Fighting This Bitch of a War
Published on: December 2, 2009
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  • wigwag

    “Thus the individual who escaped from Brooklyn may join a Reform synagogue on the Upper West Side, or become a Roman Catholic, or for matter become a Buddhist (a considerable number of Buddhist teachers in America have Jewish names).” (Peter Berger)

    A number of people have noted similarities between some forms of Buddhism (e.g. Tibetian) and Jewish and Islamic mystical traditions such as Kabbalah and Sufism. Whether these comparisons represent anything more than “new-age” mumbo-jumbo I don’t know.

    Professor Berger points out that a number of Jews find themselves drawn to Buddhism; some Jews actually credit Buddhism with serving as a bridge to reconect them with their Judaism. There’s an interesting book on the subect entitled, “The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish
    Identity in Buddhist India” by Rodger Kamenetz.
    It is worth a look.

  • In practice, Mr. Berger is probably right that Reconstructionist Judaism is to the “left” of Reform, but the denominations’ founder, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, taught for many years at the Conservative flagship, the Jewish Theological Seminary.

  • Dagnabbit_42

    Funny thing, that saying.

    These days, Puerto Ricans vote more conservatively than either Jews or Episcopalians, and it’s hard to tell which is more left-wing, the Jews or the Episcopalians. So Jews vote like the Episcopalians, just as they earn like them; and the Puerto Ricans seem irrelevant to either group.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I am not competent to comment on the pluralistic versions of Judaism in America. But Berger’s nuanced discussion about the tripartite church-sect-denomination typology is salient for further comment.

    What has always seemed to be missing in the church-sect typology paradigm is the issue of counterculturization. Arguably and hypothetically, Christianity was either created or co-opted by the Romans to be the inverse of Judaism to quell the militant Maccabean zealots and the terrorist Sicarii as described in Josephus’s The Jewish War. To do this they had to construct a new form of Judaic religion that loved enemies, rendered taxes unto Caesar, replaced law with the grace of a ruler, and espoused turning the other cheek and pacifism. The Maccabeans were the only Roman colony where the occupied refused to worship Caesar and the Imperial Cult in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

    Thus, the Romans hatched anti-Semitism plausibly with the aid of elite Jews such as Josephus, Bernice daughter of Herod, and possibly Tiberius Alexander who was the Roman Emperor Titus’ brother. Josephus and Bernice pleaded with the Maccabeans to not resist the Romans for fear of annihilation, which eventually came with the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple (see Jospehus’ conclusion of The Jewish War). This thesis is not original and can be most recently found in Jewish scholar Barrie Wilson’s “How Jesus Became Christian” among other works. Later, Christianity ironically co-opted the Romans and became the religion of empire. The sect co-opted the church.

    In other words, the Romans turned Judaism inside-out. Much later, Jewish psychologist Sigmund Freud reduced Christianity and Judaism to an internal conversation; as did Karl Marx reduce Protestant and Jewish Capitalism to mere economic ideology. And subsequently, many secular “sects” set out to counter psychoanalysis in the same way that Protestant religious sects rejected Catholicism.

    Following Max Weber, what made “churches” world-affirming was that they were state affirming. Conversely, without the external support of the state the church couldn’t be considered to fall into the category of a “church.” What made sects “sects” was that they were world-rejecting and thus to some degree also state rejecting.

    The rise of the denomination in America changed state-rejecting sects into state-affirming sects (see David Martin, “The Denomination,” British Journal of Sociology, 13(1962): 1-14; and Peter Berger, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies, 1961). The decline of mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. possibly parallels the decline of Conservative Judaism.

    The cult might be considered a rather small, tight-knit, and radical group that never is able to form a formal organization or bureaucratic hierarchy and disaffirms both church and sect (e.g, the Sicarii?). At the cognitive level, churches created worldviews, sects heresies, and cults gnostic secret knowledge. Cults had no “routinization of charisma” (as Weber called it) and thus were unable to perpetuate themselves to the next generation.

    As Berger points out, denominations caught in the middle tend to just eventually die out.

    The above is all very speculative and hypothetical and unaccepted in the sociological literature. But there is a counter-cultural process of turning a church into a sect; and perhaps vice versa as pointed out above, as Christianity became the Roman state religion.

    Berger’s “The Sociological Study of Sectarianism”(Social Research, 21 (1954): 467-485, introduced a different operational variable in distinguishing sect from church: “nearness to the spirit.” The rise of Protestant Pentecostalism in Africa and South America seems to fit this approach.

    I realize I have opened up a can of sociological and hermeneutic worms with the above comments. Nonetheless, I remain a sectarian Protestant Christian, in religious faith, albeit following Berger’s “Heretical Imperative.”

  • Prof. Berger: The British Library is in a new building, but the British Museum is not — however, the old Reading Room, where Marx wrote, has been converted to new purposes.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    One area of social life where perception is critical is panhandling by homeless persons. Many people perceive panhandling as harassment and intimidation. Much of it is an exercise right out of social psychologist Irving Goffman’s book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” or Peter Berger’s “The Social Construction of Reality.” To those whom panhandlers solicit the gnawing question is whether the panhandler is genuine or a pretender and whether giving them money actually is counterproductive to helping them (will they spend the money on alcohol and will it them from seeking work).

    I used to hang out at a sort of highbrow coffee house near the Caltech campus in Pasadena, California. There was one apparent homeless man who would solicit outside. Sometimes he would come inside and sit but not risk soliciting customers. He had a Chevy van that he owned and would park off the premises hoping no one would see his vehicle. I once observed him rubbing his bare arms with soil to appear disheveled. He had made friends with several upper middle class male customers but not with women.

    When a nonprofit organization set up a table in front of the coffee house to solicit donations using an apparent homeless person, women customers were observed to be more comfortable with making a contribution. Few customers were around at the end of a day when a well-dressed person in a brand new black Cadillac car came and picked up the money box and the apparently homeless person (who I assumed was paid on a per hour basis). These solicitation tables were scattered all over the city in front of where upscale people shopped or banked. Homelessness is a big non-profit business in California.

    However, if a homeless man was observed at what is called “dumpster diving” most women would feel too intimidated to offer money. But it is the homeless person who is desperate enough to abandon their dignity and put their head down deep into a trash bin to find a pop bottle they could redeem for a small coin. I have always been more prone to offering unsolicited money to the “dumpster divers” who risk losing their dignity than those who may or may not be feigning homelessness.

    The problem which Dr. Berger explores of morality and perception may be more clearcut with Jews facing death camps, slavery, or those led to the gallows. But for many homeless people encountered on the street there is an unavoidable perception of cognitive dissonance: what I am led to believe is the social definition of the situation may not be consistent with the underlying reality. To be moral in such ambiguous situations would require what Berger called “sociological Machiavellianism” in his book “Invitation to Sociology” (see Chapter 5 – Sociological Machiavellianism and Ethics). Berger: “Machiavellianism, whether political or sociological, is a way of looking.” Berger points out however that clearer sociological perception of a situation does not axiomatically lead to a higher degree of ethical sensitivity as much as a heightened sense of cynicism and sometimes even “bad faith.”

    A more difficult problem is using sociological perception of, say, the social fiction of homelessness to avoid responsibility. Should I not help because of the social fictitiousness of homelessness? Living in a society of Potemkin Villages presents difficult ethnical dilemmas. August Comte thought that sociology could produce an objective basis of morality. Certain religious codes and traditions believe the same. But as Berger reminds us, neither science nor religion can avoid the “indicative” situation: “what should I do?” Sociology, and even religion, can help look through the social fictions of homelessness, slavery, or capital punishment.

    As I was writing this comment my carpenter called me asking for work and explaining that by circumstance he was homeless due to his wife forcing him to leave his home. He was camping out in the wilderness and his truck was inoperable because the battery was dead. Applying Berger’s indicative perception: man was not made to live as an animal in the forest. The situation of genuine homelessness violates human dignity. My carpenter is now living in a spare bedroom in my home and went back to work today for the first time in months. He will have the money to get his truck running again next week. I am not sure I would have extended such hospitality to others whose genuineness is suspect. But even clearcut perceptions of what to do can arise out of the social fictitiousness of homelessness. Berger: “sociology uncovers the infinite precariousness of all socially assigned identities.” Accurate perception – or “discernment” – is not necessarily antithetical to religion. In the Christian tradition there is always the perception “be wise as a serpent but innocent as a dove.”

  • Michelle

    Dear Sir:
    My impression from reading the Catholic press, which was indignant at the interpretation being placed on the Pope’s words, is that what Pope Francis actually said was not that we are all saved but that we are all redeemed, between which there is a fairly profound difference. I believe it is in the Gospel of John that Jesus himself tells everyone that only through himself is salvation possible. I’m not familiar with Cyprian, but I’m guessing he was making the claim that the Catholic Church was the only genuine reflection of Jesus’s message.
    We don’t know what God intends for those who don’t believe in his existence, although I am persuaded that he doesn’t just throw them away. I think Francis was only telling us that one place where the believer and the atheist can meet in perfect agreement is in a life of service.

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