Monday, December 19, 2011

Rerun: Where is God?

Christopher Hitchens' passing last week generated considerable discussion on his militant atheism, which you can read all about in his 2007 diatribe, "God is Not Great." The first major flaw in Hitchens' approach is that exclusively aiming his sights on fundamentalist nutjobs and their seriously disturbed world views is intellectually dishonest. The first rule of honest debate is to pick on someone your own size. This would have involved active engagement with a vast corpus of thoughtful theological heavyweights, past and present.   

The other flaw is that for all his intellectual brilliance, Hitchens exhibited a life of extreme spiritual stupidity. Let's put it this way - seeking Hitchens' outlook on matters metaphysical is as absurd as asking Larry the Cable Guy how to tie a Windsor knot.

Anyway, Karen Armstrong says it a lot better. This from a piece I posted in Oct last year ...

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God," which does not actually make a case for God. Ms Armstrong (pictured here) is way too smart for that. The idea of some kind of infinite absolute outside our comprehension hardly lends itself to argument, much less proof, either theological or scientific. Believe it or not, until the nineteenth century, science and religion were pretty cool with that.

According to Ms Armstrong, religious fundamentalism - whether Christian or Muslim or other variety - is a relatively new phenomenon, as is most mainstream belief. A God beyond imagination does not submit to pat answers. Pat answers, in fact, are highly suspect. Define the infinite? Think about it. To define is to limit. To reduce God to our level of understanding is to lose touch with God.

Scripture, which raises more questions than answers, is always open to reinterpretation. Liturgy and observances are living meditations on eternal mysteries, not empty ritual. Through immersion in a practice, through rigorous inquiry, through opening oneself to new possibilities, new realizations emerge. One becomes a better person, in closer touch with God, whatever God is.

Throughout the ages, says Armstrong, religion was the means, not the end, and this applied to all faiths, irrespective of their surface differences. Even terms such as "dogma" and "belief" had different meanings and usages, more in the sense of entering into an ongoing and typically unpredictable dialogue rather than mindlessly yielding to foreordained assertions.

Ironically, the liberating spread of ancient Greek philosophy in the Middle Ages also gave rise to the type of stultifying over-intellectualism that would later set the scene for a hardening of attitudes. With the mass printing of Bibles, selected scriptural passages were deployed by competing faiths and sects to separate themselves out from one another.

Nevertheless, maintains Armstrong, faith and science maintained a sort of working mutual accord. Neither was trying to dictate to the other. Even the Galileo controversy, Armstrong argues, was overstated. (Galileo, it seems, was spoiling for a fight.) In any event, when the dust settled, religious and scientific authority appeared to be in harmony. Newtonian physics, in fact, seemed to prove the existence of God. Some higher power had to have set the mechanics of the universe in motion. This was as self-evident to Newton as it was to the rationalist philosophers his discoveries inspired.

Yes, Europe erupted into senseless religious warfare - change always exceeds society's capacity to peacefully absorb it - but with the emergence of a modern Europe came the belief that the solution to any problem (no matter how intractable) and the explanation to any phenomenon (no matter how mysterious) would yield to the power of reason.

God could be explained scientifically. Organized religion was comfortable with that. The Christianity of America's Founding Fathers was very different than the Christianity we practice today, irrespective of denomination. The catch is that reason has its limits. Alas, scientific enquiry breaks down in the pursuit of that which is beyond imagination.

On top of that, arid intellectualism failed to satisfy essential human needs, which set in motion a revivalist reaction. Still, no one seriously argued that Scripture trumped science. That would soon change. First, Charles Lyell showed that the earth was shaped - and still being shaped - by slow-moving forces spanning eons. Then Darwin came on the scene. Nevertheless, Armstrong is quick to point out, Darwin's ideas were readily accepted by the scientific community and not seriously challenged at first by religion.

That didn't last long. Scientism extremists became anti-religious. Religious extremists became anti-science. Even in mainstream religions, new emphasis was given to the literal interpretation of Scripture, with those presumed closer to God claiming an authority they never dared lay claim to before. Thus, in 1870 the doctrine of papal infallibility was adopted by the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, by the 1960s, people were seriously asking, "Is God dead?" Mainstream church attendance was in sharp decline and religious fundamentalism was a fringe movement. A new secular culture was dawning.

Well, you know the rest of the story. In the US, today, religious fundamentalism is driving much of the political and social agenda. The history lesson, Armstrong tells us, is that every threat to the old order spawns an irrational reaction, with each new religious outbreak more bizarre than the one that proceeded it. A lot of what passes for both mainstream and fundamentalist religion today, if I am reading Armstrong correctly, bears very little semblance to the religion of the past.

The extremists in our midst - the likes of Dawkins and Sullivan - argue that our world would be a lot happier if we could somehow stamp out all religion and disabuse ourselves of the notion of God. But that, Armstrong argues, misses the point. Just because religion has no pat answers for God (even if they profess to offer them) does not preclude the existence of God. And religion at its best - even the ones we may find abhorrent to us - offers the prospect of bringing us closer to that which is beyond imagination.

Truth will always elude us, as does reality. But in our quest, we can arrive at reasonable approximations, which serve to launch us to our next round of approximations, then the next. Let the journey begin ...

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