The Case for God

  • Karen Armstrong
  • Apr 2, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.  432 pages.  $27.95.  ISBN:  978-0-307-26918-8.

Karen Armstrong, a well-known writer on religion has a new study on the nature of religious expression and understanding throughout history.  Her book, The Case for God, is an attempt to show how a pre-modern understanding of God needs to be rediscovered by the modern world.  She says, “A deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred was a constant theme not only in Christianity but in the other major faith traditions until the rise of modernity in the West” (xviii).  Reflecting on themes such as ineffability, pluralism, the distinction between mythos and logos in religion, and the purpose of religion, Armstrong misrepresents and misconstrues the major monotheisms, particularly Christianity, through a concerted reinterpretation of major religious thinkers and doctrines.  This review will broadly explain Armstrong’s arguments and offer a philosophical and theological critique.

The crux of Armstrong’s argument is that God is ineffable in essence and character.  Because her argument is both philosophical and historical, Armstrong attempts to represent a broad history of the doctrine of ineffability.  She claims that, in Neolithic societies, God “was impossible to define or describe, because Being is all-encompassing and our minds are only equipped to deal with particular beings” (11).  The religious ultimate is unknowable, and this feature (or non-feature) is due to both its nature as “all-encompassing” Being and to humanity’s epistemic limitations.  She claims that this understanding of God was almost exclusively present in all religious understanding before the modern era.  She claims that Gregory of Nyssa (c. 331-95) interpreted the story of Moses on Mount Sinai in this way, “Pushing his reason to the point where it could go no further, he had intuited the silent otherness that existed beyond the reach of words and concepts” (113).  God is something to be experienced, not someone to know.  Armstrong’s philosophy of religion sounds strikingly Heideggerian, and she incorporates Heidegger’s view of Being into her work as an example of a rare modern thinker who correctly understood the nature of the religious ultimate.  “Sein (‘Being’)…was not a being, so bore no relation to any reality that we knew; it was wholly other and should more accurately be called Nothing” (279).  Heidegger helps people to transcend logic, and thereby, to passively and receptively experience Sein “repetitively and incrementally” (280).

God is placed in an upper-storey as an unknowable ground for being; therefore, humanity’s religions are all valid lower-storey attempts to practice receptivity to ineffable Being.  In fact, the practices of faith are the important elements.  The “test of authentic religious experience in all major faiths” is compassion and a self-emptying kenosis, wherein the believer lives in harmony with Being and with other beings (154).  All the faiths can accomplish this, making Armstrong a pluralist of sorts.  It does matter how one practices a faith; shallow faith will not do.  But if one is selfless and compassionate, then the faith that provides the symbols and practices whereby these character traits are appropriated is valid.  “It is impossible to confine the holiness of ilam (‘divinity’) to a single symbol” (36).  All religions are, at their best, equally valid attempts to reach transcendence.  She does not deny that there are differences between “Brahman, Nirvana, God, and Dao, but…all faith systems have been at pains to show that the ultimate cannot be adequately expressed in any theoretical system, however august, because it lies beyond words and concepts” (320).  Armstrong’s construal of the history of religions shows that people of all the religions have pointed to this kind of transcendence and helped others to live “a compassionate lifestyle that enables us to break out of the prism of selfhood” (319).

Armstrong’s case rests on a distinction in religion and philosophy between mythos and logos, two mutually exclusive approaches to knowing and unknowing.  Mythos helps people to address the larger issues of the meaning of life and the nature of ultimate reality.  A myth functions as a meaning-maker for its believers, not construed to be something that happened in history, “It was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time” (xi).  Logos does not function like this.  Logos (or reason) is a pragmatic reality that is expected to accurately correspond to the external world, helping people “function effectively in the world.”  The pre-modern world understood and upheld this distinction, and the best Enlightenment and modern thinkers did so, as well.  Galileo, according to Armstrong, “adhered to the traditional relationship of mythos and logos and insisted that his theories did not in any way contradict religion” because “mechanics (the study of motion) had nothing to say about theology” (184).  The disciplines were thought to need separation, and this was mostly done until the modern era, where philosophers, scientists, and theologians started to view knowledge as something that could only be obtained through logos. In the modern era, the West unwisely abandoned an appreciation for mythos, and expected religious belief to correspond to reality in the same way as logic, mathematics, and science.  The mythos/logos distinction needs to be rediscovered by religious adherents in the modern world if religion is going to again be a meaningful way of addressing important existential issues.

The negative religious developments that occurred through modernity effected how people view the purpose of religion, as well.  “Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart” (xiii).  This is an anthropocentric view of religion, focusing not on doctrinal assent or knowledge of the divine being, but driven by “hard work” which transforms the individual (26).  Selflessness and compassion are humanity’s needs; not healing from original sin.  Karl Rahner, she argues, understood these needs as central when he showed that true religion reaches into the transcendent so that “every act of cognition and every act of love is a transcendent experience...[that] compels us to reach beyond the prism of selfhood” (283).  The goal of all religions, when practiced correctly, is to achieve this kind of selfless and compassionate transcendence.  Pre-modern believers were particularly skillful at this, and modern Westerners need to relearn these religious skills.  These central themes of Armstrong’s argument are thought-provoking on their own, and the second part of this review will address a significant strength and a number of major weaknesses in Armstrong’s analysis.

A noteworthy strength of this book is in Armstrong’s presentation of the historical relationship between religion and science.  Instead of the reductionistic and inaccurate tendencies of many in the history of science, Armstrong shows that “it is simply not true that science and religion were always at daggers drawn” (326).  She points to religious support for scientific endeavor in both Christianity and Islam.  Kepler, for example, was attempting to find God in the universe, using mathematics to try to understand how God created (181).  She does claim that most scientists have upheld the mythos/logos distinction, which is simply not true.  For example, Carl Linnaeus, a pioneer in botany and taxonomy, sought to understand and explain the glory of God in his study of science.  There was no distinction between his religious and scientific pursuits because both sought the truth about God.  That notwithstanding, Armstrong serves the history of science by showing that the relationship between religion and science has been generally amiable.

However, Armstrong’s volume is plagued with philosophical and theological oversimplification and reification.  The problems are too many to address in this review, but there are a number of key problems in Armstrong’s analysis which will be addressed here.  First, Armstrong rejects natural theology, and she incorrectly interprets a number of key Christian and Muslim thinkers to support her view.  For example, she claims that Thomas Aquinas’ five ways “show us that there is nothing in our experience that can tell us what ‘God’ means,” but Thomas thought that this was “exactly what ma[de] the ‘five ways’ good theology” (145).  However, Thomas’ proofs in Summa Theologica were meant to be ways to show an important feature of the meaning of the term “God,” namely, that there is a being called God who exists (see also Rom. 1:18-20).  She interprets Thomas according to her schema without regard for Thomas’ reliance on natural theology to prove an ultimate Being (God).  As part of her rejection of natural theology, Armstrong places strong limitations on human minds by saying that people are “only equipped to deal with particular beings” (11).  However, humans convincingly claim to have knowledge about a number of entities for which Armstrong’s analysis cannot account such as gravity and the law of non-contradiction.  These are definitely not particular beings.  Why should the possibility of knowledge about an unobserved entity like God be ruled out?  She also misinterprets Pascal’s wager, claiming that it was meant to be “a leap in the dark” (199).  This is simply not the case, as Douglas Groothuis’ On Pascal has shown.  Pascal’s wager, though not relying on natural theology, was predicated on the rationale behind his anthropological argument.  It is not a leap into the dark; rather, the wager is an investigation into a faith that is rationally respectable.

Philosophically and theologically, Armstrong’s pluralism is particularly vexing, because she sees all religions as equal attempts to reach the unknowable ground of Being.  This is difficult to maintain for a number of reasons.  First, as Harold Netland points out in Encountering Religious Pluralism, every religion has always ascribed ultimacy to its particular understanding of ultimate reality to the exclusion of other religions’ claims.  Second, the major monotheisms have always claimed to have some knowledge of the nature of God.  Islam’s Shahadah asserts God’s essential oneness, and God is called by ninety-nine descriptive names in the Qur’an.  Judaism has a statement on God’s essential oneness in the Shema (Deut. 6:4).  The creeds of Christianity state many features of God’s character and essence, including God’s one essence and three subsistences, God’s acts in history (asserting agency), and God’s power and justice.  Jewish and Christian Scriptures are filled with descriptions of God’s characteristics (Gen. 1:1; Gen. 16:13; Ex. 20:5; Ps. 103:8; Rev. 1:18; 4:8).  She cannot interpret these faiths accurately through the prism of religious pluralism.  Third, Armstrong has no epistemic right to make a claim about the existence of a transcendent ground of Being when she claims that Being is unknowable.  There is no plausibility of knowledge of the existence of Armstrong’s “God” when It is construed as unknowable.  Theology becomes no more than speculation and wishful thinking.

Christianity has always claimed to know a great deal about the being we call God, but Armstrong misrepresents Christian theology, as well.  She claims that the incarnation reinforced the fact that, since Jesus is the eikon (or image) of ultimate reality, God remains unknown (118).  However, Jesus is asserted to be the exact representation of God, God’s essence made known to all (John 1:18; Heb. 1:3).  She claims that the doctrine of the Trinity was only meant to show that God was nothing like anything in our frame of reference.  However, Christians carefully formulated this doctrine to reflect biblical statements about the nature of God’s essence so that God’s nature could be known more adequately (Deut. 6:4; Jn. 10:30; Gen. 1:2).  These issues are just a representation of how Armstrong misinterprets and misconstrues the history of religion.  Her schema of ineffability, pluralism, mythos/logos, and the purpose of religion is a procrustean bed on which many understandings of religion are cut down or stretched out.

Andrew I. Shepardson
Denver Seminary
March 2010