The Experience of the Sacred

Author: David Christopher Lane
Publisher: UCSM     
Publication date: 1985

E-mail David Christopher Lane directly at

I want to go back to the home base now.

Chapter Thirteen


A Critique of Peter Berger's HERETICAL IMPERATIVE


According to Peter L. Berger in his 1979 book,  The Heretical
Imperative,  modern man has three fundamental options in relation
to religion:  the  deductive  option, reaffirming a particular
religious tradition in spite of counter claims/arguments against it
(e.g., Islamic fundamentalism); the  reductive  option,
modernizing a religious tradition in terms which make it sensible or
understandable in today's predominant modes of thought (e.g.,
Rudolph Bultmann and the demythologization of the New Testament);
or the  inductive  option, turning from external forms of
authority to individual experience (e.g., William James and  The
Varieties of Religious Experience ).  Although all three options can
be exercised, Berger clearly favors and argues for the merits of the
 inductive  option, since it allows for individuals to choose
orientations based upon their own religious encounters.

Indeed,  The Heretical Imperative  can be seen as Berger's
passionate attempt to save the transcendent elements of religion
from the ravages of modern consciousness.  As Dennis P. McCann

Undoubtedly, the problem of relativism stands at the heart of  The
Heretical Imperative.  Berger welcomes the pluralism of
perspectives resulting from secularization and "relativizes the
relativizers" who would set limits to this pluralism,  Since all
thought, including modernity itself, is shaped by plausibility
structures, no thought has a cognitive privilege with reference to
any other thought.  Therefore modernity cannot be used to intimidate
religious believers into abandoning their faith. 

Yet, by emphasizing the superiority of the inductive possibility
over the other two options, Berger is unwittingly putting forth his
own skewed vision of the religious enterprise.  In fact, Berger's
stress on individual experience is reflective of modern
consciousness, which turns religion more and more into a
 private  act.   Thus, Berger cannot escape from resorting to
his own special kind of reductionism: viable religion is essentially
individualistic and experiential.  Now there is no problem in posing
such an argument, but to call this position "inductive" (denoting a
type of "value-free" openness) betrays the fact that it is derived
from an already held religious purview which heavily tends toward
the mystical (Gnostic Christianity, Advaita Vedanta, Esoteric
Buddhism) and not the revelatory (Biblical Christianity, Orthodox
Judaism, Shi'ite Islam).  Hence, Berger's inductive methodology
calls into question the exclusive claims of any one religious
tradition.  As such, only  certain  forms of religious endeavor
can remain intact in the modern age; these forms, according to
Berger, are almost always mystical in origin and point to knowledge
which is not mythic or rational in basis, but trans-empirical or

However, does the "inductive" option really do justice to the
various expressions of religions?  Michael L. Morgan in his article
"Judaism and the Heretical Imperative"  argues that it does not.

The differences between Berger [e.g., "the inductive option"] and
Judaism, then, are not superficial.  It is not merely that the
heretical imperative is not the Jewish imperative.  Nor is it
merely that the Jewish historical situation is a post-modern
situation.  It is more than that.  For Judaism no phenomenological
sociology can do justice to an experience that is secular and
religious, human and divine all at once. . . Lurking in the background
here is a distinction between fact and value, "is" and "ought" that
is troubling, both in the application and in the breach.  Jewish
thought sees the Jewish experience differently. 

By arguing against the  deductive  and  reductive  options,
Berger sets up a limited agenda of what truly constitutes genuine
religiosity.  In doing so, Berger's inductive "purity" becomes
seriously tainted.  Naturally, one cannot help wondering if
Bergerian induction is actually more akin to mystical deduction, or,
if Berger is "really a secular reductionist in disguise." 

Perhaps the more important issue raised by Berger's typology,
though, is the relationship between experience and its
interpretation.  That is, do certain kinds of religious experience
lend themselves to particular modes of interpretation? Or, are
religious encounters flavored by the cultural context in which they

But Berger falls short in trying to answer these questions by
 not  making the "religious virtuosi" (Weber's term for those
who have  direct  perceptions of trans-personal realities) a
fundamental component of his inductive methodology.  Instead Berger
bases his approach on persons who have "had, at best, fugitive and
intimational experiences in this area, and [whose] religious beliefs
are grounded in a socially mediated tradition." 

By not taking into full consideration the insights of the "religious
virtuosi" Berger limits his experiential option to the verbal arena
and thereby seriously damages the ultimate truth-values that his
inductive approach can offer.  Moreover, Berger does not provide us
with any persuasive reasons why transcendental religious encounters
are not merely projections or peculiar by-products of socially
disenfranchised individuals.  He assumes in a contradictory move of
deduction that we accept such claims on faith.  Comments McCann:

My point is simply that either Berger is kidding himself when he
says you do not have to be a religious virtuoso to take the
inductive option in theology, or be unaware of the cognitive
dissonance created by trying to synthesize the methodological
skepticism built into his sociology of knowledge with the
methodological naivete prescribed in his phenomenology of religious
experience.  In either case, any theology based on this sort of
induction will be capable of generating only the softest of

Berger's mistake is that he leaves out one of the most important
elements in the mystical encounter: the overwhelming sense of
certainty ("mysterium tremendum"/"ganz andere").  It is this
self-authenticating power of a religious reality which gives
mysticism support for its claims of veridicality.   To fully
appreciate this sense, however, it is necessary that one be a
religious virtuoso, or, at least, have access (momentary or
otherwise) to the transcendent.  If such a requirement is not made
then Berger's option is not truly inductive (or experiential in
nature), predisposed for acceptance of rejection, but is merely a
 speculative  way in which to deal with transmundane realities.
In other words, given Berger's limited definition of the inductive
approach, no one can actually determine the truth value of religious
claims.  Rather, all religious claims have equal value in the social
sphere, provided that they point to something  beyond  this
world.  Naturally, this phenomenological bracketing may be useful
for gathering information but it does nothing for critically
appraising the relative merits of any one religious vision.  And,
yet, Berger subtly holds that his inductive methodology is somehow
better than the deductive and reductive possibilities.  But, how can
this be the case when Berger's own approach is "shaped by culturally
relative plausibility structures."   The sociological knife of
relativism cuts both ways.  As Van A. Harvey so aptly points out:

One is led to the conclusion that Berger's own attempts at theology
are a reflection of this crisis rather than a cure for it because
his own theology itself has no norms or criteria that govern his
statements.  It simply is a reflection of his own personal
sensibility.  Apart from the fact that his interferences from
certain alleged human propensities are philosophically porous to the
extreme--how can one move from a sense of outrage at injustice to
the affirmation that there must be damnation while at the same time
relying on cultural relativism? The issue here, it seems important
to say, is not Berger's appeal to faith in order to ground his
assertions; it is, rather, that there are no norms or criteria that
justify one type of faith rather than another.  Berger is critical
of Protestant liberalism's cognitive surrender to modernity but he
is himself committed to some limited accommodation to liberalism.
But what is the principle that determines the limits of
accommodation? On what grounds, for example, does he reject the
notion of a decisive revelation in Christ but retain the notion of
the "Biblical god," especially since Christian theologians have
traditionally used the appeal to Christ to ground basic affirmations
about God? Thus Berger seems vulnerable to the same shifting
cultural winds (mood theology) of which he was so critical when it
was practiced by the Secular Theologians.  Everything hinges on his
own personal sensibilities. . . . 

A good illustration of the limits of Berger's inductive option can
be seen in his section on "Religion: Experience, Tradition,
Reflection" in  The Heretical Imperative,  where he makes the
distinction between other religious virtuosi and "everyone else."
For the religious virtuosi mystical experiences are "as immediately
self-authenticating as the experience of a toothache".  Therefore,
most of their writings are not necessarily concerned with the
reality of the Divine encounter, except when they deal directly with
skeptics (e.g., St. Teresa of Avila and her struggles with her
confessors--see  The Interior Castle ). 

However, instead of making religious virtuosity the raison d'etre of
his inductive methodology, Berger lessens the mystical quest for
experiential certainty and opts for an approach which is at best
based on faith and at worst highly speculative.   Berger even
suggests that non-mystics have a certain advantage over the
religious virtuosi since "they can with some detachment look for
evidence in the accounts of those who claim to have had such
experience.  In other words, they have the advantage of the dentist
over his patient in any effort to undertake a comprehensive
investigation of the phenomenon `toothache'."   What Berger fails to
consider, though, is that there is  no  "evidence" whatsoever in
verbal/written accounts of trans-personal states of consciousness,
but only  suggestive  descriptions.  Moreover, any dentist (to
stay with Berger's analogy) who does not have an experiential "feel"
for a toothache runs the high risk of causing pain to his patients.
It is simply not true that non-mystics have an advantage over the
religious virtuosi in undertaking a comprehensive study  of the
transcendent.  Berger might as well say that non-mathematicians have
an advantage over mathematical geniuses when it comes to studying
mathematics.  By artificially separating the religious virtuosi from
his inductive option, Berger castrates any chance for a truly
comprehensive (experiential or otherwise) understanding of the
transcendent in individual and social life.  Criticizes McCann:

If the privatizing trend is built into Berger's version of the
inductive option, then all the more reason there is for those who
are disturbed by this trend to seek some sort of resolution of the
dilemma posed by his view of religious experience. In either case,
the intention will be to overcome the relativism that Berger seems
left with by building a bridge between the religious virtuosi and
the rest of us. 

Berger's most provocative chapter in  The Heretical Imperative 
is "Between Jerusalem and Benares: The Coming Contestation of
Religions," wherein he posits two major forms of Divine encounter:
 confrontation  with the divine (epitomized in the West with the
monotheistic tradition, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam);
and the  interiority  of the divine (exemplified in the East
with such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and in some
sects of Sikhism). 

Usually these two forms of divine encounter are viewed as
antagonistic to each other.  The confrontational religions (where
God is usually seen as ontological "other") downplay the role of
mysticism.  Even a sophisticated Protestant theologian of the 20th
century like Karl Barth was not adverse to rejecting "every form of
mysticism as  unbelief. "   On the other hand, religions which
stress interiority (particularly the Yoga systems of Hinduism)
have a
tendency--albeit a more polite tendency than confrontational
religions--to see monotheistic traditions "at worst expressing a
state of spiritual benightedness, at best being useful states toward
a higher form of experience in which they are destined to be

Berger, however, is confident that this present situation of
contestation between the two forms of religion can be moved into a
more fruitful dialogue if the inductive approach is utilized.  The
problem between the two camps is primarily one of interpretation.
Elucidates Berger:

From the standpoint of Jerusalem, the problem is formulated as
follows: If God revealed himself in the Torah (or, of course, in
Jesus Christ, or in the Koran), how could he also be found within
the interiority of mystical consciousness?  From the standpoint of
Benares, the inverse formulation pertains: If the divine is to be
experienced as the true ground of every man's consciousness, what is
the status of particular historical revelations. 

In order to rectify the apparently insoluble impasse between
religions of confrontation and interiority, Berger suggests that
each side must a priori give up their exclusive claims on Divine
knowledge; that is, each side must concede that  all  human
religious experiences deserve serious study and that it is possible
for other religions to have genuine Divine encounters.  Following
this course of action, the real question becomes: "How could it be
possible that both types of religious experience are true?"  

Berger goes on to point out, though, that this very question has
already been posed by several serious theologians and thinkers from
both camps.  The result? Not surprisingly, theologians from the
confrontational school uphold the superiority, no matter how subtle,
of theism (witness the efforts of the Roman Catholic thinker, R.C.
Zaehner) ;  whereas the mystical adherents stress the superiority
of advaita (non-dualism) and monism (see the arguments of Ninian

Yet, does Berger's inductive option really  resolve  the
contestation (metaphorically framed by him) between Jerusalem and
Benares?  The answer is that it does not, indeed cannot, because
Berger limits his inductive methodology to the  speculative 
realm.  True, Bergerian induction does generate discussion and
dialogue, which is undoubtedly fruitful, but by its own acknowledged
limitations cannot provide any adjudicatory function relative to the
truth-values of any one religious vision, experience, or claim.
Berger's inductive option is quite simply a method of phenomenology,
wherein the sociologist brackets any causal questions in order to
understand the  described  experience "as is." 

Naturally, there is much in favor for a phenomenology of religious
experiences, but it should be pointed out that Berger's inductive
approach is not truly concerned with  core  experiences as such
(since, as he states, the religious virtuosi are left out in his
approach), but with the "rest of us" who have "at best, fugitive,
and intimational experiences" of the mystical dimension.  Put
bluntly, Berger does not go far enough in his methodology. Nor does
he take the religious enterprise seriously enough.  Indeed, if there
really are transcendental realities beyond this world and they are
the heritage of all mankind, why not develop a meta-empirical
approach?  In other words, why not move religion out of the realm of
"fugitive" experiences to "actual" experience?  If natural science
deserves and demands the same, why should we expect less from

Simply because it takes considerable effort to become a religious
virtuoso does not mean that it should be shelved as a desired
component of the inductive method.  The same fallacious argument
could be applied to quantum mechanics: since it deals with an almost
incomprehensible realm of empirical data and only few physicists are
experts in the area, theories about subatomic physics should be left
to those who don't deal with the realm directly and who have only
"fugitive, intimational" relations with its study.

But religious realities are by definition trans-empirical so how
can one study them directly?  The answer is surprisingly simple: by
employing the same methodologies advocated by the various religious
Elaborates Ken Wilber:

It is sometimes said that mystic knowledge is not real knowledge
because it is not public knowledge, only "private," and hence it is
incapable of consensual validation.  That is not quite correct,
however.  For the secret to consensual validation in all three
realms [material, mental, spiritual] is the same, namely: a trained
eye is a public eye, or it could not be trained in the first place;
and a public eye is a communal or consensual eye.  Mathematical
knowledge is public knowledge to trained mathematicians (but not to
nonmathematicians); contemplative knowledge is public knowledge to
all sages.  Even though contemplative knowledge is ineffable, it is
not private; it is a shared vision.  The essence of Zen is: "A
special transmission outside the Scriptures [that is, between Master
and student]; Not dependent upon words and letters [the eye of
mind]; Seeing into one's Nature [with the eye of contemplation] and
becoming Buddha."  It is Direct seeing by the contemplative eye, and
it can be transmitted from teacher to student because it is directly
public to that eye.  The knowledge of God is as public to the
contemplative eye as is geometry to the mental eye and rainfall to
the physical eye.  And a trained contemplative eye can prove the
existence of God with exactly the same certainty and 
the same public nature as the eye of flesh can prove
the existence of rocks.
A comprehensive-transcendental paradigm [Berger's inductive option
taken to its fullest] would draw freely on the eye of flesh and on
the eye of reason; but it would also be grounded in the eye of
contemplation.  That eye embodies a valid mode of knowledge; it can
be publicly shared; it can be communally validated. 

The inherent limitations of Berger's inductive method are such that
theology will not resolve its internal conflicts in any way, except
maybe to clarify them more accurately.  As such, Berger's emphasis
on  speculative  experience and their apparent equal worth/value
only moves theology in the direction of paradox.  In other words,
given Berger's typology there cannot be a resolution between
confrontational and mystical religions, only descriptive
clarification of their desired aims.  Moreover, I would add, that
Berger's typology does not adequately do away with the deductive and
reductive arguments posed for and against religions.  In sum,
Berger's inductive phenomenology lacks the necessary structuralism
with which to ground his exploratory methodology.  

Although there is much to criticize about Berger's inductive option,
it is not without merits.  By emphasizing the experiential realm
(albeit in a speculative fashion), Berger rightly moves the study of
religion back to its own turf.  Whatever the religious enterprise
may become, the fact remains that religion arises from an experience
of the sacred, be it confrontational (Totaliter aliter) or interior
(Tat twam asi, "I am That").  Thus, to center sociological and
theological analyses on the human experience of the sacred is both
appropriate and useful.

However, Bergerian induction can be greatly improved if it would
expand its understanding of experience to include  the following
three components: 1) direct empirical observation of religious
realities, by which I mean the practical application of the
methodologies prescribed and followed by the religious virtuosi; 2)
differentiation of the underlying structural elements behind
religious experiences, visions, and claims.  That is, an examination
and clarification of the various structural (hierarchically
organized or systematically conjoined) contexts wherein religious
experiences take place; and 3) the introduction of a normative
religious science with which to appraise the relative truth-value of
mystical claims/experiences, such as the one provided by Ken Wilber
on legitimacy and authenticity in his book,  A Sociable God.   

The first component suggested (direct empirical observation) extends
Berger's inductive option from the merely theoretical (via
"fugitive" experiences) to the transcendental.  Instead of having
"the rest of us"--the religiously mediocre--lead the forefront
of inductive research, the burden should be placed on those who
deserve it: the religious virtuosi.  We demand the same in science
(in fact, all fields where competency is valued), so should we
expect the same in religion.  As Ken Wilber rightly illustrates:

Knowledge is not democratic; creativity is not egalitarian.  I
realize that sounds contrary, but consider: When we want original,
concise, and brilliant insights in any field of knowledge, we
almost always go to the acknowledged masters of that field.  In
physics, we look to Newton, then to Einstein, then Heisenberg. In
biology, we go to Lamarck and Darwin and Wallace, then Morgan and
Watson and Crick.  In psychology, to Freud and Adler and Jung and
James and Piaget.  And why not? Genius is genius..." 

Hence, to strap the inductive approach on those who are
experientially not competent (e.g., most sociologists) is to invite
nothing less than speculation and debate.  If religion is truly an
experiential domain, then utilize methodologies which explore that
domain  directly . 

The second component (structural differentiation) enables Bergerian
induction to ground its phenomenological descriptions in proper
contexts.  Not all religious experiences are equal or carry the same
numinous weight.  For instance, in "The Hierarchical Structure of
Religions Visions"  I argued that there is a qualitative difference
between religious visions, precisely because not all spiritual
manifestations occur on the same structural level.  Beholding a
vision of Jesus during a dream is different than seeing him while
awake or in a near-death experience.  The difference here is not so
much on content as it is of context.  Since, in this case, there
are various levels of consciousness (creating several contextual
layers), the first step in any critical examination of religious
visions is to perform a structural analysis so as to determine which
level a particular manifestation is taking place.  Likewise, almost
all religious experiences can be better understood and described if
there is a structural determination.

Many so-called religious experiences or visions, for instance, may
be nothing more than vivid images which manifest quite normally
while one is dreaming.  Simply because an image is of a holy or
revered personage does not qualify it automatically as a
trans-personal (e.g., genuinely "mystical") manifestation.  Thus, the
proper adjudication of spiritual experiences lies not in the
manifest content of the "apparition," but in the context and
structure wherein one beholds the sacred image.  That is, on which
level of consciousness is the vision seen?  Is it a subconscious
dream image? A psychic intuition? Or, a genuine encounter with a
subtle plane deity? It is only after such a contextual-structure
determination that the critical phenomenologist can then proceed to
analyze the content of the vision properly. 

The third component (a critical-normative religious science) is
designed to weigh the relative truth-value claims of almost any
religious experience.  Berger wants his inductive approach to bring
various disparate religious experiences in dialogue with each
other.  Yet, he offers very little help in how differing religious
claims can be appraised, except to say that "there is no finality to
any experience of truth in history." 
Although this may be true, it does not come to terms with the fact
that there are still differences in spiritual encounters.  The
inductive option as it stands is actually a phenomenological
prelude, "after which", Berger argues, "it is the task of the
theologian or philosopher of religion to find a normative measure
that will transcend the 'merely historical' comparison."   The
problem with Berger's notion of this normative measure, however, is
that, according to him, it cannot be the "direct result of empirical
analysis".  Why not? Berger avoids the issue again by dismissing the
religious virtuosi as a minority to be followed and taken seriously
(as forerunners) in the inductive approach.  Instead, Berger resorts
to a questionable "defense of mellowness" as the hallmark of true
religious liberality, inadvertently betraying his bias for mystical
piety and tolerance with the comment, "One could even suggest that
those who have truly encountered the 'reality of the unseen' can
afford the mellowness of liberality both in their lives and in their
One cannot help wondering about the "mellowness" of a Moses or a St.
Paul: did they afford themselves a "liberality of thought"?

No, the normative measure of religious claims cannot adequately be
left to speculative theologians
who only have (admits Berger) a modicum of
imitative experiences of the sacred.  Rather, a critical religious
science should be left (and open) to those who are the religious
virtuosi.  We do not allow nor accept in our academic communities
judgements made by non-specialists on the latest findings in science
or scholarship.  We always look, as Wilber pointed out, to the
acknowledged experts of the field.  This does not mean to say that
others do not have a say in appraising religious claims, but only
that we ground our judgements in light of expert testimony.

Perhaps one of the best normative measures developed concerning the
critical appraisal of religious experiences/claims comes from Ken
Wilber, who has done extensive work on the hierarchical structure of
consciousness.  Wilber's argument is clear and succinct: Take
religion out of the realm of faith and study its relative
truth-value claims by actually pursuing its described methodologies.
Obviously this entails making a major commitment to one's object of
study.  But, don't we expect the same in any other field of
endeavor, such as medicine, law, or even sports?

On close scrutiny it becomes clear that Berger's approach is not
truly inductive at all in the experiential sense, but is rather a
liberal attitude toward religious phenomena in general.  To move
beyond Bergerian induction necessitates a willingness not only to
take religious realities seriously, but to actually explore directly
that realm.  Berger's mistake is that he disdains the deductive and
reductive options for not taking religion seriously enough, while at
the same time postulating an inductive approach which turns the
religious enterprise from a truly experiential encounter into a
sophisticated debate over transcendental descriptions.  To talk
about the merits of "painted cakes" does not provide one with any
true sense of what it is like to actually eat a "real" cake.
Likewise, to argue about the ontological status of religious
realities without actual experiential engagement is to misunderstand
entirely mysticism/spirituality and the proper definition of


I think the reason I am so harsh on Peter Berger's position, as
outlined in  The Heretical Imperative , is because it fails to
take the mystic's position seriously enough. A surface reading of
Berger suggests that he is, in fact, an advocate of mysticism (or
personal religious experiences), but a closer reading indicates
something else. It indicates, rather, that Berger is a liberal,
armchair speculator when its comes to religious experiences.
Moreover, in a recent book (1992), Berger even suggests that Saint
Paul was one of the greatest religious virtuosi of all times. Well,
how does he know, especially given the fact that he has only skimmed
the surface of mystical encounters? He writes as if he knows only
because he has done what the mystics have generally argued against:
reading versus experiencing the accounts of spiritual luminaries.
Saint Paul could be, as far as Berger knows, as deluded in his
visions of the risen Christ as John-Roger Hinkins is about seeing
Sawan Singh in 1963, some fifteen years after the latter's death.
Given Berger's approach to mystical matters, he cannot possibly know
because he is unwilling to do what any good scientist should:
utilize the proffered technique and experiment repeatedly with it to
discover the phenomenon face to face.

E-mail The Neural Surfer directly at

I want to go back to the home base now.