Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, has written more than 20 books on religious affairs—including A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, The Great Transformation, and The Case for God—and two memoirs, Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase. In these works, she explores faith in the context of the major world religions, focusing on how faith shapes world history and drives current events. In February 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize, ($100,000) given by a small nonprofit devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” She has been working on a “Charter for Compassion,” created online by the general public and crafted by leading religious thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The charter was signed in November 2009 by a thousand religious and secular leaders. She lives in London.
The author opens the work with an overview of the human search for meaning, looking at spirituality from the distant past (approximately 30,000 BCE) to modern times. She begins with the enigmatic paintings found in the Lascaux caves, moves through the Aryans in the Indian sub-continent, to the peoples of the Middle East, the beginnings of the monotheistic faith of the Hebrews, onto the philosophy of the Greeks, the Romans, early Christian thinkers and on through history to the development of religious thinking in the present day. In the closing chapters, Armstrong looks at modern atheism, focusing on the thinking of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and finds interesting similarities with contemporary religious fundamentalist thinking.
Armstrong develops three major themes in this work. First, she feels that religion in its essence is not about dogma or beliefs, but about developing an awareness of an ineffable and unknowable God who is far beyond human knowing. If one tries to describe this God, it can do nothing but diminish it, because of the limitations of thoughts, concepts, language.
Second, the author suggests that developing an on-going awareness of God takes much discipline and practice. Armstrong argues that liturgical rituals and actions are not to be taken literally as "true," but through the practice of the ritual, one can move into an awareness of God.
Finally, Armstrong develops the idea that a vital and living relationship with God is a really more of right living, action, and practice (orthopraxy) rather than acceptance of officially sanctioned dogmas (orthodoxy). The author, speaking from her perspective as a former nun in an authoritarian church body, suggests that modern people do not need churches that tell them what to believe, but rather churches that teach the practices, spiritual disciplines, and religious rituals that usher the practioner into an experiential awareness of God.
Armstrong’s work is a wonderful overview of the western intellectual tradition. From Paleolithic times to postmodern thinking, she covers the highpoints in a way that moves the reader along the grand sweep of religious, philosophical, and scientific history. This reviewer believes the author’s intention is to demonstrate the current idea of "God" as essentially a larger and superior being, separate from creation, is a product of the interaction of science and theology in the modern period.
Armstrong argues that for much of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic history, "God" was understood as a concept of the ineffable, not a "thing" separate from everything else, but the very ground of being. The theology which emerged from such a view, she tries to show, was not a matter of defining doctrines “about” God, but instead was an experiential process of exploring the ineffable depths of the divine presence. Because the sacred texts of religion were seen as metaphor or myth to draw the pilgrim into the experience of God, they were not intended to be taken literally. The texts required reinterpretation and exegesis that is relevant to each generation.
Armstrong suggests that the task for contemporary people is to return to this process and to the pre-modern idea of God in order to have truly meaningful dialog between science and religion, and for people to have truly authentic encounters with God. Undoubtedly one way in which ordinary people can have “transcendent” experiences is through rituals which not only free them from definitions and concepts of God.
The author points out that ancient Judaism, Christianity and Islam did not impose “faith” in the modern sense of intellectual assent to creedal statements (orthodoxy), but instead urged orthopraxy. She shows how the early Christian leaders asked for “pistis” (Greek: “commitment”) but which went into the Latin Vulgate via St. Jerome as “fides” that came to be translated as “faith”. Armstrong feels that the Council of Nicaea is at the root of much of the confusion by requiring Christians to assent to doctrinal formulations, which cannot properly circumscribe the truth they propose to present.
Armstrong explains that throughout church history, even after Nicaea, some theologians stressed that one cannot say anything definitive about God, and that the doctrine of creation ex nihilio prevents nature from witnessing to God’s existence. But these mystics were overshadowed by St. Thomas Aquinas and others who claimed that the “existence” of God could be demonstrated by reason.
Building on this base of reason leading to God, early scientists used their trade to attempt to “prove” God’s existence by including Him as integral parts in their explanations of observed phenomena. Later scientists, as more and conflicting empirical data became available, turned reason and science into a weapon against religion. The author provides the reader with a fantastic tour of how this early alliance deteriorated into hostility, and how the reactionary rise of fundamentalism has itself given rise to militant atheism, sworn to destroy its former close ally.
Armstrong suggests that it impossible for Evangelical fundamentalists and militant atheists to actually have a civil discussion about God. She argues that both sides create the other through their antagonism. By arguing against scripture and ignoring the virtues of religion, the atheists fall into the same trap as fundamentalists do by insisting that scripture be understood literally. Armstrong suggests dialog in the manner of the Socratic method, emphasizing gentleness of approach.
The author invites moderns to go back to the ancient way of thinking, which she sees being facilitated in the post-modern movement. Her goal is "not to give an exhaustive account of religion in any given period, but to highlight a particular trend - the apophatic - that speaks strongly to our current religious perplexity” (140). Armstrong thinks it would be healthy for people to focus on activities that connect them with God, such as civil discussion, meditation, prayer, volunteering, etc. She suggests that science and religion keep to their separate spheres in order to deal with what they each do best. Science is about how things happen. Religion is about the underlying meaning and why. Religion is to answer the questions science cannot answer. By not using science to explain God, people can move into the deep, mystical unknown of God and become, like the mystics themselves, more wise and loving.
This reviewer greatly resonated with Armstrong’s discussion of the apophatic way of knowing God, especially in her treatment of the importance of ritual. As someone who operates in the liturgical tradition of the church, this reviewer found her treatment of ritual to be a deepening and authenticating experience, especially as he reflected on the Eucharistic celebration.
This reviewer particularly enjoyed the author’s discussion about how as children, people learn about the existence of Santa Claus and God at about the same time (320), but, as they age, their knowledge and belief in Santa Claus "matures" while belief in God often remains immature. As a parish pastor, this reviewer has encountered this state of affairs in countless parishioners who have progressed no farther than their pre-teen confirmation class level of relationship with God.
This reviewer believes that Armstrong’s final chapters (“Unknowing” and “Death of God”) are a fantastic explanation of why the state of religious dialogue and thinking is where it is today. As someone who is tired and frustrated with the way his own religious tradition is approaching the contemporary thinking about “God,” this reviewer enjoyed the author’s way of thinking. Especially helpful for this reviewer was Armstrong taking on the neo-atheists and pointing out the similarities with religious fundamentalists in their thinking. Finally, the author shows how postmodernism is not the awful end of all things, as has been suggested in this reviewer’s tradition, but is a movement of returning to the more ancient way of viewing reality and God.