Peter Berger on Postmodernity

Peter Berger on Postmodernity May 13, 2008

“Under modern conditions, where almost everyone lives in communities in which diversity has taken the place of consensus, certainty is much more difficult to come by. Relativism can be described as a world view that not only acknowledges but celebrates the absence of consensus. So-called post-modernist theorists like to speak of narratives and, in principle, every narrative is as valued as any other. The moral end result of this world view can be captured by imagining a television interview with a cannibal. “You believe that people should be cooked and eaten. I certainly don’t want to be judgmental, but the audience will be interested. Tell us more.” (Laughter.) This is not all that fictitious.


Fundamentalists respond to the same situation of certainty-scarcity by seeking to regain absolute certainty about every aspect of their world view. No doubt is permitted. Whoever disagrees is an enemy to be converted, shunned or, in the extreme case, removed. The last two centuries of history have made it very clear that there are secular as well as religious fundamentalisms. Both relativism and fundamentalism threaten the basic moral order without which no society, least of all a liberal democracy, can exist: relativism because it makes morality a capricious game, fundamentalism because it balkanizes society into mutually hostile camps that cannot communicate with each other,” – Peter Berger, in a dialogue on Relativism and Fundamentalism: Is There A Middle Ground?

I think he wrongly equates postmodern theory with radical relativism.  But, I should know, that’s a common misperception.

HT: Andrew Sullivan

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  • Yeah, but I think I’m turning into a cannibal. Postmodernism, my nemesis!

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  • rottenjuju

    I have to admit…I laughed at Berger’s analogy of the cannibal interview; pretty funny stuff. I also am humored at the fact that every person I talk to, regardless of his/her position on the issues we are discussing, claims to have both feet firmly planted in the middle. This must one huge road we are all traveling on.

    Tony, whose fault is it that this “misperception” insists, even in the minds of very bright and well-schooled thinkers? Often, I think that postmods must own some of the blame on this matter. I am two-thirds through your book and while I am thoroughly enjoying it, the best answer you have given so far is more of an ad hominem response than it is a vivid and clear explanation: “Everyone is a relativist.”

  • Yeah people who don’t understand postmodernism always use the “my truth your truth” relativistic argument against it. But it doesn’t apply. Really irritating because the same fundamentalists that this guy is talking about are often the ones most critical about postmodernism and that tend to feed the ignorance of it. At least with the people I know.
    What’s even more dumb is that usually it is only the word “postmodernism” that throws up walls, not the actual understanding of it because a good deal of the people I discuss this with already have certain beliefs and practices that are postmodernish. Once they get past the word, they find a lot of good things that it has to offer.

  • Dan

    “I think he wrongly equates postmodern theory with radical relativism.”

    “Everyone is a relativist.”


  • When I read Berger’s Questions of Faith (which I reviewed on my blog), I found it disappointing. He picks and chooses in the classic Liberal Protestant way, but doesn’t realize how much theology has moved on, and that if one genuinely wants to participate in theological dialogue, then one has to get beyond merely stating one’s viewpoint to explaining why it persuades you. For Berger, it is the problem of evil and the need for eternal life to sort it out that becomes his overarching interpretative principle, but in a fashion I can only describe as uncritical.

    I just finished reading The New Christians, by the way, and thoroughly enjoyed it!