Those who’re trying to be vatic
will not prevail when apophatic,
because, by fudging their belief
they’ll raise the question: “Where the beef? ”
Absent revelation, we
must use our ingenuity
to penetrate what we can’t see.
Beyond its ambiguity,
we must approach the distant past
through actions that help us retrace
the mold in which we all were cast,
and may with rituals interface.
Inspired by Ross Douthat’s review of Karen Armstrong’s book “The Case for God” (“Perpetual Revelations, ” NYT, October 4,2009) :
The time, in other words, is ripe for a book like “The Case for God, ” which wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism in an engaging survey of Western religious thought. Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned prolific popular historian, wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultured despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike. To that end, she doesn’t just argue that her preferred approach to religion — which emphasizes the pursuit of an unknowable Deity, rather than the quest for theological correctness — is compatible with a liberal, scientific, technologically advanced society. She argues that it’s actually truer to the ancient traditions of Judaism, Islam and (especially) Christianity than is much of what currently passes for “conservative” religion. And the neglect of these traditions, she suggests, is “one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today.”
Both modern believers and modern atheists, Armstrong contends, have come to understand religion primarily as a set of propositions to be assented to, or a catalog of specific facts about the nature of God, the world and human life. But this approach to piety would be foreign to many premodern religious thinkers, including the greatest minds of the Christian past, from the early Fathers of the Church to medieval eminences like Thomas Aquinas. These and other thinkers, she writes, understood faith primarily as a practice, rather than as a system — not as “something that people thought but something they did.” Their God was not a being to be defined or a proposition to be tested, but an ultimate reality to be approached through myth, ritual and “apophatic” theology, which practices “a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred” and emphasizes what we can’t know about the divine. And their religion was a set of skills, rather than a list of unalterable teachings — a “knack, ” as the Taoists have it, for navigating the mysteries of human existence. It’s a knack, Armstrong argues, that the Christian West has largely lost, and the rise of modern science is to blame. Not because science and religion are unalterably opposed, but because religious thinkers succumbed to a fatal case of science envy. Instead of providing the usual portrait of empiricism triumphing over superstition, Armstrong depicts an extended seduction in which believers were persuaded to embrace the “natural theology” of Isaac Newton and William Paley, which seemed to provide scientific warrant for a belief in a creator God. Convinced that “the natural laws that scientists had discovered in the universe were tangible demonstrations of God’s providential care, ” Western Christians abandoned the apophatic, mythic approach to faith in favor of a pseudo¬scientific rigor — and then had nowhere to turn when Darwin’s theory of evolution arrived on the scene.
An Aquinas or an Augustine would have been unfazed by the idea of evolution. But their modern successors had convinced themselves that religious truth was a literal, all-or-nothing affair, in which doctrines were the equivalent of scientific precepts, and sacred texts needed to coincide exactly with the natural sciences. The resulting crisis produced the confusions of our own day, in which biblical literalists labor to reconcile the words of Genesis with the existence of the dinosaurs, while atheists ridicule Scripture for its failure to resemble a science textbook.
To escape this pointless debate, Armstrong counsels atheists to recognize that theism isn’t a rival scientific theory, and that 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.” Believers, meanwhile, are urged to recover the wisdom of their forebears, who understood that “revealed truth was symbolic, that Scripture could not be interpreted literally” and that “revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past but was an ongoing, creative process that required human ingenuity.”