I finally read The Case for God by Karen Armstrong. Given that I've read most of her books, several of them more than once (and taught one of them twice), it didn't exactly surprise me when the first half of the book or so was sorta familiar, but it did made it not all that fun to read.... But I perked right up around page 150, when she starts discussing John Duns Scotus (1265-1308), a theologian who "was convinced that reason could demonstrate the existence of anything" (149) and asserted that God was a "mere being"--in other words, a completely knowable entity, whom you get to know by asking the right questions and thinking the right thoughts.
I perked up because that's basically the theology I was raise with.
Armstrong then goes on to discuss an English poet, hermit and mystic named Richard Rolle (c. 1290-1348) who was all about feeling the spirit. He and a bunch of other mystics "[cultivated] a type of prayer that was devoted almost exclusively to the achievement of intense emotional states, which they imagined were an 'experience' of God," (152), which, Armstrong argued, was totally fucked up. She discusses the fact that up to that point in Christianity, and even in many other traditions to this day, those who devoted themselves to god were also supposed to serve their community, and the real mark that one had an understanding of "god" was that one would become more compassionate. Instead, in monotheism, "a flood of pleasurable and consoling emotion would be seen by more and more people as a sign of God's favor" (154). And I totally perked up at that, because that's a fair description of Mormonism, which is all about "feeling the spirit"--"feeling the spirit" is how you "have a personal revelation" that the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith and the president of the church blah blah blah are all what they purport to be.
She concludes part one of the book by remarking that "the 'God' with whom these so-called mystics are infatuated is simply the product of their own unhinged imagination" (157). And that is the point at which we arrive at our modern concept of God, and that is the crappy god we are stuck with these days.
The next two chapters are on science and religion, and I recommend them highly. She provides a fairly nice history of Renaissance astronomy and the process by which we moved to a heliocentric model of the solar system. I've tried about five times to summarize the chapters but none of my efforts are adequate.... Besides, what's most important to me is that she argues that atheism is really the only logical option if you apply to religion the standards of evidence and reason and proof required in science, because the god of modern monotheism, who really settled in around 1500, is a nasty, evil, incoherent, idolatrous impossibility.
Given that, why is the book entitled The Case for God? Well, it's because Armstrong doesn't believe in that god. I know the next question: so, what kind of god does she believe in? Well, "believe" isn't the right word for the approach she has toward god, and boy oh boy did I get in a lot of trouble when I tried to explain that. The reaction I got was exactly the one Armstrong predicts:
Paul Tillich pointed out that it is difficult to speak about God these days, because people immediately ask you if a God exists. This means that the symbol of God is no longer working. Instead of pointing beyond itself to an ineffable reality, the humanly conceived construct that we call "God" has become the end of the story. We have seen that during the early modern period the idea of God was reduced to a scientific hypothesis and God became the ultimate explanation of the universe. Instead of symbolizing the ineffable, God was in effect reduced to a mere deus, a lowercase god that was a member of the cosmos with a precise function and location. (320)
Armstrong argues that religion screws people up when it focuses on belief and certainty, since the whole point is to be moved by what is beyond our comprehension and to let your wonder at the mystery of life make you a better person. Ideally, and as often as not before some of us got all stupidly focused on earning a reward in the afterlife,
The point of religion was to live intensely and richly here and now. Truly religious people are ambitious. They want lives overflowing with significance. They have always desired to integrate with their daily lives the moments of rapture and insight that came to them in dreams, in their contemplation of nature, and in their intercourse with one another and with the animal world. (329).
As is customary for me, I have yet to reach the point that prompted me to sit down and write this entry today; I may yet get to it in a few days, or I might not. I can, however, at least explain the title of this entry. Via a facebook group I "like" called the Godless Liberal Social Society, I came across the youtube video below. By its definition, I'm a militant atheist. But I also want to be one of the religious people Armstrong discusses above, and I want to remain interested in "God" as a symbol for all that exceeds our understanding and somehow gives purpose to life.