The lost knack of knowing when to shut up

‘The Case for God: What Religion Really Means’
by Karen Armstrong, Bodley Head 2009, 376 pp

Visiting the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence half a dozen years ago my daughter, whose eight years of life had been spent in China, asked her mother who the guy hanging on the cross was. To the brief explanation that followed Tian Tian reacted with the genuine shock of one from whose eyes the scales have fallen, revealing the banality of the world: “God was a man!!!???” We took this at the time as intuitive, pre-teen feminism (Why not a woman, an Earth Mother figure?) Recently recalling the event, Tian Tian clarified that, on the contrary, her remark was ungendered: what boggled her mind was the thought that God could begin to resemble, let alone be, anything so idiotic as a human being. Before she could read more than a handful of English sentences, she had grasped an essential thread of Karen Armstrong’s theology; and, as we shall see, that almost certainly had much to do with growing up in China—and not just because of the relative dearth of Christian icons there.

At the turn of the century Armstrong wrote a book that should have won her a Nobel Peace Prize. The Battle for God (Harper Collins, 2000, 442 pp) argued in lucid, persuasive and accessible detail that, far from being a wretched attachment to pre-modern worldviews, religious fundamentalism is a modern disease, first infecting Christianity in the late 19th century, then Judaism in the early 20th and finally, within the last fifty years or so, Islam. In each of these traditions, Armstrong teaches, fundamentalism arose in response to two, main factors: firstly, the fear of annihilation; secondly, a growing confusion between the spiritual realm of mythos and the rational realm of logos, such that adherents began to read their own scriptures as manifesting not only spiritual and moral meaning but also ‘objective’ truth. In this way, fundamentalists came fundamentally to distort, indeed pervert, the religious traditions they set out to defend.

Armstrong’s new work describes this process in more detail as it unfolded across two millennia of Western Christianity (as distinct from the eastern, Orthodox tradition, which features occasionally here but gets much less space.) The title is somewhat misleading: one might suspect she is setting out to convert us to a particular doctrine. She does, certainly, want to defend the authentically religious life from the attacks of proselytising atheism; but what we get here is by no means a guide to what to ‘believe,’ much less a defence of Western religious establishments. Rather, we are treated to a history of Western thinking about religion, culminating in our arrival at the idea of God as a grandfatherly super-power overseeing human affairs. This idea is an easy target for the atheist but, Armstrong suggests, it is a modern departure from religious tradition. The West, she tells us, has rather lost the “knack” of religion; but she ends by offering a hope that postmodern rejection of ‘objectivity,’ combined with a dash of existentialism, may provide a means for recapturing that knack. This is in some ways plausible and appealing,
but I was left wondering whether religion can “really mean” the same thing now as it did in a world where it stood fast for everyone; and with raised but unanswered questions about the differentiation of religion and ethics, and about the respective role and nature of religious fellowship, authority and tradition (all of which bear interestingly upon China.) Still, one can’t really complain when already presented, even if this weren’t the intent, with such a rich tapestry of intellectual history, narrated with a clarity that has all the virtues and none of the vices of erudition; and, besides, it follows from Armstrong’s case that I will only find answers to those questions by going out and finding God—who, it turns out, doesn’t exactly ‘exist.’

Behaviour, not ‘belief’

Armstrong urges us to understand religion not as a set of ‘beliefs’ but as a set of attitudes and practices, a behaviour that provides release from the tyranny of egotism. It is “a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart.” Ritual, prayer, reverent contemplation and silence are its core skills; inner peace, humility and treating others decently its core products. Its insights transcend language, “the impotence of speech” which is powerless to reveal mystery. Music is an altogether better guide than language to the religious sensibility, for it “confronts us with a mode of knowledge that defies logical analysis and empirical proof.” The best that mere words can do is to generate the metaphors and symbols of mythos. Yet “A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time”[emphasis in original.] Thus “It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood . . . You will only discover their truth—or lack of it—if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action.” (p. 4)

On this account, the supposed clash between religion and science is an illusion, and a quite recent one at that. “Scientific rationality can tell us why we have cancer; it can even cure us of our disease. But it cannot assuage the terror, disappointment and sorrow that come with the diagnosis, nor can it help us to die well. That is not within its remit.” (305)Yet logos made such powerful advances during the Enlightenment that it came to dominate, to be regarded as the only valid way of understanding, and to overshadow mythos. People began to treat ‘the existence of God’ as if it stood in need of rational proof and empirical evidence. It was only a short step from there to the pseudo-science of creationism on the one hand and, on the other, to increasingly aggressive secularism that disparaged religion as irrational—even though throughout most of its history Christianity had never claimed or tried to be rational and had never had any problem with scientific thought, which operated on an entirely different plane.

There was “no belief in a single supreme being in the ancient world.” (21) “Until the early modern period [roughly, from the sixteenth century] no one read a cosmology as a literal account of the origins of existence.” (24) The New Testament, written by people who had never known Jesus of Nazareth, and long after his crucifixion, was “not primarily concerned with factual accuracy” but instead drew on the Jewish tradition of using scripture as “an intellectual bricolage” that called for constant, creative reinterpretation. (85) “Like the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament records a wide range of views rather than a single, orthodox teaching” (For example, in accounts of the nativity, “Matthew was anxious to show that Jesus was the christos of the gentiles as well as the Jews, so he has the Magi come from the Far East to worship at the crib. Luke, on the other hand, always stressed Jesus’ mission to the poor and marginalised, so in his gospel a group of shepherds are first to hear the ‘good news’ of his birth.” [89]) The early Christians “would have been quite shocked” by the thought that Jesus was literally divine: they saw him as “a perfectly ordinary human being who had been raised to special intimacy with God and had been given a divine mandate.” ‘Son of God’ was an honorific title that was not intended to make any divine claims, and no-one thought that “he was somehow impregnated by God in the womb of his mother and was a ‘son of god’ in the same way as Dionysius, who was the son of Zeus by an earthly woman.” (89)

Not such dark ages

Armstrong takes us on a difficult but, as long as you don’t read it at bedtime, a seldom dull journey through more than a millennium of pre-modern Christian theology. Highlights include Basil, Bishop of Caesarea (c. 330-379) formulating the doctrine of the Trinity (God as Father, Son and Holy Ghost). Armstrong insists that “nobody was required to ‘believe’ this as a divine fact.” Rather, “the whole point of the doctrine was to stop Christians thinking about God in rational terms. If you did that, you could only think about ‘God’ as a being, because that was all our minds were capable of . . . [but this is inherently reductive, since including God in a universe of things that ‘exist’ destroys any conception of divinity as encompassing everything] . . . When they meditated on the God that they had known as three and one, Christians would become aware that God bore no relation at all to any being in their experience.” (116)

Then comes Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, a “complex man” who “could be intolerant, misogynist and depressive.” (Not so complex, perhaps: sounds quite like the common run of men.) His gloominess was, Armstrong suggests, connected with having “witnessed the collapse of the western provinces of the Roman Empire, a calamity that was like a huge environmental disaster.” He it was who came up with the doctrine of Original Sin, “one of his less positive contributions to Western theology . . . Born in grief and fear [Armstrong has such a sure sense of how fear can drive thought] this doctrine has left Western Christians with a difficult legacy that linked sexuality indissolubly with sin and helped to alienate men and women from their humanity.” (122)

Denys the Areopagite (c. 500) is an Armstrong favourite. (“The fact that very few people today have even heard of him is, perhaps, a symptom of our current religious malaise.” [123]). Denys took those he taught, “lay folk, monks and clergy alike,” through a variety of intellectual contortions to examine what might intelligibly be said of God; but this served precisely to demonstrate the inadequacy of these contortions, since anything that can be said implies limits of some kind and therefore has to be refuted. This dialectical exercise brings us to “the absolute unknowability of what we call God,” the point being that “once we have rinsed our minds of inadequate ideas that block our understanding, we are somehow in the places where God is.” (126) This was the core of an ‘apophatic’ (‘speechless’) tradition that liberated the religious impulse from the cage of words, allowing it to find true expression in deeds.

Theologians in Western Europe were in due course influenced by “the intellectual heritage of their more sophisticated neighbours in the Greek Byzantine and Islamic worlds” and “began to think and pray in a more ‘rational’ way.” (129) Anselm of Laon (1033-1109) “wanted to make truths grasped intuitively intelligible, so that every part of his mind was involved in the contemplation of God” (130) and so generated a ‘proof’ of God’s existence, as, more famously, did Aquinas (1225-74). Yet these were intended not to counter scepticism but to “demonstrate the existence of a mystery.” (142) Both men remained firmly within the apophatic tradition, in which “theology should reduce both the speaker and his audience to silent awe.” (139) More indicative of things to come, however, was John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) who wanted “a theological language that was clear and distinct, based on certain and demonstrable grounds.” (147)

Not such enlightened modernity

Christian modernity began to take shape with the violent ‘reconquest’ of southern Spain (the starting point for The Battle for God.) Muslims and Jews, who had lived in relative harmony for many centuries, were ethnically cleansed, forcibly expelled or required to convert. The Spanish Inquisition, a thought police established in 1483, was “a modernizing institution devised by the monarchs [Ferdinand and Isabella] to create national unity” and “enforce ideological conformity as a basis for the new Spanish identity.”(160) This required the bricolage of mediaeval theology to be “transformed beyond all recognition into a rigid system of dogma.” (178) ‘Going one’s own way’ (the Greek airesis) became ‘heresy.’

Across Christendom, technological breakthroughs opened economic horizons beyond the relative stasis of agrarian society; disparate kingdoms began to congeal into nation states. The centralized state and growth of powerful institutions in commerce and government slowly but steadily “pushed religion into a separate, marginalized place in society” while also beginning to change the way that it was thought about and experienced. Devout Renaissance Humanists (Erasmus et al) “were largely responsible for creating the concept of the individual that would be central to the modern ethos. Only a person free of communal, social or dogmatic shibboleths could innovate freely.” (165). More independent thought created waves of Protestantism and Reformation across Europe. “Slowly, in tune with the new commercial and scientific spirit, a distinctively ‘modern’ notion of religious truth as logical, unmediated and objective was emerging” with one of its first manifestations being an “orgy of acrimonious doctrinal debate.” (170)

Debate was abetted by the development of printing and the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages. Protestants were determined “to focus on the precise, original and supposedly unchanging word of God in print,” treating scripture as revealed and unequivocal truth rather than bricolage. However, this was accompanied by a shift in understanding of the New Testament concepts of ‘faith’ and ‘belief.’ This is critical not least because of the importance that Martin Luther accorded the text “The just man lives by faith” (Romans 1, 17). This text, Luther said, made him feel “born again” (167), and this has since become the signature tune of ‘born again Christianity.’

Armstrong tells us that in their Greek original (the noun pistis and verb pisteuo) and early Latin translations (fides, credo) the ideas of faith and belief turned on “trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment” and “giving one’s heart” (90). The rendering of credo as ‘believe’ in the English of the 1611 King James Bible preserved these connotations for early readers of that translation, for the Middle English bileven (a near relative of the German belieben ‘to love’) had meant “to prize, to value, to hold dear.” But “during the late seventeenth century, as our concept of knowledge became more theoretical, the word ‘belief’ started to be used to describe intellectual assent to a hypothetical—and often dubious—proposition.” (91) Faith increasingly came to be understood as dogged attachment to doctrine rather than open-hearted commitment. Thus (my example, not Armstrong’s) when Jesus rebukes his disciples for their lack of faith and tells them that faith can ‘move mountains’ we can understand him as talking about active engagement and effort in a way that is not far removed from the Chinese story of yugong yishan—a man who literally moved a mountain through perseverance that inspired others to join him. This is a long way from the kind of televangelical appeal to faith that one often hears today, where faith and belief are presented as a kind of psychic energy that can miraculously produce rabbits out of hats.

Incidentally, on prayer: When Armstrong says, of cancer, that science “cannot assuage the terror, disappointment and sorrow that come with the diagnosis” I wonder if she wasn’t thinking of C. S. Lewis, whose 1961 book A Grief Observed was a moving meditation on his wife’s death from cancer. A 1993 Richard Attenborough film version of this story, Shadowlands, has Lewis (Antony Hopkins) at one point leaving his dying wife’s bedside to pray. She asks if he thinks it will make any difference; he answers that “It won’t make any difference to God, but it will make a difference to me.” This, I think, captures rather well a different sense of the efficacy of prayer.

It was the Enlightenment, Armstrong tells us, that reconstructed God as a Being who would hear prayer and reward the faithful with miracles. The rationalist spirit, epitomized in the Cartesian quest for certainty, demanded logical proofs; scientific enquiry demanded empirical evidence, and extraordinary breakthroughs in science and technology throughout the 18th and 19th centuries seemed to show that reason and science could explain everything. Theology followed these trends, on the one hand generating proofs for God’s existence, on the other encouraging the Bible to be read as a historical narrative. These efforts to de-mystify Christianity—when mystery had long been one of its main points—generated the new idea of a personalised God “conceived as powerful Creator, First Cause, supernatural personality realistically understood and rationally demonstrable” (266). Many Protestants retreated into a literalism that no unEnlightened Dark Ager would have embraced—a literalism that was especially strong in the “rough, democratic Christianity of the [American] frontiers” where people “wanted a plain-speaking religion with no abstruse theological flights of fancy” and insisted on their own, common-sense ability to interpret scripture. (230-2) Catholics meanwhile developed catechisms that would have Denys, Anselm and Aquinas “turning in their graves” (275) yet which could easily be demolished by primary school sceptics. (‘If God made the world, who made God?; if God is both good and omnipotent why does he allow his creatures to suffer?’ etc.)

This personalised God was inherently vulnerable to human rejection. Ivan Fyodorovitch in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was angry at the way He managed the world and rejected Him on moral grounds whether He ‘existed’ or not. (Armstrong also reports Wittgenstein as saying “If I thought of God as another being outside myself only infinitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him.” 267) More generally, treating belief in God as logically equivalent to belief in the Loch Ness Monster (an analogy made by Stewart Sutherland in Atheism and The Rejection of God, 1977) led many more people into reasonable doubt. Armstrong quotes the late Victorian poets, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy, to show how widespread was the experience of grief at the presumed ‘death of God’ and the bare, wintry emptiness that was left behind. Others were more sanguine in their apostasy, embracing a new ‘humanism’ that saw all religious feeling as superstition, an obstacle to the scientific worldview and the final triumph of reason. Belligerent secularists such as Karl Vogt and Ernst Haeckel promoted “a new myth that saw religion and science as locked in eternal and inevitable conflict. The champions of science constructed a revisionist history of the relations between the two, floridly told, that cast the heroes of ‘progress’ – Bruno, Galileo, Luther – as the hapless victims of evil cardinals and fanatical puritans.” (242)

The case against God

Today’s heirs to the tradition of belligerent atheism are “secular fundamentalists” (Armstrong’s phrase) such as Richard Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker, 1986; The God Delusion, 2006), Sam Harris (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, 2004) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007.) I had not thought such attitudes much worth bothering about until reading a short opinion piece on the website of The Guardian, bastion of British liberalism, by a churchwoman complaining about a British Humanist Association campaign against religious education in ‘faith schools.’ The piece itself was anodyne enough, merely arguing that parents should be allowed to school their children in a particular faith if they so choose. Strikingly, however, just short of a thousand people posted responses to it. The great majority of those I read were hostile to the original commentator; most were frankly intolerant, and many were pettily spiteful. I had not realized that British liberalism is so perilously perched upon a pile of loose sand. If this is the foundation for establishing a ‘multicultural’ society, then God help us all.

Armstrong wants to show that proselytizing atheists, angry at all the trouble religion has apparently caused in the world, are not “theologically literate” and have no proper understanding of what they are attacking. It is easy to agree with that, yet hard to see what purchase the point has, since it follows from Armstrong’s own case that many practicing ‘believers’ don’t understand what they are defending either.

I think there is a simpler proof that proselytizing atheism is intellectually vacuous. Showing that God is a mere figment of the benighted human imagination could only ever amount to showing how stupid humans are, and thus that human stupidity is really the prime cause of all the trouble supposedly ‘caused by religion.’ But if we’re that stupid we’re unlikely ever to be put right by some clever book, so the authors of such tracts might just as well just shut up. (Not that they are ever likely to: if the ICT ‘revolution’ and development of the blogosphere has demonstrated anything, it is that many of us humans are inveterately fond of the sound of our own voices.)

Moreover, as Armstrong points out, the secularist, scientific worldview has genrated some less than happy products. World War I “revealed the self-destructive nihilism that, despite its colossal achievements, lurked at the heart of modern Western civilisation . . . fought as it was for no adequate social, ideological or humanitarian cause.” (252-3) It would be eccentric to regard that conflict as religious. (Armstrong suggests that it arose, rather, from making an idol of the nation.) The rise of the European nation-state, nationalism, modern European imperialism and its pseudo-scientific racism, fascism, the Cold War and its long aftermath . . . religious hierarchies may have colluded with these processes and events but religion can hardly be said to have caused them.

However, Armstrong’s more specific claim is that evangelizing secularism is not just wrong-headed, it is also harmful, a powerful contributor to modern, reactionary fundamentalism. She takes us again through the establishment in the United States in1920 of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, and through a famous 1925 trial (of one John Scopes) where the newly founded American Civil Liberties Union publicly trounced the Association in an argument over Darwinism. But despite the triumphant jeering of secular journalists such as H. L. Mencken, this was a distinctly Pyrrhic victory:

After the Scopes Trial, the fundamentalists went quiet and seemed suitably vanquished. But they had not gone away. They had simply withdrawn defensively . . . and created an enclave of Godliness in a world that seemed hostile to religion, forming their own churches, broadcasting stations, publishing houses, schools, universities and colleges. In the late 1970s when this countercultural society had gained sufficient strength and confidence, the fundamentalists would return to public life . . .

During their time in the political wilderness, the fundamentalists became more radical, nursing a deep grievance against mainstream American culture. Subsequent history would show that when a fundamentalist movement is attacked, it almost invariably becomes more aggressive, bitter and excessive. Rooted as fundamentalism is in a fear of annihilation, its adherents see any such offensive as proof that the secular or liberal world is indeed bent on the elimination of religion. Jewish and Muslim movements would also conform to this pattern. Before Scopes, fundamentalists tended to be on the left of the political spectrum, willing to work with socialists and liberals in the disadvantaged areas of the rapidly industrialising cities. After Scopes, they swung to the far right, where they have remained. (263)

It is against this background that the mood of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and those intolerant Guardian-reading Britons should be measured. The War on Terror has created ample scope for making religion and culture the scapegoats for political conflict, but assaults on religion are unlikely to do anything other than make the politics more intractable. Harris, for example, reportedly goes so far as to claim that “Most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith.” (293) Armstrong, in what must surely be calculated understatement, describes this remark as “biased,” going on to point out that “contemptuous dismissal of Islam is a gift to Muslim extremists, who can use it to argue that the West is indeed intent on a new crusade.” (295) My guess is that her scrupulous avoidance of emotive language here is intended to ensure that Harris is hoisted on his own petard. Fair enough; but such delicacy and tact will have an uphill struggle to displace histrionics.

For the plain and difficult fact is that the West likes controversy. The merely worthy is considered dull; newspaper columnists worry more about being interesting than being fair; publishers relish provocative books and willingly reproduce all manner of noxious sentiment in the name of free speech (and, of course, a healthy profit margin). Ever since the Enlightenment rift in Christendom, epitomised in the venomous and scatological correspondence between Martin Luther and Thomas More, Western social reasoning has proceeded through contention, which has steadily suffused and shaped our political, judicial and intellectual institutions and practices. The cut and thrust of reactive debate has, to be sure, honed ideas and brought extraordinary achievements in many fields; but intolerance and polarisation are the all too apparent corollary of these adversarial habits, the weakness that lies on the other side of strength. I can understand the thought that authentic religious sensibility might offer a countervailing spirit of compromise and conciliation—and, in practice, churches generally do regard this as an important part of their terrain—but it is hard to see how this can be advanced by theology qua rational process.

Postmodernity to the rescue

If religion has suffered from a phoney clash with science, Armstrong takes comfort from the fact that the power of science to ‘explain’ everything, or even to deliver objective certainty, was rather short lived.

Early in the 20th century, Newtonian physics was undone by relativity and quantum mechanics, while Euclidian geometry was overridden by the ‘discovery’ of curved space. Even more alarmingly, Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminacy showed that “it was impossible for scientists to achieve an objective result [in nuclear physics] because the act of observation itself affected their understanding of the object of their investigation.” (255) Gödel’s theorem showed that all logical systems must contain non-verifiable propositions. Philosophers of science (Popper, Kuhn, Polyani) came to deny that scientific enquiry was all about verifiable certainty but depended instead on “unproven ideas which worked practically even if they had not been demonstrated empirically;” on “bold, imaginative guesses that could never be perfectly verified and were no more reliable than any other ‘belief’;” (257) on “imaginative and unpredictable flights into the unknown,” on knowledge and paradigms that are “tacit rather than objectively and self-consciously acquired.” (273) Far from being demonstrable, advanced mathematical models of the universe such as ‘string theory’ cannot, according to that theory’s own adherents, be either verified or falsified.

In sum, even science proceeds by a kind of ‘faith,’ underlining the extent to which “unknowing is an ineradicable part of our experience.” (272) Physicist Percy Bridgman is quoted as saying “We have reached the limit of the great pioneers of science, the vision, namely, that we live in a sympathetic world in that it is comprehensible to our minds.” (256) For all its accomplishments, logos ultimately comes up against mystery that lies beyond.

The humanities and social sciences have meanwhile embraced ‘postmodern’ thinking which “is heir to Hume and Kant in its assumption that what we call reality is constructed by the mind and that all human understanding is therefore interpretation rather than the acquisition of accurate, objective information. From this it follows that no single vision can be sovereign, that our knowledge is relative, subjective and fallible rather than certain and absolute, and that truth is inherently ambiguous.” (297)

This leads Armstrong to hope that the secular age may prove to be transient, leading back to an apophatic theology that is content to accept the limits to human knowledge and understanding and to use religion as a way of living within those limits. For example, she says of Jacques Derrida that “His theory of deconstruction, which denies the possibility of finding a single, secure meaning in any text, is positively rabbinical.” (298) Gianni Vattimo, evidently another Armstrong favourite, takes up the thought that religion was always an essentially interpretative discourse which “traditionally proceeded by deconstructing its ancient texts, so that from the start it had the potential to liberate itself from metaphysical orthodoxy.” Vattimo intriguingly encourages “‘weak thought’ to counter the aggressively triumphalist certainty that characterises a good deal of modern religion and atheism” and, equally intriguingly, goes on to argue that “the ideal society should be based on charity rather than truth.” (299-300) Armstong’s resistance of the temptation to crucify Harris for his gross and grossly uneducated Islamophobia is, I guess, an instance of ‘weak thought’ in action. Or we could just call it tolerance.

All of this comes with a distinctively existentialist attitude: roughly, that we are ‘thrown’ into a world without ordained purpose, and must therefore create meaning for ourselves. (Armstrong often notes the debt to Heidegger, coiner of the ‘existential problem’ of ‘thrown-ness,’ owed by her preferred captains of theology—Paul Tillich, Vattimo, John D. Caputo—and even Sartre gets a mention as pointing out how the 20th century left “a God shaped hole in the human consciousness, where the sacred had always been.” [275]) The existentialist attitude is most succinctly expressed in the claim that: “We are not forced by sense data to adopt a particular world-view so we have a choice in what we affirm – as well as an immense responsibility[my emphasis].” (297)

But in what sense do we have a “choice” of worldview? Like shoppers in some supermarket of ideas, free to pick and choose, mix and match, much the way we do with itunes? Nothing so trivial or arbitrary, surely. For it is not the principle of consumer choice but the immense responsibility—which I take to mean primarily a responsibility to others, to Creation, the planet, something beyond ourselves at any rate—that seems to drive the thought. But doesn’t everything hang, then, on whether or not we feel that immense responsibility? And what if we happen not to?

Letting go of Jesus

Interestingly, Armstrong has no time for (or, at least, devotes no space to) the redemptive claims of Christianity—the idea that Jesus died to ‘save’ us from the hellish consequences of our (for the most part highly unoriginal) sins, and can offer eternal after-life. This is a morally impeccable position: the televangelists’ offer of eternal life, like the claim that prayer ‘works,’ seems a rather cheap hook if understood in anything like a literal way: an invitation to align ourselves with the greatest Power around, and thus more an appeal to self-interest than to immense responsibility. Yet if we subtract the hooks of miraculous power and an after-life from Christianity’s offerings, it begins to seem a less potent means of influencing the conduct, by teaching “capacities of mind and heart,” of those of us who do not in ourselves feel a duty of care towards our neighbours.

It also follows from much of what Armstrong says that the cult of Jesus is itself idolatrous: he wasn’t Divine, his mum was not a Virgin; they’ve effectively been turned into golden calves. Jews and Muslims, who have always seen Jesus as a prophet, a teacher, but certainly not a God, seem on a surer path; and, on this account, anyone seeking a main road to faith today might on the face of it do better to direct themselves to the nearest mosque. (Islam, after all, of all the monotheistic religions, has perhaps the clearest commitment to social justice, the responsibility to others. And it is, beyond question, the West’s political, economic and military might, not its superior theology, that accounts for the wide spread of Christianity; starting with the epiphany of Paul, who was perhaps a more important person than Jesus in the history of the faith, nudging it towards universality along the arteries of the Roman Empire.)

Yet Armstrong is concerned not exclusively with Christianity, but with “what religion really means” more broadly. If, as she suggests, there is nothing ontological in authentic religious belief—no claim about what ‘exists’ independently of ourselves and what does not; nothing supernatural—it seems fair to ask whether religion does not amount just to morality plus incense and ritual. In what way do these ‘add value’ to ethics?

Armstrong advances one answer in the context of the ‘scientific’ claim that altruism, kindness and cooperation are based in evolutionary necessity. “Many theologians would have no difficulty with this point of view,” she tells us. For:

“It is surely characteristic of our humanity to take something basic and instinctual and transform it in such a way that it transcends the purely pragmatic. Cooking, for example, probably began as a useful survival skill, but we have gone on to develop haute cuisine. We acquired the ability to run and jump in order to get away from predators, and now we have ballet and athletics. We cultivated language as a useful means of communication and have created poetry. The religious traditions have done something similar with altruism.” (294)

Aesthetic elaboration is not a trivial point, if one recalls Armstrong’s claims about the spirituality of music, as well as the part that religion for so long played such in artistic endeavour of all kinds and in virtually all places. It’s also worth pausing to consider how many not-particularly-religious Westerners choose church wedding and funeral ceremonies. There is, for many—most, I would guess—something about these established rituals that has more grandeur and solemnity than any civil ceremony, even though all sorts of ‘humanist’ arrangements are being tried. Some church coupling is doubtless vulgar, to do with status and a nice backdrop for photographs, but the gravitational pull of ritual clearly remains strong. In an increasingly informal world, we feel a need for grandeur and solemnity to mark the major events of our minor lives, especially that most significant event, death.

Yet it is also the case that the palate can tire of haute cuisine and yearn for plain bread and cheese; surely we need, at least in part, to understand the Puritan impulse in this light.

With respect to altruism, more needs to be said to show how a religious framework enriches the raw milk of human kindness; but, of course, this brings us back to Armstrong’s central claim that more cannot usefully or meaningfully be said to illuminate the spiritual mysteries integrated with ethics in a religious perspective. Words simply will not do. Yet even if we accept this (and I think I do), it still feels legitimate to ask whether ‘organised’ or ‘actually existing’ religion has a monopoly—with its structures or its bricolage of mythos—of spirituality. Put another way: how seriously do we want to take the refrain, which became common in the West during the last decades of the 20th century (and which often sounds suspiciously like a mix of complacency and narcissism): “I’m not religious but I am spiritual.”

A grammatical God

When Armstrong says that “what we call reality is constructed by the mind” it is, surely, language that provides the interpretive membrane for ‘sense data,’ enabling us to see children playing in the garden rather than just an inverted flickering on the retina; and language, as Wittgenstein showed, is public rather than private or in any sense a ‘mental’ event. (When, to demonstrate this, he tells us to try saying ‘table’ while meaning ‘chair,’ the absurdity of trying to invest meaning through such private mental effort is interestingly reminiscent of evangelical efforts to invest prayer with psychic force.) Might it not be that a propensity for mythos is written into our language, which in turn rewrites it into us, as a kind of grammar of being?

It does, at least, seem to me that when we run out of other words, we can talk of ‘God’ meaningfully, indeed richly, without necessarily being committed to the ‘existence’ of God. Matthew Arnold, who argued that the Bible should be read as literature—which is not all that far from reading it as mythos—wrote in 1883 that “The word ‘God’ is used in most cases as by no means a term of science or exact knowledge, but a term of poetry and eloquence, a term thrown out, so to speak, as a not fully grasped object of the speaker’s consciousness.” This does seem true of some expressions that are quite commonly “thrown out” in English: for example, “God only knows” and “God help us” serve well to mark the limits of human knowledge and ability. “There, but for the grace of God, go I” combines the thought that personal good fortune is no more than a happy accident with implicit recognition of universal fellowship. There is no error of logic or grammar in saying these things without metaphysical commitments, without being able to articulate a coherent theology or without ‘believing in God.’ The same is true even of King Lear’s grandiose complaint that “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods, they kill us for their sport.” Perhaps Shakespeare intended us to see Lear as a believer in pagan Gods; but this can still be read as telling us nothing about metaphysics, or even about Lear’s beliefs, but something about what life is like.

Similarly, awe, wonder, mystery, even reverence, are available to at least some extent both as words and as experiences to people who do not espouse a particular faith: and not only to physicists who wrap their heads around the indescribability of the universe—‘dark matter,’ ‘big bang,’ ‘black holes,’ etc are, Armstrong notes, essentially metaphors and, as such, approach mythos —but also to ordinary folk who gaze at the stars and think how small and fleeting we are in this timeless immensity. Interesting how, far from promoting angst, this often stills the restlessness of thought and bring us peace, for a while at least. Is this a ‘religious’ experience? I am inclined to think that on Armstrong’s account it very nearly is; certainly a spiritual one, anyway.

Practice makes perfect

What if we substitute the word ‘Good’ for ‘God?’ This takes us back to Socrates (469-399 BCE), who observed the rituals due to the pantheon of Greek Gods, but saw The Good as the immense responsibility, the all-encompassing imperative. To do wrong was the greatest harm and misfortune that could befall a person, a greater calamity than death itself, whereas “Nothing can harm a good man, either in life or after death.” (Plato, Defense/Apology, 41d) This attitude is echoed in some Christian teaching (eg Thomas à Kempis: “It were better to avoid sin than escape death.” On the Imitation of Christ, 23, c.1418); and it feels to me to be not far off what is left of Christianity once Armstrong is done with it.

I doubt that this would trouble her, since she locates Socrates within the tradition of trying to prise open the mind to receive the inexpressible:

“As far as we can tell from Plato’s dialogues, Socrates seems to have been reaching toward a transcendent notion of absolute virtue that could never be adequately conceived or expressed but that could be intuited by such spiritual disciplines as meditation . . . . [a kind of meditation which] was nothing like yoga but took the form of a conversation with oneself – conducted either in solitude or together with others – that pushed thought to the very limit.” (66)

The point of the dialogues, she says, was not to establish truth or correct opinion ( orthe doxa) but constantly to challenge it: “People must interrogate their most fundamental prejudices or they would live superficial, expedient lives.” As such, the Socratic dialectic is not the adversarial ping-pong of modern debate, but a kind of spiritual rinsing—comparable to the later rinsing exercises of Denys the Areopagite—that “led participants to a direct appreciation of the transcendent otherness that lay beyond the reach of words.” Thus, “The kind of wisdom that Socrates offered was not gained by acquiring items of knowledge but by learning to be in a different way.” (67) The Good can only be grasped by doing.

A few decades before Socrates, facing a death sentence for corrupting the morals of Athenian youth with his doctrines, told his accusers that it is better to die than to do wrong, Confucius (551-479 BCE) was telling disciples on the other side of the world that “The scholar and the man of virtue will not seek to live at the expense of injuring their virtue. They will even sacrifice their lives to preserve their virtue complete.” (Analects, 15, MIT translation.) This striking congruence in the attitudes of foundational Eastern and Western sages is equally reflected in formulations of the ‘Golden Rule’ of reciprocity. Confucius’ maxim “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others” (Analects, 15) was exactly mirrored, literally inverted, five centuries later in Jesus’ New Testament injunction to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew, 7:12)

Confucius appears only fleetingly in The Case for God, but each time he does so it is to receive a plaudit. In an early chapter, entitled Homo Religiosus, he is identified as “one of the first people to make it crystal clear that holiness was inseparable from altruism . . . He preferred not to speak about the divine, because it lay beyond the competence of language, and theological chatter was a distraction from the real business of religion . . . There were no abstruse metaphysics; everything always came back to the importance of treating others with absolute respect.” (33) Much later, we are reminded of the Confucian emphasis on constant striving and practice, “all day and every day,” such that “Holiness was not ‘supernatural’ . . . but a carefully crafted attitude that . . . refined humanity and elevated it to a ‘godlike’ (shen) plane.” (314) Only practice could make perfect.

China did have its own cosmology, which presented ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ as indivisibly complementary, and observance of ceremonial rites was extremely important. It may be that this cosmological unity—which did not distinguish between what should be rendered unto Caesar and what was due to God—itself encouraged a practical emphasis on “the real business of religion” as being the correct (and distinctly hierarchical) ordering of human affairs, infusing ritual into daily life and social relationships. Westerners have long tended to take this earthly emphasis as evidence that the Chinese are not really religious, and have often characterised Confucianism as an ‘ideology’ not a ‘religion.’ Yet it seems to follow from Armstrong’s case that Confucius kept mythos in its proper place, and the very practicality of the Confucian orientation marks it out as authentically religious. Whatever one thinks of the ‘actually existing’ consequences in China (where Confucianism has long been blended with many other schools and traditions), that structured practicality has endured. Heaven remains as vague as Arnold’s grammatical God; so it is hardly surprising that, even in so hallowed a setting as Santa Maria del Fiore, a child raised in China should be nonplussed by the idea of an anthropomorphic God.

Living tradition

Confucius, significantly, did not see himself as a prophet or intellectual author of a new outlook, but as expressing and transmitting mores and values already embedded in China’s (in his time, already long) history. In some ways this gives Confucianism, as it has been practiced, an inherently conservative cast, reverent towards tradition itself (although the inflexibility and ‘changelessness’ of this cast is often overstated in Western imaginations). At the same time Confucianism’s rootedness in the lived and constructed history of a people, shared also by Judaism, rather differentiates these traditions from Christianity: China was ‘always’ Confucian, the Jews were ‘always’ Jews, but no part of Christendom was always Christian. Nevertheless, even in places where Christmas trees, Easter bunnies and maypoles still crop up as reminders of earlier rites, the weight of Christian tradition is considerable and religion is still, surely, essentially collective.

Morality can in a sense be a largely private effort, as Iris Murdoch showed in her (distinctly Platonic) The Sovereignty of Good (1970; brilliantly commemorated in this short essay by Mary Midgely.) Murdoch’s voice often sounds like Armstrong’s, and similar too is her vision of life’s central struggle as being to transcend egotism: to escape the anxiety for and brooding on the self, the absorption in fantasy to which we are constantly prone. Goodness for Murdoch has much less to do with grand principles and defining moments than with homely, daily efforts to turn our attention from ourselves to others.

Whilst this kind of private effort is doubtless equally characteristic of the religious life, religion surely adds not only incense but also fellowship, membership of a community united by practice of ritual and, in some sense, by creed. Isn’t the expression of communality in fact an important, and not merely incidental, part of what religion really means, and one that is intimately connected to the task of transcending self? (And isn’t this what makes the lone agnostic’s claims about ‘spiritual’ propensities seem suspect? Granted that we are beings with at least latent capacity for spirituality, should it not be realised, like so many of our other talents, in shared enterprises?) And isn’t the sharing of faith amongst a community where it is universally taken for granted different in kind from the sharing that occurs within communities whose members have deliberatively opted into (or to stay in) the faith?

The Case for God is in large part the story of the fracturing of the Christian community, the loss of the universality for which Catholicism stood, but which could not withstand the individualism let out of the box by the Enlightenment. The modern emphasis on creeds and catechisms can itself be seen not only as a misguided attempt to defend faith in terms of logos but as serving, while Protestant non-conformist denominations proliferated, to individuate and define their faiths against others in the religious marketplace (much the way that NGOs and businesses now set out their stalls with statements about their ‘core values’ and ‘mission.’) Was this—and the attendant risk of humility becoming an endangered virtue—not the inevitable result of an increasingly democratic world, as we came to subject theological as well as political authorities to our own scrutiny? Are shepherds to guide their flock or should they simply follow while the sheep vote with their feet? Questions about the nature of religious authority continue to wrack (most prominently, the Catholic) church today, much as they did when Luther first started getting uppity. Calls for modernisation and accountability are entirely understandable; but does not religion need some higher authority that transcends the judgment of mere mortals? Isn’t that partly its point? (And that, paradoxically, submission to that authority actually brings release.) But if we give up the idea of an ‘existing’ and (at least potentially) interventionist Heaven, which our religious leaders have special access to, where is that authority to come from?

Armstrong’s position that we are free to (but also have to) “choose” our worldview suggests a conscious and active grasping of religion rather than mere acceptance of tradition or the received opinion of a particular community; yet with humility restored by postmodern recognition of the limits of objective knowledge. This lends itself to a liberal, inter-faith approach that concentrates on the apparent universality of central religious insights rather than on doctrinal difference. (Just the kind of generous and open-hearted approach that, I can safely bet, is shared by the churchwoman who Guardian readers treated so rudely.) Yet how does the idea of religion as a chosen, rather than passively received, cope with the weight of recent tradition? Why, again, start from ‘actually existing Christianity’ if it has all gone so wrong? Why not just start from scratch, make up a new faith, or pick another one from the available catalogue? This is certainly happening to some extent, notably in the West, where it is now relatively easy for those so minded to pass over the celebrity preachers competing for their corporate brands and to opt instead for Bahai, Buddhism or Islam. Yet is this not a further extension of the cult of the individual—the 20th century idealisation of the person who, in Midgely’s words, is “free, independent, lonely, powerful, rational, responsible, brave, the hero of so many novels and books of moral philosophy” and all too clearly “the offspring of the age of science, confidently rational and yet increasingly aware of his alienation from the material universe which his discoveries reveal.” Midgely and Murdoch seem clear enough that this heroic individual is poorly placed to transcend himself.

Besides, no-one is free to ‘believe’ just anything. We are all the creatures at least as much as the creators of our own language, times and places: we cannot really start from scratch; and in practice it seems to me that, ‘globalisation’ notwithstanding, received tradition still counts for most people most of the time much more than deliberation, invention and choice. An entirely practical reason for bothering with actually existing Christianity is therefore simply that it is the tradition Westerners (and many non-Western communities) are broadly familiar with. Thus, Armstrong (citing rabbinical and pre-modern Christian tradition) doesn’t throw out the scriptures but argues for reading them in a new way. Because it is open hearted in spirit—charitable, rather than ‘true’—I hope her reading, and her favoured captains of theology, prove influential in the seminaries that shape the next generations of priests. Yet her acceptance of the bricolage of Christian scripture, myth and theology as a proper starting point also appears to suggest tacit acceptance that Confucius was on the right track with respect to tradition: that tradition somehow itself serves as a source of religious (as well as temporal) authority—by, for example, connecting us with perennial answers to perennial problems that our ancestors also faced.

Yet tradition is, by definition, conservative and the reshaping or reinterpretation of it is unlikely to happen quickly. The distortion of pre-modern Christian traditions was itself, on Armstrong’s account, a gradual process; and I am not clear what there is about postmodernity that might accelerate rectification. I suspect that her theology is in fact likely to be welcomed most in those parts of Christendom where actually existing Christianity is weakest—its former European heartlands, and America’s most liberal campuses. Elsewhere, at least some practicing Christians are likely to construe The Case for God as atheism impersonating religion. This is perhaps especially true of sub-Saharan Africa, which is not only the newest but now, by a large margin, the most populous province of Christendom—endowed, as it is, with a morally conservative and literalist faith, originally steeped in 19th century European values, amply reinforced since by the influence of American fundamentalism; and where faith seems to me to be experienced with an intensity that is not at all postmodern, and which perhaps has at least something to do with the relative underdevelopment of the cult of the individual.

Kampala, April 21, 2010