Tuesday 4 August 2009

A Case for God?

There’s a popular narrative some atheists trip out on that seems to think everybody alive before about 1960, certainly 1860, was simply a complete and utter bloody fool. They just believed in a big interventionist sky pixie called God on the basis of a completely literal reading of the Bible because they were too naïve and thick to know any better. Really? Did they not have brains?

New model atheists also sometimes play off soundbites from one religious tradition against another to prove they’re all rubbish. If there were anything in any of them, they would all say the same thing. To test this approach, you need someone who has actually studied more than one religion historically to find out what they actually have or haven’t said, and how, and why, as a matter of fact, they have developed.

Enter Karen Armstrong. You might agree or not with her conclusions, but she is unquestionably one of the most learned and perceptive historians of comparative religion in the world. She knows a bucketful of languages, history, philosophy and poetry. She is not particularly orthodox or signed up to anything, but she undoubtedly knows her stuff, and has a real knack for getting ideas across.

This is what she says:
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... There is also a tendency to assume that, even though we now live in a totally transformed world and have an entirely different world-view, 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.
She goes on to map out historically those images of God, old and new, that have developed within the world’s major religious traditions over the past 12,000 years. It’s a briliant compact work of historical description — I managed to read it in an 8 hour flight.

The basic idea is that all kinds of sophisticated visions, practises and subtleties flourished in the pre-modern world with a surprisingly high degree of mutual respect, understanding and flashes of emergent coherence. During the early modern period tooled up renaissance people fell in love with the idea of absolute certainty. When they couldn't quite attain it, they over compensated by constructing various formulations of provisional truth to be peddled as absolutes.

Thereby they lost much of the directness, openness, discipline, poetry and praxis of religion. All meanings were narrowed and noddied up for use as polemical rocks. Selective ignorance and paranoia bred fundamentalisms various, including atheistic ones. These are increasingly angry and desperate means of licensing the self to wallow in one, defined over and against all the others.

aking this narrowed rationalistic approach is very limiting; like playing opera on tinny little speakers. We need to learn how to learn again and wake up to the possibilities for unlocking truth that is not intellectually reductionist and ultimately fascistic. It’s a plea for the recovery of something that wouldn't have needed saying until comparatively recently — that God’s a big lad, and he can look after himself, and we can enjoy the sutlety, poetry and joy of discovering him for ourselves best in communities that are logged in and logged on, not fundamentalist blockhouses.


Steve Hayes said...

During the early modern period tooled up renaissance people fell in love with the idea of absolute certainty.

John Ralston Saul, in his Voltaire's bastards: the dictatorshop of reason in the West makes a similar point. One of the things that postmodernity reacts against.

UKViewer said...

What a marvelous post. I feel very comfortable enbedded in my Parish which keeps things simple, are welcoming and just function as I understand a church should as Jesus Christ's body here on earth.

I am trying to grow at a pace which allows me to appreciate and understand what I learn about God and the Bible and Church.

Having been brought up RC, in the 50's and 60's I was indoctrinated with mystique, dogma and doctrine which served to keep me with the RC until well into adulthood.

Unfortunately, the first major crisis in my life left me completely at a loss and with no confidence or belief in the God of my childhood. I abandoned him and did not look back.

Now, 25 years later he has taken or called me back but in a meaningful way, by helping me in crisis and through it to a point where I understood what was happening - he was working in my life in a wonderful and joyous way.
I literally felt him saying deep inside I am here - just ask!

I feel his Grace and the Holy Spirit all of the time - I appreciate that I was lost and am now found.

I am learning all over again from the basics of how great God is and will always be.

Where - in the Church of England at Parish Level with a great Priest and Ministry Team and congregation who believe and worship together.

Steve Tilley said...

Agreed on the basis of my enjoyment of the first 30 pages or so. I think her analysis will come in handy when the creation/evolution debate breaks out again once the film about Darwin's life 'Creation' comes out in September.

Fr Paul Trathen, Vicar said...

+Tom Wright tells an amusing little anecdote about the time when - as a college chaplain in Oxford - he attended the Freshers' Welcome (or whatever) and was introduced to the new intake as 'the Chaplain'...as he glad-handed the newbies as they headed out the door, one remarked that it was a shame they wouldn't meet again during his three years at uni since he thought that Tom seemed a nice enough bloke, an' all, but he himself didn't believe in God...
Tom then said something along the lines of "Tell me about the God you don't believe in...", student reeled off a couple of daft lines about a received notion of an interventionist 'High God' (with a spot of anthropomorphism thrown in) and Tom replied,
"Oh! I don't believe in that God either! Maybe we could have an interesting chat sometime soon?!?..."

Erp said...

I'm not sure where you are finding the atheists of your first two paragraphs though maybe you are exaggerating a bit for effect. Perhaps some uneducated in history (unfortunately too often true for people on all sides).

But is the major problem the narrow minded atheists or the narrow minded Christians (and other theists)? Most non-theists I know don't mind the poetry, the myth, the music of religion, the power of parables (the exceptions seem to be those burnt badly by narrow minded religions). Some such as Vaughan Williams even contributed to the tradition. What they do mind is when people cite religion for contradicting well-supported science (or history) or for leaning one way or another on social issues. I know that many Christians (and other religious people) also find the former wrong and also try to use rational reasons to support their views on social issues. However are some looking to their own house first before attacking the narrow minded atheists or even atheists in general?

We have a chasm in understanding that needs to be bridged. I try reading blogs of different persuasions (hence why I'm reading yours) and some do try bridging (sometimes sporadically). One recent one was an interview between a non-theist, Valerie Tarico, and the blogger, an evangelical Christian. It is interesting reading (don't forget the 100+ comments from all sides). Hemant Mehta often tries making connections (perhaps too much, how many atheists have had a book published by a Christian publishing house); unlike most of the well known atheists his cultural background is not from an Abrahamic religion, he was raised a Jain.

It is hard to confess, but I can enjoy religious music, and even religious poetry. I
think the Book of Common Prayer, or the King James Bible, are great glories of the
English language, and I am grateful for an education that did something to immerse me in
their vocabulary and rhythms. I suppose I regard the Church of England as an old family
pet: a bit moth-eaten, prone to scratch at its own fleas (gay marriages, women bishops)
but familiar and somehow comforting, best when it is not making too much noise.

Simon Blackburn
Religion and Respect
(one atheist's POV).

Steven Carr said...

Tom then said something along the lines of "Tell me about the God you don't believe in...",

I don't believe in the God who came down to earth and told his friends how to get free money by looking in the mouth of a fish - the God of the Bible, in other words.

I assume that Karen Armstrong produced zero evidence for a god in her book.

Karen Armstrong is a sophisticated theologian.

An ignorant atheist is an atheist who cannot tell you what sort of God you believe in.

A sophisticated theologian is one who cannot tell you what sort of God he himself believes in.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Many thanks for a truly fascinating read of these comments when I got in!

Syevem, thanks for JRS, whomI had not heard of, and who looks very interesting.

UKV, I'm reminded of the comment that all of us have a yearning for that with which we first felt the presence of wonder; to recover that, whilst retaining the critical sense to place yourself within it freely and reactively seems like TSEliot's getting back to where you have been, but knowing why — a great opening for the Spirit, and a joyful place to be.

St; I'll look forward tot eh Darwin film. It's gascinating how Darwin himself distanced himself quite consciously from what he saw as the socially subversive Mechanistic atheism of some of his freinds. he comes over (on the basis of a couple of biographies) as a humble, tender agnostic (and parish treasurer!) who would be horrified at some of the castles in the air built by people calling themselves his followers.

Paul, this takes me to experiences I've often had, reproduced in this column, by Steven! If eople want to be daft there's no stopping them, I suppose.

Erp, I think one of the keys to this is people's sense of history (or not). We certainly have a godly tradition in England of what John Mortimer used to call "Atheists for Jesus." The Simon Blackburn quote is magic. The key from Karen Armstrong's book is that if you shove everything through a certain grid, you end up stuck with a fundamentalism that is self-authenticating, Chritian or Atheist or whatever, and therefore self-disqualified from the good stuff you mention in terms of non-theist friends. The openness to learn is the gatekeeper, and the willingness to do so even if you don't end up in a single place.

Steven, Karen Atmstrong is not necessarily a spophisticated theologian, but an historian of religions. She doesn't talk in this book about her own convictions (though she has written an autobiography I haven't read where she does). Her convictions are not the point of the book, but historical truth is. You are free, of course, to assume whatever you like about her book without reading it!

Erp said...

I guess I'm sort of an 'atheist for Jesus" then. I note that Dawkins has an "atheists for Jesus" t-shirt. The Blackburn quote was from an essay in a collection of essays by philosophers entitled, "Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life" edited by Louise M. Anthony (Oxford University Press, USA, 2007). I'm working my way through it and finding it quite thought provoking.

I'm looking forward to reading Armstrong's book when it comes out in the States. She has actually written three books about her life, but, I have only read the third (in which she disavows the second), The Spiral Staircase, about her experiences including her spiritual journey after leaving the convent. It is well worth reading though a bit of a horror story in regards to her misdiagnosed epilepsy.

I'm not so sure about awaiting the Darwin film for fear that it would try simplifying things. As you mentioned Darwin was involved in the parish church though his relationship with the incumbents depended on the incumbent. Also his wife wasn't a conventional Christian or static in her beliefs. She was described by her daughter:

In our childhood and youth she was not only sincerely religious this she always was in the true sense of the word- but definite in her beliefs. She went regularly to church and took the Sacrament. She read the Bible with us and taught us a simple Unitarian Creed, though we were baptized and confirmed in the Church of England. In her youth religion must have largely filled her life, and there is evidence in the papers she left that it distressed her, in her early married life, to know that my father did not share her faith. ...

She spoke little to us about her religious feelings. I remember once, when I was a girl, her telling me that she had often felt she could only bear her anxiety by saying a prayer for help. As years went on her beliefs must have greatly changed, but she kept a sorrowful wish to believe more, and I know that it was an abiding sadness to her that her faith was less vivid than it had been in her vouth. It would however give a wrong impression, if it was thought that this overclouded her life. Her perfect unselfishness and active goodness gave her rest, peace and happiness.

In one of her later letters to her daughter she wrote:

...I am reading the Psalms and I cannot conceive how they have satisfied the devotional feelings of the world for such centuries. I am at the 35th, and about three or four I have found beautiful and satisfactory, the rest are almost all calling for protection against enemies or for vengeance, one fine penitential Psalm.

Emma Darwin, letter to her daughter, 1895

Anonymous said...

Karen is not really making a case for The Divine at all--she is talking archaic tribalistic ideas about The Divine which were invented long ago in the childhood of humankind.

By contrast these references give an Illuminated Understanding of The Divine in todays reality language, completely free of all of the usual self-serving myth bound ideas about The Divine.





Plus critical essays on Christianity


Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Erp for those great references, esp Mr Blackburn. I want to read the Spiral Staircase, which I'm told is very funny, quite apart from anything else.

In the same way as Brits and Americans are two peoples divided by a common language (we think we understand each other, when we are actually using words in subtly different ways much of the time) I have found, as a student of 19th century history, the same is true of Victorians. There are so many gradations of subtlety, and we tend to thnk of people as having much more fied positons than in fact they had. they were often far more tentative about belief and unbelief. And as far as many of them were concerned, everything was going to hell in a handcart faster than they could handle! We have that in common with them, at least.

The use of the term "Christian" as a substitute for "Evangelical" is very much a twentieth century thing.

I;ve found the best resource to dive into to explore these belief/unbelief progress/ losing it issues is George Eliot. Mrs D comes over very much as a Dorothea figure.

In terms of theological expressions of her point of view Frederick Temple and the Essays and Revoews people are a great way in — that and F. D. Maurice.

They had a gloriously unpolarised and sutble pool to play in, before the Scropes trial!

Dear Anon, whoever you be, thank you for illustrating the problem precisely!

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