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John Wilson

Doubts and Questions

I've spent much of my life listening—listening in the form of reading—the way a child listens to adult conversations. There is no instruction manual, but the conversations themselves, overlapping, teach you how to interpret them. Imperfectly, to be sure, but such is our lot.

Peter Berger, the eminent sociologist and bon vivant, has collaborated with Anton Zijderveld on a book just published by HarperOne, In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic. David Dark, author of Everyday Apocalypse and The Gospel According to America, has a new book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, published by Zondervan in April. Both Berger and Dark will be familiar to many readers of Books & Culture. (Zijderveld, based at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, has doctoral degrees in sociology and philosophy and is the author of a number of books. I don't know his work, and I will have to follow up.) I recommend both books, and I think something is gained by reading them together.

In Praise of Doubt grew out of a project called "Between Relativism and Fundamentalism," sponsored by Boston University's Institute of Culture, Religion, and World Affairs, which Berger directs. The book opens with an epigraph from Goethe, in German and in English translation: "If we did not have the doubts / Where then would be joyful certainty?" This sets the tone for what follows: a witty, urbane essay. Berger and Zijderveld argue that relativism and fundamentalism are "two sides of the same coin. Both are profoundly modern phenomena, and both are reactions to the relativizing dynamic of modernity." In this schema, doubt—"consistent and sincere doubt"—plays a crucial role, marking out a "middle ground" between the extremes of "fanaticism."

Although In Praise of Doubt is concise and clearly argued, it covers a lot of ground. Here I can only take up one of the questions it raises. Berger and Zijderveld acknowledge that doubt "is a rather complex phenomenon—multifaceted ...

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