Karen Armstrong makes “A Case for God”

Karen Armstrong releases her latest book, The Case for God. In it, she argues that religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of the mind and heart.

She says that the approach taken by both critics of religious belief and believers themselves often misses the heart of the belief. She says that across religions, what was being encouraged and cultivated through beliefs was a set of skills and a pattern of life. Myth, ritual and theology are tools not so much to reinforce what we know about God so much as an approach to what we don’t know about human life, creation and God which at the same time gives existence meaning.

What went wrong? Ross Douthat says in yesterday’s NYTimes Book Review, that according to Armstrong religion met the scientific method and “religious thinkers succumbed to a fatal case of science envy.”

Douthat contends that since religious fundamentalism is not driving policy in the White House, and there is a changing of the guard going on in the religious right, it is a little safer for a more balanced, if not a more liberal, approach to religion. Which makes Armstrong’s book timely.

The time, in other words, is ripe for a book like “The Case for God,” which wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism in an engaging survey of Western religious thought. Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned prolific popular historian, wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultured despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike. To that end, she doesn’t just argue that her preferred approach to religion — which emphasizes the pursuit of an unknowable Deity, rather than the quest for theological correctness — is compatible with a liberal, scientific, technologically advanced society. She argues that it’s actually truer to the ancient traditions of Judaism, Islam and (especially) Christianity than is much of what currently passes for “conservative” religion. And the neglect of these traditions, she suggests, is “one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today.”

Both modern believers and modern atheists, Armstrong contends, have come to understand religion primarily as a set of propositions to be assented to, or a catalog of specific facts about the nature of God, the world and human life. But this approach to piety would be foreign to many premodern religious thinkers, including the greatest minds of the Christian past, from the early Fathers of the Church to medieval eminences like Thomas Aquinas.

These and other thinkers, she writes, understood faith primarily as a practice, rather than as a system — not as “something that people thought but something they did.” Their God was not a being to be defined or a proposition to be tested, but an ultimate reality to be approached through myth, ritual and “apophatic” theology, which practices “a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred” and emphasizes what we can’t know about the divine. And their religion was a set of skills, rather than a list of unalterable teachings — a “knack,” as the Taoists have it, for navigating the mysteries of human existence.

NPR reports:

A former nun, Karen Armstrong left her convent in the late 1960s, and for 13 years she distanced herself from organized religion. She ended up working in television, and on an assignment in Jerusalem she had a kind of epiphany about the similarities among the major world religions. It was the study of those religions that allowed her to revisit her own faith.

Armstrong published her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, in 1982. Twenty-seven years and more than 20 books later — including the best-selling A History of God — Armstrong releases her latest book, The Case for God. In it, she argues that religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of the mind and heart.

Read the rest here.

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  1. E H Culver

    Years ago I heard a wise priest and seminary professor say, “The Christian faith is not about a set of propositions to be understood, but a Mystery to be loved.”

  2. Paul Martin

    The link at the bottom of the article doesn’t work. In case you were intending to link to the New York Times review, that link is here.

  3. Armstrong talked about her latest book on NPR’s Fresh Air last week. Podcast is available here. Highly recommended, especially her response to Terry Gross’ question about folks in New Jersey who think Obama might be the AntiChrist. Armstrong is a treasure.

    Jan Adams

  4. Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D.

    I am only about half way through Karen Armstrong’s current book, but it reads particularly well in the light of her preceding book, The Bible: A Biography. The New York Times Reviewer turns a bit more critical at the end of the review in a portion that is not fully quoted here. He takes an off-handed swipe at TEC and then subsequently writes,”liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age. Such spiritual dilettantism has its charms, but it lacks the sturdy appeal of Western monotheism, which has always offered not only myth and ritual and symbolism (the pagans had those bases covered), but also scandalously literal claims.”

    He misses, however, the very point that is most central to all of Karen’s works on religion, which sees the scope of the evolution of our religious ideas about God and ourselves as not a dogmatic frozen orthodoxy that gets perverted and to which we return, but a process of an evolutionary character. A frozen “orthodoxy” is simply a false “full stop” in the textbook of the history of religion. It is, therefore, a fiction to think that there is a “dogmatic faith” on which “liberal religion tends to be parasitic.” Today’s “orthodoxy” is no more than yesterday’s “heterodoxy.” Our faith tradition reads as a biography, not a science textbook. What was “true” for our ancestors of the faith may be simply “false” for us. We find our essentials not primarily in assent to some unalterable list of propositional statements, but by participation in the community and stream of faith. “Liberal” Christians are not “spiritual dilettantes” but are participating in this orthodox stream of the ages, taking our faith tradition, really practicing it and making it meaningful in our lives as a _living_ inheritance, not preserving an antique for conservation. All religion that is alive is changing, it is simply that the fundamentalists/conservatives refuse to admit it. We are not first century Christians, but neither are they, no matter what they may believe about themselves.

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