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.

A theological dilemma

A few days ago I blogged on the struggle I was having finding a church that I fitted into (see Rebuilding Conservatism through Modern Churchanity).

Over the last few days I have continued to look at churches and there are two things that are really bugging me about modern churches: prosperity theology and social justice.

Now social justice is something I really believe in and have a real passion for, not just feeding and housing the homeless but also having an impact in the wider community amongst work mates, schools, social clubs etc. For me social justice is about Christians being out in the world as lighthouses amongst the darkness. John 13:35 (NIV) says “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

However, I am finding many churches who are so insular and cater for their own membership and do little for the wider community – or when they do it is through the indoctrination of specific religious beliefs upon people – and this is always bound to end up in massive controversy. Something that I always wonder is why can’t we just go out into the world and serve people first, show them the love of Christ rather than ram church down their throats and then “rescue them”?

Jesus didn’t go out into the world and say in order to be healed you have to first believe this and that and something else and attend church every Sunday, and the special program for people like you on every Tuesday night. No, instead he spoke to people and they were healed in fact sometimes he didn’t even speak to them he just told them to get up and walk. Sure after this they most likely believed but it seems the opposite of what a lot of churches are preaching whereby in order to be healed you must first believe. Surely God can heal those who don’t believe and through that healing they will believe?

Anyway I am already sidetracked; my main gripe/dilemma/issue rests with prosperity theology.

So what is prosperity theology? A really interesting article in Christianity Today puts it this way:

The teaching that believers have a right to the blessings of health and wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the “sowing of seeds” through the faithful payments of tithes and offerings.

There are a number of verses that are often used to back up this belief, in particular Malachi 3:10-12 (NIV):

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.

Now I certainly have no issue with giving to the church, however, the modern church is so focussed on a money tithe. It was not like that in the past, the reason why the verse says storehouse and not bank is because in the past the tithe was giving of what you actually produced – not just material wealth but also giving of time, and goods, etc.

Lots of modern churches have this focus on giving 10% of your financial income to the church. I whole heartedly disagree with this (and could spend a whole another blog post on this). I believe you should give to God and the church what God has placed on your heart to give. I may not agree with most of what the church I have been attending over the last few weeks but having said that when I got paid I gave what God placed on my heart to give. In addition to this I give to God through serving in other areas both within church and in the wider community (although not much at the moment until I find a new church and get settled).

Opps, I am off on a sidetrack again. Coming back to the idea of Prosperity Theology I fundamentally for a few key reasons:

First the lives of the apostles in the book of Acts certainly do not seem to agree with prosperity theology, in the healing of the crippled beggar in Acts 3:6 (NIV) Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” That verse has always spoken to me we don’t need material possessions to follow God, to heal people, or to do God’s work all we need is ourselves.

Jesus actually spoke in many places about the greed associated with building up massive amounts of wealth. And I could go on for many paragraphs about the love of money being the root of all evil and/or how hard it is for a rich man to enter heaven. And I am certainly not saying that you can’t be rich or God can’t bless you, if your heart is in the right place then it is awesome that you have such a blessed life. But there is something that just seems so wrong about preaching that if you give more and more and more to God that you will get more and more and more back. If you don’t get more back does that mean you’re doing something wrong, or your faith is not strong enough?

Second, the book of Job is all about God letting terrible things happening to someone but their faith remaining strong the entire way through. Job didn’t give up just because he gave his whole to God and God didn’t bless him with abundant wealth instead he knew that the reward in heaven was so much more than what we can ever have on earth. (And I know this is a massive over simplification of the entire book).

In a more modern context I find Prosperity Theology not holding true in the whole situation with the poor starving kids in Africa. I say “poor starving kids” a little cynically not because that isn’t the situation but rather the constant pressure in advertising to give money and the problem with go away, that is not the case, sure money is needed to fund things, but more important is people on the ground giving their time and love.

But again coming back onto topic a lot of Christians in areas of the third world have a stronger faith than many Christians do in the restful west. If prosperity theology was so true then why don’t these people just have faith in God and through some miracle everything works out right for them? Africa remains one of those situations where I fail to understand why they get such a rough ride when in the west we get it so good yet we are quite often far worse sinners. And I know there are not degrees of sin, all sin is bad, but yeah it is something I have never quite understood form a spiritual point of view.

So coming back to the hunt for a church to call home, maybe I am being really picky, maybe I am being too religious, maybe I am too focused on doctrine then on God. But the real issue for me is I don’t want religion where God is effectively dead and ritual replaces any chance for the Holy Spirit to move. However, I really seek a place which is alive in passion and worship for God. I love loud modern church music and preaching that is relevant to today.

At the same time this often goes way to far where the music becomes more of a show than worship to God and the preaching crosses over from talking about God and the stories in the bible to instead using modern motivational speaking tricks to keep the audience interested and incorporates so much modern secular business style teaching that somewhere along the way it just becomes Church Inc. I really want something in between, something that is bible based, not steeped in tradition but has respect for it, and has a real passion for both social justice and community.

So far I have not found that in between anywhere near my new house. The question I am really pondering is do I continue to attend a church that I disagree with a core preaching and style of for the purpose of attending church until I either find a church near me that I agree with, or I find an effective way to get to the outer suburbs to attend churches that I do agree with and have a passion to attend? Do I continue to attend a church that I disagree with because the people and community is awesome and being in a new city friends are what I need most?

Is a suitable modern substitute for church: podcasts, worship music, bible reading and commentary, and small group discussions at university? How long can one grow with God and not lose faith with the absence of church, at the same time what if that church is destroying your faith? Can a church destroy faith?  These are all (and there are many more) questions that I am really struggling with at the moment.

As a side note a few years ago The Chaser did quite a funny satire piece on one particular modern church. Now before I get ravaged by people who attend this church note a few things: a) It is comedy, b) You should be able to laugh at yourself, c) If this is how the world really sees you then maybe it is time to consider ways to change that perspective, d) You can only be offended by something if you chose to be offended by it, e) I certainly do not agree with most of it.