Thursday, October 3, 2013

Book Review: The Case for God by Karen Armstrong

I was so enthralled and took so many notes while reading this book I hardly know where to begin!

Let's try this: It's a natural human tendency to assume that we in the present day are more advanced, more aware, more "with it" than those of previous generations. With a "presentist" prism, we sometimes view everything in the past with a slightly condescending air of "those poor dears just didn't know any better and now, thank goodness, we do!" It's also very easy to assume that the way our religion has been practiced or the way we use certain words has remained constant throughout history, when that is often not the case at all.  "We cannot, perhaps, ever become fully aware of our own cultural mood precisely because we are in that mood, and as a result we tend to absolutize it.  Today was assume that because we rationalize faith and regard its truths as factual, this is how it was always done. But this involves a double standard...We tend to assume that 'modern' means 'superior,' and while this is certainly true in such fields as mathematics, science, and technology, is is not necessarily true of the more intuitive disciplines--especially, perhaps, theology."

And on that note, Karen Armstrong offers a view of the sweeping expanse of human history and the perpetual change, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, inherent in it.  Our understanding of who or what "God" is, the way we worship, even the definitions of common words, has altered dramatically and affects our practices today.

For example, the original Greek word translated as "believe" in the King James Bible was pistis, which denotes commitment. Pistis was translated into the Latin fides or "loyalty" in the 4th century A.D. It wasn't until the late seventeenth century that "our concept of knowledge became more theoretical, [and] the word 'belief' started to be used to describe an intellectual assent to a hypothetical...proposition." Early on, "religion was not a notional matter." Instead, religion "was not primarily something that people thought but something they did.  Its truth was acquired by practical action." And faith "was purely a matter of commitment and practical living." Orthopraxy or "right doing" was more important than orthodoxy or "right thinking."  Armstrong suggests that this was not a bad approach: "Today, when science itself is becoming less determinate, it is perhaps time to return to a theology that asserts less and is more open to silence and unknowing."

Over and over again, Armstrong hits the theme of action and practical application of religion, rather than passive thought. We often hear about all the bad that has happened because of religion: the wars, the hatred, the violence.  Armstrong balances a recognition of those tragedies with a positive view of religion and its effect on both individuals and the world, if its practitioners are willing to put forth the effort:
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: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life. Over the centuries people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living as selflessly and compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and courage...Religion will not work automatically, however; it requires a great deal of effort and cannot succeed if it is facile, false, idolatrous, or self-indulgent. Religion is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle. Without such practice, it is impossible to understand the truth of its doctrines.
I'm with Armstrong.  No matter what we believe, if we don't put it into practice and allow that concerted effort to change who we are and make us better for it, what good does it do us or anyone else?

Making a similar point to the one Rachel Held Evans made repeatedly in A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Armstrong points out that "the Bible consists of many contradictory texts, so our reading is always selective" and warns against "a selective reading of scripture to enforce a particular point of view or marginalize others." I especially appreciated her treatment of the Rabbinic Jewish approach to scripture. Drawing from Ezra's writings in the Old Testament, Armstrong explains that to Jews "scripture was not a closed book, and revelation was not a distant historical event. It was renewed every time a Jew confronted the text, opened himself to it, and applied it to his own situation." Living scripture, indeed!

Even though the book is not a lightweight - it clocks in at 330 pages of fine print, not including an additional 70 pages of notes, bibliography and index - Armstrong acknowledges the limitations of space and time in addressing such a complex and multi-faceted subject. "At the same time as Christians were slaughtering Muslims in the Near East, others were traveling to Spain to study under Muslim scholars in Cordoba and Toledo." This is but one indication that "in any age, the religious life is always multifarious, varied, and contradictory--even within a single individual."

One more example: Armstrong's reframing of the Spanish Inquisition. Rather than as "an archaic attempt to preserve a bygone religious world" which is how I'd always heard it explained, it was "a modernizing institution devised by the monarchs to create national unity." Ferdinand and Isabella were "creating the kind of absolute government that was essential to the economy of early modern Europe" and that required a hardline on conformity and control.  "All ideas and attitudes...were indelibly influenced by historical and cultural conditions. Current norms could never be absolute." Religious history cannot be considered in a vacuum without the political, cultural and social influences of the time as well. 

In addition, Armstrong addresses Luther and his 95 Theses, Galileo and his heliocentric universe, the Deism of the American Founding Fathers, the unprecedented literalism with which modern evangelicals interpret the scriptures, the development of agnosticism and atheism in modern times, and fundamentalist movements of all stripes including Christian, Muslim, and even atheist. Whew! And that's just scratching the surface!

I'll end with a long quote, an excerpt from the book's epilogue that captures for me the core of religion:
"From almost the very beginning, men and women have repeatedly engaged in strenuous and committed religious activity.  They evolved mythologies, rituals, and ethical disciplines that brought them intimations of holiness that seemed in some indescribable way to enhance and fulfill their humanity.  They were not religious simply because their myths and doctrines were scientifically or historically sound, because they sought information about the origins of the cosmos, or merely because they wanted a better life in the hereafter.  They were not bludgeoned into faith by power-hungry priests or kings: indeed, religion often helped people to oppose tyranny and oppression of this king.  The point of religion was to live intensely and richly here and now.  Truly religious people are ambitious. They want lives overflowing with significance. They have always desired to integrate with their daily lives the moments of rapture and insight that came to them in dreams, in the contemplation of nature, and in their intercourse with one another and with the animal world.  Instead of being crushed and embittered by the sorrow of life, they sought to retain their peace and serenity in the midst of their pain. They yearned for the courage to overcome their terror of mortality; instead of being grasping and mean-spirited, they aspired to live generously, large-heartedly, and justly, and to inhabit every single part of their humanity...They tried to honor the ineffable mystery they sensed in each human being and create societies that protected and welcomed the stranger, the alien, the poor, and the oppressed. Of course, they often failed, sometimes abysmally. But overall they found that the disciplines of religion helped them to do all this. Those who applied themselves most assiduously showed that is was possible for mortal men and women to live on a higher, divine, or godlike plane and thus wake up to their true selves."
What a beautiful vision of what religion has done and can do for humankind!

The Case for God
by Karen Armstrong (watch her TED talk and read her Charter for Compassion)
ISBN: 9780307269188
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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