Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Case For God, Sort of

Sometimes the obvious is very comforting.   In Karen Armstrong’s book – a sweeping review of what humanity all over the world, through the ages (starting 30,000 BCE!) has thought about Divinity – the obvious is that, a) thinking about “God” is complex, and imprecise, and on-going, and, b) the questions we are asking about “God” have been asked before.

I can add a third thing that shouldn’t be surprising, namely, that people have come up with wildly different conclusions about the above topic.

The above “obvious” statements are comforting to one, who, like me struggles with the questions.  If all those people before us – some very, very bright people among them – had a hard time deciding what is “real,” and how you know that, then why shouldn’t I? 

The people who along the line in every religious and irreligious setting imagined that they HAD found The Truth usually ended up doing some pretty stupid and harmful things in the name of that Truth.  I am not comfortable with that type – the know-everything crowd.  I think they just haven’t thought long enough about what they believe.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Armstrong begins – and comes back to this frequently through the rest of the book – noting that pre-modern people understood that there were two ways of “knowing.”  “Logos” – reason – had to do with pragmatic, day to day, earthly living – external reality that they could touch and see, and even predict.  But they knew about “mythos” too – the realm of human internal experience, the spirit, where “symbol” and “metaphor” communicated what was real.  Mythos could give meaning to logos.

Religion, it goes without saying, deals more with the latter – myth – than the former – empirical data, reason.  

Armstrong also lays the foundation early on for a key idea for contemporary religion, namely, that from the start religious ideas – the myths of premodern days – were not concepts to be embraced intellectually, affirmed by reason to be “true,” but rather stories to be lived, frameworks by which life and death made some sense, or at least could be accepted. “Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart.”   This is why, in Armstrong’s view, “ritual” is so essential for religion.  (And this is why music is so essential to religion, marking “the limits of reason.”

Armstrong through the book will document how logos – reason, the material realm – was so stunningly successful that it came to discredit mythos – symbol, the spiritual world.   And that’s where we are today -- the default measure of what is true is the scientific measure.  Only reluctantly, and always hoping that science will back us up, do we venture to believe the spiritual, the symbolic, the metaphorical truths of our lives.  

Religious people encountered the Enlightenment (and the triumph of science) like everyone else, and they too were enchanted.  Armstrong will document how the early scientists like Newton were religious people, seeing God’s law in the laws of science, and that even the Puritan preachers were sure that science supported their faith.  Religion became rational, reasonable.  And “Belief” became intellectual acceptance of creedal statements.  Christian fundamentalists came to interpret the Bible with extreme literalism, insisting that their faith was literal, and reasonable.

Armstrong will take issue with the contemporary atheist movement (and some other opponents of Christianity through the centuries), saying that the “God” they deny is exclusively the God of the fundamentalists.  Harris, I recall, made no apologies saying that his primary target was fundamentalism of Christianity and Islam.  Armstrong’s point, though, is that fundamentalism is NOT what faith is – in fact fundamentalism is a relatively recent development in religion.

To support that, Armstrong will insist that within Judaism, for example, Scripture while considered sacred writing, was never considered a closed book.  The Rabbis were not trying to find the “fixed, unalterable, self-evident truth” of the Scripture, but instead were wrestling with it find the life within the text, applying it to contemporary life.  This is in stark contrast to the sort of “proof-texting” used by the Pat Robertsons of the world.

For Judaism, “Revelation did not mean that every word of scripture had to be accepted verbatim . . .[Jewish] interpretation was unconcerned about the original intention of the biblical author.”  Not even the revelation at Sinai (the Ten Commandments) was considered final.  It was therefore up to the reader, within in the faith community, to understand the meaning of a passage for today.

“Belief” – again, this is a key concept for Armstrong and for people like Marcus Borg – to the ancient philosophers meant “trust,” “loyalty,” “engagement,” and “commitment.”   NOT intellectual assent to a proposition.  This is how Judaism and Christianity always used it, until that is the scientific age.

One last observation for now: It is interesting to contrast Armstrong’s citations from the Qur’an to the pages of quotes Harris offered.  Hers are conciliatory, inclusive, tolerant, non-violent.  His were quite the opposite.  Her understanding of the term “infidel” – NOT those who deny Islam, but those who do not live out the spirit of Islam – is quite provocative.  Radical Islam, she would maintain,  perverts the intention of the first Muslims.