A Rumour of Angels - the supernatural, secularisation and the mystical

Peter Berger published A Rumour of Angels in 1969. More recently, in 2014, he published The Many Altars of Modernity: Towards a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age. Berger is a sociologist of religion. In his earlier book, he explores the ‘alleged demise of the supernatural’. The cover blurb says he “suggests that fresh evidence of the supernatural may be found in things take for granted in our daily lives.”

He notes that the term ‘supernatural’ had been subject to criticism. Historians of religion and cultural anthropologists pointed out that the term suggests the division of reality into a closed system of rationally comprehensible ‘nature’ and a mysterious world somehow beyond it. This, he says, is a peculiarly modern conception, which is misleading if we are seeking to understand the religious notions of primitive or archaic cultures.

I was 24 when Peter Berger published A Rumour of Angels. I think my High Church Anglican religious world was a supernatural world in which God ‘lived’ somewhere other than earth and could be communicated with through prayer and affected emotionally through worship. God could be apologised to in confession and seduced into liking us through sensuous liturgy. That’s a bit of a basic picture and maybe I didn’t think that at the age of 24, but part of me did, and I’ve been seeking to move beyond those ‘primitive’ ideas ever since. They are unhelpfully infectious.

Berger goes on to note that in every day usage, supernatural denotes a fundamental category of religion, the assertion of belief that there is an other reality, and one of ultimate significance for humankind, which transcends the reality within which our everyday experience unfolds. It is this reality which was allegedly becoming defunct in the ‘modern world’ of 1969.

He refers to Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, published in 1917, where Otto attempts a definitive description of the ‘otherness’ of religious experience.

“Otto emphasised that the sacred (that is, the reality man believes he encounters in religious experience) is ‘totally other’ than ordinary, human phenomena, and in this ‘otherness’ the sacred impresses man as an overwhelming, awesome, and strangely fascinating power.”

Berger turns next to look at ‘the ordinary world’, ‘the world of daily life which the wide-awake, grown up person who acts in it and upon it amidst fellow human beings experiences within the natural attitude as a reality’. Religion posits a ‘supernatural’ reality against this domain of taken-for-granted, ‘natural’ experience. He introduces the idea of the secularisation theory of modern culture – that is, secularisation as applying to processes inside the human mind, that is, a secularisation of consciousness. At the time he was writing, sociologists had, in his estimation, sworn allegiance to a scientific ‘progressivism’ that regarded religion as a vanishing leftover from the dark ages of superstition and didn’t care to invest time in the study of a moribund phenomenon. Sociologists attending to the sociology of religion regarded it almost exclusively in terms of traditional religious institutions, a restrictive perspective looking at ‘a sociology of the churches’.

Strong evidence showed that secularisation was resulting in the emptying of traditional religious beliefs of meaning, not only in the general population but in those who continued to belong to a church. Evidence supported the proposition of the demise of the supernatural, or at least a considerable decline, in the modern world. Nearly fifty years later, GAFCON would claim that in the West, the decline has continued, whereas in the Global South, the reverse is happening, secularisation has been averted or reversed, and the supernatural and traditional belief thrive.

What Berger writes next would at first seem to be applicable only to those living in the West. Today, he says, the supernatural as a meaningful reality is absent or remote from the horizons of everyday life of the majority of people in modern societies, who seem to manage to get along without it quite well (that becomes more questionable with every passing year!). Those to whom the supernatural is still a meaningful reality find themselves in the status of a minority, more precisely a cognitive minority – which has very far reaching implications. By cognitive minority he means a group of people whose view of the world differs significantly from the one taken for granted in their society. A cognitive minority is a group formed around a body of deviant ‘knowledge’ – that which is taken to be or believed as ‘knowledge’. Sociologists were placing Christians in the West in this category, over against the ‘secular’ non-church going majority. Today, conservative evangelicals, Bible-believing Christians, members of ‘The Society’, those who identify as ‘same-sex attracted’, and members of various other sub-sets in the Christian churches and the Church of England in particular, might identify themselves, with some strength of feeling, as being in a cognitive minority.

We live with greater levels of cognitive dissonance and more cognitive minority sub-sets than was the case fifty years ago. These sub-sets are having a huge effect on the life of the Church of England. They impact in an uncomfortable way on my life, not only as a gay man who wishes he could marry in church, but as a spiritual seeker whose path to God is repeatedly questioned by those who live more easily with a supernatural world view. Am I too in a cognitive minority? Berger says the status of a cognitive minority is invariably an uncomfortable one – not necessarily because the majority is repressive or intolerant, but simply because it refuses to accept the minority’s definition of reality as ‘knowledge’. At best, a minority viewpoint is forced to be defensive. At worst, it ceases to be plausible to anyone.

This is where the Church of England continues to find itself – ceasing to be plausible to the majority outside the church and many inside it because of its understandings of and policies about gender and sexuality – and spirituality and God. Religious beliefs have become empty of meaning for the many.

Supernatural religion

I’m assuming that the world of GAFCON and of conservative Christians in the UK is a supernatural religious world – an ‘other’ realm of a conditionally-loving, judgemental God, of heaven and hell as realities, locations where people go after they die.

Secular culture

I’m assuming that other people, both outside and inside the church, live with a more prosaic, pragmatic, this world reality – Berger’s domain of taken-for-granted, ‘natural’ experience and secularised modern culture.

Mystical reality

I live in a different domain, the domain of sacred, holy, real presence in the here and now, a domain which has the powerful effect of taking me beyond my mundane, prosaic self and away from a conditionally-loving, judgemental God of heaven and hell, into another realm which is as real both here and now in the present moment and in the infinite elsewhere, in glory and beauty and the infusion of love.

The domain doesn’t ‘exist’ elsewhere as if there is another realm or reality or place I am experiencing, located somewhere else in creation or the universe, a somewhere we can’t quite configure (though some tell me the Bible has the answers).

It is, at moments in life, intensely present right now, as the mystics bear witness, and it can be present, and is indeed present, to every human being and in less cognitive, emotional ways, to ever element of creation. But most are unaware, whether they live in the West or the Global South metaphorically blind and deaf, in the words of Jesus, to the infinite, intimate, gracious, holy, sacred, divine presence.

Language is difficult because words are so freighted with meaning and feelings, and many of us live, encumbered by and locked into the constraints of meaning, our imaginations and hearts and souls, especially in the domain of the church, un-free to roam to the wild, taboo, infinitely loving, creative realms of God – that word that has a potent tendency to limit, proscribe, inhibit and condense meaning and values.

The Church of England would not be embroiled in energy and life-sapping tribal turf wars if minds and hearts and souls were open to the divine mystical presence in all creation in the here and now. But minds are unaware and church life and attention is distracted by conflicts about whether gay people can love and marry and have sex or whether women can be legitimate sacramental purveyors of communion and blessing.

Friends, this is madness. This is why the rumour of angels remains but a rumour.

There is indeed another reality. Jesus lived and taught and loved from his immersion within this other reality, the reality of the infinitely mystical here and now, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.