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The case for God by Karen Armstrong

The case for God

by Karen Armstrong

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  Quartz1 | Jan 20, 2016 |
I liked much of Armstrong's A History of God, but then in the second half of the book, she became more and more personal and judgmental, finally subordinating history to plugging her religious preference; this picks up right where that left off. I don't know whether it was Armstrong's choice or her publisher's, but it it interesting that the first book was called (deliberately, Armstrong says) "A" History of God, so signal that it was not the only possible history, but this is "The" Case for God. Since this is an argument for a particular point of view, it is not necessarily required to be fair and balanced, but a few things cause me to doubt Armstrong's reliability. There is, for example, a serious discrepancy between Armstrong's claims about Medieval religion and the Crusades for the so-called Holy Land, which she condemns as “one of the most shameful developments in Western Christian history.” The Crusaders' “idolatrous” view of God was widely shared by their society. (p.139) { The page numbers correspond to the hardcover Random House edition (2009). } She idealizes some things and ignores issues that seem obvious to me, such as folk religion.

Armstrong's contention is that prior to the Age of Enlightenment, no-one took their scriptures literally, but interpreted them via mythos. The divine, whether immanent or transcendent was ineffable, but human beings could bring themselves in touch with it by means of spiritual exercises or a life of virtue: kindness, compassion, etc. She prefers the apophatic (speechless) tradition in which the believer learns to understand that God is beyond description, and gets beyond his or her own intellect. She speaks of appreciating The Ineffable like a piece of art, but the idea leaves me cold -- art, except perhaps for the extremes of conceptual art isn't ineffable. She sometimes seems to be presenting this as universal in basic content and practice, but in other places concedes that it is not (see pp. xviii, 140.) Since she doesn't talk much about the alternatives, one must ask if it is really true that fundamentalism is such a betrayal of its tradition, or just a continuation of the bits she doesn't like (such as the aforementioned Crusades.) Armstrong asserts that it is only with the coming of Modernity that people take their scripture literally; she has great hopes for Post-Modernity. In her view, her preferred theologians have only to explain the Truth to the people in the pews and they will docilely accept it. It was when this was explained to me when I was about ten that I first began to wonder why I was wasting my time going to church.

I will disclose that I am an agnostic atheist, which in my case means that I think and believe that there is no deity(ies), but I acknowledge that it is not open to empirical verification. I regard The Ineffable of which Armstrong speaks as another category. I believe that Armstrong would agree with me that The Ineffable is not a deity, but traditional Christian terminology makes it hard for her not to use “God,” but the term risks confusing the various definitions of the word, the personal being with the impersonal non-being, although for some people I believe that is deliberate. I shall use the term The Ineffable in this review for clarity.

A problem here is the question of how the common person experienced this. One of the greatest failings of histories, in my opinion, is not considering class. Some of the practices, such as Origen's (pp. 95-96) seem unavailable to common people who simply don't have the time, being tied up with practical matters, like farming, either for learning about the ideas or working with them. Armstrong asserts that by participating in liturgical ceremonies which induced an altered state and understanding the mythos symbolically they also made contact with The Ineffable. Somehow that doesn't seem the equal of Origen's efforts, or else Origen was trying too hard. In the Middle Ages, the cloister was as much a dumping ground for spare heirs as a haven for those with a religious vocation, and most did not accept the lower classes. One can just imagine the delight of the elite, including most of the church hierarchy, if the younger peasants, slaves, and serfs wanted to lay done their hoes and seek The Ineffable like Origen. What galls me, as a layperson, is that I cannot help but think that Armstrong's view of the people in the pew is like that of Matthew Arnold of whom A.N. Wilson said in God's Funeral "the class Arnold himself was trying to educate – whom he flattering called the Barbarians." (p. 258)

Armstrong discusses the belief in The Ineffable in Vedic and early Middle Eastern religion, but one wonders what to make of the many deities, and the saints in Catholicism. Armstrong deals with this only by saying: “The gods were not the source of ilam but, like anything else, could only reflect it.” (p. 14) They may not have been omnipotent, but it doesn't necessarily follow that they were unreal or had no power. After all, politicians are not omnipotent either, but the politically well connected can still get nice advantages from them. Some argue that revering a lesser deity is a symbolic way of getting a small purchase on The Ineffable, but perhaps they indicate that The Ineffable is too remote and abstract to be of comfort or provide a hope of help with life's daily problems. She sees The Ineffable as a source of comfort, but she doesn't address whether it answers prayers or whether comfort came from Itself or from contemplation. I can well understand that, when there is nothing one can do about a situation prayers, ceremonies, and sacrifices would relieve the frustration. Armstrong says Aristotle believed The Ineffable is busy contemplating itself (p.72). How do we know if It notices us, or cares how we behave? This seems somewhat unlikely to me, particularly in traditions where it is also transcendent. Nor do I think that we need The Ineffable to understand the need for kindness and compassion; as Willard Gaylin said in his book Talk is not Enough: 'We human beings do not choose to live in social relations, we are obliged to. Writing in Animals as Social Beings (1964). the great biologist Adolf Portmann said: “Man comes to 'sociability' not by 'arrangement,' by rational decision, but by the natural primary disposition that he shares with all higher animals.” (Chap. 10 “The Therapeutic Alliance”)

If this is all to be understood symbolically, to the extent that it is to be understood at all, how does one explain the the bitter contention between Arius and Athanasius, the Albigensian Crusade, the various other Crusade in Europe against pagans as well as Christian heretics, as well as against Islam for the so-called Holy Land, or burning heretics? Armstrong tries to present the expulsion/forced conversion of Spanish Jews and Muslims in the 1490s as a part of the coming modern era, a new intolerance, ignoring the persecution and expulsions of Jews in Europe during the Medieval period. This is an assertion which causes me to doubt her veracity. Why would people makes expensive sacrifices to the deity(ies) or The Ineffable, including the sacrifice of high-ranking people if this is all symbolic? Incidentally, there is an anti-symbolic myth in which a group of Norsemen try to make a symbolic sacrifice to Odin. A devout man, outraged at this impiety, touched the “sacrifice” and said, “I give you to Odin.” At that, the sacrifice became real as Odin claimed his due.

In the end, Armstrong doesn't convince me of the arguments that she is trying to make about the nature of earlier religion, the catastrophic effects of the Enlightenment and modernity, or the existence (and non-existence) of The Ineffable, which is why I give it a low score, but the book is still interesting, taking her bias into account. I particularly liked the discussion of the Lascaux caves as possibly being used for initiation rites, and I found it interesting to read an account of Newton and his contemporaries focusing on their religious views. Armstrong complains that atheists discuss only literal minded believers in criticizing religion. These are the believers that cause the most concern, and also the ones who seem to do the best at attracting and retaining members, at least in the United States. In addition, having been raised in a liberal main line church, I agree with A.N. Wilson in his book God's Funeral: "The liberal Protestant way had its charms. It involved minimalism in doctrinal observance, vagueness in theological definition, and cloudiness of expression when anything so dangerous as a definition was required." It is difficult to discuss the nebulous. (Wilson's book is about attitudes towards religion in the Victorian era, not an argument that God doesn't exist.)

I want to compliment the publisher, or whoever designed the notes on the clarity with which they are labeled. There is one exception. In one note, Armstrong says that she will hereafter refer to a certain work as "DN." I do not read, let along memorize every note, so I had to scan backwards to find out what "DN" meant in a later note. I think that should be in a separate section of abbreviations, and people shouldn't be too free with widely scattered "op. cits", either. ( )
1 vote juglicerr | Mar 25, 2015 |
I've given this book 3.5 stars, which I actually think is under-rating it, but I must pay attention to the fact that it took me 3.5 years to read it. By definition it would seem that I must have forgotten more than I retained at that rate.

Armstrong took us from Zhuangzi (c. 370-311 BCE) to the current tension between Protestant fundamentalists and science, with many stops along the way.

The reason it took me so long to read is because I read it on the metro on my way to being picked up for the ride to Frederick on Mondays....15-20 minutes a week.... ( )
  kaulsu | May 19, 2014 |
Moving from the paleolithic age to the present Karen Armstrong details the the many ways mankind has experienced the spiritual reality that it has called by many names, such as God, Brahman, Nirvana, Allah, or Dao. She examines the diminished impulse toward religion in our own time, and tries to understand why that is.
  PendleHillLibrary | Feb 28, 2014 |
Poor Karen Armstrong has been ploughing a lonely furrow in recent years, trying to show that there is a valid Third Way between increasingly defensive religious groups and increasingly forthright ‘new atheists’. Neither side thinks much of her. For those of us a bit more detached from the arguments, she often seems like the only one talking any sense.

Her main problem can best be summarised by saying that she and I share almost identical views on religion, and yet I would call myself an atheist whereas she describes herself as a ‘freelance monotheist’. In other words, she succeeds in finding a definition of ‘God’ which I am happy to accept, but only by defining it pretty much out of existence.

The arguments in here build on her extraordinary back-catalogue of books on theological history, two of which – A History of God and The Battle for God – are absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to enter into the debate. This book, which is designed as a sort of ‘comeback’ against the attacks of Hitchens, Dawkins et al., mostly rehashes work from those two masterpieces, so I can only really give it three stars although much of what is in here is brilliantly done.

Again, the point she is keen to stress is that religion and science represent different types of knowledge – what the Greeks called mythos and logos. The latter deals in rational thought and the former in poetic truths. (Thus she immediately sidesteps any claims that religion has to scientific knowledge about the world: she has as much scorn as any atheist for those religious people who think that holy books are records of facts.) She makes a convincing case that, in the pre-modern world, most religious thinkers and mystics saw religion as having symbolic, not factual, importance – hence the bizarre doctrines which to the modern world seem so impossible.

In the early modern period, when the West was developing a wholly rational way of thinking about God and the world, philosophers and scientists were appalled by the irrationality of the Trinity. But for the Cappadocian fathers – Basil, Gregory and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus (329-90) – the whole point of the doctrine was to stop Christians thinking about God in rational terms. If you did that, you could only think about God as a being, because that was all our minds were capable of. The Trinity was not a ‘mystery’ that had to be believed but an image that Christians were supposed to contemplate in a particular way.

Such ideas were thus thought-exercises – like Zen Buddhist koan – designed to free up your mind to think about the impossible. For many of these mystics and religious thinkers, ‘God’ was not some supernatural entity – rather ‘God’ was a sort of codeword for ‘existence’, ‘reality’, or ‘the universe’, a way of contemplating ultimate truths.

The problem came with the Enlightenment, when religions felt under threat from science and tried to argue that they too had scientific knowledge about the world. For Armstrong, this is where it all went wrong: Western Christians became ‘addicted to scientific proof and were convinced that if God was not an empirically demonstrable fact, there was no sense in which religion could be true.’

This doesn't mean that religion is ‘only’ a myth – or rather, it does, except that Armstrong believes that myths, far from being ‘just stories’, are of supreme value to the way human beings experience the world. Here I agree with her, and this is also my problem with the so-called new atheism, which often seems to take a very reductionist and intolerant view of religion. To see a scientist as brilliant as Richard Dawkins reduced to explaining, in book-length form, that the idea of a benevolent omnipotent god is incompatible with such facts as childhood leukaemia or Auschwitz, makes me feel depressed and a bit embarrassed. The point is not that he's wrong, it's that it's so obvious. You'd have thought we'd be beyond this by now.

Armstrong relates a story Elie Wiesel tells about Auschwitz:

one day the Gestapo hanged a child with the face of a ‘sad-eyed angel’, who was silent and almost calm as he climbed the gallows. It took the child nearly an hour to die in front of the thousands of spectators who were forced to watch. Behind Wiesel, one of the prisoners muttered: ‘Where is God? Where is He?’ And Wiesel heard a voice within him saying in response, ‘Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.’

Two things should be crystal clear reading this. The first is the literal truth that no kindly all-powerful being could watch such scenes take place. But the second is the extraordinary poetic beauty of the response that Wiesel suggests. This, to me, is the power of religion – the same sort of truth as that offered by King Lear or Anna Karenina, something which helps you sympathise with others and which invites you to understand that there is a sense in which all reality is affected by what happens to any one individual.

My only concern is that Armstrong is overplaying the extent to which this premodern view of religion is really representative of the ‘silent majority’ of faithful (I can't remember if she says this outright or just implies it). Certainly there is a huge amount of thought and intelligence behind what's in here, and it succeeds in locating the value in something that many people nowadays find valueless. However, I can't help thinking (not without some satisfaction) that religious believers who pick this book up looking for a quick comeback to a YouTube Hitch-slap might find themselves with more to chew on than they expected. ( )
4 vote Widsith | Jun 27, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
"The Case for God" should be read slowly, and savored, for its moderating and moving exegesis on the human imperative to "find a transcendent meaning amid life's tragedies."
added by Shortride | editNewsweek, Lisa Miller (Sep 21, 2009)
One comes away from reading Armstrong feeling bruised. The words arise with such force and profusion that the point she is trying to make seems to get lost amongst them. Indeed, it is hard to believe, after the pain of reading one of her books, that she has sold so many of them, for who would willingly submit themselves to such torment? As I said earlier, to some extent Karen Armstrong has but one book, and she has written it many times. This is not unusual. But what is unusual is that she should think the same thing worth saying again and again, when she did not succeed, the first time, to say it convincingly. Armstrong must actually argue for her position. She cannot simply assume that telling the history of it will prove her point. Indeed, what Armstrong needs to do is to develop a theology, not by telling the history of theology, but by doing it. If what she has to say is genuinely worthwhile, this is the next step she will take. If she does not do it, we can be assured that the theology she espouses is as thin as this book is thick. Theology is hard work, as she says, and she has yet to do it.
This is an eloquent and interesting book, although you do not quite get what it says on the tin. Karen Armstrong takes the reader through a history of religious practice in many different cultures, arguing that in the good old days and purest forms they all come to much the same thing. They use devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance and meditation in order to enable us better to cope with the vale of tears in which we find ourselves. Religion is therefore properly a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art or music. These are similarly difficult to create, and even to appreciate. But nobody who has managed either would doubt that something valuable has happened in the process. We come out of the art gallery or concert hall enriched and braced, elevated and tranquil, and may even fancy ourselves better people, though the change may or may not be noticed by those around us.

This is religion as it should be, and, according to Armstrong, as it once was in all the world's best traditions. However, there is a serpent in this paradise, as in others. Or rather, several serpents, but the worst is the folly of intellectualising the practice. This makes it into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. It debases religion into a matter of belief in a certain number of propositions, so that if you can recite those sincerely you are an adept, and if you can't you fail. This is Armstrong's principal target. With the scientific triumphs of the 17th century, religion stopped being a practice and started to become a theory - in particular the theory of the divine architect. This is a perversion of anything valuable in religious practice, Armstrong writes, and it is only this perverted view that arouses the scorn of modern "militant" atheists. So Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris have chosen a straw man as a target. Real religion is serenely immune to their discovery that it is silly to talk of a divine architect.

So what should the religious adept actually say by way of expressing his or her faith? Nothing. This is the "apophatic" tradition, in which nothing about God can be put into words. Armstrong firmly recommends silence, having written at least 15 books on the topic. Words such as "God" have to be seen as symbols, not names, but any word falls short of describing what it symbolises, and will always be inadequate, contradictory, metaphorical or allegorical. The mystery at the heart of religious practice is ineffable, unapproachable by reason and by language. Silence is its truest expression. The right kind of silence, of course, not that of the pothead or inebriate. The religious state is exactly that of Alice after hearing the nonsense poem "Jabberwocky": "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas - only I don't exactly know what they are." If Alice puts on a dog collar, she will be at one with the tradition.

Armstrong is not presenting a case for God in the sense most people in our idolatrous world would think of it. The ordinary man or woman in the pew or on the prayer mat probably thinks of God as a kind of large version of themselves with mysterious powers and a rather nasty temper. That is the vice of theory again, and as long as they think like that, ordinary folk are not truly religious, whatever they profess. By contrast, Armstrong promises that her kinds of practice will make us better, wiser, more forgiving, loving, courageous, selfless, hopeful and just. Who can be against that?

The odd thing is that the book presupposes that such desirable improvements are the same thing as an increase in understanding - only a kind of understanding that has no describable content. It is beyond words, yet is nevertheless to be described in terms of awareness and truth. But why should we accept that? Imagine that I come out of the art gallery or other trance with a beatific smile on my face. I have enjoyed myself, and feel better. Perhaps I give a coin to the beggar I ignored on the way in. Even if I do so, there is no reason to describe the improvement in terms of my having understood anything. If I feel more generous, well and good, but the proof of that pudding is not my beatific smile but how I behave. As Wittgenstein, whose views on religion Armstrong thoroughly endorses, also said, an inner process stands in need of outward criteria. You can feel good without being good, and be good without stretching your understanding beyond words. Her experience of "Jabberwocky" may have improved Alice.

Silence is just that. It is a kind of lowest common denominator of the human mind. The machine is idling. Which direction it then goes after a period of idling is a highly unpredictable matter. As David Hume put it, in human nature there is "some particle of the dove, mixed in with the wolf and the serpent". So we can expect that some directions will be better and others worse. And that is what, alas, we always find, with or without the song and dance.

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Karen Armstrongprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Clark, JohnCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hughes, ShawnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Paassen, Willem vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Werf, Maarten van derTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilson, GabrieleCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wittevewen, AlbertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307269183, Hardcover)

Moving from the Paleolithic age to the present, Karen Armstrong details the great lengths to which humankind has gone in order to experience a sacred reality that it called by many names, such as God, Brahman, Nirvana, Allah, or Dao. Focusing especially on Christianity but including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Chinese spiritualities, Armstrong examines the diminished impulse toward religion in our own time, when a significant number of people either want nothing to do with God or question the efficacy of faith. Why has God become unbelievable? Why is it that atheists and theists alike now think and speak about God in a way that veers so profoundly from the thinking of our ancestors?

Answering these questions with the same depth of knowledge and profound insight that have marked all her acclaimed books, Armstrong makes clear how the changing face of the world has necessarily changed the importance of religion at both the societal and the individual level. And she makes a powerful, convincing argument for drawing on the insights of the past in order to build a faith that speaks to the needs of our dangerously polarized age. Yet she cautions us that religion was never supposed to provide answers that lie within the competence of human reason; that, she says, is the role of logos. The task of religion is “to help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there are no easy explanations.” She emphasizes, too, that religion will not work automatically. It is, she says, a practical discipline: its insights are derived not from abstract speculation but from “dedicated intellectual endeavor” and a “compassionate lifestyle that enables us to break out of the prism of selfhood.”

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:22 -0400)

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Moving from the Paleolithic age to the present, Karen Armstrong details the great lengths to which humankind has gone in order to experience a sacred reality. While noting that the changing face of the world has necessarily changed the importance of religion at both the societal and the individual level, she makes a powerful, convincing argument for drawing on the insights of the past in order to build a faith that speaks to the needs of our dangerously polarized age.… (more)

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