Thoughts On The Sacred Canopy

Peter Berger's The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion is a sociological consideration of the function of religion in the human experience. Religion’s societal utility can be viewed empirically. When the observer is introduced to society’s need to maintain reality, a comparison can be made between the processes involved in that maintenance and the employment religion offers those processes. Berger describes people as “world builders.” Each member of every society plays a role in developing (building) what that society will look like.

From the human experience societies are fashioned and maintained through perpetual structures of internalization, objectivation and externalization. A person enters into an ever-changing relationship with society where both entities continue in the formation and establishment of the other. It becomes necessary for the society, comprised of individuals, to ensure its own duration. To that end a process of legitimization is established to appeal to each individual’s sense of maintaining what prescribed order of society has been given.
Religion, according to Berger, is one such form of legitimization. It is a most important form of legitimization. The sacred canopy religion develops is related to a human need to maintain a structured environment. Thus religion, a human conception, is used to identify the position each person has in the world and beyond all the while seeking to preserve order, preventing chaos and propagating prescribed societal norms.

It would not be difficult to find contemporary examples of literature or performing arts pieces whose plot is based on a character’s conflict with the standards or conformities of a more dominant group; these stories make for blockbuster movies and intriguing reads. Quite often the groups opposing such characters are portrayed negatively, as forcing governing agendas or even as what some might consider the “bad guys.” There can be a great difficulty then when one considers arguments similar to what Berger puts forward in The Sacred Canopy. On the surface it would appear religion, including the entire scope of what many people consider holy, shares roles with our aforementioned antagonists. Is it possible my religion, my scriptures, my minister or even my faith are all another’s attempt to keep me in line?

Once one is able to overcome the shock that can be associated with such ideas, Berger’s work can be quite valuable in one’s faith development and application for ministry. For many, the proper response to an argument or idea, especially one that might carry a high “shock value,” is to quickly judge whether it is “right” or “wrong.” That can quickly limit the realm of any discussion. When we are inclined to abruptly tune out another’s ideas based on our initial assessment of a statement’s validity we set ourselves up to miss many an opportunity for new understandings and insight. It becomes an asset then when we learn to consider things first not as right or wrong, but simply as they are. Then arguments like Berger’s can add greater depth to our understanding—specifically our perception of religion.

There is a freedom found in challenging many of our notions of being religious. We can add new values to former traditions. Our willingness to explore contemporary practices can help shape or reshape our churches so our time can be closer spent in relationship with God. This requires a change in mindset; change is difficult. However, the minister today cannot assume a complete acceptance or appreciation of normal religious values from every member of a congregation. We must be willing to go beyond our own assumptions and view the greater extent of our use of religion. In so doing, perhaps, we allow religion a new function: to move its adherents to new understandings of truth.

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