In our vaunted scientific and technological age, has Western
society lost the knack of religion? Karen Armstrong, author of many
acclaimed books on religious history, poses that startling
proposition in her latest work, The Case for God.
She sees numerous signs. Although religious voices are raised
frequently in the public realm, they often take strident,
provocative, even militant forms. Many people believe that grasping
the idea of God or religion should be quick and easy. Books
promoting atheism, based on shallow knowledge of theology, have
gained considerable popularity.
People still yearn to find ultimate meaning in life, but many are
confused or alienated because much of contemporary religious
thinking is "remarkably undeveloped," Armstrong contends.
The British writer - who went through her own atheistic period
before coming to a "freelance monotheism" - hopes to end some of
that confusion and provoke fresh thinking about religion and what it
demands of us. "The Case for God" is not a theological argument
about God's existence, but a sweeping historical review from
Paleolithic to present times of how thinkers have pursued and
experienced the transcendent.
"The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the
defining human characteristic," she writes.
In a dense but accessible and compelling exploration of premodern
and modern religious concepts and practices, Armstrong illustrates
the unfolding, reshaping, and overturning of views of God, nature,
and reality. She examines the roles of faith and reason among the
ancients, Greeks and early monotheists, and major Christian, Jewish
and Muslim thinkers, though focusing mostly on Christianity. She
finds that religion is even making a comeback among some postmodern
Although Armstrong is not responding directly to the atheists'
challenge, her principal theme is a rebuke to those who expect to
answer ultimate questions by rational speculation: The insights of
religion require a "disciplined cultivation of a different mode of
consciousness," she writes. History demonstrates that the
transcendent is experienced by those who engage in dedicated
spiritual practices and compassionate living, and for those who do
not, it remains "opaque."
Premodern thinkers have many lessons to teach contemporary
believers, Armstrong says. They understood that religious discourse
spoke in symbolic or analogical (not literal) terms about eternal,
timeless truths. And while it was important to put ideas of God into
words, these words were always recognized as inadequate. Therefore
they developed spiritual practices - rituals, prayers, meditation,
spiritual exercises - to lead one to a higher plane of living.
The move of Western civilization into the modern era, however,
overturned traditional religious presuppositions in ways that
dramatically reshaped theology and practice. With the Reformation
and printing press, the Bible became widely available, but the
proliferation of interpretations spawned battles over doctrines,
leading to deadly religious wars. …