Karen Armstrong, The Case For God — August 29, 2010

Karen Armstrong, The Case For God

Cover of The Case For God: title, author, etc. in sans-serif font, emerald-green background, big stack of books from famous philosophers and theologians. Running from bottom to top, the books are: Aquinas's condensed Summa, Plato's complete works, New Testament, Talmud, Basic Works of Aristotle, Augustine's Confessions, 'On The Kabbalah and Its Symbolism', Civilization and Its Discontents, Origin Of Species, Koran

It is a very important and very modern error, says Karen Armstrong, to read the Bible as though it contained factual content. The Greeks knew that there were two kinds of knowledge, [foreign: logos] that concerns itself with facts, and [foreign: mythos] that concerns itself with things like love and courage and coping with hardship; the Greeks never confused these domains. Moving briskly through religious and philosophical history, Armstrong argues that no one confused these domains until the Scientific Revolution: Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Descartes, Pascal, and on and on — they all realized that there was a domain to which science would never properly have access. This separation seems to have disappeared in our modern scientific era, when all ideas are thought to be amenable to scientific analysis.

They also all realized that there was a realm of the literally unspeakable, which one could only reach through long study and ritual. The ritual was important: merely reading texts wouldn’t get you there. And the texts — for instance, the Bible and the Torah — don’t just stand on their own; they’re meant to be read along with a teacher. And they’re meant to be read metaphorically rather than literally ([foreign: logos] versus [foreign: mythos] again).

The reader will naturally wonder: if the Bible is meant to be read metaphorically, does that mean that Jesus did not literally perform the miracles and did not literally ascend to Heaven? She says explicitly that few people ever took the miracles literally, and in any case that they don’t matter to faith. Jesus, along with some other famous holy men, was probably very good at healing certain psychosomatic disorders, but she seems to argue that walking on the water and so forth are meant to be understood metaphorically.

What, then, of things like the Nicene Creed, which asserts that Christ “suffered, and … ascended into heaven”? Did he literally ascend into heaven, or metaphorically? Armstrong asserts that the ignorant Emperor Constantine forced this creed on Christians, who then returned to their homes and pretty much continued as they had, treating the whole thing as a metaphor. If not in the specifics, then in the general approach, Armstrong here meshes with what I know of Aquinas: when we say that God is a rock, we don’t literally mean that it’s a rock; we’re supposed to be able to identify what’s metaphor and what’s fact in the Bible.

Armstrong essentially contends that all religions, going as far back as Buddhism and Hinduism, have believed in an ineffable realm that’s only accessible through prayer and worship and charity. She contends that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have all gone after the same basic peaceful approach to humanity. For example (p. 79):

> In a famous Talmudic story, it was said that Hillel had formulated a Jewish version of Confucius’s Golden rule. One day, a pagan had approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the entire Torah standing on one leg. Hillel replied: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go learn it.”

Here we have a line connecting Confucius and Judaism. Armstrong connects Judaism and Christianity, and Christianity and Islam, in the same way. They’re all essentially teaching us to be good to our neighbors, and all giving us a set of rituals to tap into the ineffable.

Armstrong’s writing is so clear, and her message of universal love so captivating, that you have to step out of it periodically and wonder if she’s missing a part of the story. Why do we have separate religions, if they’re all chasing after the same basic ineffable truths? (That’s the thing: she seems to be arguing that, if you follow the rituals of each religion, you’ll eventually land on *the same* ineffable truths.) Unless I misunderstand the New Testament, Christians really do believe that they’ve replaced Abraham’s covenant with a new one; Christianity isn’t just Judaism with a new face. Islam really did take over Constantinople and turn the Hagia Sophia from an Orthodox or Latin cathedral into a mosque. I certainly do hope that a message of universal love lies beneath every world religion, but then what have they all been fighting for?

In Armstrong’s eyes, the uglier parts of the various religions are perversions of the one true idea. She regrets Augustine’s doctrine of original sin:

> …Original Sin, one of his less positive contributions to Western theology. He produced an entirely novel exegesis of the second and third chapters of Genesis, which claimed that the sin of Adam had condemned all his descendants to eternal damnation. Despite the salvation wrought by Christ, humanity was still weakened by what Augustine called “concupiscence,” the irrational desire to take pleasure in beings instead of God itself. It was expereinced most acutely in the sexual act, when our reasoning powers are swamped by passion, God is forgotten, and creatures revel shamelessly in one another. … Born in grief and fear, this doctrine has left Western Christians with a difficult legacy that linked sexuality indissolubly with sin and helped to alienate men and women from their humanity.

She gives so little time to ideas like these that you’d almost forget there’s any content to each religion on its own. Instead, she focuses on the act of learning each religion, which universally involves studying alongside a teacher (rabbit, priest, imam, whatever) and performing charitable works. You’d almost forget that many thousands (millions?) of people have died from “perversions” of religion.

Armstrong’s gentle humanity — which wants to find the good in all religion — is endearing and infectious, and her scholarship is breathtaking: [book: The Case For God] covers a vast swath of intellectual history, from the authors of the Lascaux cave paintings up to the new atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens). She’s made me want to go back and reread Augustine and Aquinas with an eye to metaphor rather than to factual content. Her description of Aquinas’s [book: Summa] is gripping intellectual history, and I quote it at length below the fold.

I haven’t yet established to my satisfaction whether the use of reason in religion — which Aquinas made most famous — even makes sense, and I’m not sure that Armstrong answers this question. Armstrong’s tool throughout [book: The Case For God] is apophatic theology, the method of defining God by what it is not: God is not a mortal man; God is not just an infinite version of you and me; God is not made of a substance at all; and so forth. One sees in this method something akin to the Zen Buddhist koans: a different state of understanding achieved by coming to grips with paradox.

Around the Scientific Revolution, religion undermined itself by trying to make something scientific of itself. God became something whose existence one could document; “He” eventually became something a lot like a human, only infinitely large and infinitely wise and infinitely patient and so forth. The metaphor fell away, as did the awestruck stance before a fundamentally ineffable thing. When God is understood in a factual way — “He” created the Universe some fixed number of years ago, and He reached down to smite Onan, and so forth — we lose both grandeur and believability. When compared to a scientific standard, *of course* the Bible will collapse; it was never meant to be read that way. By trying to appeal to the scientists, modern Christians have doomed their religion to be laughed at and discarded.

As I also read in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s [book: The Reformation], Armstrong notes that the Catholic Church’s reaction against Galileo — and against the Copernican revolution — was really an unfortunate accident of timing: the Church had been losing to Protestants, and consequently tightened up their grip on dogma. Again, the Church should have no position on cosmology; the Bible can’t be read as a factual map of the Creation.

Then again, of course, a book like the Bible — or even a much shorter document like the Constitution — will be subject to changing interpretations as the years pass. Armstrong sounds like a strange kind of self-negating fundamentalist at points: the Bible’s, and the Torah’s, and the Koran’s meanings must change as each new learner understands it in context, but *it was never meant to be understood in my one disfavored way*. Essentially Armstrong is arguing that apophatic theology is one of the only ways to understand a religious text. She asserts with evidence that every important theologian has approached his or her book apophatically. Still, I’m sure she could have filled another book of the same size with theologians of the opposite stripe.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the evidence that Armstrong has amassed. The best thing I can say about it is that you really owe it to yourself to pick up [book: The Case For God] and devour it like I did. Armstrong’s brilliant writing is going to bring me back to theology to see if I can understand the masters better.

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