The precarious vision of Peter Berger

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

The death of Peter Berger in Boston on June 27 prompts the usual bounty of obituaries and a plethora of deserved reminiscences and tributes. One of my own most vivid recollections of Berger concerns an event which David Martin, his British peer in the sociology of religion, recalled five years ago in “The Essence of an Accidental Sociologist: An Appreciation of Peter Berger.” In Martin’s account of a conference held in 1969, he reproduces a throwaway line of Berger’s, but one which I’ll pick up again, both for what it tells about the late master and because I was an awed bystander and can confirm it.

This being a holiday weekend, it is a season for slowing down to pick up the Berger trail. So I’ll quote Martin, then provide an additional angle on the story: “Peter gave me a chance to engage with others in that enterprise [exegeting “secularization”] in 1969 when he invited me to a consultation at the Vatican on ‘The Culture of Unbelief’ organised by the Secretariat pro non Credentibus… As it was hot, the group I was chairing decided we would be better occupied on the greensward around the Villa Borghese. When we returned Peter told me an Italian Television crew had arrived and I must offer them the fruits of our labours. Deeply embarrassed I explained there had been no labours to speak of, and Peter just said ‘In that case just make them up’. This I did in a way which astonished my group and myself because I simply rehearsed the argument of my critique of secularization.”

Background: we conferees were divided into four groups, which met in non-plenary sessions, hidden from each other by standard hotel-ballroom-type folding room dividers. I was in Martin’s group. After lunch we returned to our place, but we found none of our should-be neighbors. We decided that the others had dropped out for a siesta after an ample lunch. So we took a stroll through the Borghese Gardens, and returned for the scheduled plenary. We learned that the other conferees had in fact not goofed off, but had changed venues to accommodate cameras and reporters. So only our group had no meeting and, therefore, nothing to say.

Since cameras were to roll, our group, if it did not report, would do an injustice to the seriousness of the conclave, our travel and hotel subsidies, and the expectations of our Vatican hosts. When colleague Martin confessed that nothing had happened and there was nothing to say, Berger indeed came up with the counsel “In that case just make [something] up.” As Martin spoke, Berger or some other sociologist whispered within my earshot: “This is amazing! He is giving us the plot of an address [or article?] prepared for a different context.” Martin recreated what he knew each of us would have said, and stenotypists, recorders, and reporters took it all in. Later Berger told some of us that the whole incident suggested that something did not have to have happened in order to create an effect. It only had to be reported. Whereupon he whispered counsel to us about how to be creatively suspicious.

Am I doing an injustice to Berger by reporting on what had not happened, but would have? I am not quite sure, and I wish Peter were here now to provide an intellectual framework for what he, who knew his Kierkegaard, might have called “a teleological suspension of the ethical.” And I do do an injustice to Berger, a man of informed conscience, if I suggest that making up reality was his (or his discipline’s) mode. Instead, I am choosing to remember the dominant and—to non-sociologists like me—most astonishing aspect of an inventive, creative truth-teller who taught and, through his many writings, will continue to teach us as we pursue cases, when we don’t “just make them up.” If you enjoy and learn from a non-walk in the Borghese Gardens, as some of us did that gorgeous meaning-fraught afternoon, you’ll be joining me in celebrating Berger, his life well lived, and his thought, so alive.