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Appendix II | A Sociological Approach to Theism

It was not until the text of the present work was completed that there came into my hands the short but original and, in my judgment, very significant book of Dr Peter L. Berger A Rumour of Angels, written in 1968, published in the United States of America in 1969 and in England in 1970. His approach is very different from that which I have adopted, but I have more than once emphasised that mine is not the only valid approach and the two, though different, are quite consistent with each other. Its special importance arises from the fact that Dr Berger is professionally not a theologian or a philosopher but a sociologist with a special interest in religion. Furthermore, unlike most sociologists who have studied religion, he is not merely interested in religion as a social phenomenon but as something of vital concern in itself. ‘I think’, he writes, ‘that religion is of very great importance at any time and of particular importance in our own time. If theologising means simply any systematic reflection about religion, then it would seem plausible to regard it as too important to leave to the theological experts. Ergo, one must stick out one's neck. This implies impertinence as well as modesty. To try at all may well be impertinent. This should make it all the clearer that the effort is tentative and the result unfinished’ (pp. 10f).

Berger thus belongs to that honourable body of persons, of whom C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Mr Sherwin White and Mr Harry Blamires are notable examples, who, while highly distinguished in their own expertise, have devoted a great deal of thought to matters of religion. And, like those I have just mentioned, he comes, in spite of his modest disclaimer, to conclusions much more positive than those of many of the professional theologians. This does not mean that his arguments are any less convincing than theirs.

His opening chapter is entitled ‘The Alleged Demise of the Supernatural’ and it opens with the assertion that ‘if commentators on the contemporary situation of religion agree about anything, it is that the supernatural has departed from the modern world. This departure’, he continues, ‘may be stated in such dramatic formulations as “God is dead” or “the post-Christian era”.’ (p. 13). He instances the pronouncement of Dr Thomas Altizer that ‘we must realise that the death of God is an historical event, that God has died in our cosmos, in our history, in our Existenz; and he remarks that’ the departure of the supernatural has been received in a variety of moods—with prophetic anger, in deep sorrow, with gleeful triumph, or simply as an emotionally unprovocative fact’ (ibid.). Unlike many writers, however, Berger immediately enquires how much evidence there is for this alleged demise of the supernatural and he points out that the answer hinges on what may be called the secularisation theory of modern culture, the term ‘secularisation’ referring not to what has happened to social institutions but to processes within the human mind, that is, a secularisation of consciousness. And here, he tells us, ‘the empirical evidence is not very satisfactory’ (p. 16), since sociologists, even those professing the ‘sociology of religion’, have regarded religion almost exclusively in terms of the traditional religious institutions. In this realm he admits that there has been a progressive decline, in Europe at least, while in America the increase in church-membership figures has been accompanied by very much altered motives for participation. (Had he written two years later he might have sensed an impending numerical decline in America as well.) And, while stressing the need for more plentiful and precise evidence, he concedes that, ‘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’ (p. 18). Thus, those to whom the supernatural is a meaningful reality form a cognitive minority, a group whose view of the world differs significantly from that of society in general; a group formed around a body of deviant ‘knowledge’. (‘Knowledge’, we are warned, is here used in the sociologists’ sense of what is taken to be true or believed to be true regardless of whether it is true in fact.) Such a cognitive minority, it is pointed out, will always find itself under very considerable social and psychological pressures; it is thus not surprising that a profound theological crisis exists today. ‘The theologian like every other human being exists in a social milieu… 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’ (p. 21). Berger very perceptively describes the way in which, since the First World War, this impact of secularisation has affected Protestant, Catholic and also Jewish communities and goes on to say that one's predictions of the future will depend on one's understanding of the process in the past. He admits that we must always be ready for surprises but judges that a reversal of the secularising movement is unlikely. Thus for the ‘cognitive minority’ there is the choice between hanging on to or surrendering its ‘cognitive deviance’.

Berger develops a very interesting discussion of the options that are open to religious groups in this situation. ‘Cognitive deviance’, he shows, runs into considerable difficulties of ‘social engineering’ and is complicated, in the case of the major Christian groups, by a profound aversion to sectarian forms and to the mentality of the ghetto. The opposite attitude—that of ‘cognitive surrender’—involves an almost unreserved concession to the ‘Weltanschauung of modern man’. ‘Modernity is swallowed hook, line and sinker, and the repast is accompanied by a sense of awe worthy of holy communion’ (p. 34). And Berger adds that at the moment ‘the feast lacketh not in attendance’. The intellectual task involved in this is that of translation of traditional religious terms into those appropriate to the frame of reference that conforms to the modern Weltanschauung, and it is remarked that there is striking disagreement about the grammar that is to be employed. Existentialism, Jungian psychology, linguistic philosophy and popular sociology have all been brought into service. Nevertheless, ‘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’ (p. 35).

Berger mildly remarks that ‘these procedures require a good deal of intellectual contortionism’, but, he adds, ‘the major sociological difficulty, however, lies elsewhere’. Many benefits are offered:

The lay recipient of these blessings will be either a happier person (his existential anxieties assuaged or his archetypal needs fulfilled) or a more effective citizen (usually this means a bigger and better political liberal), or perhaps both. The trouble is that these benefits are also available under strictly secular labels.… Why should one buy psychotherapy or racial liberalism in a ‘Christian’ package, when the same commodities are available under purely secular and for that very reason even more modernistic labels?… In other words, the theological surrender to the alleged demise of the supernatural defeats itself in precisely the measure of its success [ibid.].

Berger goes on realistically to point out that neither of these extreme solutions is likely as regards the larger religious groups. Rather there will take place some kind of compromise, ‘a bargaining process with modern thought, a surrender of some traditional (which here equals supernatural) items while others are kept’ (p. 36). And he sees this as the classical pattern of Protestant theological liberalism; it has the unfortunate result that, once the cognitive antagonist has been admitted within the theological gates, it is hard to see where the process will stop. There is the added disadvantage that, in the modern world, adaptations can very quickly become out of date. Dr Harvey Cox's celebration of the advent of modern urbanisation in 1965 in his book The Secular City is instanced as having lost some of its glamour in the present American urban predicament. Berger sees little hope for theological compromise at the present day.

The obvious alternatives of the avowedly unreligious systems are not, however, seen as much more hopeful. ‘They fail… in interpreting and thus in making bearable the extremes of human suffering.…

The Marxist case is instructive. The Marxist theory of history does, indeed, provide a kind of theodicy: all things will be made whole in the post-revolutionary Utopia. This can be quite comforting to an individual facing death on the barricades. Such a death is meaningful in terms of the theory. But the wisdom of Marxism is unlikely to afford much comfort to an individual facing a cancer operation. The death he faces is strictly meaningless within this (and, indeed, any) frame of reference of theodicy slanted toward this world [p. 41].

Berger adds that ‘these remarks are not, at this point, intended as an argument for the truth of religion. Perhaps the truth is comfortless and without ultimate meaning for human hope.’ He is still speaking simply as a sociologist. But, as a sociologist, he feels constrained to stress that ‘sociologically speaking,… the stoicism that can embrace this kind of truth is rare. Most people, it seems, want a greater comfort, and so far it has been religious theodicies that have provided it’ (ibid.). His conclusion therefore is that

There are therefore some grounds for thinking that, at the very least, pockets of supernaturalist religion are likely to survive in the larger society. As far as the religious communities are concerned, we may expect a revulsion against the more grotesque extremes of self-liquidation of the supernaturalist traditions. It is a fairly reasonable prognosis that in a ‘surprise-free’ world the global trend of secularisation will continue. An impressive rediscovery of the supernatural, in the dimensions of a mass phenomenon, is not in the books. At the same time, significant enclaves of supernaturalism within the secularised culture will also continue.… The large religious bodies are likely to continue their tenuous quest for a middle ground between traditionalism and aggiornamento, with both sectarianism and secularising dissolution nibbling away at the edges [pp. 41f].

‘This is not a dramatic picture’, Berger adds, ‘but it is more likely than the prophetic visions of either the end of religion or a coming age of resurrected Gods’ (ibid.).

It is important to remember that this is a purely rational judgment, made from the detached standpoint of a sociologist, and it prescinds altogether from questions of the truth or falsehood of religious beliefs. Nevertheless it is instructive to contrast it with the very different judgments of the secularising theologians, who, it must be recalled, profess to base their conclusions on an equally detached and unsupernaturalistic foundation. A theist may perhaps envisage the possibility of a more widely religious future, for he will be prepared for God to do unexpected things, and he will remember that the sociologist very properly made his prophecies on the presupposition of a ‘surprise-free world’, that is ‘a world in which present trends continue to unfold without the intrusion of totally new and unexpected factors’ (p. 30).

So much, then, for Berger's assessment of the religious situation. In his second chapter, entitled ‘The Perspective of Sociology: Relativising the Relativisers’, he begins to get to grips with the real problem. He maintains that at the present day it is from the side of sociology that the authenticity of religious belief is challenged.

Sociology is simply the most recent in a series of scientific disciplines that have profoundly challenged theology. The physical sciences were probably first in the line of attack, and it is they that first occur to most people when a scientific challenge to theology is mentioned.… The revolution in biology during the nineteenth century further aggravated the challenge. If Copernicus dethroned man cosmologically, Darwin dethroned him even more painfully biologically.… Contrary to the popular assumptions, I would, however, argue that the physical sciences’ challenge to the theology have been relatively mild.… The challenges of the human sciences, on the other hand, have been more critical, more dangerous to the essence of the theological enterprise.… Put simply, historical scholarship led to a perspective in which even the most sacrosanct elements of religious traditions came to be seen as human products. Psychology deepened this challenge, because it suggested that the production could be not only seen but explained…

I, for one, take the claims of history more seriously than those of psychology. Be this as it may, the challenge of sociology can be seen as a further intensification of the crisis [pp. 45–7].

As instances of this Berger gives the studies by Gabriel LeBras of Catholic practice in France and of studies of the outlook and beliefs of religious congregations in the United States. The latter have often led to the discovery that ‘what many in [the minister's] congregation mean by religion has very little relationship to what he means or to the denominational tradition to which the congregation claims allegiance’ and that ‘his own role is understood by members of the congregation in a way that is diametrically opposed to his self-understanding’ (p. 49). A more profound dimension in the sociological challenge is, however, asserted to come from that department of sociology called ‘the sociology of knowledge’, which began in the 1920s and was made accessible to English-reading people in the writings of Karl Mannheim. One of its basic theses is that we derive our views of reality from other persons and that their continued plausibility depends upon others continuing to affirm them. ‘When we get to the more sophisticated of these conceptions, there are likely to be organised practices designed to still doubts and prevent lapses of conviction. These practices are called therapies. There are also likely to be more or less systematised explanations, justifications, and theories in support of the conceptions in question. These, sociologists have called legitimations’ (pp. 50f). The inference is then drawn that the beliefs which a man has about the nature of reality (and this, of course, includes his religious beliefs) depend almost entirely on the plausibility structures with which he is surrounded. What, then, is the consequence once this is recognised?

The mystery of faith now becomes scientifically graspable, practically repeatable, and generally applicable. The magic disappears as the mechanisms of plausibility generation and plausibility maintenance become transparent. The community of faith is now understandable as a constructed entity—it has been constructed in a specific human history, by human beings. Conversely, it can be dismantled or reconstructed by use of the same mechanisms.… In other words, the theologian's world has become one world among many—a generalisation of the problem of relativity that goes considerably beyond the dimensions of the problem as previously posed by historical scholarship. To put it simply: history posits the problem of relativity as a fact, the sociology of knowledge as a necessity of our condition [pp. 54f].

Sociology, Berger tells us, is thus the debunking discipline par excellence, but as far as theology is concerned he claims that there are unexpected redeeming features. ‘One cannot throw a sop to the dragon of relativity and then go about one's business as usual, although Max Scheler, the founder of sociology of knowledge, tried to do just that’ (p. 55). In the theological realm he discerns a similar tendency in those theologians who have drawn a distinction between ‘religion’, which is vulnerable to all the attacks of relativism, and ‘Christian faith’, which is somehow immune from them. This gambit, exemplified both by Karl Barth and by the Bultmannite school with the distinction between Historie and Geschichte or between ‘profane’ and ‘salvation history’, Berger sees as quite inadequate: ‘it curiously repeats the old Galvinist doctrine of election—you don't get there unless you start from there’ (p. 56). His own reply to the relativisers is very different. It is that, if you adopt the relativising principle, you must see it through to the end, and that when you do this ‘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 cannot avoid the question any more than we can return to the innocence of its pre-relativising asking’ (p. 57).

Berger illustrates the point by reference to recent ‘radical’ or ‘secular’ theology, which translates the Christian tradition into terms supposedly consonant with the alleged modern consciousness. He instances Bultmann's programme of demythologising, ‘which begins with the premise that no one who uses electricity and listens to the radio can any longer believe in the miracle world of the New Testament, and ends by translating key elements of the Christian tradition into the categories of existentialism’ (ibid.); other theologians, he remarks, prefer linguistic philosophy or Jungian psychology to existentialism. What they are doing in fact, though they do not recognise its illegitimacy, is to apply the socio-historical weapon to the beliefs of the past while keeping the beliefs of the present (their own beliefs) immune from it. This, says Berger, is really rather funny but it will not do, since the beliefs of the present-day radical theologians are just as much socially conditioned as those of the New Testament writers.

It may be conceded that there is in the modern world a certain type of consciousness that has difficulties with the supernatural. The statement remains, however, on the level of socio-historical diagnosis. The diagnosed condition is not thereupon elevated to the status of an absolute criterion; the contemporary situation is not immune to relativising analysis.… 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 [p. 59].

Berger, thus, does not deny the socially conditioned character of all beliefs and indeed he goes on to emphasise the problems that it raises in a pluralistic society such as our own, in which the individual man or woman may find his life divided between two or more communities which have different criteria of plausibility. Nevertheless, he alleges,

the perspective of sociology, particularly of the sociology of knowledge, can have a definitely liberating effect. While other analytic disciplines free us from the dead weight of the past, sociology frees us from the dead weight of the present. Once we grasp our own situation in sociological terms, it ceases to impress us as an inexorable fate.… The perspective of sociology increases our ability to investigate whatever truth each age may have discovered in its particular ‘immediacy to God’ [pp. 62f].

Berger passes on from this to suggest that ‘what could be in the making here is a gigantic joke on Feuerbach’, with his view of religion as a gigantic projection of man's own being and his programme of reducing theology to anthropology. Berger holds in fact that a case could be made out for the view that the whole historical-psychological-sociological analysis of religious phenomena, including the procedures of Marx and Freud, is a vast elaboration of this procedure. He does not contemplate abandoning his sociological approach; quite the opposite. But he holds that both the human and the divine perspective can coexist, each in its own frame of reference. ‘What appears as a human projection in one may appear as a reflection of divine realities in another’ (p. 64). But he insists that ‘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’ (p. 65). It is with this conviction that, in the third chapter of his book, he develops his theme that, ‘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 (p. 65). However, before examining his application of this principle, I would raise a further consideration of importance which he appears to have entirely overlooked.

Berger has very convincingly argued that, if the secularisers and relativisers claim the right to apply the criterion of the sociology of knowledge to the beliefs of traditional supernaturalist believers, they cannot, if they are consistent, refuse to allow those criteria to be applied to their own desupernaturalised views: what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. And he holds furthermore that this leaves the question of truth and falsehood unaffected and indeed sets it in a clearer light, since it is one thing to ask how a belief originated and is maintained, and another thing to ask whether it is true. I am, however, surprised to see that he never raises the question whether the diagnostic method of the sociology of knowledge ought not to be applied to the sociology of knowledge itself and what would be the consequences if it were. I do not think they would necessarily be destructive, provided it were firmly kept in mind that the question of origin and the question of truth are distinct; if the question of origin were held to supersede or to invalidate the question of truth it would have that same suicidal and self-destructive character which infects all types of scepticism. But it is, as I have said, surprising that in relativising the relativisers he has overlooked the fact that sociologists can be relativisers too. What is sauce for the goose is not only sauce for the gander; it is also sauce for the cook.

All that has been said up to the present has been in the nature of prolegomena. Berger's own statement of what one might describe as anthropological arguments for theism comes in his third chapter, which has as its title ‘Theological Possibilities: Starting with Man’. If anthropology is understood in the broadest sense, he tells us, any kind of theology will have to include an anthropological dimension, as indeed has always been the case. ‘The real question, then, is not so much whether theology relates to anthropology—it can hardly help doing so—but what kind of relation there will be’ (p. 66). Berger recognises that the neo-orthodoxy of the Barthian school, in its violent reaction from the shallow and Utopian optimism of bourgeois liberal theology, denied that there were any inductive possibilities from anthropology to theology and held that any valid anthropology must be theologically deduced, but points out that, within the neo-orthodox movement itself, such dissidents as Emil Brunner tried to find some Anknüpsfungspunkt—some point of contact—between God's revelation and the human situation. It was, however, the ‘lostness’ and misery of the human condition that, logically enough, received the main stress. In Berger's own words: ‘The worse the picture of man, the greater the chance to make credible (anknüpfen) the claims of revelation. The gloomy anthropology of existentialism was amply suited to this purpose’ (p. 68).

Later, particularly in America, the more pessimistic versions of Freudian anthropology were added. Thus concepts such as despair, Angst, ‘thrown-ness’ became stock-in-trade terms of neoorthodox theologians. 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 [p. 68].

The reaction to this reaction came with the celebration of secularity in such books as John Robinson's Honest to God and Harvey Cox's The Secular City. ‘Logically enough, notions such as “autonomy”, “man come of age”, and even “democratic humanism” came to be substituted for the earlier expressions of existential anguish’ (p. 69). Berger himself suggests that his own sociological approach, outlined in the earlier chapters of his book, may provide a way out from this oscillatory sequence of what he aptly describes as ‘mood theologies’. He repudiates the notion of relevance and up-dating and holds that an anthropological approach may provide something rather more permanent. His programme is the seeking within the empirically given human situation for signals of transcendence which may be constituted by certain prototypical human gestures. Thus his approach has at least this in common with classical natural theology that it looks within the natural order for characteristics that indicate the dependence of the natural order upon a transcendent reality. It differs from it, however, in looking for these characteristics not in the finite realm as a whole but in one particular member, man. Berger tells us that he is not using ‘transcendence’ in a technical philosophical sense (I take it that he means the sense which it has, for example, in Kantian and similar systems) but ‘literally, as the transcending of the normal, everyday world that [he] earlier identified with the notion of the “supernatural”’ (p. 70). He explicitly excludes the Jungian ‘archetypes’, whose locus is the unconscious, and insists that his own concern is with what belongs to ordinary everyday awareness. And within this ordinary awareness he claims to discern five characteristics which have a transcendent reference. He bases on each a separate argument.

The first of these is the argument from order. Throughout human history, Berger points out, men have believed that the human ordering of society corresponds to an underlying order of the universe. Man's propensity for order is grounded in a faith that ultimately reality is ‘in order’, ‘all right’, ‘as it should be’. He takes as typical the way in which a mother will comfort her startled child with the assurance that ‘everything is all right’, and he puts the blunt question: is the mother lying to the child? If the answer is ‘no’, there is at least some truth in the religious interpretation of human existence. ‘The world that the child is being told to trust is the same world in which he will eventually die. If there is no other world, then the ultimate truth about this one is that eventually it will kill the child as it will kill his mother’ (p. 74). It is, of course, possible to analyse religion on Freudian lines as a projection of the experience of parental love, but, Berger argues, ‘what is projected is… itself a reflection, an imitation of ultimate reality’ (p. 75).

The second argument is the argument from play. Play, Berger tells us, constructs a joyful enclave within the ‘serious’ world of everyday life and within the chronology of the latter: ‘in joyful play it appears as if one were stepping not only from one chronology into another, but from time into eternity’ (p. 77). It can be justified only if there is an ‘eternal’, a ‘supernatural’ realm, to which it points.

Thirdly, there is the argument from hope. Berger remarks that a number of theologians, influenced by the Marxist Ernst Bloch, have taken up the theme of hope in their dialogue with Marxism; he mentions Karl Rahner among Catholics and Jürgen Moltmann and Wolf hart Pannenberg among Protestants. For Marxists, man's unconquerable propensity to hope for the future is related to their hope of transforming this world for human betterment; for Berger the most significant aspect of hope is its exercise in the face of death. ‘The profoundest manifestations of hope are to be found in gestures of courage undertaken in defiance of death.… These phenomena are signals of transcendence, pointers towards a religious interpretation of the human situation’ (pp. 80f).

Psychologists tell us (correctly no doubt) that, though we may fear our own death, we cannot really imagine it.… Yet it is precisely in the face of the death of others, and especially of others that we love, that our rejection of death asserts itself most loudly.… 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 [p. 81].

In all these three arguments Berger is at pains to stress that nothing like an unanswerable demonstration is involved; he sees the affirmation of a transcendent order as exemplifying what he describes as ‘inductive faith’, which he explains as follows:

Since the term ‘inductive faith’ will appear a number of times, its meaning should be classified. I use induction to mean any process of thought that begins with experience. Deduction is the reverse process; it begins with ideas that precede experience. By ‘inductive faith’, then, I mean a religious process of thought that begins with facts of human experience; conversely ‘deductive faith’ begins with certain assumptions (notably assumptions about divine revelation) that cannot be tested by experience. Put simply, inductive faith moves from human experience to statements about God, deductive faith from statements about God to interpretations of human experience [pp. 75f].

Inductive faith, then, is the affirmation that these acts and experiences in which man, from within the finite empirical realm, instinctively reaches out to something beyond and above that transcends it are not devoid of a genuine object. Thus, Berger writes, in relation to hope, that ‘the argument from hope follows the logical direction of induction from what is empirically given. It starts from experience but takes seriously those implications or intentions within experience that transcend it— and takes them, once again, as signals of transcendent reality’ (p. 83). He sums up as follows:

This reinterpretation of our experience encompasses rather than contradicts the various explanations of empirical reason (be they psychological, sociological or what-have-you). Religion in justifying this reinterpretation, is the ultimate vindication of hope and courage, just as it is the ultimate vindication of childhood and joy. By the same token, religion vindicates the gestures in which hope and courage are embodied in human action—including, given certain conditions, the gestures of revolutionary hope and, in the ultimate irony of redemption, the courage of stoic resignation [p. 84].

Here we would seem to have a particular application, related as closely as possible to our most deeply felt experiences, of the Thomist principle that it is impossible for a natural desire to remain unfulfilled.1

Berger's fourth argument is named by him 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 offence as well as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions’ (p. 84). He takes as examples the cases of Nazi war criminals such as Eichmann and he alleges that, whatever may be said about the conditioning of our moral judgments by our cultural and social background, it seems impossible for us to admit that in cases of this kind our sense of disgust is purely relative and has no transcendental significance. ‘These are deeds that demand not only condemnation, but damnation in the full religious meaning of the word—that is, the doer not only puts himself outside the community of men; he also separates himself in a final way from a moral order that transcends the human community, and thus invokes a retribution that is more than human’ (p. 87). This is seen as a counterpart to the argument from hope. ‘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’ (p. 88). Nothing is said as to whether forgiveness is possible for even the most atrocious sins, but I think the answer would have to be given that forgiveness could come from no merely human source. If it is not merely human decencies that have been violated but the transcendent superhuman order, it is only from that transcendent order that forgiveness could be granted. Berger does not, however, discuss the possibility of atonement; he is, however, quite clear about the necessity of hell.

We give the condemnation [he writes] the status of a necessary and universal truth. But, as sociological analysis shows more clearly than any other, this truth, while empirically given in our situation as men, cannot be empirically demonstrated to be either necessary or universal. We are, then, faced with a quite simple alternative: either we deny that there is here anything that can be called truth—a choice that would make us deny what we experience most profoundly as our own being; or we must look beyond the realm of our ‘natural’ experience for a validation of our certainty [pp. 86f].

In other words, sociology is not enough; not enough, that is, to account for the deepest convictions of our experience.

Berger's final argument is of a very different kind; it is the argument from humour. He remarks that ‘a good deal has been written about the phenomenon of humour, much of it in a very humourless vein’ (p. 89). He admits the common assertion of Freud and Bergson that the comic is fundamentally discrepancy, incongruity, incommensurability. But he goes on to ask what is the nature of the incongruous objects, and he replies that it is only human situations that can be comic. ‘The biological as such is not comic. Animals become comic only when we view them anthropomorphically.… Within the human sphere, just about any discrepancy can strike us as funny’ (ibid.). However, he goes on beyond this to assert that ‘there is one fundamental discrepancy from which other comic discrepancies are derived—the discrepancy between man and universe.… The comic reflects the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world’ (p. 90). And this accounts for the very close relation between comedy and tragedy. Thus, ‘the comic is an objective dimension of man's reality, not just a subjective or psychological reaction to that reality’ (ibid.). Furthermore the fact that man can laugh at a comic situation even in the most tragic conditions—Berger cites an example from a Nazi concentration camp—indicates an ingrained assumption that the tragedy is not final and can be overcome. This provides yet another signal of transcendence, in this case in the form of an intimation of redemption.

Thus, like St Thomas Aquinas, Berger has constructed five ways to belief in the transcendent, though they are very different from those of the Angelic Doctor. He adds that the list is by no means exhaustive. He excuses his omission of any consideration of specifically religious experience on the ground that, without any depreciation of efforts to study it and understand it, his own method has been to examine the projector rather than the projections and to give his attention to empirical data about man; indeed to data that can be found within the experiences of everybody in his ordinary daily life. Finally, Berger makes two emphatic disclaimers. ‘My procedure’, he writes, ‘does not presuppose a static “human nature”, somehow outside history. Neither does it presuppose a theory of historical “evolution” or “progress”’ (p. 93). He speaks drastically about the way in which secularisation has ignored what he calls the ‘night-side’ of human existence. ‘The treatment of death in modern society, especially in America, is the sharpest manifestation of this. Much more generally, modern society has not only sealed up the old metaphysical questions in practice, but (especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries) has generated philosophical positions that deny the meaningfulness of these questions’ (p. 95). ‘The denial of metaphysics’, he concludes, ‘may here be identified with the triumph of triviality.… A philosophical anthropology worthy of the name will have to regain… a metaphysical dimension’ (p. 96).

At this point Berger's argument is virtually complete. I am very conscious that, in spite of the ample quotations which I have made from his text, I have given a somewhat bald impression of his exposition. This is inevitable, since his book is short and compressed and it needs to be read in full if one is to get a really adequate understanding of his thesis. His last two chapters (IV: ‘Theological Possibilities: Confronting the Traditions’; V: ‘Concluding Remarks—A Rumour of Angels’) are devoted to setting his position in its proper location in the contemporary theological scene. Here I find myself for the first time definitely parting company with him. While repeating his repudiation of the ‘trivialities’ of recent ‘radical’ theology, he claims that he is not proposing a theological programme of conservative restoration and that the natural affinities of his outlook are with theological liberalism, especially with that movement of Protestant liberal theology that began with Schleiermacher. The reason he gives for this is that conservative theology tends to deduce from the tradition, while liberal theology tends to induce from generally accessible experience. This seems to me to be an oversimplification, for it is perfectly possible for a theological system to be deductive in some of its parts and aspects and to be inductive in others; indeed, the traditional distinction between revealed and natural theology assumes just such a duality. It seems clear that Berger understands conservative theology simply on the model of Barthian neo-orthodoxy and altogether overlooks the existence of a third position, which is characteristic of Thomism in particular but of other schools of both Catholic and Protestant theology as well. Thus, while he recognises that a genuine experience of God is to be found outside the formal boundaries of the Christian community, he feels bound to deny the uniqueness of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Some attention to the writings of such Catholic thinkers as Dr R. C. Zaehner and Dom Bede Griffiths and to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, especially the Declaration on the Non-Christian Religions, shows that no incompatibility need be assumed. Nevertheless, Berger's main argument is of real importance, since he shows that an examination of human existence from the standpoint of such a very down-to-earth and empirical discipline as sociology shows that human life as such contains indications of a transcendent order and aspirations towards it which need to be taken very seriously. From one point of view Berger's argument contrasts significantly with the equally empirically based argument of Dr A. Boyce Gibson in his book Theism and Empiricism.2 For Boyce Gibson discerns ‘fringes’ of the supernatural extending into the natural order, while Berger sees the natural order, in its highest representative, man, as extending itself towards the supernatural. There is, however, no ultimate contradiction. It is perhaps a limitation in Berger's argument that he devotes little attention to the character of the supernatural itself, though the implications would seem to be that it is personal and benevolent. From the standpoint which I have adopted this does not much matter. As I see it, the function of natural theology is to locate precisely the point or points at which the natural empirical order impinges upon the transcendent and supernatural and opens towards it. In the text of the present work I have located that point in the dual character of reality and contingency inherent in the finite as such. Dr Berger has located it in certain intuitions of, and aspirations towards, the supernatural which are characteristic of the empirical existence of human beings. Once the point has been located (Berger might not agree with me here), once the crack has been discerned, the work of natural theology is in principle performed; we can insert the knife and open up the passage later. What is really important is to understand that the natural order is not just closed in upon itself.

  • 1.

    S.c.G., III, li; Comp. Theol., I, civ; cf. S. Th., I, xxi, 1c.

  • 2.

    Cf. Appendix I supra.