Peter Berger, a Lutheran in the ELCA, is an important sociologist of religion. Back in the 1970s, he was one of the scholars who advocated the “secularization” thesis, that as societies grew more modern, they grew less religious. But now he says that he was wrong. Today, as societies in Asia, Latin America, and Africa are modernizing, they are becoming MORE religious. Berger says that what modernity brings is not secularism but religious pluralism. He says that what we face today is not “God is dead,” but “too many gods.” [Read more…]
Once again I see on the LCMS website in the “View from Here” feature an article I wrote a long time ago, I think for Lutheran Witness. It takes up what has been called “the scandal of particularity”; that is, the claim that there is only one way that leads to Heaven, the person and work of Jesus Christ. Why aren’t other religions equally valid? How can we credibly hold to Christ as the only way to Heaven in our current climate of religious pluralism? And, as if that isn’t a difficult enough problem, I throw in the question of how a just God could condemn someone for not being a Christian. Reading the piece long after I have forgotten what I said, I found myself approaching it like any other reader and, in an odd way, learning from myself. I’ll present the essay in its entirety after the jump.
The great sociologist of religion Peter Berger comments on the project of Andrew Bowen, who in 2011 practiced a different religion each month—Hindu in January, Baha’i in February, Zoroastrian in March, etc. Religion today, he says, is no longer a matter of personal identity, history, or belief. Rather, it is a voluntary association:
In the pluralistic situation every religious institution, which it likes this or not, becomes a voluntary association. Max Weber, one of the fathers of the sociology of religion, distinguished between two institutional forms of religion—the “church”, into which one is born, and the “sect”, which one joins as an adult. The historian Richard Niebuhr suggested that American history has created (presumably inadvertently) a third form of religious institution—the “denomination”, which in many ways looks like a “church”, but which one nevertheless freely joins and belongs to, and which is in competition with other religious bodies. On the level of consciousness, religion loses its taken-for-granted quality, instead becomes a matter of individual decision. The peculiarly American term “religious preference” nicely catches both levels. Put differently, the challenge of secularity, where it exists (it does in some places, notably in Europe), is that there is an absence of gods; the challenge of plurality is that there are too many gods.
When there is a combination of religious plurality with a political system which guarantees freedom of religion, what comes about is, precisely, Niebuhr’s denominationalism. For well-known historical reasons, America has been in the vanguard of such a development. Its emergence in many parts of the world today has usually little to do with American influences, but is the result of the above-mentioned combination of a social and a political fact. Andrew Bowen has, in exemplary fashion, re-enacted this historical drama.
In the pluralistic situation every religion becomes a denomination—even Judaism, which is both a religion and a people, into which, by definition, one is born. In America Judaism has been born again (I choose the phrase deliberately) in at least three denominations.
HT: Matthew Schmitz