telling tale from his Viennese childhood:

…I must have been about four or five years old. For my birthday or for Christmas I was given the present of a very sophisticated electric toy train. One could control its movements through multiple tracks and tunnels across a miniature landscape. I had no interest in the mechanical wonders of this toy. Instead, I lay flat on the ground and talked with imaginary passengers on the train.

It was, the eminent sociologist notes, something he’s been doing ever since: indulging an “endless fascination with the vagaries of the human world and with the efforts to understand them.” Happily, Berger was able to indulge this curiosity through the medium of an intellectual discipline, sociology, to which he has made notable and enduring contributions. His critics aver that Berger is the kind of sociologist in whose books the only numbers are at the bottom of each page. To which I say, good for him.

From his earliest days at the New School for Social Research in New York, the then-young émigre and aspiring intellectual thought of sociology as a humanistic discipline, not an exercise in number-crunching. It was, Berger quickly became convinced, a discipline that had a lot of affinities with literature. Just as story-telling unveils aspects of the human condition that could never be probed by statistics, so could sociological analysis informed by the humanities.

In following this conviction throughout a half-century of intellectual work, Peter Berger made, and continues to make, original contributions to our understanding of ourselves, our cultures, our societies, and our ideas of How Things Are. Those contributions have most certainly included our understanding of our religious selves. Berger has been an influential analyst of secularization as a modern phenomenon, debunking the notion that modernization necessarily and inevitably leads to secularization—a claim that was once considered bedrock truth among social scientists. Modernization does pose “a deep challenge to all religious traditions and their truth claims,” he writes. But modernization does not necessarily result in the unmitigated triumph of what one of Berger’s intellectual lodestars, Max Weber, once called the “disenchantment of the world.” Belief is still possible, because one can still have faith absent pre-modern, unexamined certainties.

When Catholics were forgetting the core social ethical principle of subsidiarity, Berger and colleagues like Richard John Neuhaus explored the “mediating structures” that stand between the individual and the mega-structures of the political community and the economy—and helped change American social welfare policy in the process. When much of the rest of the intellectual world tilted left in its thinking about Third World development, Berger looked hard at the evidence and concluded that the path beyond poverty lay through robust market-based economies, even as he recognized the human costs of any serious break with traditional patterns of life. While many of his colleagues thought that modernization implied Westernization, Berger thought that there were, in fact, many modernities and that there was no one path to modernization and “take-off”: a conviction vindicated by Japan, India, and the Asian “tigers.”

And when both churchmen and social scientists dismissed evangelicalism as a pre-modern side-show of little consequence, Peter Berger rightly saw in it a distinctive response to modernity that would dramatically reshape the world religious landscape—as it manifestly has.

One happy and unexpected facet of my professional life has been that men whose books I first read in college and graduate school have become friends and colleagues. I first read Peter Berger’s splendid little book, A Rumor of Angels, when I was a college sophomore, as I read his Invitation to Sociology a year later, and more than a dozen of his books in the decades to follow. That this brilliant and endlessly entertaining man has become a friend and co-belligerent in several causes is something I count as a blessing—as I do his eminently readable intellectual autobiography.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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