Peter Berger on Protestantism and Disenchantment


I posted earlier about Charles Taylor’s presentation of disenchantment; here is a long excerpt on the same topic (taking a slightly different angle) by Peter Berger from his book, The Sacred Canopy:

If compared with the “fullness” of the Catholic universe, Protestantism appears as a radical truncation, a reduction to “essentials” at the expense of a vast wealth of religious contents. This is especially true of the Calvinist version of Protestantism, but to a considerable degree the same may be said of the Lutheran and even the Anglican Reformations. Our statement, of course, is merely descriptive — we are not interested in whatever theological justifications there may be either for the Catholic pleroma or for the evangelical spareness of Protestantism. If we look at these two religious constellations more carefully, though, Protestantism may be described in terms of an immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality, as compared with its Catholic adversary. The sacramental apparatus is reduced to a minimum and, even there, divested of its more numinous qualities. The miracle of the mass disappears altogether. Less routine miracles, if not denied altogether, lose all real significance for the religious life. The immense network of intercession that unites the Catholic in this world with the saints and, indeed, with all departed souls disappears as well. Protestantism ceased praying for the dead. At the risk of some simplification, it can be said that Protestantism divested itself as much as possible from the three most ancient and most powerful concomitants of the sacred — mystery, miracle, and magic. This process has been aptly caught in the phrase “disenchantment of the world.” The Protestant believer no longer lives in a world ongoingly penetrated by sacred beings and forces. Reality is polarized between a radically transcendent divinity and a radically “fallen” humanity that, ipso facto, is devoid of sacred qualities. Between them lies an altogether “natural” universe, God’s creation to be sure, but in itself bereft of numinosity. In other words, the radical transcendence of God confronts a universe of radical immanence, of “closed-ness” to the sacred. Religiously speaking, the world becomes very lonely indeed.

The Catholic lives in a world in which the sacred is mediated to him through a variety of channels –the sacraments of the church, the intercession of the saints, the recurring eruption of the “supernatural” in miracles– a vast continuity of being between the seen and the unseen. Protestantism abolished most of these mediations. It broke the continuity, cut the umbilical cord between heaven and earth, and thereby threw man back upon himself in a historically unprecedented manner. Needless to say, this was not its intention. It only denuded the world of divinity in order to emphasize the terrible majesty of the transcendent God and it only threw man into total “fallenness” in order to make him open to the intervention of God’s sovereign grace, the only true miracle in the Protestant universe. In doing this, however, it narrowed man’s relationship to the sacred to the one exceedingly narrow channel that it called God’s word (not to be identified with a fundamentalist conception of the Bible, but rather with the uniquely redemptive action of God’s grace — the Sola Gratia of the Lutheran confessions). As long as the plausibility of this conception was maintained, of course, secularization was effectively arrested, even though all its ingredients were already present in the Protestant universe. It needed only the cutting of this one narrow channel of mediation, though, to open the floodgates of secularization. In other words, with nothing remaining “in between” a radically transcendent God and a radically immanent human world except this one channel, the sinking of the latter into implausibility left an empirical reality in which, indeed, “God is dead.” This reality then became amenable to the systematic, rational penetration, both in thought and in activity, which we associate with modern science and technology. A sky empty of angels becomes open to the intervention of the astronomer and, eventually, of the astronaut. It may be maintained, then, that Protestantism served as a historically decisive prelude to secularization, whatever may have been the importance of other factors. [The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1967), 111-113.]

Berger writes that disenchantment “threw man back upon himself in a historically unprecedented manner”. One might argue that humanity’s being thrown back on itself is the beginning of the modern shift of human life and thought, a shift from a timeless theology and an eternal metaphysics (which provided an external and timeless basis for normativity in thought and judgment) to an anthropology, law and politics that were historicized and worlded. That is, no longer was an eternal realm of essences taken as normative, nor was the Good seen both as the transcendent goal of all things and as determining the being of beings. Rather, thought was seen as supplementing reality in acts of interpretation that are completely tied-up in the world being interpreted, with no transcendent vantage point. One is reminded here of Wilhelm Dilthey. Concerning a politics built atop an inescapable –and inescapably Augustinian– libido dominandi, without any kind of sacral notion of kings or the state, one is reminded of Niccolo Machiavelli.


When Berger writes that “[cutting the umbilical cord of the sacred] was not [Protestantism’s] intention”, the record seems to be more ambiguous than this, at least in some cases. If we ask the insidious question, “who benefits”, the answer may be that rulers do, as they can domesticate the sacred as the only sovereign political authority in a region, no longer needing to compete either with the pleroma of saints and angels, the weight of the authority of the dead, or the reigns of a religious tradition headed by a politically powerful papacy.

During the English Reformation, there was a royally-backed process of removing religious ritual objects of worship, and prohibiting many of the older, Catholic forms of worship. (There is an excellent book about this process in England by Eamon Duffy). In this process, religious images were destroyed and statuary torn down (the veneration and even possession of these images were both forbidden by force of law). It was now prohibited for the members of a community to address their ordinary faithful departed members (grandparents, etc.) during public worship — a wall was erected between the living and the dead, enforced by royal authority. The tombstones of the departed faithful formerly had their likenesses carved on them, together with admonitions and petitions from them to those still standing upon this earth. The Reformers defaced these gravestone likenesses and stripped the petitions from them. The members of the community would traditionally donate various ritual objects (vestments, chalices, etc.) for the use of the Church, and the members of the community knew who donated them; this was one of the ways that the dead and the living were connected. The king’s Reforming law was that these objects were to be inventoried as mere resources (without any note about the donors) and sold, the profits sent to the Crown. Eamon Duffy notes that in England,

the stripping away of the externals of Catholic worship [during the Reformation] must often have had a profound […] effect. Whether done under official pressure or not, the removal of the images of the saints, of the altars, and perhaps most of all the brasses and obit[uary] inscriptions calling for prayers for the dead, which were ripped up from gravestones and sold by the hundredweight from 1548 onwards, were ritual acts of deep significance. Like the silencing of the [commemorations of the departed at the Mass], the removal of the images and petitions of the dead was an act of oblivion, a casting out of the dead from the community of the living into a collective anonymity. They, like the Mass and the saints, were now as they had never been before, part of a superseded past. The imaginative power of the cult of the dead in late medieval England had lain in part precisely in its continuity, as generation after generation inscribed its names and imposed its features upon the palimpsest of the parish memory. Through the recitation of the [names of the departed at Mass] and the continued use of the objects which the generosity of “good doers and well willers” had provided, the community was prevented from shrinking to become coterminous with its living members. [Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, 2nd edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 494-495.]

The weight of the past is liquified and goes to feed the monarch. Regardless of the religious motives of the Reformers themselves, such a program as this requires authority to execute it, and so it is difficult to see this as something other than an act of social engineering for the consolidation of secular power under the royal scepter. Therefore Berger’s comment here, I think, needs to be qualified. Disenchantment may have political benefits for rulers, who would then not need to deal with the political weight of local religious institutions who answer to figureheads in other countries; also it relieves the monarch of an administrative burden, as angels, saints, and the dead are rather difficult to supervise and manage, and can be rather destabilizing elements for one’s rule, and it is impossible for any punitive measures to silence the bodiless if they seem to speak out against the activities of rulers. The motives of the Reformers may be exactly as Berger describes; and yet the motives of the secular rulers must be taken into account.

The “umbilical cord” was cut as Berger notes, but it is not clear that the motives for cutting it didn’t have something to do with the very worldly desire for mastery; it is not clear that it was not, at least at some level, intended.



One thought on “Peter Berger on Protestantism and Disenchantment

  1. Pingback: Gagarin and the Seven Heavens (Sketch of an Outline) | Into the Clarities

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