Culty baggage predisposes you to interpretive sociology and symbolic interactionism. Studying how certain understandings of self and world stabilize in particular historical moments through networks of social interaction becomes a cathartic way of unpacking your own experiences of submersion. However, I doubt that if you were to walk up to an interpretive sociologist or symbolic interactionist and ask pointblank if they are shadowboxing with their past through reading, scholarship, and research that you would get an honest confession. And I get it: It’s embarrassing. Especially in an impostor syndrome ridden environment like the academy where you are constantly performing your intelligence to both yourself and others, it can be deeply humiliating to admit (again, to yourself and others) that there was once a time in your life when your thinking was utterly compromised.
—at least this is how I’ve come to understand my own culty baggage and affinities for interpretive sociology, as well as my bashfully deflective demeanor towards my past. Like I said before: It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for me to admit that I spent my entire four years as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia (UVA) primarily involved in an Asian ethnic specific evangelical campus fellowship; that I filtered the majority of my experience of the world through a single charismatic leader, the chapter’s campus staff worker; that I “came out” as gay for the first time to this same campus staff worker and assumed, because such was the world that he had invited me into, that I was to live a celibate life as a born-again evangelical (the first book I read after converting and “coming out” was Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting); that I was so gay disidentified in American evangelicalism’s celibate closet that I didn’t interact with UVA’s LGBTQ+ community or take any Women and Gender Studies classes; that I practiced a form of charismatic-evangelical Christianity that emphasized listening prayer, faith healing, and power evangelism (see psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann’s work on this particular kind of Vineyard Movement spirituality here, here, and here), as well as frequent theophostic prayer ministry and the occasional demon exorcism; that the structure of my consciousness was so partitioned that I was somehow able to be simultaneously trained as a critical social scientist and disciplined into a highly judgmental-pietistic subjectivity; that I eagerly marched into a Ph.D. program in a field I thought I was committed to because that’s what smart evangelicals were supposed to do—become missional professors in the secular university for the glory of Jesus Christ; that I need to reevaluate almost every aspect of my intellectual life from 2013 to 2017.
I’d rather not admit that my thinking was compromised throughout college, and even to a certain extent during my semester stint in grad school as I was deconstructing my religiosity. In fact, I’ve had a bit of social anxiety around how to even begin talking about my time in college—hence why I started this blog, and hence why it took me so long to do so. In sharing all of this, I feel a bit like Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton trying to “write my way out” of my mess, overwhelming my audience (you, but actually really me) with honesty.
Recall that the purpose of this blog series is to provide a textual account of my conversion to critical pedagogy. I begin this story with my college years because I think it is important to have a baseline of where I was pre-conscientization: part of a cultish evangelical student group. Furthermore, it was from within this social world that I discovered Peter Berger.
But before getting into Berger, I need to explain my evocation of “cult,” a term that has been the subject of much debate within the sociology of religion. I agree with sociologists who would argue that the term of “cult” is too conceptually elusive and fraught with stigmatization to be analytically useful, and hence I am evoking a more commonsense construal of “cult” to refer to tightly controlled religious groups that totalize every aspect of a member’s life through a very specific worldview. I’m using the adjectives “culty” and “cultish” to describe the cult-like characteristics of my particular submersion in American evangelicalism through a college campus ministry group: loyalty to a single highly charismatic leader (our campus staff worker), discouraging critical or contrarian thinking; an elitist us-versus-them mentality that positioned “truth” with “us” and “error” with “them” (we regularly shat on other student groups, especially for being unreflexively white and staunchly anti-charismatic); dissolving conventional boundaries of social life (I started our chapter’s first community house, and therefore lived, worked, and breathed our fellowship 24/7); monopolizing one’s social network; mind-altering practices intended to reach a state of enlightened wisdom (we would make important decisions based off of mental images and episodes we “received from the Holy Spirit”); a highly sophisticated internal vocabulary and practical heuristic centered around accessing one’s “true self”; and an extreme focus on group recruitment and membership retention (as in most evangelical circles). There were too many dynamics reminiscent of charismatic religious authority and resocialization in a total institution at work during my college days for me to say that I was only going through a Third Wave Pentecostalism phase; but I do not think that I was part of a full-blown cult. Thus I dub my baggage “culty.”
As I mentioned in my inaugural blog post, I was reading Berger in an attempt to wrestle free from the evangelical social reality that I was a part of. Berger was on my radar because American evangelicals LOVE him and are especially fond of appropriating his concept of plausibility structures as an apologetic cure-all for secularization. Especially relevant for sexual minorities like myself, evangelicals have recently shifted their strategy towards LGBTQ+ issues from practicing ex-gay conversion therapy to identifying a plausibility problem for traditionalist Christian sexual ethics and promoting plausibility structures for sexual minority celibacy within church communities (see this book, chapter 7 of this book, and this article). Furthermore, I am loosely involved with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, which is led by Berger’s protégé, James Davison Hunter. So I was already exposed second-hand to Bergerian ideas as someone submerged in evangelicalism. I just never took the time to actually pick up the primary texts and read Berger for myself.
That is, until I picked up The Sacred Canopy (1967) and The Social Construction of Reality (1966)—I read them in that order, alongside James Hunter and Stephen Ainlay’s Making Sense of Modern Times (1986)—at the beginning of this calendar year. I was already somewhat conversant in the sociology of scientific knowledge (see also: this) from my Science and Technology Studies days, so Berger’s early work served as a kind of intellectual bridge for me, crossing over the sociology of knowledge and into the sociology of religion. And it was just what I needed: a theoretical framework to make sense of my religious experiences in college, as well as the deeply anomic transition that I was in the midst of.
Berger’s constructionist view of religion begins with the premise that humans need to exist under the hermeneutical shelter of some kind of overarching meaning system because the psychological distress of meaningless chaos is too much to bear. These overarching meaning systems consist of the everyday knowledges through which people navigate their lives within a particular social reality. Social realities exist, according to Berger, in a dialectical fashion whereby humans both produce these realities and encounter these realities as something other than themselves. In other words, “society is the product of man” and “man is the product of society” (Berger 1967, p. 3). There are three moments in Berger’s humanity-society dialectic: (1) externalization, whereby humans externalize specific meanings of the world through cultural production; (2) objectification, whereby those externalized cultural products, such as language and institutions, attain the level of social facticity as an objective reality that is simply and durably “there”; and (3) internalization, whereby humans are socialized into the ostensibly objective social realities that they encounter in their everyday lives.
Social realities are only coherent insofar as they are maintained through constant legitimation. Berger writes:
“Worlds are socially constructed and socially maintained. Their continuing reality, both objective (as common, taken-for-granted facticity) and subjective (as facticity imposing itself on individual consciousness), depends on specific social processes, namely those processes that ongoingly reconstruct and maintain the particular worlds in question. Conversely, the interruption of these social processes threatens the (objective and subjective) reality of the worlds in question. Thus, each world requires a social ‘base’ for its continuing existence as a world that is real to actual human beings. This ‘base’ may be called its plausibility structure.” (Berger 1967, p. 45)
In other words, social realities must be constantly renewed through social interaction with a given reality’s other residents and cultural materials. Regarding religion, one may refer to a network of evangelical publishing houses, group Bible studies, and private conversations with your pastor about personal issues as plausibility structures that legitimate the evangelical social reality’s objective facticity (that you are actually participating in a real world ‘out there’) and subjective plausibility (that your consciousness is convinced of itself in this world and thus kept at an adequate distance from doubting it).
Berger’s constructionist framework scratched all of my social theory itches around religion. I finally had a conceptual toolkit to begin unpacking my past and describing what the hell was going on during my college years. But what really helped me make sense of and move past my culty baggage was his analysis of false or alienated consciousness, “whereby the dialectical relationship between the individual and his world is lost to consciousness” and “[t]he individual ‘forgets’ that this world was and continues to be co-produced by him” (Berger 1967, p. 85). Drawing on Sartre, Berger describes religious alienation as “bad faith” (p. 93), a kind of inauthentic existence in which an individual denies their innate freedom by construing their conformed actions as an absolute necessity. In other words, to the false consciousness of bad faith, there is no otherwise. It is precisely this indictment of alienated consciousness and bad faith that I observed amongst my evangelical peers and mentors who simply took their reality as necessary; it is also an indictment that I realized applied to myself as well, especially during college; and I suspect that this is the same indictment that Justin sniffed out during our phone call.