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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Karen Armstrong tells us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, 2 Oct. 2009
This review is from: The Case for God: What Religion Really Means (Paperback)
Karen Armstrong argues - with her usual elegance, eloquence and breadth of knowledge - her familiar case: that the true meaning of religion is mythos and not logos, and cannot be understood if analyzed in terms of logos. Mythos, she maintains, was the universally prevailing way in which people approached religion, before the rise of science in early modern history brought about the fatal change that made people look for logos in religious statements.

In the pre-scientific period - which goes all the way back to the Stone Age - she says that worshippers did not, and were not intended to, take their myths literally, but rather as symbolical expressions of human experience. We certainly regard them as such today, and it accounts for the spell they continue to exert down the ages. But it is extremely difficult, I think, to be sure that they were not ALSO taken literally during the times for which we have no written texts (as in the case of the Stone Age). When we come to the time when surviving texts do become relatively plentiful, there are indeed sages in several of the great religious or quasi-religious texts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam - who do say that it is impossible to pin down the transcendental nature of spiritual experience; but these are the writings precisely of sages, and I think one cannot assume that their teachings, difficult as they are, really affected the millions of worshippers to the extent that one can confidently say that they did not take the myths literally. She rightly points out that spiritual life requires a lot of training (again, rightly, training of practice rather than of theory), which would again suggest that perhaps only a minority could live, as the Buddha put it, `skilfully' or `helpfully'. And even among the teachers of the élite, there were frequently influential exponents of `unskilful' attitudes. In short, I cannot think that in religious practices of the pre-scientific period there was not a great deal of taking the myths literally, and therefore, then as now, quite a lot of what is more accurately described as superstition rather than as spirituality. And though some superstitions derive their strength from being ALSO symbolic of some fear or hope within us, the literal belief in them does at best invite compassionate understanding and at worst ridicule.

Undoubtedly one way in which ordinary people can have `transcendental' experiences is through rituals which not only free them from logos but also from the considerations of ordinary life, taking them `out of themselves' (or perhaps deeply `into themselves').

Karen Armstrong says that originally Judaism, Christianity and Islam did not impose any faith, belief or creed. They urged orthopraxy (certain ways of behaviour which those who strenuously followed them would find putting them in touch with spiritual experiences) and not orthodoxy (the requirement to assent to doctrinal teaching). Specifically, what early Christianity asked for was `pistis', the original Greek word meaning `commitment', and which was then translated by Jerome into Latin as `fides' which originally meant `loyalty', but later came to be translated as `faith'. He translated the verb `pisteuo' (`I commit myself') into `credo', which originally meant `I give my heart' (`cor do') and was in turn translated into `I believe', when in Middle English `bileven' meant `to hold dear' (cf. `beloved'). Unfortunately Christendom then took a wrong turning at the time of the Council of Nicaea, which did formulate a Creed in the modern sense, requiring Christians to assent to doctrinal teaching. Even then, however, many theologians stressed that you cannot SAY anything about God: you can only have a true religious EXPERIENCE by practising certain difficult mental processes. And even those medieval theologians (like Aquinas) who claimed that the `existence' of God could be demonstrated by Reason stressed that we cannot grasp His nature or His attributes.

The invention of printing (together with the new disciplines of science) to some extent destroyed power of mythos: the printed word was explicated in a way in which the transcendent Word had not been. Catholics and the Protestant sects increasingly relied on catechisms, pinning their followers down to `creeds' in the modern sense. (Armstrong completely ignored this phenomenon and the consequent persecution of `heretics' in the pre-modern period. I feel that in the first half of the book, she places rather selective emphasis on those approaches to religion which she shares, and makes them perhaps more representative of pre-modern times than they really are.)

In the second half of the book, (except for the last two chapters which are less "run of the mill") she traverses ground which many other books, including her own earlier "A History of God", have made very familiar: how early scientists used science to `prove' that there was a God, and how later scientists used science as a weapon against religion; and she considers the role of Biblical Criticism. She looks at the Evangelical reaction against this (paying more attention to the United States than most European books on religion do). Finally the later Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Tillich and others restored the notion that religious language and scientific language are two quite different things: we do not find God by talking about him, but by finding the transcendental and inexpressible, indeed the Unknowable, in our inner being, in what Pascal had described as "that God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person which can never be filled by any created thing" (including a God created in Man's image).

Once again, this is a difficult thing to do; and though today there is still a lot around of what Karen Armstrong considers a false approach to the Divine, for a growing number of people a major alternative is to make no approach at all, with the question mark of her last chapter heading - The Death of God? - omitted.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 4 Oct 2009 17:06:13 BDT
G Bradley says:
Whilst I think your review makes some excellent points, I couldn't help but notice the phrase "we do not find God by talking about him". Whilst I have no religious allegiances, I do think there is something to what Armstrong and others, like yourself, have to say. However, I find it very strange and distracting to couch something as enormous as the unknowable nature of being in terms of such an anthropocentric phrase. Wouldn't the mind be more open to the awareness of being without such metaphors?

Posted on 31 Oct 2009 06:32:11 GMT
J. G. Knebel says:
Phewwwwwwwwwwwww! Szzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Please keep your reviews concise and 'on message'. Its like wading through treacle!!

In reply to an earlier post on 31 Oct 2009 08:42:14 GMT
Sleep well, then!

In reply to an earlier post on 1 Nov 2009 20:17:58 GMT
[Deleted by the author on 1 Nov 2009 20:19:27 GMT]

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Dec 2009 10:06:19 GMT
Last edited by the author on 8 Dec 2009 10:06:33 GMT
I find Mr Blumenau's reviews fantastically well-written and stimulating. Why can't there be both long reviews, for people who like to digest and critique ideas, and short reviews for those who prefer things 'on message'? Books are expensive, and I enjoy knowing more about a book and its ideas - and reading intelligent discussion of them - before buying.

Posted on 10 Jul 2010 21:50:06 BDT
An interesting & detailed review. Thanks - It gives me a clear sense of what the book is about (without actually having read it).

A couple of points come to mind - the author appears to claim that literalist interpretation of religion is a result of the scientific era as opposed to the previous understanding of god as "Mythos". The wars and battles over alleged heresies over the millenia would seem to contradict her argument. F1 example - from the 4th Centuary CE, those who were not followers of the orthodox Christianity were killed by those who were - suggesting they believed it was logos rather than mythos.

Secondly - "finding the transcendental and inexpressible" comes from many roots - including monasticism. But also, is a motivation of many scientists. I think that most of what is religion in this country is at best a distraction from this search, and all too often can lead to glib answers that stop further thinking (if God made the universe, that is all right & I don't need to think further on it.) If Karen Armstrong is arguing for a religion that avoids what currently is available in the west in favour of something more transcendental (Sufism; Monastic Christianity; Yogic Hinduism), then perhaps she would be better off dropping God entirely, and teaching people how to transcend themselves - rather as Buddha and Nietzche did before her.
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