Religious “faith” is not an idea I subscribe to. I was asked recently if I would describe myself as an atheist. My response was no, but not in the sense that we usually think of the word. Like the former nun and author Karen Armstrong, I am also conscious of the mystery that is life and that there are many questions beyond my comprehension. I am grateful for being alive and for being able to add my own little contribution toward making this a better world for all of us. But I don’t feel any need to wrap myself up in any organized religion or wind my way on any particular day of the week to a church to “worship.”
I’m currently enrolled in a James Madison University sponsored class on “The Case for God,” the title of a 2009 Armstrong book, somewhat out of curiosity that I will hear or be swayed by someone who has a convincing argument to make. Personally, I think most people seek out religion because they are afraid of death. It is our great hubris that we think we exist due to some divine act and are worthy of the continuing attention of some divinity.
I’ve read a few of Armstrong’s books and been impressed when I’ve heard her talk. I’ve enjoyed The Case for God and her clever way of sidetracking the “militant atheists,” as she calls Richard Dawkins, author of the 2006 book The God Delusion, and his camp. At my ripe old biblical age of 70 and counting, I’m still sifting through the ashes to find any bone fragments.
Here is my understanding of Armstrong’s thesis:
In taking on the case of the compatibility/clash of faith and reason and the relevance of faith and modernity, Armstrong argues that such notions get in the way of understanding and only contribute to controversy, intransigence, lack of understanding, and polarization in discussions. Instead of confronting Dawkins et al head on, she chooses to redefine the problem by presenting a totally new template in thinking of the divine.
Ironically, she says she shares some of the arguments and even disdain for how religion has been debased and hijacked by fundamentalists who fail to understand the origins of religion and why it has played such an enduring role in people’s lives since the beginning of time. Some of the problems many of us have with fundamentalist religion is that we are unable or unwilling to discuss religion on a literal basis. Dawkins seems to lump all religious people in the same category of primitive fundamentalists who are beneath contempt for their hypocrisy, lack of compassion, bigotry, and absence of any intellectual rigor in formulating a comprehensible and fulfilling way of life. He simply lumps all people who profess to be believers into this great unwashed mass who gather in their mega churches and preach hatred, intolerance, and superstition.
What is disarming is that Armstrong is not reluctant to say she also does not share any sympathy with such people. But where she stands out is in her definition of religion which is foreign to both Dawkins and his crowd and the fundamentalists. First and foremost, she argues from the “apophatic” tradition by not attributing aspects to the idea of the divine such as all-knowing, all-powerful or all-loving. The notion of god to her is beyond the knowing of mere humans. Even the most positive attributes are only partially comprehensible to us. In short, she is trying to clarify religious experience and language about the divine which is outside the realm of ordinary perception and beyond the structures of traditional organized perception.
In reviewing her book back in 2009, Ross Dothat of The New York Times noted: “Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned prolific popular historian, wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultured despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike. To that end, she doesn’t just argue that her preferred approach to religion — which emphasizes the pursuit of an unknowable Deity, rather than the quest for theological correctness — is compatible with a liberal, scientific, technologically advanced society. She argues that it’s actually truer to the ancient traditions of Judaism, Islam and (especially) Christianity than is much of what currently passes for ‘conservative’ religion. And the neglect of these traditions, she suggests, is ‘one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today.’”
He continues: “Both modern believers and modern atheists, Armstrong contends, have come to understand religion primarily as a set of propositions to be assented to, or a catalog of specific facts about the nature of God, the world and human life. But this approach to piety would be foreign to many premodern religious thinkers, including the greatest minds of the Christian past, from the early Fathers of the Church to medieval eminences like Thomas Aquinas.
“These and other thinkers, she writes, understood faith primarily as a practice, rather than as a system — not as ‘something that people thought but something they did.’ Their God was not a being to be defined or a proposition to be tested, but an ultimate reality to be approached through myth, ritual and ‘apophatic’ theology, which practices ‘a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred’ and emphasizes what we can’t know about the divine. And their religion was a set of skills, rather than a list of unalterable teachings — a ‘knack,’ as the Taoists have it, for navigating the mysteries of human existence.”
Most interesting to me is this passage from Dothat’s review: “An Aquinas or an Augustine would have been unfazed by the idea of evolution. But their modern successors have convinced themselves that religious truth is a literal, all-or-nothing affair, in which doctrines are the equivalent of scientific precepts, and sacred texts need to coincide exactly with the natural sciences. The resulting crisis has produced the confusions of our own day, in which biblical literalists labor to reconcile the words of Genesis with the existence of the dinosaurs, while atheists ridicule Scripture for its failure to resemble a science textbook.
“To escape this pointless debate, Armstrong counsels atheists to recognize that theism isn’t a rival scientific theory, and that it is of ‘no use to magisterially weigh up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth — or lack of it — only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action.’ Believers, meanwhile, are urged to recover the wisdom of their forebears, who understood that ‘revealed truth was symbolic, that Scripture could not be interpreted literally’ and that ‘revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past but was an ongoing, creative process that required human ingenuity.’”
In another review, Simon Blackwell of The Guardian says that Armstrong argues that history’s many different cultures all came to adopt pretty much the same practices. “They used devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance and meditation in order to enable them to better cope with the vale of tears in which they found themselves.”
Religion is therefore properly a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art or music. These disciplines 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. Such a situation debases religion into a matter of belief in a certain number of propositions, so that if you can recite those sincerely you are adept, and if you can’t, you fail.
This stalemate is Armstrong’s principal target. With the scientific triumphs of the 17th century, religion stopped being a practice and started becoming a theory — in particular the theory of the divine architect. This is a perversion of anything valuable in religious practice, Armstrong writes, and it is this perverted view that arouses the scorn of modern “militant” atheists. So Dawkins et al have chosen a straw man as a target, according to Armstrong. Real religion is serenely immune to their conviction that it is silly to talk of a divine architect.
As Blackwell asks, “So what should the religiously adept actually say by way of expressing his or her faith?” The simple answer is ‘Nothing.’ This is the ‘apophatic’ tradition, in which nothing about God can be put into words. Armstrong firmly recommends silence, ironically not advertising that she has written at least 15 books on the topic. Words such as ‘God’ have to be seen as symbols, not names, but any word falls short of describing what it symbolizes, and will always be inadequate, contradictory, metaphorical or allegorical. The mystery at the heart of religious practice is ineffable, unapproachable by reason and by language. Silence is its truest expression.
“Armstrong is not presenting a case for God in the sense that most people in our world would think of it. The ordinary man or woman in the pew or on the prayer mat probably thinks of God as a kind of large version of themselves with mysterious powers and a rather nasty temper. That is the vice of theory again, and as long as they think like that, ordinary folk are not truly religious, whatever they profess. By contrast, Armstrong promises that her kinds of ‘practice’ will make us better, wiser, more forgiving, loving, courageous, selfless, hopeful and just.”
According to Blackwell, the odd thing is that the book presupposes that such desirable improvements are the same thing as an increase in understanding — only a kind of understanding that has no describable content. It is beyond words, yet is nevertheless to be described in terms of awareness and truth.
It is ultimately up to the individual to choose his direction, but at least it should be a choice made by an informed person who is open to possibilities, is willing to stretch his understanding beyond words, and who does not fall prey to the damage done by inflexible dogma.
As the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and skeptic David Hume put it, in human nature there is “some particle of the dove, mixed in with the wolf and the serpent.” So we can expect that some directions will be better and others worse. And that is what, alas, we always find, with or without the song and dance.
Meanwhile, I keep turning the pages.