The Case for God

The Case for God

by Karen Armstrong

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Moving from the Paleolithic age to the present, Karen Armstrong details the great lengths to which humankind has gone in order to experience a sacred reality that it called by many names, such as God, Brahman, Nirvana, Allah, or Dao. Focusing especially on Christianity but including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Chinese spiritualities, Armstrong examines the diminished impulse toward religion in our own time, when a significant number of people either want nothing to do with God or question the efficacy of faith. Why has God become unbelievable? Why is it that atheists and theists alike now think and speak about God in a way that veers so profoundly from the thinking of our ancestors?

Answering these questions with the same depth of knowledge and profound insight that have marked all her acclaimed books, Armstrong makes clear how the changing face of the world has necessarily changed the importance of religion at both the societal and the individual level. And she makes a powerful, convincing argument for drawing on the insights of the past in order to build a faith that speaks to the needs of our dangerously polarized age. Yet she cautions us that religion was never supposed to provide answers that lie within the competence of human reason; that, she says, is the role of logos. The task of religion is “to help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there are no easy explanations.” She emphasizes, too, that religion will not work automatically. It is, she says, a practical discipline: its insights are derived not from abstract speculation but from “dedicated intellectual endeavor” and a “compassionate lifestyle that enables us to break out of the prism of selfhood.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307702371
Publisher: Random House Audio Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/22/2009
Edition description: Unabridged
Product dimensions: 5.02(w) x 5.92(h) x 1.61(d)

About the Author

Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous other books on religious affairs—including A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and The Great Transformation—and two memoirs, Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase. Her work has been translated into forty-five languages. She has addressed members of the U.S. Congress on three occasions; lectured to policy makers at the U.S. State Department; participated in the World Economic Forum in New York, Jordan, and Davos; addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and New York; is increasingly invited to speak in Muslim countries; and is now an ambassador for the UN Alliance of Civilizations. In February 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and is currently working with TED on a major international project to launch and propagate a Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public and crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, to be signed in the fall of 2009 by a thousand religious and secular leaders. She lives in London.

Read an Excerpt


We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile. In our democratic society, we think that the concept of God should be easy and that religion ought to be readily accessible to anybody. "That book was really hard!" readers have told me reproachfully, shaking their heads in faint reproof. "Of course it was!" I want to reply. "It was about
God." But many find this puzzling. Surely everybody knows what God is: the Supreme Being, a divine Personality, who created the world and everything in it. They look perplexed if you point out that it is inaccurate to call God the Supreme Being because God is not a being at all, and that we really don't understand what we mean when we say that he is "good," "wise," or "intelligent." 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. We tend to tame and domesticate God's "otherness." We regularly ask God to bless our nation, save our queen, cure our sickness, or give us a fine day for the picnic. We remind God that he has created the world and that we are miserable sinners, as though this may have slipped his mind. Politicians quote God to justify their policies, teachers use him to keep order in the classroom, and terrorists commit atrocities in his name. We beg God to support "our" side in an election or a war, even though our opponents are, presumably, also God's children and the object of his love and care.

There is also a tendency to assume that, even though we now live in a totally transformed world and have an entirely different worldview,people have always thought about God in exactly the same way as we do today. But despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped, even primitive. In some ways the modern God resembles the High God of remote antiquity, a theology that was unanimously either jettisoned or radically reinterpreted because it was found to be inept. Many people in the premodern world went out of their way to show that it was very difficult indeed to speak about God.

Theology is, of course, a very wordy discipline. People have written reams and talked unstoppably about God. But some of the greatest Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians made it clear that while it was important to put our ideas about the divine into words, these doctrines were man- made, and therefore were bound to be inadequate. They devised spiritual exercises that deliberately subverted normal patterns of thought and speech to help the faithful understand that the words we use to describe mundane things were simply not suitable for God. "He" was not good, divine, powerful, or intelligent in any way that we could understand. We could not even say that God "existed," because our concept of existence was too limited. Some of the sages preferred to say that God was "Nothing" because God was not another being. You certainly could not read your scriptures literally, as if they referred to divine facts. To these theologians some of our modern ideas about God would have seemed idolatrous.

It was not just a few radical theologians who took this line. Symbolism came more naturally to people in the premodern world than it does to us today. In medieval Europe, for example, Christians were taught to see the Mass as a symbolic reenactment of Jesus's life, death, and resurrection. The fact that they could not follow the Latin added to its mystique. Much of the Mass was recited by the priest in an undertone, and the solemn silence and liturgical drama, with its music and stylized gestures, put the congregation into a mental "space" that was separate from ordinary life. Today many are able to own a copy of the Bible or the Qur'an and have the literacy to read them, but in the past most people had an entirely different relationship with their scriptures. They listened to them, recited piecemeal, often in a foreign language and always in a heightened liturgical context. Preachers instructed them not to understand these texts in a purely literal way and suggested figurative interpretations. In the "mystery plays" performed annually on the feast of Corpus Christi,
medievals felt free to change the biblical stories, add new characters, and transpose them into a modern setting. These stories were not historical in our sense, because they were more than history.

In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two. Logos ("reason") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. People have always needed logos to make an efficient weapon, organize their societies, or plan an expedition. Logos was forward- looking, continually on the lookout for new ways of controlling the environment, improving old insights, or inventing something fresh. Logos was essential to the survival of our species. But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life's struggles. For that people turned to mythos or "myth."

Today we live in a society of scientific logos, and myth has fallen into disrepute. In popular parlance, a "myth" is something that is not true. But in the past, myth was not self- indulgent fantasy; rather, like logos, it helped people to live effectively in our confusing world, though in a different way. Myths may have told stories about the gods, but they were really focused on the more elusive, puzzling, and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside the remit of logos. Myth has been called a primitive form of psychology. When a myth described heroes threading their way through labyrinths, descending into the underworld, or fighting monsters, these were not understood as primarily factual stories. They were designed to help people negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche, which are difficult to access but which profoundly influence our thought and behavior. People had to enter the warren of their own minds and fight their personal demons. When Freud and Jung began to chart their scientific search for the soul, they instinctively turned to these ancient myths. A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time.

But a myth would not be effective if people simply "believed" in it. It was essentially a program of action. It could put you in the correct spiritual or psychological posture, but it was up to you to take the next step and make the "truth" of the myth a reality in your own life. The only way to assess the value and truth of any myth was to act upon it. The myth of the hero, for example, which takes the same form in nearly all cultural traditions, taught people how to unlock their own heroic potential.4 Later the stories of historical figures such as the Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad were made to conform to this paradigm so that their followers could imitate them in the same way. Put into practice, a myth could tell us something profoundly true about our humanity. It showed us how to live more richly and intensely, how to cope with our mortality, and how creatively to endure the suffering that flesh is heir to. But if we failed to apply it to our situation, a myth would remain abstract and incredible. From a very early date, people reenacted their myths in stylized ceremonies that worked aesthetically upon participants and, like any work of art, introduced them to a deeper dimension of existence. Myth and ritual were thus inseparable, so much so that it is often a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical story or the rites attached to it. Without ritual, myths made no sense and would remain as opaque as a musical score, which is impenetrable to most of us until interpreted instrumentally.

Religion, therefore, was not primarily something that people thought but something they did. Its truth was acquired by practical action. It is no use imagining that you will be able to drive a car if you simply read the manual or study the rules of the road. You cannot learn to dance, paint, or cook by perusing texts or recipes. The rules of a board game sound obscure, unnecessarily complicated, and dull until you start to play, when everything falls into place. There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice, but if you persevere, you find that you achieve something that seemed initially impossible. Instead of sinking to the bottom of the pool, you can float. You may learn to jump higher and with more grace than seems humanly possible or sing with unearthly beauty. You do not always understand how you achieve these feats, because your mind directs your body in a way that bypasses conscious, logical deliberation. But somehow you learn to transcend your original capabilities. Some of these activities bring indescribable joy. A musician can lose herself in her music, a dancer becomes inseparable from the dance, and a skier feels entirely at one with himself and the external world as he speeds down the slope. It is a satisfaction that goes deeper than merely "feeling good." It is what the Greeks called ekstasis, a "stepping outside" the norm. Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart. This will be one of the major themes of this book. It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of 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. Some people will be better at it than others, some appallingly inept, and some will miss the point entirely. But those who do not apply themselves will get nowhere at all. Religious people find it hard to explain how their rituals and practices work, just as a skater may not be fully conscious of the physical laws that enable her to glide over the ice on a thin blade.

The early Daoists saw religion as a "knack" acquired by constant practice. Zhuangzi (c. 370–311 BCE), one of the most important figures in the spiritual history of China, explained that it was no good trying to analyze religious teachings logically. He cites the carpenter Bian: "When I work on a wheel, if I hit too softly, pleasant as this is, it doesn't make for a good wheel. If I hit it furiously, I get tired and the thing doesn't work! So not too soft, not too vigorous. I grasp it in my hand and hold it in my heart. I cannot express this by word of mouth, I just know it."6 A hunchback who trapped cicadas in the forest with a sticky pole never missed a single one. He had so perfected his powers of concentration that he lost himself in the task, and his hands seemed to move by themselves. He had no idea how he did it, but knew only that he had acquired the knack after months of practice. This self- forgetfulness, Zhuangzi explained, was an ekstasis that enabled you to "step outside" the prism of ego and experience the sacred.

People who acquired this knack discovered a transcendent dimension of life that was not simply an external reality "out there" but was identical with the deepest level of their being. This reality, which they have called God, Dao, Brahman, or Nirvana, has been a fact of human life. But it was impossible to explain what it was in terms of logos. This imprecision was not frustrating, as a modern Western person might imagine, but brought with it an ekstasis that lifted practitioners beyond the constricting confines of self. Our scientifically oriented knowledge seeks to master reality, explain it, and bring it under the control of reason, but a delight in unknowing has also been part of the human experience. Even today, poets, philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists find that the contemplation of the insoluble is a source of joy, astonishment, and contentment.

One of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp. We constantly push our thoughts to an extreme, so that our minds seem to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence. Music has always been inseparable from religious expression, since, like religion at its best, music marks the "limits of reason." Because a territory is defined by its extremities, it follows that music must be "definitively" rational. It is the most corporeal of the arts: it is produced by breath, voice, horsehair, shells, guts, and skins and reaches "resonances in our bodies at levels deeper than will or consciousness." But it is also highly cerebral, requiring the balance of intricately complex energies and form-relations, and is intimately connected with mathematics. Yet this intensely rational activity segues into transcendence. Music goes beyond the reach of words: it is not about anything. A late
Beethoven quartet does not represent sorrow but elicits it in hearer and player alike, and yet it is emphatically not a sad experience. Like tragedy, it brings intense pleasure and insight. We seem to experience sadness directly in a way that transcends ego, because this is not my sadness but sorrow itself. In music, therefore, subjective and objective become one. Language has borders that we cannot cross. When we listen critically to our stuttering attempts to express ourselves, we become aware of an inexpressible otherness. "It is decisively the fact that language does have frontiers," explains the British critic George Steiner, "that gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world. It is just because we can go no further, because speech so marvellously fails us, that we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours." Every day, music confronts us with a mode of knowledge that defies logical analysis and empirical proof. It is "brimful of meanings which will not translate into logical structures or verbal expression." Hence all art constantly aspires to the condition of music; so too, at its best, does theology.

A modern skeptic will find it impossible to accept Steiner's conclusion that "what lies beyond man's word is eloquent of God." But perhaps that is because we have too limited an idea of God. We have not been doing our practice and have lost the "knack" of religion. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a time that historians call the early modern period, Western people began to develop an entirely new kind of civilization, governed by scientific rationality and based economically on technology and capital investment. Logos achieved such spectacular results that myth was discredited and the scientific method was thought to be the only reliable means of attaining truth. This would make religion difficult, if not impossible. As theologians began to adopt the criteria of science, the mythoi of Christianity were interpreted as empirically, rationally, and historically verifiable and forced into a style of thinking that was alien to them. Philosophers and scientists could no longer see the point of ritual, and religious knowledge became theoretical rather than practical. We lost the art of interpreting the old tales of gods walking the earth, dead men striding out of tombs, or seas parting miraculously. We began to understand concepts such as faith, revelation, myth, mystery, and dogma in a way that would have been very surprising to our ancestors. In particular, the meaning of the word "belief" changed, so that a credulous acceptance of creedal doctrines became the prerequisite of faith, so much so that today we often speak of religious people as "believers," as though accepting orthodox dogma "on faith" were their most important activity.

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. In the United States, Protestant fundamentalists have evolved an ideology known as "creation science" that regards the mythoi of the Bible as scientifically accurate. They have, therefore, campaigned against the teaching of evolution in the public schools, because it contradicts the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis.

Historically, atheism has rarely been a blanket denial of the sacred per se but has nearly always rejected a particular conception of the divine. At an early stage of their history, Christians and Muslims were both called "atheists" by their pagan contemporaries, not because they denied the reality of God but because their conception of divinity was so different that it seemed blasphemous. Atheism is therefore parasitically dependent on the form of theism it seeks to eliminate and becomes its reverse mirror image. Classical Western atheism was developed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, whose ideology was essentially a response to and dictated by the theological perception of God that had developed in Europe and the United States during the modern period. The more recent atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris is rather different, because it has focused exclusively on the God developed by the fundamentalisms, and all three insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religion. This has weakened their critique, because fundamentalism is in fact a defiantly unorthodox form of faith that frequently misrepresents the tradition it is trying to defend.But the "new atheists" command a wide readership, not only in secular Europe but even in the more conventionally religious United States. The popularity of their books suggests that many people are bewildered and even angered by the God concept they have inherited.

It is a pity that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris express themselves so intemperately, because some of their criticisms are valid. Religious people have indeed committed atrocities and crimes, and the fundamentalist theology the new atheists attack is indeed "unskillful," as the Buddhists would say. But they refuse, on principle, to dialogue with theologians who are more representative of mainstream tradition. As a result, their analysis is disappointingly shallow, because it is based on such poor theology. In fact, the new atheists are not radical enough. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have insisted for centuries that God does not exist and that there is "nothing" out there; in making these assertions, their aim was not to deny the reality of God but to safeguard God's transcendence. In our talkative and highly opinionated society, however, we seem to have lost sight of this important tradition that could solve many of our current religious problems.

I have no intention of attacking anybody's sincerely held beliefs. Many thousands of people find that the symbolism of the modern God works well for them: backed up by inspiring rituals and the discipline of living in a vibrant community, it has given them a sense of transcendent meaning. All the world faiths insist that true spirituality must be expressed consistently in practical compassion, the ability to feel with the other. If a conventional idea of God inspires empathy and respect for all others, it is doing its job. But the modern God is only one of the many theologies that developed during the three thousand-
year history of monotheism. Because "God" is infinite, nobody can have the last word. I am concerned that many people are confused about the nature of religious truth, a perplexity exacerbated by the contentious nature of so much religious discussion at the moment. My aim in this book is simply to bring something fresh to the table.

I can sympathize with the irritation of the new atheists, because, as I have explained in my memoir The Spiral Staircase, for many years I myself wanted nothing whatsoever to do with religion and some of my first books definitely tended to the Dawkinsesque. But my study of world religion during the last twenty years has compelled me to revise my earlier opinions. Not only has it opened my mind to aspects of religion as practiced in other traditions that qualified the parochial and dogmatic faith of my childhood, but a careful assessment of the evidence has made me see Christianity differently. One of the things I have learned is that quarreling about religion is counterproductive and not conducive to enlightenment. It not only makes authentic religious experience impossible but also violates the Socratic rationalist tradition.

In the first part of this book, I have tried to show how people thought about God in the premodern world in a way that, I hope,
throws light on some of the issues that people now find problematic— scripture, inspiration, creation, miracles, revelation, faith, belief, and mystery—as well as showing how religion goes wrong. In the second part, I trace the rise of the "modern God," which overturned so many traditional religious presuppositions. This cannot, of course, be an exhaustive account. I have focused on Christianity, because it was the tradition most immediately affected by the rise of scientific modernity and has also borne the brunt of the new atheistic assault. Further, within the Christian tradition I have concentrated on themes and traditions that speak directly to our present religious difficulties. Religion is complex; in every age, there are numerous strands of piety. No single tendency ever prevails in its entirety. People practice their faith in myriad contrasting and contradictory ways. But 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. People believed that God exceeded our thoughts and concepts and could be known only by dedicated practice. We have lost sight of this important insight, and this, I believe, is one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today. Hence I have given special attention to this neglected discipline in the hope that it may throw light on our contemporary predicament. But I do not, of course, claim that this was a universal attitude; simply that it was a major element in the practice not only of Christianity but of other monotheistic and nontheistic faiths and that it needs to be drawn to our attention.

Even though so many people are antagonistic to faith, the world is currently experiencing a religious revival. Contrary to the confident secularist predictions of the mid- twentieth century, religion is not going to disappear. But if it succumbs to the violent and intolerant strain that has always been inherent not only in the monotheisms but also in the modern scientific ethos, the new religiosity will be "unskillful." We are seeing a great deal of strident dogmatism today, religious and secular, but there is also a growing appreciation of the value of unknowing. We can never re- create the past, but we can learn from its mistakes and insights. There is a long religious tradition that stressed the importance of recognizing the limits of our knowledge, of silence, reticence, and awe. That is what I hope to explore in this book. 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. This may be what some of our earliest ancestors were trying to create in their extraordinary underground temples.

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

Part I The Unknown God (30,000 BCE to 1500 CE)

One  Homo religiosus
Two  God
Three  Reason
Four  Faith
Five  Silence
Six  Faith and Reason
Part II The Modern God (1500 CE to the Present)

Seven  Science and Religion
Eight  Scientific Religion
Nine  Enlightenment
Ten  Atheism
Eleven Unknowing
Twelve  Death of God?
Selected Bibliography

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The Case for God 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 98 reviews.
Will917 More than 1 year ago
In this book, Armstrong lays out the history of philosophical and religious concepts of God, primarily in the Judeo-Christian tradition and churches. Her writing is exceptionally clear and straightforward. her essential theme is that God is fundamentally unknowable. All of the "idolatrous" notions of God over the centuries are very clearly human projections. They are in no way based on revelations of the true nature of the Divine, which human minds just cannot fully understand and describe. This is a great book for seekers. It is also very good for understanding the views of others. Her material on American fundamentalism is superb.
David_A_Bassett More than 1 year ago
"We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile." That opening line hooked me on Karen Armstrong's new book, The Case for God. As a devout atheist, I was not immediately drawn to the title, but the latest book by this eminent scholar of religion seemed destined for my 'essential reading' list. Within a few minutes it became clear that this was not just one case for God, it was a history of the variety of cases made for god over many centuries and cultures. As presaged by the opening line, Armstrong's focus is on the God beyond "god", the mystic's g*d whose very name cannot even be known, the ultimate of the universe. The book's title could just as easily be, "The Quest For Certainty". The book opens with a chapter on the twilight before history, Paleolithic cave paintings and their potential meanings. What meaning or use might they have had for the original people who made these images? She explores some potential parallels with our contemporaries who live in Neolithic societies. What meanings do these images offer us for the nature of God, the nature of our understanding of God, or our understanding of our images of God? From this starting point Armstrong delves directly into the interplay of mythology, meaning, belief and being. She probes the parallels that can be found in mystical foundations of Hinduism, Daoism, Buddhism, Judaism, and other ancient religions of the Middle East, Mediterranean, India, and China. In chapter 2 Armstrong explores the beliefs about God among the ancient Israelites. So far this could be a retelling of her earlier History of God, but in chapter 3 entitled 'Reason' she expands the scope significantly by encompassing the early Greek Philosophers. Often their story is divorced from the religious subject matter and placed with the history of science. Armstrong's treatment brings them closer to the mystics. The call to a life of compassion becomes the common factor across many styles of belief and practice. In the following chapters Armstrong traces the ebb and flow of exegesis between literalism and allegory, between orthodoxy (right words) and orthopraxis (right action), between theology and philosophy. Armstrong explores the development of a variety of flavors of atheism. Often they are critical of the shallow, facile orthodox religious beliefs that deny the deep mystery of the Universe and may border on idolatry. Secularism is identified as a political movement which has sometimes identified religious practices to be economic disadvantages. Modern Atheism is called "a form of secular fundamentalism" which falsely propagates the absolute incompatibility of religion and science. Modern fundamentalism is drawn out as a reaction to these. In her Epilogue, Armstrong returns to the question of the purpose of religion. "Religion is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle." Armstrong places religious practice in closer relation to art, music, creativity, and a life of compassion. "Religion's task. was to help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's definitely not an "easy read" (keep a dictionary handy), but Armstrong provides a comprehensive review of how past cultures and philosophers have approached their belief in God and the mysterious. Armstrong does a good job of putting people's faith into the perspective of the times that they lived in, and examining how that has changed over the past several thousand years. She skims over Islam (briefly mentioned as it spread to Western Europe), which was a little disappointing to me, and other than a few mentions of Eastern religions, this is primarily about Greco-Roman philosophy, Christianity and Judaism. I enjoyed the book (I had to return my copy to the library and went out and bought my own), and if you've ever wanted to know more about how Christians and Jews have changed in their justification for faith and how they practice their faith, this is the book to read. As I mention in my header - it's hard to find books about religion that aren't overtly biased from either a preachy-religious perspective or an angry-atheistic perspective. Armstrong's tone through this book was respectful (and almost kind) towards all the people and faiths she analyzed, which I think is missing in a lot of discussions about religion. I will say, if you are a fundamentalist (of any faith), then this probably isn't the book for you since the writing is very frank about how our views of God and the Bible have changed over time and in relation to the external pressures facing people through history.
MarkRitz More than 1 year ago
Karen Armstrong has achieved noteworthy status with her latest, monumental work. She stands alongside Joseph Campbell as an expert mytho-theologian, and surely ranks as one of the greatest female commentators and thinkers on religion in Western history. Her grand review of the conceptualization of "God" in Jewish, Greek, and Christian culture shows that what we think we know about religion and God is highly temporal and superficial--and mostly mistaken. Surely the present-day, self proclaimed-atheistic and intolerant scourges of Mythos will now aim their gun sites on Armstrong, seeking to diminish her accomplishment and reputation so that they can continue in their un-self-examined delusional triumphalism of Logos alone, but any sapient and sincere practitioner of any spiritual path will see the sacred truth glimmering through her carefully-composed prose. It doesn't really matter if Armstrong has it all exactly right, or if the reader agrees with every aspect of her argument. I myself do not quite understand the apophatic in exactly the same way she presents it. However, her general explication of spirituality is accurate in that it moves the reader away from the lugubrious literal-minded conceptualizations of "God" which many of us have experienced in the mundane practice of our childhood religious faiths--poorly-practiced faiths which we consequently abandoned because they proved boring and meaningless in our unfettered Modern lives. Armstrong's thickly intellectual writing demands that the reader pay careful attention to her words, and it is helpful to draw on other works in order to do so. Her previous books, The Great Transformation, about the rising of the humanistic philosophies and religions along the grand belt of culture from China to India to Judea to Athens, and her autobiography, The Spiral Staircase, will serve the reader well in understanding the basis of Armstrong's ideas for this current work. Committed atheists will attack Armstrong for even using the term "God," but ultimately she remains diffident and uncommitted as to its definition. And this is as it should be. While most Westerners are trapped within a silly and annoying cliche that likely started with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel depiction of an old man with long white beard reaching out to the universal Adam, Armstrong repeatedly defends the assertions of earlier thinkers that "God" has no certain definition. It would not be surprising in Armstrong were also attacked from the religious right, because there will be many fundamentalists who do not want to hear that life is about uncertainty, and the greatest uncertainty of all is that amorphous thing termed "God." One gets a sense of this indefinite meaning in the term "Yahweh," but then such uncertainty is quickly passed over for the white-haired Big Daddy in the Sky. In some ways Armstrong tacitly hints that "God" is that which inspires awe. The average human being is not intellectually equipped to deal with the finely crafted and subtle argument which Armstrong presents in this book, so it is not suitable for everyone. However, it remains a volume that should be placed alongside the greatest religious thinkers of Western culture, for it steps over the petty and myopic arguments of our own conflicted and arrogant era to remind us that a spiritual life is much more profound and necessary than we might believe.
Othemts on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Summary/Review:From the title this book appears to be an apologetic approach to theism. Close but not quite. Karen Armstrong in fact writes an history of religious belief and practice (and the parallel growth of atheism) from prehistoric cave paintings to postmodern philosophers. While mostly focused on Western thought - and Christianity within that - Armstrong manages to incorporate a lot of world religion which makes a massive topic for a short book. And yet it's chock full of fascinating tidbits and connections I've never made.Armstrong's main points in this book are that literalism - both that which is insisted upon by religious conservatives and railed against by their anti-theist opponents - is a relatively modern phenomenon. Historically practice trumped belief and our fore-bearers would not comprehend the all-or-nothing approach of today's religious adherents.I'm not going to admit that I understood it all, but I did enjoy Armstrong's writing and ideas and would like to read more of her work.Favorite Passages:A good creation myth did not describe an event in the distant past but told people something essential about the present. It reminded them that things often had to get worse before they got better, that creativity demanded self-sacrifice and heroic struggle, and that everybody had to work hard to preserve the energies of the cosmos and establish society on a sound foundation. A creation story was primarily therapeutic. - p. 16Fundamentalism ¿ be it Jewish, Christian, or Muslim ¿ nearly always begins as a defensive movement; it is usually a response to a campaign of coreligionists or fellow countrymen that is experienced as inimical and invasive. - p. 271Thus the cosmologist Paul Davies speaks of his delight in science with its unanswered, and, perhaps, unanswerable questions .... Davies has confessed "It may seem bizarre, but in my opinion, science offers a surer path to God than religion." He is still asking the primordial question: Why is there something rather than nothing? - p. 310The ideal society should be based on charity rather than truth. In the past, [Gianni] Vattimo recalls, religious truth generally emerged from people interacting with others rather than by papal edict. Vattimo recalls Christ's saying, "When two or three are gathered in my name, I will be in the midst of them," and the classic hymn, "Where there is love, there is also God." - p. 314
The_Hibernator on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the first book I've read by Karen Armstrong. I've heard her books referred to as: "A history of God by an athiest." Upon reading this book, I think that is an inaccurate assesment. (Though she says her views on the subject of athiesm have developed since her early days of writing). This book is an historical account of religions (especially Christianity/Judaism/Islam) throughout time. The history is used as a background to describe how fundamentalism and athiesm have developed to the strictly opposing viewpoints that they are. Although the writing is dense and philosophical, I appreciated the message of the book: strict dogmatic viewpoints can lead to emotionally charged (and irrational) clashes. In forcing these unyielding beliefs upon ourselves and our neighbors, we lose the true message of spirituality.
AlanBevan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Superb historical account of the history of religious thought. There is a particular emphasis on Western Christian perspectives but not entirely limited to that. I found the conclusion to be surprising in that Armstrong doesn't argue for a 'God' that exists, rather she explores our need for significance, the need to acknowledge that there are aspects of our lives that go beyond the scientific (science can tell us we have cancer but is silent on how we can best deal with that) and that there are spaces beyond our imagining (why is there something, not nothing).I felt she shone a light on a murky place.
michaelbartley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoy Karen Armstrong's books, I think she presents a balanced view of religion and human kind's search for spirital meaning. She is very well read and knowledge, remainds me of Wil Durant.
steve.clason on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Armstrong's books cover a lot of groundl. Here, she surveys the received theology (my words, not here) from 30,000 BCE to our current millenium, narrowing her focus to the Abrahamic faiths as that sort of narrowing starts to make sense, touching on the economic, cultural, scientific and political events as well as the intellectual currents that shaped the unreflective theology of the general run of people. What they more-or-less believed, in other words, if not pressed to far.It is a well-told, coherent narrative, sometimes drifting into little more than lists of names but not often, remarkabke in it's breadth of scholarship and also in the courtesy she shows the reader in just keeping the story going. There's plenty to disagree with, if that's what you're looking for, but I enjoyed the sweeping review of stuff that I have paid attention to for most of my life but never imagined they could be so well combined into a single story.I give the book three stars instead of four because it's obviously polemical but doesn't make the argument strongly enough: " is perhaps time to return to a theology that asserts less and is more open to silence and unknowing" (page 326). Just so.Her better books are [A History of God] and [The Battle for God] in my opinion. This one is certainly worth reading, but a little redundant if you've read the others.
peterwall on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Karen Armstrong makes no case for God and only a weak, uneven, and confused case for "God." She clearly (and rightly) dismisses theology that treats God as merely the greatest power in existence, but ultimately fails to explain why the word or label "God" remains useful. In the final pages, where I hoped to see her "case" become clear, she only advocates what amounts to active engagement with life, mindfulness, and recognition of uncertainty. Why we need "to engage with a symbol [like "God"] imaginatively [and] become ritually and ethically involved with it" is not clear, except Armstrong claims that doing so will "allow it [the symbol] to effect a profound change in you." (See page 321.)Armstrong rightly points out that "God" the symbol too easily becomes God the idol, which is "one of the pitfalls of monotheism" (page 321), so why should we bother putting a label on "religious experience," which she appears to define as "explor[ing] the normal workings of our minds and notic[ing] how frequently these propel us quite naturally into transcendence" (page 327)? And what is "transcendence" anyway? If putting words on these things creates a dangerous "pitfall," then Armstrong has fatally undercut her case. To portray her book and her argument as being a "case for God," she is only irresponsibly perpetuating the problem that she has spilled so much ink to reveal, not just in this book, but in several earlier ones.It does seem quite "natural" or "normal"¿perhaps a better word is "commonplace"¿to recognize that we remain ignorant of the true nature of reality, but doing so while actively engaging with life and practicing mindfulness does not require having a label or a symbol like "God." Or Armstrong, at least, has not convincingly argued that it does, which is what I expected her to do, right from the beginning of the book.Ultimately (and unfortunately), this book follows what now appears to this reader as a clear progression in her work: writing that increasingly looks less like history, or even history of ideas, and more like roughly chronological bibliography with connective glosses here and there. It is not an argument, but a guided tour through Karen Armstrong's reading. Taken on those terms, The Case for God is quite an interesting work. But taken on the terms by which it seems to present itself, it is a failure.
Jaylia3 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The title of another book out last year excited me--The Evolution of God--but when I heard the author speak I was disappointed. (There was a lot of talk about zero sum game.) Armstrong's book is what I had hoped for from the other. It covers the changing ways people have viewed God and religion, from 30,000 BCE, when humans crawled deep into caves to cover their walls with paintings of animals and maybe shamans, to the present, when both fundamentalists and atheists insist on a strict literal interpretation of scriptures--a legacy of the modern scientific revolution that has left everyone, including the devout, looking for unambiguous, objective truth derived from some kind of logical deliberation. The modern way is simplistic; Armstrong believes religious life involves hard work, pushing finite hearts and minds to the edges of their understanding, toward the infinite.I took a long time to read this book and as soon as I finished I started reading it again. There is a lot to absorb and a lot that challenged my unexamined beliefs, a mind-blowing experience that's my drug of choice. As an an agnostic leaning toward a non-belligerent atheism, reading is almost my religion, so when Armstrong wrote convincingly about the printing press's drawback of moving learning and religion in a depersonalized and inflexible direction, leading in religion's case to ridiculous disagreements over finer and finer dogmatic distinctions, I was shocked into a speechless, apophatic state. One of many I experienced while reading her book. Which is maybe, or maybe not, ironic because that apophatic experience I got from reading is the right place, Armstrong believes, to begin transcending our everyday world and experiencing God. Religion, Armstrong writes, historically has been and should be more about practice and experience and less about blind belief in particular doctrines. Sounds great to me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book provides an explanation of fundamentals, provides important historical perspectives, and provides ways of thinking about God and religion that are important.
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