Blurry lines on the battlefield of religious truth

The Battle for God By Karen Anderson Alfred A. Knopf 442 pp., $27.50

My feelings about "The Battle for God" are conflicted. As a portrait of militant fundamentalism - Jewish, Islamic, and Christian - it is stunning, a genuinely brilliant and magisterial achievement. But as intellectual history, it is awash in muddy confusion.

The concepts that steer the argument - myth, for example - are never lucidly parsed. The worst flaw is Karen Anderson's failure to fathom religious truth. She has embraced the postmodern notion that religion is necessarily mythic and mysterious, so that the only kind of truth it can deliver is beyond the reach of reason. In chapter after chapter, this murky claim obscures the link between truth and worship.

To see how it skews her understanding of Christianity, think for a moment about the first two centuries of the common era, the centuries which gave birth to the Gospels. If the Gospels are myths - humanly concocted fables - then Anderson is right. They have no historical truth to offer and no revealed truth either.

But the postmodern account of how these allegedly mythic narratives sprang into existence is absurd. The theory, in a thimble, is that the first Christians, knowing all the while that they were writing fiction, nonetheless fashioned their biographies of Jesus to look like eye-witness history. Then St. Paul joined the conspiracy. The scholarship undergirding this painfully implausible conjecture may be found in books like "Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth," by Burton Mack.

Even if Anderson had knock-down evidence that the Gospels were fables, she would still owe us an explanation of how an imaginary Jesus, known to be an invented fiction by his early followers, could have inspired them powerfully enough to heal their bodies and conquer their sins. She does drop an explanatory hint or two, one being that the solace that religious myths offer to the faithful is Jungian. Fables pluck the strings of archetypes in the unconscious, and when those buried pictures resonate, we receive axial answers to our deepest questions, answers which only the heart can grasp.

I would be happy to have an archetypal answer to one of my questions as a reader: How does "The Battle for God" manage to sound so symphonically stirring when its basic concepts are off-key? Part of the answer lies in the sweep and richness of Anderson's historical insight.

First, she skippers us on a voyage through those stormy centuries from the discovery of America by Columbus to the discovery of the origin of species by Darwin, centuries when scientific rationalism was swamping the belief in God. Then we sail into the war zone of the modern era, where the meaning of her title begins to unfurl.

She sees fundamentalists as embattled warriors fighting on behalf of God against the forces of Faustian science, but not in a reactionary way. To her, they offer creative and forward-looking responses to the moral and spiritual emptiness of modern civilization, but responses that are religiously inept.

In the final chapter, in which Anderson contends that only compassion can soothe the pious fury of truculent fundamentalists, purblind concepts are still at the helm. Believing, quite mistakenly, that all religion in its essence is mythic and therefore has nothing to do with empirical truth, she is led to write this: "By insisting that the truths of Christianity are factual and scientifically demonstrable, American Protestant fundamentalists have created a caricature of both religion and science."

If I were a fundamentalist, I would remind her that experiential truth is not the private possession of the natural sciences. It is as old as human language and therefore antedates the scientific revolution by half a million years. Prehistoric human beings had the verbal resources to talk truthfully with each other, not only about survival challenges - a bear outside the cave, for instance - but also about their numinous encounters with transcendent reality.

Religious truth can be empirical. To find out how, I urge you to read William Alston's "Perceiving God" (Cornell University Press), a theological treatise in the tough-minded tradition of American logical empiricism and one which conforms to standards of conceptual clarity unknown to the author of "The Battle for God."

*Colin Campbell teaches English at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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