During Peter Berger’s hiatus I offer the following review of one of his books excerpted from Amazon.com
“If it is raining soup, don’t go out with a fork!”
By Wayne Lusvardi
Amazon.com book review of:
Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Religious Resources for a Middle Position
Peter L. Berger
William B. Eerdman’s Publisher, 2009
The above-captioned book is a set of follow-up papers by religious thinkers and sociologists on the Relativism-Fundamentalism continuum of sociologist of religion Peter L. Berger originally conceived in his book In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Being Fanatic (2010).
I was curious why there were no reviews of Between Relativism and Fundamentalism posted at Amazon.com. This gave rise to a hypothesis for this book review: that there are no Amazon.com reviews of the book (yet) supports the thesis of Berger’s book: there are few people in the middle when it comes to modernity. And those in the middle are too busy with little league, church activities, occupations, and even vices to be bothered with writing book reviews (a la Middletown America).
However, Relativists who might seek social sustenance in this book to disparage Fundamentalists, or conversely Fundamentalists wanting to find denigrate or trivialize Relativists, will likely be disappointed with most of the edited chaptes in this book by various authors. This is because the Relativist-Fundamentalist paradigm of sociologist Peter Berger posits that Fundamentalists are prone to being unwitting Relativists and Relativists blindly prone to being Fundamentalists. To Berger, too far East (Fundamentalist) is West (Relativist).
Berger’s Relativism-Fundamentalism dichotomy is more like that of a two-prong fork where the two sharp prongs of Fundamentalism and Relativism are closer to each other than the handle (the middle position). Borrowing one of Berger’s metaphors: “if you’re going to sup with the devil of modernity which breeds both forms of extremism, you better have a long spoon” (or in this case fork).
According to Berger, it is difficult to metaphorically eat from the stew pot of modernity by using the handle of your spoon (or in this case a fork). There are few mediating structures (family, church, lodges, unions, networks) between spiritually hungry individuals and the cultural soup of modernity. To understand why modernity breeds Fundamentalism and Relativism we must first drink from “the evil waters of sociology” says Berger.
Berger asserts that Relativism and Fundamentalism are two sides of the same coin (or two prongs of the same fork). Extremism in both cases is a reaction to the “homelessness” brought about by the alienation and anomie of modernization. According to Berger (borrowing from Emile Durkheim’s The Division of Labour in Society) those in the Knowledge Class of academics, professionals, teachers, and social workers are prone to Relativism: those in the Business-Religious Class are prone to Fundamentalism. But since they are two sides of the same coin, Relativists often behave like Fundamentalists and vice versa. One seeks certainty in infallible religious scripture or a Pope, emotion-drive crusades or religious experience: the other seeks certainty in scientism, civil rights legal precedents, emotion-driven social movements, and in religion that “speaks Truth to Power”).
But science and religion are best understood to be about uncertainty, not relativism or fundamentalism.
The second paper by sociologist James Davison Hunter expands Berger’s Relativist-Fundamentalist dichotomy even further. To Hunter, Relativism and Fundamentalism both spring from weak cultures. Extremists on both sides can find it easier to seek enemies than find meaning in various institutions. Here Hunter picks up a theme from his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern Word. To Hunter, American society is prone toward a victimization culture and the embrace of Power relations over who is the King of the Cultural Hill. To Hunter, Fundamentalism is nihilistic and “secular relativism offers “no viable options or any constructive solution.” Conversely, Relativism is prone to cultural militancy.
Sociologist Grace Davie of Great Britain follows with a description of how there already has been a bifurcation” into two religious economies in Britain:
1. The Public Utility Model
2. Growing presence of Fundamentalist religions in the Mid East exported to the U.K.
In the absence of middle institutions, nonconformist subcultures have arisen such as the Beat Generation, Bohemians, gangs, and terrorist individuals and organizations. Long gone are the older religious nonconformist groups or Puritans, Quakers, and Unitarians. Older religious institutions provided strong institutions with thick cultures while more modern secular structures offer loose networks (see Anton Zijderveld, the Institutional Imperative).
Nest, academic Craig Gay outlines a theology for a political middle ground. Gay starts up with an apt quote: “Resentment is easy; theology is hard”. Gay reviews various theologies that he finds more or less helpful in finding a middle ground between the two poles of Relativism and Fundamentalism.
Gay includes an appendix “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” The purpose of this purported middle ground manifesto is to “protect families and children, to safeguard nature, to seek justice and compassion for the poor, and to protect human rights.” But such a middle ground manifesto is no different than the political platform of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. How a revived Social Gospel would offer a middle ground between Relativism and Fundamentalism is not only not clear, it appears more divisive. To Gay, the middle way is his way, not really a middle way.
During the events leading up the 2008 Mortgage Meltdown and Bank Crisis of 2008, both Evangelical Christians and liberal mainline churches found common middle ground in advocating “sub-prime loans” to facilitate affordable housing to the Rentier Class. But the ensuing events of the popping of the Mortgage Bubble left hundred of thousands if not millions in foreclosure and bankruptcy and broke the banks at the same time. How was this a “responsible” option is not clear. Man does not live by bread of affordable housing or social justice or sustaining the ecosystem alone.
Thus, I found Gay’s manifesto to be using a short spoon in supping with the devilish liberal concepts of “toleration” and “multiculturalism.” Gay was right that “resentiment is easy; but theology is hard” but in the opposite way than he intended.
The other papers in this book till the cultural ground in the hopes of growing food that sustains a middle ground from Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran, Evangelical and Eastern Orthodox positions. I won’t spoil the book by offering a review of its second part.
I hope there are others who will review this important book and comment online to disprove my above hypothesis.
I will close close this review in a Bergerian motif with a couple of paraphrased jokes that resonate with the Relativist and Fundamentalist dichotomy.
“If it was raining soup, Relativists would go out with forks.”
“I once saw a forklift lift a crate of forks. And it was way to literal and extreme for me.” (comedian Mitch Hedberg).
Sociologist Grace Davie and
Peter Berger, thanks for update and most pertinent insight to TAI readers and posters (the awareness of your audience to avoid hastily written and thin content matter – a wishfully hoped for more common characteristic). Au revoir!