walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: February 27, 2013
The Roman Catholic Church, Brazil and the Pluralistic Revolution

The surprising announcement by Benedict XVI that he will retire from the papacy in a few weeks’ time has naturally led to a flurry of media attention on the challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church (for once, mercifully, with a broader focus than the scandal of pedophile priests and their protective superiors). On February 15, 2013, the New York Times carried a story filed by Simon Romero from Rio de Janeiro, entitled “A Laboratory for Revitalizing Catholicism: In Brazil, Countering Evangelicalism and Secularism with Livelier Worship”. It is a very good, lively story, and Romero has all his facts right. I would like to suggest a somewhat broader interpretation of these facts.

The basic facts are very clear: Despite the huge statue of Christ with outstretched arms overlooking the panorama of Rio (in my opinion, the most beautifully located city on earth), Brazil is no longer the Catholic country it once was (and as which many people still think of it today). There has been a very powerful upsurge of Evangelical Protestantism, almost all of it of the Pentecostal variety. There has also been a growing number of people who, without converting to another faith, no longer publicly identify themselves as Catholics. In 1970 over 90% claimed to be Catholics; in 2010 that number had shrunk to about 65%. Brazil is still the one country with most Catholics; it probably is the country with most Pentecostals who now number about 20% of the Brazilian population. Sao Paulo has been called the “Pentecostal capital of the world”. Also in 2010,  15% of Brazilians said that they had no religious affiliation. One has to be a little careful in looking at these numbers. It is still the practice of the Roman Catholic Church to count as members all those originally baptized as Catholics (even if in the meantime they have become militant atheists or Buddhist monks). While the Brazilian census does have a question about religion, the answers are by self-identification, which is particularly iffy in the case of Catholicism, which is still a kind of “default religious identity” for many Brazilians. For a very long time, many Brazilians were ardent devotees of Condomble, an elaborate religious tradition of African origin, while at the same time retaining a very loose relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. As to the 15% of “nones” (as they are now called by religious demographers in America), that response covers a lot of different positions, which are not easily subsumed under the category of “secularism”. It certainly does mean that these are people not, or no longer, attracted by either the Roman Mass or the “gifts of the Spirit” offered by Pentecostals.

The Times article, as its subtitle indicates, focuses on Catholic countermeasures against its new Pentecostal competitors. It mentions a particularly successful priest, Marcelo Rossi, who is a writer of popular music (his songs have sold more than 12 million CDs) and who performs in rock-style festivals, at which Mass is celebrated with some 25,000 attendees in a new Catholic mega-church in Sao Paulo.  Less spectacular priests also officiate with cowboy hats and allow country music at Mass. I think that these extravagant stratagems are rather marginal. More important (also mentioned in the article) are Pentecostal-like inroads within sizable segments of Brazilian Catholicism. Glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”), spiritual healing miracles and exorcisms are allowed by some bishops (I imagine with some reluctance) in the context of Catholic worship. This is not a phenomenon limited to Brazil, but is part of a worldwide movement of so-called “Catholic charismatic renewal”. Throughout Latin America, in Africa and in the Philippines it is also an attempt to counteract charismatic Evangelicalism; ironically, it has been called “Pentecostalization” by outside observers.  In Africa it has a peculiar component with ancestor worship, which naturally makes the hierarchy even more relutant.

We are dealing here with millions of people, and I would think that there are some Pentecostals with Catholic nostalgias who are re-converted to their original faith by priests imitating Protestant televangelists. I doubt whether this is going to work as an overall strategy to gain back the huge number of ex-Catholic Pentecostals. Rome can make accommodations in its religious practices up to a point. It has always done so, ever since it permitted pagan deities to resurface as Christian saints and pagan holidays as feast days in the Christian calendar. Despite the aforementioned acceptance of some non-Catholic practices, the latter are only part of what may be called the “Pentecostal package” (the attractiveness of which they go far to explain). However, other crucial features of this package are the very Protestant notions of direct access to God, without the mediation of any institution with a sacramental apparatus, and the emphatically non-hierarchical character of the Christian community. These features are in fundamental opposition to Catholic core beliefs in the authority of the ecclesial institution, supposedly initiated by Jesus, and of that institution’s (the Magisterium). Rome can be enormously flexible, but not in that. If it were, it would give up its innermost nature and indeed its raison d’etre (at that point, it could as well apply for membership in the Lutheran World Federation.)

Is Brazil a laboratory for Catholic revitalization? With regard to Pentecostalism, probably only in a very limited way. But what about secularism, the other rival faith in the article’s subtitle? Benedict’s call for a “new evangelism” has emphasized secularism as an important target. That too is rather problematic. Secularism as an aggressive creed, a late offspring of the French Enlightenment, is still a reality in Europe and in some late disciples elsewhere (such as Kemalists in Turkey, conservatives in the Chinese Communist Party, and some quasi-Kemalist intellectuals in America).  But as the term is usually employed (as when it is used to describe the “nones”), it is not a faith but rather the lack of a faith—notably a lack of faith in the theological and moral teachings of the churches. I am sure that there are some people, mostly intellectuals, who adhere to secularism as a faith. For reasons I don’t know, the philosophy of Auguste Comte, a secularist philosopher if there ever was one, became very influential in Brazil in the nineteenth century (an argument for the proposition that mediocre thinkers can become historically very important). His motto “Order and Progress”, in Portuguese translation, is still emblazoned on the Brazilian flag. But I would assume that most in the 15% of Brazilians who disclaim any religious affiliation have much less ideological reasons for this position. In any case, they are very unlikely to be drawn, or drawn back, to Catholicism by priests strumming electric guitars or being offered the opportunity to speak in tongues during Mass. Thus there is something a bit Eurocentric in Benedict’s marching orders against secularism: It makes good sense in Europe, much less so elsewhere.

Simon Romero, in his Times article, cites Evangelicalism and secularism as two challenges to the Roman Catholic Church. Fair enough. As I suggested, secularism is a more important challenge in Europe, where Evangelicals are thin on the ground. In Brazil, on the other hand, the Evangelical challenge is massive. However, whatever part of the world we look at, I would propose that these two are manifestations of the same underlying challenge: the challenge of modern pluralism.

This topic is very much on my mind right now. I am writing a book about it, and our research center at Boston University is currently engaged in a project about it. Thus, if I let myself go, this post would go on for one hundred pages at least. Instead, I will only make some general observations about the topic, and then go back to the Roman Catholic situation.

Ever since the Enlightenment, it was widely thought that secularization, in the sense of a decline of religion, is a necessary consequence of modernity. The history of religion since the beginning of the twentieth century (just when Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God) has greatly weakened this idea. In most of the world religion flourishes luxuriously, in some regions more than ever. Modernity does indeed produce secularization in some places, much less so or not at all in other places. What it necessarily produces is pluralism—the proliferation of different worldviews, moralities and lifestyles co-existing in the same society (including some form of secularism). Regimes can seek to suppress pluralism, but such projects are difficult and very costly. The pluralistic revolution is a root fact of the present age. It creates a basic challenge to religion, but it is a different challenge than secularity.

The nature of the challenge is that the pluralistic revolution undermines the taken-for-granted character of any religious tradition. There is nothing mysterious about this. Our notions of reality are originally created in interaction with others, when we are children undergoing what psychologists call “primary socialization”. Later, in adulthood, these notions are sustained, modified or given up in interaction with other people we care about. This has a simple but hugely important consequence: When our social environment is unified and stable, our view of the world is held with a great sense of certainty. When that environment is heterogeneous and unstable, we become uncertain. We realize that there are different ways of perceiving reality. In the early years of the modern age, Pascal observed that what is true on one side of the Pyrenees is error on the other. Modern people, surrounded by plurality, have metaphorical mountain chains running right across their mind. The individual is forced to choose between different options available in his situation, a difficult assignment. This is why many modern people are so nervous.

This post is about to degenerate into an academic lecture, so let me give a concrete example of what I just wrote. Take a Spanish village on that “other side of the Pyrenees”, say, two hundred years ago. Everyone in that village was Catholic to all appearances (there had been a Jewish family, but it was expelled long ago, and more recently there was a man suspected of heresy, but he disappeared in the dungeons of the Inquisition). If I grew up in that village in the early years of the nineteenth century, my Catholicism would be taken for granted—in my behavior, but, if I had been properly socialized as a child, in my mind as well. I never travelled any distance from the village, and I knew very little about the outside world (I was probably illiterate, and there were no books around anyway). Today the social environment could not be more different. Already in my childhood the area was flooded by tourists every summer; now most of the new houses are owned by wealthy Germans (many of whom are Protestants). The socialist mayor of the village is a vocal atheist, and the priest sometimes sounds like one. I finished secondary school, am not only literate but actually like to read about different parts of the world. I make constant use of the Internet and I am on Twitter. I have been trained as a repairman for mobile telephones and commute to my job in the nearby city. I have traveled to several European countries. I am engaged to a woman from the Philippines who came to Spain as a nanny. Am I still a Catholic? Well, the census lists me as one. But I give little thought to religion, and I ignore most Catholic moral teachings in my behavior. Catholicism is certainly not taken for granted. It is conceivable that I might become more Catholic in the future (perhaps after I have children, and perhaps after the dubiously pious priest has been succeeded by one who is close to Opus Dei). But my Catholicism will be the result of a deliberate decision on my part.

Is Brazil really a credible “laboratory” for the revitalization of the Roman Catholic Church? No and yes. No: it is very unlikely that Catholicism will ever regain the hegemonic position it once held. It will certainly not disappear, will probably still be the preferred faith for a majority of Brazilians, and thus will retain a significant niche in the pluralistic religious marketplace. So will Pentecostalism. Other niches may yet open up. There will be some noisy atheists (as there are in America), but many more individuals will remain outside the various religious communities without making a faith out of the non-affiliation. But yes: Brazil is a clear case of the pluralistic challenge to the Roman Catholic Church. The case will help to test the efficacy of the “new evangelism” advocated by Benedict XVI.

It is useful to recognize that the Church has already made substantial adjustments to pluralism, especially in its affirmation of religious freedom. The long pontificate of Pius IX (from 1846 to 1878) is commonly perceived as a period of determined resistance to modernity, with highpoints the publication of the Syllabus of Errors (1864), with its long list of condemned heresies, and the First Vatican Council (convened in 1869), which solemnly proclaimed the doctrine of papal infallibility (defiantly, as the troops of the nascent Italian state were about to occupy Rome and put an end to the worldly power of the pope). Probably the best-known heresy condemned in the Syllabus is error # 80 – that “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization”. It also rejected the separation of church and state, as well as the freedom of the individual to choose his religion. This feisty claim to exclusive and coercive truth persisted into the twentieth century. Its last political realization was probably the support by the Church of the Franco regime’s project to make Spain an “integrally Catholic” nation. In other words, during this long period, pluralism was an enemy to be resisted. The period came to a dramatic end with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965, spanning the pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI), which provided a theological justification of religious freedom. A Protestant theologian was asked at the opening of the Council what he thought would be its first action. He replied, “They will decide not to read the minutes of the last meeting”. Since then the Roman Catholic Church has been actively involved in the promotion of religious freedom, other human rights and democracy, and in fostering dialogue rather than polemic in relations with other faith communities. This change did not come easily. No monopoly likes competition, especially if the CEO in charge of the ex-monopoly is understood to be the Vicar of Christ on earth. Some Catholic bishops in Brazil have sought a dialogue with the Pentecostals, but others still regard the latter as “sects” to be denounced and resisted. Coming to terms with the pluralistic revolution will be the principal challenge to Rome for many years to come.

As to the contestation between Catholicism and Pentecostalism, I find myself in the position of a neutral observer. I am not tempted either to “swim in the Tiber”, or to be baptized by the Spirit. However, as a sociologist of religion committed to “value freeness” in my work, I will point to a weakness in the Catholic strategy to compete with Pentecostalism. There is a school of sociological thought that uses economic categories in analyzing religion. As a general approach to religion, I think this is misleading.  For example, an individual contemplating conversion to Pentecostalism is not a “rational actor” engaged in a cost/benefit calculation to guide the decision. But pluralism, especially under conditions of religious freedom, does indeed lead to a market of religious offers. In this particular situation, it makes sense to apply some categories derived from market economics. If your brand of religion is challenged by a rival brand, there will be the temptation to adopt some of the features of the latter. This may be a good move, or it might be a mistake. In the situation at issue, some people might indeed find your synthesis of the two brands attractive. You might also find that some of those, who have liked your brand as it has long been, will be turned off. You might actually lose your demographic base. Market research (also known as empirical social science) may help Brazilian bishops to decide the respective numbers of those who would come in because of rock music at Mass and those who would leave for precisely that reason. To the extent that bishops are not only  entrepreneurs in the religious marketplace, one would assume (or hope) that their decision will finally be made for reasons of faith.

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  • Peter Jessen

    Berger lists items that would fit into the temple worship recipes described by Kazantzskis in his The Odyssey, A Modern Sequel,” and hints at the two ways to avoid giving in to the Sirens of modernity that leads to drowning or crashing one’s boat on the rocks. Odysseus’ approach for dealing with the plurality of the Sirens, was to put bees wax in the crew member’s ears and have him lashed to the mast so he could listen without being drawn to jumping overboard to his doom.

    The approach used by Jason of the Argonauts, on the other hand, is what I see in these experiments: put Orpheus in the bow of the boat with his lyre and have him play a more attractive tune than the one of the Sirens, so the crew listens to Orpheus and not the Sirens.

    The Roman Catholic Church is admitting the bees wax and mast lashing hasn’t worked well, and are now trotting out their own Orpheuses, Father Marcelo Rossi in Brazil being one and, we might ask, will the new Pope be one as well?

    Many protestant churches, especially non-denominational ones, use this same approach, either in main services or in special services for the young. These nondenominational laboratories in the United States have had the same mixed success, often closing down in good sociological fashion when there is no charismatic successor to the charismatic leader who either dies or is found to have clay feet (of either the financial or sexual variety). A negative of this separating generations to be modern has, in some cases, eroded intergenerational interaction.

    Berger raises in my mind the parallel with American political parties/debates and their sense of seemingly greater flexibility than the Roman Catholic church has (at least for those who believe as they do). The personal identity question is expressed by whether one’s identify is done externally (whether believed or not) in special communities via behavior (drugs or not, alcohol or not, sex and/or cohabitation or not, education or not, work or not, liberal party or conservative party or not, safety net as temporary or permanent or not, etc.), and whether these are internal (believed) as well, in one’s mind.

  • Peter Jessen

    A book about church laboratory renewal/restoration/reformation/revitalization (pick your favorite “R” word, or, if an “R” is not enough, “awakening,” “transformation,” etc.) that some North American denominations are using (my reference is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that is using it right now at the national and congregational levels). The book is Christianity After Religion, by Diana Butler Bass. For her it is the story (or narrative) that counts, not orthodoxies. In the last two weeks I’ve heard it in several sermons and congregational workshops (next I’ll read it). Apparently she sees the contemporary institutional church on its way out (Pope who?) and neighborhood community churches being the focus as they return to ancient spiritual practices, as seen in the Brazilian experiment.

    A repeated catch phrase used to explain her work is reaching out to a growing number of people who say “I’m spiritual but not religious.” With plurality moving in (which won’t be quite the great awakening until ecumenical “toleration” presides as opposed to what Berger has called “implicit excommunication,” especially around moral and political public policy issues — same sex marriage, divorce, abortion, environmentalism, immigration, gun control, and other movements du jour).

    The Bass mantra used to walk this ideational and identity challenging tightrope, is: Belong, Believe, Behave, so that the act of joining/community brings one to believe and then to change one’s behavior to relieve pain and bring meaning. This is another excellent chicken or the egg question. How about Believe, Belong, Behave? where belief/faith/spiritual yearning brings one to join/belong to a neighborhood group, after which behavior changes to match theirs. Or we could use a 60s type sequence, further out on the margin, Behave, Belong, Believe, where one seeks a group to belong to that matches one’s behavior, after which one is drawn to believe what they believe (no inner spirit needed).

    As I listen to presenters, I’m tempted to see this as a new kind of secularism as well, a new way to set aside traditional theological and moral teachings in order to be spiritual in a modern way, where the authority is now wrested from the institutional church by a myriad of local, anti-hierarchical hands that often are also wedded to a cause.

  • Peter Jessen

    Berger’s use of Compte’s “Order and Progress” reminds me of how much I ongoingly forget. “Order and Progress:” but of course: it rides along side, as a major mainline church pre-occupation is the re-creating/saving the world through the environmental, global warming, and other warnings of catastrophe movements, with salvation coming from men becoming gods once again (recall before the Reformation, kings had to work with the Barons; with different religions, they needed a focus, and it became the king now a god-king). Key now is return by the older 60’s crowd to once again seek to save the earth (no Holy Ghost needed, just the shutting down of all carbon sourced energy forms found in the ground). This enables meeting the challenge of modern pluralism (a kind of renewal of “you’re OK, I’m OK” mantra), as fundamental/foundational views are relativized to allow different denominations of human earth saving groups/sects/affiliates, as long as they use the same “order and progress” playbook (casting out those who are not true believers).

    Which is why I like Berger’s use of Pascal, both in this essay (truth on one side of the Pyrenees is error on the other, which should keep us all humble and certain in our uncertainty) and, elsewhere: “Pascal’s wager:” better to believe in God and die and find out he doesn’t exist than not believe in God and find out that he does. So in these disquieting times, the various pluralities can also hedge their wager/bet regarding the afterlife without having to declare a belief set, once Christianity sheds its “religion” aspect, as discussed by Bass.

    I’m also intriqued by how these experiments at blending/synthesizing the pluralities apply to the attempt to address the calculi of meaning and pain, increasing the former and reducing the latter, the familiar question of how do you get through suffering to joy of Philipians 4 and the Sermon on the Mount, are not enough.

    Pluralizing and neighborhoodizing are interesting attempts at meaning-up and downing pain. It would then appear that we only have to be Good Samaritans to our “real” neighbors, those on our block(s), a whole new kind of certainty that is close up and tangible in defense of uncertainly “out there” beyond our neighborhood. These are almost like modern day attempts to create safe and certain Brigadoons, with the problem being the various Harrys looking for a way out, even if their escape to the freedom of uncertainty means the destruction of the village, despite its “further notice” about its “of course” forever certainty. Ever present is the quandary regarding the plurality of choice going back to the Garden: save one’s self at the expense of others, save others at the expense of self, or figure out a blend/synthesis.

    After playing with these mental lego pieces, we are brought back once again to what matters to godders: the work of the Holy Spirit (as opposed to our own rock star qualities admired by swooning followers), the salvation offered by Christ, and the often helpless sense we have facing the mysterium tremendum, ignoring God’s own purposes and time, trying to strong arm our way to make God follow our plans on our time table. How do we humbly deal with Luther’s emphasis from St. Paul, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” As God gives us his righteousness that we might be justified, one wonders why the constant search for more bangles, banners and beads. Is it scripture we attempt to discern or do we find divine meaning in how the lint is arranged in our belly buttons? How can we find ways to inoculate ourselves and each other from the painful experiments that destroy body, soul and relationships, and instead achieve meaning through being good neighbors in the global neighborhood, creating laboratories of meaning where we are both hearers and doers of the word in an inclusively diverse manner?

  • pashley1411

    Haven’t we seen this “religion but no hierarchy” idea since, hmm, 100 AD?

    The RCC didn’t spring into its present form ab initio, but under pressure from many forces, but not least of which was prosecution by the state in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and opposition by dissidents and their political backers in the 16th and 17th centuries, each of whom would have been happy to eliminate the Church.

    Its all well and good to imagine a local church that better embodies the community of Acts. But I think its wishful thinking that a local community, isolated and with a few identifiable leaders, will withstand murderous secularism when it has raised its head in the past, and will do so again.

  • Gary Novak

    Whither Catholicism? Berger’s prognosis cannot be encouraging to Catholics. If it retains its authoritarian core business (“reads the minutes of the last meeting”), it will not survive in a pluralistic world. If it becomes a promoter of rock concerts, there will be no point in surviving. Perhaps the future of Catholicism is foreshadowed in Benedict’s resignation. The Church seems to have no answers to European secularism or Brazilian Pentecostalism . But notice: If Berger is not tempted to swim in the Tiber, neither is he interested in being baptized by The Spirit. The “Pentecostal package” contains both core Protestantism—direct access to God without the mediation of an authoritarian church—and the more flamboyant forms of charismatic worship, which, arguably, can work against the core principles of Protestantism by replacing tradition altogether with “holy rolling”—a form of enthusiastic, “spiritualist” collective behavior that inhibits individual direct access to God. Can one hear the dark drums of God when one is speaking in tongues at a rock concert?

    Much depends on our understanding of the “Holy Spirit,” and, as Berger notes in his lay exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (“Questions of Faith”), “It is probably fair to say that the average Christian in contemporary Western societies has a more or less coherent notion of the meanings of ‘God’ and ‘Christ,’ but would be at a loss if asked to specify what is meant by the ‘Holy Spirit.’” Berger ends his chapter on the Holy Spirit by commending Luther for finding a balanced position between antiquarian obsession with the historical Jesus and unbridled anything-goes enthusiasm for free-floating “spirituality.” Berger’s attempt to find a balance incorporates Biblical criticism unavailable in Luther’s time and, consequently, is less “Scripture-centric” than Luther’s, but it is still a balance and, importantly, insists that we not “set impermissible limits on how God chooses to disclose Himself to human beings.” We might say that it is the Holy Spirit that brings us those delightful signals of transcendence.

    Berger cautions us not to assume that the 15% of Brazilians who are “nones” are necessarily secularists. He made a similar point in his blog on the absence of Humanist funerals (1/10/13) when he cited the Pew study indicating that 80% of “nones” believe in God and pray regularly. “Nones” should be seen as unchurched but not necessarily faithfully secular. But if there are quasi-religious people outside the churches, there are undoubtedly potential “nones” still inside the churches. “Catholic nun” may soon have to be spelled out to avoid ambiguity. (Recall Berger’s joke about the atheist in strife-torn Ireland who was nevertheless required to specify whether he was a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist.)

    Any strategy for revitalizing Christianity should address “nones” both inside and outside the churches. Consider: the Pew study Berger cites for the 15% Brazilian “none” figure also reports that in most countries surveyed (including the United States), Pentecostals who report never “speaking in tongues” outnumber those who do. Yet speaking in tongues is the “initial evidence” for the reception of the Holy Spirit, which is a defining characteristic of Pentecostalism. It seems that most Pentecostals are actually wannabe Pentecostals!

    And why do they want to be Pentecostals? Because modern pluralism imposes the heretical imperative on them. As Berger puts it (above): “This is why many modern people are so nervous.” Berger sees both secularism and Evangelicalism as responses to “the challenge of modern pluralism.” And if secularism is a matter of throwing in the towel (so as not to have to make Weber’s “intellectual sacrifice”), Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism represent a more assertive reaction to pluralism. One might say that the common flaw in most of the options available in the religious marketplace is that they offer too much certainty. The inerrancy of an infallible church, the inerrancy of Scripture, the inerrancy of personal spiritual experience, even the inerrancy of scientific method (bound to produce the best results in the long run)—enough with the inerrancy! Why should it be so hard to stand our ground even under conditions of uncertainty when our philosophical anthropology suggests that those who claim to have successfully completed the quest for certainty (whether they are supernaturalists or naturalists) are bluffing?

  • Robert F

    In my own experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that just because people have no institutional religious affiliation doesn’t mean they have no religious/spiritual beliefs or convictions. I think most do; and, as you point out, Gary Novak, just because they have institutional religious affiliation doesn’t mean they buy the theology of their own church lock,stock and barrel. Adherence to any strict form of orthodoxy is extremely rare, I would wager. And so, as you say, we must learn to stand our ground even amidst uncertainty, and embrace the heretical imperative that modern pluralism imposes on us, realizing that even while it represents an increase in freedom, it is nevertheless an imposition that makes us nervous.

  • Gary Novak

    Thanks to Robert F for finding intelligible my remarks, which hopefully do not distort Berger too much. But it is Peter Jessen’s concept of “neighborhoodization” (apparently based on Diana Bass’s “Christianity After Religion”) that I would like to address. Jessen contrasts neighborhoodization with the inclusively diverse “global neighborhood.” I understand his concern: neighborhood churches can become “gated communities” or Brigadoons (ideal, timeless villages separated from reality). And, after religion, “Christianity” can dispense with theology—especially the Holy Spirit, which has a habit of butting in where uninvited and upsetting our carefully planned projects to save the world through reduced carbon emissions. Jessen sees Bass’s post-religious world as one in which we no longer attempt to interpret scripture but contemplate our belly buttons.

    But neighborhoodization does not entail rejection of the transcendent (or ancestor worship). The scope of a Godder’s activity may be limited to family, friends, co-workers, and personally-encountered strangers—neighbors—without becoming secularized. Indeed, the very desire to make a global splash—think of Obama’s desire to move from mere community organizer to imperial President—may indicate a lack of faith in the eternal significance of “trivial” encounters.

    So, I’m not disagreeing with Mr. Jessen—just wondering if he has drawn the battle lines in the best way. I think his real argument is not with local communities, but gated communities.

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  • Duane Alexander Miller

    Dear Dr Berger,

    Thank you for this. I understand you were writing about Brazil, but your explanation of pluralization is very helpful in explaining my own topic of study as well, namely conversion from Islam to Christianity. Even in many Muslim countries where coercive violence is used to halt the pollution of the Christian message, pluralization is a reality and conversions have increased to unprecedented levels in places like Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, and even Egypt.

  • Peter Jessen

    I like the way Pashley and Novak address the central question of Berger’s essay on “the pluralistic revolution” that Berger sees as “a root fact of the present age.” And it indeed “creates a basic challenge to religion,” as it does to any group proclaiming “certainty” about past, present and future reality, with a special challenge different than than the one faced by secularity. And regardless of whether religious or secular, the root of the pluralistic revolution is that it “undermines the taken-for-granted character of any religious tradition” (as well as secular, but in different ways). The good news for fans of religion and godders alike, is that (1) the human need for identity and meaning won’t go away, (2) hierarchies in reality and in felt needs are an immutable fact of life, and (3) assuming God is not a figment of our imagination, (see any commentary on the Holy Ghost regardless of trinitarian in/exclusion) God in his infinitely mysterious ways won’t self obliterate.

    Authority in hierarchies has always been the method of keeping “truth” in line. What, now, with the pluralistic revolution’s discovery of multiple truths? Pashley reminds us of the empirical realities of hierarchy through the ages and the romance of the localism of the so-called “60s” denial of it (as well as any “revolution” in its infancy until it begins to acquire a wider acceptance).

    Hierarchy (with the exception of various forms of anarchy) will always permeate the competing and aligned ideologies and movements around the globe, whether religious or secular, political or not political It is quite remarkable how many claim inerrancy, so much so that Novak cries out, “enough with the inerrancies,” as he lists three and a possible fourth (to which I add two more). The big three to Novak are (emphasis added): “the inerrancy of an infallible church, the inerrancy of Scripture, the inerrancy of personal spiritual experience, even the inerrancy of scientific method (and although I understand why Novack states that the scientific method is “bound to produce the best results in the long run,” I’m wary and need to know how he is defining science, given the many “denominational” claims of “inerrancy” based on political acceptability/agenda/ideology or just plain utopian thinking “backed by science”).

    To Novak’s list I would add “the inerrancy claimed by various political parties and ideologies and the inerrancy beliefs of certain corporate and leadership ideologies. These six cover everyone, whether supernatural or natural, materialist or non-materialist).

    The history of the Roman Catholic church seems to me to be one of remarkable adaptability to the obvious pluralism it encountered and then took into the church. Certainly, in the past 2,000 years, the Roman Catholic church, with or without, despite or because of the Holy Spirit, is the only organization to last this long, due to its ability to adapt, as Pashley reminds us that without a hierarchical church, it might have been eliminated in the 3rd and 4th centuries, or later in the 6th and 17th centuries.

    Novack offers us a key, clue concept about The Church: “If it becomes a promoter of rock concerts, there will be no point in surviving” (note, he didn’t say it won’t, just that there will be no point, as it could lead to an institution of nones enjoying each others social company). Note that The Lutheran magazine recently ran as cover story “The Shrinking Church.”

    The modern movements opposed to hierarchy contain non-denominational churches, who instead have an internal hierarchy of their own “dear leaders,” all viewing their future as successful failure avoidance, the same as those who still view socialist model” as best: they will work because they will run them.

    When Novak says “Any strategy for revitalizing Christianity should address “nones” both inside and outside the churches,” he suggests a crucial window important to his question: “Whither Catholicism?” He gives a great short course on Berger’s thought. In my view it is the why and how many of the churches and denominations construct their education systems, especially in the “main moments” of the Sunday School hour, confirmation, and Vacation Bible School, where we find that mix of “nones” and non nones: parents who bring their kids to get a moral foundation not having found a better alternative in society (especially not the schools which have taken “tolerance” for any values to the point that no longer offering acceptable alternative fundamental/foundational alternatives to nihilism and relativism. And given the entertainment worlds’ preoccupation with the spiritual/occult/speaking with spirits and “the other side,” Pentecostals are not the only “wannabes”).

    “The Church seems to have no answers to European secularism or Brazilian Pentecostalism,” is an excellent “of course” statement. The Church now seems poised, with the new Pope’s election, to offer up its “further notice” of change yet again. The “trick,” as always, is being able to “marry the spirit of the age without soon becoming a widower.” Its record is very good. How it will answer the bell we can’t know, but we can be sure it will answer it in some substantial way.

  • Peter Jessen

    My use of “neighborhoodization” was an attempt to expose those who seek certainty at their favorite end of the continuity spectrum (with “global” at the other end, and nations and smaller groupings in-between).

    It is not my concept. It is not based on Bass. My sense of neighborhood was shaped in the 1970s, when “neighborhood government” was one of number of movements of t”he local,” as was the book title of E.F. Schumacher, “Small is Beautiful.”

    I spent a weekend in the woods of the Willamette with Schumacher and leading Oregon environmentalists from the Governor’s office, in the Spring of 1975. We then went to the U of Oregon where Schumacher delivered an address on his book and concepts. The youngsters, as they are wont in every generation, yelled and berated him for not “fixing” the earth. It was as close to a Gandhi peace response on his part that I have seen. Schumacher told me how he lamented the misunderstanding of the terms he used, “small is beautiful” and “appropriate technology” as he was not saying, as his acolytes would push, that everything should be at the local level. “Appropriate” use of technology depended on the full continuum, from global to regional to state to county to city to neighborhood.

    In the early 70’s, I was involved with and studied the neighborhood government movement in Washington, D.C. (and Chicago and other cities). It had/has much to offer to help work out issues of the Pluralist Revolution. Advocates used a Washington DC neighborhood to demonstrate, operating out of a no longer used auto dealership maintenance bay. They crafted alley wind mills, hydroponic gardens, fish farms, and other approaches geared to help the ghetto poor grow their own food, generate their own energy, provide their own transportation (big on bicycles), and earn income, all leading to sustainability.

    My suggestions that the poor be invited to help create this “solution” fell on deaf ears. When the whites were finished with their legos they tried to turn it over to the neighborhooders (not that I was much help, although I kept things from being stolen off the upper level porch by sleeping with a loaded pistol under my pillow; as the saying goes, “those were the days”). The problem was that the poor (lacking in education, jobs and good housing) wanted the air conditioned cars and air-conditioned homes the white folks drove back and forth to their “gates” in the suburbs. as opposed to what they were offered, a socionomically gated ghetto Brigadoon when they wanted the air-conditioned gates in the suburbs.

    My interest in neighborhoods was further cemented by Berger’s 1977 pamphlet on mediating structures and their role in developing public policy, of which neighborhoods are but one of five mediating structure (another being churches).

    My battle lines in terms of community or neighborhoods center on education, jobs, housing, and, if I may interject, fairness and justice. For ten years I’ve edited and done research for a column by an “old-school” community advocate (old school in that he is not on any payroll: its al done pro bono). He is in Minneapolis. And some of the most vocal opponents of changing the negative status quo in these and other areas are in the Black leadership (civil rights bureaucrats, NAACP and Urban League bureaucrats, and the Black non-profits (university/policy institutes/foundations).

    Thinking they have a monopoly on people of color, they miss that they have instead been corrupted by a new form of the civil rights pluralistic revolution that serves the leaders, not the led (and before responding to this, please google Harry Belefonte’s remarks at the recent NAACP Awards presentations). The columns (and ten year archive plus “solution papers”) are at For exposing these things he was kicked out of the Urban League and expelled from the NAACP (not for what he did but that he did). So the forces of change to keep things from changing are strong. It is always tougher when ministers are directing people to the back of the bus. The same applies to the church in the pluralistic revolution under discussion.

    Movements are distractions, like the one Novak mentions, to “save the world through reduced carbon emissions.” I just learned this week of an effort of local churches, including mine, to support the 350 project which has the support of the UCC: divesting all church held investments in carbon fuel companies (oil, coal, shale, gas, etc.). It is hard to keep up with all of the salvivic activities.

    My “battle lines” are far less impressive. Nnot the earth (she’ll take care of herself) nor the Holy Ghost (He/She will continue His/Her mysterious ways of the mysterium tremendum, regardless of our efforts). My questions is this: when will these “saviors” take on real issues: education and jobs and housing? The mantra of Nellie Stone Johnson remains true: no education, no jobs, no housing.

    My sense is that where faith is truly inclusive, making blending not an imperative but a “natural,” more will come, more will believe, more will find their spiritual home. Which pluralist decision lever will matter most? Will it be he institutional sense that above all else The Church must be saved, or will it be the personal sense, that every lost lamb/coin/lamp must be saved, and will/can be, if they have faith together as Golden Rule practicing Good Samaritans visibly being The Imitation of Christ, or will it be yet another candidate from the plural?

  • Gary Novak

    If we let ourselves go, I think Mr. Jessen and I could break the record for number of responses to a post. I might even wind up speaking in tongues. But I do want to do a little summing up and wrapping up before moving on to the next post.

    First, I did not mean to endorse the belief that scientific method is bound to produce the best results in the long run. That was intended as a paraphrase of the belief in the inerrancy of scientific method, whose advocates admit that particular research results are corrigible but insist that the scientific method is the only legitimate game in town. In a previous post I mentioned Berger’s observation that, from a sacramental point of view, the empirical world in its entirety is a gigantic symbol of the face of God. In that context, science isn’t even in the game, much less inerrant. So, I, too, am wary of science when it forgets its limitations.

    I found Jessen’s description of his work in minority neighborhoods interesting but not surprising. The whites wanted to keep their suburban Brigadoons separate from the “model cities” ghetto Brigadoons they designed for blacks. The community of black leaders not only didn’t trust whites; it didn’t trust its constituents or black critics. These groupings were what Maurice Friedman calls “communities of affinity” as opposed to “communities of otherness,” which he favors. When Jessen speaks of inclusive faith—where inclusion is not an imperative but a natural consequence of openness—he is pretty much defining “community of otherness.” And both Friedman and Jessen can here be contrasted with “multiculturalism,” which does treat inclusiveness as an imperative. Communities of affinity exclude anyone and anything that threaten their plausibility structures. So, it seems that Jessen is, after all, drawing the battle lines in the right place—between communities of affinity and communities of otherness. The size of the community—local or global—is not central to the distinction. Even if there is no such thing as a global neighborhood, we can very fruitfully ponder what it is that enables people to risk encounter with the other. The perception of the inviolable human dignity of the other is a strong candidate to both explain and minimize that courage. For it would seem to take less courage to respect the other if, at bottom, the other isn’t all that other!

  • Peter Jessen

    To Gary Novak:

    My first impulse was to type “Agreed!”

    My second impulse was to say, “No, I need to respond in order honor and respect the time you have taken to read and comment, especially as I gain much from them.”

    My third impulse was then to say, “but the way to best honor you would be to listen to the first impulse.”

    So, a middle position: I will hold my thoughts and merely point out that whether we are commenters or lurkers or both on this blog, we all have all had the good fortune to come across the works of Berger, whether recently, decades ago, or in this blog for the first time.

    I have yet to find another intellectual framework as good as his for my own analytical purposes as it relates to my own personal, religious, communal, and professional contestation purposes.

    I’ve tried wearing other coats but none fit me as well as Berger’s. I thank you for reminding us of the difference between “communities of affinity” and “communities of otherness.” You help me understand my own thinking better.

    Jacques Barzun suggests we are at the end of a 500 year era (in his book of 2000: “From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present”). What’s next? Berger helps us better understand how to “play” the global and local contestations involved that will unwind as “next”. I see three sets of contestations. I look forward to continuing to wrestle with Berger’s continuing insights and understandings as presented in his blog, books, and articles, along with the comments accompanying this blog that also help in this process.

    The three major contestation sets that I see as key to developing what Berger calls “acceptable models of development,” and why, contestations that contend for our allegiance, each with internal contestations as well, are:

    (1) capitalism/market/prosperity and democracy/liberty/equality and socialism/distributionist/inequality

    (2) religious spirit/creeds/organizations, political ideas/manifestors/organizations and scientific theories/findings/organizations

    (3) Liberal Conservative Socialist trio of Barzun, as he adds a different wrinkle to the contestation: “a sensible voter should call himself a Liberal Conservative Socialist, regardless of the election returns…. Changes…mean only a little more or a little less of each tendency, depending on the matter under consideration” (p. 689).

    Berger’s work helps enormously as an intellectual North Star for understanding these contestations and the contestations within contestations. You, with others, help me understand his corpus better, as we all work in our own way on figuring out how to enable outcomes with the maximum of meaning and the minimum of pain, as we continue to share the one thing we all have: the future, both globally and locally, in our public and private spheres.

    Thus, I find this blog and its comments well worth the time to read, ponder and, where applicable, comment. You not only speak in tongues, you have the rare gift of interpreting tongues as well. You explain me to myself better than I do. I look forward to continuing our dialogue with the others, where we agree or disagree, about the wit and wisdom of Berger as it applies to these contestations and how to find middle positions that will “work” in the midst of the ultimate contestation: between relativism and fundamentalism.

  • Gary Novak

    I’ll steal Peter Jessen’s line: Agreed!
    Berger’s blog is a stimulus package that actually stimulates.

  • Peter Jessen

    Agreed indeed.

    What would be a useful addition to the program used for this blog would be, as some blots that allow comments do, to send automatic email alerts of new postings to those who have posted. Some send to all who sign up for such an email alert.

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