Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Karen Armstrong, mystery, and getting along

From the NY Times,conservative columnist Ross Douthat reviews Karen Armstrong's new book The Case for God.
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.”
What I find interesting about the book (and may actually drive me to read it) is this by Douthat:
... 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.”
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:
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)

17 comments:

SimplySuzi said...

Wow! This is an excellent article. Thank you IT. I'm off to put the book on my "wish list".

klady said...

IT, leave it to you to write the most insightful things about religion. I love this essay of yours and will keep it for re-reading.


Thanks also for the tip on the new Karen Armstrong book - she's long one of my favorite writers - and for the link to the NY Times Book Review, which so oddly manages to both capture some of the best of Armstrong and, at the same time, make the case (for me, at least) against Roman Catholicism (flourishes like, "But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment").

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Very interesting indeed, dear IT! But largely, I would say, confined to the USA and the American anti Modern way of life...

Most over here have not this kind of supposed contradictions (although there was a debate Science contra Religion in the early 1950ies...).

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

To me the change, which Douthat attributes to Episcopalian Modernism, is less to do with Eastern theology, as about the re-discovery of Christianity's Jewish roots after 1945; the new perspective on Paul (so misunderstood by "NT" Wrong and others) and all that.

In short that the Hellenist compromise/distortion with it's pretence that Indo European Philosphy be science instead of their religion, is finally going away.

IT said...

Göran, as Monty Python afficionadoes would say, "it's not dead yet!"

Klady, thank you for the kind words.

IT said...

Also, Klady, I think that Armstrong is arguing for a "both/and" rather than Douthat who sees it as an "either/or".

And I think when he writes,
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 he's showing his snarky colors.

It's kind of like the Episcopal/Anglican attitude towards confession: All may, none must, some should. Douthat, an authoritarian who is uncomfortable with big tents, believes all must. He must be very happy with Pope Benedict who has no problem with a smaller, purer RC church.

I'd rather keep the Galileos, myself. And keep the trans-substiationists (like my wife) along side those of more....shall we say, symbolic bent?

Jake said...

Thanks for this, IT.

I ordered the book as soon as I saw the review a couple of days ago. Armstrong's work on The Great Transformation, Battle for God, and Islam have been very helpful to me in the past. I'm looking forward to her most recent book.

One of my latest "fun" pastimes is a chat room in which theists and atheists debate. I stumbled in there some months ago as I was struggling to get my head around the atheist world view. I've found it fascinating.

However, I've also found myself ill prepared to counter some of the more empirically based arguments. It is tough when personal experience is simply dismissed as too subjective to be considered valid evidence! I mean, when you take away experience, we don't have much left.

So, I'm hoping that Armstrong might be helpful in at least offering a few more nuanced approaches to those debates.

Not that "winning" the debate is the point of this new pastime; I usually just listen, in a desire to understand. But, it would be nice once in awhile to be taken seriously by the empiricists (or should I call them "objectivists"?)

IT said...

Ah, watch that objectivist stuff, Jake! That's a word fraught in so many ways, thanks to politics .... empiricist is probably safer. Yes, the personal experience justification is generally rejected. In legal circles, it's well known that testimony even by eye-witnesses can be quite in error. GIve me a DNA fingerprint any day.

Funny though, you seem to be just as fascinated by the atheists as I am by the faithful!

Interestingly, when I posted this on StreetProphets, several commenters there jumped on my remarks about mystery and that I prefer not to dissect the neuronal basis of love or belief. They like the prospect of knowing "how it works". It's funny that I, the scientist closest to knowing, in some regards, would prefer not. ;-)

Of course, that's not to say that it's not knowable. Then again, I drift back to the Victorians,

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for? All is silver-grey,
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!
I know both what I want and what might gain,
And yet how profitless to know, to sigh
"Had I been two, another and myself,
"Our head would have o'erlooked the world!" No doubt.

Arkansas Hillbilly said...

We started this book in our Theology Pub at home. So far it is a great read.

David said...

not as “something that people thought but something they did.”

Rather like Love itself. A verb, not a noun...

Paul M said...

I am looking forward to this book as well. I enjoy Karen Armstrong's books, even though I sometimes feel I don't quite have the prerequisites to understand all of it. There seems to be a theme in her recent work of finding a way that "we can all get along." Some of that is a rejection of the emphasis on doctrine, and a return to mystery and contemplation. I would welcome that. When religious types insist on having everything explained out to the last detail, you loose the sense of mystery and awe that one should feel toward the divine. I get more of that from science than from religion these days, which is completely backward. At least, the scientists are in touch with the level of their own ignorance. In matters of faith, where our ignorance is so much greater, we need to dial up the mystery a bit.

renzmqt said...

Wonderful contribution to the dialogue I've been having with friends. This post is being shared on Facebook as an important contribution to the discussion. Thanks.

The Werewolf Prophet said...

Shameless, off-topic, off-site blog entry pimping :
The Episcopal Church - 3; Schismatic Property Thieves - 0

6p0105353ebdf0970c said...

A couple of quick comments.

On the validity of personal (subjective) experience--read Ken Wilber on the four quadrants of knowledge and the validity of both interior (subjective) and exterior (objective) knowledge. A good starting point is his book A Brief History of Everything. Objective knowledge is the basis of science, and that is extremely important, because it is the proper way to deal with the reality of the external world. Those who reject spiritual knowledge because it is incompatible with objectivity implicitly believe that there is no other reality than that which can be known scientifically/objectively. This is actually a matter of faith for them but they do not realize or do not acknowledge that--they just see it as a given and do not comprehend that any alternative could also be valid. As Karen Armstrong shows, a good deal of our problem is that people of spiritual faith have bought into the same error ("science envy") without realizing it.

The other thought--which I primarily owe to Marcus Borg--is that we fail to understand the difference between believing in and believing that. Believing in is to put our faith and trust in God; believing that is to assent to certain statements about God (although this is admittedly confused by the fact that we use the phrase believing in both ways). This is what I think Armstrong is getting at where the reviewer states "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.'"

Bill Ghrist

Erika Baker said...

I'm with Göran, I am still completely bemused by this whole conversation, which simply is not an issue anywhere in Europe, or at least only among the lunatic fringe Christians and the most militant atheists.

I don't know a single Christian who sees any tension between religion and science.

IT said...

You are very fortunate, Erika. It's a monstrous problem here.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

We know, dear IT!