Religion and Modernity

There is something attractive about a group that calls itself “a community of seekers.” The term nicely fits most of us today.

Published on: August 13, 2014
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  • wigwag

    “There are innumerable pilgrimage sites for Hindus and Buddhists. Two very close to each other in northern India are Benares (now called Varanasi), where pious Hindus can immerse themselves in the holy water of the Ganges (in defiance of modern hygiene), and Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon in its Deer Park.” Peter Berger

    The most well travelled pilgrimage trail in the world may be the trek to Mount Kailas in the Himalayas. The mountain is holy to fully 20 percent of the world’s population though most in the West have never heard of it. The holy mountain, which is revered by Hindus, Buddhists Jains and the nearly extinct Bon, has been described this way,

    “…the mountain radiates gold and refracts like a crystal. It is the source of the universe created from cosmic waters and the mind of Brahma, who is yet himself mortal and will pass away. The sun and the planets orbit it. The Pole Star hangs immutable above. The continents of the world radiate from its center like lotus petals on a precious sea. Its slopes are heady with the gardens of paradise, yet the God of Death dwells on this mountain.”

    Millions of people believe that walking a single counter-clockwise circuit around the mountain expunges the sins of a lifetime. During the cultural revolution, the Chinese banned pilgrimages to Mount Kailas and only in 1981 were Tibetans, Nepalese and Indians permitted to return; in the intervening years, the sojourn has been made by pilgrims numbering in the hundreds of thousands or more.

    The British travel writer, Colin Thubron, wrote a breath-taking book about his own pilgrimage to Mount Kailas. It is well worth a look,

    Of course those of us who have never been on a pilgrimage but would like to experience one vicariously, can always travel along with the greatest pilgrim in human history by simply going here,

  • Anthony

    “…faith laced with a penumbra of doubt is the likely outcome for most religious believers in the pluralist modern world. In other words, almost all of us are seekers, not converts.” Implicit in the aforementioned may be continuing impulse to value lives over souls in our never ceasing reconciling of belief with both logic and experience (Pilgrimages as experiential acts affirming our belief). In modernity (and perhaps always), beliefs and practices more often than not appear to be endogenous to human affairs.

  • James Stagg

    The term “pilgrim church” has a traditional meaning:

    The Catholic Church on earth, or the Church Militant. She is said to be on pilgrimage toward the Church Triumphant in heavenly glory.

    Thus, pilgrimages which we undertake emphasize the struggle of our earthly life. Many people are involved in these struggles are searching for Truth, but some as a sign of earthly repentance (witness the 6.1 million to the Shrine of Guadalupe in 2009).

  • CitizenWhy

    This article needed to be edited for condescension. In regard to Unitarians, it uses the term vacuity. Would have been better to say “alleged vacuity,” or “a religious society often accused of vacuity.” The it says of atheists: “Atheism is a rather childish business, depending for its effect on the availability of fundamentalists who can be upset.” This is ridiculously untrue of many atheists. It should have read, “Some (or even many) atheists come across as childish.” But that would have brought up the thought that many religious people act childishly. There’s nothing ikntrinsically bellicose about atheism.

    The Universalists are dismissed too quickly. They came out of the Arminian tradition in Cakvinism, and their Christianity does suggest that it’s OK to belong to any religion. By the way, St. Maximus, still a saint (although the Pope who agreed with him was beheaded by the emperor as a heretic) taught that “none are saved until all are saved.” This implied that repentance for sins and salvation could be attained after death, with no permananent hell. And without living on earth as a Christian.

    The conservative approach to the role of any Christian Church seems to be about “getting to heaven.” I do not know what the liberal approach is, but it could be argued that in the Christianity of St. James the Apostle, first bishop of Jerusalem, the purpose of the Christian church is to build communities of mutual repect, affection and love.. If that is so, then the Unitarians are attempting to do what may be a very authentic expression of Christianity (as well as other faith traditions) that emphasizes behavior over doctrine. Doctrinally loose, but hardly vacuous.

    There are claims out there – whether they have any basis, I do not know – that the Christianity of St. James survived in collegial distinction or perhaps opposition to the Christianity of St. Paul and St. Peter. It was more Jewish, more about the Ten Commandments, more about building community, and allegedly survived stealthily in many Celtic areas, including northwest Spain. The “Rome” of this tradition was allegedly Compostela.

    • Gary Novak

      Shouldn’t you edit your post to make it clear that you are only alleging that Berger comes across as condescending? Of course not. We understand that you are alleging that Berger is condescending, just as we understand that Berger is alleging that Unitarianism is vacuous. We don’t need to start every sentence of an opinion piece with “In my opinion . . ..”

      Incidentally, when you admit that Unitarianism is “doctrinally loose,” aren’t you coming close to Berger’s allegation that it is doctrinally vacuous. Unitarians may be attempting to build communities of mutual respect, affection, and love, but that is no indication that they are Christian. Are multiculturalists Christian? It is entirely possible for people with good intentions to pave a road to you know where. And when Unitarians regard doctrine, theology, and ontology as obstacles to (self-evidently?) good “behavior,” aren’t they building a foundation on sand? Berger’s joke about crossing a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian and producing someone who goes door to door but doesn’t know why only gets funnier when you supply the missing answer: to wish people to have a nice day.

  • jbirdme

    There was a movie, I believe with Martin Sheen, about a pilgrimage on this route.

  • Josh

    Professor Berger I have a great deal of respect for you and your work as an academic. I read The Sacred Canopy in college and it has had a very remarkable impact upon my life and thought. I do quibble with one aspect of this article, however. The quote: “Another term for “seeker” would be “agnostic”. That is a very different thing from an “atheist”. An atheist claims to know that God does not exist; an agnostic admits that he doesn’t know whether God exists or not.”

    I understand that this is your opinion, but for someone who is an expert in the sociology of religion I think a more nuanced definition of the word atheist would be more appropriate here. I understand your frustration with many of the methods used by public atheists. However I do not know of any atheist that would claim to “know” that God does not exist. Even Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennet both use the term belief when talking of their view of God’s non-existence. They know they cannot have concrete knowledge of God’s existence. Therefore an atheist claims to not believe in God’s existence and an agnostic claims that one cannot have knowledge of the existence of God.

  • Charles Randall Paul

    Thanks for this article. One of my favorite books is The Heretical Imperative by Peter Berger. In that context I want to say that Peter’s identifying faith with belief in this piece is pragmatically off kilter. Faith is a term that is better understood as trust. William James reminds us that all humans show who or what we trust by what we do. This places agnosticism, or any attempt to be an uncommitted seeker, in a practical dilemma. By our actions (including intentional thoughts and feelings) James says we lean toward being, or acting like, theists or atheists. Of course we contest epistemologically whether we can know or on the other side, cannot not know things. But we do in fact act like people who trust in some kind of god or we act like people who trust in other people or things than some kind of god. Who do you trust and in what do you trust seem to be the classic religious and political and personal questions of greatest interest on this matter.

  • SirBedevere

    Should that not be “horribile dictu” without an “m” in the ablative absolute?

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