Professor Berger, who had a wry smile and deep-set eyes framed by a balding crown, came to wide attention during the charged debate over whether the concept of a deity was relevant in an increasingly secularized, technological world — a discussion that seemed to peak with a famous 1966 Time magazine cover whose stark red-on-black headline asked, “Is God Dead?”
Theologians like Paul Tillich, Gabriel Vahanian and Thomas J. J. Altizer produced works that, taken together, seemed to argue that post-Auschwitz society, being skeptical of a benevolent universe and absorbed with material gains, was losing its sense of the sacred — so much so that the vision of a transcendent deity had lost much of its force.
Some theologians seemed to reject traditional notions of theism, even arguing that Jesus should be seen more as a human role model than an actual deity.
Professor Berger pushed back against that trend in his book “A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural,” published in 1969 and for many years required reading in college sociology and theology courses.
He argued that the skepticism of the atheist was just as questionable as blind faith, though he conceded that secularism was on the rise — that cultural relevance had overtaken spiritual values.
“Whatever the situation may have been in the past,” he wrote, “today the supernatural as a meaningful reality is absent or remote from the horizons of everyday life of large numbers, very probably the majority, of people in modern societies, who seem to manage to get along without it quite well.”
Nevertheless, he wrote, people can enrich their religious sensibilities by finding “signals of transcendence” in common experiences: A mother’s reassuring a frightened child that all is well suggests a confidence in a trustworthy universe. A mortal’s insistence on hope in the face of approaching death implies a conviction that death may not be final. The ability to condemn monstrous evil suggests a belief in a moral ordering of the universe that may even be comfortable with the notion of hell. Laughter and play affirm “the triumph of all human gestures of creative beauty over the gestures of destruction.”
In a later book, Professor Berger recounted his own religious discovery that there was an “otherness which lurks behind the fragile structures of everyday life.”
Addressing his concern with creeping secularization,…