My Response to Peter Berger’s book The Many Altars of Modernity

My Response to Peter Berger’s book The Many Altars of Modernity November 19, 2014

Below you will find my response to Peter Berger’s recently published book The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age (DeGruyter, 2014). I read this response at a special event at Baylor University on Tuesday, November 18. Berger was there by Skype. (He was unable to travel to the event as originally planned due to health problems.) He spoke about his book and the research that led to it for about fifty minutes. The other respondent was sociologist James Davison Hunter. (Both Berger and Hunter are visiting professors at Baylor University.) Both Hunter and I spoke in response to Berger’s book for about fifteen-to-twenty minutes each. What you see below is my response. Berger makes clear in the book (as in his verbal talk about it) that he has largely abandoned the “secularization thesis” about modernity (that modernity leads inexorably to secularization) and is replacing it with a “pluralism thesis”—that modernity leads inevitably to pluralism. The thesis is that everywhere modernity spreads religious, lifestyle, philosophical, worldview pluralism follows. Berger makes clear in the book and made clear in his talk that he believes one part of the old secularization thesis is still true—that in pluralistic societies (such as the U.S. today) it is important that people privilege secular discourse as a way to manage religious pluralism. He argues that even Christians must (and do) internalize pluralism including secularity and think and act “as if God does not exist” in certain situations and contexts. This is the only part of his book with which I disagree. Much depends, of course, on what one means by thinking and acting “as if God does not exist.” In the discussion that followed his presentation and ours (Hunter’s and mine) we explored the possibility that he (Berger) and I mean different things by “as if God does not exist.” However, his illustration (used both in the book and in his talk) is problematic for me and should be for any Christian (although I readily admit that many, perhaps most, Christians do what he suggests). The illustration is of an airline pilot. He argues that when flying the plane the pilot must fly it “as if God does not exist.” (He also uses the illustration of a surgeon and argues that even if the surgeon is a devout Jew or Christian he must do surgery “as if God does not exist.”) My reasons for disagreeing are laid out in my response. If he only means that an airline pilot must not close his eyes and pray and depend on God to fly the plane for him and if he only means the surgeon must not close his eyes and pray and depend on God to do the surgery for him, well, then we don’t disagree. But I see no reason for a Christian to carve out some space in her mind and think and act “as if God does not exist” anywhere or at any time. For example, Christianity includes belief in general providence—that God works through natural laws. And Christians (should) believe in vocation—that any ethical vocation (flying airplanes or doing surgery) can be and should be regarded as “For God’s glory and neighbors’ good.” Anyway, here is the response I read:



Response to Peter Berger, The Many Altars of Modernity


Roger E. Olson

November 18, 2014



Thanks to Peter Berger for this fine book and for initiating our friendly acquaintance. I have known of him from afar, so to speak, through his books, for many years and was flattered that he would want to have conversations with me. We began talking about the rise of the “new Calvinism,” especially among Baptists, but then found much else to talk about including my Pentecostal background. I have thoroughly enjoyed my conversations with Peter and consider our acquaintance a blessing.

Thanks also to Baylor’s Sociology Department for inviting me to respond to Peter’s excellent book The Many Altars of Modernity. I am honored by it and grateful for it.

Theologians and sociologists are like the proverbial ships passing in the night that hardly notice each other. The reason is that sociologists, even sociologists of religion, deal almost exclusively in the descriptive realm while theologians also engage in the prescriptive. Insofar as Peter’s book sticks to the descriptive, I find no fault in it. Where I may disagree with some minor points I have to bow to his much greater authority as a sociologist. My qualm arises only where I perceive Peter going beyond the descriptive into the prescriptive. If I’m not mistaken, he applauds the internalization of the co-existence of multiple relevance structures, the “pluralism in the mind,” and believes the “privileged position of secular discourse” in people’s minds is beneficial to a well-ordered and functioning consciousness and society. That is, believers in God ought to internalize the pluralism, including secularity, of modern society, making room within themselves for thought and decision-making “as if God does not exist.”

Much modern theology has aimed at discovering an “essence of Christianity” that cannot conflict with modern sciences, making room within Christians for multiple relevance structures. Nineteenth century liberal Protestant theology and twentieth century existentialist theologies both moved Christian doctrine, the Christian life and world view, into subjective spaces. But the result has been, at least according to theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, a dualism in which Christianity is privatized or relegated to a realm of values or existential meaning separated, even within the individual Christian, from the realm of universal truth. According to Pannenberg, Christianity makes public, universal truth claims. He decried the “ghettoization” of Christianity that resulted from the subjectivizing trends in much modern theology.

Over my years of teaching theology to students and editing a Christian scholarly journal, I’ve observed a popular kind of dualism at work among many Christian scholars and students; it’s one way, perhaps the most common way, of dealing with modern pluralism. It echoes Siger of Brabant’s thirteenth century “two truths theory” which was his way of coping with the Averroeist philosophy of his day. He posited, or so it is said, that something can be true in philosophy and false in theology and vice versa. Over my years in Christian academia I have heard many expressions of this dualism. I taught theology at a Baptist liberal arts college in Minnesota where many of my undergraduates confessed that, as evangelical Christians, they believed that Christianity is true but other religions are not wrong. And they did not mean that Christianity is partly true and alternative religions (and worldviews) are also partly true. They meant that Christianity is “true for them” but not necessarily true for adherents of other religions and worldviews. And that other religions and worldviews are true for their adherents but not necessarily true for them. This could be viewed as the relativism that Peter deplores, but I came to the conclusion that these students were not relativists. They were dualists or multiplists. I have heard Christian colleagues confess that something that is true in the laboratory is not true in the sanctuary and vice versa. I think this is a very common contemporary Christian way of handling the tensions created by pluralism in society and within themselves.

Both of the approaches I’ve described embrace the idea that even a devout Christian can and perhaps ought to internalize secularity and pluralism—alongside his or her Christianity. That is, the individual Christian, and perhaps the Christian organization, can and ought to function as if God does not exist, and, possibly, as if other gods than God are real, while at the same time living and believing as a Christian. But it is, in my opinion, a very unreflective and ultimately unworkable approach—insofar as one cares about the truth question and thinks that Christianity, or any form of life, reaches for and partially grasps ultimate, universal truth. And it is unworkable for anyone who cares about a holistic, coherent approach to all truth and finds living comfortably with permanent cognitive dissonance impossible. At the very least, I would argue, a Christian who internalizes the co-existence of multiple relevance structures ought to feel that as a crisis and not embrace it except as a task for further thought—aimed toward integration and wholeness.

One can easily see the effects of these dualist approaches to pluralism and truth in the gradual transformations in both individual Christians, and Christian institutions and organizations. I don’t have sufficient time to describe these transformations, but they include all forms of functioning and operating “as if God does not exist.” In my own lifetime I have experienced churches and Christian organizations making major decisions based solely on advice from lawyers, marketers, and business consultants. I have seen a dramatic decline in evangelism.

It seems to me that Christians acting as if God does not exist creates serious problems for Christianity’s reputation and influence. I like to point out as evidence that no Christian theologian has graced the cover of Time since the 1966 “Is God Dead?” issue. Before that theologians often appeared on the magazine’s cover. Theology is by-and-large ignored even among Christians. Hardly any Christian bookstore has a “theology” section anymore; it has been replaced by “Christian living.”

In my opinion internalizing multiple relevance structures dualisticially, by which I mean thinking, deciding and acting, even some of the time, as if God does not exist, tends to reduce Christianity to a folk religion as opposed to a public life and world perspective, plausibility structure, with prophetic power.

So what are alternatives to dualism and multipleism among Christians? What other approaches might one consider to dealing with the pluralisms Peter describes in The Many Altars of Modernity? Let me say first that, with Peter, I reject both fundamentalism and relativism. As a Baptist I highly value separation of church and state and its underlying principle of soul liberty. My spiritual ancestors were in the forefront, with Unitarians, of fighting for pluralism and government neutrality toward religions. I wish to say second, however, that as a Christian theologian I do not find dualisms or multipleism attractive or ultimately workable. And I cannot function anywhere, at any time “as if God does not exist.” But that does not mean adopting pre-modern supernaturalism.

I recommend an alternative to internalizing multiple relevance structures—at least an alternative to dualistically or multiplistically treating them as equals in terms of determining a worldview or perspective on life and reality. I call this alternative “integrationism.” As theologian Hans Frei of Yale Divinity School argued, a Christian is a person for whom “the Bible absorbs the world.” And anyone who would accuse Frei of fundamentalism would know nothing about him. Everyone operates from some narrative-shaped life and world perspective; there is no “view from nowhere.” A Christian is a person whose life and world perspective is shaped by the biblical story. Frei urges us to take it seriously but not always literally. Wolfhart Pannenberg of the University of Munich, urges Christians to allow their life and world perspective to be affected by all truth. As the Alexandrian church father Clement said “All truth is God’s truth.”

The combination of Frei’s postliberal, narrative approach and Pannenberg’s Hegelian-influenced, rational approach yields a Christian critical realism, based on what Catholic theologian Hans Küng calls “critical rationality,” that results in critical orthodoxy. The result is a Christian search for truth that is not relativist, fundamentalist, or dualist. It is committed to and shaped by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and Scripture, but also flexible enough to be affected by anything that is true—whatever its source may be.

Let me offer a case study in Christian integrationism. I hold an endowed professorship in Christian ethics. One might expect, wrongly, that I draw all my ethical principles directly from the Bible. I don’t. My most basic values such as human dignity and worth come from the Bible, or from Jesus Christ, who is the subject of the Bible from my Christian perspective. That humans are created in the image and likeness of God and therefore of infinite value, dignity and worth above all other creatures is a basic Christian ethical principle that is non-negotiable. I am also a Christian ethicist who acknowledges and embraces pluralism without believing or acting as if God does not exist—something I find impossible to do without seriously compromising my Christian faith. However, given society’s pluralism, something I enjoy as protection of my Christian and Baptist commitments, I cannot impose my principles on others. So, when recommending public policy I look around for secular ethical arguments that I can integrate with my Christian principles and put them on like gloves on my hands. When I integrate my Christian ethics with, say John Rawls’s “justice as fairness” approach to social ethics, I am not believing or acting “as if God does not exist” although it may look that way to a sociologist studying my behavior.  I am recognizing God’s truth in a non-Christian source and, as the old saying goes, “despoiling the Egyptians.” One does not have to believe or live “as if God does not exist” to make use of, even be enriched by, “pagan truth,” “pagan virtues.” There is a long Christian history of such integration.

Integrationism embraces pluralism without internalizing it dualistically or as multipleism. For a Christian, anyway, it means acknowledging all truth as God’s truth and seeking it, accepting it, and integrating it with one’s Christian life and world perspective whatever its source may be. It means that some truth claims simply cannot be accepted; they must be rejected as false. Neither can they be treated “as if” they are true. For example, as a Christian, I cannot internalize and treat “as if true” the claim that God is not real. However, as a Christian, were I a scientist, I could and would engage in laboratory research without praying over the experiments—except that they do no harm. That’s because God, in my life and world perspective, is the creator of natural laws and works through them in his general providence. And if such an experiment should demonstrably result in a truth that conflicts with a preconceived theological “truth” I would have to adjust my life and world perspective to include it. At the same time, because of my Christian life and world perspective, there are some experiments I could not engage in—such as cloning human beings. But I would and could find secular reasons for that.

In sum, then, while I find Peter’s analysis of pluralism insightful and challenging, I cannot accept the internal pluralism insofar as it implies that a Christian should ever think, decide or act as if God does not exist. Rather, a Christian should look for truth wherever it may be found and integrate it with his or her Christian life and world perspective, acknowledging God as its source.

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