The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong (LentBooks 2010 #12)

For readers coming from an evangelical background like me, Karen Armstrong’s title is almost certainly going to remind you of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith and The Case for Christ.  But echoes can be deceiving.  Armstrong does, indeed, build a case for belief in God, but it’s far from the kind of “let’s examine the evidence and see if it supports the Bible” approach of Strobel and other evangelical apologists — in fact, that kind of apologetics is one of the very things she is arguing against.  And the God that emerges from her sweeping examination of the religious impulse across millenia of human culture is not a God that most evangelicals will be comfortable claiming.

Armstrong traces the roots of religion as far back as possible in human history — back to cave paintings, anyway — to explore how the idea of “God” has developed.  There’s a lot here that will be familiar to readers of her other books, particularly the distinction, which Armstrong views as crucial, between “mythos” and “logos.”  Religious teachings and scriptures, Armstrong argues (here and elsewhere) were never intended to impart factual information about the world (that’s logos); they were designed to convey mythos — spiritual truth on a deeper level.  Science and religion occupy separate spheres — so that, to take the most obvious and hotly contested example, the Creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 do not convey factual information about how life on this planet came to be, but spiritual truth about how humans should view themselves and God.

Of course, a lot of us modern evangelicals would argue that the mythos is without value if it doesn’t also convey logos — in other words, if the Creation story is not literally true, then how can we believe the spiritual truths it teaches about a good God who created us in His image? Armstrong argues that this is where religion has lost out, big-time — by buying into the post-Enlightenment view that judges everything by the standards of scientific provability.  By demanding that mythos be subordinate to logos, she argues, religion (mainly Western Christianity, though she touches on other world religions here too) lost the high ground. This situation has led both to the rise of strident fundamentalism and also to the rise of the equally strident (and Armstrong points out, eerily similar) “new atheism” of such writers as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

The “God” for whom Armstrong is building a case is perhaps better seen, not as a “personal God,” but as a univeral sense of the sacred and holy.  Armstrong’s (obviously selective) history of religion emphasizes those strands in religion which have resisted defining and explaining God. She talks a lot about “apophatic theology,” which I had to look up to properly understand.  In a nutshell, in case you are off to look it up too, apophatic theology is talking about God in negatives — saying that we cannot define what God is, only what God is not.  This sounds remote and vague to a lot of us with our modernist evangelical backgrounds, but Armstrong argues this kind of thinking has a long and rich history within Christianity as well as within other religions.

She also talks about the shifting meaning of the word “belief,” arguing that while it once referred to commitment and involvement, we now use it (in our logos-centric, post-Enlightenment world) to mean intellectual assent to a series of possibly dubious propositions.  Thus “believing in Jesus” now means (to most Christians) believing certain facts about Jesus — like that He was born of a virgin, or that He was the Son of God, or that He rose from the dead. Whereas “believing in Jesus” may once have meant something more like committing yourself to the lifestyle of Jesus, or to being part of a community of his followers.

Community is important here too — Armstrong is no fan of individualized modern religion.  Throughout history, she says, people have explored their mythos, their questions about ultimate reality, corporately, through taking part in ritual, and she implies that we need a return to this.  We also need a return to a proper humility and openness in our thoughts and words about the Divine.  As she did in The Battle for God, Armstrong argues that certainty is the greatest enemy of true faith — whether it’s the certainty of an American TV preacher, the certainty of a radical Muslim suicide bomber, or the certainty of an atheist commentator who rails against a simplified, almost caricatured version of religious belief.  The Case for God calls us to reflect on a God whom, Armstrong might argue, we all need, but about whom we can really know very little.


8 thoughts on “The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong (LentBooks 2010 #12)

  1. Apophatic theology is a fascinating topic, one that I’d like to read more about. (I’ve read a tiny bit of Pseudo-Dionysus, but that’s it.) I think Pete Rollins is the main person writing about it these days. I remember hearing quite a lot about his book How (Not) to Speak of God a year or two ago, but I haven’t read it.

    And thanks for all these Lenten reading posts! I’m wanting to try to commit to one Christian/theological book each month this year (outside of what I read for my master’s studies), and I’ve gotten some great ideas from your posts.

  2. Thanks Teresa; glad you’ve enjoyed the posts and gotten some reading suggestions from them. Apophatic theology is clearly something I don’t know enough about, and maybe should check out more.

  3. This sounds like just the thing to compliment a reading of Marcus Borg’s Jesus to me, for whatever reason. This sounds quite interesting, but I do have a question- does she deal solely with the history of the Judeo-Christian conception of God, or does she cover any other approaches?

  4. Her approach starts off very broad, covering ancient folk religions, Hinduism, the Greek and Roman gods, as well as Judaism. But as the book goes on the focus narrows to the three Abrahamic religions and, in the last chapters, almost exclusively to Christianity with passing references to Islam and Judaism. I guess following the concept of God throughout history in all world religions might have been a broader scope than the book could handle.

  5. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: Jesus, The Case for God « The Literary Omnivore

  6. Thanks for reviewing this book. It has been on my “to read” list for a number of months and I’m glad I was able to read your review before reading Armstrong’s book.
    Nice blog you have. I will have to drop by more often.

  7. Karen Armstrong was snubbed very tartly on Norwegian TV when she eagerly agreed with the Sami, Marie Boine, about the importance of the search for truth. Boine told that a Russian film director had once said “If you see a person who is seeking the truth, follow him. But if he think he has found it, then run away as fast as you can!” Armstrong came up with a howler in her reply to a question about religious fundamentalists, saying that there were “secular fundamentalists”, naming Professor Dawkins as an example.
    Despite her partly-informed musings about the religious impulse in early mankind and how it developed, she is evidently unable to grasp the obvious fact that the idea of deities, a god etc. were part of the mythological culture which was unable in any other way to explain natural occurrences… like why it rains, what the sky is (‘heaven’), why droughts occur, why diseases kill people and so on ad. infinitum. The highly abstract (and literally ‘insubstantial’) ideas of God as a transcendent Unity (and countless variants on that theme) were surely brought about step by step as the more specific beliefs and explanations (enlivened idols, angry dream-spirits and the countless sacrifices, spells, rituals were more and more discredited due to the advance of human knowledge. God became less and less corporeal, an unmoved mover, a being as evidently invisible as ever nowhere to be found by any means whatever (especially prayer), until it ends up as a nothing, which is regarded as the cause and sustainer of everything.

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