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.What I find interesting about the book (and may actually drive me to read it) is this by Douthat:
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.”
... 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.Douthat goes on to scold Armstrong (saying "The casual reader, however, would be forgiven for thinking that the leading lights of premodern Christianity were essentially liberal Episcopalians avant la lettre."), and I think he's missing the point (he is a conservative Roman Catholic and thus rather....authoritarian by instinct). But the comments in the review I've quoted seem applicable to other threads going on, and can be also reached by the concept of mystery, which I may extend to ambiguity. Doxy has a post about mystery:
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.”
I am still trying to figure out for myself what *I* believe---why I feel this need to hold “truth” and “mystery” in tension with one another and let the baby splash in the bathwater without throwing either of them out.While I am definitely a rationalist, I also "believe" in mystery. The mystery of love, for example, and art. At some level, sure, those can be reduced to firing of neurons in the brain, but in how they are perceived or experienced, they are so much more than that. I would not tell anyone the "truth" of their own perception of love, any more than I would tolerate them reducing my love to some mere biological (f)act. (Which is one of the reasons I am so passionate on the marriage equality front). Religious belief is neither a justification nor an excuse to attack another's perception or being. And frankly, neither is non-belief.
Can't we all just get along?
(cross-posted at Street Prophets)