Sociologist Peter L. Berger recently published a memoir, Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist (2011) which I have been enjoying these last few days as if talking with an old friend. To be sure, I only know Berger through his books and other writings. I have never met the man personally. Yet in many ways (and maybe you have to be a bibliophile to understand this) I do feel like he is an old friend, one with whom I have had a troubled, on-again off-again relationship!
If my recollection is correct, I first encountered PLB as a senior in high school, which would have been the 1971-1972 school year. That is when I first read the book for which he is probably best know, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), co-authored with Thomas Luckmann. At the time, I had no strong background in sociology or really any field of scholarship, and so that was really hard reading for me. It angered me and confused me, and numerous times I set it down and said “That’s enough of that!” But I kept coming back to it, and when I finally did finish it, I immediately sat down and read the whole thing again, cover to cover. Over the years, I have returned to that book many times, but one thing I remember clearly from that first reading is how the whole religiously and socially conservative Mennonite world in which I had been raised suddenly started to make sense to me in ways that it never really had before. I went to the school library (my Mennonite high school was on a college campus, so we had unusually good library access) and there I found Berger’s book, The Sacred Canopy (1967), and I devoured that one as well. By the time I had finished college, I think I read all of Berger’s books published up to that date.
The thing that struck me most about Berger’s perspective was his way of looking at “solid” social institutions as “precarious,” that is, wholly dependent on the willingness of each generation to uphold, obey and conform to the social norms and values of these institutions. The mental image I got (I am one of those who tends to think in mental models and pictures) was that of boys playing hockey on “firm” lake ice that in fact was not nearly as thick as they thought it was. In other words, society went on its merry way, largely unaware that it was always skating over relatively “thin ice” that separated it from chaos and anarchy.
That image I had gained from Berger was an integral part of my intellectual outlook as I went off to seminary school in 1976. As I combined it with other sources and also the zeitgeist of those years, I had come to think that at least dipping a toe into anarchy once in a while was probably a good thing. Embracing a bit of “creative chaos” was how I thought of it. It was in my first semester of seminary that I was introduced to Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death (1973) and I quickly came to understand that this “lake of chaos/anarchy” was fundamentally an image of individual and social anxiety, more specifically the anxiety of human mortality. Although Ernest Becker soon became my main intellectual passion, I can see in retrospect that I may well have understood Becker very differently, or perhaps not at all, had I not come to his writings with an already firm acquaintance with Berger’s work. When I graduated seminary in Spring of 1978 and went off to study philosophy in Hungary (an Eastern-Bloc communist country at the time) it was Becker’s Denial of Death (1973) and Escape from Evil (1975) that I packed away in my suitcase, but also Berger’s books Social Construction (1966), The Homeless Mind (1974) and Pyramids of Sacrifice (1975). At the time, political Détente was strongly in the air, Jimmy Carter was still a very popular President, and the steady path toward social democracy in America, it appeared to me, was objected to only by kooky folks at the far-right, irrelevant fringes of our society.
Obviously, I was soon myself to have a stark lesson in just how thin that ice can be, as well as to experience many troubling doubts in my “relationship” with Peter L. Berger. But that is for the next installment.