This morning, I read the introduction of Karen Armstrong’s A Case for God. I had seen her on a talk show last night. Her basic argument is that the modern advocates or apologists of the dominant faiths in the West (e.g., Judaism, Christianity and Islam) suffer from an “unskillful” practice. She claims that the scientific tenor of Western society since the 1600s has transformed the approaches to religion to stress cognition (i.e., belief) and rationality in way that renders religious narrative, or myth, as reduceable to a factual and historical basis. For example, did the historical Jesus really walk around after he had been crucified? Was he really a poor carpenter? Was Mary a virgin physiologically? The historical German method of interpreting the Bible led the way in this line of hermaneutics, but the twentieth-century fundamentalism (e.g., evangelicalism) was not far behind with its literalness.
In contrast to the dominant modern rendering of religion in terms of cognitive belief affirmations of fact and historical literalness, Armstrong claims that religion is about practice. Such praxis, she maintains, is geared to compassionate (i.e., feeling with) humility. Although she claims that all religions aim at this practical goal, it is so close to Jesus’ teachings and example that she might be projecting a Christianity-based understanding onto religion itself. Also, in practically reducing religion to practice, she may be reacting against another extreme (the cognitive-literal approach). In other words, her rendering could be viewed as partial rather than synopic. For instance, she claims that the metaphysical claims in a religion should be read as that the ethical practices have meaning. In my view, she comes very close to reducing religion to ethics, which is something liberal Protestantism has been criticized for doing. Take, for example, “God is love.” I interpret this as teaching that love is the source or basis of existence. Even though our acts of love (and feelings!…which Armstrong also discounts relative to conduct) involve “God is love” being actualized, there is also the sense irrespective of one’s conduct that existence itself is love. I take the transcendent wisdom of the latter to be just as important as conduct in religious terms.
I take religion to be a multifaceted phenomenon that does not reduce to practice or creedal belief. Even though Armstrong may come up short in this respect, she makes an excellent point that the modern understanding of religion is presumptuous (e.g., assuming we know more about God than we are entitled as finite beings to be able to know) and ahistoric. On the latter, she means that we have not sufficiently studied ancient and medieval interpretations that would place our modern cognitive and literal approach in relief as rather narrow and, indeed, out of sorts with the nature of religion. That is to say, if faith is not primarily about cognition or empirical knowledge of past events or persons (e.g., Moses, Jesus or Mohammad), then the dominant modern approach is “unskillful” or misplaced. It is ironic that moderns who may be so far off would presume to know so much about God, citing revelation. Of course, even perfect revelation would have to make its way through our own limited and imperfect eyes or ears, and neuropathways/rationality. Especially where a religion is reduced to its cognitive factfulness and empirical truth, our own limitations become quite salient.
I must admit I have been astounded (and frustrated) at the presumptuousness evinced by finite human beings who assume that the perfection of revelation runs perfectly through them as if they were innert permeable membranes rather than filters. In actuality, if the revelation was written without cognitive affirmation or literalness being assumed throughout, a “believer” who reads scripture in such terms could be distorting it without realizing it because of ignorance of the writers’ perspective. Of course, jthe fact that someone had to write down the revelation makes it difficult to maintain that the revelation itself is perfect. That someone taking himself to be a believer would not only assume that he has the truth but also seek to actively impose it on another human being with different beliefs is a rather emetic phenomenon. It is a package built on stilts…yet presumes it can run! That one human being would say to another, “No, your faith is wrong…Here’s mine…it is true” reminds me of self-idolatry (i.e., taking oneself to be God, or reducing God to a projection of oneself).
Observing the modern context of presumptuousness even as religion is understood and portrayed so differently than it has been understood historically, I wonder if the problems discussed by Armstrong are remeable. Can arrogance and presumption designed to bypass human critique by being based on God’s revelation be rectified by humans? It seems to me that the tools brought to bear on this problem would simply be dismissed–which is part and parcel of arrogant presumption. It could be that the only efficacious correction possible would have to come from within the “unskilled” themselves. This would involve a person recognizing and coming to terms with his or her own presumption as presumption. It may be far more likely that an approach to religion in line with the nature of religion will have to wait for a new epoch–perhaps one less enamored with rationality and empirical truth (i.e., “Just the facts”).
The attempts in the twentieth century to reduce religion to terms extrinsic to the nature of the phenomenon may be a symption of a broader societal decadence (which includes arrogant presumption, ironically). If I am correct in my thesis here, the old saying “You can’t fight ignorance” would be relevant. When confronted with an arrogant and ignorant person, I suppose all we can do is remember our own limitations and try to be compassionate. The nexus of arrogance and ignorance issuing in presumptuous claims may simply be the front gard of a suffering and insecure person. Reducing him or her to the shock wherein his or her faith turns against itself and freezes up may be deserved, but it would hardly be compassionate.