Still relevant: Peter Berger on American apostasy

It has been over a quarter of a century since Peter L. Berger delivered his 1987 Erasmus Lecture entitled, “Different Gospels: The Social Sources of American Apostasy.” While the social, religious, and political landscape were somewhat different at the time, his observations on the not so rosy state of the American church, particularly its mainline Protestant franchises, remain astoundingly relevant today. Consider his caution against blurring the lines between the temporal and eternal realms.

If we are liberated by faith, we act in the full knowledge of the precariousness and tragic unpredictability of all human projects. Most important, we act in this world not to be saved, not to attain some perfect purity or justice (which goals are not attainable), but to be of specific and necessarily limited service to others. Paul addresses himself to the Galatians on this issue when he insists that the freedom of the Christian is to be used as an opportunity for service, in love of one’s neighbor (Gal. 5:13-14). Let me put this in terms as worldly as I can find: we get no moral brownie points for good intentions or noble goals. The moral measure of actions is their probable consequences for others. This is especially so in the case of political actions, because this is a category of actions with particularly unpredictable and potentially disastrous consequences. Precisely because of this, we are most likely to be effective politically (effective, that is, in being of service to our neighbors) if we ground ourselves in a realm beyond politics, thus becoming free to deal with political reality soberly and pragmatically. We cannot do this if we look on politics as the realm of redemption.

Elsewhere, he relates a personal story to illustrate how churches which immerse themselves in political agendas lose sight of the things that matter most.

Some time ago a friend of mine went through a very difficult period when it was suspected that he might be suffering from cancer. It turned out later that this was not the case, but during this anxiety-ridden period neither he nor his family was given any attention by the clergy or the active members of his congregation. This is a congregation famous for its social and political activism. No one was interested in what, compared with the allegedly great historic challenges or our age, was the trivial matter of one man’s fear of pain and death. The people of this congregation had more important things to do–attacking the “root causes” of hunger by lobbying in Washington, organizing to “show solidarity” with Nicaragua, going on record (“making a moral stand”) against apartheid. My friend says that during this time he felt like an invisible man in that congregation. Needless to say, this is a congregation that religiously employs “inclusive language.” (Again, I can hear some mutterings: Can one not lobby in Washington and also minister to the sick? Perhaps. In this case, the first activity precluded the second. And one may reflect that it is easier to love people in distant lands than people next door.)

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