’Tis only the splendour of light . . .

14 July 2009

Atheists are attacking a too-knowable God, says John Saxbee

The Case for God: What religion really means

Karen Armstrong

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THE ISSUE between Richard Dawkins and me is that the God he doesn’t believe in I don’t believe in, either. Karen Armstrong seems to be of the same opinion, but she goes further.

In her view, any attempt to speak of God as an object to be believed in, or not believed in, is deeply suspect. She argues that such language is a deviation from the dominant view in mainstream religion until the advent of the modern era, when the knowability of God dictated terms. Until then “The Unknown God” dominated

the religious quest for meaning,

and what has become known as

the apophatic tradition held sway.

This is the tradition Armstrong explores in the first half of the book when she offers a brisk but well-informed and entertaining canter through 30,000 years of pre-modern religion. The unknowability of God is seen as characteristic of pre-historic Homo religiosus, and this tendency is traced into the Hebrew scriptures, where an apophatic strand is identified that resists attempts to read the text as histor­ical or scientific fact.

Meanwhile, the Greeks were developing a naturalist philosophy that still left room for the gods and was essentially a spiritual discipline. While Plato and Aristotle brought greater sophistication to their religious understanding, they still saw the limits of reason and the importance of wisdom rooted in unknowing.

Into this mix Christianity was born. From the beginning, Christians took an interpretative approach to the Torah, and Jesus is portrayed as calling on his disciples to follow him in the exercise of moral and spiritual discipline rather than define them­selves by assent to beliefs. Here, Arm­strong’s treatment of faith and belief becomes some­what tenden­tious, and not everyone will be happy with her account of Jesus’s resurrection as “His disciples had visions that convinced them that he had been raised by God from the dead.”

Of course, it is with the Patristic period that the unknown God be­comes crucial to religious sensibil­ities, with Denys the Areopagite well to the fore. Clearly, Armstrong is very at home with the Desert Fathers, and she is sure that “by the mediaeval period, the apophatic habit had become engrained in Western Christian consciousness.” Indeed, Aquinas famously affirmed that when it comes to God, “man’s utmost knowledge is to know that we do not know him.” A similar trajectory is traced in Judaism and Islam, with the emphasis on orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.

But then the rot set in. Duns Scotus asserted that we could come to knowledge of God by reason un­assisted by revelation. So, from about 1500, the “Modern God” came to dominate the scene, and to this the second half of the book is devoted. Chapters on science and religion, the Enlightenment, the rise of intellec­tual atheism, and the post-war death-of-God movement eventually bring us to the main point of the book, which is to demonstrate that the New Atheists, such as Dawkins, Hitchins, and Harris, are attack­­ing belief in a “Modern God” in whom most religious people since 30,000 BCE have never believed anyway.

Surely she is right about this, and, as the summation of much that she has already published elsewhere, The Case for God has a cogency and integrity sufficient to establish it as one of the most informed and intelligent contributions to the contemporary God debate.

But, of course, it is only a case for God, and there are many modern believers who would argue for a faith that can be nourished by the insights of reason, science, and Enlightenment without falling into fundamentalism or compromising God’s ultimate unknowability.

As Thomas Kuhn pointed out long ago, proponents of a theory tend to recognise only those pieces of evidence which feed their theory. Karen Armstrong is not immune to such selectivity in her appeal to schools of thought or individual thinkers congenial to her particular purpose. But as an accessible antidote to much that passes for atheistic polemic these days, her book serves admirably.

Dr Saxbee is the Bishop of Lincoln.

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