- The Washington Times - Monday, November 23, 2009



By Karen Armstrong

Knopf, $27.95, 432 pages

Reviewed by William Murchison

Controversy over God grates on the ear of ex-Roman Catholic nun and prolific author Karen Armstrong. She wearies of the demand for certainties. She prefers talking and listening. “It is perhaps time,” she declares in her newest book, “to return to a theology that asserts less and is more open to silence and unknowing.”

Some dark night of the soul could be a good thing, as she sees it; some cloud of unknowing. Better that anyway than the cat fight into which religious discourse has turned in the last century or two: atheists yelling at the religious, fundamentalists battening down the scriptural hatches to keep out the waters of secularism and infidelity, insisting ever more loudly on creationism as the cry grows louder against it from the seat of the scornful.

Not an easy time, this, for open-minded listening and faithful practice of the sort Ms. Armstrong commends: Socratic and respectful in style, open to contrasting viewpoints. Theologians always used to, and sometimes still do, learn from atheists, she says. Why not now?

Because it’s not that kind of age. Everybody “knows” or at least gives that impression. If you read Frank Rich or Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, you kind of get the idea. Glenn Beck, to liberals, gives off the same vibes. Be still, my soul - and my tongue, is an admonition less and less practiced in public.

“The Case for God,” once you start to get your arms around it as a civil conversation about the need for civility as to religious concerns, has its comforts. It shows the possibility of living into knowledge, inherent in the example of (as Ms. Armstrong enumerates them) “the Cappadocians, Denys and Thomas [Aquinas]; the rabbis, the Kabbalists, and Maimonides; al Ghazzali, Ibn Sina, and Mullah Sadra.”

“Religion,” says she, “is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle. Without such practice, it is impossible to understand the truth of its doctrines.” So also with philosophical rationalism in the Socratic mode. The transcendent insight can’t see the light of day in the face of “aggressive logos, which seeks to master, control, and kill off the opposition.”

There will seem to many religious readers a relativistic tilt to Ms. Armstrong’s prescription of Golden Rule practice coupled with compassion - a stepping-outside of one’s own certainties in order to … listen. This intuition the author, while disclaiming it, invites by declining as ever in her books to commit herself to creedal modes and models. Overcommitment, in her telling, has in modern and postmodern times been the ruination of good dialogue between truth-seekers. Theology-by-assertion sweeps the field, or at any rate drives to other locales those merely seeking a chance to talk.

Ms. Armstrong sees the strutting atheist Richard Dawkins (a one-time Anglican acolyte) as prototype of the narrowed, intolerant perspective in religious discourse. “Shut up!” he regularly explains. Without, of course, shutting up anyone. Still, as we say in Texas, he told ‘em how the cow ate the cabbage. Possibly that’s the entire point of the entire exercise; that, and a fat book royalty check.

Even Christians and Jews who find Ms. Armstrong too open-minded for belief will appreciate her take on the new atheists, whom she finds “theologically illiterate” as well as shrill, believing “that they alone are in possession of truth,” reading scripture with as much literalness as any fundamentalist, dead wrong in seeing fundamentalism as “the focal core of the three monotheisms,” campaigning unashamedly against the Enlightenment principle of tolerance. There’s a lot of fun, from the orthodox perspective, in her chapters about modern theology and its dance with the certainties of science. To the harshness of ultra-Darwinism she prefers Karl Popper’s “We don’t know anything.”

Well, all right, what, then? We’ll never know anything? If that’s so, how can she possibly know it? She doesn’t precisely go there. That we’ll grow in understanding as we listen and show compassion for others is more the point here. She may surprise some readers by the hopeful (from a religious standpoint) proclamation that “God seems alive and well” in postmodern times that practically define themselves as secular. “No state of affairs is permanent,” she says, “and we are now witnessing the death of the Death of God.”

Ms. Armstrong doesn’t take kindly to being told what to do or think or say, which is no doubt why she, like so many Vatican II-era nuns, kicked the habit. Her pathway of religious exploration must, to many readers, seem quirky. Just listen? Easier said than done.

The Christian faith, for all the varied interpretations it continues to breed, makes large claims (crucified, dead, and buried; ascended into heaven; “And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead”) that make no sense outside the context of creeds and scripture. If these, and like, things weren’t plain enough for assent and assertion, would the church ever have gotten off the ground? Would it still be here?

The plea to listen comes very close at times to a plea for the equivalence of all religious viewpoints. Yet what in the end can be said against an act performed with the very ears that God (apologies, Dr. Dawkins) affixed to both sides of the human head? The decision that Ms. Armstrong questions - never, never to listen - comes under withering fire: also the supposition that science and the other arts of man deserve pride of place in human affairs. The religiously orthodox, one might say, can listen to the lady’s evidence with some interest, some appreciation.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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