Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Case for God

I have heard that while authors provide the content for their books, publishers choose the titles.  Karen Armstrong's The Case for God might be an example of this.  The title sounds like she is defending God against atheism.  In fact, the book has a good deal to say about religion, not much about atheism (although the advent of atheism is clearly part of its context) and is fairly ambivalent about the word "God".

Karen Armstrong has written widely on religious subjects and has a strong bent for comparative religion.  After a stint in a Catholic religious order as a young adult, she initially abandoned faith altogether before coming back to a more open and inclusive spirituality, embracing lessons and practices from a variety of sources in a manner reminiscent of Joseph Campbell.

The Case for God  covers similar territory to Alister McGrath's  The Twilight of Atheism, but it both travels back further and delves more deeply into the religious background to the question.  Armstrong is also less orthodox than McGrath and more willing to critique Christian belief and practice. 

The book is in two parts.  In the first, she provides a brief overview of the history of religion up to the end of the Middle Ages, focusing mainly on Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism and Islam.  She mainly uses this to outline some key ideas gleaned from pre-modern religion. 
  • She highlights the distinction made in various religious streams of thought between logos (the capacity for reason and logical thought) and mythos (the contemplation of mysteries and spiritual stories which are beyond rationality).  Logos is the province of science and reason, while mythos is the province of religion.  The two are not seen as in conflict, but complement one another and serve different purposes.
  • She also highlights the way our idea of "belief" differs from the pre-modern idea.  Where for us it means an intellectual assent to a set of concepts, for pre-moderns it meant commitment.  Before the modern age, she says, all religions stressed that religious doctrine could not be divorced from its practice, ritual and moral, and in the absence of this practice would seem lifeless and trivial.
  • Finally, she highlights the idea of limits to our knowledge.  Through the eyes of medieval saints like St Denys, Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart she illustrates how they taught that we can know nothing about God for certain, and that all our statements about God must be matched by the denial of the sufficiency of those statements.
All this is background for the second part of her book which outlines the effects of the modern mindset on religious belief.  It's hard to summarise, but what she charts in essence is the demise of mythos and the triumph of logos.  It starts out with Descartes believing he has identified (by divine revelation!) an incontrovertable logical proof of God's existence.  Alongside this type of thinking is Isaac Newton's belief that God was a necessary part of his groundbreaking theory of the cosmos, since inert matter required a First Cause or Prime Mover to set it in motion.  Finally we see William Paley's argument for design dominating Christian apologetics in the English-speaking world.

In Armstrong's view, these developments impoverished religion in a number of ways.  They made believers think they understood God, and hence became a form of idolatry.   To see God as a Supreme Being is to see him (or "it" as she prefers to say) as essentially like ourselves, as just another something.  Our sense of reverence and awe are replaced by a kind of smug certainty.  The practice of religion is replaced by a cold set of logical propositions.  This is religion without the power  to transform.

It was also religion setting itself up for a fall.  The science changed.  Darwin identified how life could develop without a designer or a grand plan.  Einstein showed how the cosmos could spin without a hand to spin it.  The comfortable arguments of the early moderns fell down around their ears, and their heirs had no mythos to fall back on.

At the end of the book Armstrong charts three movements which have grown from this set of developments.  The first two she critiques.  Fundamentalism, she says, attempts to preserve this "scientific" modernist view of religion despite all evidence to the contrary.  It insists on a version of literal, objective truth for everything in its chosen holy book which is a long way from historic Christianity or Islam.  Scientific atheism a la Dawkins, Dennett and Harris springs from the same mindset, opposing religious fundamentalism with scientific fundamentalism just as exclusive and intolerant.  These opposing fundamentalisms fight it out in a spiralling competition of extremes.

However, she also traces a groundswell of unknowing in a variety of places - in the post-modern philosophy of Heidegger and Derrida, in the theology of Bultmann, Tillich and Vattimo, and in the openness and wonder of physicists like Paul Davies. 

This, then, is the burden of her message.  We need to abandon our desire for certainty and our idolatrous, rationalistic vision of God in order to recover a working spirituality.  We need to understand once again that religion is about immersion in ritual and contemplation, about symbols which help us make sense of our human condition, and about the practice of compassion.  This need not come from a single, authorised source.  It is as likely to come from Buddhists or atheists as from Christians.  Wherever it comes from, we should embrace it, learn from it and live it.


Nurks said...

Believe comes from the Old English "ge lyfan", which means "to love and desire". This begs the question: to love and desire What? It is certainly possible to spend too much time defining and defending the What, neglecting to love and desire it.

Identifying the What with vague spirituality won't wash. The Buddhist What is profoundly different to the Christian What. Buddhists (paradoxically) desire to extinguish desire. Christians desire to boundlessly fulfill it in beatific vision.

Jon said...

That's a good point Nurks. Armstrong is very big on identifying the common aspects of various religions and indeed there are quite a few - more than we were taught to believe as young evangeleicals - but also some important differences. Perhaps in an era where religion fans the flames of war (which I guess is most eras) it's more helpful to identify the commonalities than highlight the differences.

Nurks said...

Fanaticism, not religion, fans the flames of war. Whether it's a fanatical Christian, Muslim, Environmentalist, Leftist, Rightist, or Atheist makes no difference. Fanatics know they can save the world. They are mysteriously called to save the world. And they will. Nobly. Sacrificially. No matter the personal cost. Sam Harris and Fred Phelps should understand each other well. They hate the multitude of world-destroyers (ie. the rest of us) with equal passion.

As for commonalities between Buddhists and Christians, I'm sure there are a million commonalities, but in the end, one seeks the end of desire while the other seeks it's utter fulfillment.

Nurks said...

Gee that was badly written. Should have read it through... I blame Esther for plying me with ravenous affection while I was trying to type.

Jon said...

Can't be helped when your so desirable, Nurks. One of the things Armstrong talks about is how fundamentalisms respond to attacks by becoming more extreme. So Islamic fundamentalists never cared much about the age of the earth until they were attacked by Dawkins, but now they are cottoning on to young earth creationism and starting to promote it through their mosques. I think she's trying as hard as possible to avoid that.