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“The Case for God”

When this former nun fled the convent and became a scholar of literature at Oxford, Karen Armstrong thought she’d put all things theological well behind her. But, as the saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell Him, or Her, your plans. Next thing you know, Armstrong was creating documentaries.

While working on a film in Jerusalem, the ancient city where Islam, Judaism and Christianity converge, the connections among that trio of faiths rekindled Armstrong’s imagination and led to another new career.

She became one of the foremost, and most original, thinkers on religion in our modern world. Her many popular books include studies of Muhammad and Islam, the crusades, the ambitiously titled A History of God, The Bible, and her latest, The Case for God.

A self-proclaimed ‘freelance monotheist,’ Karen Armstrong is now on a mission to bring compassion, the heart of religion, as she sees it, back into modern life.

These are the first words of Bill Moyer’s PBS interview with Karen Armstrong on March 13, 2009. Even if you are already an Armstrong fan, I recommend that you check out this interview before you continue. It will make this review more interesting and comprehensible. (Of course, you may want to skip my review and order the book immediately!)

As I see it, my task is not to paraphrase the flyleaf of the book, although it does an admirable job of summarizing the content of the book, or to acquaint you with the words of the endpaper, which detail the honors she has received and the books she has written. Instead, I want to motivate you to read the book.

So, here’s my plan. I’m going to give you a sample of the reviews that have made The Case for God a best seller, and throw in some of my favorite quotes and a comment or two.

Simon Blackburn, Cambridge University theology professor, July 4 review in The Guardian

Karen Armstrong takes the reader through a history of religious practice in many different cultures, arguing that in the good old days and purest forms they all come to much the same thing. They use devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance and meditation in order to enable us better to cope with the vale of tears in which we find ourselves. Religion is therefore properly a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art or music. These are similarly difficult to create, and even to appreciate. But nobody who has managed either would doubt that something valuable has happened in the process. We come out of the art gallery or concert hall enriched and braced, elevated and tranquil, and may even fancy ourselves better people, though the change may or may not be noticed by those around us.

This is religion as it should be, and, according to Armstrong, as it once was in all the world’s best traditions. However, there is a serpent in this paradise, as in others. Or rather, several serpents, but the worst is the folly of intellectualizing the practice. This makes it into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. It debases religion into a matter of belief in a certain number of propositions, so that if you can recite those sincerely you are an adept, and if you can’t you fail. This is Armstrong’s principal target. With the scientific triumphs of the 17th century, religion stopped being a practice and started to become a theory — in particular the theory of the divine architect. This is a perversion of anything valuable in religious practice.

Don Lattiin, University of California at Berkeley professor in the Graduate School of Journalism, October 18 review for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Her message [that the postmodern believer must find a theology of silence, a catechism beyond words] inspires this advice for time-pressed readers who’d like to practice what Armstrong preaches: Read the introduction, then skip to the final chapter. Make sure you read the Epilogue, but don’t worry too much about those 289 pages in between. . .She has an annoying tendency to explain the history of everything every time she wants to make a point.

Armstrong offers a well-reasoned response to the so-called ‘new atheists,’ a trio of anti-religionists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens). . .She “rightly points out that these writers have committed literary sins—not so much with their disbelief in God — but in the way they seek to discredit all people of faith by focusing on the intolerant and sometimes violent message promoted by Muslim, Christian and Jewish fundamentalists.

‘Like all religious fundamentalists,’ she writes, ‘the new atheists believe that they alone are in possession of truth; like Christian fundamentalists, they read scripture in an entirely literal manner.’

Comments from Andy

Read the entire book. Those 289 pages record the history of western religious thought. Armstrong assures the reader that creating a personal belief in God that provides the emotional strength to cope with stress, grief, loss, risk, and catastrophe requires “hard work”. In this case, the energy expended will be amply rewarded.

Ben Hamilton, Yale University professor, March review for Pop Matters

This particular defense of God feels worthy and mature. [In the following] beguiling passage from the epilogue, the reader is reminded of an old and wise woman of the world who finally decides to stop the inflammatory bickering of her children with a stern but humane summary of the limits of science and the basic function of religion:

‘Scientific rationality can tell us why we have cancer; it can even cure us of our disease. But it cannot assuage the terror, disappointment, and sorrow that come with the diagnosis, nor can it help us to die well. That is not within its remit. Religion will not work automatically, however; it requires a great deal of effort and cannot succeed if it is facile, false, idolatrous, or self-indulgent.’

This shows Armstrong’s wonderful ability to speak directly to the heart of the reader, and after the acerbic polemics from both sides of the God debate it is a refreshing touch of wisdom.

She returns to two strong points throughout, as if to clear our minds of the fundamentalist noise we have had to put up with for the past few decades. One is the need to practice the faith, rather than to passively believe. Without undergoing the rituals we cannot hope to understand the outcomes. The other central point is the necessity of an ‘apophatic’ approach to God. That is, one that accepts the inadequacy of language in describing or conveying the holy experience, instead emphasizing the role of silent contemplation.

Armstrong wants a return to Socratic dialogue; debate not based on humiliation but fruitful interaction, where both sides have the integrity and courage to admit a good idea or approach even if they did not think of it.

Stephen Law, editor of THINK (Royal Institute of Philosophy journal), September 30 review for Stephen Law blog

‘God,’ says Armstrong, is ‘a symbol of indescribable transcendence,’ ‘pointing beyond itself to an ineffable reality.’ This reality should not be thought of as a thing or person. We must not anthropomorphize God or make of him and idol, in the way the religious fundamentalists and literalists do. They too have misunderstood the meaning of the term.

Rather, says Armstrong, ‘God’ is a symbol pointing us in the direction of something essentially unknowable, and certainly unknowable in a rational, intellectual way. Armstrong is an apophaticist, insisting that ‘the ultimate cannot be adequately expressed in any theoretical system, however august, because it lies beyond the reach of words and concepts.’

If that is what “God” symbolizes, then what is religion? It is, says, Armstrong, ‘a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle.’

By engaging in certain religious practices and forms of life, we can, achieve ‘a state of unknowing that is not frustrating but a source of astonishment, awe and contentment.’ Religious practice has traditionally helped people to ‘build within them a haven of peace that enabled them to live creatively with the sorrow of life.’

Comments from Andy

In my world, there are several ways to deal with confounding theological situations. Karen Armstrong provides two of them.

“Our scientifically oriented knowledge seeks to master reality, explain it, and bring it under the control of reason, but a delight in unknowing has also been part of the human experience. Even today, poets, philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists find that the contemplation of the insoluble is a source of joy, astonishment, and contentment.” (Introduction, p. xiv)

“The Buddha, for example, had little time for theological speculation. One of his monks was a philosopher manqué and, instead of getting on with his yoga, constantly pestered the Buddha about metaphysical questions: Was there a god? Had the world been created in time or had it always existed? The Buddha told him that he was like a man who had been shot with a poisoned arrow and refused medical treatment until he had discovered the name of his assailant and what village he came from. He would die before he got this perfectly useless information. What difference would it make to discover that a god had created the world? Pain, hatred, grief, and sorrow would still exist. These issues were fascinating, but the Buddha refused to discuss them because they were irrelevant.” (p. 23)

Christopher Hart, July 5 review for Times online

Both Bible-bashing fundamentalists and dogmatic atheists have a similar idea of what ‘God; means, she points out, and it is an absurdly crude one. They seem to think the word denotes a large, powerful man we can’t see. Such a theology is, she says, ‘somewhat infantile.’ The only difference between the fundamentalists and the atheists is that the former affirm this God’s existence, the latter deny it and try to demolish it.

The new atheists, Armstrong says with impeccable restraint, ‘are not theologically literate,’ and ‘their polemic…lacks intellectual depth.’ In contrast, she usefully reminds us, both Galileo and Darwin, supposed icons of modern atheism, were adamant that their discoveries had no impact on religious faith. Equally humble in a different way, Socrates pushed rationality and intellect to the point where they fail: you reach his famous aporia, and realize you really know nothing at all.

Armstrong recounts this unforgettable story. Among the many Jews who lost their faith in Auschwitz, there was one group who decided to put God on trial. How could an omnipotent and benevolent deity allow this horror? Either he didn’t exist, or he wasn’t worthy of their love anyway. ‘They condemned God to death. The presiding rabbi pronounced the verdict, then went on calmly to announce that it was time for the evening prayer.’ God is dead—but, Armstrong suggests, all we have lost is a mistaken and limited notion of God anyway: a big, powerful, invisible man who does stuff. Instead, we need to recapture the spiritual imagination, sensitivity and meditative humility of the pre-moderns, who she so admires.

The Case for God simmers with a quiet spiritual optimism. It is dense and brilliant, chastening and consoling.

Comments from Andy

Currently, Adventists are being asked to side either with scientific evidence or fundamentalist belief. Armstrong provides a quote from Albert Einstein that speaks to this struggle, and to my mind at least, offers both sides a place to begin a dialogue.

“’The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the sower of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger. . .is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself to us as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms — this knowledge, this feeling is at the centre of all true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men.’” (p. 268)

Andrew Hanson blogs at Adventist Perspective and contributes reviews of the Review to the Spectrum blog.

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