The Case for God

When I was still a theology student, my favorite classes were those in the three-semester sequence of historical theology classes, which were followed by a single semester of modern theology. This book by Karen Armstrong was like all four semesters packed into one book, with some additional information on Judaism, Islam, and other faiths thrown in. It’s a lot of information!

In The Case for God, Armstrong examines the history of thinking about God and religion. Her central premise is that modernity, with its emphasis on the scientific method and provable facts, has forced thinking about God into a mold that does not work. Thus, we have people abandoning religion because its truths cannot be proven and others vociferously defending literal truth claims of scriptures that were never intended to be taken literally. She calls for a return to a more apophatic orientation that acknowledges that God cannot be clearly defined.

I agree with a lot of what Armstrong says, particularly in her critique of biblical literalism, and I think she makes a good case against literal readings of holy texts. But I agreed with her line of thinking before I read the book, so she didn’t have to convince me. Also pleasing was the fact that she doesn’t dismiss religion altogether; on the contrary, she endorses the community of faith and participation in worship and service as a way of experiencing and understanding God.

She also talks a lot about logos (reason) and mythos (myth) as different realms of truth. Science arrives at truth through logos, but religion is the world of mythos. Unfortunately, myth has come to imply non-truth when it’s more accurate to think of myth as being true in a different way from truths that can be verified through reason. I wish she had wrangled more with the fact that Jesus Christ is called the logos in the Gospel of John, but overall I found her explanation of these two realms of truth to be helpful.

Even more useful was her discussion of how the meaning of the word believe has changed through the years. At one time, it did not mean intellectual assent to certain truth claims, as it so often does today in discussions of religion. Instead, it referred to devotion or loyalty or perhaps trust. I had never thought about this before, but it makes a lot of sense.

But as much as I agree with Armstrong’s general thoughts, I must offer a few caveats. First, she frequently makes bold statements about matters that are in dispute among scholars without acknowledging the controversy. For instance, she blithely lists the decades in which the four gospels were written. Based on the little I know, the dates she gives are reasonably solid, but scholars are not in agreement about them, and it strikes me as irresponsible not to at least nod to the fact that these dates are speculative. This is a minor point in her overall argument, but it calls some of her other bold statements into question. It’s important to understand that although Armstrong is a good researcher who has been studying religion for years, she is at heart a curious generalist. I have a lot of sympathies for the curious generalist because I’m one myself (albeit a far less accomplished one than Armstrong), but I think it’s easy to for the generalist to sweep in, pick up the facts and arguments that seem interesting, and not examine all sides in the way a specialist would. I wonder what specialists in Denys, Aquinas, Maimonides, Galileo, and Wittgenstein would have to say about her descriptions of their thinking.

My other big concern comes in an area of disagreement. Armstrong makes a strong case throughout for not being dogmatic in our understanding of God, and I agree with her on this. But in the end, I’m left with the impression that whether God exists scarcely matters. If that’s what Armstrong thinks, fine (and it’s always possible that I’m not fully grasping her line of thinking). But I’m troubled that she seems to imply that the making of truth claims about God is a wholly modern phenomenon. I’m not sure some of the thinkers Armstrong marshals to support her disinclination to define God would be at all happy with her conclusions. God, as a being outside of and beyond ourselves, did matter to them, even if the literal “truth” of the seven-day creation did not.

All that said, I do think that readers who want a crash course in religious thought would get a lot out of this book. Just remember that Armstrong is building a case and may not always be reliable.

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7 Responses to The Case for God

  1. Jenny says:

    I don’t know why, but it always tickles me when a blogger tells me what she thinks of a book, and then posts a post that says she thinks what she told me she thinks. I don’t know why but I never expect it. I’m always all, Aha! It was true all along! :p

  2. Jenny says:

    Dude, this sounds like every single adult forum ever done at my church.

    • Teresa says:

      From what you’re told me about your church’s adult forum, they’re an awful lot like my seminary classes (but with no papers and reading assignments), so it makes sense!

  3. Juxtabook says:

    I’m reading her biography of the Bible at the moment. It is excellent and, as you say, argues against any literal interpretation. I am gradually realising that what you say is true, she doesn’t acknowledge the grey areas of scholarship at all. It is hard to get everything in such a short book but it does have extensive footnotes and the occasional “for a different point of view see xxx by xxx” in the notes would be helpful and, frankly confidence building. However it is still an absorbing read and you make a good case, acknowledging your caveat, for reading The Case for God too.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve not read that one, but I did read her book on Fundamentalism and one of her memoirs (The Spiral Staircase, which I loved). I do think her information is generally pretty sound–I just wish she’d be more open about the disputed nature of it. Acknowledging that is, as you say, more confidence building than hiding it.

  4. Mirjam says:

    I also agree with you that one of the book’s weak points is that Armstrong does not acknowledge the grey areas of scholarship. However, I consider all of her books to be some kind of introduction and that is why I do not mind her leaving out contradictions. She has so far been the only author who is able to make me interested in topics such as the history of the Early Church.

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