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Good-bye, Peter Berger! Humorist, sociologist, explorer, occasional theologian

Late Tuesday evening, June 27, 2017, famed interpreter of modern religion Peter L. Berger passed away at his home in Brookline.

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Peter Berger, 2017. Photo courtesy of New School for Social Research, New York.


Peter Berger on "How To Make God Laugh" from The American Interest

In Ashkenazi Jewish culture much wisdom and (often irreverent) humor is conveyed by the antiphony of the Hebrew and Yiddish languages—the first carrying the enormous solemnity of Torah, its sacred words antedating the creation of the universe—the latter an idiom of common sense, often employed by women and others of lesser education. For example, there is this Yiddish joke: “How can you make God laugh?” – “Tell him your plans!”


Peter Berger on Sven the homicidal maniac from First Things:

Richard [J. Neuhas, the founder of First Things] used to put up cartoons in his bathroom. One, which stayed there for some time, showed a Viking ship arriving on a beach where people were dancing and waving in welcome. The caption read: “They think that we are still sailing with Olaf the Good. Little do they know that we are now with Sven, the homicidal maniac.”

I met Neuhaus in New York in 1967, and I moved to Boston in 1979. The intervening years saw our most intensive interaction. We both lived in Brooklyn, about a fifteen-minute drive from each other. My wife Brigitte and our two young sons had just moved into a rather dilapidated brownstone in the Cobble Hill section, while Richard lived in Williamsburg, where he was the pastor of a predominantly black Lutheran church. Brigitte was then, as she is now, a sophisticated conversationalist as well as a superb cook; Richard came over for supper at least once a week. We spent many evenings talking about every subject under the sun, sometimes just the three of us, sometimes with other guests. We were in our thirties, the world seemed wide open, and we were quite sure that we were indeed sailing with Olaf the Good. ...

Movement and Revolution  defined [how far we had moved] ... from the left. This was much more upsetting for Richard than for me. Some of his old friends called him a fascist, and this hurt him. In one conversation about this he characteristically shrugged off the insult with a joke: “Okay. So I’ll be a fascist. But I’ll be a jolly fascist!”

One of Richard’s most characteristic traits was his optimism. He once joked that the inscription on his tombstone should read “We’re gonna turn this around yet!” Come to think of it, this sentence contains the core promise of the gospel: “Christ is risen!”—“This has been turned around!”


Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology,  Boston University

Late Tuesday evening, June 27, 2017, Peter L. Berger passed away at his home in Brookline. He was 88 years old and was preceded in death in May 2015 by his wife Brigitte Berger. He is survived by his two sons; Thomas is a distinguished Professor of International Relations at Boston University, where Brigitte was Professor Emerita of Sociology, and Peter was Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology, and Theology. While his death was somewhat unexpected, it followed a recent illness and hospitalization. A memorial service is anticipated in the early fall.

I first encountered Peter Berger ”on the page.” The pages of The Social Construction of Reality, to be exact. It introduced me – and the entire discipline -- to phenomenological ways of thinking about society, and it has shaped me – and our field -- ever since. Equally important, his theoretical masterpiece, The Sacred Canopy, has been my touchstone for forty years. It has stayed on my grad seminar syllabi, even after he himself admitted that the secularization process he theorized in the second half of the book ended up not being as universally inevitable as he expected. It is nevertheless a masterpiece because it weaves together the best thinking from a century of social theory (the footnotes are amazing!) and shows how religion is and must be part of the picture.


George Weigel, National Review

I read a lot of Berger in college — Invitation to Sociology, The Social Construction of Reality, Movement and Revolution (co-authored with Neuhaus, then in his rabble-rouser-radical period), and A Rumor of Angels; the last, with its intriguing analysis of how everyday life sends out “signals of transcendence” that can open us to religious faith (or simply to a less-flattened, more capacious worldview) is a small work of genius on which I still rely in lectures today, some four decades later.  …

Peter Berger had a remarkable gift for intellectual curiosity and an admirable willingness to admit that he was, on occasion, wrong. Thus the man who was once at the forefront of secularization theory (the claim that modernization inevitably involves radical and deep secularization) later came to admit that he’d had it wrong — and, indeed, that the secularization hypothesis had been empirically falsified everywhere in a world that was becoming more, not less, intensely religious, except for that outlier known as Western Europe. The American experience of hyper-modernization combined with intense religiosity had something to do with Peter’s change of mind on this point and led him to coin the immortal epigram, “The United States is a nation of Indians [the most intensely religious nation on earth] ruled by an elite of Swedes [the world’s most secular nation].”


Michael Lindsay, president, Gordon College in Christianity Today

It was Berger’s fascination with religion that made him and his work so significant to evangelical Christians. He called himself an “incurable Lutheran,” and his liberal Protestant theology might have placed him at odds with many evangelical leaders 100 years ago. But in our increasingly pluralistic world, Berger’s sympathetic treatment of spirituality and faith made him something of a rock star among Christ-following academics.  …

A prolific scholar, Berger influenced many Christian thinkers—among them Os Guinness, Richard Mouw, and his former graduate student James Davison Hunter.


Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky


Adam Garfinkle, founding editor, The American Interest

Usually upon receiving news of a death, I do not weep unless the deceased is a close relative, a dear friend, a teacher, or either a great musician or a comedian. That’s just the way I am. When I heard of Peter Berger’s passing on Tuesday’s night, I wept. He qualified thrice: as a friend, a teacher, and as a comedian.

Peter Berger (along with the late Thomas Luckmann) changed my life. When I read The Social Construction of Reality early in my graduate school career—it was probably around 1973 or so—a shiver of inner recognition went up my spine. Not many books do that to a person in a lifetime, so you tend to remember the ones that do.

The phenomenological approach seated in The Social Construction of Reality taught me a new way to understand the relationship between me as an active perceiver and the world—natural and social—being perceived. It hit me around page forty or so: an ontological bombshell.


Joseph Berger, The New York Times

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 on Tuesday at his home in Brookline, Mass. He was 88. …

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.


Richard Cimino, sociologist

R.I.P. Peter Berger-- a great sociologist (and theologian). Still remember the time he visited the New School and asked us to join him in Union Square as he smoked and told jokes about almost every country in the world.


John Schmalzbauer, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Missouri State University


Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center posted last night Berger's talk and discussion: "Six Decades as a Worldwide Religion Watcher: Observations and Lessons Learned"


Jerry Park, associate professor of sociology, Baylor University

My introduction to graduate school in sociology began in part with Peter Berger’s Sacred Canopy and Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life. One was so rich in the fewest of words and the other went at great length to make similar important insights. Berger’s works have inspired more than 50 years of sociologists who study religion, morality, and culture to name a few. Meeting him in person was (for me) a scholar-celebrity moment. Sharing a meal with him while he was a visiting scholar in Baylor’s sociology department and hearing his sense of humor helped to humanize someone who I only knew through his writing. RIP Dr. Berger, and thank you for inspiring us to be critical and humble scholars of society and the sacred.


Jeffrey Goldfarb, professor of sociology, New School for Social Research -- "Peter Berger’s Last Visit to The New School for Social Research Revisiting The Social Construction of Reality"

The great sociologist Peter Berger is dead. Thoughtful people mourn. ...

Berger and Luckmann are among The New School’s most distinguished alumni. Their book is one of the most important in 20th century sociology, presenting the distinctive New School contribution to the social sciences — historically aware and informed, philosophical grounded in phenomenology, and sociologically inspired by a unique combination of Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Mead. ...

On a personal note, I would like to acknowledge that it is thanks to Berger that I am a sociologist, like many others of my generation. In 1963, he published his elegant and seductive Invitation to Sociology, still the most original piece of disciplinary propaganda in our field. In 1967, I read it and the rest is my biography, if not history, for better and for worse.


In 2015 at a Veritas Forum at Harvard Divinity School with Russ Douthat of the New York Times and Kristen Lucken of Brandeis University, Peter Berger commented on the question of the resurrection of Jesus Christ:


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