Obituaries

Peter Berger, 88, theologian who fought ‘God is Dead’ movement

NEW YORK — Peter L. Berger, an influential, and contrarian, Protestant theologian and sociologist who, in the face of the “God is dead” movement of the 1960s, argued that faith can indeed flourish in modern society if people learn to recognize the transcendent and supernatural in ordinary experiences, died June 27 at his home in Brookline, Mass. He was 88.

His death was announced by the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, which he founded at Boston University in 1985 and directed until 2009. His son Thomas said the cause was heart failure.

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Mr. Berger, who was born in Austria, was the author of a shelf-full of books. He was known for his work in what is called the sociology of knowledge — understanding how humans experience everyday reality.

One of his two dozen volumes, “The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge,” which he wrote in 1966 with Thomas Luckmann, was honored by the International Sociological Association as one of the 20th century’s five most influential sociology books.

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Berger, who had a wry smile and deep-set eyes framed by a balding crown, came to wide attention during the charged debate over whether the concept of a deity was relevant in an increasingly secularized, technological world — a discussion that seemed to peak with a famous 1966 Time magazine cover whose stark red-on-black headline asked, “Is God Dead?”

Theologians like Paul Tillich, Gabriel Vahanian, and Thomas J.J. Altizer produced works that, taken together, seemed to argue that post-Auschwitz society, being skeptical of a benevolent universe and absorbed with material gains, was losing its sense of the sacred — so much so that the vision of a transcendent deity had lost much of its force.

Some theologians seemed to reject traditional notions of theism, even arguing that Jesus should be seen more as a human role model than an actual deity.

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Mr. Berger pushed back against that trend in his book “A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural,” published in 1969 and for many years required reading in college sociology and theology courses.

He argued that the skepticism of the atheist was just as questionable as blind faith, though he conceded that secularism was on the rise — that cultural relevance had overtaken spiritual values.

“Whatever the situation may have been in the past,” he wrote, “today the supernatural as a meaningful reality is absent or remote from the horizons of everyday life of large numbers, very probably the majority, of people in modern societies, who seem to manage to get along without it quite well.”

Nevertheless, he wrote, people can enrich their religious sensibilities by finding “signals of transcendence” in common experiences: A mother’s reassuring a frightened child that all is well suggests a confidence in a trustworthy universe. A mortal’s insistence on hope in the face of approaching death implies a conviction that death may not be final. The ability to condemn monstrous evil suggests a belief in a moral ordering of the universe that may even be comfortable with the notion of hell. Laughter and play affirm “the triumph of all human gestures of creative beauty over the gestures of destruction.”

In a later book, Mr. Berger recounted his own religious discovery that there was an “otherness which lurks behind the fragile structures of everyday life.”

Addressing his concern with creeping secularization, he argued that Protestants were uncritically embracing social movements instead of devoting themselves to the church’s unchanging scriptural message. He confronted mainstream Protestant divinity schools, asserting they were preoccupied with “making Christianity relevant” and spending more energy on courses in psychology, sociology, and church management than on theology.

Yet, he said, theological training was essential if Christianity was to penetrate “the consciousness of this age.”

Mr. Berger, known for his work in what is called the sociology of knowledge, in 1985 founded Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, which he directed until 2009.

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Mr. Berger held a series of teaching positions at a number of campuses, including Boston University, as well as the New School for Social Research, Brooklyn College, Rutgers University, and Boston College.

Peter Ludwig Berger was born on March 17, 1929, in Vienna, the son of George William and the former Jelka Loew. His mother, he recalled, filled him with stories of the glories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the Hapsburgs, an upbringing he credited for his generally conservative outlook.

He immigrated to the United States when he was 17, shortly after World War II ended, and enrolled at Wagner College on Staten Island in New York. He graduated in 1949 and did his doctoral work at the New School in Manhattan, where many on the faculty were brilliant émigrés who had escaped Hitler.

He also spent a year as a candidate for the ministry at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia before deciding to abandon the quest. He was reluctant, he later said, to preach the definition of Christian faith strictly according to the Lutheran Confessions. His thinking, he decided, fit best “within the traditions of Protestant liberalism.”

In 1960, after several teaching stints and Army service, he joined the faculty of the Hartford Seminary Foundation. He also wrote, for Doubleday, two critiques of the church as an institution: “The Noise of Solemn Assemblies: Christian Commitment and the Religious Establishment in America,” and “The Precarious Vision: A Sociologist Looks at Social Fictions and Christian Faith,” both published in 1961.

Both books urged a return to a Christian vision rooted in the Bible’s fundamentals and proved popular with younger Christians.

“A Rumor of Angels” enhanced his standing as a theologian. In 1969, the Vatican’s Secretariat for Nonbelievers asked him to organize a conference on secularization for scholars of various religious backgrounds.

Mr. Berger collaborated on several books with his wife, Brigitte Berger, herself a prominent sociologist and author. One book looked at how technology and industrialization were breaking down the emotional bonds of community.

The couple met in Germany, where Mr. Berger was working for a Protestant research firm after serving in the Army there for two years during World War II. Brigitte Kellner was a student and the daughter of a fiercely anti-Nazi German whom the Russians imprisoned after the war because he was a landowner. She and her mother escaped that fate by jumping off a train that was deporting them. She and Mr. Berger met again in New York and married in 1959. She died in 2015.

Besides his son Thomas, Mr. Berger is survived by another son, Michael, and two grandchildren.

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