Karen Armstrong is perhaps one of the most scholarly, congenial and inclusive of writers on the subject of religion working today. In her book The Case for God, the former nun and self-described “freelance monotheist” addresses the polar extremes of fundamentalism and “The New Atheism,” positing that they make similar mistakes in their approach to religion. On the one hand, the fundamentalist takes the highly symbolic scriptures and practices of religion and insists on interpreting them literally. The new atheist responds by rejecting religion thus approached, not taking into account the fact that scripture was never meant to be read as history; that sacraments and other religious practices were always meant to be highly symbolic acts.
Throughout the book, Armstrong draws a clear delineation between two means of approaching reality and gaining knowledge: logos and mythos. Logos, she explains, refers to discursive thought, precise measurement, and empirical proofs. These have always been important, enabling human society to engage in trade, think logically, and conduct scientific experiments. Mythos, by contrast, is all about intuition, symbolism, art, mythology…and religion. Quoting Renaissance poet Petrarch, Armstrong makes a specific case for considering religion as occupying the same space as art and literature:
The Italian poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) …had argued that “theology is actually poetry, poetry concerning God,” effective not because it “proved” anything but because it reached the heart.
Like the experience of a great work of art, Armstrong posits, religion should provide an individual with an ekstasis, a temporary “standing outside oneself” and experiencing a new way of experiencing reality:
Like art, the truths of religion require the disciplined cultivation of a different mode of consciousness…Human beings are so constituted that periodically they seek out ekstasis, a “stepping outside” the norm…We make a point of seeking out these experiences that touch us deeply within and lift us momentarily beyond ourselves. At such times, we feel that we inhabit our humanity more fully than usual and experience an enhancement of being.
The fundamentalist, she writes, makes the mistake of trying to force deliberately symbolic and mythological writings to read as history or science, thus blurring the lines between mythos and logos. Because ultimate reality is ineffable and can only be hinted at—never fully articulated—the ancients employed mythos to suggest what could not be adequately defined in language. Reading such accounts as examples of logos leads to serious interpretive mistakes. She tells us that she wishes the “New Atheists” were not so strident in their tone, “…because some of their criticisms are valid.” The fundamentalist theology they attack “…is indeed ‘unskillful,’ as the Buddhists would say.” The mistake the new atheists make, according to Armstrong, is that they “…[have] focused exclusively on the God developed by the fundamentalisms, and…insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religion.” She notes that, throughout history, atheist movements have rarely represented a wholesale rejection of the sacred; rather, they have usually been responses to the unfortunate mixing of mythos and logos by the more literal-minded among any given religion’s adherents.
Armstrong begins the book with a section called The Unknown God, looking at the religious aspirations of our Paleolithic ancestors (whom she refers to as Homo religiosus). Considering the cave paintings at Lascaux and Dordogne, she speculates that premodern religion was primarily about finding the deeper meaning in the day-to-day struggle for survival: the nature of ultimate reality that would later be called “…God, Nirvana, Brahman, or Dao.” Ancient hunters revered a goddess they called “The Great Mother” as a life-giver in the midst of inescapable death: “While hunters and animals died in the grim struggle for survival, the female was endlessly productive of new life.”
In addition to ancient Homo religiosus, this section also deals with God, Reason, Faith, Silence, and Faith and Reason. Taking us on a panoramic tour of religious thought from the Paleolithic era to the Renaissance, Armstrong then moves on to the second section of her treatise, The Modern God (1500 CE to the Present). In this section, she surveys Science and Religion, Scientific Religion, Enlightenment, Atheism, Unknowing, and The Death of God?
Of course, any survey of religious thought from 30,000 BCE to the present day in a single volume can only touch lightly on any given period or school of thought. An exhaustive review of any one period is not Armstrong’s project here; instead, she seeks to shed light on the religious impulse itself, and those themes that seem to run through every religion at every time. Her central thesis seems to be that the longing for transcendent meaning is a universal human trait. Uniquely saddled (as far as we know) with self-consciousness and knowledge of our own mortality, human beings tend to fall into despair without a sense of deeper meaning. One section that leaps out is Armstrong’s section on the Old Testament. She seems to be highly sensitive toward the postmodern disaffection with violent texts that have little regard for human life and rights, and any view of the divine that smacks of power at the expense of love. (My post called Transcendent versus Immanent Senses of Divinity, and Interfaith Dialogue called attention to this issue.) Armstrong addresses specifically the writings of one group of Old Testament writers known to scholars as the Deuteronomists:
The vision of the Deuteronomists had been affected by the violence of their time. At about the same time as the sages of India had started to make ahimsa, “nonviolence” essential to the religious quest, the Deuteronomists depicted Joshua slaughtering the inhabitants of Canaan like the Assyrian generals who had terrorized the region for over two hundred years .The Deuteronomists had made violence an option in the Judeo-Christian religion. It would always be possible to make these scriptures endorse intolerant policies. But the Deuteronomists did not have the last word.
She then proceeds to describe how the writings of the source known to scholars as “E” (because he refers to God as “Elohim” rather than Yahweh) balanced the Deuteronomists’ violent and “unabashedly anthropomorphic” imagery with a more transcendent, nonviolent view of divinity.
In the last chapter of the book, The Death of God?, Armstrong considers the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the corresponding “God Is Dead” movement of the mid-20th century. One of the more influential books of the 1960s was The Secular City by American theologian Harvey Cox. In this work, Cox “…claimed that God was dead and that henceforth religion must center on humanity rather than a transcendent deity; if Christianity failed to absorb these new values, the churches would perish.” The decline of traditional religious observance in both Europe and the United States was, Armstrong states, just one sign of the major cultural shifts of that decade, when “…many of the institutional structures of modernity were pulled down… and the young railed against the modern ethos of their parents.” Of course, the 1970s proceeded to give rise to strong, reactionary fundamentalist movements within all three major monotheistic faiths. Armstrong views these as examples of “militant religiosity…in every region where a secular, Western-style government had separated religion and politics…determined to drag God and/or religion from the sidelines to which they [had] been relegated in modern culture and back to center field.” She observes that these movements have emerged wherever the religious have felt under threat. Protestant Christian fundamentalists, for example, reacted against the growing “Secular Humanism” of modernity and were “…convinced that their doctrinal ‘beliefs’ [were] an accurate, final expression of sacred truth and that every word of the Bible [was]literally true—an attitude that is a radical departure from mainstream Christian tradition.” Clearly, she says, it was premature of the “Death of God” movement to declare the theistic sense of divinity dead.
In the Epilogue, Armstrong writes that the notion that religion should provide us with information–about where we came from, who God is, and how the universe came into being–is “…a modern preoccupation.” Religion was never meant to provide these answers; that is the role of logos, and religion deals in mythos. She explains her own view of religion’s proper role:
Religion’s task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve.
In keeping with its own ethos, The Case for God offers no easy answers. Rather, it is provides a fascinating and panoramic view of the religious impulse as expressed by men and women of every era through the ages. It’s also a great read from an author whose style is always genial and whose knowledge is seemingly encyclopedic.