Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Armstronging Armstrong

Karen Armstrong says:

The extraordinary and eccentric emphasis on "belief" in Christianity today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. We call religious people "believers", as though acceptance of a set of doctrines was their principal activity…
All good religious teaching – including such Christian doctrines as the Trinity or the Incarnation – is basically a summons to action. Yet instead of being taught to act creatively upon them, many modern Christians feel it is more important to "believe" them.

But of course we’re not meant to believe that religion isn’t really about belief, because if we did that then we’d be wrong, as all the religious people who believe things could attest; instead, Armstrong’s piece is basically a summons to action, specifically to nod sagely to ourselves as if in recognition of some amorphous wisp of ineffable wisdom. To take her literally would be extraordinary and eccentric.

She goes on:

Stories of heroes descending to the underworld were not regarded as primarily factual but taught people how to negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche. In the same way, the purpose of a creation myth was therapeutic; before the modern period no sensible person ever thought it gave an accurate account of the origins of life.

The purpose of this passage is therapeutic: it teaches us how to negotiate the obscure regions of the Guardian’s website. No sensible person thinks that such articles are to be regarded as primarily factual. Rather, they are insatiably self-consuming metaphors. As Wittgenstein so ably put it: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must throw together boilerplate faux-profundities until one’s wordcount is reached.”

And she goes on:

Religious doctrines are a product of ritual and ethical observance, and make no sense unless they are accompanied by such spiritual exercises as yoga, prayer, liturgy and a consistently compassionate lifestyle. Skilled practice in these disciplines can lead to intimations of the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao. Without such dedicated practice, these concepts remain incoherent, incredible and even absurd.

Discussions of religion make no sense unless they are accompanied by such mental exercises as thinking, and knowing that religious doctrines are also the product of things written in ancient books that people hold to be true and then try to convince other people of. Without a factual belief in God’s existence, the concept of praying to him remains incoherent, incredible and even absurd.

And on:

But during the modern period, scientific logos became so successful that myth was discredited, the logos of scientific rationalism became the only valid path to truth, and Newton and Descartes claimed it was possible to prove God's existence, something earlier Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians had vigorously denied.

And during the post-post-(I lose count)-postmodern period, woolly hand-waving became so successful that rational thought and historical knowledge were discredited, convolutedly empty pick-n-mix mysticism became the only valid path to truth, and Armstrong claimed that pre-Newtonian theologians had denied it possible to prove God's existence, something that the 13th-century Thomas Aquinas and 11th-century St Anselm had vigorously denied.

(See also Norm and Shuggy on Armstrong.)


Liam Murray said...

I got all long-winded & pompous over this and it's just not done to leave a comment longer than the original post so...

Tom Freeman said...

Long-winded and pompous is just fine, as I regularly try to prove.

I think she has one fair point in there, namely that you can't understand religion as simply a set of factual beliefs. But then she slides very quickly into trouble, suggesting that such beliefs have very little to do with proper religion, and she brandishes some pretty high-grade waffle in the process.

And I'm very, very unimpressed by her projecting Gould's 'non-overlapping magisteria' view back across most of Christian history and beyond. Academia and the Churches have been deeply entangled for much of that time.

And to talk about "the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao" is to express a belief - there's no other word for it - that all these different religious traditions are reaching towards the same thing. Most followers of these traditions, at I think any point in history, would reject that belief.

Liam Murray said...


And as is so often the case you've highlighted my ignorance of something I probably should know about - 'Gould's 'non-overlapping magisteria'.

Google beckons...