In our vaunted scientific and technological age, has Western society lost the knack of religion? Karen Armstrong, author of many acclaimed books on religious history, poses that startling proposition in her latest work, The Case for God.
She sees numerous signs. Although religious voices are raised frequently in the public realm, they often take strident, provocative, even militant forms. Many people believe that grasping the idea of God or religion should be quick and easy. Books promoting atheism, based on shallow knowledge of theology, have gained considerable popularity.
People still yearn to find ultimate meaning in life, but many are confused or alienated because much of contemporary religious thinking is “remarkably undeveloped,” Armstrong contends.
The British writer – who went through her own atheistic period before coming to a “freelance monotheism” – hopes to end some of that confusion and provoke fresh thinking about religion and what it demands of us. “The Case for God” is not a theological argument about God’s existence, but a sweeping historical review from Paleolithic to present times of how thinkers have pursued and experienced the transcendent.
“The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic,” she writes.
In a dense but accessible and compelling exploration of premodern and modern religious concepts and practices, Armstrong illustrates the unfolding, reshaping, and overturning of views of God, nature, and reality. She examines the roles of faith and reason among the ancients, Greeks and early monotheists, and major Christian, Jewish and Muslim thinkers, though focusing mostly on Christianity. She finds that religion is even making a comeback among some postmodern philosophers.
Although Armstrong is not responding directly to the atheists’ challenge, her principal theme is a rebuke to those who expect to answer ultimate questions by rational speculation: The insights of religion require a “disciplined cultivation of a different mode of consciousness,” she writes. History demonstrates that the transcendent is experienced by those who engage in dedicated spiritual practices and compassionate living, and for those who do not, it remains “opaque.”
Premodern thinkers have many lessons to teach contemporary believers, Armstrong says. They understood that religious discourse spoke in symbolic or analogical (not literal) terms about eternal, timeless truths. And while it was important to put ideas of God into words, these words were always recognized as inadequate. Therefore they developed spiritual practices – rituals, prayers, meditation, spiritual exercises – to lead one to a higher plane of living.
The move of Western civilization into the modern era, however, overturned traditional religious presuppositions in ways that dramatically reshaped theology and practice. With the Reformation and printing press, the Bible became widely available, but the proliferation of interpretations spawned battles over doctrines, leading to deadly religious wars. Belief no longer meant trust in God and engagement in spiritual endeavor, but assent to man-made doctrines.
At the same time, Newtonian physics put God in direct charge of the physical universe, and the resulting “natural theology” led to a new literalism in biblical interpretation.
“During the early modern period, God was reduced to a scientific hypothesis and ... became the ultimate explanation of the universe instead of symbolizing the ineffable,” Armstrong writes.
But soon, both Darwin and historical biblical criticism undermined such theology. The resulting turmoil spurred the development of “two distinctively modern phenomena: fundamentalism and atheism.” For the author, any demand for certainty in religion (or disbelief) is suspect, because it assumes more knowledge than human beings possess and too often leads to intolerance, idolatry, and aggressive behavior.
Yet Armstrong goes further, suggesting that since language is inadequate to fully convey the nature of the ineffable, attempts to define God are questionable, even undesirable. (She rejects, for instance, the definition of God as Supreme Being, the divine sovereign of the universe – a concept she found “distancing” during her brief and unhappy period as a young nun.)
Instead, she highlights premodern thinkers who were devoted but perceived God as unknowable. She describes an “apophatic” practice in which deific attributes were defined and then specifically denied with the conviction that human conceptions of goodness or perfection could not possibly grasp the infinite. This focus on “unknowing” fostered a sense of humility, something she sees as highly desirable for today’s contentious religious environment.
That someone so dedicated to understanding the universe of religion would dismiss the pursuit of an understanding of God is puzzling. It seems oddly contradictory to her call for disciplined spiritual practice, which presumably opens the doors of consciousness to higher understanding.
Armstrong’s ultimate concern, though, is for how religious folk can learn to get along in difficult times. That means finding “a deliberate and principled reticence about God” and opting for silence and awe in place of certainty.
Without humility and compassionate living, she believes, religion has little to offer. That is the knack that’s been lost, through failure to commit to the spiritual disciplines that reveal “new capabilities of mind and heart.”
While readers may not share the author’s sense that God is “beyond our ken,” they will find in this masterful work rewarding insights into worship and practice through the ages – and provocative questions for the future.
Jane Lampman is the Monitor’s former religion correspondent.