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Michael Plekon: In Memoriam Professor Peter L. Berger (1929–2017)

If Christianity is true, then the universe is in the final analysis a vast liturgy in praise of its creator. It was created for this purpose and it is this purpose. This liturgy includes all human beings who have been brought to this understanding and (in the "inclusivist" version of religious pluralism) it also includes those who praise God under strange names. The cosmic liturgy includes the living and the dead, and it includes angels and all beings in this or any other world. If Christianity is true, then the one who affirms this truth must necessarily join the community of praise. This community must have embodiments in the world of human beings—that is, there must be places where people gather to worship, by whatever means available. In other words, the cosmic community of praise must necessarily have empirical manifestations. (A Far Glory: NY: Free Press, 1992, 186)

I want to offer a reflection on the falling asleep of my teacher Peter Berger. I have known him over 45 years. There are now several obituaries which document the sweep of his thinking and writing and influence in theology and the sociology of religion over more than half a century. Joseph Berger’s in the NY Times is the best.

Peter Berger welcomed me to graduate studies at Rutgers University while I was still doing alternative service work in 1972 as a conscientious objector. I took all of his courses and he became my dissertation advisor/mentor/Doktorvater." He and Richard John Neuhaus threw a dinner to celebrate Jeanne and I getting married and our first home was his—we house-sat his brownstone in Brooklyn Heights in the summer of 1976.

Peter supported me through my academic career with recommendations and then invitations to conferences at his Institute of Religion and World Affairs at Boston University. He also invited me to contribute to collections of essays afterwards.  He and Brigitte went to Sunday liturgy at Holy Trinity cathedral in Boston for a long time and were close to Fr. Robert Arida. Over the years I introduced him to the emigré Russian religious thinkers in Paris between the wars, the “Paris School.”  He was most taken by Paul Evdokimov and Sergius Bulgakov. Inga Leonova’s excellent interview for The Wheel documents his special relationship to Orthodox Christianity. This is also evident in his autobiographical sketch: Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist (Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 2011)

While a conservative in social and political thinking, a conservative of the older, more classic liberal tradition, he was very much a progressive theologically, despite such things as the Hartford Statement. His intellect was powerful, his lecturing clear, entrancing as he wove many stories and anecdotes into both his teaching and writing. 

From the start, his social analysis was uncomfortable for many, whether his criticism of the cultural complacency of religious communities in the late 50s and early 60s to his very early stances on civil rights, for the rights of those discriminated against for race, ethnicity, religion or sexual identity. He questioned the justice of capital punishment and was a member of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. In later years his conservatism came more to the fore, though he never shared the extremism of neo-conservatives. 

While Berger is rightly regarded as one of the leading social theorists of our time, his theological work and faith were pivotal. He was at home in every tradition and community of faith, a Christian whose roots and ecclesial home remained Lutheran but never in a sectarian manner. Though he did not describe himself as such, he was very much what Evdokimov called an "ecclesial soul," one from the Reformation tradition who was nevertheless an ecumenical Christian in the ancient sense—catholic, orthodox. The views of Thomas Merton and Lev Gillet fit Peter Berger well—he united in himself the churches of the East and the West, Reformation, Catholic and Orthodox. In recent years, he had the courage to admit his earlier diagnosis of the secularization of the world to have been inaccurate, wrong. He saw in Pentecostal Christianity, in Islam, and in Buddhism, lively spiritual life. As far as I know, until illness halted him, he was always at liturgy on Sunday, and over the years, in both Eastern and Western church communities.

His last theological work, Questions of Faith (Malden, MA & Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), put forward Christ's resurrection as the core of the faith. For him, it was also the center of his own faith, this I know from personal correspondence during illness and after the death of Brigitte. 

Looking back, I realize now that I have been powerfully shaped by his vision of faith as a "sacred canopy" legitimizing and interpreting the reality around us. Even more, I was gifted with his recognition of the numerous "signals of transcendence" around us in the ordinary flow of everyday life. Somehow, he brought together his teacher Alfred Schutz's sensitivity to the everyday and breaks in it with the Gospel's Christ, who trudges Palestinian roads and highways, speaking the language and lives of those fishing, baking, farming, raising children, doing business but is also the Lord who is everywhere, cosmic.

An affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ hinges on the Resurrection as an event, not human existence or consciousness, but in the reality of the cosmos. Put differently: Not Good Friday but Easter morning is pivotal for Christian faith… Only through the Resurrection is Jesus perceivable as the Christ—that is, as cosmic redeemer, and as victor over all the evils and sufferings of this world…
…the dramatic tension and link between Good Friday and Easter, between kenosis and cosmic victory…bring us back to the...tension between the benevolence and the omnipotence of God. Kenosis is the utmost stretch of the benevolence, the Resurrection the utmost expression of the omnipotence. I have suggested that the agonizing problem of theodicy can only be addressed (“solved” would be an inappropriate word to use here) if God is perceived as suffering within creation; if that suffering is understood, however falteringly, as necessary for the redemption of flawed creation; and if God is also perceived as the one who, at the end of time, will be judge and ruler of all…
In Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, the extreme point of God’s humiliation (kenosis), God both shares all the pain of creation and inaugurates its repair. And Christ will return as victor and restore the creation to the glory for which God intended it. (Questions of Faith, 66 italics in the original, 67, 176)

Memory eternal.

Christ is risen.

Michael Plekon teaches at Baruch College of the City University of New York and is a priest at St. Gregory the Theologian Orthodox Church, Wappingers Falls, NY.