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Review: “The Case for God, What Religion Really Means” by Karen Armstrong

February 23, 2013

Don’t be fooled by the title; this is not some trite attempt to prove that God exists or that religion is a great thing. Instead, it’s a tremendous, sweeping yet detailed account of the changing conception of religion from the dawn of humanity to the present day. Along the way, Armstrong stresses several themes.

For millennia religion was not seen primarily as a series of propositions to which one was required to assent (“God exists”, etc). Instead, it was a commitment to a particular way of living. At its heart lay a sense of ineffable divinity – an ultimate transcendence that was beyond understanding, beyond words, beyond even such concepts as existence or omnipotence. This ultimate transcendence was called “God” in the monotheistic religions. Although beyond knowing, some degree of contact with divinity was possible through ritual, symbolism and a variety of meditative practices (not just straightforward meditation as in Buddhism, but also theological reflection, philosophy or even the constant practice of humility and generosity). Contact with the ineffable helped people rise above worldly suffering and adopt a more compassionate way of life; it enabled them to become human in a fuller, richer sense.

By around 15000 CE, however, this ancient conception of religion was starting to be overtaken by a new way of seeing things. An increased faith in the power of reason alone to solve all problems helped “literalise” religion. Slowly “belief” changed from a commitment to a way of living to a series of unproven statements to which one assented. Along the way the notion of God changed: he became knowable, describable – a being in the world. Such a notion would’ve been considered idolatrous by older religious figures such as Thomas Aquinas. It made God athing.

This new notion of religion, divorced as it was from communal practices which had previously been its life-blood, was vulnerable to attack. As a mere series of statements it could seem unconvincing or even ridiculous. This vulnerability was only increased by religion’s attempt to co-opt science as a means of making it more respectable. But as science became increasingly able to describe the natural world without any need for a god (conceived as a super-being that created and sustained the laws of nature)the attempt justification through “natural theology” seemed horribly flawed.

The older sense of an ineffable transcendence has never entirely gone away, however. Armstrong argues that it is a mark of the human condition and as such can emerge in some unlikely places – modern physics, for example. She ends by wondering if the naturalistic turn in religion hasn’t now run its course. Perhaps it is time to reincorporate unknowing into our approach to the divine.

This is the third of Armstrong’s books that I’ve read (“The History of God” and “The Battle for God” being the other two). I’d say it was comfortably the best of the three and also, perhaps, the most important.

One Comment
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