Monday, November 2, 2009

A Case to be Made

We’ve come to expect too much of God. We demand proof, evidence, reasons to believe. We assume that our prayers are being heard, our actions supervised, our world directed by a powerful know it all. We’ve got it all wrong.

At least, Karen Armstrong thinks so. The God she presents in her book “The Case for God” may not be recognizable to many present day believers, but she’s got an immense amount of historical and theological research to back it up. The main claim is this: God is not a being at all. God is a symbol, a gesture towards an ultimate reality that we cannot comprehend, let alone describe. Religion therefore is not about belief, it is a practical discipline that aims to bring us closer to this ultimate reality by ethical action and provide meaning to our lives. We would be woefully amiss to think we can get there by passive belief. Quite the contrary; religion is hard work.

So how exactly did Judaism, Christianity and Islam (the three “sister religions” as Armstrong calls them) end up with the notion of an all-knowing, all-powerful, personalized God? To answer this question it is necessary to trace the idea of God back to pre-modern religions. Beginning with pastoral and Neolithic societies and continuing through the medieval period, the idea of an “ultimate”, “absolute” or “divine” reality was recognized by a vast number of religions under many different names: God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Much like music – something with immense power that could not be touched or seen – this ultimate reality could inspire such wonder and humility that it reduced a person to silence. In fact, Armstrong tells the story of Brahmin priests who deliberately sought out such silence. They would hold a competition in which each priest would try to give a definition of the divine, whereas his opponents would listen and then respond with their own definition. The winner was the priest for whom no one had a reply – each was speechless, in awe. The ultimate reality was present in this silence, in the realization that words are utterly inept at capturing the true nature of the divine.

While ancient religions may have worshipped other gods (ancient Greece for example had many), they distinguished between gods who were essentially immortal humans, and a greater sense of an ultimate reality. Ancient Israelites took one of these gods and made it (Yahweh) into their chief symbol of the ultimate reality. Even at this point, God still remained a symbol. Sacred texts were not to be taken literally – they pointed to a lesson, a moral, an interpretation beyond their words. The Babylonian Talmud in the 6th century affirmed, “What is Torah? It is the interpretation of Torah.” But Armstrong argues that monotheism did bring us closer to the modern Western conception of God – the worship of a human expression of the divine, rather than the absolute reality that it was supposed to point to.

The shift happened in the 17th century. At this time in the West, science was revolutionizing people’s lives and fundamentally changing their worldview. The scientific method was increasingly seen as the only reliable means of attaining truth, and people began to expect evidence, certainty, and logical proof. This scientific standard spilled over into the realm of religion, and created pressure to find a “proof” for God. Descartes and Newton provided such proof – for them the only way of explaining the magnificent order in the universe was the presence of a divine intelligence. In arguing for the real existence of God, they for the first time provided the church with scientific support for doctrine. It was not long before some began to regard the Bible as the literal word of God (rather than metaphor or interpretation) and God morphed into a type of caring “father figure.”

The false expectation of literal proof for God meant faith was vulnerable to any scientific argument claiming to disprove God. The existential problem that Armstrong sees in so much of the modern religious world is a direct result of this vulnerability. If God hinges on proof and people don’t get the proof they want, atheism is inevitable, at least for some. Therefore when Dawkins claims that “evolution is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip” he is right – but he is trampling on ground that she doesn’t particularly care to defend.

After chronicling the history leading to our modern religious thinking, which she calls simplistic and even infantile at times, Armstrong urges a return to the pre-modern notion of God and a previous understanding of religion. One where nothing can be said of God because he is no thing, and where religion isn’t about answering questions using logic or reason, but rather about dealing with aspects of life for which there are no easy answers. She repeatedly emphasizes the practical nature of religion, saying that there is a need to practice faith, rather than believe in particular doctrine. She says, “religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.”

I admire Armstrong for her refreshingly non-combative account of religion. I find her arguments for religion as a call to ethical action encouraging (and very compatible with recent scientific work into the evolutionary development of religion, which I’ll get to later). She also provides a compelling account of the modern notion of the Judeo-Christian God, and its contrast to the ancient, inexpressible versions of God as ultimate reality. However, I suspect many people, especially in the United States, would not agree with the notion of God that she is talking (or not talking) about. Belief does seem to be a fundamentally important element to religion for some people, and many do want a personal God. In the end, Armstrong certainly makes a case – but for her own God. Whether or not she can convince others is a matter yet to be determined. 

Man vs. God, a pair of essays in the Wall Street Journal by Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins

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