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Book Review: “The Case for God”

January 18, 2010

The Case for God
by Karen Armstrong
2009, Alfred A. Knopf
10 out of 10

It’s not many scholars of religion who understand the essence of religious practice. The subject has unfortunately been transformed into a purely rational exercise seeking to understand religion as if it were simply an incidental collection of ideas requiring mere intellectual assent, as vulnerable to intellectual analysis as any other set of ideas. The obvious problem of this approach is set down perfectly by Armstrong herself in the introduction to The Case for God:

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. (pg xiii)

For Karen Armstrong, unlike most religion scholars, religious history and theology are themselves religious disciplines. They both have the power to reveal to us the fact that we cannot box the Transcendent into any categories, that God or the Dao or Nirvana cannot be defined by any thoughts, emotions, or limited to a cultural context. Religious history reveals the cultural relativity of religious symbolism, but also the core universal experiences achieved by all of the great traditions. Theology insists upon the indefinite God, pealing away layer after layer of description and rationalization until, like the Buddha’s teaching of non-self, we arrive at that incredible Nothing in which we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

The Case for God was written principally as Armstrong’s response to the “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and their ilk. In this capacity, the book serves admirably. Most responses of this sort (such as philosopher, and former atheist, Antony Flew’s There Is A God [2007, HarperOne], and The Dawkins Delusion? by Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath [2007, IVP Books]) try to convince the reader that, contrary to the arguments common to the new atheists, belief in God is reasonable or, at least, not unreasonable. These books make for fascinating reading, and excellent thought experiments, but really do not approach the very core of the subject at hand. Another approach in the genre, that of journalist Chris Hedges in his I Don’t Believe in Atheists (2008, Free Press), is to undercut the atheists’ fundamentalist paradigm rather than their questioning of the idea of God. This mode of thought is itself valuable, for the religious and irreligious alike, as it requires the reader to question the assumptions of modernist and rationalist thinking that most of us hold dear without even realizing it.

For her part, Karen Armstrong takes a similar tack to Hedges, but she particularizes it to arguing that the very definitions of the idea of God used in debating both for and against are themselves the problem. In other words, the fact that we define God at all makes all cases in either direction false, at least insofar as they are based on merely thinking or emoting rather than actual religious experience.

The heart and soul of Armstrong’s entire approach to religion, perfectly exemplified by her expostulation in The Case for God, is that none of the great religious teachers approached the subject as either the intense emotional experiences found in most modern Western systems (whether of “charismatic” or “ecstatic” forms of Christianity, Judaism, Neopaganism, New Age spiritualities, or what have you), nor as the mere intellectual assent to a set of specific ideas (such as the modern Catholic statements of God as an immense and powerful spirit found in the catechism). These are largely post-Enlightenment developments in religious thought precipitated by the rising dominance of a purely reason-based approach to the search for truth. Rational definitions of religious practices and experiences are plainly inconsistent and absurd, but came about because Westerners more and more came to believe that only that which can be proved by the physical sciences or revealed by principles of demonstrable reason could possibly be “true” because “factual”. Uncontrolled experiences, such as glossolalia, colorful visions, intense emotional states, possession, and the like, are generally more harmful than positive as they tend to keep us anchored in the senses and the ego, steering us toward delusion and away from Reality. The seeking after such experiences came about as a reaction against the aforementioned rationalistic philosophizing; because many people who wanted a vibrant religious life found that they could not have one within that growing rationalism, and because heart and head had been newly placed in opposition to one another, it seemed only natural to choose powerful emotions and incredible visions over dry theorizing.

A reading of the religious literature of all of the great traditions, at least that which was written by the greatest spiritual directors and mystics of those traditions, shows a very different picture, one which Karen Armstrong shows to the reader in detail. Here we see, not dry philosophizing, nor emotional discord, but an indescribable, pure and clean experience of Reality beyond what we can otherwise know, yet intimate and deeply familiar. This experience, if pursued with both love and discipline, enlivens and purifies our emotional souls while at the same time honing and clearing our intellective minds. This, as clearly as I can express it, is the great difference between traditional spirituality, rational philosophy, and emotionally-dependent pseudo-mysticism. Karen Armstrong’s greatest argument is to simply point to this traditional spirituality in the three major theistic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism and point out that until we have understood this tradition with its contingent techniques and methods, we are in no position at all to either define or judge the edifice of that which we call “religion” or that symbol which we call “God”.

It is unfortunate, to the point of tragedy, that those to whom this brilliant, insightful and elegant case is directed will almost certainly never read it and, even if they were to read it, they would probably not allow themselves to process the point on its own terms. At least we have the fact that Armstrong presents her entire discussion to us, those who might benefit from it. As such, The Case for God is a great gift to spiritual seekers of whatever tradition in the modern world. In this, her most recent of many brilliant books, Karen Armstrong gives us a classic, elegant, and immediately useful historical and philosophical foundation in religious thought and practice. Whether you are considering a new religious exploration, a return to the religion of your upbringing, or a better way of approaching your current spiritual path, this is a valuable and beautiful book by one of our greatest living religious scholars and writers.

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