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New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks once confessed his debt to BU sociologist Peter Berger, “whose writing I’ve long mimicked, copied, and stole from.” Across the divide, liberal Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne quoted the Lutheran Berger as a wise exemplar of religious belief that rejected both fanaticism and relativist dismissals of faith.
The man whose scholarship inspired such diverse thinkers died June 27, 2017, at age 88. He was the founding director of BU’s Institute on Culture, Religion & World Affairs (CURA), and a College of Arts & Sciences professor emeritus of sociology, religion, and theology. He was the father of Thomas Berger, a Pardee School of Global Studies and CAS professor of international relations.
Peter Berger was an expert on the sociology of religion and the evolution of the developing world. The author of numerous books, his The Social Construction of Reality (Doubleday, 1966) achieved classic status by exploring and coining the term “social construction” to refer to an idea shaped by society’s values. The International Sociological Association deems the book the 20th century’s fifth most influential volume in the discipline. Timothy Longman, current CURA director, says Berger was “one of the towering figures in the field.”
In 1992, his native Austria gave him the Manes Sperber Prize for significant cultural contributions.
“His leadership and insight will be missed,” says Longman, a Pardee and CAS associate professor of international relations and of political science, “but his academic legacy is preserved at the center that he established, where a new generation of scholars follows his lead in exploring the important role of religion in world affairs.” Attending CURA events for years after his retirement, Berger impressed Longman “as he asked probing questions and challenged speakers.”
“Peter’s legacy runs deep and wide in multiple fields,” says Mary Elizabeth Moore, dean of the School of Theology and a professor of theology and education. “His work has been groundbreaking for a vast range of people wrestling with thorny questions of human culture, religion, secularity, and meaning. His written legacy will go on, but his large personal presence will be missed by everyone who knew him.”
For all his formidable intellect, Berger disdained academic tediousness, as evidenced by the title of his 2011 memoir, Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World without Becoming a Bore. He sprinkled it with anecdotes that were anything but boring, such as the time his travel companion in Africa, the late Catholic priest Richard Neuhaus, came down with a case of enlarged testicles from a prejourney inoculation. Berger also confessed that as a young man, he’d stolen an acquaintance’s letter to her boyfriend while perched on the toilet in her apartment.
Speaking with BU Today after the publication of his memoir, he described his interest in probing the divide between developing world Christianity, brimming with supernatural beliefs, and Christians in industrialized nations. When Robert Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel, once asked him what he hoped to learn from such study, Berger replied, “I want you to explain to some African Christians why Marsh Chapel doesn’t have services to raise people from the dead.”
The “accidental sociologist” part of his memoir involved 20-year-old Berger’s original career aspiration: becoming a Lutheran minister. But as a Viennese immigrant to New York, he took a night class, Balzac as a Sociologist, to learn more about the American congregants he’d have to pastor. The class taught him nothing about his new country, Berger wrote, but infected him with sociology and “an endless curiosity about every aspect of human behavior.”
He attributed his drift from youthful religious conservatism to a more liberal viewpoint both to the mellowing of growing older and to his adopted homeland. America, he told BU Today, is “a pluralistic society, and I began to absorb that. Pluralism is a good thing, because freedom is an important value.”
Berger was CURA’s director from 1985, when it was founded, until 2009. Today part of the Pardee School of Global Studies, CURA conducts research and education about religion and world affairs.