Thursday, November 08, 2007

What a friend we have in Sociology

For charting world religion, this is indeed a fascinating map. Why Russia goes Christian about ten centuries late puzzles me, but who am I to quibble? The Middle East one is nice as well.

I imagine some view such things and think, "How can a given religion be true when it's historically and sociologically explicable?" Then there's sociologist Peter Berger. Countless are those dusty religion books from the 60's, discharged from that retired pastor's library to be picked up for a pittance at the Seminary book sale. Most, having passionately accommodated themselves to a bygone mindset, are no longer worth the paper they're printed on. Peter Berger's A Rumor of Angels (1969), however, is different.

Berger ruminates on the feline characteristics of theology - it just keeps living. Science was supposed to kill it. It lived. Then German historical thought was supposed to kill theology by picking apart the Bible. We made it through. Punning on the word Feuerbach, Marx insisted that all theology must go through the "fiery brook" of Feuerbachian thought. I think we're doing okay (read Barth's preface to Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity). Surely Freudian psychology would explain theology away. Still here. Berger suggests that the new "fiery brook" is sociology, and the threat of its critique is such than many believers instinctually avoid it. Much stronger than previous assaults, sociology "raises the vertigo of relativity to its most furious pitch." But, Berger explains,
when everything has been subsumed under the relativizing categories in question (those of history, of the sociology of knowledge, or what-have-you), 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 are still left with the question of whether, possibly, both angels and demons go on existing despite the incapacity of our contemporaries to conceive of them.
Berger also takes a swipe at those coasters - I mean books - from the retired pastor's library.
The world view of the New Testament writers was constructed and maintained by the same kind of social processes that construct and maintain the world view of contemporary "radical" theologians. Each has its appropriate plausibility structures, its plausibility-maintaining mechanism. If this is understood, then the appeal to any alleged modern consciousness loses most of its persuasiveness - unless, of course, one can bring oneself to believe that modern consciousness is indeed the embodiment of superior cognitive powers... [but] one has the terrible suspicion that the Apostle Paul may have been one-up cognitively, after all.
Philip Bess, to whom I'm indebted for introducing me to Berger, summarizes his thought in this way: "Ideas do not succeed in history according to their truth but rather according to their relationship to specific kinds of social structures and processes." While this might initially put a believer on the defensive, it's actually liberating. Christianity's still significant lead amongst world religions is not an automatic verification, but nor is secularization proof of Christianity's falsehood, nor does Islam's quick expansion or Hinduism's antiquity authenticate Muslim or Hindu claims. All ideas are somewhat sociologically determined - theism, atheism, agnosticism - once we realize this we are freed to judge them as best we can on their truth value, not on their sociological success. In this, by the way, the Holy Spirit is of great assistance.