God Beats Up on People Who Ask Useless Questions

God Beats Up on People Who Ask Useless Questions[1]: An interpretation of some negative and affirmative theologies of religion from a reading of Peter L. Berger's Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity (Blackwell Publishing, 2004)

“Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.”
~ George Bernard Shaw

Peter L. Berger, the most eminent sociologist of religion in the world today, many of whose sociological works as Berger says “read like a treatise on atheism,” has written a mature and skeptical affirmation of Christianity in his new book Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity.   Berger calls his book an exercise in “lay theology.”  By questioning the theology produced by professional theologians Berger realizes that theological bureaucrats will hold any activity of “free enterprise,” such as his book, with suspicion. He disavows being a professional theologian and intends the book for similarly “unaccredited” people.  Taking the role of an open-minded skeptic, Berger asks probative questions about religion without being bound by tradition, church, scripture, or personal experience.

It is difficult to predict how history may judge this iconoclastic book.  But it may well end up a religious classic in the genre of, on one hand:

  • Christian mathematician Blaise Pascal’s book Pensees (i.e., “thoughts”);
  • The 5th or 6th century pseudonymous writer Pseudo-Dionysius’ formulation of a negative theology that stresses the impotence of human’s attempts to penetrate the “cloud of unknowing;”
  • Catholic philosopher Simone Weil’s Waiting for God.

On the other hand, it is oddly in the same league with:

  • Francois Voltaire’s “candid” satire against Christian perpetual optimism entitled Candide;
  • Eighteenth century Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s Attack Upon Christendom, and;
  • Renaissance political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli’s oft-mischaracterized notion of unscrupulous consequential ethics contained in his book The Prince.

In fact, Berger integrates the insights of all of the above seemingly disparate writers in his book.  Questions of Faith won’t likely be attractive to what Berger calls “Golden Rule” Christians who embrace the images of “gentle Jesus,” the exemplar and teacher contained in so much Protestant Christian literature.  Nor will it probably appeal to those “New Age” religious seekers of what Berger calls “The Mythic Matrix,” defined as a childlike belief in the one-ness of God, nature, and man. Neither would it resonate with those academics and so-called liberals who reduce religion to mere ethics or diversity, to some inner psychoanalytic conversation, or some Marxist egalitarian view of heaven on earth.

This is a well-written work that, nonetheless in parts, is not for the unserious reader.  One may need to look up words not used in ordinary conversation to understand what Berger means when he writes: “the problem of theodicy was solved in terms of eschatology” or “one should not confuse epistemology (i.e., knowledge) with historical gratitude.” Conversely, at points Berger flashes a riveting summary of a complex theological issue with an illuminating one-sentence proposition or even a joke.  For example, when Berger points out that the puzzles of historical scholarship often lead Biblical theologians to crises of faith he expresses it this way: “I have sometimes asked myself how a gynecologist could manage to have sexual intercourse; by the same token, one could ask how a New Testament scholar could be a Christian.”  

Questions of Faith is a commentary structured around the Christian Apostle’s Creed as its scaffold.  Berger tells us the Creed was formulated in the early days of Christianity, probably in cosmopolitan Rome. From the table of contents and the chapter subheadings the book appears like another dull commentary not meant to disturb the Christian cognoscenti or the average believer from their faith. However, underneath this superstructure Berger poses a number of probing questions to taken-for-granted Christianity. 

Berger is not content to engage in what he calls a “salvage operation” of Christianity.  Nor is he content to single out Christianity.  He puts into question all forms of taken-for-granted religion whether it is Buddhism, Hinduism, mysticism, or secular “eschatologies” such as Marxism that claims there is a deterministic linear redemptive course to history.  Likewise, he finds the machinations of professional theologians about the Christian Trinity (God, Son, Holy Spirit), and the historical Christian controversies over the heresies of Arianism, Adoptionism, Marcionism, and Marianism to be a dull and unimportant.   

Put differently, Berger not only “kills the Buddha,” but also finds the “quest for the historical Jesus,” in both its religious and secular manifestations, to be futile. He finds the religious portrayals of Jesus as an exorcist (Graham Twelftree), a Jewish peasant cynic (John Dominic Crossan), a prophet of social change (Gerd Thiessen), as a Gnostic teacher (Elaine Pagels), or as an eschatological prophet (E.P. Sanders) as exasperating to the befuddled layperson.  He is equally unimpressed by secularized versions of this quest with the image of Jesus as a deluded figure (psychoanalytic), a member of the proletariat (Marxist), or as personifying machismo or femininity (feminist). Here Berger states what many a layperson already knows beyond the views of the so-called professional experts: it is impossible to know whom Jesus was absent some incredible sort of time travel machine to help us find out. To those theologians who contend that the life and resurrection of Jesus is one of the most documented events in ancient history, both in scripture and recorded history, Berger asks them to produce “one single police report” from a nonpartisan source that wasn’t inserted into the text far after the fact!  Thus, because we cannot know the historical Jesus, faith must be independent of the results of historical scholarship. Berger doesn’t necessarily doubt that Jesus existed, but says that this is a statement of very strong probability rather than certainty.  Or letting Berger speak in his own inimitable way: “Let us put it this way: If CNN had existed in ancient times, most of the history of Israel and all of Jesus’ life would have been invisible on the radar screen.”  

Most of all Berger finds highly problematic the assertion by John Hick, the famed world religion scholar, that the baseline criteria of all religion is whether it reduces selfishness and promotes altruism.  To the uninitiated reader this may seem as perplexing. How can religion only be indirectly related with morality or ethics?  Berger’s answer is that religion has no monopoly on morality, as morality is grounded in perceptions.  He however does not deny that all sorts of commandments and normative prescriptions can be deduced from an accurate perception of a situation. But Berger, the sociologist-turned -lay-theologian, curiously doesn’t don his sociologist hat to tell us how to separate out the false from the true prophets of perception in a world of often distorting mass communications.  

As a social scientist Berger avoids taking the position that religion is an irreducible reality sui generis (i.e., in a class all its own), as does someone like Ninian Smart, the popular professor of comparative religions, in his book The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge (1973).  Conversely Berger does not believe that religion can be reduced to psychology, sociology, or economics or merely some system of ethics. Berger’s non-reductionistic brand of sociology, following sociologist Max Weber, leads him to carve out an area for faith, defined as that which one does not know. Unbelief is defined as the unwillingness to step beyond what one is reasonably certain about. Religion is utmost an attempt to explain and come to grips with ultimate reality. And as Berger has written in his famous work, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966), what one knows often depends on what society one lives in, where one resides in that society, and how one “chooses” his parents or occupation. As religion is a social enterprise, neither belief nor unbelief is a moral failing.  The step of faith is not a delusion or an act of cowardice from the harshness of the realities of life, a la Karl Marx’s view of religion as an “opiate,” or Sigmund Freud’s notion of religion as a neurotic delusion. Rather, Berger writes that the act of religious faith compels one to be able to explain why one is willing to take a step beyond certainty.  Moreover, since certainty is a “social construction,” all of life is a religious enterprise of sorts beyond the confines of institutionalized religion.  Modern society makes this step of faith, or doubt, almost unavoidable in that it creates a high degree of heterogeneous and interpenetrating worldviews (i.e., pluralism). This makes religious, or irreligious, certainty a scarce commodity in the marketplace of ideas.  Every religiously reflective person needs to become his or her own theologian so to speak. Or as Berger aptly puts it, theology should not be left to professional theologians alone.       

This reviewer should point out that Berger acknowledges that the book was written over a period of two years “in moments snatched from other busy activities as a social scientist.”  Thus, the book has a number of central propositions scattered throughout that the reader may be left trying to cobweb together. The bibliography doesn’t account for all the written works cited in the text.  And there are a few glaring typographical errors.[2]  Nonetheless, for those wanting to explore their own religious beliefs (or non-belief) by reading an honest and skeptical affirmation of the Christian faith by one of the world’s best thinkers and social scientists, this book recommends itself.   

Near the end of Questions of Faith, Peter Berger relates the story of Martin Luther’s reply to a young man who asked him how God occupied himself in eternity.  Luther replied, “God sits under a tree and cuts branches and rods, to beat up people who ask useless questions.”  Scattered throughout the book Questions of Faith are what Berger finds to be humanly unacceptable notions about the Christian religion that he believes need to be pummeled (i.e., “beat up”) mainly because of their acceptance of suffering, death, and evil.  He counters these propositions with those that he believes are humanly acceptable and yet square with the Christian faith and resonate with the human experience.  The prototypical human experience for Berger that becomes the acid test for religion is the suffering of innocent children.  Berger returns again and again throughout the chapters of his book to this prototypical relationship between a parent and child and finds the unnecessary suffering and death of children, and all innocents, to be humanly unacceptable. To Berger no theodicy (i.e., religious explanation of suffering, death, or evil) is tolerable if it cannot be recited face-to-face to suffering children and their parents.

Berger’s theological method is reminiscent of the ancient pseudonymous writer Dionysius the Areopagite who asked the question “what are the affirmative theologies and what are the negative?”[3]  Below I have excerpted some of the taken-for-granted negative theological notions discussed by Berger, followed by the reasons they ingratiate him.      

1.  Religion is supposed to be necessary as the basis for morality.  No thanks! With admirable exceptions here and there, religions over the centuries have not been famous for their moral excellence.  Religion has been shown as not necessary for morality because moral judgment is grounded not in the imperative mode (do this, do that) but in the indicative mode (see this, look at that) [p. 164].  Morality is perceptual. The historical record shows that some of the greatest religious figures engaged in really dubious behavior (Luther the anti-semite), some were downright monstrous (Medici Popes) – while agnostics and atheists have been morally admirable. There are atheist saints.

2.  Religion demands submission to God’s will, even in the face of the innocent suffering of children. No thanks. This is not humanly acceptable. I submit to God who does not will the death of innocent children. (One might add that God does not will the death of innocents on the sacrificial altar of the holocaust, that of the Gulag, or that of an Islamic suicide bomber socially justified on the basis of some totalitarian religion or secular ideology such as Marxism. For more on this see Peter L. Berger, Pyramids of Sacrifice: Political Ethics and Social Change [1974]).

3.  Religion may seek to console us all by saying that eventually we will be absorbed into some ocean of cosmic divinity (i.e., the mythic matrix).  No thanks.  To absorb those who suffer into an ultimate reality in which all individuality, uniqueness, and the irreplaceableness of persons, and the  infinite preciousness of children, is lost is but another version of death.

4.  Religion offers certainty in scriptures, spiritual experiences, and in institutions from the chaos of life.  No thanks to the certitude purveyors and certainty wallahs.  Scripture is inspiring, but not inerrant, religious experience of the holy spirit has been found to be inducible by social psychological manipulation, and totalistic religious institutions can be replaced by totalistic secular institutions (e.g., big tent politics).

5.  Religion provides powerful symbols for the exigencies of human existence. No thanks.  To be sure, it does, but there are other (competitive) sources for such symbols.

6.  High religion says man is saved, not by works, but by God’s grace and forgiveness.  No thanks.  Some notion of damnation is necessary if one affirms the justice of God in the face of evil.  Nothing short of damnation will be adequate for the perpetrators of the Holocaust.  None of us, and certainly none of the victims, should be urged to forgive them.

7.  Both religious and atheistic eschatologies (i.e., world views) often claim to know the course of history.  No thanks.  Those who ascribe to the popular eschatology  -- rapture, end times -- or who claim to know what the secular course of history is, then proceed to help it along by their own action typically will only add to the endless accumulation of suffering, as seen in the horrific Marxist experiments. 

8.  Religionists, particularly of the orthodox and neo-orthodox schools of religion, often claim that God has spoken to them directly -- or through scriptures God has spoken to them directly.  No thanks.  Most of us may be considered the metaphysically underprivileged, as it were, and must acknowledge that God has not spoken to us in such a direct manner.  His address to us, if that is what it is, comes to us in a much more mediated manner.  It is always mediated.  It is mediated through this or that experience, and most importantly it is mediated through encounters with the scriptures and with the institution that transmits the tradition.  To proceed as if one had spoken to God directly is to base one’s existence on a lie.  It seems plausible to propose that, if God exists, He would not want us to lie.

9.  Religion must say no to every freedom-denying scientism or any Buddhist understanding that all reality is non-self (an-atta), and which results in a denial of the existence of the autonomous and responsible self.  In the perspective of the Biblical faith the self is not an illusion, neither is the empirical world, because both are creations of God. It is possible to affirm this faith in a threefold no to the Buddha’s Three Universal Truths: All reality is not impermanence, because at its heart is the God who is the plenitude of being in time and eternity.  All reality is not suffering because God’s creation is ultimately good and because God is acting to redeem (repair) those parts of creation, especially humanity, where this goodness has been disturbed.  And all reality is not non-self, because the self is the image of God, not because it is itself divine but because it exists by virtue of God’s address.   

10.  The collection of Jesus’ sayings constituting what we know as the Sermon on the Mount forms the moral and ethical basis for the organization of society.  No thanks!  Any human society that would organize itself on the basis of the Sermon’s unrealistic demands would promptly lapse into chaos.   For goodness to result we must get our hands dirty and we must recognize that many of our actions have unintended consequences.  We may desire good ends and employ good means, and nevertheless the results may be unbearably evil. Jesus as a great teacher and exemplar is eminently uninteresting, and we can do well without him.

11.  The criteria distinguishing true and untrue religion asserted mainly by academics and liberal North American Christians is whether a religious tradition induces its adherents to cultivate selfishness and altruism.  No thanks!  The weakness of this criterion can be seen by transferring it from religion to, say, physics: is one to accept or reject a discovery in physics on the basis of a physicist’s moral qualities?  Does the theory of relativity depend on Einstein having been a nice man?  If religion has anything to do with reality – transcendent reality – then the test of it being true does not depend on the “saintliness” of its representations.

12.  Petitionary prayers are selfish and therefore to be eschewed.  No thanks.  This argument is completely fallacious.  To put it concretely: one may pray to be delivered from an illness that is afflicting oneself, but one may also pray for the recovery of my neighbor’s sick child. And there is nothing selfish about that. But is one then asking that God should save this child, and by implication that He need not save the child down the block?  Of course not. If one has faith, one cannot, not pray.

13.  The atonement is defined in virtually all strands of Christian thought as the process by which God forgives mankind.  But the atonement can also be understood as the process by which mankind can forgive God.  Is such an understanding blasphemous? I don’t think so.  A God who “impassibly” presides over the endless pain of His creatures…is a being whom one would repudiate morally if He were a human individual.  In an ironic way, he would be a sort of cosmic Pontius Pilate.  One could hardly worship Him with love: at most, one could submit to Him in a masochistic posture.  That, however, is unthinkable.  God’s goodness is a necessary aspect of His nature, as the Biblical witness insists.  However, God’s nature can be described in the bubbling conceptualizations of human thought, He cannot be understood as morally inferior to the best of us. Put differently, it is not credible that God is less merciful than man or even those considered saints.

14.  The conception of original sin is as an inescapable part of the human condition, of which I should feel guilty.  Clearly, though, I cannot be held responsible for a condition that antecedes any deliberate act of mine, and I can thus legitimately refuse to feel guilty about it.   

In sum, Berger the sociologist playing the role of “theologian-for-a-day,” proves himself not to be an imposter.  The answers he poses are as blunt as his questions. Put differently, the theological thought police and the totalitarian brain washers didn’t have to “beat him up” to get him to answer often-useless theological questions with even less useful answers.  Perhaps it is fitting to close this review with one of Berger’s characteristic jokes:

“A Russian legend has it that there were three holy men who lived on an island, engaged in constant prayer and works of compassion.  The bishop under whose jurisdiction the island fell was informed that these men were completely ignorant of the doctrines and rituals of the Church.  He found this fact scandalous. He visited the island and spent some time teaching these men the basic creeds and prayers of the Church.  He then left the island.  As his boat was getting away from the island he noticed, to his amazement, that the three holy men were following the boat, walking on the water.  They reached the boat and explained that they had forgotten the words of the Lord’s Prayer.  The bishop told them that they should not worry about this – they did not need these words” (Questions of Faith, page 113). 

For further reading

Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967).

Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966).

Peter L. Berger, Pyramids of Sacrifice: Political Ethics and Social Change (1974).

Peter L. Berger and Hansfried Kellner, The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness (1974).

Peter L. Berger, Facing Up To Modernity: Excursions in Society, Politics and Religion (1977).

Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (1970).

Peter L. Berger, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies (1961).

Linda Woodhead, Peter Berger and the Study of Religion (2001).   


Endnotes

[1] Phrase excerpted from Peter L. Berger, Questions of Faith (2004) page 174.  “I am reminded here of (Martin) Luther’s reply to a young man who asked him how God occupied Himself in eternity. Luther replied: God sits under a tree and cuts branches into rods, to beat people up who ask useless questions.”

[2] See page 20: “If our situation forces us to choose between gods, since no god can any longer be taken for granted, why should we choose the Biblical (sic) Good?” [i.e., “God”]. 

[3] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1987, p. 138.

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