Peter Berger: A Rumor of Angels
Alumni Memorial Service
September 16, 2017
Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean
After my dad died seven years ago we began to go through his things, as families do. Desk, tools, books, guns, clothes. (Order, play, hope, justice, humor). We did not make much progress at first. After three years I noted: ‘We still have not made that much. His desk, somewhat more ordered, is laden drawer after drawer. The many tools, both inherited from earlier generations and purchased as needed over a life time, still lie here and there in the basement. A doll house, made for a granddaughter and then taken in for repairs years ago, and then left unattended, did migrate to the home of the great grand daughter. The guns—a relic of another time in the woods and deer hunting of northern New York—were carefully removed by two lawyer siblings. The papers and records now are in boxes with little titles—an improvement of sorts. His clothes still hang in the old closet’.
I was either assigned or self assigned or asked (or not) to begin to take care of the books, forty years worth of books in the lifetime library of a Methodist preacher whose preaching teacher at Boston University, Allan Knight Chalmers, for whom I was named, had admonished his pupils to read one book every day. That is to say, there were more than a few books to look through.
I dawdled, lollygagged, procrastinated, avoided, and otherwise shirked my solemn duty. I asked all those I could to go through the library and take at least two books. The books are mostly signed and dated, and of course they have the personal underlining and notes which are typical for most of us. I appropriated a few: a set of Jacques Ellul, for a Lenten series two years ago; a few books from BU—Booth, Chalmers, Bowne; sermon collections from Weatherhead, Gomes, Tittle, Fosdick; others. But I found my progress slow and slower. With each book, my willingness to skim and skip diminished. I found my intrigue at his notes increasing, and my attention to his underlining expanding. I dream on and off of a large oak door, heavy with metal locks and frame, unopened, chained shut: my dad on one side and I on the other. In the lasting grief I feel at the earthly loss of my dad, it has happened that his preacher’s library has become a kind of spiritual bridge, a mode of ongoing conversation between us.
There is range of life through which there radiates, like morning sunlight, high and deep and piercingly real experience. Most of this range of experience is not, or not only, in worship or liturgy or ecclesiastical involvement or patterned devotion—these are of course crucial and important, but more as signposts than as the actual meadows and still waters of religious, that is to say non-religious, religious experience.
One day this summer, on one of my less than fruitful forays into the library, I came upon a book, the title of which is borrowed for this morning’s sermon (A Rumor of Angels: NY, Doubleday, 1969—portions quoted below found therein). Published in 1969, hardly more than 100 pages, accessible to clergy and lay alike, brisk and direct in style, sprinkled with salt and light in humor and aphorism, the book, it happens, was written by a Boston University colleague and friend of mine, the premier sociologist of religion of our time, Peter Berger. Professor Berger has graciously endured lunches and conversation, including some semi-successful jokes, with me over these last few years. I knew of this book, both its title and its general argument, which is that God is not dead, religion is not dead and religious experience is not entirely absent from this earthly vale of tears. But I had never read it. I stuffed the book in my bag.
It is hard to try to recreate the context, 1968, in which Berger was writing and thinking what hardly anyone else was thinking and writing. I will not try to do so. 1. But try to imagine, or remember, a time when Time magazine’s cover read, ‘Is God Dead?’, or 2. when the most potent religious word was ‘secular’, or 3. when administrative malfeasance led to a drug experiment on Good Friday in the basement of Marsh Chapel, or 4. when the most successful camp meeting was a mud soaked musical weekend in the Upstate New York village of Woodstock. Just when all hell was breaking loose, Berger wrote about heaven. Like debate participants try to do, he caused people to take a second look at something, or someone.
There is transcendence—he speaks of the ‘supernatural’—all about us. Maybe that is why you have come, together, to worship on this Alumni weekend. What are the signposts, the clues to transcendence we should look for—in our lived experience? Berger’s summary still works. You may be surprised by the clues he names, the rumors of angels he overhears…
First, give a little credit to your own blessed rage for order. Some of you are hoarders, of sorts, and bring order by refusing to get rid of anything. Others are the very opposite, ‘when in doubt throw it out’. You have a desire to see things set right, one way or another. What were those kids doing at Woodstock, in the mud, listening to Janis Joplin, fifty years ago? They were shouting to the heavens that things were not right, that something was out of order. Berger: A. This is the human faith in order as such, a faith closely related to man’s fundamental trust in reality. This faith is experienced not only in the history of societies and civilizations, but in the life of each individual—indeed, child psychologists tell us there can be no maturation without the presence of this faith at the outset of the socialization process. B. Man’s propensity for order is grounded in a faith or trust that, ultimately, reality is ‘in order’, ‘all right’, ‘as it should be’. Do you have a longing for order? Underneath, just there, is a mode of religious experience. Talk a bit about it, parents and children.
Second, and swinging to a different spot, pause and meditate a little on your own enjoyment of play. 1. I see grown men enthralled on a green field following a wee little white ball, which seems to have a mind of its own, for three or four hours in the hot sun. 2. I see grown women shopping together without any particular need, but immersed, self forgetful, in the process of purchasing, God knows what. 3.I see emerging adults fixed and fixated, days on end, in the World of Warcraft. 4. Families were mesmerized this past summer, glued to gymnastics in England. 5. Can you remember playing bridge in college all night long, to the detriment of your zoology grade? Berger: A.In playing, one steps out of one time into another…When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood…(Viewers of the recent film Moonrise Kingdom readily understand this). The experience of joyful play is not something that must be sought on some mystical margin of existence. It can readily be found in the reality of ordinary life…The religious justification of the experience can be achieved only in an act of faith…B.This faith is inductive—it does not rest on a mysterious revelation, but rather on what we experience in our common, ordinary lives…Religion is the final vindication of childhood and of joy, and of all gestures that replicate these. One said: “I played basketball today, on the intramural team—it was awesome.” Talk about it a bit, parents and children.
Third, we sense the (my word) supranatural, the transcendent, in the experience of hope. Hope does spring eternal in the human breast. Hope keeps us going when otherwise we would not. 1. You may have seen Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones dramatize this in the midst of their struggling marriage. The movie title: ‘Hope Springs’. 2. Parents hope their children will thrive in college. Students hope so too. So do professors and administrators and Deans of Chapels. We hope. There is something lasting, real, meaningful, costly and true about hope. 3. Where there is life there is hope. Better: where there is hope there is life. People with no regular religion at all know about hope, and its absence. Berger: A. Human existence is always oriented toward the future. Man exists by constantly extending his being into the future, both in his consciousness and in his activity. B. Put differently, man realizes himself in projects…It is through hope that men overcome the difficulties of the here and now. And it is through hope that men find meaning in the face of extreme suffering…There seems to be a death-refusing hope at the very core of our humanitas. While empirical reason indicates that this hope is an illusion, there is something in us that, however shamefacedly in an age of triumphant rationality goes on saying ‘no!’ and even says ‘no’ to the ever so plausible explanation of empirical reason…Faith takes into account the intentions within our natural experience of hope that point toward a supernatural fulfillment. I wonder if the generations sitting together in the pews this morning might, come Christmas, talk a bit about that most unreligious religious experience, a thing called hope, a place called hope, a time called hope, a feeling called hope?
Fourth, we have burning desire to see real justice done, and also to see massive injustice called to account. Berger uses, well, the word damnation. I am using slightly different language because I cannot make his argument as well with this word this morning. It is too loaded. But the heart of the intention is true and strong. We want people who get away with murder not ultimately to get away with murder. E Brunner, after WWII, was asked why he spoke about the devil: Said he: Two reasons. Jesus did. And I have seen him. When we think of mass murder, of horrific injustice, intentionally and painstakingly executed, we demand justice. There is something down deep in the human heart that just will not let things go. This is not about forgiveness. It is about retributive justice. Sometimes young people have a keener sense of this than their elders. Berger: This refers to experiences in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the offense as well as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions…A. There are certain deeds that cry out to heaven…Not only are we constrained to condemn, and to condemn absolutely, but ,if we should be in a position to do so, we would feel constrained to take action on the basis of that certainty…B.Deeds that cry out to heaven also cry out for hell…No human punishment is enough in the case of deeds as monstrous as these…(this is) a moral order that transcends the human community and thus invokes a retribution that is more than human. When adults talk as adults, younger with older, there arise memories and understandings, dark in hue and deep in sentiment, that call out for an extraordinary, unearthly, transcendent justice. How shall we talk about these? Talk a bit, bit by bit, in the years to come, parents and children.
Fifth, one can sense the horizon of heaven, the transcendent radiance of mystery, the supranatural or supernatural, in the simple experience of humor, perhaps the very polar opposite of the cry for retributive justice. 1. Here I will pause to tell an ostensibly humorous story. I was asked to pray at the start of a billion dollar campaign. My reply: ‘It would be my pressure—I mean my pleasure.’ 2. People ask about interreligious life on campus and I say: ‘The Hindus are the most Christian people I deal with’. 3. Phyllis Diller died this year. You remember her husband: Fang. You remember her mother in law: Moby Dick. You remember her sister in law: Captain Bligh. You remember her self deprecation (‘I once wore peek a boo blouse. One man peeked and then shouted ‘boo!’). You remember her cackling laughter. Humor, real humor, stops time still. ‘He who sits in the heavens shall laugh’, says the psalmist. Berger: There is one fundamental discrepancy from which all other comic discrepancies are derived—the discrepancy between man and the universe…A. The comic reflects the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world…B.Humor mocks the ‘serious’ business of the world and the might who carry it out…Power is the final illusion, while laughter reveals the final truth…It is the Quixote’s hope rather than Sancho Panza’s ‘realism’ that is ultimately vindicated, and the gestures of the clown have a sacramental dignity. When you gather at Thanksgiving table, after the prayer and before the turkey, tell one funny story, or one joke, or one humorous memory. Talk a bit, talk a bit, talk a bit, parents and children.
Here is our theme: Order, play, hope, justice, humor: religious experiences without recourse to religion. You may not be so religious, or so you think. But do you create order, and crave play, and desire hope, and long for justice, and enjoy humor? These are signs, for you, signs of something else, something lasting and true and good and extraordinary. Talk a bit about it, parents and children. As Bonnie Raitt put it: let’s give them something to talk about!