Peter Berger, RIP

Peter Berger, a hugely influential Austrian-born American sociologist, died last week at the age of 88:

On June 27, Berger passed away at his home in suburban Boston, concluding a lifetime of scholarly influence and a career that made him one of the most notable scholars of his generation.

The influence of Berger certainly extended to me. In one of the chapters of Keeping Your Kids Christian, on the concept of plausibility in the life of faith, I quote extensively from two early books by Berger, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (with Thomas Luckmann), and The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. I first learned the concept of Plausibility Structure from reading The Sacred Canopy back in the mid-1980s, a term most Christians have never heard, let alone are familiar with. They should be, as I argue extensively in the book.

The reason is that reality is mediated to us through the culture, and within the culture are structures of meaning that make realty seem a certain way. The title of his first book is “The Social Construction of Reality” because in some sense reality is socially constructed. In other words, what is meaningful to us comes through society and interaction with other people. We don’t see reality purely for what it is because that’s not the way God made reality to be perceived. This doesn’t mean that reality isn’t actually there, or that having true knowledge isn’t possible. Only that as Christian we must be aware of those things, those plausibility structures, that make Christianity seem not true. In the secular culture of the West, what seems more plausible is a secular reality where God is persona non grata. This is the cultural are we breathe.

The three broad plausibility structures that build a secular reality are education, media, and entertainment. At best God is a purely personal phenomenon that has no bearing on everyday life. The taken-for-granted reality, as Berger calls is, is secular. This is the reality that we inhabit, and that must be continually challenged by Christians. If we are not aware of how these plausibility structures work we may find ourselves accepting the underlying assumptions that are hostile to our Christian faith.

I am convinced that many young people abandon their faith for just this reason. They are not taught how to challenge the assumptions of these structures, and over time the secular view of reality begins to seem more real to them than the Christian one. This is a tragedy in so many ways, not the least of which that the secular view of reality is a lie. It is also a tragedy because it is relatively easy to sell our children on the Christian view of things, that they make more sense, and are in every way more plausible.

Peter Berger, RIP.