Sociology, Faith and Islam: Some Reflections on the Legacy of Peter L. Berger (1929-2017)

Image: Peter Hershey

Monday 10th July, 2017

Riyaz Timol

I cannot remember this incident – my parents told me about it. I must have been four or five years old. For my birthday or for Christmas I was given the present of a very sophisticated electric toy train. One could control its movements through multiple tracks and tunnels across a miniature landscape. I had no interest in the mechanical wonders of this toy. I did not even turn on the electricity. Instead I lay flat on the ground and talked with imaginary passengers on the train.

One might say that I have continued this conversation ever since. I never regretted it. It has been a lot of fun. It still is.

Peter L. Berger

I first discovered Peter Berger late in 2014. I’d passed the halfway point of my PhD and was busy generating reams of ethnographic data dripping with ‘thick description.’ My supervisor at this point was insisting I need to find a ‘theoretical hook’ on which to hang all this lovely data. So I cast my net around in the sociology of religion hoping it would dredge something up. It was Woodhead and Heelas’ excellent edited anthology Religion in Modern Times that first sparked my interest. Nestled amid excerpts from all the key thinkers in the discipline, Berger’s incisive prose struck a chord. So I followed up by procuring the source books from which his extracts were drawn. And, from that point on, I was hooked.

What followed was a process somewhat akin to intellectual archaeology. I’d read Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (TSCR) the year before and, despite its dense, technical style, had sensed its raw power. As I ploughed my way through The Heretical Imperative, An Invitation to Sociology and a lesser-known earlier title The Precarious Vision, the realisation dawned that the author of these books was Luckmann’s self-same co-conspirator. So I returned to TSCR and began connecting the dots between the various texts. I also wanted to figure out exactly how much this guy had written. Title after title stared back at me from the Amazon search page and I scratched my head in bemusement (it was only afterwards, when I read his intellectual autobiography Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist, that I learned Berger refers to his “embarrassingly large” output as “bibliorrhea”). Yet two things endeared me to him. First was the relentless logic of his arguments which, simply put, usually just made eminent good sense. Second was the sheer quality of his prose. There was no doubt about it: the man was a master of the English language. I had never known sociology could be such good fun; not only was I hooked, but I had found my hook.

Fast-forward to July 2015 where I presented my first attempt at theoretical coherence at the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion (Socrel) 40th anniversary conference in Hoddesdon. I was privileged to enjoy lunch with Grace Davie and she, sensing my proclivity for Berger, was kind enough to facilitate an introduction. Thus began regular telephone and email correspondence that lasted until the illness preceding his death last week. Consequently, not only did my PhD end up relying significantly on his myriad contributions but I was lucky enough to have him comment on select drafts.

It is difficult to summarise Professor Peter Berger’s wide-ranging contributions to sociology. His 1966 collaboration with Luckmann produced a trenchant classic whose influence is still felt. A year later, Berger transformed the ‘symbolic universe’ advanced in TSCR into The Sacred Canopy by applying generic principles in the sociology of knowledge to religion. Yet, despite developing a sophisticated theoretical apparatus that ostensibly debunked religion, Berger remained personally committed to faith. It was here I discerned a third reason for liking him: a string of titles - beginning most famously with A Rumour of Angels but continuing through The Heretical Imperative, A Far Glory and, most recently, Questions of Faith – unflinchingly engaged the ramifications of his sociology for his theology. Put simply, Berger remained perpetually vexed by the question of how the intellectually honest social scientist could continue to affirm the influence of non-empirical dimensions of reality that transcend the vagaries of taken-for-granted knowledge. While, understandably, Berger’s sociological-cum-theological gymnastics operated principally within the ambit of his “incurable Lutheranism,” there is no doubt they have broader significance for anyone concerned with the question of faith in the modern world.

Berger also published prolifically on other topics such as processes of third-world modernisation, capitalism or the changing dynamics of the family. To the surprise of many, he also authored two novels (to relieve boredom while vacationing early in his career: The Enclaves and Protocol of a Damnation). The dedicated Bergerite will not have much trouble in tracking down other disparate titles churned out by his incessant bibliorrhea, including a book on globalisation co-edited with the Harvard architect of the 'clash of civilisations' thesis, Samuel P. Huntington.

In much the same vein as Bryan Turner (Weber and Islam), I once suggested to Professor Berger the possibility of penning a piece titled Berger and Islam. While keen on the idea, he expressed a reservation: “Would you have enough to say about this?” I certainly think so. Berger always felt a sense of deep personal affinity with Islam as evidenced by the two anecdotes recounted in this blog article; he was also an admirer of Rumi and Al-Ghazali and well-acquainted with Annemarie Schimmel’s copious scholarship in the area. His doctoral thesis applied Weber’s ‘routinization of charisma’ to the evolution of the Baha’i faith for which he began learning Farsi. To illustrate a sociological point in his first book (1961), he concocted a bizarre hypothetical scenario in which three Christian astronauts, landing for the first time on Mars, are bewildered by the sight of a bluish alien announcing the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic! His concept of ‘signals of transcendence’ is an almost perfect translation of the pivotal Qur’anic term ayah – usually translated as sign or symbol – which posits that embedded in the fabric of the experiential world are a plethora of signposts pointing to a reality beyond themselves. Further, the resurgence of Islam was a key reason for his well-known recantation of the ‘secularisation thesis’ argued in The Desecularization of the World. And much of his theorising on pluralism and modernity has relevance to the situation of post-immigration European Muslims who, having transitioned into a position of ‘cognitive minorities,’ are obliged to develop ‘plausibility structures’ that allow their ‘deviant’ beliefs to receive essential social confirmation in a socio-cultural condition characterised as ‘Euro-secularity.’

I liked Berger for two more reasons. Along with his penetrating intellect and masterful prose, an incorrigible wit permeates his vast oeuvre provoking, particularly in his later works, unexpected chortles. In fact it might be asserted – as others have intuited – that Berger was actually a comedian masquerading as a sociologist. Further his sterling gentlemanly conduct was attested to by almost everyone who knew him. Not only was Professor Peter Berger a world-class scholar, he was also a thoroughly nice guy. All of which leaves a pair of pretty big boots to fill.

Dr Riyaz Timol is an Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK where he previously was a Jameel PhD Scholar. He successfully defended his doctoral thesis in June 2017. He supervises Islamic Studies dissertations at Manchester University and is the co-founder of thinkBRITE Services, an organisation providing training on Islam and Muslim culture. Professor Berger’s final book, The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age, was reviewed by Dr Timol in the Journal of Contemporary Religion.

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