Sample Lesson: Order, Ordering, and Thing Ordered

Order, Ordering, and Thing Ordered:

A Lesson Plan inspired by Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy and a lecture by Adam Seligman

Justin C. Maaia


In this lesson, students work together in groups to organize bags of random objects.  Each group’s bag contains identical contents.  The teacher tells them to “place the objects in an order.”  Each group undoubtedly produces their own order.  Even when two groups place objects in the same order, there is usually some interesting difference, such as the form the order takes (spectrum versus grouping) or the place of a particular object in the order.  This ordering activity mimics the ordering that human beings undertake as they create and perpetuate their societies.

The first question we ask, “Whose order is best?”, is an obvious one for getting students to see that all of these orders are more or less arbitrary, just like many of our social constructs (to use Peter Berger’s term).  This activity raises students’ awareness of our post-modern condition, faced as we are with a globalized planet of diverse worldviews.  As students encounter this idea of arbitrariness in their created orders, we can then ask them whether there is any natural order contained in the objects themselves.  From there, students can begin to wonder about religions and societies, asking themselves which elements in society are arbitrary and which might be rooted in nature (or in the supernatural, but of course that brings us to the question of whether the supernatural is a human-made product or not.)

This activity is the occasion for a plethora of possible insights about religion and society, containing many starting points for inquiry and discussion.


Here are just some of the valuable understandings I hope students will take away.  They will doubtless have others to add to this.  I hope students will be able to see that…

  • A social scientist might be interested in religion not on the grounds of its truth or its falsity, but because of its function in society.
  • Religions can give order to human experience, and/or they can serve to legitimize the social order.
  • For Peter Berger, religion grounds the human-made order in nature (or in super-nature, as the case may be), making society seem natural, not-trivial, not contrived, but rather the highest reality or a second-nature.
  • There are advantages to viewing social order as given, not arbitrary.
  • There are advantages to viewing social order as a human product that can be changed.
  • Social order and religion can protect individuals from the chaos that comes from disorder and the meaninglessness that can issue from marginal situations such as the death of a loved one.
  • Many orders can be “right,” or equally valid, at the same time.
  • The issues that people fight over are the issues where whether an order is natural or human-made is debated.  For example, what constitutes marriage?  Some people say that marriage is between a man and a woman, and they root this in the idea that there are two sexes, that nature requires a sperm and an egg to make babies, and in a couple of spurious Biblical passages.  Other people hold that marriage should be between any two adult persons.  They point out that families have existed in myriad structures throughout history, that many married couples do not or cannot have children and so marriage should not be defined by this ability to produce offspring, and that, anyway, there are more than two genders.

Prior Knowledge

This lesson is designed to be used with little or no preparation on the part of students.  However, it can be used along with “Religion and World Building,” the first chapter from Peter Berger’s Sacred Canopy:

This lesson can help with students’ comprehension of this text and, at the same time, this text can help to engender more robust dialogue about the lesson and its application to religion and society.

Lesson Preparation

Four or five bags need to be prepared—one for each group—each containing the same objects.  The bags I use each contain: a big paper clip, a small paper clip, a binder clip, a pencil, an eraser, a rubber band, a quarter, a penny, a match stick, a marble, a glass bead, a penny roller, a crayon, a small scrap of paper, and a small plastic toy.  Each bag must contain the same objects.  There must be one complete bag of object for each group of people.  Groups should contain between two and four people.


  • Break out into groups of two- to four people and distribute a bag of objects to each group.
  • Ask the groups to “order” or “organize” their objects.  Do not give any more instruction than this.
  • You will find that some groups will order their objects alphabetically according to the names of the objects, some will order them in a spectrum of color, some will form small groupings of objects based on use, or material, or shape, or some other scheme of categorization.  Every year, I find a group who orders the objects in a way that has not been done before.
  • After a few minutes, invite each group to show off and to explain their order.  I usually ask for a volunteer to go first, and I invite the other groups to gather around that group’s space in order to view the order.  If there is time, I will first ask the spectators if they can guess the group’s order.  Then I invite the group to reveal and explain their order.
  • After each group explains its order, I ask if there are questions.  If students don’t ask these questions, I am sure to ask:
    • How did you come up with this order?
    • How did you come to agree on it as a group?
    • Was there any disagreement about the order to use?
    • Were there any objects that were difficult to place into the order?
    • Were there disagreements about where any of the objects belonged?
    • How did you resolve those disagreements?
  • After all groups have had a chance to share, ask student to return to their seats.
  • Now ask: Which order is best?  And take some time for answers that arise.
  • Follow up: Explain that this is a trick question – each order is good in its own way of course.  Some orders are good for some purposes, and not so good for others.  For example:
    • The alphabetical order will be make finding things easy, as long as we have agreed on the names of the objects and we speak the same language.  For example, if I need a hammer, I know to look in that place in the order where the H’s are located.
    • An order based on grouping objects of similar use will be more practical if we, say, need multiple tools in order to accomplish a task.  In this order, the hammer, screwdriver, and wrench will all be in the same place.
  • Ask: How does this relate to society and/or religion? (You may put this in terms of Berger if they have read that chapter prior to this activity).

I have experienced various levels of success with answering this question, but I have found that students almost always offer something insightful and related to the main point.

Be sure to thank students for each of their answers.

Move on to the following points and questions for discussion, if they have not already brought them up organically.

  • Questions and Observations for Discussion:
  • Whose Order was best? For what purpose?
    1. If you wanted to argue that your order was best, how might you do that?
    2. What happens when something doesn’t fit?
    3. What order was already present from the start? (what Berger calls “cosmos” or “natural order,”). How did this influence the order you imposed on things (“nomos” or human-made order). For example, if all the objects had been grayscale, we couldn’t have ordered things according to color.
    4. If I gave you a new object, say a red ball, what are you going to do with it? If your order involved color, you would likely insert it with the red objects. If your order involved shape, you would likely insert it among the round objects. How does our chosen order makes it hard for us to see things “outside the box?” What are some real world examples of this?
    5. This activity was a challenge with 2-4 people.  How about 10?  100?  350 million?  1 billion?
    6. How did you feel when you were finished?  Did you have a feeling of accomplishment or contentment?  If so, why?
    7. How much of this depended on typical brain function?  On what was given?  On culture/social conditioning?
      1. Why do you think certain orders (color and size) were repeated, or are used year-after-year?  Could you see your brain identifying patterns?
      1. What natural order(s) may have been contained in the objects themselves?    For example, to groups who used color:  What if the object had been all the same color?  What would you have done then?
    8. What were you invoking when you made your order?  What value system?
    9. How does this relate to making meaning?
    10. Why didn’t people mix it up, leave it messy?  Or do more than one order?  Why did everyone have an order, i.e. why was there was no disobedience?
    11. What are the different kinds of order (e.g., organization, hierarchy, etc.)
    12. Were any orders based on belief systems (look at 250 shared common values by Templeton)
    13. What happens if I give you an additional object?  (The order keeps going, rolling, once you get it established.)  (Perhaps do this as part of the lesson next time you try it.)
    14. What are the elements of our society that are arbitrary?  Which are grounded in nature?  Which are unclear?  Which do people fight about?


  • Hand out index cards, and ask students to write down three things: Something they learned, something they want to know more about, and a question they have.
    • Collect these cards and use them for a follow-up discussion during the next class.