Remembering the Great Jewish Lutheran Sociologist of Religion

July 10, 2018 | Abraham Socher
About the author: Abraham Socher is the current and founding editor of the Jewish Review of Books, and professor emeritus at Oberlin College.

Born to Jewish parents in Vienna in 1929, the late Peter Berger was converted to Christianity along with his parents in 1938—just before his family fled Europe for Mandatory Palestine. After World War II and his formative years in Haifa, he then came with his family to America, where he went on to become one of the most important sociological theorists of secularization, eventually reconsidering and reevaluating his own theories when religion failed to wither away as sociologists had predicted. Abraham Socher, who came to know Berger toward the end of his life, reflects on the man and his work:

Berger had often remarked that sociology asks the nervy little question “Says who?” and [began to ask] it of his colleagues and himself. Not only hadn’t the world secularized in the way that he had thought it would, but the religions that were resurgent weren’t the kind that had made peace with modernity. Instead, “movements with beliefs and practices dripping with reactionary supernaturalism (the kind utterly beyond the pale at self-respecting faculty parties) have widely succeeded.” Modernity, Berger went on to argue, does lead to pluralism, and pluralism does tend to relativize religious belief, but it hasn’t led to a thoroughly secular world; nor will it. As soon as one stepped out of the faculty lounge, Berger said, one saw that people moved much more easily from the enchanted groves of tradition to the iron cage of modern rationality, and back again, than Max Weber, or indeed he, had ever thought possible. . . .

Peter and I bantered on the phone and through email, [but] I didn’t ask him how his life experience related to his sociological theory of religion, though I couldn’t help wondering. Twice, I came close. The first time was when he included a joke about speaking Yiddish in Israel in [an article]. The second was when he excitedly told me that he had been invited to address the German Protestant Assembly, and I almost told him the one about the Jewish convert who is invited to give the Sunday sermon and begins, “My fellow goyim . . .” It would have been presumptuous (again), but he probably would have laughed. He enjoyed telling Jewish jokes more than most Lutherans I have known. . . .

I thought about my conversation with Peter often in the months that followed, and I sometimes wondered whether I could get him to write about his years in Haifa and their bearing on his later thought, but I never quite got up the nerve.

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