Books in Review

A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity

Copyright (c) 1993 First Things 31 (March 1993): 40-42.

The Last Protestant


Reviewed by James Nuechterlein

ONE SOMETIMES gets the clearest sense that a movement is in deep trouble by considering not the weakest statements of its case, but the very strongest. So it is that sympathetic readers may come to deeply melancholy conclusions as to the state of liberal Protestantism after reading Peter Berger's engaging brief for it in A Far Glory. Professor Berger is a sociologist possessed of uncommon common sense and he has intelligent and illuminating things to say about anything to which he turns his attention, but this Protestant reader finished A Far Glory persuaded, against the author's intentions, that Protestantism's glory is very remote indeed.

One arrives at this conclusion reluctantly, for there is much about Berger's argument that is congenial, even compelling. His liberal Protestantism, to begin with, is not to be associated with the desiccated Christianity of the National Council of Churches or the headquarters of the various ecclesial bodies that make up Protestantism's dwindling mainline. He has appropriately harsh things to say about the contemporary Protestant world's capitulation to the mindless relativists and the bloody-minded ideologues. His is the early-nineteenth-century's liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher, an "enormously courageous move" that, "focusing on religious experience rather than religious ideation as the object of theological reflection, . . . combined faith in one's own experience with faith in the God who will not abandon those who trust in Him." Berger, in other words, wants to uphold Christianity's central credal affirmations without denying modernity's legitimate claims on us.

Ours is, he insists, the condition of modernity. We have no world taken for granted, no premodern cognitive universe in which nothing other than the given is imaginable. In an increasingly rationalistic and pluralistic world that has moved us from fate to choice, we are condemned to freedom. We have learned to experience ourselves, whatever our social roles and attachments, as free individuals. Even our communities are chosen, not given. There are no longer authoritative "plausibility structures," whether in institutions or belief systems, to shape and anchor our perceptions of reality.

PRECISELY BECAUSE OF modernity's unsettling uncertainties, its relentless demands on us for choices we would rather not make and in many cases feel inadequate to make, we are tempted to flee from a relativizing freedom to the security of authoritative answers and communal solidarity. Afraid of becoming "cultural wimps," Berger suggests, we are in danger of becoming "cultural thugs." But the beguiling lures of authoritarianism-or even of neo-traditionalism and neo-orthodoxy-must be resisted; we cannot, without indulging in acts of bad faith, pretend to certainties we do not possess. Faith is not, in the ordinary sense, knowledge, and it is futile and dishonest for moderns to act as if things were otherwise.

Yet the principled refusal of dogmatism, Berger insists, need not consign us to nihilism. Pluralism is our condition, but that condition should not be construed as the denial of objective reality. In our everyday lives we have hints and signals, ordinary and extraordinary, of the existence of an order beyond the empirical. At those moments we get glimpses, in Rudolf Otto's term, of a transcendent wholly Other; we are made aware, to quote the title of an earlier Berger book, of a rumor of angels. These intuitions of transcendence, in Berger's view, are pre-ethical and pre-theoretical, and they are not themselves acts of faith. They are experiences of reality, and faith is what we make of them. It is faith that compels us to trust these experiences-rather than dismiss them as illusions in our inevitable "mornings-after"-and faith that interprets these experiences as occurrences "for me," signs "of the ultimate benignness of the universe." Here we best get the sense, Berger argues, of Luther's conception of faith as ultimate trust in the promise of God that He will not abandon His creation.

For Berger, then, the theological enterprise is best understood as a process of "induction," in which one mediates and interprets personal experience in conversation with one's religious tradition. We hold to faith, in Berger's world, without becoming obscurantists; we trust our experience without becoming religious solipsists. Reason is no more denied than it is enthroned. We are neither fideists nor skeptics. God may play hide-and-seek with us, Berger concludes, but for those who listen to the harmonies of the universe with a third ear, He leaves sufficient evidence as to His presence.

The attractions of Berger's scheme of Christian existentialism (he does not call it that) are obvious, especially for modernist intellectuals. Many of them are reluctant to conclude-as in fact many traditionalists have concluded-that any continued affirmation of Christian truth claims must require an essentially wholesale rejection of the experience of modernity. There is something undeniably bracing about Berger's willingness to face up to modernity's intimations of an absurdist abyss and yet give us good reasons to resist its claims. He acknowledges skepticism without giving in to it, and he persuades us that trust in God's promises need not depend on traditional-and no longer available-proofs of His existence. Berger's is in many ways a minimalist Christian proposition, but there is an at least arguable case to be made that it is all that we can with integrity sustain.

AT THE SAME time, however, A Far Glory offers inadvertent clues as to the reasons for Protestantism's decline. Peter Berger is a man of faith-this book offers, indeed, the most straightforward affirmation of Christian commitment he has publicly made-but observant readers will not be surprised that liberal Protestantism offers up so few other contemporary exemplars of faith and that it presents, for those without his winsome gifts, so barren a theological prospect.

There is, to begin with, the problem of Berger's-and liberal Protestantism's-emphasis on individual faith and personal experience. At one level, Berger neatly ties in the modernist preoccupation with the true and authentic self with counter-modernist transcendence. Any non-floating sense of self, he suggests, must have a fixed external referent. He appends to Dostoyevski's claim that if there is no God everything is permitted the judgment that if there is no God any self is possible. Yet in other ways his self is a quite isolated, arbitrary, and self-determining authority.

As a sociologist, Professor Berger is aware that individual religious experience cannot stand on its own. He duly notes that the original experience requires institutional support for it to be preserved, transmitted, and made plausible (as well as, in other ways, domesticated and contained). Yet Berger's treatment of the dialectical relationship between the church and the individual Christian is weighted lopsidedly on the side of the individual. One of his central chapters is entitled "The Solitary Believer," and he holds up as paradigmatic of the modern situation Simone Weil, a Jew who early in life rejected any form of Jewish identity and who, after converting to Catholicism during World War II, refused baptism, in part not to distance herself from the suffering of the Jewish people but also because "she rejected what she considered the false comforts of Catholic communalism." Berger recognizes that Weil's is an extreme case, and it is all the more striking, therefore, that he should nonetheless regard her as the paradigm for the modern believer. He concludes his discussion of the solitary believer this way:

This, then, is the meaning I would assign to the subject of the first sentence of the Nicene Creed ["I believe in one God"]: The solitary "I" is here affirming this belief, the "I" over and beyond all collective or communal assignments-the "I" alone with reality and alone with God. This is not to deny the importance of social ties and social locations (were I to do so, I would have to resign my commission as a sociologist). It is simply to say that, as I confront the meaning of my life, all this social world fades away to insignificance.

Berger's radically individualist understanding of religious experience, when combined with his admirable insistence on affirming traditional Christian truth claims, leaves him vulnerable to charges, if not of self-contradiction, at least of inconsistency. The experience of the totally Other, as he notes, leaves only hints and signals of the precise nature of transcendent reality. It's a long way from the ambiguous experience of transcendence, in other words, to the very specific bundle of claims made in the Nicene Creed. Most Christians acknowledge that to negotiate the journey successfully, they must posit an authoritative Church and/or an authoritative revelation. Berger explicitly rejects the authoritative Church and makes no case for (or scarcely any mention of) an authoritative revelation. He in fact raises questions of bad faith, or at least self-delusion, concerning those conservative Christians-Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics in particular-who want to specify more about the faith than, in his view, modernity allows us to do. (He is harder on Catholics than Evangelicals: many of the latter, he intimates, have not heard the news of modernity, while the former are more likely to have heard it and nonetheless chosen willfully to ignore it.)

THE PROBLEM FOR Professor Berger is that he shies from orthodoxy and traditionalism while at the same time apparently feeling comfortable with, even insisting on, the very orthodox and traditional affirmations of the Nicene Creed. Modernists of even a marginally more skeptical temper than Berger's may well have their own questions of bad faith to raise with him, while those on the other side will wonder why one who can with no apparent difficulty accept doctrines of the incarnation and resurrection should resist so vigorously the possibility of an authoritative Church. Berger's perspective remains quintessentially Protestant throughout, and many Christians who are not themselves Catholic (including not a few of us who share Berger's Lutheran tradition), will wonder at and regret his apparent lack-at least on the evidence of this book-of any catholic sympathies whatever.

The issues here are more than theoretical. Protestantism, after all, has a history, and the trajectory of its development since Schleiermacher is not such as to induce optimism concerning its future. Protestantism rejected an authoritative Church and set in its place an authoritative Scripture, and it is only in relatively recent times, after the traditional understanding of the Bible's authority became problematic, that the question of Protestantism's inherently weak ecclesiology became as critical as it now is. Protestantism today is in a general shambles, and while the liberal version of it limned in Professor Berger's pages is in all things thoughtful and in many things wise, one feels the awkward duty of pointing out that, beyond Peter Berger himself, it has virtually no known adherents.

And things are likely to get worse. The most probable product of the theological project sketched in A Far Glory is a genuine believer, true enough, but one inclined to view himself, as Berger seems to do, as a solitary outsider. Solitary outsiders, whatever their other virtues, are not often very good at transmitting the faith to the next generation, especially when, as in Berger's case, the question of ecclesial identity is not for them all that significant. The problem with this book, in the end, is that-if one may be forgiven the phrase-upon this Peter it is unlikely that any church whatever could be built.