Karen Armstrong and the purpose of religious faith


I have mixed feelings about Karen Armstrong. In theory, I like a lot of what she has to say about God and religion, and in fact I have borrowed her concept of "freelance monotheism" and adopted it as my own. On the other hand, both times I tried to read one of her books, I ended up hating them. I find her interesting as a speaker; as an author, not so much.

For that reason, I have not read her latest book, The Case for God, but at the same time I was curious what Ross Douthats had to say about it in his New York Times book review , which appeared last Sunday.

Douthat writes

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.”
Douthat disputes this latter claim, arguing that early Christianity was actually quite dogmatic in the claims that it made about God's nature. I think that Douthat has a point in this criticism. It is true that fundamentalism is largely a modern phenomenon, a reaction to modernism and science--this is a point that Marcus Borg has made repeatedly. In particular, Biblical literalism as we know it today is largely a modern phenomenon. However, one should not confuse fundamentalism with orthodoxy. The insistence on the right to make absolute claims about theology and to impose that theology on others has a long and sorry tradition that goes way back to the days of the Nicene Creed and earlier. When Nicene Christians were imposing Trinitarian doctrine on the faith as a whole and suppressing dissenting views, they were claiming that something about God is quite knowable, quite particular and quite abstruse.

So on that score, I think that Douthat makes a valid point. However, it is when he moves beyond a factual crique of Armstrong's book and starts making theological arguments that his review falls flat. Douthat characterizes liberal religion as "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." This is utter nonsense. Like so many apologists for orthodoxy, Douthout characterizes religious dogmatism as essentially the only legitimate expression of faith. He claims that the "sturdy appeal of Western monotheism" lies not just in "myth and ritual and symbolism...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." In other words, according to Douthat, religion is only useful if it makes absolutist and fantastical assertions about events in the real world.

This is, of course, what militant atheists believe to be the essence of religion, and it lies at the heart of their critique. But if that is what religion is really all about, then the militant atheists have won the argument, because there is no way of reconciling such claims about the world with a modern and rational sensibility.

Douthat unfortunately justifies his position by using the old canard, the "most people" argument. "Most people", Douthat argues, "are hungry for myths that are not only resonant but true." Douthat misses the point here the "truth" of a myth does not lie in being a literal description of a historical event, as any student of myth will tell you. "Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens", as Dominic Crossan points out. More importantly, religion is not a matter of majority vote. Even if Douthat really has an accurate reading of what "most" people supposedly want, the point is irrelevant. Douthat no more speaks for everyone than Armstrong does. (The funny thing about religious dogmatism is the lack of unanimity among those dogmatists who proclaim the certainty of their own pet belief system. Dogmatism is good, we are told--but of course, my dogmatism is right and yours is wrong. How this serves as an argument for the absolute knowability of God is anyone's guess)

Contrary to Douthat, I think that the varieties of religious faith suggest that these claims about the real world that religions often make might just be secondary to the human needs that religion addresses--and that ultimately it is the myths and the meaning and the pointing of ourselves outward towards something greater and more ultimate that matter more than whether any of the claims that are made are literally true. Be that as it may, it isn't really germane to the discussion to posit what "most people" want out of religion. Religion is many things to many people, and one size doesn't fit all. The question is, what kind of religion works for those of us who seek a deeper meaning in the world and who see myths and traditions of a particular faith as a means of mediating the sacred, but who also reject a belief in irrational or fantastical claims? Such a religious faith is indeed possible, and Armstrong is one of the people who tries to address this possibility. People like Douthat just don't get a say in what everyone's religious faith is about.


Marmalade said...

From my studies of early Christianity, I favor Armstrong's view.

There was no single orthodoxy in early Christianity. Some early Christians were more literalist and some preferred allegory. But going by the fact that the Gnostic Christians were the earliest commenters on Christian texts and the earliest to create a New Testament and the some of the earliest prominent leaders in the church, I feel there beliefs are at least as valid if not more than supposedly "orthodox" view.

The heresiologists only began to come to power about a century after the earliest Christians and some version of their beliefs didn't become the majority view until centuries later with the Nicene Creed. Early Catholicism held a wide variety of beliefs, and those like Valentinus even tried to bridge the distance between those views. Also, there were a wide variety of Christianities and Catholicism wasn't even the most widespread Christian tradition in the first few centuries.

The interesting part is that fundamentalism is specifically a response to the Biblical scholarship that challenged orthodoxy. This is rather ironic when you consider how far away from orthodox beliefs is much of evangelical literalism. We now have the early Christian texts that later "orthodox" Christians tried to destroy and the apologists are desparately trying to dismiss any new understandings these texts provide.

Mystical Seeker said...

Marmalade, you are right, there's no question that there was diversity within Christianity from the very beginning. I think the real tragedy was the imposition of orthodoxy upon Christianity and the pruning of its early diversity into a single, "acceptable" theological dogma. I think you are also right that fundamentalism is really a product of modernism and has little to do with ancient orthodoxy.