BOOK REVIEW:  The Case for God (Karen Armstrong)

BOOK REVIEW:  The Case for God (Karen Armstrong)

by David Shasha

Review Essay: Is There God in Our Future?

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009

True faith, as our ancestors taught us, must precede reason, but also true that reason must follow faith.  Faith without reason is like those golden fruits which are tempting to the eye but rotten at the core.  Reason without faith would resemble that motion into eternal space which depended on projection without attraction; it would be aimless and endless.  Reason and faith conjoined form that lovely combination which resembles the pure mind in the pure body; the inner life is as unsullied as the outward frame is consistent with harmony.
Moses Angel, The Law of Sinai and its Appointed Times (1858)

We live in very trying times.

Western culture has unfortunately broken off into competing groups marked by binary extremes; politically, intellectually and socially.  These groups line up in fierce opposition to one another and do battle in ways that have corroded our ability to sort out the truth in a reasonable and reasoned manner.  Polemical voices are raised to a screeching fever pitch where calm and reason often lose out to sheer volume and aggression.

Such has been the case with the matter of God and religion.

Ever since the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, the matter of religion has become a deeply contested issue.  As Karen Armstrong writes in her latest book The Case for God:

In France, however, religion was part of the ancient regime that needed to be swept away.  There was even an incipient atheism that denied God’s existence.  In 1729, Jean Meslier, an exemplary parish priest, died weary of life, leaving his few meager possessions to his parishioners.  Among his papers, they discovered the manuscript of his Memoire in which he declared that Christianity was a hoax.  He had never dared to say this openly during his lifetime, but now he had nothing to fear.  Religion was simply a device to subdue the masses.  (p. 220)

The fatalistic view of Father Meslier would become more and more common in the coming centuries to the point where today we are caught between two deeply divided factions both of whom assert the absolute truth of their viewpoint.

On the one hand, we have a militant form of science whose roots are in the Enlightenment but whose current valence reflects the malaise of our time; the penchant for absolutist ideologies that close off discussion and leave individuals trapped in a vise of a singular, unquestioned Truth.

On the other hand, we have a religious fundamentalism that has gone toe to toe with the scientific absolutists.  Just as the so-called “New Atheists,” people like Richard Dawkins, Jay Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, are locked into their belief that there is only Darwin and nothing else, so too do contemporary religious fundamentalists assert the absolute literal truth of the Bible with no compromise. 

If the text of Genesis says that God created the world in six days, then six days it is. 

For the New Atheists, if Darwin says that life is a random series of accidents without any supernatural source, then this must be the only way to see things.

How did we reach this point and how do we deal with what appears to be an intractable battle of ideologies?

Well, we should first understand that we are facing the climax of a very lengthy historical process whose first stirrings occur at the dawn of the Modern age.  From the time of Spinoza and Voltaire, and later of Marx and Freud, we have been dealing with the “Death of God” in ways that have increasingly torn asunder the culture we live in.

At the beginning of this process the writer Mary Shelley, herself allied to a group of Romantic thinkers, composed her seminal 1818 novel Frankenstein as a warning to the possible problems we might face if science usurped the role of God.  In the Hollywood version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher,” men rob graves and kill innocents, all in the name of Science and “progress.”  In rejecting this view, the young medical student who has become a party to the evildoings says that he has been taught the “mathematics of anatomy, but not the poetry of medicine.”

As we know all too well, science is itself value-neutral and a super-imposition of human prejudices on its findings can lead to negative and sometimes dangerous results.  Having lived through the 20th century, we have witnessed the triumph of science and technology as well as the bane and nadir of this same scientific “progress.”  After the many tragedies wrought in the name of such “progress” we can no longer affirm the idea of pure scientific objectivity.

The explosion of hatred and violence in the wake of the scientific ascendancy should give us moment to pause and reflect on the meaning of what has happened to our civilization.

The same Albert Einstein who did so much to expand our understanding of the system that guides the physical universe, was also central in unleashing the forces of violence inherent in the atomic and sub-atomic forces.  Like Baron von Frankenstein who sought to use his medical knowledge to generate human existence, a project that ended in disaster, so too did the scientists working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project unlock the keys of science to create a bomb that could destroy the world and end human existence as we know it.

Science could make possible beneficial revolutions in communication, transportation and medicine, but not control the way in which those revolutions were processed and applied to culture and society.  Science could speak of morality, but after the Darwinian transformation and its tendencies towards the absolute randomness of natural selection, the moral principles of religion were torn from their roots and the system became split at its very core.

*****

I first became aware of Karen Armstrong when her book Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World was issued in paperback in 1992.  The following year saw the release of her best-selling classic A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Armstrong’s impact on religious studies was immediate: She was able to reach a mass audience and educate us in a highly effective manner to better understand the history of Monotheism.  A History of God was not only a massively popular book; it was a brilliant encapsulation of decades of religious scholarship that provided the general reader with a précis of the Monotheistic tradition.  Subsequently, Armstrong continued to expand her work to include studies of Islam and Judaism that brought these religions to the attention of the Christian world.

As effective as these books were in the general culture, a counter-movement was afoot that would eventually subvert the project to bring religious literacy to Western readers. 

Discussing the move towards rationalization in the religious and scientific spheres, Armstrong states:

This rationalized interpretation of religion has resulted in two distinctively modern phenomena: fundamentalism and atheism.  The two are related.  The defensive piety popularly known as fundamentalism erupted in almost every major faith during the twentieth century.  In their desire to produce a wholly rational, scientific faith that abolished mythos in favor of logos, Christian fundamentalists have interpreted scripture with a literalism that is unparalleled in the history of religion. (p. xv)

Of course, this new religious literalism has led to a counter-movement, that of atheism.  In assessing the work of the most prominent of the New Atheists, we see that Armstrong characterizes it in a similar fashion as religious fundamentalism:

[Richard] Dawkins is an extreme exponent of the scientific naturalism, originally formulated by [Baron] d’Holbach, that has now become a major worldview among intellectuals.  More moderate versions of this “scientism” have been articulated by Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg, and Daniel Dennett, who have all claimed that one has to choose between science and faith.  For Dennett, theology has been rendered superfluous, because biology can provide a better explanation of why people are religious.  But for Dawkins, like the other “new atheists” – Sam Harris, the young American philosopher and student of neuroscience, and Christopher Hitchens, critic and journalist – religion is the cause of the problems of our world; it is the source of absolute evil and “poisons everything.”  They see themselves in the vanguard of a scientific/rational movement that will eventually expunge the idea of God from human consciousness.  (p. 302)

This is how the two sides align themselves against one another.  Each side has developed a “totalizing” ideology; a belief system that has become endemic to a Western culture that divides the world into warring factions: We are “right” and they are “wrong.”

As we have learned by reading Karen Armstrong’s many books, the story of religion and science is not that simple.  In her deeply learned and sympathetic readings of the world’s religions she has illuminated a complex path for her readers with a grace and sympathy that has made her a prominent voice in our intellectual universe.

*****

In The Case for God veteran Armstrong readers will find much that is familiar.  She has structured the new book in blocks that show us the way in which Western religion has developed.  Beginning with the age of the pagans, Armstrong allows us to approach the numinous in ways that are intelligible to the general reader:

Authentic religious discourse could not lead to clear, distinct, and empirically verifiable truth.  Like the Brahman, the atman was “ungraspable.”  You could define something only when you saw it as separate from yourself.  But “when the Whole [Brahman] has become a person’s very self, then who is there for him to see and by what means?  Who is there for me to think of and by what means?”  But if you learned to “realize” the truth that your most authentic “Self” was identical with Brahman, you understood that it too was “beyond hunger and thirst, sorrow and delusion, old age and death.”  You could not achieve this insight by rational logic.  You had to acquire the knack of thinking outside the ordinary “lowercase” self, and like any craft or skill, this required long, hard, dedicated practice.  (p. 21)

This luminous passage encapsulates in miniature the basic template of Armstrong’s understanding of religious life.  Religion is being beyond being.  Where science treats the seen, the known, religion explores the Other within us and within the universe.  It cannot be reduced to rational understanding.  Religion deals with the terror of unknowing: of birth, of death, and of suffering; the elements of human existence that force us to go beyond what we can know rationally. 

Religion is able to realize this manner of psychological insight by means of ritual activity which Armstrong describes in the following way:

It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of a religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life.  You will discover their truth – or lack of it – only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action.  Like any skill, religion requires perseverance, hard work, and discipline.  (p. xiii)

By contrast, science functions as a descriptive taxonomy.  It can explain how a sperm and egg fuse to become a human embryo, but cannot philosophically describe what the process means or why it exists.  Science can explain to us the malignant development of disease, but cannot tell us how to deal with the pain and suffering that disease brings in its wake.

This does not mean that science is faulty or that religion can rightly tell us how people die in the biological sense.  People die because of the degeneration of their physical bodies in the ways that biological science has taught us.  The more we learn about biology, the better we can treat disease and stave off death.  But once death comes, and science can do little to prevent it once the somatic factors are completely locked in, a concept like Brahman, the Hindu term for ultimate reality, the super-reality beyond anything we can know rationally, can serve human beings as a means to discover potentialities that science cannot know or explain.

Without over-mystifying the point, concepts like Nirvana, Brahman, and later, God, provide humanity with an alternative semantic field, a way to interpret existence and reality from a non-scientific point of view.  Moving to the Greek period, Armstrong makes the elementary distinctions between mythos and logos, the two complementary realms of human knowledge.

The rationalism of ancient Greece was not opposed to religion; indeed, it was itself a faith tradition that evolved its own distinctive version of the principles that guided most of the religious systems.  Philosophia was a yearning for transcendent wisdom; it had a healthy respect for the limitations of logos and held that the highest wisdom was rooted in unknowing.  (p. 74)

The philosophers of Athens were brought into a collision with developments that had already taken place in the land of Israel where God delivered the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage.  A set of texts which would eventually be known as the Hebrew Bible provided a new way to understand the Divine.  The Hebrew Bible was assembled in the Babylonian Diaspora after the bitter defeat and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.  The Israelite scholars organized their sacred documents in ways that preserved a multivalent sense of the past and of the complexity of God:

The Hebrew Bible was almost complete: preaching tolerance and respect for difference on the one hand and a strident chauvinism on the other, it was a difficult document to decipher and it is not clear that at this stage it had any official religious significance, or that it was used in the cult.  A transitional figure was Ezra, a scribe in the Persian court who had “set his heart to investigate the Torah of Yahweh and to do and teach the law and ordinance in Israel.”  (p. 46)

Here was, as Maimonides taught, a system that emerged out of the pagan desires of the Israelite people that now became more closely allied to what we now understand as Judaism.  The old Temple cult reflected the ideas of worship found in the neighboring Canaanite peoples, as the Bible itself argues in its many diatribes against Israel’s backsliding into cultic worship.  But with the formal emergence of a written code and a cohesive literary document that organized the stories of the Israelite past came a seminal figure like Ezra who sought to expound what was now Scripture, a holy book that could be parsed by the people.

As Jewish civilization emerged, it soon came to terms with the logos of the Greek philosophers.  Through this collision, sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, emerged the revolutionary Rabbinical movement and the Christian Church. 

The Rabbis continued the scholastic work of Ezra:

Anybody who imagines that revealed religion requires a craven clinging to a fixed, unalterable, and self-evident truth should read the rabbis.  Midrash required them to “investigate” and “go in search” of fresh insight.  The rabbis used the old scriptures not to retreat into the past but to propel them into the uncertainties of the post-temple world.  Like the Hellenistic philosophers, Jews started to build an intellectual “bricolage,” creatively reinterpreting the available authoritative texts to carry the tradition forward.  But already they had moved instinctively toward some of the great principles that had inspired the other major traditions to find a transcendent meaning amid life’s tragedy.  They too stressed the centrality of compassion and were developing a more interior spirituality. (p. 81)

The Jewish Sages set out an integrated program of ritual praxis, scholastic study, and ethical morality that defined the way Jews should live.  The many and varied rabbinical texts, the Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud, were formed as massive interpretive edifices that would instruct the individual members of the community how to conduct themselves according to the Laws of Moses.  These laws were filtered through the prism of tradition using the medium of exegesis. 

The exegetical method of the Sages allowed for a flexibility that was unimaginable under a Priestly regime.  Midrash permitted the Biblical text to adapt to new and changing circumstances.  With its multiplicity of exegetical meanings, Midrashic hermeneutics allowed for different ways of seeing.  It permitted the Bible to transcend both time and place in order to allow for an endless chain of multiple meanings that would be linked to the original text, but which would not be limited to the literal meaning of that text.

During the Roman occupation of Israel, another Jewish movement emerged that would have a major impact on Western religion.  The appearance of Jesus of Nazareth would serve to provide, as Maimonides has also taught, an alternative path to God’s revelation, this time for the Gentiles.  Christianity would draw from the same Hebrew Scriptures but would filter its belief system through the prophetic mission of Jesus.  Soon this mission was understood to involve an apocalyptic understanding of the world with Jesus serving as the transitional figure that would bring Christians to the God of old.

So too would we find yet another development of the Monotheistic idea among the tribes of Arabia as another prophet named Muhammad delivered his message of God to the pagans of the region.  Like the first Christians, proponents of Islam faced many challenges and tribulations, but successfully brought their message to a wide array of people and continued to attract new converts as time went on.

After the emergence of these three religious movements, new ways of interpretation attached themselves to the many complexities of faith.  But Armstrong advises us to understand what faith really meant at this stage of religious history:

Faith, therefore, was a matter of practical insight and active commitment; it had little to do with abstract belief or theological conjecture.  Judaism and Islam have remained religions of practice; they promote orthopraxy, right practice, rather than orthodoxy right teaching.

But different ways of approaching religion began to emerge:

In the early fourth century, however, Christianity had begun to move in a slightly different direction and developed a preoccupation with doctrinal correctness that would become its Achilles’ heel.  Yet even while some Christians stridently argued about abstruse dogmatic definitions, others – perhaps in reaction – developed a spirituality of silence and unknowing that would be just as important, characteristic and influential.  (p. 102)

As we move into the early Middle Ages, we see the many complications that arise from the collision of Greek philosophy and Monotheism.  New theologies emerge that begin to fuse logos and mythos.  Religious philosophy brings science and religion together.  Thinkers in the three religions take the challenges of science and incorporate the new ideas into their religious understanding:

The Jews in the Islamic empire, who were so excited by falsafah that they developed a philosophical movement of their own, had a similar experience.  Writing for the most part in Arabic, they introduced a metaphysical dimension into Judaism.  From the beginning, they were concerned about the contrast between the remote God of the philosophers and the highly personalized God of the Bible.  One of the first Jewish faylasufs, Saadia ibn Joseph (882-942), for example, found the idea of creation ex nihilo fraught with philosophical difficulties.  In the main, however, Jewish philosophers tended to be less radical than the Muslims, did not concern themselves with science, confined their attention to religious matters, and concluded in the main that reason’s chief use was to help the philosopher give a more systematic explanation of religious truth.  Maimonides (1134-1204), the greatest of all the Jewish rationalists, believed that falsafah was unsuitable for the laity, but it could wean Jews from more facile views of God.  Maimonides developed an apophatic spirituality that denied any positive attributes to God, arguing that we could not say that God was good or existed.  A person who relied on this affirmation would make God incredible, he warned in his Guide to the Perplexed, and “unconsciously lose his belief in God.”  (pp. 138-139)

It was in the work of religious thinkers like Maimonides that a hybrid conception of religion was developed that the Sephardic scholar Jose Faur has identified as “Religious Humanism.”  Religious Humanism is the conceptual formulation that fuses the parochialism of religion with the universalism of the scientific quest; two constructs that are forcibly separated in the binary world we now live in.

In the development of her argument in The Case for God, Armstrong hits on this idea but regrettably fails to name it precisely.  And this point is important as the category of Religious Humanism remains the most accurate way in which to address a religious construct that is faithful to both the Monotheistic tradition as well as to the magnificent achievements of science.

This lack of precision allows the book to falter as it continues to expound the ways in which religion becomes increasingly conflicted with scientific thinking.  As the Middle Ages comes to a close, religious violence in the form of the Crusades increasingly pits East against West.  And though the Christian world imports the idea of “Religious Humanism” from Arab scholasticism through a figure like Thomas Aquinas, it wrongly transformed the idea in ways that led to modern skepticism and atheism:

Largely as a result of his Boyle lectures, which made a huge impression, [Samuel] Clarke (1675-1729) was hailed as the most important theologian of the day.  His God was tangible: “There is no such thing as what men call the course of nature or the power of nature.  [It] is nothing else but the will of God producing certain effects in a continual regular, constant and uniform manner.”  God had become a mere force of nature.  Theology had thrown itself on the mercy of science.  At the time this seemed a good idea.  After the disaster of the Thirty Years’ War, a rational ideology that could control the dangerous turbulence of early modern religion seemed essential to the survival of civilization.  But the new scientific religion was about to make God incredible.  In reducing God to a scientific explanation, the scientists and theologians of the seventeenth century were turning God into an idol, a mere human projection.  (p. 207)

Tracing the development of the new skepticism to the movement of Converso Jews from the Iberian Peninsula to the Continent, Armstrong makes the fatal mistake of ignoring the ways in which Sephardic thinkers continued to teach the old understanding of God just as Conversos like Spinoza were destroying it. 

The constant emphasis by scholars on the philosophy of Spinoza often distorts the teaching of others who refused the binarism of religion and science.  For example, we can point to the rabbis of Amsterdam – the very Sages who anathematized Spinoza.  Those rabbis, men like Menasseh ben Israel and Saul Morteira – names not nearly as well known today as the lens-grinder Spinoza – held on to the old Maimonidean Religious Humanism in the face of the new Enlightenment philosophy.

Beyond this, we can point to Moses Mendelssohn, a German Jew who hearkened back to Maimonides, as well as London’s David Nieto, who espoused the values of a Religious Humanism that was sadly overtaken by the new thinking.  What many of these Jewish rabbis had in common was a religious philosophy that was articulated by thinkers as diverse as the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun and – most importantly – the Italian polymath and professor of Rhetoric Giambattista Vico.

In a critical passage of The Case for God, Armstrong cites the importance of Vico’s work:

Vico seemed to sense that a gap had opened between science and the humanities that had not existed before.  The scientific method taught the observer to be detached from what he was investigating, because it was essential to science that the result of an experiment be the same, whoever performed it.  Objective truth aspires to be independent of historical context and is assumed to be the same in any period or culture.  Such an approach tends to canonize the present, so that we project what we believe and find credible back onto the past or onto a civilization whose symbols and presuppositions might be different from our own.  Vico referred to this uncritical assessment of alien societies and remote historical periods as the “conceit” of scholars or rulers: “It is another property of the human mind that wherever men can form no idea of distant or unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar and at hand.” (pp. 217-218)

In Vico we have a vital example of the road not taken.  As Armstrong proceeds with her lengthy recounting of Enlightenment history and its formative impact on the Modern age of Darwin, Freud and Dawkins – a world bereft of God – this alternative history is unconscionably forgotten.  Vico’s critical historicism is vital to our understanding of both Science and Religion and needs to be better understood in the context of our current dilemmas.

Ignoring the figures we have just mentioned – Menasseh ben Israel and Moses Mendelssohn being the most important – Armstrong spends an inordinate amount of time treating the harsh vicissitudes of Modern Christian Europe and completely ignores other trends in the Mediterranean world.  While it is legitimate and completely necessary to track the progenitors of today’s scientists, the ignoring of Jewish and Islamic trends weakens the argument being made about Enlightenment and Modernity.

Indeed, an alternative lineage can be constructed – as has been done by Jose Faur in his many writings on the subject of Religious Humanism and the impact of Vico on Jewish tradition – that would trace the development of religious thinking from the rabbis of Amsterdam to David Nieto, Isaac Abendana, and Moses Angel in England to the seminal figures of Elijah Benamozegh in Livorno and Sabato Morais in Philadelphia.

This is a critical point because at a very important juncture in The Case for God the ideas of the scientists and those of the religious scholars set up a new dilemma that would create the current malaise:

In 1871, John William Draper (1811-1882), head of the department of medicine at New York University, published The History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, which went through fifty printings and was translated into ten languages.  While Religion clung timidly to the unchangeable truths of revelation, Science forged expansively ahead, giving us telescopes, barometers, canals, hospitals, sanitation, schools, the telegraph, calculus, sewing machines, rifles, and warships.  Only Science could liberate us from the tyranny of Religion (Draper habitually capitalized these terms so that they seemed like characters from a morality play).  “The ecclesiastic must learn to keep himself within the domain he has chosen, and cease to tyrannize over the philosopher, who, conscious of his own strength and purity of his motives, will bear such interference no longer.” (p. 252)

While Armstrong makes it clear that the split between Science and Religion had yet to assume the absolute form we have today, she is insistent that the die had been cast and that Western thinking was on the road to a conflict that would tear apart the synthesis that had held for many generations. 

The examples presented to us in the writings of the New Atheists assert the unqualified dominance of Science and marks Religion as a primitive construct by affirming that only the fundamentalist understanding of Religion is valid.  Such a lack of historical and critical sensitivity to the evolution of Religion is somewhat paradoxical and mars much of the critique in books like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  It also turns a blind eye to the historical development of scientific thought best expressed by the scholar Thomas Kuhn in his classic work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions through the many changes that take place in the development of new ideas and theories. 

As we discovered in a novel as prescient as Shelley’s Frankenstein, the unbounded confidence of Science would itself become another form of religious belief that it itself sometimes does not recognize.  In this context the critique of Karl Popper comes into play:

The scientific revolution of the 1920s clearly influenced the work of the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994).  In his seminal book The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934), he upheld the rationality of science and its commitment to rigorous testing and principled neutrality, but argued that it did not, as commonly thought, proceed by the systematic and cumulative collection of empirically verified facts.  It moved forward when scientists came up with bold, imaginative guesses that could never be perfectly verified and were no more reliable than any other “belief,” because testing could only show that a hypothesis was not false.  (p. 267)

We should note that Popper was also the author of a critical work called The Open Society and its Enemies which traveled back to Plato’s Athens and closely analyzed the totalizing discourses of antiquity and the ways in which such philosophies laid the groundwork for the way in which modern science sees its own project.  Such a critical discourse would lead to interpretive strategies that Armstrong uses as an alternative strategy in dealing with scientific absolutism.  She presents the alternative epistemologies of Post-Modernism as a means of dealing with the totalizing systems of the current age:

Postmodernists are particularly suspicious of Big Stories.  They regard Western history as scarred by the ceaseless compulsion to impose a totalizing system on the world. Sometimes this has been theological and has resulted in crusade and persecution, but the “stories” have also been scientific, economic, ideological, and political, resulting in the technological domination of nature and the sociopolitical subjection of others in slavery, genocide, colonialism, anti-Semitism, and the oppression of women and other minorities. 

Tellingly, her argument leads her – as it did Jose Faur and Susan Handelman, two scholars who understood the links between rabbinic Judaism and Post-Modernism – to the thought of Jacques Derrida:

Like any postmodern philosopher, Derrida was deeply suspicious of the fixed, binary polarities that characterize modern thought, and the atheist/theist divide was, he believed, too simple.  Atheists have reduced the complex phenomena of religion to suit their own ideologies – as Marx did when he called religion an opiate of the oppressed or Freud when he saw it as Oedipal terror.  A fixed and final denial of God on metaphysical grounds was for Derrida as culpable as any dogmatic religious “theology.”  Derrida himself, a secularized Jew, said that though he might pass for an atheist, he prayed all the time, had a messianic hope for a better world, and inclined to the view that, since no absolute certainty is within our grasp, we should for the sake of peace hesitate to make declarative statements of either belief or unbelief.  (pp. 311-312)

I think that the coda on which the book closes helps us to better understand the process that has alienated human beings from God and how we can get back to the sacred.  By firmly asserting the humility of unknowing in both the religious and scientific spheres, we may better sort out who we are and what we can truly know.  Unlike many rationalists who have chosen to demonize Derridean thought by marking it as simply nihilistic skepticism, Armstrong rightly chooses to affirm Post-Modernism as a means to retrieve an apophatic sensibility which is not frozen in some form of skepticism.

*****

The Case for God is a book that draws from much of Karen Armstrong’s previous work on religion and society.  It expertly presents the history of civilization in an inviting manner that will serve the general reader as an expert summary of most of the important ideas in our intellectual history.  Like A History of God it is a work of skilled synthesis that breaks down complex ideas and makes them accessible to the non-specialist.

But in addition to the sweeping overview that is crisply and confidently presented, the book has been designed to treat the question of our current predicament.  It is an attempt to find a solution to the battle currently being waged between the New Atheists and the Religious fundamentalists.  In this aspect, the book is somewhat less successful. 

After having devoted a good deal of time to the specifics of the scientific revolutions in Western civilization, the book pays too much attention to a Eurocentric view of things and not enough to the Vichian/Khaldunian strain of thought that is embodied in the Jewish and Muslim world(s) that are all too often forgotten in such discussions.

As European Judaism became embroiled in the controversies over science and religion, Sephardic Judaism found ways to maintain its equilibrium – even as Sephardic Judaism has routinely been ignored in such discussions. 

It is important to note that figures in the Sephardic Jewish world like Elijah Benamozegh, Sabato Morais, Israel Moses Hazzan and numerous others did not fold under the immense pressure being exerted in intellectual circles to choose from the either/or presented in the binary dilemma of science and religion.  Unlike their better-known Ashkenazi cohorts who would break off into warring denominations, many Sephardic rabbis were often able to fall back on the old Maimonidean epistemology even as that school of thought had been deeply damaged by Kabbalistic obscurantism and the Jewish reformers who began the process of incorporating the new atheistic concepts into Jewish thought.

Through the agency of the Italian-born, American rabbi Sabato Morais, many of the ideas that we would later find in Jewish Humanists like Abraham Joshua Heschel and, most recently, Jonathan Sacks, could be found in what the scholar Arthur Kiron has called “Atlantic Judaism.”  The cross-cultural promotion in the Atlantic world by Morais of Religious Humanism in a rabbinic key laid the foundation of a strategy that is only now finding its footing in intellectual circles.

It is no wonder that Derrida’s roots are in North Africa or that one of the most important of the religious Post-Modernists, Emmanuel Levinas, who is not cited by Armstrong in The Case for God, spent a good deal of time teaching North African Jewish students in both the Maghreb and Paris.  Indeed, the impact of Mediterranean Judaism with a pronounced debt to Vico’s philosophy has had a profound influence on the emergence of many critical ideas that Armstrong uses in the final section of her book.

Her argument would have been more effective had she accurately traced this influence and concretized it in historical terms. 

As it is, the average reader will be perplexed by citations of thinkers like John Caputo, Mark Taylor, and Gianni Vattimo whose writings are not as effective as those of Faur and Sacks in getting the point across.  The argument being mounted in The Case for God is undermined by a more esoteric approach as it reaches its conclusions.  Such an esotericism is strange given the lucidity of much of Armstrong’s work and gives the book an inconsistency that it does not deserve.

In this sense, The Case for God may be divided into two complementary parts:

On the one hand, we have an expert presentation of the history of Western civilization which can be appreciated by all readers. 

On the other hand, we have a poorly formulated theoretical conclusion which, though worthwhile in a conceptual sense, will be hard for the general reader to grasp.  Having looked at some reviews of the book, I noticed that the way in which Armstrong has chosen to deal with the current question of science and religion does not seem to resonate with the partisans on either side, and is uncritically accepted by those who already share its point of view.  It is my sense that many will leave the book unconvinced of its basic thesis; a thesis which is critical for us to accept. 

Although it is never an easy thing to bring together those whose enmity is so great, Armstrong might have done a better job with the use of contemporary sources than she has.

We are blessed to have a small but rich library of books that explore the idea of Religious Humanism that are unfortunately not utilized by Armstrong in The Case for God.  The many books of Abraham Joshua Heschel – particularly his masterwork translated into English as Heavenly Torah, which treats the matter of rationalism against mysticism in the rabbinic tradition – have fallen victim to the dilemmas of science and religion that we face.  The many Talmudic and philosophical studies of Emmanuel Levinas provide a more accessible entry into the world of the sacred in the context of ethical Humanistic philosophy.  The aphoristic poetry of the Egyptian-Jewish poet Edmond Jabes explores the many complexities of religion in a Post-Modern world.  In this context, Jose Faur’s Golden Doves with Silver Dots and Susan Handelman’s The Slayers of Moses are critical studies that illuminate some of the same problems that are dealt with in a more arcane fashion in The Case for God.  And finally, the recent books of Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, The Dignity of Difference and The Home We Build Together, are major additions to this library and an ideal entry-point for the general reader.

Setting out this laundry list of books and writers is not an attempt for me to grandstand and proclaim how clever I am.  I sincerely believe that it is important that the general reader is provided with sources that are intellectually accessible and cognitively transparent.  I find this point even more critical as I routinely include Karen Armstrong’s books in my reading lists. 

In The Case for God she tries her hand at polemical writing and is not wholly successful in bringing the various strands of her argument together as she is when she is just dealing with the historical record.  Recounting history is not exactly the same as being able to argue for the significance of that history.

But with this caveat in place, The Case for God is a major addition to the current discussion of religion and science in our culture. 

That conversation has been sorely infected by a deadening ignorance and unseemly partisan rancor.  Those of us living inside the religious community have often found ourselves stigmatized and abused for articulating scientific and rational ideas by a group of “believers” whose intolerance has reached a perilously heightened state. 

Conversely, trying to promote the ideals of religion has become just as impossible in a world of New Atheists and anti-religious zealots.  Both groups have demonized one another and thrown real critical thinking under the bus. A casualty in the process has been a loss of serious intellectual values that would inform the discussion; values that Armstrong quite successfully inculcates in her readers.

The Case for God is therefore essential reading for all of those who wish to reject the fanaticism and extremism of the current protagonists leading the acrimonious debate.  It is vital that we are able to work through our differences by coming to a better and more accurate understanding of the past and what that past can teach us about the present. 

As Armstrong wisely states:

One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of.  We may have to unlearn a great deal about religion before we can move on to new insight.  It is not easy to talk about what we call “God,” and the religious quest often begins with the deliberate dissolution of ordinary thought patterns.  (p. xviii)

On this salutary note, we can reaffirm the quest for knowledge; the central nexus in our search for the sacred and for God.


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