Friday, December 04, 2009

This Just Doesn’t Ring True

Karen Armstrong is a prolific writer about religion, and stakes out a conciliatory position in contemporary debates between "new" atheists and theists. I have not read any of her books and I don’t claim any expertise on the subject matter! But nonetheless her take on religious history as presented in this op-ed piece bothered me. Perhaps someone more familiar with her work and/or with history can set me straight.

Here are excerpts:

In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence…

But by the end of the 17th century, instead of looking through the symbol to "the God beyond God," Christians were transforming it into hard fact. Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient and omnipotent creator……it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God's existence. This would not have been a disaster had not Christians become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource.

Symbolism was essential to premodern religion, because it was only possible to speak about the ultimate reality—God, Tao, Brahman or Nirvana—analogically, since it lay beyond the reach of words…. This remained standard practice in the West until the 17th century…

Now I think that if one questioned the literal truth of the Bible in Europe in the centuries before Newton you would have been vulnerable to exile, jail, torture or death. I don't doubt that a number of theologians were subtle enough to avoid appearing to question literal truth while spinning out a an essentially symbolic interpretation of God and the Bible, but this fact isn’t enough to assert something about “standard practice in the West.”

What is she talking about?

UPDATE: 7 December 2009
In this interview on NPR (hat tip Thomas J McFarlane), Armstrong, after discussing the Descartes’ and Newton’s vision of God and universe says:

Well, once this scientific religion caught hold, people started to read the Bible in a literal manner, where they never had before. Nobody before the 17th, 18th century understood the first chapter of Genesis as a literal account of the origins of life. ….

St. Augustine had made it quite clear, too, in the Christian world, that if a biblical text contradicted Scripture, that text must be re-interpreted and given an allegorical interpretation. And that remained the practice of the church right up until the 16th century.

Nobody expected literal proof from Scripture, and that's whether you look in the Jewish world, people like Maimonides (ph); in the Muslim world, people like Abu Sina or Al-Ghazali; or in the Christian world with Thomas Aquinas.
I’m sorry. I understand the point she’s trying to make. She wants to argue that scientific understanding created fertile ground for a reactionary fundamentalism as well as for atheism. However, I still don’t buy this historical analysis implying there was some golden era of gentle allegorical interpretation of God as the ineffable Brahman during Europe’s dark ages (sorry for the sarcasm).

I don’t think you can cherry pick a few theologians and say this allegorical understanding of God and scripture was the pre-17th century “standard of practice”. And may I say using the creation story in Genesis as your example is far too easy – I’d like to hear an argument saying the New Testament miracles, including the resurrection of Christ, were taken as allegorical.

Maybe Armstrong makes a more persuasive case in her book – I guess I’ll have to read it now!? (Maybe overgeneralizations in the op-ed and interviews are in fact a deviously effective marketing strategy to sell the book).


Doru said...

Hi Steve,
Initially I had the same reaction, “What is she talking about??????”
Then after reflecting a little, it kind of started to make same sense to me,,,
I was brought up in a traditional east-european Greek-orthodox religion which is one of the most conservative. They pretty much tried to preserve all the rituals and symbols accumulated since Paul set-up the first Christian churches. So it has a strong symbolist view that transcends any “hard facts” of human experience. The fact that you couldn’t deny the literal truth of the bible, it seems to me to be outside of what Karen actually meant.
The science did forced religion into evolution. If you look at the modern evangelicals; they eliminated all the symbols, icons, rituals and made religious faith real and alive. My 11 y.o. son, born here in US, literally believes that Noah had dinosaurs on his boat because that what they told him at his Baptist Sunday school.

p.s. My greatest book on the subject, Richard Dawkins “The delusional God”.

Steve said...

Hi Doru. Thanks for the comment -- I think you make a good point.

I was raised Roman Catholic and I appreciate the power of the candles, the costumes, the incense, the music; and think of when the mass was said in Latin -- the whole experience was symbolic and otherworldly.

Still, I think that if everyday folks (not theologians) in medieval times discussed religion at all (and perhaps they rarely did - do we know what non-elites were doing through most of history?), I imagine they would have taken bible stories, miracles and the rest completely literally. But I'm willing to be corrected on this.

While I have my disagreements with Dawkins, he isn't disingenuous or condescending -- some of critics, on the other hand, strike me that way.

Thomas J McFarlane said...

Terry Gross interviewed Karen Armstrong and their discussion touches on this question about half way through.

Steve said...

Thanks very much for the link. I'll check that out.

Steve said...

I updated the post with some brief thoughts following reading the interview transcript.

Crude said...


For one thing, I think you have to draw a distinction between "everyday folks" and "theologians" when it comes to talking about the middle ages. "Everyday folks" weren't and, sadly, typically aren't all that concerned with deeper questions of theology, just like they aren't concerned with deeper questions of science.

I think Armstrong is full of hot air in large part - no, I don't think anyone was taking Christ's miracles and resurrection, etc, as totally allegorical (Having an allegorical use despite having actually occurred? Sure.)

But yes - even early Christianity's view of God was more nuanced, and definitely not 'Some guy with a beard sitting on a throne'. Just look at Aquinas and other's view of God as pure act, Augustine's view of God as the good (Echoing in part the neo-platonists), the idea that God was beyond all knowledge and could only be known by analogy, etc.

It isn't as simple as Karen Armstrong makes it out to be, but the general gist does have a point. Especially in the Catholic Church, which so thoroughly Christianized some of the greatest greek thinkers that to defend Plato or Aristotle is to indirectly defend Catholicism.

Steve said...

Thanks, that's helpful. I see the point there.

Clearly we have an educated lay public today which can debate these things, and that didn't exist in the period under discussion. Hence my continuing feeling she is wrong to make claims comparing the "standard practice" and asserting "people started to read the Bible in a literal manner, where they never had before." (I'll try to stop beating this horse now).

Its interesting that your comments and some earlier ones bring out a catholic/orthodox vs. protestant angle in this as well.

Matt Peed said...

I agree with these comments--she seems to be way overstating her point, but has a point nonetheless. If you're interested, I would recommend a course by The Teaching Company called "Philosophy and Religion in the West." It begins with Plato, and has a lot of discussion on the role of Platonism in Western religion, both Christian and Jewish. To me, the questions that motivated the thinkers covered in the course did seem to grow out of, and make room for, a less Newtonian/Cartesian approach to reality and a less literalist approach to Scripture. But as you pointed out, I'm not sure how that relates to the thoughts of the everyday believers.

Steve said...

Thanks, Matt.