Peter Berger

The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation

Review by Tim Knepper, 2001

Berger, Peter L. The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation. Anchor Press, 1979.

Exchanging his usual sociologist cap for that of a theologian, Peter Berger takes up the challenge that modernity has laid at the doorstep of religion in The Heretical Imperative. In so doing, Berger continues the line of thought begun in his earlier A Rumor of Angels (1969) by contending “that theological thought should follow an inductive approach,” i.e., “an approach that begins with ordinary human experience, explores the ‘signals of transcendence’ to be found in it, and moves on from there to religious affirmations about the nature of reality” (ix).  

The crisis into which “modernity has plunged religion” is, according to Berger, that of pluralism. Modern society is dominated by a plurality of institutions, modern consciousness, by a plurality of choices. With this plurality of institutions and choices comes uncertainty – unstable, incohesive and unreliable plausibility structures (the means by which institutions are legitimated), most notably the plausibility structures of religion. Religion itself becomes a matter of choice, of necessary choice insofar there are few taken-for-granted religious “facts” to fall back upon. In other words, religion becomes a “heretical imperative.” (The English word “heresy” derives from the Greek verb hairein, “to choose.”)

According to Berger, three major modern responses to this crisis exist: deduction, reduction, and induction. Both deduction, which involves a reaffirmation of the authority of a religious tradition in the face of secular authority, and reduction, which attempts to reinterpret a religious tradition in the terms of secular authority, are rejected by Berger in favor of the induction. In fact, Berger believes that the impasse in which religion (or, to be more precise, Christian theology) finds itself with respect to the crisis of modernity is the direct result of the “sterile antithesis of neo-orthodoxy [the deductive approach] and secularism [the reductive approach].” It is necessary, therefore, to turn away from this antithesis and turn back toward the inductive approach in order to overcome this impasse.

The inductive approach is characterized by an attempt to uncover and recover the original experiences of a particular tradition. Berger’s account of experience is surprisingly modern (i.e., non-constructivist) – I say “surprisingly” because Berger’s Sacred Canopy seems to suggest a different relationship between experience and interpretation (i.e., one in which experience is necessarily shaped by society) – both in its appeal to pre-theoretical experience and in its valorization of the liberal Protestant tradition. According to Berger, “the distinction between religious experience and religious reflection is crucial” (53). For this distinction “opens up the possibility of going back, as far as possible, to the core of the experience itself” (53). And, “it is this core experience, in its various forms, that must constitute the final objective of any inquiry into the religious phenomenon” (54).

As for the actual uncovering and recovering of religious experience, Berger is of the opinion that such processes should proceed inductively. Religious traditions, understood as bodies of evidence concerning religious experience and the insights deriving from experience, are to be weighed and assessed empirically with an eye towards recovering the distinctive experience of that tradition.

The problem with this work appears to be a failure to “deliver the goods.” Berger never really specifies what the core experience of the Christian tradition is (beyond saying things such as: (1) it is shaped by “Sinai” and “Calvary”; and (2) it is of the divine in “confrontation” and not in “interiority” – things that hardly seem able to meet the crisis of modernity)! Moreover, while Berger is keen to point out that the liberal Protestant tradition misread this core experience (as ethical) because of their cultural biases, he seems naively optimistic about his chances of circumventing his own cultural biases (although he falls smack into them in his account of mysticism).