NOTES on Peter Berger (1929-2017): A Rumor of Angels


Peter Berger is a modern sociologist, yet his writings show an excellent understanding of philosophy and philosophical reasoning. In his book A Rumor of AngelsBerger argues that many aspects of Humankind’s (that is, our) experience point to a reality that transcends the reality in which Naturalists believe. (According to philosopher David Stewart, “Naturalism can be generally defined as the philosophical view that nature, or physical reality, can be explained on its own terms, without recourse to any transcendent or ‘supernatural’ reality.”) Berger, of course, argues against Naturalism on the basis of human experience.

The argument from ordering

In his chapter titled “Theological Possibilities: Starting With Man,” Berger begins with what he calls the “argument from ordering.” One aspect of Humankind’s experience is that “reality is ‘in order,’ ‘all right,’ ‘as it should be.’” Child psychologists have even stated that faith in the order of the universe is necessary for the maturation of the individual. As Berger points out, “every ordering gesture is a signal of transcendence.”

To illustrate this point, Berger uses a vivid example. A child wakes up in the middle of the night, afraid and crying. Any good mother hearing her child cry will go to it and comfort it, saying the equivalent of “Don’t be afraid — everything is in order, everything is all right.” And, the mother hopes, the child will be reassured by its mother and fall asleep again.

Berger asks, Did the mother lie to her child? If the Naturalists are correct, we will die eventually and there will be no afterlife. If that is correct, then the mother did lie to her child. In Berger’s vivid words, “If there is no other world, then the ultimate truth about this one is that eventually it will kill the child as it will kill his mother.” After all, death in this world is not optional.

Berger’s argument from ordering consists of a series of arguments that go like this:

First, Berger gives a brief outline of the argument he wishes to make:

“In the observable human propensity to order reality there is an intrinsic impulse to give cosmic scope to this order, an impulse that implies not only that human order in some way corresponds to an order that transcends it, but that this transcendent order is of such a character that man can trust himself and his destiny to it.”

The series of arguments Berger uses to reach his conclusion are these:

P1: “There is a variety of human roles that represent this conception of order [described in the passage quoted above], but the most fundamental is the parental role. Every parent (or, at any rate, every parent who loves his child) takes upon himself the representation of a universe that is ultimately in order and ultimately trustworthy.”

P2: “This representation can be justified only within a religious (strictly speaking a supernatural) frame of reference. In this frame of reference the natural world within which we are born, love, and die is not the only world, but only the foreground of another world in which love is not annihilated in death and in which, therefore, the trust in the power of love to banish chaos is justified.”

C: “Thus man’s ordering propensity implies a transcendent order, and each ordering gesture is a signal of this transcendence.”

Having drawn this important conclusion, Berger continues with his series of arguments. Note that since he has argued for the conclusion immediately above, the second premises of the following two arguments are not so implausible as they would seem if he had not argued for that conclusion.

P1: “Man’s ordering propensity implies a transcendent order, and each ordering gesture is a signal of this transcendence.”

P2: “The parental role is not based on a loving lie. On the contrary, it is a witness to the ultimate truth of man’s situation in reality.”

C: “In that case, it is perfectly possible … to analyze religion as a cosmic projection of the child’s experience of the protective order of parental love.”

The series of arguments continue:

P1: “It is perfectly possible … to analyze religion as a cosmic projection of the child’s experience of the protective order of parental love.”

P2: “What is projected is, however, itself a reflection, an imitation, of ultimate reality.”

C: “Religion, then, is not only … a projection of human order, but … the ultimately true vindication of human order.”

One word about these arguments. Berger would agree that the conclusions he reaches cannot be empirically proven; however, he does believe that in some aspects of Humankind’s everyday, non-mystical experience we have implications of a transcendent reality.

Berger believes that the ordering impulse of Humankind (and other impulses to be described soon) provide a starting point for a religion based on “inductive faith,” which he defines as “a religious process of thought that begins with facts of human experience.” Four other arguments provide starting points for inductive faith:

The argument from play,

The argument from hope,

The argument from damnation, and

The argument from humor.

The argument from play

Play is a “basic experience of man” and is found in cultures throughout the world. Using the research of Johan Huizinga, author of Homo Ludens — A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Berger points out that in play we suspend some of the assumptions of the “serious world.” For example, the time in a game is different from the time of the real world (it takes much longer than 60 minutes to play a basketball game of four quarters of 15 minutes each). Also, in play, we find elements of joy and deathlessness.

Berger writes, “All men have experienced the deathlessness of childhood and we may assume that, even if only once or twice, all men have experienced transcendent joy in adulthood. Under the aspect of inductive faith, religion is the final vindication of childhood and of joy, and of all gestures that replicate these.”

The argument from hope

In describing this signal of transcendence, Berger points out that Humankind is “always oriented toward the future.” We have projects we wish to accomplish, and an “essential element of this ‘futurity’ of man is hope.” Empirically, we know of some men who risk death or say ‘no’ to death in order to accomplish their projects; as an example, Berger mentions “the artist who, against all odds and even in failing health, strives to finish his creative act” and “the man who risks his life to defend or save innocent victims of oppression.” Inductive faith finds in hope a signal of transcendence.

Berger writes, “Inductive faith acknowledges the omnipresence of death (and thus of the futility of hope) in ‘nature,’ but it also takes into account the intentions within our ‘natural’ experience of hope that point toward a ‘supernatural’ fulfillment.”

The argument from damnation

Some offenses cry out to heaven because they are so evil; in such cases, damnation is the only suitable punishment. As an example, Berger mentions the crimes of Adolf Eichmann, the subject of Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem. According to The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, “As head of the Gestapo’s Jewish section, he oversaw the maltreatment, deportation to concentration camps, and murder (especially by the use of gas chambers) of millions of Jews.” For such a person, even death after a long period of torture is not sufficient punishment for his crimes.

Berger writes that when dealing with the murderer of a child, the

transcendent element manifests itself in two steps. First, our condemnation is absolute and certain. It does not permit modification or doubt … . In other words, we give the condemnation the status of a necessary and universal truth. … Second, the condemnation does not seem to exhaust its intrinsic intention in terms of this world alone. Deeds that cry out to heaven also cry out for hell. … No human punishment is ‘enough’ in the case of deeds as monstrous as these. These are deeds that demand not only condemnation, but damnationin the full religious meaning of the word — that is, the doer not only puts himself outside the community of men; he also separates himself in a final way from a moral order that transcends the human community, and thus invokes a retribution that is more than human.

The argument from humor

According to Berger, “The comic reflects the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world.This is why, as has been pointed out over and over since classical antiquity, comedy and tragedy are at root closely related.” However, although the human spirit is imprisoned in the world, comedy laughs at this imprisonment, thus implying that “this imprisonment is not final but will be overcome, and by this implication provides yet another signal of transcendence — in this instance in the form of an intimation of redemption. I would thus argue that humor, like childhood and play, can be seen as an ultimately religious vindication of joy.”

And so these are the signals of transcendence that Peter Berger has chosen to write about. Taken together, they point toward a transcendent reality; however, taken together, they are not a proof (at least in an empirical sense) of a transcendent reality.

Note: The quotations by Peter Berger that appear in this essay are from A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, by Peter Berger (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1969).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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