Karen Armstrong on God, Part Two

In Part One I discussed ideas from two of Karen Armstrong’s publications:

A History of God, Gramercy Books, 1993

The Case for God, Knopf, 2009

Both books discuss the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and deny that these traditions emphasize the idea that God is a supernatural being. Instead, Armstrong suggests that these religions have often maintained a respectful silence about what God is like. Today, on the other hand, “People of faith admit in theory that God is utterly transcendent, but they seem sometimes to assume that they know exactly who ‘he’ is and what he thinks, loves, and expects” (The Case for God, p. ix).

Armstrong notes that whereas Christianity has focused on doctrine, Judaism has not enforced theological orthodoxy: “Any official doctrine would limit the essential mystery of God” (A History of God, p. 74). And in Islam, “the Koran is highly suspicious of theological speculation, dismissing it as zanna, self-indulgent guesswork about things that nobody can possibly know or prove” (p. 143).

On p. 126 of A History of God Armstrong mentions an approach to theological reflection in which one first affirms what God is, including God’s existence; then denies those affirmations, saying for example that God does not exist; and then denies the denials. This conceptual discipline is intended to disintegrate our use of typical words and concepts in speaking of the Ultimate.

Armstrong definitely rejects some common teachings about deity, such as the idea that God created plants and animals. Life originated because of natural selection, and not because of divine planning:

“Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course – at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death, and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core” (WSJ.com, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203440104574405030643556324.html).

Furthermore Armstrong does not think most religions emphasize immortality, and she herself is completely agnostic about this issue. She made that statement September 9, 2009 in a radio interview with Michael Krasny (http://www.kqed.org/epArchive/R909241000). Her view is that only Christianity and Islam have made the afterlife central, and even there it is often seen as some-thing like a parable rather than a definite statement of fact. She contends that religion should be about transcending our egos, not ensuring our own survival.

When Armstrong says that God is indescribable, here are three things that this might mean.

1. Something is indescribable if we can say virtually nothing about it. For instance, some think the Big Bang must have had a cause, but they haven’t a clue what that was.

2. On the other hand, “indescribable” may just mean we lack a good description. In some cases we can make many accurate statements about something, but even in combination these statements are pitifully incomplete. Suppose someone grabs an elephant’s leg in the dark and thinks it’s a tree. Even if the beast held still long enough for this leg-seizer to make 50 accurate statements about this massive limb, those statements would not add up to a good description of the elephant.

3. Finally, “indescribable” may be mere hyperbole, dramatic exaggeration for effect. After one’s first sexual encounter, one may exclaim, “Words fail me! All I can say is ‘Wow!’” – after which one scrawls pages of intimate descriptive detail in a diary.

So God could be utterly indescribable, partially describable, or “indescribable” as poetic exaggeration. I am not sure which of these fits Armstrong’s approach. If pressed I would bet on #2, but perhaps she would select #1 instead. In any case, there is a big difference between:

“We can say nothing about deity.”

And: “We can say many things about deity, but these statements are quite incomplete.”

I would hazard a guess that Karen Armstrong would affirm some things about the Ultimate, including qualities such as creativity, transcendence, and goodness. And I certainly applaud her effort to correct overly-literal theologies. Her many books have conclusively proven that spiritual teachers throughout history have considered God beyond human comprehension. That is such a refreshing contrast to those who think they know everything about deity except (perhaps) the Lord’s favorite pizza toppings.

Since she denies that the Abrahamic faiths require belief in a supernatural deity, Armstrong thinks contemporary atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins are attacking the wrong target. She charges them with having “an extremely literalist notion of God. For Dawkins, religious faith rests on the idea that ‘there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence, who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it’” (The Case for God, p. 304). (For her critique of the new atheism see pp. 301-09.) She maintains that this concept is woefully out of date.

Atheists could reply that if Armstrong is correct, even liberal congregations are chock-full of literalists. Believing that God designed and created the universe is middle-of-the-road Christianity, not extreme literalism. Although many theologians no longer think of God as a super-powerful being, Armstrong admits that contemporary theology has “rarely reached the pews.”1

One more point: In A History of God, Karen Armstrong shows that virtually all spiritual communities emphasize compassion (p. 391). She has now followed up on this theme with Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. I saw her lecturing about this book last June, and it sounds excellent.


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