Sacred Canopies and Sacred Umbrellas

With the semester finally over, I can finally get back to writing the overly verbose posts that characterize this blog. The ten people who actually follow me should be thrilled. With no further ado, let’s talk about sacred canopies.

Peter Berger is probably one of the most famous people you’ve never heard of, because he and fellow sociologist Thomas Luckmann created the concept of social constructivism (i.e., humans create their own realities via culture). Since Berger and Luckmann part company on a number of important issues, I’m only going to be focusing on the former, especially his famous book, The Sacred Canopy.

The Sacred Canopy is a seminal text of social constructivism, which states that society – and “reality” itself – is constructed by mutual assent of the individuals who comprise a certain culture. The first part of The Sacred Canopy examines how the social construction of reality comes to be among humans. Unlike other animals, whose sense of reality and self is shaped entirely by instinct and whatever environmental niche they were evolved to inhabit, humans have to create their own worlds, both in the sense of making a society and in terms of creating physical habitats in which to live. This process cannot be done by an individual, but must be the collective work of a particular community with a shared vision for what this nomos ought to look like. This nomos has to be continually “legitimated” by the community through the socialization process to ensure that society runs smoothly by having everyone (or at least most people) “buy into the system.”

Religion then is nothing less than an instrument by which the nomos is legitimated by associating the social order with what Berger calls “ultimate reality.” It legitimates authority figures, social institutions, and the status quo as a whole an air by assigning them cosmic importance. Thus, rebelling against or even questioning authority is seen as evil, demonic, or heretical, because it threatens both the secular and cosmic nomos. Individuals willingly submit to the nomos, because the alternative is chaos, confusion, and expulsion (either literally or figuratively) from the community. If the nomos is legitimized through religion, then question of theodicy are easily explained, since the status quo is already defined as being the best of all possible worlds.

As you read The Sacred Canopy, it becomes clear that Berger is thinking of a very specific instance of the sacred canopy, namely pre-Reformation Christendom. Many of the problems the post-Reformation Catholic church has had stem from its intense desire to re-create the religious monopoly it once enjoyed, even when it means taking reactionary stances and associating with some very dubious people. Indeed, this is why Berger says that traditional religious symbols can only “work” in a monopolistic environment in which clearly defined religious authorities are the only ones who are allowed to define the parameters of the sacred canopy. Leaders of the formerly dominant religion (i.e., Catholicism) cannot assume the state will reinforce their authority and that of the sacred canopy in a modern pluralistic society, since there will be numerous religious groups operating simultaneously, all of whom will be making mutually exclusive claims about the nature of “truth.” This was precisely what Pope Pius IX lashed out against in his famous “Syllabus of Errors,” when he condemned freedom of religion and belief and the secular state for causing “indifference” towards the “True Church.” The grudging acceptance of “religious freedom” at Vatican II can be interpreted as the unhappy realization that the sacred canopy of Christendom was gone for good in the West, although it lingered on in the more underdeveloped parts of Europe, like Spain and Ireland.

Throughout the course of my research, I have often found scholars referring to the white Catholic ghetto of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a “sacred canopy,” despite the fact that the United States is a Protestant super-majority country, which suggests that it is possible for multiple sacred canopies to exist simultaneously within the same country. The sacred canopy qualities of the white Catholic ghetto were due to the presence of Catholic schools as a alternative to public schools, the over-sized role priests and bishops played in the decision-making process of white Catholics, and probably the fact that sheer bigotry forced Catholics to reside in separated communities. While the effects of Vatican II helped fray this sacred canopy, the assimilation of white Catholics into mainstream Protestant society also ripped apart the canopy, as well as other social forces like the women’s movement, the opening of elite institutions to groups that had once been excluded, gentrification, and de-industrialization. It’s always weird to read articles in First Things bemoaning the breakup of the white Catholic ghettos, since very few people enjoy being in a ghetto, and this is true whether you’re Jewish, black, Hispanic, or “white ethnic” Catholic. Those people who like ghetto living usually belong to a group that benefits from having the members of a particular demographic artificially confined, such as professional religionists.

Without a sacred canopy, conservotrad and traditionalist Catholics must make “sacred umbrellas.” While the sacred canopy may have contained entire communities or ethnic groups, the umbrella can only cover a few people at a time. This is why conservotrads and traditionalists are into homeschooling, because it allows them to create a sacred umbrella for their children that only exposes them to the particular version of Catholicism that the parents are trying to promote. Since conservotrads and traditionalists are big into “sacramental living,” they tend to be active in a parish, but my experiences at St F suggest to me that the possible presence of “heretics” at church is too much of a danger to allow children to wander outside of the family’s sacred umbrella. Indeed, I’ve seen the importance of community belittled by conservotrads and traditionalists, both in real life and online, that you should basically go to church to receive the sacraments and then leave. Since you don’t know if Father secretly supports women’s ordination or if Mr. and Mrs. Jones in the next pew are contracepting on the sly, you shouldn’t try to interact with them, lest they threaten your orthodox. In other words, maintaining the tautness and security of your sacred umbrella should trump all else, even the human need for community and contact with other people.

Perhaps the sacred umbrella is the new tactic for a pluralistic world. Keep your umbrella up and your eyes straight ahead, and nothing will shake your faith. Indeed, with the advent of the Internet, it’s even easier to maintain a sacred umbrella, since you can surround yourself with people who do nothing but agree with you and push you to greater levels of orthodoxy. Of course, the sacred umbrella formula isn’t foolproof, since people can and do switch umbrellas (i.e., religions or philosophies) all the time. I find it amusing that two of the biggest cheerleaders for the Orthodox church, Rod Dreher and Frederica Matthews-Green, are both Anglo converts who went through a couple of other religions before reaching Orthodoxy, yet advocate a sacred canopy approach to religious life. There’s nothing wrong with having an interesting religious history — I’ve got one myself — but it’s a very modern development. Had Dreher or Matthews-Green lived even sixty years ago, the idea of a couple of Southern WASPS becoming Orthodox — or even Catholic, for that matter — would have been unthinkable, and only slightly less strange than becoming a Hare Krishna. Conservatives as well as liberals reinvent themselves through religion in the age of the  sacred umbrella, and in many ways a sacred umbrella is even harder to penetrate than a sacred canopy.