Religions learn to live together

How now shall we live together? Though he nowhere poses it, this is the question that renowned sociologist of religion, Peter L. Berger, convened a number of contributors to discuss in his book Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Religious Resources For a Middle Position.

That this should be a concern of Berger's, of course, is hardly surprising, having published seminal works in the sociology of religion (and in sociology more broadly) since 1961. And surely even the most cursory glance at the news - with its reports of the Arab Spring, the Libyan conflict, the Norway massacre - will convince anyone that this is a vital question to be addressed.

After Berger's extensive introduction come three essays gathered under the heading, "Sociological Descriptions." James Davison Hunter's essay shows how relativism and fundamentalism invariably come together and in many ways, mirror each other. Grace Davie offers the establishment of a doctrinally diffuse church (the Church of England) as a way of creating a space for peaceful dialogue. Regent College's Craig M. Gay then gives readers a sketch of the current diversity of contemporary evangelical thought in evangelicals' search for a theology to inform political engagement.

What then follows is a series of "theological directions" in which scholars speak from within their own traditions to develop positions that are neither relativist nor fundamentalist. David Gordis works from a conservative Jewish position, Ingeborg Gabriel writes from within Catholicism, Berger, Lutheranism, Os Guiness, evangelicalism, and Michael Plekon concludes the volume with his essay from an Orthodox perspective. Each author is very clear that he speaks from a living religious perspective rather than for it. At the same time, however, the essays are thoughtful, stimulating and merit serious attention from people on all sides of this very important debate.

Various Western religious traditions are represented - Lutheran, Anglican, evangelical, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish. Of course, there is one very notable absence in this list. The original working group that produced the papers that became this volume included Prof. Muhammad Kalisch, professor of Islamics at the University of Münster. For reasons not given, however, he did not contribute to the final volume. This is most unfortunate for, it seems to me, any discussion of the place of religion in public life is incomplete if it fails to include a Muslim voice. Berger recognizes this and astutely alerts readers to it (p. ix), but the book is nonetheless weaker as a result of Kalisch's absence.

Three shared convictions tie the contributing authors together.

1) Religion is not dying before advancing modernity. While Berger himself once espoused this understanding of secularization, he has lately come to repudiate it and has done so based on solid empirical research. Religion is in fact flourishing alongside, whether in harmony or in conflict with the advance of modernity around the globe.

2) Because of this, relativism - the conviction that questions of ultimate truth are irrelevant - and fundamentalism - the conviction that one's own tradition possesses all final answers to all ultimate questions - are inadequate bases upon which to build a vibrant public life.

3) If Western citizens are going to live peaceably together, without the interreligious strife that seems to define so much of the rest of the world, we are going to need to sketch a space between these simplistic poles where such peace can be found and preserved.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Tim Perry is rector at Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ontario. He blogs about theology, religion, politics and sometimes the blues at

About the author