His amazing treatment of faith made him a rock star among Christians. In 1966, a Viennese-born sociologist, he did some scholarly work that changed the world completely. Or more precisely, it changed the way we see and shape the world.Peter Berger became soon one of the most recognized social scientists of the last century.
On June 27, Berger passed away at his home in suburban Boston, concluding a lifetime of scholarly influence and a career that made him one of the most noticeable scholars of his generation.It was Berger’s love with religion that made him and his work so significant to evangelical Christians. He called himself an “incurable Lutheran,” and his liberal Protestant theology might have placed him at odds with many evangelical leaders 100 years ago. But the plurality of the world made him something of a rock star among Christ-following academics.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Berger’s work underscored the importance of social structures and how they come to be through human actions (what social scientists refer to as individual “agency”). Culture, he argued, is most powerful when it is taken for granted. In The Sacred Canopy (1967), Berger described how religion helped people make sense of the world by providing a “sheltering” tent under which people can make sense of life.
But with the passage of time, the “plausibility structure” of the Christian faith had begun to lose its salience for modern societies. He argued that they were experiencing something very serious toward modernization. Berger was following a long tradition within social science, going back to Max Weber’s theme of the “disenchantment” of the Western world.But Berger believed in freedom, he was brave enough to say his words before others. He witnessed the resilience of faith in places like the United States and the Global South, Berger eventually denied the linear argument about modernization that had come to be known as the “secularization hypothesis” because he was a religious person.
Once, a person convinced that secularization was impossible to prevent, Berger turned his attention to some of the most remarkable examples of resurgent religion in our time topics like global Pentecostalism and evangelical scholarship in the American academy.
To be sure, he was always more comfortable speaking as a social scientist who studied religion than as a person of faith himself. Yet anyone who spent much time with Berger over the last decade knew his increasing admiration for, and sympathy with, the convictions of conservative Christians.
For many of us who spent hours discussing Berger’s thinking in graduate seminars and laboriously through the dense paragraphs of The Social Construction of Reality (the prose of which was as exciting as the book’s title), having this intellectual luminary interested in our branch of Christianity was a vote of confidence.