Saturday, October 3, 2009

The God Problem

In this period, in which a militant form of atheism is once again becoming popular and widespread, it's interesting to see a review in The New York Times of a book (The Case for God) that takes a fresh look at what is meant by the word "God."

I was also happy to see that book's author, Karen Armstrong, draws attention to the "apophatic" approach to God, something familiar to Orthodox Christians but "Greek" -- and Greek it truly is -- to most Christians in the West. (What apparently neither Armstrong nor the reviewer understand is that the apophatic way of seeking God thrives on apparent contradictions -- a God who is both approachable and unapproachable, known and unknown, a God who seems radically absent and God who is in search of us.)

Some of the people I have loved most were (or are) atheists, my parents for starters, at least during the years I was growing up, though they changed their minds later in life.

There are many good reasons for not believing in God. I find atheism often has less to do with certainty that there is no God than with disgust with religion in general (a disgust I often share), or with various forms of Christianity (there are so many), or with appalling things that have been done by people who claim to be Christians, or simply with the fact that so many Christians seem to be far less influenced by Jesus and the Gospels than by the oppressive political and economic structures they happen to be have been born into and passionately support.

When I talk to people who describe themselves as atheists, I sometimes ask them to describe what god it is that they don't believe in. Most of the time I can respond, "I must be an atheist too -- I don't believe in that god either."


note: The photo is of the main staircase of the Bible Museum, housed in a Golden Age house on the Herengracht in Amsterdam.

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New York Times / / October 1, 2009

Perpetual Revelations

review by Ross Douthat

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The Case for God
By Karen Armstrong
406 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95
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The Bush era was a difficult time for liberal religion in America. The events of 9/11 were not exactly an advertisement for the compatibility of faith and reason, faith and modernity, or faith and left-of-center politics. Nor was the domestic culture war that blazed up in their wake, which lent a “with us or against us” quality to nearly every God-related controversy. For many liberals, the only choices seemed to be secularism or fundamentalism, the new atheism or the old-time religion, Richard Dawkins or George W. Bush.

But now the wheel has turned, and liberal believers can breathe easier. Bush has retired to Texas, and his successor in the White House is the very model of a modern liberal Christian. Religious conservatism seems diminished and dispirited. The polarizing issues of the moment are health care and deficits, not abstinence education or intelligent design. And the new atheists seem to have temporarily run out of ways to call believers stupid.

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.

It’s a knack, Armstrong argues, that the Christian West has largely lost, and the rise of modern science is to blame. Not because science and religion are unalterably opposed, but because religious thinkers succumbed to a fatal case of science envy.

Instead of providing the usual portrait of empiricism triumphing over superstition, Armstrong depicts an extended seduction in which believers were persuaded to embrace the “natural theology” of Isaac Newton and William Paley, which seemed to provide scientific warrant for a belief in a creator God. Convinced that “the natural laws that scientists had discovered in the universe were tangible demonstrations of God’s providential care,” Western Christians abandoned the apophatic, mythic approach to faith in favor of a pseudo-scientific rigor — and then had nowhere to turn when Darwin’s theory of evolution arrived on the scene.

An Aquinas or an Augustine would have been unfazed by the idea of evolution. But their modern successors had convinced themselves that religious truth was a literal, all-or-nothing affair, in which doctrines were the equivalent of scientific precepts, and sacred texts needed to coincide exactly with the natural sciences. The resulting crisis produced the confusions of our own day, in which biblical literalists labor to reconcile the words of Genesis with the existence of the dinosaurs, while atheists ridicule Scripture for its failure to resemble a science textbook.

To escape this pointless debate, Armstrong counsels atheists to recognize that theism isn’t a rival scientific theory, and that it is “no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth — or lack of it — only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action.” Believers, meanwhile, are urged to recover the wisdom of their forebears, who understood that “revealed truth was symbolic, that Scripture could not be interpreted literally” and that “revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past but was an ongoing, creative process that required human ingenuity.”

This is an eloquent case for the ancient roots of the liberal approach to faith, and my summary does not do justice to its subtleties. But it deserves to be heavily qualified. Armstrong concedes that the religious story she’s telling highlights only a particular trend within monotheistic faith. The casual reader, however, would be forgiven for thinking that the leading lights of pre-modern Christianity were essentially liberal Episcopalians avant la lettre.

In reality, these Christian sages were fiercely dogmatic by any modern standard. They were not fundamentalists, reading every line of Scripture literally, and they were, as Armstrong says, “inventive, fearless and confident in their interpretation of faith.” But their inventiveness was grounded in shared doctrines and constrained by shared assumptions. Their theology was reticent in its claims about the ultimate nature of God but very specific about how God had revealed himself on earth. It’s true that Augustine, for instance, did not interpret the early books of Genesis literally. But he certainly endorsed a literal reading of Jesus’ resurrection — and he wouldn’t have been much of a Christian theologian if he hadn’t.

Which is to say that it’s considerably more difficult than Armstrong allows to separate thought from action, teaching from conduct, and dogma from practice in religious history. The dogmas tend to sustain the practices, and vice versa. It’s possible to gain some sort of “knack” for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.

This explains why 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 dilettant-ism 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 — that the Jews really are God’s chosen people; that Christ really did rise from the dead; and that however much the author of the universe may surpass our understanding, we can live in hope that he loves the world enough to save it, and us, from the annihilating power of death.

Such literalism can be taken too far, and “The Case for God” argues, convincingly, that it needs to coexist with more mythic, mystic and philosophical forms of faith. Most people, though, are not mystics and philosophers, and they are hungry for myths that are not only resonant but true. Apophatic religion may be the most rigorous way to go in search of an elusive God. But for most believers, it will remain a poor substitute for the idea that God has come in search of us.

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Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The Times.
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beth said...

Make sure you send your comments to Ross Douthat, Jim. You make very valid points, especially about how the apophatic way of seeking God thrives on apparent contradictions.

I was annoyed with his saying that the Catholic faith endures because of the Flannery O'Connors rather than the Karen Armstrongs.

Jim and Nancy Forest said...

I'm a great fan of Flannery's. Do you know the collection of her letters, "The Habit of Being"?

Thanks for the suggestion re contacting Ross Douthat. I've just done so via his page in the NY Times.

beth said...

Yes, I'm a big fan of Flannery too. My freshman English teacher at Spring Hill College was Flannery's spiritual advisor, so we read Flannery's short stories all year.

It's not that I don't love Flannery, it's that I also appreciate Karen Armstrong's input. And Flannery and Karen aren't really in the same league, Flannery being a novelist and Karen being more of a journalist kind of writer. I was annoyed that Douthat made the distinction and exclusion: Catholicism endures because of Flannery, not Karen Armstrong. THat didn't seem valid to me.

Hey, maybe I should write to Douthat! :-)

Jim and Nancy Forest said...

How lucky you are to have read Flannery with someone who knew her so well!

Not having read any of Karen Armstrong's books,I'm not in a position to comment on her work, but I see a quote in the Wikipedia entry about her which makes me hesitate: "All the great traditions are saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences." While I agree there is a lot of common ground, that sort of comment is the kind that led Flannery to race for the door in order not to say something rude.

I have the impression of Karen Armstrong is an alienated ex-Catholic. Am I mistaken? On the other hand, I gather from the Douthat review that she is a God-haunted person and I welcome her new book and the questions she raises.

Do read Flannery's letters. Not only do they throw new light on her fiction but they are incredibly funny

Anonymous said...

I must use that quote of yours at some point or another. Wonderful retort.

beth said...

That's an interesting question about whether or not Karen Armstrong is still Catholic, Jim. I googled the question ("is Karen Armstrong a Catholic?") and was led to an interview she gave with Bill Moyers in March of 2002 where she says that she is no longer a practicing Catholic. She claims to still be a nun (!), though, in that she has never married and she spends her life in silence and solitude, writing and studying the 3 Abrahamic religions.

So I guess Douthat's remark was not as offbase as I originally took it.

I will look again into Flannery's letters. I'm always amazed, when I start exploring, at how very rich Catholicism is in just human-ness. Flannery captures that well for me.

Jim and Nancy Forest said...

When Nancy and I married, Nancy had to leave most of her library in the US -- it would have been too costly to ship it here and in any event there was a lot of overlap. But she couldn't bear to part with her copy of "The Habit of Being" even though I had it too. We still have both copies, one upstairs, one down. Both have been read more than once

AbbaMoses said...

Jim, Thanks for passing this along.
I enjoyed Ross Douthat's review, as I enjoy most of his writing. (As a NY Times reader, I find it a great relief that the Times has taken in a conservative columnist who can write and think, unlike his illustrious predecessor)
I'm glad that Douthat (unlike Armstrong, apparently) is aware that apophatic Christian faith has always flowered in an environment that takes dogma seriously. To use Andrew Louth's great phrasing, we have dogmatic statements because while God is beyond human understanding, he is not beyond human misunderstanding.
I also liked his point that "liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith". I sometimes have an image of a kite cavorting in the sky, thinking to itself, How much higher I could fly if it weren't for this string. But of course when the string breaks the kite plunges to the ground. This might be a good image for what's happened to the Episcopal Church, and can happen to any other body that snaps the string.

Jim and Nancy Forest said...

Here's a related blog entry from Fr John Bostwick, who teaches an "intro to theology" class and a course in spirituality at St. Norbert College in Ohio:

I just started Karen Armstrong's new "The Case For God". Armstrong is a distinguished scholar of religion and writes well. She does not identify as Christian, as far as I know, though she was raised Catholic and was a nun for several years. She wrote an angry and bitter book about that experience. Then many years later wrote a more completely autobiography, "A Spiral Staircase". In the second book she still reflects critically on her experience of convent life, but she does so with more perspective and with the rest of the story. This book on God counters some of the arguments of the aggressive atheists by pointing out that the "God" they attack has little to do with the God of traditional, historical Christianity. Armstrong's book will likely be controversial - she is not writing as a believer, although she seems to have come to a more appreciative stance toward God, but as an "objective" observer of religious and theological ideas. So far, so good.

One of my "things" in discussion with atheists is to try to learn what they mean by "God". Who is the God they don't believe in? Chances are, when they describe the god they reject, it is one I would also not recognize. And I am much more interested in what atheists DO believe in - that is, what can they affirm positively about life, the world, humanity, transcendence. If they are open to talking, this can make for very fascinating conversation and the realization that we are not so far apart. I know from experience that I have more in common with some non believers and atheists than I have with some Catholics or other Christians.

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beth said...

Andrew Sullivan is also reading the book and will be reviewing it soon.

(hope that's not too long of a link)

Sullivan includes a video of Karen Armstrong within his post.

Else M Tennessen said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Jim. I've often found with people who claim not to believe in God that it's not that they don't believe--they just don't want to accept the implications of believing in a supreme being. Believing in God may have to affect the rest of their lives, and they don't like that. They may even have to (gasp!) stop sinning. They believe, all right, but they would rather believe in themselves and do what they like, more.

Jim and Nancy Forest said...

Thanks, Else. No doubt you're right that some atheists prefer not to believe in God rather than to make some life-style changes in themselves that belief might involve, but in my own limited experience, that's rarely a factor. The atheists I happen to know best often outdo Christians in living highly moral lives. They're very aware of the world's ills and try to live in a way which they hope will make the world more livable and more compassionate. They notice a great many Christians seem not to be that concerned about the world's problems and they're not impressed.