Thoughts from: The Case For God – Karen Armstrong

Whatever it is you say God is, God is more. The very constitution of the idea is deconstructive of any such construction… the very formula that describes God is that there is no formula with which God can be described.

John D. Caputo

Yesterday I finished reading Karen Armstrong’s best selling The Case For God. The book is a very academically written history of religion from the start of humanity until modern times. The key message of the book is that our current ideas about God are dramatically different from those of our ancestors.

I would call this book a must read for anyone who wants a rational and intellectual understanding of the history of religion. The majority of the book is centred around Christianity but there is coverage of many other faiths and religions as well. The book also tracks the history of science and how religion and science have developed together and how some of the top scientists of the past have changed our views on religion.

While I don’t agree with all the points made, in particular, the conclusion that there are many ways to God, the book will challenge what you believe, why you believe, and helps you to understand how religion got to where it is today.

Some of the points struck right of the heart of what I have been struggling with over the past few years in my faith, in particular:

Today religious experience is often understood at intensely emotional… In all the great traditions, however, teachers have constantly proclaimed that far from being essential to the spiritual quest, visions, voices, and feelings of devotion could in fact be a distraction. The apprehension of God… had nothing to do with the emotions. Christians had been aware of this from the very beginning; worship had often been noisy and unrestrained: under the inspiration of the Spirit, there had been speaking in strange languages, ecstatic trance, and spontaneous prophecy. But St Paul sternly… told his Corinthian converts that these transports had to remain within due bounds and that by far the most important of the spiritual gifts was charity. In all the major traditions, the iron rule of religious experience is that it be integrated successfully with daily life. A disorderly spirituality that makes the practitioner dreamy, eccentric or uncontrolled is a very bad sign indeed.

Silence (pg 112 – 113)

How many times have we heard preachers say “go to a deeper level”, or “let yourself go”. I don’t see any problem with feeling your faith or being moved to express yourself in ways you wouldn’t act. However, what needs to be clear is control. You must always have control over yourself and your body. The point at which you lose control is the point at which you open yourself to spiritual risk. The point that your faith should be reflected in your daily life is a poignant one, in your daily routine you would not enter a trance like state, so why overdo it when you are in worship?

In 1655, Juan da Prado, who had been a committed member of the Jewish underground in Portugal for twenty years, arrived in Amsterdam. He too had found that without spiritual exercises, the ideas of conventional religion lacked substance, and had succumbed to Marrano deism, seeing God as identical with the laws of nature…
The unhappy stories of da Prado and da Costa show that the mythos of confessional religion is unsustainable without spiritual exercises. Reason alone can produce only an attenuated deism that is easily abandoned, as God is remote, abstract and ultimately incredible.

Science and Religion (pg 184-185)

This point is interesting in light of modern churches which have thrown out all basis of traditional festivals or celebrations. We go to church every Sunday and it is the same except for Easter and Christmas, where the only change will be a watered down version of a normal Sunday. Very early on in Christian history the adherence to Jewish festivals was abandoned and replaced. However, most modern churches no longer even mark the traditional Christian calendar. The argument for throwing out these traditions was that it was just boring old Church and we needed to be modern. But by doing so overall church numbers have continued to decline, we have Sunday-only Christians and a population with rapidly declining levels of faith.

Scientific rationalism, therefore, was what Newton called the ‘fundamental religion’. But it had been corrupted with ‘Monstrous Legends, false miracles, veneration of reliques, charmes, ye doctrine of Ghosts or Daemons, and their intercession, invocation & worship with other such heathen superstitions’…
God had become a mere force of nature. Theology had thrown itself on the mercy of science. At the time this seemed like a good idea… In reducing God to a scientific explanation, the scientists and theologians of the seventeenth century were turning God into an idol… Newton, Bentley and Clarke argued that nature could tell us everything we needed to know about the divine. God was no longer transcendent, no longer beyond the reach of language and concepts… But what would happen when a later generation of scientists found another ultimate explanation for the universe?

Scientific Religion (pg 200, 202)

The above excerpt tries to cram four pages at the end of a very detailed chapter into two paragraphs but hopefully it gets some of the key points. Trying to explain God through scientific processes seemed like a good idea at the time. However, in doing so, over the last four hundred years we have redefined God in terms of science and tried to prove his existence through science and only science. The problem, of course, with this is every time we have given a proof for God in science someone has managed to counter prove that God does not exist. This of course has led to the creationism, intelligent design, evolution debates.

The concept of a ‘Personal God’, interfering with natural events, or being ‘an independent cause of natural events’ makes God a natural object beside others, an object among others, a being among beings, maybe the highest, but nevertheless, a being. This indeed is not only the destruction of the physical system but even more the destruction of any meaningful idea of God.
A God who interfered with human freedom was a tyrant, not so different from the human tyrants who had wrought such havoc in recent history… many had forgotten how to interpret the old symbolism and regarded it as purely factual. Hence these symbols had become opaque; transcendence no longer shone through them. When this happened, they died and lost their power, so when we spoke of these symbols in a literal manner, we made statements that were inaccurate and untrue.

Paul Tillich, Unknowing (pg 269 – 270)

This point is rather interesting. More and more I am rejecting the idea that God influences and changes every waking second of our lives. The idea that God will find you a carparking spot just seems absurd to me. However, books of the bible tell us stories of God writing in the walls of buildings, and swallowing whole armies in the sea. Do we reduce this an explanation of a random event or believe that in some cases God does change what we see in reality?

We can no longer speak of God easily to anybody, because he will immediately question: ‘Does God exist?’ Now the very asking of that question signifies that the symbols of God have become meaningless. For God, the question, has become one of the innumerable objects in time and space which may or may not exist. And this is not the meaning of God at all.

Paul Tillich

God could never be an object of cognition, like the objects and people we see all around us. To look through the finite symbol to the reality – the God beyond ‘God’ that lies beyond theism – demands courage; we have to confront the dead symbol to find ‘the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt’.

Unknowing (pg 270 – 271)

And this is where faith comes in. We can’t prove God exists through our physical means. But we have faith in the unknown, in those things that we cannot understand or explain. Faith isn’t just a way for us to find comfort in not knowing what happens when we die – do we turn to dust or does our soul live on? It is so much more than that. Faith defines how we live our life, it isn’t a moral compass we can most certainly be moralistic without having faith but more so it shapes our understanding on our place and purpose in this life.

In all its forms, fundamentalism is a fiercely reductive faith. In their anxiety and fear, fundamentalists often distort the tradition they are trying to defend. They can, for example, be highly selective in their reading of scripture. Christian fundamentalists quote extensively from the Book of Revelation and are inspired by its violent End-time vision, but rarely refer to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek and not to judge others. Jewish fundamentalists rely heavily on the Deuteronomist sections of the Bible and seem to pass over the rabbis’ injunction that exegesis should lead to charity. Muslim fundamentalists ignore the pluralism of the Qur’an and extremists often quote its more aggressive verses to justify violence, pointedly disregarding its far more numerous calls for peace, tolerance, and forgiveness. Fundamentalists are convinced that they are fighting for God, but in fact this type of religiosity represents a retreat from God. To make purely human, historical phenomena – such as ‘Family Values’, ‘the Holy Land’ or ‘Islam’ – sacred and absolute values is idolatry and, as always, their idol forces them to try to destroy its opponents.

Death of God? (pg 282)

Armstrong certainly starts pulling the punches by describing fundamentalists as idol worshippers. But she does have a very valid point. So much of church fundamentalism is caught up in judging others rather than loving others. This certainly does not mean that we should be open to accepting everything and letting anything go. But rather than constantly focussing on what is wrong we need to look at how we can bring light to the world.

Noting that atheism is always a rejection of of a particular conception of the divine, he [Caputo] concludes: ‘If modern atheism is the rejection of a modern God, then the delimitation of modernity opens up another possibility, less the resuscitation of pre-modern theism than the chance of something beyond both theism and the atheism of modernity.’
It is an enticing prospect. If atheism was a product of modernity, now we are entering a ‘postmodern’ phase, will this too, like the modern God, become a thing of the past? Will the growing appreciation of the limitations of human knowledge – which is just as much a part of the contemporary intellectual scene as the atheistic certainness – give rise to a new kind of apophatic theology?

Death of God? (pg 302 – 303)

I strongly disagree with Armstrong on this point. Even if our understanding of how much or little we understand changes I don’t see an united marriage of religion and atheism happening. There will always be those who believe in something more and those who reject it.

There really is only one conclusion from this long blog post: read this book. It will challenge your faith, and make you really think about what you believe, why you believe and how you act.