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.