I am amazed at the breadth of scholarship that went into Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God (New York: Anchor Books, 2009). Yes, it’s scholarship with an agenda, but is there any such thing as scholarship without an agenda of some sort? Armstrong never pretends to have any more expertise than that of a well-read journalist, but I often find her writing more intellectually instructive than the works of a whole host of credentialed theologians.
And not surprisingly, I find myself in fundamental agreement with the overall tenor of the book. In fact, with one word substitution, I can’t think of a better portrayal than hers of what is going on in the practices of people who are identified as religious or spiritual:
“Over the centuries people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living as selflessly and compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their [lives] with serenity and courage” (p. 318).
I substituted “lives” for “suffering,” because the transcendence allegedly experienced is as much occasioned by immeasurable wonder and gratitude as it is by suffering. It involves a continual reawakening to all that is involved in being here as uncontainably meaningful. Armstrong also makes it clear in numerous examples that just as often this awakening does not come after these practices but is the happening that provoked them in the first place.
Of course, her title is a little misleading, because this is not so much a case for God as it is a case for what some scholars of religion debatably call homo religiousus, the protean religiosity that is said to be an inescapable part of being human.
I think Armstrong makes a persuasive case that there have been influential practitioners in every age and culture who would have recognized her description readily. Often she overstates her point—I’m just as persuaded that there have been even more practitioners in every age and culture who would not have recognized her description. But it still seems undeniable that there is a common theme that keeps resurfacing in all our faith and wisdom traditions that mustn’t be overlooked.
As I’ve said in my own attempt to name what keeps me going, maybe I would not take my own awakening to dialogical communion seriously if it were not “shared by noteworthy others.” Armstrong documents that something like this awakening has indeed been shared by countless others, worldwide, over the centuries. It’s not her or Paul Tillich‘s or my modern/postmodern redefinition of faith or God.
But as I’ve also said, “Maybe I would not take this dialogical communion seriously if there were not credible ways to articulate how it could be ever-present in a world aptly described through the anonymous, abstract formulas and concepts of the natural sciences.” This, I’ve said, is one of the principal reasons for my fascination with process philosophy and theology. And yet it’s here this I find Armstrong mostly sidestepping that (to me) crucial concern. Her approach is a popular one, but I find it overly simplistic.
It seems to me that throughout the book she needlessly overplays the differences between what she calls mythos and logos (p. xi). She tends to equate logos with reason, objectivity, factual beliefs, etc., and mythos with faith, subjectivity, poetic expression, etc. Sometimes she’s more nuanced, but often not.
Don’t get me wrong. Up to a point this can be a very useful distinction. But in effect she often speaks of it in terms of a total separation into two hermetically sealed compartments. And I find that problematic.
Basically, I just don’t like compartmentalizing, dichotomies, dualisms, or what Alfred North Whitehead called bifurcations. Distinctions, yes; bifurcations, no. And if all ways of being and knowing are newly interactive, even distinctions can be somewhat interpermeable.
I can trace this anti-compartmentalizing attitude to a book I read my first year in college—Jerry H. Gill, The Possibility of Religious Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971): “Rather than conceive of reality and experience as divided into separate realms, it is more helpful and more faithful to experience to conceive of them as having simultaneously interpenetrating dimensions” (p. 119). (I prefer “interpermeating” to “interpenetrating”; the latter sounds way too phallic.)
So, for example, what I am (e.g., a human organism occupying a particular spatiotemporal location) is distinct from who I am, just as what you are is distinct from who you are. But “whatness” and “whoness” are not separate realms. They’re simultaneously interpermeating dimensions. I can’t fully know what you are without knowing who you are, and vice versa.
That early anti-compartmentalizing attitude got further confirmation when I started reading Ian Barbour’s works on science and religion. (As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Barbour was one of my first exposures to process theism). Barbour offers a typology for how the pursuits of science and religion can be related: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. He regards conflict as the least adequate way to relate them. Independence is initially better as a way beyond conflict, but still inadequate: “If science and religion were totally independent, the possibility of conflict would be avoided, but the possibility of constructive dialogue and mutual enrichment would also be ruled out. We do not experience life as neatly divided into separate compartments; we experience it in wholeness and interconnectedness before we develop particular disciplines to study different aspects of it.” (Note how close that last sentence is to what Gill said.) Barbour opts instead for dialogue and (more tentatively) integration (along the lines of process theism), and so do I.
Back to Armstrong, I find most of what she says about separating mythos from logos to fall into Barbour’s “independence” type. It commendably moves us beyond conflict, but it’s finally not true to experience as a newly interactive whole.
Experience as a newly interactive whole is more dialogical and at least tentatively integrative than the independence type allows. (At least that’s my contention.) Responding accordingly to what ultimately engages us in every moment of experience requires both “apophatic reticence” and, let’s say, “cataphatic audacity,” both unsaying what we say, but also still saying what we say when stretching our language, and not just at the extreme limits of reasoning or at the end of its tether, but all along the way.
We can see this dual emphasis on reticence and audacity at work in Sally McFague’s metaphorical process theism, as well as in Catherine Keller’s theme of “apophatic entanglement.” And it shows up in a more politically engaged way among other liberation theologians.
In fact, it’s a bit surprising and disappointing that in Armstrong’s otherwise delightful overviews of current theological movements, liberation theologies are never mentioned—privileged white males get top billing. Process theologians don’t get mentioned either. That’s a whole lot of influential contemporary theology that’s left out of reckoning. And I think it’s left out of reckoning because it doesn’t fit Armstrong’s overly simplistic mythos/logos dualism.
Still, given my own agenda, I may be disappointed in the movements she does not cover, but I remain amazed at the breadth of what she does cover.