All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism

By Marsha G. Witten | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Images of Christian Faith
in the Contemporary World

INThe Heretical Imperative, the sociologist of religion Peter Berger tells a story about a contemporary Indonesian villager. Not long ago, had the villager wished to go visiting, he would have hopped into his bull cart to seek out relatives in a nearby settlement. Nowadays, however, the villager with wanderlust and enough money can board a jet to Malaysia or the Philippines or indeed, via connecting flights, to virtually any country in the world. 1

The metaphor of the Third World air traveler, Berger writes, neatly symbolizes in certain ways the impact of modern times on people's lives. Contemporary life brings with it the constant demand of making choices, as a result of its multiple offerings: choices about one's travel destinations, leisure activities, occupation, the configuration of one's family—choices about virtually every aspect of conduct throughout life.

To live in our world is to live in a world of pluralism. No longer do a small number of relatively stable institutions mark out the contours of appropriate belief and practice for the majority of people. Instead, the social world has splintered into segments and subcultures in which people adhere to different beliefs, traditions, and definitions of appropriate behavior. As people come into contact with an array of cultures—as they inevitably do in a modern society, through personal contact with others or through the mass media—their own traditions tend to lose the element of taken-for-grantedness that once sustained them. In the absence of strong social support for one's traditions, for one's view of the world, these beliefs begin to lose plausibility.

In the world of pluralism, even such fundamental beliefs as religious faith can be thrown into confusion. One's neighbors and work colleagues are as likely to adhere to a different religious tradition as to one's own, or perhaps to none at all. Even if a person lives in a relatively homogeneous community or confines social contacts to people of the same creed, the daily newspaper and the programs shown on television provide vicarious contact with persons of different back-

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