On Armstrong’s Case for God: Comments to my Brother

My brother, who is a Church of the Nazarene preacher, and I have occasionally exchanged emails on the topics of faith and reason.  We may eventually turn portions of our correspondence into a phenomenal bestseller.  We both read The Case for God by Karen Armstrong recently and below are my comments to him after my reading of the book.

Wesley,

Reading The Case for God reminded me of something I once told you when I was trying to come up with overlapping definitions of reason and evidence.  Digging around in our emails I finally found this:

A subset of reason exists in a realm skirting outside the fine-lined borders of evidence.  That subset contains art, literature, philosophies; useful concepts like love, freedom, equality, and beauty; even the creativity and imagination that drives scientific pursuit.  (Some people – our President, for example – attempt to position their faith  – an existential, doubt-imbued type of faith – in this realm, and I think they are sort of kidding themselves and trying to have it both ways.)

Karen Armstrong represents this type of thinking even more perfectly than Barack Obama.  Joining a church seems to have been at least partly a means to an end for Obama, a way to connect with his own black identity and cultivate a relationship with the people he was trying to help.  He was rather direct about this in Dreams from My Father.  Armstrong on the other hand seems to invest in these questions for their own sake, and I have no reason to suspect her intentions are anything other than sincere.

So, to be fair, I cringe slightly at my own “sort of kidding themselves” dismissive tone with respect to Armstrong.  Having passed through my own liberal Christian phase, I’ve been over a lot of this material before in some detail and on a personal level.  I read Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith at around the time that I was probably on the verge of concluding I could no longer be a Christian.  I saw a way for me to reconcile the traditions and symbols of Christianity with my own growing doubts about so many of its claims and managed to do so for a time.  No surprise then that Armstrong devotes considerable attention to Tillich.  But Tillich and other liberal theologians only delayed the inevitable for me before I finally came round to concluding the Christian (or religious) label was not really indicative of anything essential about who I am or what I believe.  I also remember how initially strange and even uncomfortable (but also liberating) that realization felt to me – like coming unmoored.  That entire experience shapes my gut reaction to liberal Christians, fairly or unfairly.  They seem to me like people who have simply defaulted into a faith and are willing to overlook an untenable position for the mere sake of being tethered to familiar, comforting traditions.

I guess my point here is that, while my rhetoric sounded brash, there was some there there beneath it all.  When I said liberals kid themselves – without impugning their motives – what I was really saying is that I would be kidding myself were I to attempt to call myself a Christian on the basis of the things liberals have thought and said about Christianity and religion.  While I admire the breadth and depth of her knowledge on the history of religion, the same more or less goes for Karen Armstrong.

Karen Armstrong says there is a way of knowing that the Greeks called mythos that is distinct and independent of what the Greeks called logos (reason).  One doesn’t believe in a myth in the sloppy way we use that word these days, but cares about it, practices it, lives it and finds one’s life enriched as a result.  For example, one might “believe” in a myth of spiritual oneness with the trees.  Absent any measurable evidence of a mystic cord connecting a person to trees, one might stand in a peaceful arboreal environment three hours a day, emptying one’s mind to become as an unknowing tree.  The experience might make for a peaceful, meditative existence rich with the sense of beauty, life, and oneness.  Mythos is life as art – making your own life into a symbolically rich work of art.  But we live in a science-saturated society such that even our religions are preoccupied with attempting to mix their mythos with logos and as a result end up making false idols even out of our monotheistic Gods.

I don’t mean to trivialize this with my example about trees.  Most religions are extraordinarily complex and truly beautiful in some sense.  I really get that.  I love art; I am fascinated by religions.  I haven’t failed to see the connection between the two.

But I just completely lose Armstrong when she says this of mythos and logos: “Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complimentary.”  I’m just going to completely set aside our contemporary, supposedly logos-perverted religions and see if this could have ever really been true.  Due to the mythos, say, of a demon-haunted world, when the ancients observed a child exhibiting epileptic symptoms, they applied the demon-haunted-world-mythos-based solution of exorcism.  There was no mythos/logos conflict here because there was no information available about epilepsy.  The practice of exorcism was religious because it fit with the prevailing mythos, and reasonable because no other course of action was known to them.  But if a child exhibiting epileptic symptoms were taken to an exorcist today, then I think you will agree, we would have a conflict of faith and science on our hands.  Note that the underlying mythos, the practice and the symptoms are all exactly the same in both of my examples.  In both cases there is a conflict of what is done and what needs to be done.  But also note that the ancients act reasonably based on the information available, while in the second example the apparently fanatical parents behave irrationally.  I understand the difference between mythos and logos.  But the way she dichotomizes the two concepts into strictly non-overlapping and complimentary magisteria is, I believe, something she and others conveniently import into these concepts.

Armstrong would probably say that the fanatical parents are an example of persons whose faith is cheapened by logos and mythos mixing, e.g., biblical literalism.  So let me address that.

Armstrong is not a relativist as concerns comparing religious beliefs and practices.  Some religious beliefs are shallow, even primitive, she says.  And she saves her harshest criticism for religious fundamentalists and their literalism.  One could almost read The Case for God as a debate with the New Atheists over the best way to go about marginalizing religious fundamentalists.  Just ignore them, she is saying.  Don’t challenge their beliefs or they will just get weirder.  She portrays religious fundamentalism as a very recently occurring break from the orthopraxis mainstream stretching back through all epochs of history including through the church fathers.  She both makes a fairly compelling case as far as it goes, but, in my opinion, also makes way too much of it.

Here is what I think we know: generally speaking, in the history of Christianity, many key people of influence have been more concerned with right practice than with right belief as concerns what it means to be a Christian (especially given the narrow definition of belief as mental assent to literal doctrinal articles).  It’s interesting to know that Augustine, for example, believed that biblical interpretation must respect the integrity of science and that allegorical interpretations were called for whenever necessary to “establish the reign of charity” in every part of scripture (pg 123).  Then again, Augustine introduced the arguably oppressive doctrine of original sin into Christianity and went with straightforward, literal interpretation in more than enough instances to put the likes of Karen Armstrong squarely on the road to perdition.  She doesn’t exactly paper this over and I genuinely think she makes a fair point that many like yourself might ponder especially with respect to some of the more abrasive, culture war-fodder articles of your faith.  You might be mindful that establishing an exegetical “reign of charity” with respect to a passage like Leviticus 20:13, for example, is apparently consistent with much of the Christian tradition.  But all told, I feel fairly certain that you and other contemporary Bible-believing Christians have much, much more in common with Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, etc. than does Karen Armstrong – beginning with how to read and interpret passages like, say, John 14:6 or Philippians 2:10-11.

Karen Armstrong conveniently caricatures fundamentalist Christians as being unsophisticated literalists.  This fits well with her narrative of theology becoming only recently muddied by rationalism.  But you and I both know that fundamentalists aren’t stuck with literal-only interpretations.  They are as slick as anyone at fancily interpreting verses that don’t fit with any cultural norms they find defensible, (eg. Jesus’ plain teaching on divorce and remarriage) and highlighting issues with little scriptural basis that they nonetheless feel are important (eg, prosperity gospel theology).  Painting them as unimaginative literalists means she doesn’t have to dig in and explain why despite a willingness to play at allegory and cultural context, there have consistently been some passages in the Bible that they – along with Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, etc, – have regarded as non-negotiable fundamentals of right belief.

Furthermore, it seems to me that Armstrong sets up a one-way street from mythos to logos in which mythic knowledge can be profoundly consequential to the entire polis via the real-life practices of those attempting to live the myth (most practical applications of mythic knowledge entail more than standing daily alone among trees) while knowledge grounded in logos can have no impact upon and nothing to say about the mythos due to allegedly non-overlapping magisteria.  Or maybe not.  I’m actually confused on this point.  Armstrong seems to desire that mythos-knowers respond to scientific advances and liberal mores rather than falling into rigid interpretations.  But, I wonder, on what basis should they necessarily bother to do so?  She may not like simple-minded fundamentalists, but given her standards of mythos/logos independence, what should prevent religious fundamentalist from elevating pseudoscientific thinking and out-group/in-group antipathy as integral components of the mythos that guides and comforts them?  Why would they be required to bring anything to an intact mythos – including things like sophisticated scriptural exegesis or considerations of continuity with the Christian tradition?

I find it fitting that The Case for God concludes with a discussion of French post-modern philosophy.  Armstrong says that religion requires hard work.  It turns out she doesn’t mean hard work in the sense of wearing out the knees of your pants.  She means hard work in the sense of a lifetime of scholarship.  She means one must understand, for example, that mere existence is a predicate that cannot and should not be attached to God.  Her God is unknown, unknowable, and, by definition, does not exist.  This is the God of post-modern philosophers and others of the intellectual elite.  They have enough stability and take enough simple pleasure from their lives and work to make an artistic hobby of embracing the Unknown.  That’s great for them.  But what about the poor, suffering schmucks who just want some fucking answers, not some goddam art and more questions?  Could they be gravitating to shallow, perverted mythos because they would like to know (know as in: “you can take that to the bank, my child”) what happens after death?  Would that the average Joe had the time and intellect to read through only the stack of books pictured on the cover of The Case for God he might find some consolation without resorting to sloppy ideas of a personal God tending to his prayers and eternal soul.  But Armstrong also needs him to read through the French post-modernists too – or at least her book – so he can get over this simpleton notion that to know means to literally know.

I said before that I think you and I have more in common with each other than either of us have with Armstrong.  What I mean by that is that I think we both read and interpret verses like John 14:6 or Philippians 2:10-11 in much the same way (though you believe them and I do not).  We both take them as expressing something essential (another word that would work as well is fundamental) about Christianity and what it means to be a Christian.  Unlike Armstrong, I grant that you are perfectly justified in drawing a line in the sand on the basis of these verses and saying, “On this side, the saved; on this other side (pained grimace), not so much” – even though that puts us on opposite sides of the line.  Maybe I would feel differently were I not perhaps reacting to the conservative holiness faith that I know best.  I know many Christians believe that John 14:6 or Philippians 2:10-11 are not expressions of Absolute Truth, that there are many legitimate paths to truth.  I welcome such determined tolerance.  But I suspect that determination owes more to the influence of secularism than it does to any thread that runs through the history of Christianity.

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One Response to On Armstrong’s Case for God: Comments to my Brother

  1. Danny says:

    I enjoyed reading your review. I’ve read Armstrong’s A History of God and based on that and your review, I think I’ll skip The Case For God for now.

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