Religion is Not about Belief: Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God

There is, perhaps, no symbol more powerful, no word more electric than ‘God’. And because the God of the monotheisms undergirds and sustains the structure of so many people’s worldviews, if you want to command the attention of said millions, all you need to do is invoke God—claim God spoke to you, name your will as ‘His’, or proclaim “God wants X,” “God thinks X”—and thank God when all is said and done. For good or bad, the world can be yours. Point being: God-talk can be dangerous.

But, insofar as it concerns the core of religion, that’s not the point. Or, it shouldn’t be.

In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong explains that until the modern period, the major Western monotheisms all concerned themselves primarily with practice, the doing of religion, rather than doctrine. A good Muslim was one who stood alongside and supported the Pillars; a good Jew observed Sabbath and remained committed to the Law and the ritual year; and a good Christian embodied the Sermon on the Mount by caring for the marginalized, promoting compassion and peace, and sharing God’s love. This is what it meant to be religious, Armstrong explains:

Religion as defined by the great sages of India, China, and the Middle East was not a notional activity but a practical one; it did not require belief in a set of doctrines but rather hard, disciplined work, without which any religious teaching remained opaque and incredible.

The Ascent of Intellectual Orthodoxy

For most of Western history, religion has been primarily a matter of orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. In fact, no doctrine made any sense without participation in the community of faith and in its rituals. No doubt, there were certain thoughts or “beliefs” that mattered and were of extreme importance; however, unlike today, these convictions were never understood as either the core or the purpose of the religious life.

In fact, for most of Western history “belief” has meant nothing like what it means today. Today, when someone asks me if I believe in God, for example, they are asking if I assent to the proposed verity or the factual existence of God—and usually it is in reference to a very specific understanding of that God. Similarly, if I’m asked if I have “faith in Christ”, the question is whether I agree with the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth was divine, died on a cross, and was raised from the dead, or some form of that story. In both cases, questions of “belief” and questions of “faith” require answers of thought.

Yet, as surprising as it may seem, these understandings are relatively recent. “Faith” has its etymological roots in the Greek pistis, “trust; commitment; loyalty; engagement.” Jerome translated pistis into the Latin fides (“loyalty”) and credo (which was from cor do, “I give my heart”). The translators of the first King James Bible translated credo into the English “belief,” which came from the Middle English bileven (“to prize; to value; to hold dear”). Faith in God, therefore, was a trust in and loyal commitment to God. Belief in Christ was an engaged commitment to the call and ministry of Jesus; it was a commitment to do the gospel, to be a follower of Christ. In neither case were “belief” or “faith” a matter of intellectual assent. 

Nevertheless, by the dawn of the 18th century, as knowledge became a rational, theoretically driven venture “the word ‘belief’ started to be used to describe an intellectual assent to a hypothetical—and often dubious—proposition.” Religion would not be the same.

“Until well into the modern period,” Armstrong contends, “Jews and Christians both insisted that it was neither possible nor desirable to read the Bible literally, that it gives us no single, orthodox message and demands constant reinterpretation.” Myths were symbolic, often therapeutic, teaching stories and were never understood literally or historically. But that all changed with the advent of modernity. Precipitated by the rediscovery of Aristotle and the rise of scholasticism in the late middle ages, rational systematization took center stage, preparing the way for a modern period that would welcome both humanistic individualism and the eventual triumph of reason and science.

The early modern world was astir with cultural renewal, technological innovation, and religious reformation. The printing press captured the oral tradition on the written page, and the printed word became a matter of depersonalized, static precision. Henceforth, all religious quarrels (both those between Rome and the reformers and those amongst Protestant sects) would be suffused with an ever-increasing need to define oneself and one’s dogmatic opinions in relation to the (often heretical) other:

As the Reformation proceeded, Protestantism began to morph into a bewildering number of sects, each with its own doctrinal bias, its own interpretation of the Bible, and each convinced that it alone had a monopoly on truth. There was now a clamor of religious opinion in Europe.

Systems of thought were privileged over rituals, because it was felt necessary to initiate a litmus test for inclusion (and exclusion). Doctrinal alignment, therefore, differentiated between the faithful and the apostate, the saint and the heretic. Further, due to perceived abuses of clerical mediation, reformers sought more direct, unmediated access to God. Turning from its core as a religion of practice, the reformers became a garrulous bunch, a word-centered movement allergic to gratuitous ritual, a religious tradition wholly indebted to the power of language and the need to define. “Inevitably, this orgy of acrimonious doctrinal debate would affect the traditional notion of “belief,” pushing intellectual orthodoxy to the fore” where it remains today for much of Christianity.

Advances in the sciences further distracted Christianity from its practical core. While Judaism and Islam continued—and continue to this day—to be religions of practice, Christianity morphed into a religion of doctrine, the only major religion in the world to do so. Scientific advances during the modern period either invalidated or made literal the myths of the Christian tradition. Logoi (reason) superseded the truths of mythoi (myths) whereas the two had stood alongside each other as separate but equal paths to the truth.

Before long, mathematicians and physicists were the experts of theological discourse, for it was reason and the sciences alone which could speak about God. In the age of Descartes and Newton, science became the master of theology; scientific rationalism was what Newton called the “fundamental religion.” Theological assertions were imbued with certainty and necessity: “Theology was not only becoming aridly theoretical,” but it was also “in danger of becoming idolatrous.” The keys to the church had been handed over to the science lab, or so it seemed.

Apophasis, Or, We Have Forgotten How Little We Know

Apparently everyone had forgotten Pseudo-Dionysius.

Who?

By the late medieval period, Pseudo-Dionysius, a fifth- and sixth-century Christian, had become the theologian of method, a thinker highly respected by the likes of Thomas Aquinas. Psuedo-D’s approach to theological discourse was one saturated with humility and the awareness of the limits of both language and the human intellect. Pseudo-D explained that theology should proceed under three steps—a practice, really—of affirmation, negation of that affirmation, and negation of the negation.

First, for example, one asserts a positive attribute about God, one inherited from the tradition: God is perfect. Second, the theologian denies that position: How could one imagine the apotheosis of perfection? Further, how does the word ‘perfect’, limited as it is by human knowledge and language, really speak about that which is beyond words? Therefore, God is not perfect. Third, because it is illogical to assert what God is not (doing so would be to directly place a limitation upon God), one denies the denial: God is neither perfect nor imperfect.

Pseudo-D’s exercise, thus, “leads us to apophasis, the breakdown of speech, which cracks and disintegrates before the absolute unknowability of what we call God.” With an apophatic approach to God, the theologian is guided toward an appreciation of the limits of God-talk, practices humility, and realizes that, when it comes to theological discourse, we really can’t know what we’re talking about. To feign otherwise would be egocentrically idolatrous. Pseudo-D and his medieval contemporaries “believed that God exceeded our thoughts and concepts and could be known only by dedicated practice.”

Armstrong argues that the “reason why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today” is because “we have lost sight of this important insight.” We have forgotten how little we know.

At the heart of Armstrong’s concern is the fact that the God symbol of our day has become incredible, both to religious and non-religious folks alike. The inherited depiction of God as a remote, transcendent Super-Being that we’ve inherited from the Deists (who inherited it from the scientific rationalists of the 17th and 18th centuries) is no longer convincing.

This God is either not scientific and rational enough—God cannot be proven—or, conversely, God is too academic a proposition, not enough a matter of personal heartfelt piety. The tension between the personal God of the pious and the remote God of science (or the academy, as it were) is a remnant of modern theologizing. Today, the theological scholarship of the academy meets resistance from the pulpit, which is peculiarly populated by the very folks who don academic degrees, but at times seem unwilling or unable to renegotiate the symbols and language of faith in the way that Armstrong suggests.

Schizophrenic Santa Claus

Likewise, on the cultural register, ‘God’ is simultaneously the one who is blessing America, the one healing Grandma, the one directing airplanes into buildings and suggesting wars, the one responsible for countless Grammies and Oscars, the moral one who endorses inequalities, and the one who, we are told, has a plan for us and stoically uses life’s unbearable pains for our good. This bipolar, schizophrenic Santa Claus deity is utterly unconvincing. So it is with warrant that Armstrong begins the book saying: “We are talking too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile.” The purpose of the book is to initiate an intervention in hopes of resuscitating the transformative power of ‘God’ and religion.

Of immediate concern for Armstrong is the way in which today’s fundamentalists have hijacked ‘God’. Religious fundamentalists (be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim) stridently attempt to resuscitate the God image, albeit with an ardent and often belligerent literalism.

The secular fundamentalists, the so-called new atheists, are equally haughty, intolerant, and combative even while their understanding of religion is wholly reductive. Both types of fundamentalism are altogether indebted to a literal interpretation of Christianity’s myths (e.g., the creation account in Genesis, the Exodus, Jesus’ miracles), which is often accompanied by and bolstered with a stringent moral (and thus sociopolitical) campaign that eerily mimics the divisiveness of the reformers who doctrinally separated sheep from goats. Both types of fundamentalism are intolerant absolutists. Armstrong hopes her work will help to assuage both the problem of the God who can’t be believed—the one encumbered with reason, transcendence, and literalism—and the problem of the fundamentalist God, which commands a bewildering following.

Armstrong suggests that we would all be better off if we would return to Pseudo-D’s model, which, at its core, promotes both humility and unknowing. Throughout The Case for God, Armstrong highlights this one strand of the monotheistic traditions, the apophatic: the tradition of unknowing and negation. In doing so, she shows her reader a thread of history that refused to allow doctrine and dogma to take center stage. It is a tradition of self-emptying (kenosis) rather than ego-boosting. It is a tradition of allegory, analogy, symbol, and myth. It is a tradition of compassion and peace, rather than vitriolic divisiveness.

Giving Theology a Hubris-ectomy

In the end, the apophatic tradition is perhaps most beneficial for what it excises from theological discourse, namely certainty and positivistic hubris. This, in turn, proactively thwarts idolatry. Armstrong suggests that a return to this tradition could make the God symbol relevant once again. She is also hopeful to persuade her reader to reconsider the role of practice and ritual as the true core of belief; commitment rather than an intellectual assent. The practitioner learns that “religion was never supposed to provide answers to questions that lay within the reach of human reason.” Religion and science have “different spheres of competence.” Armstrong insists that religion’s task has always been and should continue to be “to help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there [are] no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: morality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life.”

It is in this nexus of existential angst that Armstrong marks the invaluable contribution religion can make when unencumbered with the need to define, defend, and divide.

Armstrong’s book is timely; however, any book on the subject of reining in haughty theological assertions is always timely. It is true that she has been selective with her historical survey, giving most of her attention to the Christian tradition, but the point of the book is not to give an exhaustive portrait of monotheistic theologies. Rather, the point is to remind the reader that religion, especially for doctrine-centered Christians, should be about cultivating the art of courageous, compassionate, and kenotic living in the face of life’s difficulties.

Equally importantly, Armstrong argues that the standard of theological language must return to unknowing, humility, and openness. In any era, this is a vital lesson—and one which which makes this book a must-read.

bmdavi5@emory.edu'

Brian McGrath Davis is a doctoral student in religion at Emory University.