The Modern Condition
How to Live in a (Supposedly) Secular Age

The relation between modernity and faith is often perceived and presented as an epic struggle. But it’s actually not that difficult to be a modern person and hold on to one’s faith.

Published on: March 11, 2014
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  • free_agent

    There’s a lot of truth in this — I notice that despite living in one of the most “secular” sections of the US (New England), I don’t know many people who are truly unbelievers. But what I notice is a substantial decline in “formal” religion, that is organized bodies with prescribed rituals and stated and enforced codes of behavior. There seems to be a very persistent core of spiritual belief in the sense of (what we would call) non-material forces providing a larger context and purpose of life, and often considered to have quite a bit of effect on events.

    Two of the snarkier summaries of this shift are:

    “It is the kind of philosophy that emerges when religious feeling is no longer disciplined by religious ritual that is established by tradition and upheld by social pressure.” (Theodore Dalrymple)

    “In ‘The Prophet’ [Gibran] Osterized all these [holy books] into a warm, smooth, interconfessional soup that was perfect for twentieth-century readers, many of whom longed for the comforts of religion but did not wish to pledge allegiance to any church, let alone to any deity who might have left a record of how he wanted them to behave.” (Joan Acocella)

    I think the difference is exemplified by the difference between the “formal religion of China”, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religion (q.v. Wikipedia).

    • qet

      I tend to agree with the snarks on this one. Personally, I am not a man of faith, but I do not try to substitute a vague squishy idea of “spirituality” in its place. I am not a materialist; I feel that most of what is interesting in human life cannot be explained in material terms. I think about this sort of thing a lot and have yet to work out any firm conclusions. The fact is this: modernity has simply ceased asking questions about faith and spirit publicly. Whether faith-based spirituality or philosophical realism, any discourse that leans toward the immaterial, that occurs outside of the material cause and effect laws of physical science, is automatically consigned by most of the academic, media and cultural elites to the dustbin of fanaticism (what “most people” actually think is, contra Berger’s nod to empirical methods, largely irrelevant, as it always has been, to our perception of any era’s views on such matters). Overtly faith-centered talk, especially if the faith is Christianity, is regarded as a sign of all that our young people are being told is wrong with Western history, which is pretty much all of it. We don’t see public disputes on the level of doctrinal difference like we used to. Public discourse never makes it that far anymore.

      Nietzsche observed, correctly IMO, that moral fanaticism increases in direct proportion to the casting off of religious values. Virtually the entire field of modern international law is proof of that proposition, although that is a discussion for another time and place.

      • Arguably from Nietzsche’s perspective, contemporary fundamentalisms are themselves a form of moral fanaticism reacting to its own casting off of older religious values.

        The narrowing of public discourse to exclude anything remotely religious probably has to do with the steep decline in class, character and intelligence among religious voices in the public sphere, more or less as Ross Douthat has described it. A very crass, ornery fundamentalism took the center stage in the 1970s and has gone on to demonstrate their love of God mainly by harassing their neighbors. They would disagree with that perception, but all that matters is it is the perception of virtually everyone outside their ranks. So we now have an entrenched “religious right” that is locked in an intractable relationship of mutual reaction with everyone it hates and everyone who hates it back. F_A is right if he is suggesting Berger overestimates the resources we have left for coming to convivial and merely civil agreements on public issues.

    • Better on Dalrymple: it is one kind of philosophy that can emerge when religious ritual established by tradition and upheld by social pressure (with ample forms of abuse) crushes, twists, or drives out religious feeling and the capacity for love in the children it ministers to. No tears then for the millstones being hung around the necks of proponents of such religion.

  • Boritz

    Thoughtful discourse about an important topic. I got a kick out of pairing this quote with another though.

    “…frequency distribution…The phrase is to be recommended to all inclined to make a priori statements about anything.”

    — for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, — Isa 46:9

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    As always Berger’s apertif stimulates the appetite before digesting the meal of the sacred cow raised on USDA approved organic, non-antibiotic, non-GMO feed.

    There may be fewer religious rituals in the public square that epitomizes secularization but secular government often appropriates religious symbols and rituals for their use. I remember some years ago to be amused as a city-sponsored outdoor candle light vigil for AIDS victims how radically secular government in California needed to borrow religious ritual to legitimize their causes. Berger has written about how certain religious symbols such as the Cross can be used by both the civil rights movement and the Klu Klux Klan.

    One of the reasons I believe we have the growth of what might be called a secular “cognitive majoritarianism” or authoritarianism (to borrow and reverse Berger’s concept of “cognitive minority”) is the growth of the Welfare State and its sycophantic Knowledge Class. Religious institutions, especially Protestant Christianity, are a cognitive threat to the occupational and political ideologies socially constructed to legitimate government largesse.

    Consider the multi-billion dollar “global warming” industry which has had to cognitively morph into a mission of combating “climate change” for lack of empirical proof of any warming other than in tweaked statistical models or one of Berger’s skewed “frequency distributions.”

    The appropriation of theological-like terms such as global warming “denier” is right out of a texbook on cognitive dissonance by Leon Festinger. It is no longer religious prophets prophesying the end of the world but the secular scientist with a multi-million dollar research grant and the sinecure of tenure for life in academia. I am always intrigued why such scientists are often so vehemently anti-religious. Is it because religion points to the plausibility of a transcendent world over and above the secular world tout court? The secular scientist can intuitively perceive those who by their particular social location and worldview can look through the social fiction on which their livelihood depends.

    I will close my comment with a Berger-like joke on secularization:

    Q: Why do engineers confuse Halloween and Christmas?

    A: Because Oct 31 = Dec 25

  • MontyBurnz

    Mr. Berger, the fact that people can remain religious despite living under the ‘etsi Deus non daretur’ secular frameworks of law and markets does not prove that we are not living in a secular age, which is what you explicitly disagreed with Taylor about. This is an affirming the consequent logical fallacy.

    Rather it shows that de facto they can exist and it is not necessarily mutually exclusive for a person to be religious and be secular due to appropriate compartmentalization.

    The fact that we live in a secular age can shown with this example. In the 1950s, a Catholic Bishop, the venerable Fulton J. Sheen, had a prime time show on ABC Tuesday’s at 8:00pm that competed against “Mr. Television”, Milton Berle, and even won an Emmy where on stage he thanked his writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Today, ABC’s big hit is Modern Family, which epitomizes our secular age and celebrates the “non traditional” family and a gay couple with an adopted kid. Times have changed.

    Could you imagine a religious cleric of any faith or denomination having a prime time network show in our (secular) age?

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      This TV show would be an example of cognitive secularism propagated by certain elites not societal secularism.

      • MontyBurnz

        Which show are you referring to? If Modern family, the fact its on the air is a result of cognitive secularism propagated by elites but the fact that it is a hit show with millions upon millions of viewers can arguably reflect the growing societal secularism in the last 60 years. If we didn’t have a very secularized society, this show wouldn’t have such a big audience. Maybe I am not understanding your terms correctly, please define cognitive secularism as distinguished from societal secularism.

        • Wayne Lusvardi

          The concept of a Cognitive Minority is that a group may be a numerical majority or plurality but the cognitive or perceptual images produced in movies, TV, etc. may not reflect their values.

          I don’t believe the views of Harvard or Columbia University academics, or Hollywood producers, necessarily reflect the values of the American public.

          According to Wikipedia. com, the debut of Modern Family was watched by 12.6 million people or about 4% of the American public. And if we know anything about TV ratings they are inflated for advertisers. Let’s say their weekly ratings are half of that 12 million.

          Meanwhile at least 20% of Americans attend church on a given Sunday, about 40% or more less than every Sunday. That is 62 million people. If people attend church as little as 5 times a year, do they go to 5 movies a year? If they attend church 25 times do they watch 25 movies a year. I do not believe TV shows are a good sociological indicator of secularization in a pluralistic society with so many media options available to them.

          In the 1990’s the religious scholar Martin Marty produced a five part series of book on Fundamentalism. After reviewing that series of book, Dr. Berger once remarked something to the effect that the series of books revealed more of what liberal academics thought about fundamentalists than what it revealed about them. Please be mindful, that Berger is no apologist for fundamentalists, whether religious or secular.

          • MontyBurnz

            My personal background in in philosophy and medicine so thank you for the sociological insights. I’m not totally clear on your position though. Do you agree with Berger that our age is not secular but believe we have a cognitive majoritarianism currently with a pious cognitive minority that remains numerically greater?

            How would you explain the dramatic swing in the polling data on the question of same sex marriage in the last 20 years?

            We went from Clinton reading the political winds and signing DOMA to Obama coming out for gay marriage and polls showing majority support for the proposition to recognize same sex marriages federally. It seems to me that points somewhat to a growing secularization of the public despite holding on to their other religious views.

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            Monty – good discussion.
            Some of what you are referring to has to do with what sociologist Peter Berger calls pluralization, which is not entirely secularization. Legalizing gay marriage may actually end up making the institution of religious marriages stronger for all we know as yet.

            Berger is for civil unions for same sex couples but opposed to same-sex marriage. His view is based on empirical considerations not on morality. Berger is averse to the gay movement, however. Marriage is not sacred, but a useful and morally beneficial institution. What we call traditional marriage is only about 150 years old. Berger says we don’t know yet whether calling gay relationships “marriage” is going to produce more stability or fidelity. We know it will produce gay divorces. Berger calls for taking the symbolism out of the practical policy issue of marriage. Likewise, I believe we cannot solely depend on symbolism in gauging secularization.

            When children are involved this is an entire other matter because society has a stake in that. When couples marry some don’t have children. Everyone should be granted a civil union license and when they have children then the issue of marriage arises. The gay movement wants to elevate the social status of same sex unions without children to the same status of those with children. Being denied that status is not discrimination and should not be considered such under the law.

            Here is another thought: some gays “living in sin” without a marriage institution want the status of their relationships elevated by legalized institutions. In other words, does gay marriage reflect secularization as indicated by an anti-institutional ideology, or does it reflect a countersecular trend toward institutionalization? Are gays alienated and want mediating institutions (as Berger calls them) as a buffer between the impersonal forces and bureaucracies of society or do they want secularization?

            The other problem is that the high profile gay people most from the professional class that are depicted in the media as victims of anti-gay prejudice and discrimination, reflect only a small sample of gay elites. Many gay men still struggle with the same social disorganization and problems of those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, including presumed inability to find opposite sex mates. Many of these gay people don’t care about or don’t want gay marriage. I can tell you this from first hand experience as a former social worker. Some still want libertinism.

            The dominant cultural images that we are bombarded with in society and the politically correct methods and frameworks of teaching in public schools may be highly visible but not reflective of what is going on with actual people in their everyday lives. Sociology is an attempt to look through, under, around, and over the cultural images and social fictions we live by. Despite a tiny few highly advertised atheist funerals, how many people still want to convene in a church for a funeral?

            I have not answered your question I am afraid. Polling data to me is not very reflective of much given it can be twisted to the predilections of the pollers. And most people who “have a life” are too busy with little league, church, extended family, taking care of parents, etc. do not have time to answer polls. People who have time on their hands do and that makes polls skewed.

            The recognizing of gay unions but holding onto to one’s religious views reflects pluralization, not secularization per se.

          • MontyBurnz

            Thanks for responding, learned a lot. Not sure there is a substantial distinction in the essences of pluralization and secularization outside a terminological one since it seems the growing acceptance of gay marriage presupposes a secularization of the attitudes of the public as its causal explanation. But I generally concur with most of your and Berger’s positions on gay marriage but not totally. I have lots of philosophical objections to gay marriage not sociological ones.

            Advocates of same-sex marriage feel themselves to be riding the cresting wave of history, and justly so. The force with which an idea has taken hold (massive pluralization I suppose) that is unprecedented in human history and unthinkable until yesterday, the speed at which it is sweeping aside customary norms, legal precedent, and the remnants of traditional morality is nothing short of breathtaking. That it should have achieved this feat thanks largely to sentiment, fashion, and the brute power of a ubiquitous global media, with so little real thought about its profound effect upon human self-understanding or its far-reaching practical implications, is more astonishing still.

            For beneath the surface of this rising tide of ‘freedom and equality’ lies something very close to the brave new world of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian imagination.

            To appreciate this, we must first understand that the sexual revolution is, at bottom, the technological revolution and its perpetual war against natural limits applied externally to the body and internally to our self-understanding. Just as feminism has as its practical outworking, if not its theoretical core, the technological conquest of the female body—”biology is not destiny,” so the saying goes—so too same-sex marriage has as its condition of possibility the technological mastery of procreation, without which it would have remained permanently unimaginable.

            Opponents of same-sex marriage have not always perceived this clearly. They maintain that partisans of ‘marriage equality’ redefine marriage as an affective union which makes the birth and rearing of children incidental to its meaning, a result of the de-coupling of sex and procreation in the aftermath of The Pill. But this is only half true. Since married couples normally can and typically do have children, same-sex unions must retain in principle some form of the intrinsic connection between marriage, procreation and childrearing if they are really to be counted as marriage and to be truly ‘equal’ in the eyes of society and the law. This can only be done by technological means. And so the argument for marriage as an affective union has been buttressed time and again in the courts by the claim that assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), surrogacy, and the like eliminate any relevant difference between a married man and woman and a same-sex couple, from which it is but a short step to the conclusion that the state has an obligation to secure same-sex couples’ rights and access to these technologies as a condition of their genuine equality.

            To accept same-sex unions as ‘marriage’ is thus to commit officially to the proposition that there is no meaningful difference between a married man and woman conceiving a child naturally, two women conceiving a child with the aid of donor semen and IVF, or two men employing a surrogate to have a child together, though in the latter cases only one of the legally recognized parents can (presently) contribute to the child’s hereditary endowment and hope for a family resemblance. By
            recognizing same-sex ‘marriages’ the state also determines once and for all that ARTs are not merely a remedy for infertility but a normative form of reproduction equivalent to natural procreation, and indeed it has been suggested in some cases that ARTs are an improvement upon nature. Yet if this is true, it follows that no great weight attaches to natural motherhood and fatherhood and that being born to a father and mother is inessential to what it means to be human, or even to the meaning of childhood and family. These are not fundamentally ‘natural’ phenomena integral to human identity and social welfare but mere accidents of biology overlaid with social conventions that can be replaced by ‘functionally equivalent’ roles without loss.

            This leads inexorably to the state’s promotion of a more extensive regime of ARTs. Why, after all, should a heterosexual woman be entitled to unlimited prenatal and neonatal benefits—when pregnancy is essentially a choice—while same-sex couples are denied access to the technology necessary to conceive children of their own?

            As troubling as this practical consequence is, more worrisome still is the fundamental anthropology—the philosophy of human nature—implicit in it. We can concede that people support ‘marriage equality’ for what seem to be compassionate and humane reasons. But we’re talking about the objective logic of a position, its presuppositions and its practical implications, not the subjective content of one’s mind or the sincerity of one’s motivations and beliefs. And to declare that there is no difference between conceiving a child through procreation in a marriage and through the technology necessitated by same-sex unions is to say something definitive about what a child and the human being are, even if this goes unrecognized.

            To declare same-sex unions marriage and their technological ‘reproduction’ normative is essentially to reconceive the child not as a person but as an artifact. It is to deny that he is essentiallythe natural fruit of a love inscribed into his parents’ flesh; since love is now a mere emotion with no bearing on the meaning of the body, which has been relegated to the sub-personal realm of ‘mere biology.’ It is to deny that his being from his parents and having a lineage is deeply constitutive of his humanity or his personal identity;since the very notion of ‘lineage’ is confused by these new artificial combinations and since ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are merely names affixed to a social function which can be performed in creative new ways. And it is to deny that he is his own being with inviolable dignity who cannot be manipulated or controlled; since it was a process of manipulation and control that brought him into being in the first place. The technological dominance of procreation asserts, contrary to the child’s true nature and to his parents’ unquestionable love for him, that a child is essentially a product of human making, an assemblage of parts outside of parts that are the parts of no real whole, whose meaning and purpose, as with all artifacts, reside not in itself but in the designs of its maker.

            This will lead to new research in IVF, gender selection, the possibility of using three persons gametes to make a hybrid fetus or investigating ways to use solely two male or female gametes to make a baby. In this brave new world these kids will have little use for the philosophical questions that define human existence. Why am I here? Who made me? Will be reducible to scientific artifice and the will of others solely, ushering in a brave new world of sorts.

          • If the religiosity of a country is in doubt, it is a secular society. If you are trying to come to an answer by weighing movie attendance against church attendance, or by how many people watch a certain show, then it is a secular society with sociologists who can’t see the forest through the trees. If at many churches a movie or big screen projection is part of the service, it is time to start asking real questions about the quality and content of the religion.

  • Anthony

    Peter Berger’s essay brings to mind (among many other thoughts) prescriptive judgments we make about how to conduct our lives and our communities (within boundaries operational for both secular and religious enthusiasts). “How the interaction occurs” I think is premised (consciously or unconsciously) men reasonably disagreeing about questions of secularism and religion under restriction of Pluralism as applied in modern thought. Ability to compartmentalize enables Berger’s “it isn’t all that difficult” sans epic struggle.

  • Richard Moorton

    I find it difficult to accept the proposition that on Christian terms marriage is not sacred. Jesus was speaking of marriage when he said “What God has joined together let no man put asunder.” Of course some Christian denominations deny its sacrality,, but that is another matter. Those who live by sola scriptura, for instance, should at least follow scripture.



    • Of course marriage in Jewish, traditional Christian or simply Pauline terms is sacred, but you have to know those terms to understand what “the sacred” is. You’re forgetting that scripture cleared of traditional interpretations may have a weak (or no) concept of the sacred.

      • Richard Moorton

        Dan Knauss,

        Scripture radiates the sacred. God said to Moses at the burning bush “take off your scandals for you are standing on holy ground.” The reason that no man may look on God and live (among others) is His sacredness. The sacred is that which is dedicated to or proper to God (including that which is cursed). The Ark of the Covenant is so holy that a soldier trying to steady it with his bare hands to keep it from falling was struck dead. God’s holiness is at the foundation of the Hebrew ethos of purity.

        For another example, try this detail of Isaiah’s vision:

        Isaiah’s Vision of the Lord in His Glory
        …2Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.3And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” 4And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke.…

        Other examples are a dime a dozen. I don’t your proposition can be sustained.

        By the way, even pagan antiquity had a robust sense of the sacred. Diana and Actaeon is only one of thousands of possible examples.


        • Where do you people come from? The Society for Creative Christian Anachronism?

          • Richard Moorton

            Why Dan, you say the nicest things.


    • Wayne Lusvardi

      The form of marriage that existed circa 65 A.D. when the Gospel of Mark was probably written was based on arranged marriages within one’s tribe, caste, or cult. Would you consider that “sacred?”

      Sociologist Berger has pointed out that the form of modern marriage we take for granted today and Christian, especially Catholic, churches consider “sacred,” did not exist prior to the Industrial Revolution circa 1850, beginning with the steam engine in England.

      That form of religion has pejoratively been called the Bourgeoisie Family by Marxist intellectuals is also known as Middle Class Family in the USA, the Victorian Family in England, and Biedermeier in Germany. It is characterized by the nuclear family structure of two parents, a large emphasis on instilling values and education in their children, all conducive to economic success in the world. In the USA, bourgeoisie families are frequently found in suburbs.

      The same processes that ended up producing the Bourgeoisie Family (emphasis on individualism, choice not fate, personal responsibility, and for lack of a better term “self fulfillment,” have also produced more gay persons and childless marriages by choice that don’t desire children. A sociological hypothesis is that these same gay relationships and heterosexual childless marriages are prone to occur with those who are most bound by the demands on their time by highly technical knowledge occupations (lawyers, doctors, educators, psychologists, etc.).

      The Knowledge Class thus has a hypothesized tendency toward small families, childless heterosexual marriages, or even gay marriage (this hypothesis says nothing about the gay underclass that may only want sexual choice by libertinism). Persons in the Professional Class typically have high social status. They don’t want a “status inconsistency” of being considered “living in sin” for their choice of a highly individualized lifestyle uncoupled from tribe, klan, caste, sect, church, or parental lineage or parental values. They want secular laws to validate their relationships that have the same high social status as their occupational status. (so much for my sociological theory or same sex marriage borrowing or stealing concepts from Peter Berger).

      Is this form of secular marriage “profane” compared to the traditional “sacred” nuclear family of two parents and one or two children? Here I think Berger’s view on same sex marriage is helpful. If government only registers all marriages FIRST as civil unions and marriage licenses are only issued when children come into the picture, then this may not be as “de-sacralizing” as one might expect. It actually may end up sacralizing marriages with children all the more.

      Like Berger, I abhor the gay liberation movement while acknowledging in a pluralistic society there are gay relationships that seek institutionalization and a high status under the law. However, I don’t agree with creating a certain class of gays who have superior rights by affirmative action and other government patronage, than everyone else. Unfortunately, government by the Welfare State has created such a legal class of those with superior civil rights in the name of combatting sexual and gender discrimination. Same sex marriages of those from the Professional Knowledge Class want to be free of tribe, caste, klan, church, or denomination, but they don’t want to be free of their high social class status in high knowledge professions in a technocratic society.

      Christians might be better to consider carving out the sacredness of the traditional nuclear family in their own religious institutions. That gays want to invade those traditional institutions in a demand for equal social status would violate religious freedom it seems to me. American religious institutions are not public utilities as they are considered in Europe.

      • Richard Moorton


        While I appreciate your nuanced answer, I would replay that marriage is sacred in Christ’s view and sacred in mine. Christ and the early fathers never talk about families or sects or tribes, but they focus on the couple. There is a tension between monogamy as a dyad and a socially thick concept of marriage as an act of groups, but Christ’s focus on the primary agents seems to underscore the holiness of marriage properly joined. Hence the common language of God (or Christ) as a husband and Israel (or the Church) as His spouse. This is certainly sacred language

        The issues are multifoliate, but I am most interest in the biblical and ecclesiastical conception of marriage ab ovo. In this I am a student of the concise but rich discussion of marriage in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1601 to 1666. I’m not much interested, for these purposes, in marriage as a sociological or political or anthropological phenomenon, since these are not the stars by which I set my course.



        • Wayne Lusvardi

          Ok, so perhaps you agree with my statement that issuing licenses for every couple (hetero-or-homo sexual) for civil unions first and then churches sacralizing marriages once children come into the picture might actually make marriage exceptional and something that religious institutions, not the state, has control over? Why should Christians cede to governments the sacralizing of marriage?

          The argument that Jesus declared marriage holy is not the same as he declared it sacred, is it?

          Did Christians need the Roman Empire to declare marriage sacred for it to be sacred? Purely sociologically, sacredness implies social legitimation and gay marriage is perceived as de-legitimating the sacred concept of Christian marriage. But if marriage is merely licensed by government shouldn’t this leave churches to deem what is sacred?

          I am not the Biblical scholar you are. In your view, what do the following verses mean, which are a part of the New Testament passages that you cited as Jesus’ declaration of marriage as sacred?

          Does it mean that only Christians have been given the conception of marriage as sacred? If so, how is that different from what I suggested?

          And what do the verses below about eunuchs mean in your view?

          Gospel of Matthew 19:11

          But He said to them, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: 12 For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.”

          Thanks for the civil discussion.

          • Richard Moorton


            I see I must distinguish between the sacred and the holy.What follows is set in the framework of Catholic theology as I understand it.

            The sacred and the holy are related, but not identical. The sacred is that which is in some way consecrated to the divine. For Eliade the sacred is the manifestation of the holy. The holy is proper intrinsically only to God, and only derivatively to all else. Otto identifies the holy as the numinous, the awesome immensity of the divine. For me, the holy can even more properly be identified with the limitless ocean of love that is God.

            Marriage is sacred because it is ordered to the divine. It is holy because God instituted it, and means for people to become God filled within this sacred covenant.

            No secular government can sacralize marriage, but it still has a proper role in codifying marriage because the state has legitimate interests in it. Christians cannot use this ceremony as a substitute for the sacrament because Christ excluded it as the divine seal of the one flesh a man and woman become herein.

            Only Christians see marriage as sacred because only Christ can sanctify. Those who in good faith use other forms of marriage do not sin because sin presupposes knowledge of wrongdoing.

            The eunuch passage is a commentary on the relative holiness of marriage and celibacy chosen to devote all the self to God’s service.
            The born eunuchs are congenitally defective, those made eunuchs suffer castration, and those who make themselves eunuchs (metaphorically) for the kingdom of heaven choose Mary’s part, the better if more difficult, as those who marry choose Martha’s part, a holy service of the Lord.

            Or so I see it.



          • Contemporary Catholic ecclesiology and soteriology has recovered the medieval formulation that the church is co-extensive with humanity in at least potential. This means you don’t know who is really “inside” the church, so you can’t say things like “Only Christians see marriage as sacred because only Christ can sanctify.” That sounds like something a presuppositionalist Calvinist would say, because presuppositionalism is a very elaborated outcome of the doctrine of limited atonement (Barth called it Calvin’s heresy) and consequently a contracted, sectarian idea of a church that is not really universal in the creedal or gospel sense.

            Regarding the “natural eunuchs,” Jesus doesn’t seem to be talking about the men with obvious damage to their testicles who are excluded from religious assembly in Deuteronomy. The Talmud and Roman law roughly contemporary with Jesus seem to deal with “natural eunuchs” as same-sex attracted men.

          • Richard Moorton


            Thank you for the thoughtful post. I agree with virtually every point you make. I was trying to respond to a complex question within 300 words and had to adopt a telegraphic style that included much less than I wanted to say. Wayne asked me why only Christians see marriage as sacred. I don’t know that this is true, but I was at least able to express why I thought that Christians view marriage as sacred. Even here I am radically simplifying because many Protestants don’t view marriage as a sacrament. But I gave an answer that was at least in part consonant with Catholicism, I hope.

            I quite agree that the Catholic church views the Church as at least potentially universal, and I accept Augustine’s distinction between the visible and invisible church. I also agree that the intuition of the sacred is, at last at a point in the development of every culture, universal. Our nature is pointed towards the transcendental, the utmost and beyond. The religious find this beyond in God or some other non naturalistic beyond, and many atheists in seen and as of yet unseen nature, but I think the impulse is nearly universal. I also believe that every religion grasps some of the sacred truth, and that Christians have something to learn from many, though I think that Christianity is finally the most complete revelation. I do not limit salvation to any credal group because only God can judge and his grace is unfathomable.

            As for your understanding of natural eunuchs, I find it convincing, but I don’t see why we have to choose between genetic defect and same-sex attracted people, since both qualify for the scope of the expression.


          • I don’t think we have to choose between them either; those are just the limited and inadequate categories that were available in the 1st century because that was the best they were capable of, and I was just speaking to the views that might have pertained at that time.

            Understood on all the rest. The tension between the church as social institution and as community of universal humanity identified with Christ (the humiliated and outcast victim of institutional power) is such an important, bottomless mystery and source of insight that I always bring it up like a broken record when that tension seems to be in jeopardy of being lost.

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            Thank you sir.

  • Gary Novak

    Berger mentions James K. A. Smith’s observation that too many Christian philosophers, unwilling to think in tongues, wind up trying to fit the square peg of supernaturalism (“that their faith must affirm”) into the round hole of naturalism. But, as Berger pointed out in “A Far Glory,” such “cognitive bargaining” is only one response to the “cognitive contamination” of pluralism. Another is “cognitive surrender.” Theologians who liquidate the supernatural because it supposedly offends the modern mind were not limited to the radical Sixties. I met one recently who gave a background talk on Elmer Gantry to an opera crowd. When I noted over coffee that the opera had changed one character from an atheist to a faith-seeker, the theologian replied that the character in the novel wasn’t really an atheist– he was just having trouble with the supernatural. It sounded like a joke: the secret to a happy religious life is to dump God. After reading his book (“A Scandalous Jesus,” Joseph Bessler, 2013), I concluded that, to him, supernatural revelation is what makes Fundamentalist fanaticism possible. If we wish to foster responsible human efforts to make a better world, we must demote the “bully” God who preempts human praxis with inerrant doctrine to which we must abjectly submit.

    While there is much to be said for getting rid of bullies, there is also much to be said against viewing God as one. What justification can be given for holding God responsible for everything done in His name? When churches become “schools for secularity” (as Berger calls some of them in “A Far Glory”), they avoid the pitfalls of “deductive” religion by falling into the pit of “reductive” religion– religion as, in this case, politics. (Bessler is a self-described “progressive” theologian.) But the choice between supernatural Fundamentalism and progressive naturalism is a false dichotomy which ignores the option of inductive supernaturalism. Whereas Berger finds signals, hints, and traces of the supernatural in the natural, Bessler seems to think that natural signals can only have natural sources. He sees the whole point of claiming supernatural authority as placing one’s doctrines beyond criticism. If we wish to negotiate our future, we must leave the supernatural out of it.

    Well, if liquidating the supernatural makes us more humanistic negotiators, why should we worry about “reducing” religion to politics? As Berger suggests, it may be theologically suicidal– but, if it’s “altruistic suicide,” who cares? Obama will provide job retraining for theologians. The problem is that, once we liquidate the supernatural, it no longer makes sense to “bet your life” on the ultimate meaning of the universe. Having been liberated from the bully God, we are now trapped in the immanent frame of exclusive humanism. We are free to run our own lives, but without a transcendent dimension, our noblest projects (e.g., universal healthcare) seem to be what T. S. Eliot called “disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves.” “But for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” The dance of life presupposes and testifies to the still point of eternity. (As a ballet fan, I like to read Eliot’s line as referring to dance in the narrow sense!)

    Is Charles Taylor being unduly pessimistic in reading our age as secular? I suspect that he would defer to Berger’s superior frequency distributions. But I think he would worry about the quality of many religious affirmations today. Humans may have an ineradicable need for transcendence, but if they do not understand the sociohistorical origins of the “buffered self” and the many subtle ways in which modernity has undermined the plausibility of transcendence, should not their religious affirmations be regarded as too desperate to count? Should not many professions of belief be regarded more as expressions of a desire for faith than its achievement? Berger seems less inclined than Taylor to discount uneducated religious affirmations. Intellectually, Berger has little in common with feisty Barthians and Cowboy Christians, but he takes their affirmations seriously and expresses limited admiration for them. They may not be able to write thousand-page books on HOW their faith is possible, but at least they have enough sense not to be taken in by secular “theologians.” “Look– it isn’t all that difficult!”

    • Please say more about this “inductive supernaturalism.” Your comment is the only result Google has for it.

      • Gary Novak


        It seems to me that in considering the “contemporary possibilities of religious affirmation” (the subtitle of Berger’s “The Heretical Imperative”), you worry a bit too much about the “connotations” of supernaturalism, the “flavor” of a god of the gaps, and the “hackles” that might be raised by process theology. And you wonder how we can not hold God responsible for everything done in his name when, after all, that’s what lots and lots of people do. When educated opinion (with the right class, character, and intelligence) adopts the position of Schleiermacher’s “cultured despisers of [supernatural] religion,” there is little chance that a way to religion will be found which can satisfy them. “Enlightened” people are not interested in assimilating “fanaticism” into their worldview. They “open-mindedly” listen to the entire spectrum of legitimate opinions in the hopes of achieving a Hegelian synthesis or a George Herbert Meadian “generalized other,” but, alas, religion never makes the cut.

        Even some theologians now find it embarrassing to associate with supernaturalism. Berger’s inductive supernaturalism is uncompromisingly supernaturalistic. It is, therefore, offensive to those who insist on an approach to religion that is inoffensive to “modernity.” “I can’t buy that! What would Nietzsche say?” But Berger avoids the additional offense of “deductive” revelation. We don’t need to credit the “axioms” of the Fundamentalists, who are more than happy to speak for religion, because the personal God speaks to each of his children. Why “read” secondary sources when we’ve got the primary source? Indeed, is it not bad faith to do so? Neither deductive Fundamentalists nor reductive, fashionable theologians are authoritative. Listen to your own experience and work “inductively” from it. That Berger does not mean scientific induction can be gleaned from the following quote from “A Far Glory”: when one inverts the reductionist framework of Feuerbach, Freud, Marx, etc., “It is the empirical world in its entirety which now comes into view as a gigantic symbol. That which it symbolizes . . . is the blazing reality that lurks behind this world– in Christian terms, the face of God” (160). No “god of the gaps” here! Berger is a sophisticated modern intellectual, but many such intellectuals would faint if they contemplated speaking of the empirical world in its entirety as a gigantic symbol of the face of God. (“I’d be laughed out of the faculty lounge!”)

        So, let us be as inoffensive as we can, mediate the opposites as much as we can, listen to “the other” as much as we can, and so on. And when we are finished, religion will still stink. At some point we have to decide if we are going to laugh at religion or at the cosmologists who tell us that, as improbable as life is in our universe, life was bound to occur somewhere among the infinitely many parallel universes (an egregious ad hoc hypothesis in infinite violation of Occam’s Razor– do not multiple entities beyond necessity.)

        • I see more comedy on the religious side because they have so little hard power and keep shooting themselves in the foot trying to get it back. I’m much more worried about the cosmologists gearing up to sell the masses on some offworld (mining) colonies as they justify the continued rape of the only world we have. (This seemed to be the gist of the premiere of Tyson’s Sagan revival on FOX Sunday nights. I laugh about that scheduling and the reaction, but not the terrible philosophy and history within the content of the show.)

          I wasn’t asking for help in solving a personal problem; my intuition is the same as yours. What else would we start from but the experience of God? Any “secondary literature” from people doing this interests me because it is good to learn from wise people who are better at clarifying that experience — and it is good simply to hear from them. Their work is also useful and important for the spreading of wisdom more widely in a world that needs it. (Hence my marketing concerns.) I feel the “cultured despisers of religion” formerly had far less purchase on the public sphere when there were admirable and intelligent (as opposed to despicable and ignorant) religious voices there.

          Are you saying Berger has coined the term “inductive supernaturalism?” I have only read a few essays of his.

          • Gary Novak

            What else would we start from but the experience of God? Many of those people who allow “religious” people to define religion– and then laugh that they are shooting themselves in the foot– do so because they claim to have no experience of God themselves. They see the burden of making sense of God talk as falling on those who engage in it. And they typically wind up asking who created God, or how the God hypothesis can be tested, or why religious people are sexually repressed.

            In other words, they take the position William James is arguing against in “The Will to Believe.” We might be fools if we believe something false, but we might also be fools if we don’t believe something true but not demonstrably so. Playing it safe may not be. When Berger speaks of the inductive possibility of religious affirmation, he is speaking of ordinary experience that we may come to interpret as experience of God. How do we know it is really experience of God? We don’t. But, all things considered, we may decide that life makes more sense if we orient ourselves to the transcendent. That will be more difficicult to do if we live in “a secular age,” but Berger is pointing out that it isn’t really all that difficult. But it may require the reframing of some basic questions and the reevaluation of some of the “wise” authors of “secondary literature.”

            In encouraging the return to our own experience– which is not yet known to be experience of God (mere signals are not inerrant emails)– Berger points “back to Schleiermacher.” He has no desire to invent postmodern jargon; inductive supernaturalism is just the combination of an adjective and a noun.

            I’m not sure I understand all of your points, so I’ll just close by saying that I have found Berger’s wisdom helpful in reformulating existential questions. In addition to the titles I have mentioned (A FAR GLORY and THE HERETICAL IMPERATIVE), you will find discussion of inductive religion in A RUMOR OF ANGELS.

          • I see where you are coming from. I’ve understood that point James is making from an early age. Exposure to relatively un-messed with nature and the way it carries exuberant life hand-in-hand with surprisingly not-so-terrifying death opens us up to the transcendent, the all in-all. Or it should. This is just less and less the experience of people in a “developed” society and in possibly over-developed traditions of thought where skeptical modes come to prevail. Eric Voegelin, an admirer of James, is probably the best exponent of what you are talking about — his “warm trust” and taking for granted the unity of consciousness and its transcendence into the “external world.” Thank you for the suggested titles.

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