13 September 2009

Karen Armstrong, and Theology?

I occassionally read an essay by Karen Armstrong, just to see if she has stopped writing badly, or at least stopped to think a bit before she starts pushing her boulder up hill. I am consistently dissappointed in her efforts to defend something she calls faith, but that nearly all the world's faithful would fail to recognize. Her latest contribution to the dialogue is equally innane, and wooly headed. But I thought I might take a moment to dissect it.

"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."

This to me seems a stunning consession on her part. If this is so, and I'm certainly in agreement with her that it is, hasn't she just removed not only the dominant interpretation of God, one who omniscient and omnibenevolent, but also the dominant practice of religious faith, especially among the Abrahamic traditions? Most religious believers do hold that purpose is built into the design of the Cosmos. Even the most progressive among the Abrahamic traditions who can accept the fact of evolution, one can hardly miss the way many smuggle purpose back into the discussion, with some form of directed evolution. The following paraphrase could essentially come from Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, or the Pope: "Oh yes, the evidence clearly shows evolution to be a completely natural process. I feel that god certainly intervened with humans, ensouled us and and enmoralled us."
Yes I know enmoralled isn't a word. The first paragraph of this essay, it seems to me, completely removes the need to take God, or religion seriously at all, and what is funny is that Karen Armstrong perforates her arguments with such statements all the time.

"But Darwin may have done religion—and God—a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped—even primitive."

I actually laughed out loud at this line. I suppose Ms. Armstrong is incapable of noticing that it is hard to understand the capacities of an unproved entity, one that provides no positive evidence for its existance. God, bigfoot and the Lochness monster share this attribute. But perhaps parody is a better way to illustrate the problem: Despite our scientific understanding and technological brilliance our understanding of Zeus is remarkably undeveloped-even primitive.

In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart."

Apart from exageratting the number of non-literalists in the Abrahamic traditions, I think she is on liberal theologian autopilot here. She isn't really interested in arguing her case and simply content to intellectually felate the readers who already agree with her. She assumes that the interpretation she favors is the one all should understand, without justifying why we should be in agreement with her. Why should more literal readings, shades of which have by far been dominant to "God is mearly a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable trancendence" crowd, be rejected? Here Armstrong has no credible answers.

"But by the end of the 17th century, instead of looking through the symbol to "the God beyond God," Christians were transforming it into hard fact. Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient and omnipotent creator, who was obviously "very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry." Enthralled by the prospect of such cast-iron certainty, churchmen started to develop a scientifically-based theology that eventually made Newton's Mechanick and, later, William Paley's Intelligent Designer essential to Western Christianity."

Can Armstrong really be saying that prior to the 17th century Christians were looking at the symbol, to the "God beyond god?" It is safe to say that the inquisitors would disagree. Christians had and always have, by and large, been in the business of transforming God into hard fact. Does that mean that there have not been enlightened people and sects who realize that literalism doesn't work because the facts don't allow it? Of course it doesn't. But they lose out to the literalists for a simple reason I think. The stories don't really allow for comfortable non-literal interpretation, especially taken as a whole (as in the bible for instance). We can take some of the stories individually and say, if we work at it, well this could be interpreted as an allegory, or metaphor. But its when you view the stories in context of the larger narrative that such non-literal interpretations break down. In any event, this statement is stunning in its odd disconnect from the religious history that preceded the 17th century.

"But the Great Mechanick was little more than an idol, the kind of human projection that theology, at its best, was supposed to avoid. God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God's existence. This would not have been a disaster had not Christians become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource."

Here Karen get its all, unmistakeably wrong. Did Darwin show there could be no proof for God's existence? No, not at all. There are numerous ways God could proven it is just that there is a dearth, to say the least, of such evidence on offer. What Darwin did was render the design inference null. An intervening God has become completely unnecessary as an explaination for life because of evolutionary theory. The evidence does not support the God inference, that is something religious believers impose on the facts. But rendering proof of God impossible? God could show up on the White House lawn, convene a pressconference and say, "For you guys, I'm going to turn Venus, and Mars into new Earth like planets complete with shopping malls, and roller coasters, and national parks, and adjust for various gravitational influences so as not to upset the orbit of or life on this Earth." And while it wouldn't establish that it was definately the Abrahamic God, it would be consistent with the kinds of powers often attributed to him. Such a thing would certainly be hard to explain scientifically. In any event, all Darwin, and later researchers have done is establish that God is certainly an unnecessary part of the explanation.

"Symbolism was essential to premodern religion, because it was only possible to speak about the ultimate reality—God, Tao, Brahman or Nirvana—analogically, since it lay beyond the reach of words. Jews and Christians both developed audaciously innovative and figurative methods of reading the Bible, and every statement of the Quran is called an ayah ("parable"). St Augustine (354-430), a major authority for both Catholics and Protestants, insisted that if a biblical text contradicted reputable science, it must be interpreted allegorically. This remained standard practice in the West until the 17th century, when in an effort to emulate the exact scientific method, Christians began to read scripture with a literalness that is without parallel in religious history."

Again with this pre-17th century nonsense. Simply because a minority of religious thinkers in any time period adopt audacious, innovative and figurative contortions to preserve their religious conclusions doesn't mean such contortions are terribly intutitive to most religious minds, or even implied by the texts, often odious, that inspire them. Nor does it mean that such contortions were implied by the authors of said texts or that such an approach to religious scholarship is the correct approach. Does the historic persecution of Jews, homosexuals, heretics or the preoccupation with witches and the occult of the times pre-17th century smack of literal, or figurative mindedness dominating the intellecual landscape of that era?

"Most cultures believed that there were two recognized ways of arriving at truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos ("reason") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life's struggle. For that people turned to mythos, stories that made no pretensions to historical accuracy but should rather be seen as an early form of psychology; if translated into ritual or ethical action, a good myth showed you how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity."

Bald and somewhat bold assertion here, and it results from her tendency toward confirmaiton bias. She sees a scholar or two that agree with her sybolism only approach and then inflating the frequency of such scholars in history.

In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had—somehow—brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation or during a political crisis. Some cosmologies taught people how to unlock their own creativity, others made them aware of the struggle required to maintain social and political order. The Genesis creation hymn, written during the Israelites' exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BC, was a gentle polemic against Babylonian religion. Its vision of an ordered universe where everything had its place was probably consoling to a displaced people, though—as we can see in the Bible—some of the exiles preferred a more aggressive cosmology."

So it was all just therapuetic? No one believed a word of it? This is a fascinating story Karen, but it fails to explain the rather real history of sectarian conflict in any substative way. She should have prefaced this paragraph with the phrase, "I think, maybe, based on my gut instinct." It would have been a more honest bit of scholarship on her part.

"There can never be a definitive version of a myth, because it refers to the more imponderable aspects of life. To remain effective, it must respond to contemporary circumstance. In the 16th century, when Jews were being expelled from one region of Europe after another, the mystic Isaac Luria constructed an entirely new creation myth that bore no resemblance to the Genesis story. But instead of being reviled for contradicting the Bible, it inspired a mass-movement among Jews, because it was such a telling description of the arbitrary world they now lived in; backed up with special rituals, it also helped them face up to their pain and discover a source of strength."

Perhaps, but we only really have her word to go on here that this was religion as therapy. It may be the case, or it could be the case that the mass movement was another example of rather literal-minded religion. Simply because Isaac Luria created another creation story isn't proof that he, or the followers of the movement didn't treat it as literal truth. Numerous religious figures from then to now create rather literal minded movements. Scientology is a prime example of this.

"Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace; today, however, many have opted for unsustainable certainty instead. But can we respond religiously to evolutionary theory? Can we use it to recover a more authentic notion of God?"

Says Karen Armstrong. I think her interpretation is actually the one that is unsustainable, and why it is always a minority view among religious people. In any event, both approaches opt for certainty in advance of evidence. In either approach does anyone see trepidation, an "I could be wrong about this" in the expressed sentiments. Armstrong is certainly not in doubt about God. In this she and the fundamentalist are the same. She just dresses her God in smoke and provides mirrors.

"Darwin made it clear once again that—as Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas and Eckhart had already pointed out—we cannot regard God simply as a divine personality, who single-handedly created the world. This could direct our attention away from the idols of certainty and back to the "God beyond God." The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder, which is, perhaps, not unlike the awe that Mr. Dawkins experiences—and has helped me to appreciate —when he contemplates the marvels of natural selection."

What Darwin made clear was that nature is sufficient to explain the origin of biodiversity, adaptation and behavior. Extra, supernatural variables were unnecessary after Darwin. I will have to disagree with her assessment that her religious ideas, or any ideas infuse the bearers of said ideas with anything like wonder, or awe at the mysterious. Whether Karen can find the words for it or not, her certainity about "God beyond God" is in no way diminished by her inability to articulate the concept clearly.

"But what of the pain and waste that Darwin unveiled? All the major traditions insist that the faithful meditate on the ubiquitous suffering that is an inescapable part of life; because, if we do not acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, the compassion that lies at the heart of faith is impossible. The almost unbearable spectacle of the myriad species passing painfully into oblivion is not unlike some classic Buddhist meditations on the First Noble Truth ("Existence is suffering"), the indispensable prerequisite for the transcendent enlightenment that some call Nirvana—and others call God."

Do all the major traditions really insist on meditating on pain and misery? Do they do this in the warm fuzzy way Armstrong implies? What conclusions are reached from these meditations? The compassion that lies at the heart of faith? She says these things as if they have a single particular meaning. What uninsightful, and painfully trite, nonsense.

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