I met up with a Jesuit priest yesterday here in Charlottesville with the objective of sorting out my weird relationship to Ignatian spirituality as someone who is no longer a practicing Christian (I dub this relationship “weird” on the basis that there is even a relationship to speak of). I was very clear in my initial email that I wasn’t seeking spiritual direction because I was “way too agnostic” for that, and made sure to let this priest know during our conversation that I was about “three notches more agnostic” than when I first emailed him. We had a very interesting conversation, which I will most likely spin into another blog series at some point.
Anyhow, the reason why I am mentioning my conversation with this Jesuit priest in the context of my conversion to critical pedagogy is because he recommended Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality (1966). I’ve long suspected that the Christian intelligentsia of Charlottesville are all Bergerians, or at the very least conversant with Bergerian interpretive sociology. I’ve had Christian professors strike up conversation with me in coffee shops because they saw me reading Social Construction; intellectual evangelicals of the John Stott persuasion, at least those with graduate training, frequently cite Berger; a Christian sociologist first recommended Berger to me as an undergrad; and now a highly decorated academic Jesuit priest was recommending Social Construction, confirming the pattern and completing the loop for me, so to speak.
These interactions have led me to the conclusion that there is a distinct elite Christian social field in Charlottesville where Berger’s name carries a considerable amount of cultural capital. The cultural capital associated with Berger, I suspect, has to do with his prominence as a leading theorist of religion in pluralistic modernity (in the sense of modernity intensifying, not birthing, pluralism). Any intellectually respectable Christian, then, has to engage with Berger’s oeuvre if they are to maintain a self-sensible practice of religion in the midst of competing areligious and otherly-religious realities, and to do so in a way that is more intellectually credible than apologetic dogmatism. Hence the sexiness of invoking Berger, a way of signaling that you are one of the sophisticated Christians. And I don’t think a lot of people are name-dropping Berger in regular conversation; rather, Berger’s name functions as a kind of secret handshake for entry into a chapter of the Christian Illuminati, which adds an element of allure to engaging with his work.
This is the cultural milieu, which I am suggesting is especially pronounced in Charlottesville (primarily due to one of Berger’s most famous students starting an elite research institution here–I won’t name names), in which I was first made aware of Berger. However, as an agnostic critical pedagogue in formation, I have come to embrace Berger in an entirely different register that will perhaps be illegible to the Bergerian religious. In a similar way that Berger has deeply influenced my reading of Freire, Freire has influenced my reading of Berger—so much so that, for the purposes of distinguishing myself from the Christian intelligentsia’s badge-flashing Berger, I would say that I champion a Freirean Berger. Whereas the actual Berger theorized around the question of what and how was religion in modern times, the Freirean Berger that I have come embrace offers a theoretical lens for analyzing the (un)doings of oppression in everyday life.
Berger posits religious conversion as the “historical prototype of alternation” (Berger and Luckmann 1966, p. 177) between social realities. In other words, Berger was thinking about the social phenomenology of conversion as a reality-migrating process when he was theorizing social construction with his co-author Thomas Luckmann. Expanding on their statement that “to live in a religious world requires affiliation with [a religious] community” (p. 178), they write:
“The plausibility structure [read: religious community] must become the individual’s world, displacing all other worlds, especially the world the individual ‘inhabited’ before his alternation. This requires segregation of the individual from the ‘inhabitants’ of other worlds, especially his ‘cohabitants’ in the world he has left behind … The alternating individual disaffiliates himself from his previous world and the plausibility structure that sustained it, bodily if possible, mentally if not. In either case he is no longer ‘yoked together with unbelievers’, and thus is protected from their potential reality-disrupting influence.” (ibid.)
We see in the above excerpt that the framework of social construction and the Bergerian concept of plausibility structures are especially apropos to, if not intentionally theorized for, describing conversion and the maintenance of religious realities. The actual Berger, then, is very amenable to a conversion-centric reading.
The Freirean Berger, on the other hand, takes liberation, not conversion, as the ‘historical prototype of alternation’ between social realities. In other words, I read Berger as providing a social phenomenology of liberation as a reality-migrating process from the oppressor reality to a reality more amenable to one’s existence. In this rendering, the oppressor reality constitutes the default reality in which the oppressed are socialized and from which they must depart in securing their humanity; the space of Freirean dialogue becomes a plausibility structure for an alternative reality; and the process of liberation necessitates, at least at first, the conscientized individual to ‘disaffiliate herself from her previous world and the plausibility structure that sustained it’ so as to no longer be ‘yoked together with her oppressor’ by housing him in her consciousness.
Berger states that “[t]he plausibility structures of religious conversion have been imitated by secular agencies of alternation,” especially those in “areas of political indoctrination” (Berger and Luckmann, p. 178), citing Chinese communist brainwashing techniques (p. 232). Berger does two things here: first, he maintains the primacy of religious conversion as the prototype par excellence of the social construction of reality, and second, he signals a descriptive disinterestedness (note: not vindictiveness, as one might read into “political indoctrination,” since Berger is a sociologist who is committed to the ‘value-free’ vision of Weberian sociology) towards questions of political commitment. In other words, Berger himself offers a robust vocabulary for describing the plausibility structures undergirding certain political projects, but makes no endorsements himself to any such project. This is where Berger and I part ways.
When I say that I embrace a Freirean Berger, I am poaching from Berger’s theoretical framework of social construction in order to thoughtfully engage with my own praxis of liberation, which I take to be the prototype par excellence of the social construction of reality. Contrary to how he is understood within Christian Charlottesville, when I invoke the name of Berger, I do so with the imperative of liberation in mind.